Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Peter Gabriel

Leaving the influential prog-rock group Genesis in 1975 was perhaps one of the wisest career moves Peter Gabriel has ever made. Increasingly in danger of becoming a parody of himself, Gabriel also made his getaway at the height of the group's critically acclaimed period, just after the release of the double-album "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway" (Genesis then degenerated into a slick AOR machine led by perennially bald Phil Collins). Thankfully, he also ditched the flower-pot costume and other visual peripherals he used in his performances with Genesis.

"Peter Gabriel" (1977) was a well-intentioned stab at progressive rock, produced by Pink Floyd auteur Bob Ezrin. It opens with the intentionally weird "Moribund the Burgermeister", continues with the sprightly "Solsbury Hill", a brutally honest account of his departure from Genesis, but gets bogged down by the time the atrocious barbershop-quartet attempt "Excuse Me" rolled around. Things were somewhat redeemed at the end by the apocalypse anthem "Here Comes the Flood", but it couldn't disguise the fact that Gabriel still needed to get rid of his prog-rock leanings.

Gabriel released his second album in 1978, again called "Peter Gabriel". Legendary King Crimson leader Robert Fripp produced this one, but it was surprisingly free of the bombast prevalent in most King Crimson recordings. A collection of listless modern rock, the second Peter Gabriel was ultimately half-baked and uninspired, spawning only the microscopic hit "D.I.Y.". The only instance where Fripp was let loose to work his art-rock alchemy was on the spacey "Exposure", and the album ended on a lethargic note with the faux country & western "Home Sweet Home".

Gabriel's un-fecund imagination when it comes to titling his albums flourished with album number three, "Peter Gabriel". However, unlike his first two rather undeveloped albums, the third "Peter Gabriel" was a tour-de-force masterpiece of unsurpassed excellence. It was an all-round winner, with superlative tracks buffeted by compelling and masterful production by Steve Lillywhite. With nary a chink in its armour, it contained major hits like the martial-beat, acerbic "Games Without Frontiers" (an anti-war rant), the amnesia paean "I Don't Remember", and the epic anti-apartheid anthem "Biko". Other highlights were the lumbering, paranoiac "Intruder", the assassin's-point-of-view anecdote "Family Snapshot", the snarling guitar-rocker "And Through the Wire" and the menacing, jerky "Not One of Us".

Riding high on the commercial and critical success of his third album, Gabriel decided to have more experimentation on his next album. 1982's "Security" (it was known in the rest of the world as "Peter Gabriel" - no surprises there) incorporated Ethiopian pipes, Ghanaian percussion and other exotic instrumentation into a seamless, poly-rhythmic whole, and was his most adventurous work yet. "Security" was suffused with intricate percussive patterns, and was arguably the first album by a Western artist to integrate non-Western musical influences on a major scale. Security contained the propulsive hits "Shock the Monkey and "I Have the Touch", and also the rather imitative Biko rewrite "Wallflower".

It was also around the time of "Security" when Gabriel became known as a tireless advocate of world music, founding the annual WOMAD (World of Music, Arts and Dance) festival, and later, establishing the eclectic label Real World, arguably the best-known world-music label in the world. He also found time to score the soundtrack for the film "Birdy" before going into the studio to work on his next album.

"So" was released in 1986, and would go on to become Gabriel's biggest commercial success. It was led by the massively successful single "Sledgehammer", a tongue-in-cheek homage to Stax-era rhythm and blues (it was accompanied by an innovative animated video which would become an MTV staple), but its other tracks were superb displays of Gabriel's mastery of diverse musical styles. There's 80s dance-funk ("Big Time"), effortless art-rock ("Red Rain"), gospel-like balladry ("Don't Give Up", a lovely duet with Kate Bush), and even a genre-defying, cross-cultural musical tapestry ("In Your Eyes", featuring Senegalese pop star Youssou N'Dour). The "So" singles and their parent album all reached the upper echelons of the British and American charts.

Gabriel started work on another soundtrack after the success of "So", this time for the controversial Martin Scorsese film "The Last Temptation of Christ". Bringing together a diverse group of musicians from North Africa, India, the Middle East and Europe, Gabriel created a living patchwork of music that transcended geographical and temporal boundaries, sounding like nothing else ever heard before. The soundtrack, named "Passion" after an aborted title for the film, included luminaries like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Youssou N'Dour, Shankar and Billy Cobham, and featured the extensive use of traditional instruments like Turkish ney flutes, Indian violins, Egyptian percussion and Armenian horns. It eventually won the Grammy for Best Soundtrack in 1990.

Following "Passion", Gabriel continued work on the proper sequel to "So", eventually putting it out as "Us" in late 1992. Touted as his most personal work yet, Us wasn't as big a seller as "So", but it was definitely an even more diverse body of work than than its predecessor, basically incorporating the lessons learnt from working on the "Passion" soundtrack into the successful formula of "So". "Us" delved into personal issues on a hitherto unexplored scale, addressing Gabriel's past failed personal relationships. The first single from "Us" was "Digging in the Dirt", arguably Gabriel's darkest and angriest effort, with images of decay and despair. The next single, "Steam", was a faithful "Sledgehammer" facsimile and had all the funky elements that made that earlier single such a massive success.

Other standout tracks on "Us" include the delicate Sinead O'Connor duet "Blood of Eden", the swirling, wide-screen opener "Come Talk to Me", the hymnal "Washing of the Water" and the cathartic closer "Secret World".

Gabriel also started dabbling in multimedia projects after the release of "Us", releasing the "Xplora 1" CD-ROM. Xplora 1 may be a rather inchoate foray into multimedia, but it was a real novelty at the time of its release. More multimedia projects were initiated, which kept him busy for the next few years. There was also an announcement that a new album was being recorded, with the tentative title of "Up".

Work on "Up" would continue intermittently and fitfully, with a stopgap album of sorts put out in 2000. "Ovo", released in conjunction with the opening of the ill-fated London Millennium Dome, was a confusing hodgepodge of guests and ideas which never quite gelled. Unsurprisingly, no singles were released from it and the album sank without a trace.

"Up" itself was finally released in late 2002, and it proved to be a darker affair than all of Gabriel's previous efforts. The recurring theme throughout the album was one of death and mortality, with tracks like "Darkness", "No Way Out", "I Grieve" and "The Drop" all addressing man's primal fear of extinction. However, the evocative soundscapes and epic production values that Gabriel had become known for did give the proceedings a transcendent quality. But ultimately, its inherent and self-conscious sombreness makes it an easy record to admire, but hard to love.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Pink Moon

Troubled English folk-rock troubadour Nick Drake enjoyed a genuine revival in 1999, 25 long years after his apparent death by suicide in 1974, when the haunting "Pink Moon" was used in a TV commercial for Volkswagen. The promo, which comprised a slightly surreal, nocturnal set piece, eventually brought a full-blown new-millennium renaissance which saw the publication of new career compendiums, rarity collections and even an album of home demos. Check out the commercial which brought Drake back from the brink of obscurity to the heights of singer-songwriter adulation.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Love and Regret

Scottish pop-rock outfit Deacon Blue is best known for their meticulously constructed, somewhat melancholic love ballads, and nowhere is this aesthetic more fully realised than in the 1989 single "Love and Regret". A sympathetic tale of perpetual longing and lost opportunities, "Love and Regret" made a minor dent in the British singles chart back in the day, and remain a constant fan favourite up till today. Check out its atmospheric, windswept video clip.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

An Appreciation of Depeche Mode's Violator

"Violator" has long been regarded as the pinnacle achievement of the classic Depeche Mode line-up, and it’s not difficult why the landmark 1990 album is perennially held in such high adulation, and have attained triple-platinum status in the US, moving more than three million units in the world’s biggest music market. Prior to the release of "Violator", Depeche Mode had quietly but steadily shaped their distinctive synth-pop sonic blueprint into a sleek, sober yet user-friendly entity, judiciously dosed with Goth-rock lashings, white-noise aesthetics and industrial-pop textures. Impressive albums like "Some Great Reward", "Black Celebration" and "Music for the Masses" were merely the logical predecessors to this career maker of an album.

However, it is on "Violator" that Depeche Mode finally realised their full artistic potential: the melodies are tighter, punchier and more accessible, the studio work by production prodigy Flood impeccable and full of character, and the arrangements well thought-out and sharper than before. There is also a noticeable current of creative consistency running throughout "Violator", an element conspicuously absent from earlier efforts. Mention must also be made of the band’s decision to finally use the electric guitar as a more upfront and prominent instrument, which lends newfound nuances to an already remarkable musical framework.

But perhaps the most telling indicator of the popularity of "Violator" comes in the often-told anecdote of how 17,000 fans nearly turned downtown Los Angeles into a riot zone in February 1990, when Depeche Mode turned up at the Wherehouse record store there for an autograph-signing session. In terms of modern-day incidents of mass hysteria engendered by pop-culture icons, that event is perhaps only overshadowed by the infamous impromptu U2 rooftop performance of "Where the Streets Have No Name" in New York City in 1987.

Therefore, it is understandable why "Violator" is the most renowned creature in the current Depeche Mode album remasters campaign, standing out from all the other records. Of course, any re-release has to come with the obligatory bells and whistles, and the new-look "Violator" is no different: a snazzy new remastering job, a bonus disc of the original tracklisting in authentic 5.1 surround sound, and a handful of additional tracks from the relevant era to round off the package. However, it’s the original album that’s the real highlight here, and for that reason alone, it’s worthwhile to go through the tracks once again to understand why the reasons behind their brilliance, even after more than a decade from its initial release.

The virtuosity of ‘Violator’ is apparent right from the start, with the supercharged, insistent "World in My Eyes". Whereas past album-openers like "Black Celebration" and "Never Let Me Down Again" took their time in building up a full head of steam before launching into the proceedings proper, "World in My Eyes" kicks straight into action with its precise electro-bass measures, accurately timed samplers and straightforward synth stabs. The following "Sweetest Perfection" is a slower, darker proposition, a shuffling behemoth ensnared by synth-string swoops and snarling guitar riffs.

And it’s true that Depeche Mode really did revolutionise their sound on "Violator" by giving in to the use of electric guitars, and the application of axes bore wonderful results on the massive smash "Personal Jesus". One of the few Depeche Mode singles to make it to genuine hit-list status, thanks to comprehensive MTV coverage, "Personal Jesus" rides along on a bluesy, slightly electronically modified guitar lick, an enormous stomper of a backing rhythm, and shrewd use of vocal echoes, making for an indisputable standard in the band’s repertoire.

Theatrical orchestral strings (albeit played on a sampler) form the backbone of the next track, the edgy but vaguely optimistic "Halo", which could have made for a terrific single, if only the band had not already issued four singles already from this nine-song collection. "Waiting for the Night" is a down-tempo, nocturnal crawl, enhanced by spooky insect samples and subtle digital notes, a welcome interlude in the hitherto unrelenting scheme of things.

However, the pace is picked up again with the other big single from the album, the almighty, wide-screen tour de force "Enjoy the Silence", with a simple, austere two-chord guitar riff anchoring the active synth underpinnings, constituting perhaps the most approachable instance on "Violator". "Policy of Truth", meanwhile, is a fascinating hybrid of electro-funk and Gothic-informed electronica, a mid-tempo number that remains am invariable fan favourite. "Blue Dress" is a slowed-down ballad that makes good use of shuddering slide-guitar twangs, and the concluding "Clean" is a wonderfully ominous closer, consisting of pounding drum-machine cadences and eerie electronic reverberations.

The bonus tracks included here are notable in their own right, although none of them can be remotely considered the equivalent of anything from the parent album. "Dangerous" is an identikit synth-pop number that sounds like an outtake from the previous "Music for the Masses" record; the oddly titled "Memphisto", "Sibeling" and "Kaleid" are a triptytch of portentous instrumentals that work quite well as horror-movie soundtrack cues; and "Happiest Girl" and "Sea of Sin" are academically interesting, if not wholly successful experiments in the then-burgeoning trance movement.

In short, everything about "Violator" that made it so exceptional in the first place is doubly confirmed here: the inspired songwriting, the atmospheric production, the virtuosic performances: all present and accounted for, and then some. While Depeche Mode might never make another record as compelling and epochal as "Violator" again, Dave Gahan, Martin Gore and Andy Fletcher (not forgetting the departed Alan Wilder too) can still take pride in the undeniable fact that they have created rock-music history with its release. Nothing else in its class can come close in the least bit. A terrific revisit of a synth-pop masterpiece that is still yet to be bested.