Monday, November 23, 2009

King Crimson's Red

Venerable progressive-rock institution King Crimson in the 1990s metamorphosed into an innovative double-trio format, and inevitably became one of the more distinctive professional rock collectives to shake up an otherwise moribund musical landscape, in an era dominated by sullen grunge nihilism and teen-pop drivel. Anchored by the terrifyingly precise and athletically angular axe-wielding skills of head honcho Robert Fripp and the irascible Adrian Belew, bolstered by the superior Chapman Stick work of Tony Levin and Trey Gunn, and given heft by the amazing, interlocking percussion underpinnings provided by Bill Bruford and Pat Mastelotto, the double-trio King Crimson was certainly worthy of all the adulation that they have netted. Worship them here as they make their usual, effortless, virtuosic way through a seismic-quality rendition of 1975's cacophonic white-noise epic "Red".

Friday, November 20, 2009

Waiting for the Sirens' Call

Effectively New Order's definitively final studio album (especially in light of the statements made by Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook regarding the band's termination), 2005's 'Waiting for the Sirens' Call' constituted one hell of a swan song for the British rock legends. The record managed to blend all of New Order's essential aesthetics, i.e. the innovative fusion of post-punk sensibilities and alternative-dance grooves, the eminently accessible melodic substance of the songs, and, perhaps most importantly, the band members’ individual instrumental skills, still peerless after decades of abuse.

A particular highlight on 'Waiting for the Sirens' Call' is the title track itself, a track that practically defines the term "frosted-glass elegance", and a classic single in the making that consciously acknowledges several important stages of prime-era New Order: a 'Power, Corruption and Lies'-informed synth-string overlay, 'Low Life'-approved melodic-guitar riffs, and a 'Technique'-styled rhythmic backdrop. Combine all these elements together, and an instant masterpiece that is already becoming a confirmed fan favourite is effortlessly conjured. Check out a typically virtuosic performance of the song on the venerated British music programme 'Later With Jools Holland'.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Architecture and Morality

In many ways, 1981's 'Architecture and Morality' was the culmination of all of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s early-era achievements. Up to that point, the Liverpool synth-pop outfit had specialised in churning out basically structured three-minute pop songs that updated the synthesised Krautrock of Teutonic electronic-music pioneers Kraftwerk, scoring respectable entries on the British charts with quirkily accessible trinkets like the 'Electricity', 'Messages' and the irrepressible 'Enola Gay'.

It was all well and good, but after two albums of the same sort of ear-friendly melodies, OMD stood at an artistic crossroads at the turn of the decade and needed to develop its sound.

This was where the grandly titled 'Architecture and Morality' came in. Imbuing its fundamental pop-based template with liberal dashes of atmospheric experimentalism (including tape loops, found-sound samples and more organic instrumentation), utilising more ambitious production values, and generally tightening its songwriting focus, OMD emerged with its finest hour, and an album that can truly be called its magnum opus.

It was also the first OMD album to be welcomed as a critical success by those unreasonably merciless music-mag hacks who, up till then, had perennially derided the group’s music as rather derivative and lacking any real musical soul.

Given the recent renewed interest in all things synth-pop, 'Architecture and Morality' is well worth a detailed investigation, given its near-legendary stature in the OMD scheme of things.

The incredibly cagey-sounding, proto-techno 'The New Stone Age', with its fragments of random electronic pulses and processed-guitar riffs provides an ideal start to the proceedings, while the following 'She’s Leaving' is a polar opposite, a polished, archetypal synth-pop number that is arguably the most melodic moment on the record.

The impossibly ethereal, stately 'Souvenir' is another memorable instance, with its unidentifiable church-choir samples and a widescreen, cinematic synth backdrop, while 'Sealand' is an eight-minute tone poem that could well be a direct precursor to the ambient movement of the early 1990s, with its almost freeform synth drones and wordless vocalisations.

The pair of songs about Catholic martyr Joan of Arc are up next, a true study in contrasts and musical styles. While 'Joan of Arc' is a lighter-than-air ditty laced with tinkling wind chimes, spectral choir samples and shuffling electronic percussion, the subsequent 'Maid of Orleans' is anchored by a primary melody of a wheezing synth bagpipe, underscored by a clattering martial-sounding drum pattern.

The instrumental title track is another proto-ambient workout in the manner of the earlier 'Sealand', but tighter in overall form and secured by an insistent Moog synth-bass undertow. Penultimate number 'Georgia' is a conscious nod to the synth frivolity of their first album, while the closing 'The Beginning and the End' is as good a conclusion as there ever is, a melancholic, down-tempo, after-hours piece heavily influenced by baroque-era choral compositions.

While OMD can never hope to attain the heights of 'Architecture and Morality' ever again (even with the recent reformation of the classic line-up and their ongoing artistic renaissance), it can be assured that the album has helped to cement its reputation as a luminary of late 20th-century electronic pop. Simultaneously sweeping in its musical scope, considerately theatrical and complete with avant-garde sensibilities, and yet strangely approachable in its reach, Architecture and Morality is still an artistic accomplishment to marvel at, even after more than two decades since its initial release. An important milestone in the history of one of synth-pop’s most beloved institutions.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Kiss That Frog

One of the earliest examples of the intelligent usage of CGI in a music video comes in the form of Peter Gabriel's groundbreaking promo for 1993's 'Kiss That Frog'. Directed by maverick VR pioneer Brett Leonard, this colourful, kaleidoscopic mishmash of various marine-related images is a fun-filled, psychedelic rollercoaster ride through a weird and wonderfully surreal aquatic realm, and constitutes solid testament to how a deskbound technology can be judiciously, imaginatively and successfully translated to the more freeform environs of the music-video medium. This revolutionary clip won Gabriel an MTV Music Video Award in 1994 in the Special Effects category, and remains one of the more striking short films in his extensive repertoire.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Live Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark

An often-underrated aspect of synth-pop pioneers Orchestral Maneouvres in the Dark's artistry is their penchant for putting on a solid live performance, as evidenced in the usual riotous clamour that accompanies all their gigs. Central to OMD's onstage finesse is Andy McCluskey's natural frontman charisma, especially his endearingly silly geography teacher-at-the-school prom dance routine, which has been described, less than flatteringly, as resembling an epileptic windmill. Of course, the instrumental aptitudes of keyboardists Paul Humphreys and Martin Cooper and drummer Malcolm Holmes in the OMD live experience shouldn't be underestimated either. Check out a rendition of the quietly desperate mood piece 'Almost', done during the group's residency at the Drury Lane Theatre in 1981 in support of then-current album 'Architecture and Morality', and witness McCluskey in all his flailing-arm and kinetic-leg glory.

Monday, November 09, 2009


Making one of the most talked-about and acclaimed records of all time, and following it up with a couple of left-leaning, coldly forbidding works that immediately alienated any bandwagon fans would seem like career suicide to any sensibly minded band, but with Radiohead, it's a logical horizontal career-mobility move. While 1997's 'OK Computer' shattered all manner of records and became the definitive yardstick by which all subsequent Brit-rock albums are measured against, the following 'Kid A' and 'Amnesiac' had Radiohead dabbling in various sub-genres of electronica, making for what could be the most dramatic volte-face ever within the business. Bandwagon fans enamoured of the likes of 'Just', 'Fake Plastic Trees' and 'Karma Police' were expectedly turned off by this revolutionary change in direction, but long-suffering disciples who have faithfully worshipped the band since the early 1990s took to it like ducks to water, and most critics hailed it as a bold new paradigm shift.

A solid example of this electronica-influenced aesthetic can be found in the paranoiac 'Idioteque', originally found on 'Kid A', a tetchy, IDM-sourced, beat-crazy stormer that is as good as anything put out by ambient-techno pioneers like Aphex Twin or the Future Sound of London. Check out the artfully shot video clip, which alternates jerky images of random pieces of machinery and what appears to be psychotic, gun-toting mutant bears.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Wrapped Around Your Finger

While the evergreen stalker anthem 'Every Breath You Take' remains The Police's most recognisable single (and Sting's perennial cash cow), there are other, stronger moments from parent album 'Synchronicity' that merits more than just a passing mention. One of these moments is the quietly threatening 'Wrapped Around Your Finger', a brilliant verse study in power-play innuendoes garbed in a skittish, syncopated reggae-ballad structure, perfectly underscoring its inherent sense of foreboding, menacing psychodrama. Check out a typically stellar performance of the song at a stop in Montreal during the band's massive 1983 world tour in support of the mega-platinum-selling 'Synchronicity', replete with rather disturbing slow-motion footage of dozens of fans in the ecstatic throes of band worship.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Mad About You

One of the more lesser-known singles from former Police chief Sting is the much-underrated 'Mad About You', taken from the erstwhile Gordon Sumner's mortality and aquatic-themed 1991 tour de force 'The Soul Cages'. The prosaically titled mid-tempo ballad, augmented by some appropriately arabesque atmospherics, is simply Sting's uniquely secular-existentialist take on the David and Bethseba parable, without any decent into religiously postulated condescension. Check out the cinematic, evocative, noirish 'Casablanca'-influenced video clip, which deftly intersperses filmic footage of intrigues going on in what appears to be a French colonial-era Moroccan hamlet, with Sting leading a befuddled Icelandic horse across an obvious static-matte desert expanse.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Cathedral Song

One of the most under-recognised luminaries to emerge from the 1980s folk-music movement, the exotically monikered Tanita Tikaram made a brief but culturally signficant impact on European charts in 1988 and 1989, with her distinctive brand of melancholy, nostalgic brand of singer-songwriter pop. The most striking thing about Tikaram's singular artistry has to be her smoky, world-weary, bordering-on-baritone voice, which provided vivid, animated life to her story songs that detailed commonplace subjects like the travails of everyday life, the regrets of past romances, and classic existential angst. Check out 1988's 'Cathedral Song', a carefully constructed, folk-inflected gem that speaks volumes about Tikaram's musical sensibilities, and is bolstered by an appropriately idyllic, summer holiday-themed, but somewhat wistful video-clip treatment.