Friday, May 28, 2010

The Downward Spiral

The decidedly antagonistic subjects of chronic anger, emotional despair and self-hatred seem to be Nine Inch Nails' stock in trade, and nowhere is this aesthetic more purely embodied than in the industrial-rockers' 1994 opus, 'The Downward Spiral'. Rapidly attaining multi-platinum status when it was first released back in 1994, 'The Downward Spiral' remains Nine Inch Nails' greatest commercial achievement and most admired album. Filled with lyrics that contain raging wrath, simmering misery and disheartening apathy, it also spoke volumes to a disenfranchised and angsty Generation X that were still getting their heads over the fact that one of their revered heroes (Nirvana's Kurt Cobain) had just taken his own life.

Musically, 'The Downward Spiral' was an artistic step forward for Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor, with its innovative arrangements, sonic trickery, tighter songwriting and intelligent textures. Previously turbulent and seemingly unbridled swathes of noise have now been corralled into more measured vectors of produced sound that provide logical backdrops for Reznor's more securely structured songs. Reznor also made the sensible choice to incorporate more accessible hooks into the music on 'The Downward Spiral', or at least as accessible as industrial rock can get, given its innate cacophonous nature.

'Mr. Self Destruct' is an apt title for the opening song, a harsh blast of industrial rock that flails along on a layer of grinding, distorted guitars. The following 'Piggy' is slower in tempo, with an almost jazzy backbeat and whispered, fidgety vocals, and 'Heresy' almost sounds like a less accessible Depeche Mode, with its bedrock of burbling synths and precise drum programs.

The highlight of 'The Downward Spiral' is undoubtedly the six-minute 'Closer', which became Nine Inch Nails' most notorious (and well-known) number, by virtue of its provocative, expletive-laden lyrics and a highly disturbing promotional video that featured images of bestiality and religious desecration. The oddly titled 'March of the Pigs' is another favourite from the album, with its multi-segmented configuration of abrasive programmed beats and placid piano chords.

Elsewhere, 'The Becoming' is a disconsolate slow-motion crawl in the dark, with echoing percussion rhythms and disturbing animal-scream samples. 'I Do Not Want This' juxtaposes rapid-fire machine-gun cadences and down-tempo piano arpeggios, while the ominously titled 'Big Man With a Gun' features Reznor dementedly, and repeatedly, screaming "I'm going to come all over you, me and my fucking gun". Enough said about that one. 'A Warm Place' provides a much-needed breather, with its cloud of Brian Eno-inspired ambient keyboards, before 'Eraser' picks up the pace again with its shrill, metallic pulses.

'Reptile' is a measured slice of straightforward industrial rock that bristles with strident arena-rock guitars lifted straight from the Red Hot Chili Peppers' playbook, while the title track is the sonic equivalent of a nightmarish trudge through a godforsaken dungeon, with its banks of skittering synth lines and backwards vocal samples. And last but not least, the monumental 'Hurt' (latterly covered in a stellar version by the late, great Johnny Cash) finally gets its proper place, a fury-wracked piece of self-loathing that could well be one of two bona fide anthems of Generation X (the other one being Nirvana's epochal 'Smells Like Teen Spirit').

The remarkable thing about 'The Downward Spiral' is that it still sounds as innovative, emotional and brutal as ever, even more than a decade after its initial release. While Reznor has never produced a masterwork like this again (subsequent efforts were met with popular indifference, and sometimes even outright hostility, in the case of 1999's self-important 'The Fragile'), he can certainly take solace in the fact that 'The Downward Spiral' has long been regarded as one of the most significant rock records of the 1990s, never mind its inherent animosity. A bona fide nihilistic classic.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Advice for the Young at Heart

New-wave mainstays Tears for Fears made a rather dramatic turnaround in their artistic sensibilities in 1989, with the release of their third studio work, the much-celebrated 'Sowing the Seeds of Love'. Instead of the hermetic, synth-heavy approach that constituted Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith's stock in trade in the preceding years, the duo decided to adopt a more open-ended, organic aesthetic that instantly reaped both critical and commercial acclaim for them. Check out one of the more exemplary tracks that successfully embodied this new methodology, the streamlined Philly-soul concoction 'Advice for the Young at Heart', whose video is set Miami's Little Havana, detailing the apparently prosaic but unconditionally meaningful events at a Cuban American newlywed couple's wedding ceremony.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

People are People

Synth-pop pioneers Depeche Mode performed a rather dramatic volte-face in 1984 with the release of their fourth studio work, the oft-misunderstood 'Some Great Reward'. Where the Mode of yore were content with their plinkety-plonk Casio-keyboard trinkets, the band, in the mid-1980s, wilfully introduced an increasingly darker, more mature streak to their artistry. This meant an increasing use of clanging industrial-noise samples and modulated synth tones, and a noticeable proliferation of socially aware lyrical matter. One of the best examples of this then-newfound sensibility was the forthright social commentary 'People are People', which has the band bemoaning the prevalence of intra-species hatred and malice amongst human beings. Check out the highly appropriate video clip, which interspersed scenes of the band roaming and mucking around on the decks of the HMS Belfast cruiser, with generic footage of naval warfare and street riots.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark

The recent reformation of 1980s British synth-pop pioneers Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark did come as a genuine surprise, given their virtual dormancy for the past two decades. After the original line-up went their separate ways in 1988, frontman Andy McCluskey did soldier on for three more studio albums, using the commercially viable OMD moniker, but failed to make the sort of significant chart impact that the previous incarnation enjoyed.

However, in early 2006, McCluskey announced plans for a regrouping of the classic group for a full-scale tour to promote a newly remastered version of the 1981 magnum opus 'Architecture and Morality', and even a possible new album. Responses to the tour were unexpectedly and overwhelmingly positive, with most venues registering sold-out ticket sales and fan forums notching up rave reviews.

And thus, as the OMD story comes full circle with the upcoming release of the new album, their eleventh proper studio endeavour, it does seem timely to go over their discography and pick out the bona fide highlights.

The band's debut album was a perfect example of how inventive a band could get with a couple of ancient analogue synthesizers and a basic drum machine. The legendary 'Electricity' was of course the lead track, but there were other high points as well. 'Almost' was a brilliant synthesis of icy synth drones and precise bass lines, and 'Mystereality' even featured a saxophone in the midst of all the blips and bloops.

The third album was the band's most ambitious and artistically realised, with a sense that they were coming into their own as a genuine synth-pop institution. Opener 'The New Stone Age' could best be described as some prototypical version of techno, 'She's Leaving' was a pure electro-pop gem wrapped in melodic synth washes, while 'Sealand' was an almost formless seven-minute epic that glided along on a synth-drone undercurrent, sort of an ancestor to the ambient-techno movement of the 1990s. The true standout here is the impossibly ethereal 'Souvenir', meticulously constructed from unidentified church-choir samples and orchestral (as it was) synth lines.

Deciding to move away from the distinctive synth-pop they were becoming known for, the band came up with what could well be the most misunderstood album in their oeuvre. 'Dazzle Ships' might have been dismissed at the time because of its wilfully experimental nature, but it was probably the first album in 20th-century music history to incorporate samples into every single track. But underneath all that clamour and machine-generated noise, there were several pop gems that stood out conspicuously, like 'Telegraph' and 'Genetic Engineering'.

CRUSH (1985)
OMD's most pop-oriented album to date, with two of its attendant singles ('So in Love' and 'Secret') even breaking into the conservative American charts. However, other tracks, with the exceptions of the sample-laden title track and the stream-of-consciousness narrative 'Bloc Bloc Bloc', were near-identicals of each other, and veered dangerously close to manufactured, cardboard synth-pop.

SUGAR TAX (1991)
The first 'solo' McCluskey album came as a bit of a surprise commercial success, constituting almost a partial return to the ethereal mood of Architecture and Morality, with just the right balance of art and commercialism. 'Sailing on the Seven Seas' sprinted along on a big, thumping, glam-rock-inspired backbeat, 'Pandora's Box' was a cleverly observant take on the story of tragic silent-film star Louise Brooks, while 'Speed of Light' was a pure rush of vigour, a thundering synth workout that successfully updated the classic OMD synth-pop sound for the 1990s.

The final album to be released under the OMD banner, at least until their restoration, with a more organic sound, incorporating real guitars and drums into the mix. Synth programming was also considerably toned down for this release, with less reliance on samplers and sequencers, resulting in superior cuts like the autobiographical 'Walking on the Milky Way', the mournful 'The Black Sea' and the dynamic, cinematic title track.