Friday, April 30, 2010

Evening Star

When King Crimson head honcho Robert Fripp and former Roxy Music egghead Brian Eno teamed up for ‘Evening Star’, their prototypical ambient-music project in 1975, little did they know that the record that came out of those sessions would virtually set the benchmark for all similarly natured albums to come. Of course, the industry had not started to use the term “ambient music” back then, and nothing like ‘Evening Star’ had appeared in the marketplace before. Therefore, the album was understandably confounding in its scope, especially to record-company suits, who must have been scratching their heads as to how to market such a record. Nevertheless, it did find a highly acclaimed niche amongst fans of experimental rock, who deemed it as a genuinely groundbreaking opus that paved the way for the popular ambient-techno movement of the 1990s and beyond.

The wondrous and otherworldly sonic textures of ‘Evening Star’ are now available again, in a newly remastered version that successfully brings out all the minute, detailed nuances of the music. This remastering gives new life especially to the album’s Frippertronics, an inventive, original tape-looping technique developed by Fripp that endlessly loops treated guitar lines to create a lush, otherworldly soundscape that had no aural precedent. Add to that Eno’s innovatively layered synth-chord patterns, and you have an album that stands heads and shoulders above any of its then-contemporaries, and by extension, anything else in the scene today.

The opening ‘Wind on Water’ is a slowly unfolding, intricate composition that eventually reveals a cluster of monophonic synth tones, over which Fripp performs a languid, space-enhancing solo. This segues effortlessly into the title track, a gentle, repetitive tonal construct that is assembled from Fripp’s sustained, melodic guitar notes and Eno’s serene-sounding electric-piano scales.

Elsewhere, ‘Evensong’ is an ebbing, pastoral piece that evokes the calm harmonic structures used by late-19th century Impressionist composers like Satie and Debussy, while ‘Wind on Wind’ is a stellar example of Eno’s patented “discreet music”, a seamlessly tiered and static musical form that uses an experimental sequencing method as its sonic basis. However, the arguable highlight of ‘Evening Star’ has to be the epic, appropriately named 30-minute ‘An Index of Metals’. This is an ominous, industrial-informed behemoth that stands as one of the most accomplished pieces of so-called “drone music”, made from atonal synth chords gathered in an endlessly repeating loop, with dissonant Frippertronics on top as sound garnishing.

In retrospect, ‘Evening Star’ is a highly literate and lyrical album that has, for want of a better term, stood the test of time, and very well at that. Nothing like it has emerged since its release three-and-a-half decades ago, and modern-day ambient outfits like The Orb and Future Sound of London practically owe their entire careers to the standard set by ‘Evening Star’. By turns brilliant, meditative and mercurial, ‘Evening Star’ is one of those albums that truly belongs within the hallowed annals of rock-music renown, and this new, remastered edition only serves to confirm its innate stature and authority.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Blue Nile: Vintage Electronic Melancholia

Glasgow-based collective the Blue Nile deftly trumps the general notion that all electronic-based pop music is synthetic, listless and lacking in any real soul. Ever since their remarkable debut, 1984's 'A Walk Across the Rooftops', the three-man band have consistently maintained a reputation for purveying timeless-sounding, intricately-constructed synth-orchestrated pop suites that still comprise one of the most outstanding repertoires in the rock era.

This theatrical musical palette is brilliantly coupled with frontman Paul Buchanan's poetic, elliptical, utterly moving vignettes of urban living, detailing relevant aspects like inner-city loneliness, economic desolation, and of course, that old faithful, unrequited love. On the wrong days, it can sound achingly human and unbearably emotional.

Notwithstanding the ridiculously prolonged between-album breaks (a mere four in a staggering twenty years), the Blue Nile remains highly relevant in this day and age, quietly standing far and above fickle trends that burn out within several months. Needless to say, the replay value of their songs cannot be overstated: virtually nothing in their back catalogue sounds remotely dated. Here are several prime examples of the majestic electronic melancholia that they specialise in:

The title track off their debut album paints a highly evocative picture of a nocturnal cityscape, all aglow and alive with the attendant neon lights, vehicular movements, evening crowds and human traffic. The well thought-out drum-machine backing track is carefully laid beneath a steady Moog-bass pulse and sweeping synth strings, making for one of the strongest opening tracks found anywhere.

A pensive piano ballad that juxtaposes the fleeting, brightly coloured jubilation of a city-street parade with the protagonist's more permanent, darkly shaded romantic uncertainties, 'Easter Parade' was later remade as a fuller-bodied number by bohemian singer-songwriter Rickie Lee Jones.

Arguably The Blue Nile's most accomplished composition, this excellently paced and slow-burning epic tone poem is painstakingly constructed from cinematic synth strings, an wavering synth-bass cadence and Buchanan's choked-with-emotion baritone. An intensely graphic study in urban isolation and the torments of unrequited love, this consummate and open-hearted opus abounds with striking, haunting lyrical images (walking alone down empty streets, leading an angst-filled existence in dilapidated, freezing bedsits) and some of the most candidly lovelorn lyrics ever laid down ("Sometimes I walk away, when I really want to do, is love and hold you close").

Weary-sounding synth-brass charts make up the backbone of this despair-filled lamentation, made even more sorrowful by some delicate synth-guitar pluckings and Buchanan's tired voice. One of the best anecdotes of a romantically-fuelled emotional crisis ever composed, and the ideal track to play at the ungodly, deathly silent hour of 3.00 a.m., when all possible hopes seem to have dissipated.

One of the rare instances of a relatively blissful tone in the band's repertoire, this cautious account of hard-won optimism provides a fitting closer to their sophomore album, the yet-to-be-matched masterpiece 'Hats'. Celebrating the protagonist's love for "an ordinary girl", it is, however, left uncertain if the girl in question is of a reciprocatory disposition.

Bolstered by a plaintive orchestral-string arrangement by underrated film composer Craig Armstrong, the piano sonnet 'Family Life' unflinchingly details the breakdown and dissolution of a marriage, and the subsequent disaster zone left behind in its wake. Certainly a much more evocative and effective exposition of a separation than Elton John's 'Sacrifice', which is the more popular standard.

An absolutely disconsolate and sorrowful elegy that trudges on like a dying horse for eight agonising minutes, 'Stay Close' is permeated with ominous-sounding synth-woodwind tones and a plodding machine-generated drumbeat. Add to the mix Buchanan's tearful, repeated exhortations for a loved one to "stay close to me", when quite obviously, the object of his affections has departed long ago, and you have the perfect song to soundtrack that particular barren state of mind you are left with, when all illusions of and prospects for a potential, long-lasting relationship have vanished.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Fall at Your Feet

One of the more underrated and under-recognised gems in the venerable Crowded House's back catalogue, 'Fall at Your Feet' from 1991 still managed to scale into the British Top 20, mostly by dint of its polished, somewhat polite AOR veneer. However, no other adult-contemporary chart single can boast of such classicist obsessive-stalker lines like "I'm really close tonight, and I feel like I'm moving inside her" and "Do you want my presence or need my help, who knows where that might lead", making the song a virtual sugar-coated bullet, so to speak. The composition is given additional authority by the always-remarkable double-tracked harmonies of the Finn brothers, and the subversion of traditional pop-song ideals via the introduction of a recurring twangy pedal-steel guitar riff. Check out the resonant video clip, filmed in an atmospheric black-and-white fashion, and featuring somewhat surreal elements that could have been lifted straight out of a Dali painting.

Friday, April 02, 2010

September 13

Grey-haired Australian singer-songwriter Stephen Cummings is the very definition of a cult success: his is a name that is only known in selected circles down under, and despite investing more than three decades in the business, he has not achieved any sort of significant commercial recognition. This is a terrible shame, considering that Cummings's songs are candid, elliptical narratives of everyday life in Australian inner suburbia, about the joys and travails of falling in and out of love in such a grimly humdrum environment. It's no overstatement to state that Cummings's works are small, quiet musical miracles that hold up remarkably well even after countless listenings. Check out 'September 13', a wonderfully oblique ditty from 1994 that takes a somewhat surreal and peculiar look at a rapidly disintegrating romance, and the effects from its fallout. The rather disturbing video clip is set entirely in a frozen-meat locker, portraying a tied-up Cummings struggling desperately to set himself free before the onset of hypothermia and subsequent death by freezing.