In certain quarters, The Verve's wholly unexpected second reunion may well have made for the most anticipated album of the year.
Die-hard music and guitar enthusiasts will have hoped the band's fourth record would make for a return to the wide-eyed, trance-like soundscapes explored on debut album 'A Storm in Heaven' and (to a lesser extent) its follow-up 'A Northern Soul'.
Those who adore stadium-sized anthems and singalong balladry will have had their fingers crossed for a continuation from where 'Urban Hymns' left off, while the more cynical of us will have prayed that the band's legacy wasn't to be tainted by anything on a par with frontman Richard Ashcroft's questionable (and often objectionable) solo output.
Thankfully 'Forth' doesn't fall into the latter category. Targeted by EMI's marketing department at 'lad culture', and released to coincide with the dawn of a new football season, it will, however, perplex many of those from the terraces drawn to the band by 'Urban Hymns'.
Having more in common with the band's first two records, 'Forth' treads similar, slightly trippy, groove-based territory while allowing only some of the more structured songwriting on 'Urban Hymns' to bleed into the current collection.
Indeed, where 'Urban Hymns' was largely based around Ashcroft's structured balladry and songs penned during the group's first hiatus (1995 to 1997), 'Forth' is more representative of The Verve as a unit. Specifically it benefits from the greater involvement of guitarist Nick McCabe, The Verve's key component and one of the standout and most inventive guitarists of his generation. Ashcroft's best work has always been done with McCabe to his right.
On 'Urban Hymns', McCabe re-joined the group mid-way through the recording process and so his presence was less felt – some of the more soulful ballads which cropped up on 1995's 'A Northern Soul' becoming more dominant on 'Urban Hymns'.
'Forth', by contrast, is a more obvious continuation from 'A Northern Soul'. Like that album, its artwork says a lot about what to expect within. While their 1995 album cover (showing a man opening a door into the band's heads) had the effect of preparing the listener for the darkness which lay within, 'Forth's light, cloudy artwork sets us up for the breezy, almost dream-like trip which follows.
Opener 'Sit and Wonder' is a throwback to The Verve's best work, all soft guitar distortion, feedback and McCabe tremolo rings peppering a trance-like bassline from Simon Jones. And then there's Ashcroft. Mad Richard doing what he does best and spouting words that - on paper - are nonsense but, somehow, bare some shamanic substance in song. Swirling around chord patterns and skirting standard song structures, it's a jam which moves like a slow whirlpool.
Next up, 'Love is Noise' is both reflective of the four piece's intelligence as a jamming, experimental unit, and also of what McCabe adds to Ashcroft's songs. Were The Verve not to have reformed, this song would have perhaps emerged as a slightly slower-tempo track on an Ashcroft solo record entitled 'Modern Times', and would perhaps have lacked the acid-dance feel it has here.
It's very simple yet highly effective vocoder loop sprung from studio experimentation, while McCabe's guitar is very subtle, adding little licks and underflow riffs to underpin the tune without taking from its dominant hook. Some of the alien sounds, which duck in and out, you would feel also sprung from his input.
Lyrically it also finds Ashcroft returning to the well of William Blake's poetry. On 1995 single 'History' he based the lyrics on the opening verses to Blake's 'London'. Here he borrows from Blake's 'And Did Those feet in Ancient Times' (aka 'Jerusalem') in using the lines "Will those feet in modern times/Walk on soles that are made in China?", while elsewhere the allusion to "Bright prosaic malls" serves Ashcroft instead of Blake's "dark Satanic mills".
Forthcoming single 'Judas' again dodges structured form and is again dominated by McCabe's subtle guitar threads and little twangy bursts over Ashcroft's humming lines, fine melody and slight strings.
'Numbness' and 'Noise Epic' hark back to the darkness of 'A Northern Soul' in that they build and veer off in unexpected directions and sound like they were written amid great jam sessions, while 'Valium Skies' should warm the hearts of 'Urban Hymns' fans. Dominated by strings and a warm lovelorn melody, it should prove their next big anthem and wouldn't sound out of place on an Oasis record.
The combing together of The Verve's dual sounds comes off best on 'Appalachian Springs', a track built on the model of 'History' or 'The Drugs Don't Work', all coated by McCabe's softening guitar strums over Ashcroft's preacher-like bleating. As the album's final track, it takes off on a high, floating out over the clouds of the album's artwork as Ashcroft's hymn like vocal bleeds the line: "Does anyone really know where we're really going?"
And does anyone know where The Verve are going from here or how long they'll be going? Almost 10 years to the day of 'Forth's release, The Verve played their last show in their second incarnation. That gig was at Slane Castle, Co Meath on 29 August 1997. By then McCabe had already departed.
As early as last month, rumours of the guitarist staging another walkout began to surface, and so intense were the reports of a rift between McCabe and Ashcroft that a press release was issued denying future shows would be cancelled. Since then Ashcroft has already returned to playing solo.
On the evidence of 'Forth', one would hope that The Verve's second comeback will not be followed by a third swift break-up. 'All Farewells Should Be Sudden' was a phrase used on the cover art for 1995 single 'History', which marked their first demise. Let's not hope that mantra comes true again.
'Forth' is another fine record from the Wigan outfit. Fans of 'Urban Hymns' won't find the same number of anthems, nor will EMI enjoy the same sales and radio success. It's just not that type of album and the band have rightfully put the music before building on commercial success past. Let's hope they can at least give us two more records. Is that too much? As unexpected as their return has been, one feels The Verve's best work is still ahead of them.