Mostly Autumn have been around for two decades and released 10 studio albums. They’ve played high-profile supports for Bryan Adams and for Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow. They’re regulars on the grassroots classic rock festival circuit. Yet they’re relatively unknown outside their own scene.
The story starts – for me – with a chance encounter in an off-licence in the suburbs of Manchester. The guy behind the counter recognised me from a Blue Öyster Cult gig a few weeks earlier. He was big fan of another band, Karnataka, who at the time frequently shared bills with Mostly Autumn. A few weeks later he told me Mostly Autumn were playing a gig at Jilly’s in Manchester.
Jilly’s, a venue now long gone, was a maze of twisty passages eventually leading to a bar and stage, deep within the building. With seven musicians crammed on to a tiny stage, Mostly Autumn put on a mesmerising show; they had a rich, layered sound and generated an amazing level of warmth and intimacy. With male-female lead vocals, a charismatic singer in Heather Findlay, and an impressive lead guitarist in Bryan Josh, there were moments of ethereal beauty, while other times when they rocked out. The music had elements of Pink Floyd and Deep Purple, of All About Eve and Fleetwood Mac, but it all added up to far more than the sum of the parts. It was the sort of performance that made you want to see them again as soon as possible.
Mostly Autumn are usually described as a progressive rock band, though the band themselves have never really accepted the label. While Josh, their leader, has never denied a deep love of 70s Pink Floyd and Genesis, their influences go far wider. They formed in York in the mid-90s, a time when British progressive rock was at its lowest ebb, and launching a new band under that tag might have seemed career suicide.
The early albums had a strong Celtic folk flavour. Anthemic rock numbers and soaring atmospheric pieces sat alongside delicate acoustic ballads and even instrumental folk-rock jigs. Low whistles and uilleann pipes appeared alongside rock instruments. The first two albums featured Bob Faulds’ electric violin, especially prominent on the debut For All We Shared … (1997). By the time of the third, The Last Bright Light (2001), Faulds had gone, Angela Goldthorpe’s flute taking on an equivalent role. But the definitive sound was Josh’s evocative lead guitar, Findlay’s emotive vocals, and Iain Jennings’ all-enveloping keyboards
After three albums with Cyclops, the band switched to the Classic Rock Productions label run by the colourful Bob Carruthers. While the new label did have the resources to promote the band, enabling them to play larger venues with a bigger live production, Classic Rock Productions was more used to promoting 70s veterans such as Uriah Heep, and it’s debatable whether describing the band as the second coming of Pink Floyd did them any favours. Nor did the label’s seeming determination to flood the market with as much product as possible. There was a largely instrumental album, Music Inspired By Lord of the Rings, written and recorded in two weeks flat. Then there was a double album of studio rerecordings of songs from the three Cyclops albums. And last, several bootleg-quality live albums and DVDs that added little to the band’s legacy.
On the other hand, the two “proper” studio albums released during this period were superb. Passengers (2003) remains a strong fan favourite, and the sometimes overlooked 2005 follow-up, Storms Over Still Water, contains some of their finest work. There was a marked change in direction, the Celtic folk flavour much reduced in favour of a polished melodic rock sound, hard rockers mixed with big, soaring ballads and the occasional prog epic. The band seem poised on the edge of bigger things.
But it wasn’t to be, and Mostly Autumn went through a wobbly period over the next few years. The departure of keyboardist and founder member Jennings at the beginning of 2006 knocked them off balance, and the shaky tour without him in the early part of the year cost them momentum. The next album, Heart Full of Sky, contained some superb individual songs, but it was an unfocused affair, with the band’s writers not quite on the same page. However, the subsequent tour to support the album was excellent, the next album, Glass Shadows was far more coherent, and by 2009, with Jennings back in the fold, they were firing on all cylinders again as a live band. But then came the bombshell: Findlay announced she was leaving the band to focus on a solo career.
There were many who wrote off the band at that point. But after an emotional farewell show, the band bounced back just eight days later with Olivia Sparnenn, who’d been part of the band as a backing singer since 2005, taking over on lead vocals. It didn’t take long for the new-look Mostly Autumn to prove themselves as a live act, and over the course of the next three records, culminating the powerful concept album Dressed in Voices, the band reinvented themselves with a harder-edged sound that makes full use of power and range of Sparnenn’s voice. At festivals they can reliably steal the show from veteran headliners such as Wishbone Ash or Focus.
One reviewer said that had Mostly Autumn been around in 1974 they’d have been one of the biggest bands in Britain. Had the fictional band from Iain Banks’s novel Espedair Street existed they might have sounded a lot like Mostly Autumn. Their most powerful work is raw, heart-on-sleeve stuff, especially if you know the backstories of the songs. But with little mainstream exposure, the band tour provincial rock clubs and small theatres whose mainstay is tribute bands and 70s nostalgia acts, though they’ve got enough of a devoted, loyal following for a sustainable career, enough to crowdfund album releases on their own record label. You see some of the same faces at gigs from Edinburgh to Penzance to Zoetermeer in the Netherlands, the one place outside their home country where they have a sizeable following.
Following a band like this has something in common with being an away supporter of a lower division football team, taking you to places such as Crewe, Bilston, Rotherham or Bury. A fellow fan remarked that Mostly Autumn have the sort of fandom you fall into by chance. But once you’re in you’re hooked. If you get the chance to see them live, take it. Things might never be the same again.