An accomplished painter, singer, songwriter, violinist and guitarist, New Zealand’s Alastair Galbraith has brought all those talents to bear on a diverse body of work dating back to the mid-’80s. He has led the exceptional groups Plagal Grind and the Rip, recorded extensively under his own name, and collaborated with the Dead C’s Bruce Russell in the experimental noise project A Handful of Dust. This last excursion notwithstanding, nearly all of Galbraith’s work displays his knack for crafting beautiful pop nuggets infused with striking, often abstract lyrical imagery. Like most of the world-class talents in his homeland, he is a underappreciated diamond in the rough.
Galbraith’s skills were first showcased in the Rip, which released two EPs in the mid-1980s. The second, Stormed Port, is particularly fine, and features several elements that recur throughout Galbraith’s subsequent recordings: a penchant for milking maximum emotional mileage out of a slow chord change; angular, almost modal, violin work (which accents several of the guitar-based songs quite nicely) and doubletracked vocals that give most of his tunes a beautiful ethereal quality.
Galbraith’s best work is on the self-titled EP by Plagal Grind, the lone recording issued by a band whose ranks also included Peter Jefferies (originally of This Kind of Punishment, more recently a member of Cyclops and 2 Foot Flame and the architect of a strong solo career), David Mitchell (who had previously served in the Exploding Budgies and the excellent Goblin Mix, and would later co-found the 3Ds) and Robbie Muir (who had played with Galbraith in the Rip). While the Rip’s recordings were almost folky, Plagal Grind ups the sonic ante with richly textured electric guitars and loads of reverb, resulting in a shimmering, mystical sound perfectly suited to Galbraith-penned songs like “Yes Jazz Cactus,” “Marquesite Lace” and the majestic “Receivership.” One of the high-water marks for New Zealand rock.
Morse and Seely Girn are superb anthologies of Galbraith’s work, each featuring a wide assortment of old and new material. The albums overlap considerably but not entirely, with a number of standout tracks unique to each collection. Seely Girn offers the better career overview, with tracks from Plagal Grind, the Rip’s Stormed Port EP and assorted hard-to-find singles and cassettes, while Morse is a tad stronger on a cut-by-cut basis. Obvious conclusion: get both.
The 7-inch Cluster EP, released in 1994, features some of the strongest material of Galbraith’s career, including the slow, gorgeous “Raining Here” and the biting “Stalemate.” The Intro Version EP is Galbraith’s first serious misstep, relying more on tuneless, unformed snippets than full-fledged songs.
This random-sound approach is taken further with Galbraith’s self-released Talisman CD, a meandering, scattershot affair that displays little evidence of his former songwriting acumen. It remains to be seen whether these latest efforts signal a new direction or just a stylistic deviation, but Galbraith’s previous output remains unassailable.