Before the Calm is the debut album from Witness UK, who hail from Wigan, the same northern English town that spawned the Verve. It didn't hurt their chances for success that they were friends of former Verve guitarist Nick McCabe, but the two bands have more musical differences than similarities. Where the Verve used a vast array of production effects and multilayered soundscapes, Witness' sound is stripped-down.
"The people, they've forgotten me/ My development is flawed/ I don't take what's offered me/ I don't get what I ask for," laments singer Gerard Starkie in one of the quieter moments on "Freezing Over Morning" (RealAudio excerpt), one of the album's standout tracks. The song starts out nearly a cappella, with just two softly repeated piano notes sounding in the background before the guitars and drums kick in, but even as the feeling of desolation expands, it provides proof of the potential beauty that lies within despair.
"Scars" (RealAudio excerpt), the first UK single, features a semi-industrial beat in the background, but once again, it's Starkie's heartfelt pleading that stands out, as he emotes, "It's not me/ It's my surroundings." "Cause And Effect" (RealAudio excerpt) is the greatest divergence from the band's mostly acoustic sound. While it seems that Starkie and guitarist Ray Chan would be most comfortable sitting on stools and playing acoustically for an intimate crowd, this is evidence of the explosive power that lies at the heart of Witness. "I've been here so long/ My skin's looking tired" Starkie notes darkly over a sinisterly repetitious guitar line, slowly building tension before the chorus swells up like the storm the band has been warning us of all along. As with the Verve, the listener gets the distinct impression that while Wigan may be a bleak place to be, it supplies the perfect combination of despair and frustration to drive musicians to genius.