Monday, February 23, 2009

The Artistry of David Bowie

Four decades is an astonishingly long time to spend sustaining a consistent musical vision, but this is exactly what certified rock legend David Bowie has been doing throughout his extensive career. Granted that Bowie’s artistry is a bit of a shape-shifting proposition, with successful ventures in genres as diverse as singer-songwriter pop, audacious glam-rock, self-assured white soul, streamlined mainstream pop and fearsome industrial-rock textures, but it does take a forceful personality to weather the changes and master the reinventions. It’s worthwhile to check out the true highlights of Bowie’s discography, if only to revisit the mercurial sensibilities that have become veritable artistic trademarks for him.

A career kick-starter that holds much promise for what is to come, 'Space Oddity' contains the superlative title track, still the best depiction of the hazards of deep-space exploration ever laid down on record, and also an early example of psychedelic pop. Meanwhile, ‘Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud’ is gleaming late-60s orchestral pop, while the authentic-sounding hippie anthem 'Memory of a Free Festival’ is appropriately hazy and dreamy, with its repeated refrain of "The sun machine is coming down and we're going to have a party".

A studied, singer-songwriterly effort with some of the most evocative lyrics ever penned by Bowie, belying its pleasant easy-listening veneer and conventional musicality. The eloquent ‘Changes’ is the indisputable highlight from here, but the agreeably poppish ‘Oh You Pretty Things’ and the idiosyncratic dancehall-influenced ‘Kooks’ are also things to look out for on this early-era classic.

Arguably the most recognisable and celebrated glam-rock work of all time, this concept album (built around the improbable theme of an androgynous rock star from Mars who crash-lands on Earth) also remains the most defining record of Bowie’s 70s-era output. The explosive title track makes for one hell of a statement of intention, ‘Five Years’ is a melodramatic, theatrical opener, and the kaleidoscopic ‘Suffragette City’ overflows with a surfeit of instrumental riches. The concluding ‘Rock and Roll Suicide’ is as extravagant as closing tracks go, a powerful, anthemic charger that deftly combines Brill Building pop and the more extreme aspects of glam-rock.

Another concept album, this time revolving around a bleak, dystopian future (largely inspired by Orwell’s ‘1984’), and featuring a variegated musical template, spiced with everything from rock and roll, plastic soul and glam-rock. The title track is built around a crunchy, Rolling Stones-influenced aesthetic, while ‘Rebel Rebel’ is a stomping, optimistic guitar-rocker that could well be the most accessible instance in Bowie’s entire 70s-era repertoire. Meanwhile, ‘1984’ is a superior slice of white soul that also includes proto-disco components.

This plastic-soul endeavour works in a surprisingly effective manner, mainly because Bowie decided to play the tracks straight, rather than impart any sense of knowing parody into the scheme of things. The inspirational Philly-soul title-track set piece is the clear highlight here, although there are other striking material here like the glistening disco-funky ‘Fame’ and the stately ballad ‘Can You Hear Me’.

LOW (1977)
The most realised record from Bowie’s notorious Berlin era, ‘Low’ is a prototypical electro-pop album that is rightfully regarded as one of the main precursors of the coming new-wave movement. There might be a handful of relatively accessible, pop-oriented tunes that anchor the proceedings (the polished ‘Sound and Vision’, the tightly wound ‘Breaking Glass’), but the more interesting facet of the album lies in the sidelong crop of tonal, impressionistic instrumental sketches, which are basically precedents to the ambient-electronica sub-genre.

Granted, the entire make-up of ‘Scary Monsters’ was motivated by the innovative aesthetics that Bowie pioneered with his Berlin trilogy, but it managed to develop a distinct identity of its own. High points here are aplenty, including the robotic disco-funk of ‘Fashion’, the raucous Teutonic soul of ‘Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)’, the mutant pop of ‘Up the Hill Backwards’, and the truly brilliant paranoid post-glam of ‘Ashes to Ashes’, long established as a Bowie essential.

LET’S DANCE (1983)
The most successful and realised album in Bowie’s otherwise artistically lacklustre 80s period, spawning high-charting hits like the dance-funk-informed title track, the skittering pop-soul pastiche ‘Modern Love’, and the coolly detached Canto-pop nugget ‘China Girl’. The melodramatic ‘Cat People’ is a deeply atmospheric cut originally recorded for the slick horror flick of the same name, and ‘Without You’ is a slyly subversive take on the conventions of the traditional love song.

OUTSIDE (1995)
A mostly rewarding adventure in industrial rock, with appropriately aggressive textures permeating the proceedings. This makes it a bit heavy-going at times, but thankfully, the level of creativity and innovation at work here more than make up for any perceived insularity. ‘The Heart's Filthy Lesson’ might be bound within the rigid strictures of routine white noise, but some modern-jazz piano noodling gives it added character. Other good bits like the measured, robotic funk of ‘I Have Not Been to Oxford Town’ and the neo-classical ‘Wishful Beginnings' are all solid testament to Bowie’s genius.

REALITY (2003)
A bona fide return to form, and a recapitulation of his 70s-era artistic ideals, ‘Reality’ possesses an overwhelming sense of musical avant-gardism that is uniquely Bowie in nature. Bowie has never sounded as commanding as he does on here, channelling his confidence through crackers like the electronic-tinged rocker ‘New Killer Star’, the mockingly cheery ‘Never Get Old’ and the insouciantly breezy ‘Days’. Meanwhile, the solemn eight-minute closer ‘Bring Me the Disco King’ looms over it all with its epic jazz-noir atmospherics.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


Look up the phrase “musical polymath” in the dictionary, and more than likely, you'll find Peter Gabriel's grizzled, grey-bearded mug next to it. It might be a cliché to say that the ex-Genesis frontman is one of the few Western rock veterans to successfully delve into the diverse realm of the worldbeat genre (Paul Simon and David Byrne also come to mind) without stooping to the level of condescension, but the fact remains that Gabriel has done more than any other major artist to bring the nuances of world music to the charts, for better or worse.

Notwithstanding the more regrettable side effects that this effort has produced (the profusion of inane, commercialised and highly hyped Latin-pop acts, to name one), the contemporary music scene has become a richer soundscape with the brilliant inroads made by illustrious luminaries like Youssou N'Dour, Hossam Ramzy and the late, lamented Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

Gabriel's Real World record label and annual Womad (World of Music, Arts and Dance) festivals are enduring high points in the worldbeat environment, with notables like Geoffrey Oryema, Sheila Chandra and Ustad Nusrat himself all getting their initial big breaks in the rock world through contracts and appearances at these institutions.

So, it was appropriate enough that it was Gabriel that Martin Scorsese turned to when he was looking for someone to score his controversial motion picture "The Last Temptation of Christ" way back in 1989.

Having been brought abroad, Gabriel then cleverly eschewed the usual orchestral click tracks that more orthodox composers like John Williams and Trevor Jones normally utilise to shape a film score.

Instead, he chose to meticulously create a jaw-droppingly lavish tapestry of music and sounds inspired by the film's epochal accents, in the process engendering a landmark recording that is so amazing and breathtaking in its breadth and depth, that it has become the definitive yardstick in the continuing evolution of worldbeat thus far. It also deservedly won a clutch of awards, including the Grammy for Best New Age Performance in 1990.

The evocative strains of a doudouk, a traditional Armenian woodwind, provide for an otherworldly start to "The Feeling Begins", the leadoff track, joined a few bars later by an ominous electronic drone and a rousing phalanx of surdus and tablas that rush the track to its sudden, dramatic halt. This goes on to the brief but effective "Gethsemane", where flitting flute samples chase each other in an enclosed space, making for an almost spiritual musical phrasing.

Next up in this remarkable batting order is the Byzantine instrumental structure of "Of These, Hope", employing the anxious chatter of an African talking drum as its primary voice, and also includes a Turkish ney flute, Carnatic double violin and a true-blue electric-guitar riff. Meanwhile, the percolating layers of percussion loops piled on top of each other in "A Different Drum" are enriched by stalwart Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour and Gabriel's improvised vocalese tradeoffs.

Other tracks can be downright spooky, especially the menacing "Troubled", with its restless clatter of various types of percussion played by three stellar musicians (Gabriel, Hossam Ramzy and jazz great Billy Cobham), and also the booming percussion bedrock of "Zaar", which is enhanced by unearthly double-violin ululations and funereal synth chords.

Gabriel also puts more thoughtful ideas into play here, with the meditative, medieval-era melange of oboes, cor anglaises and sampled harps on the heartbreakingly beautiful "With This Love"; the plangent, resonant finger-cymbal clicks that form the foundation of "Before Night Falls" which has master flautist Kudsi Erguner's birdlike ney-flute lines gliding on top; and "Stigmata", featuring the palpitant pluckings of the kementche, the Crimean version of the Greek lyre.

The most remarkable track here has to be the eight-minute title track, anchored by a sombre, reverberant drone, adorned by Ustad Nusrat's sturdy, powerful qawwali wailings, treated trumpet moans and grinding Brazilian percussion. The phenomenal proceedings are brought to a dramatic close with the triumphant piano arpeggios of "It is Accomplished", accompanied by distorted percussion fills and a guitar-feedback loop.

Only one word can aptly be used to describe "Passion": timeless. Timeless in its polyglot musical reach, and timeless in its amazing ability to realistically evoke the sights and sounds of a long-bygone era. There has never been a soundtrack like "Passion" before it was initially put out, and no other film score has come close to matching its ingenuous combination of Eastern esoterica and Western firepower since then (not to mention its panoramic, haunting atmosphere). A monumental achievement, any way you look at it.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Depeche Mode Through the Years

The upcoming release of Depeche Mode’s "Sounds of the Universe" marks nearly three decades of existence for the band as a venerable and influential popular-music institution. Slowly but surely metamorphosing from an earnest and slightly fluffy New Romantic pop outfit to become one of the most recognisable purveyors of electronically-based pop music, Depeche Mode have well and truly earned their credentials as one of the most acclaimed and revolutionary trendsetters in the industry. While the band has largely maintained their fundamental synth-pop template throughout the years, there have been some notable cosmetic changes done on specific albums, which is enough to warrant a reappraisal of these records.

Their debut album is a rather underdeveloped and undefined work that found the young band still searching for a distinct artistic identity, and is very much an early-1980s artefact, with its surfeit of plinkety-plonk analogue-synth sounds. However, there are enough poppish moments here to make this a rather promising record, like the gleaming, Human League-like "New Life", and the evergreen sing-along "Just Can’t Get Enough", which boasts one of the most distinctive synth hooks of all time. The only letdown here is the trifling throwaway "What’s Your Name", surely one of the most lyrically inane trinkets in the band’s repertoire.

The departure of chief songwriter Vince Clarke meant that guitarist Martin Gore had to step up to the plate, and he brought a more mature, calculating sensibility to the lyrics. The band also altered their instrumental palette slightly, moving from analogue synth tones to take full advantage of then-embryonic digital sampling techniques. This resulted in a work that boasted a more worldly and distinctive identity, as embodied in the durable anti-capitalist tirade "Everything Counts", the environmental cautionary tale "The Landscape is Changing" and the mockingly serious examination of the less savoury aspects of affection that is "Love in Itself".

Deepening the sample-laden textures of the few previous albums, "Black Celebration" took on a more virtuosic creative approach, mixing real instrumentation with ever more innovative synth figures. The cavernous title track practically defines the much-overused term “sonic cathedral”, while "A Question of Time" is an engaging electronic power-pop number that displays a new dramatic aggression. The real highlight here has to be the complexly constructed "Stripped", which makes full use of clanging industrial samples, portentous synth strings, and an upfront, confident vocal from Dave Gahan.

Depeche Mode’s long-awaited commercial breakthrough doesn’t disappoint on any level, as they became world-beating pop stars capable of selling out any given venue at a moment’s notice. The self-assured electro-blues swagger of "Personal Jesus" is still one of the most realised moments in the band’s history, the majestic "Enjoy the Silence" still awes with its extraordinary orchestral-synth arrangement, and the sleek, streamlined "World in My Eyes" makes for the best opening to any Depeche Mode album. Other high points here include the edgy, ominous "Halo" (with its pizzicato synth-string arrangement), the down-tempo nocturnal crawl "Waiting for the Night" and the electro-funk monster "Policy of Truth". It’s certainly no hyperbole to say that the band would never be as inspired again as they were on this magnum opus.

Influenced by the then-prevalent grunge-rock movement, "Songs of Faith and Devotion" is arguably the most visceral and immediate album in the band’s discography. It still sounds like a Depeche Mode record, albeit dressed up with some newfangled sonic trickery and more pronounced guitar riffs. "I Feel You" constitutes the group’s most assertive single, with its shards of guitar feedback and grungy one-chord structure, while "Walking in My Shoes" is a Catholic confessional done up as a mournful Goth-rock composition. Elsewhere, "Condemnation" tries on an a-cappella chain-gang aesthetic with mixed results, and the menacing "In Your Room" is a noirish, cinematic tone poem that conjures up copious amounts of musical atmosphere and mystery.

ULTRA (1997)
The departure of multi-instrumentalist and production genius Alan Wilder means that the band is forced to seek outside help. This came in the form of techno-dance maven Tim Simenon, who infused the proceedings on "Ultra" with a murky, subterranean sonic sensibility that pulses with an unearthly energy. The opening "Barrel of a Gun" is one of the tensest Depeche Mode tracks ever, with its distorted, groaning guitar lines and scuzzy percussion patterns, while "It’s No Good" harks back to the "Violator" era, a slow-burning synth-rock mood piece with sweeping synth strings. However, the rest of the album seems rather anaemic and underwhelming (things like "Useless", "Sister of Night" and "Freestate" are half-baked musical experiments at best), leading to a dishearteningly inconsistent overall quality.

A noticeable improvement after the listlessness of recent years, "Playing the Angel" is thankfully a competent and tangible recapitulation of the band’s traditional aesthetics. It might quote liberally from past masterworks like "Black Celebration" and "Violator", but the necessary updating tweaks are firmly in place to make it a self-contained summation of the archetypal Mode sound. The retro synth-pop of "Precious" is classic Depeche Mode, while the insistent "John the Revelator" sounds like a new-millennium update of "Personal Jesus", although it does bristle with more blues-guitar hooks. Analogue synths are brought back into the mix for the sardonically titled "Suffer Well", and the mechanised robo-groove of "Lillian" is just begging for a dencefloor-bound remix. The closing, dirgey ballad "The Darkest Star" is a veritable mini-epic, towering over it all with its dramatic, discordant minor-key chords, insectoid samples and thick-cut synth stabs.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009


New-wave stalwarts Japan, in the new guise of Rain Tree Crow, David Sylvian, Steve Jansen, Mick Karn and Richard Barbieri decided to eschew the stiff Oriental-influenced pop-funk of their early-1980s days for a more melodically based sound in 1991, resulting in an under-recognised but wholly virtuosic eponymous album. One of the highlights from the collection is "Blackwater", an impossibly lovely, placidly pastoral tone poem, the dramatically updates the collective's basic sound for a new decade, and remains one of the most under-appreciated gems in the history of late 20th-century pop. Check out its highly impressionistic video clip.