Air Traffic's Fractured Life is a debut album of brilliant, occasionally brutal, mood music. From the sexual euphoria of "Charlotte" to the bleak introspection of "Empty Space", its mindscape is one we have all experienced, or soon will. By turns anguished and exuberant, cocksure and crestfallen, it is rock lived at a pitch of bi-polar intensity that reminds you why you got into this stuff in the first place. Because life is fractured, actually, and its highs and lows have a disconcerting way of interrupting each other. (Which is one reason why Fractured Life makes its point - all 12 of them - and leaves in 41 minutes.)
It takes a particular sort of outsider mentality to create music of such rare accuracy and honesty. And, sure enough, Fractured Life is emphatically not the sound of a scene. Air Traffic are from nowhere, man. As far as they relate to any other bands you might have listened to recently, they are a shining example of the West by South West maverick tendency. Just as the small UK towns of Abingdon begat Radiohead and Teignmouth reared Muse, so Air Traffic are an unlikely product of Bournemouth, a Wessex border town on the British Costa Geriatrica with no rock heritage whatsoever. As the group's singer and main songwriter Chris Wall puts it; "There are no music venues, and absolutely no pressure to sound like anyone else. So you have the potential to develop your own style."
Wall's style was fed initially by his Celtic roots. Both his parents are Irish born and bred, and his uncle, Jimmy McCarthy, who still lives in Cork, is a well known folk singer. "When I was 6, I so wanted to be him," Wall recalls. He was a precociously musical child - learning the piano and guitar by ear and playing flute and saxophone in the Southern Youth Orchestra - but he had no musical ambition. "I preferred to hang out on the beach and surf. I never went to gigs, or bought much music."
Wall got inveigled into a band after his first public performance in 2003 at a school concert. His solo rendition of "Go To Sleep" by Radiohead attracted the attention of drummer David Jordan and guitarist Tom Pritchard. Air Traffic duly began as a sideline to A levels and only got serious during Wall's gap year travels in 2005 when, out of nostalgic curiosity, he downloaded some of his band's early songs while holed up in a surf town on the coast of Queensland, Australia. It was a defining moment. "I was listening to "Charlotte" as if I'd never heard it before and Dave and I hadn't written it. And I realized it was a special song."
Once the decision to re-engage had been made - and a new bassist Jim Maddock recruited - Air Traffic travelled very far, very fast. It all happened during the academic year when they were up in London, ostensibly studying, in reality, investing their student loans in rehearsal and recording time. Within months an Air Traffic demo provoked a major label bidding war. Many of the songs on Fractured Life, like "Never Even Told Me Her Name," describe the feelings of breathless anticipation the band registered once the four 21 year olds sensed their career taking off. Another of the songs charting the band's ascent was "Shooting Star," a sublime melody poised on the edge of a maelstrom of rock and roll theatrics. As the industry attention became more intense, Wall and Jordan penned "I Can't Understand."
After the band were signed to Astralwerks/EMI, Air Traffic set up in Rockfield Studios to begin working on their their new album. Soon after, news arrived of a fatal car crash in Canada which killed a close of friend of Wall's girlfriend. "I never really knew her, but I could feel my girlfriend's grief, and the sense of helplessness was overwhelming". This swiftly inspired the album's most poignant and beautiful moment, the aching piano ballad, "Empty Space." The 2 month Rockfield experience was, overall, cathartic. "It made us focus on what we do, and also appreciate how different we are from other bands." That emergent self-realization is unforgettably expressed in "No More Running Away," a heaven-bound anthemic chant earthed throughout by tribal drum. That sense of empowering otherness found voice in the album's title track, the last song to be written and, like "Empty Space," a haunting testimony to Wall's growing confidence as a chronicler of complicated emotions.
The challenge now is to communicate them to a world which knows of Air Traffic only as the authors of the riotous indie anthem, "Charlotte," and the rollicking "Just Abuse Me." "People who come to watch us play really participate now. They're all shouting and singing along. It's up to us to take our audience somewhere else."
Just watch them go. In a world in which it is increasingly easy to confuse things that sound urgent with things that are actually important, Air Traffic are, triumphantly, both.