It's common for students to attend far away universities that excel in a particular academic field. Two Northern Ireland natives, guitarist/vocalist Gary Lightbody and bassist Mark McClelland, studied at Scotland's University of Dundee. While there they formed Polarbear and released a three song EP, "Starfighter Pilot," with Belle & Sebastian's Richard Colburn on drums. Too bad there was already a group named Polarbear with former Jane's Addiction bassist Eric Avery. Under similar circumstances, Blink became Blink-182. Nirvana had better lawyers and kept their name but Polarbear settled on Snow Patrol (still keeping with the frigid theme).
With the addition of drummer Jonny Quinn, also from Northern Ireland, Snow Patrol released "Songs For Polarbears" in '98 and "When It's All Over We Still Have To Clear Up" three years later. Neither of these efforts electrified the world. In fact, Snow Patrol's label dropped them.
The addition of guitarist Nathan Connolly preceded the group's signing with Polydor. '02 release "Final Straw" had the U.K. hit "Run." The '04 album also featured the songwriting talents of Snow Patrol's touring guitarist Iain Archer. "Final Straw" did well in the U.S. (quarter million copies) and "Run" earned airplay.
But instead of being on a roll, Snow Patrol hit some black ice (sorry, couldn't help it). McClelland left and was replaced by Paul Wilson. They also made longtime touring keyboardist Tom Simpson a permanent member.
Snow Patrol opened for U2 on the Vertigo Tour and performed at Live 8. They returned to the studio in December of '05 and released "Eyes Open" the following spring. Though "Hands Open" was the first U.S. single, "Chasing Cars" made an impression when the song was used on the T.V. show Grey's Anatomy. They got another boost when "Signal Fire" landed on the Spider-Man 3 soundtrack (the song was heard during the credits).
Next up was a performance at the UK edition of Live Earth in London's Wembley Stadium. But following the show there was a bit of trouble. Simpson was arrested for missing a court date relating to charges of cocaine possession.
Work began in '07 on their next album but that effort was scrapped. Snow Patrol then regrouped and recorded on "A Hundred Million Suns" through the summer of '08. "Take Back The City" was the lead single from the October ('08) release.
Produced by Jacknife Lee, Snow Patrol's sixth album was titled "Fallen Empires." Prior to the album's release Lightbody announced that Johnny McDaid had joined the group. McDaid, another Northern Ireland native, had been the first songwriter signed to Snow Patrol's music publishing company, Polar Patrol Publishing. His songs were featured on Grey's Anatomy, One Tree Hill and The Hills, among other TV shows. Previously, McDaid was also the singer/songwriter for the band Vega4, whose album was produced by none other than Lee.
1998 Songs For Polarbears
2001 When It's All Over We Still Have To Clear Up
2003 Final Straw
2006 Eyes Open
2008 A Hundred Million Suns
2011 Fallen Empires
Snow Patrol has two distinct modes of operation. The first (and best), is a chord based sound with guitars strumming underneath engaging melodies that frame Lightbody's pensive and often wistful vocals. Sparse ballads, with a single instrument or two accompanying the vocals, is the other. It's as if Lightbody sent the rest of the group down to the pub for the afternoon and went at it alone. Some of these songs a very intimate and moving and shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. But one or two per album should suffice.
"Eyes Open" starts strong with "You're All I Have" and "Hands Open." From there the ballads take over and things don't pick up until nearly the end when "Headlights On Dark Roads" kicks in. The ballad "Chasing Cars," with its hypnotic guitar, is one of the ballads that make the cut. The brooding "Set Fire To The Third Bar" and "Make This Go On Forever" are OK while "You Could Be Happy" with chimes and a music box type backing is simply annoying.
"Final Straw" contains its share of ballads ("Grazed Knee," "Somewhere A Clock Is Ticking" and the dramatic "Run") but it also has a handful of excellent upbeat songs ("Wow," "Gleaming Auction," "Whatever's Left" and "Tiny Little Fractures").
Less emphasis on ballads and a greater commitment to the group's raucous side makes "Final Straw" better than "Eyes Open" and, for that matter, "A Hundred Million Suns."
Whoever picked "Take Back The City" as the lead single from "A Hundred Million Suns" did Snow Patrol a big favor. The uptempo song easily the album's best track.
As the album title implies Lightbody's lyrics have numerous astrological references ("If There's A Rocket Tie Me To It" and "The Planets Bend Between Us" to name two).
The contemplative ballads lean on chord bound strumming which gives the songs a boost though the finger-picking "Set Down Your Glass" has a low watt appeal. At the other end, a piano anchors the big production ballad "Crack The Shutters" which displays a surprising command.
For all the talk of shifting to techno, the bulk of "Fallen Empires" is typical Snow Patrol. The exceptions are "Called Out In The Dark," "This Isn't Everything You Are" and "In The End" which are not so much techno as a revival of '80s synth pop - Berlin, Human league and a dour Pet Shop Boys.