June 20, 2009

Hear Again: Host.

On their seventh album, released a decade ago, Paradise Lost tried to break out of their narrow confines, redefining their sound by stripping it of unnecessary ostentatiousness while increasing its sophistication. But as every agnostic yearning for something tangibly real experiences, breaking the bond with the firm believers in one's wake is no easy task. In the 26 years since the release of Black Sabbath's Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, one of the first and most successful attempts to widen Heavy Metal's musical palette with complex orchestral arrangements and synthesisers, the genre's audience had grown decidedly more conservative, becoming ever more insular despite constant rejuvenation of its ranks. So while Black Sabbath's album became their fifth consecutive to sell half a million copies in North America, its distant descendant which is Paradise Lost's Host was practically branded a betrayal.

Such a reception seems to have been anticipated by the band, as vocalist Nicholas Holmes' lyrics reflect not only on the inevitability of change, but also the backlash that challenging the established view - and the consequential loss of the esteem in which Paradise Lost had been previously held - would provoke: "Sit alone and celebrate good time of change / Sit alone, annihilate all words of praise / When it all seems to spell disaster / words of wisdom have no meaning / in all honesty / It's just fiction, your religion / No apology." Words that could be interpreted considering belief in general, but could just as well be specifically aimed at entrenched fans and critics alike: "See no life behind your weary eyes... It's much too late for you to aim / You only miss."

There is a conviction, particularly strong on the fringes of popular culture, which maintains that artists are indebted to those who've supported them "from the very beginning," and therefore obliged to "stay true to their roots." It's sheer nonsense though, as artists are only obliged to be true to themselves. Yet, when they are, and allow their art to reflect their growth, development as individuals, and their current interests, a portion of their audience inevitably feels deceived and experiences a sense of loss - more often than not brought about by the fact that the changes evident in an artists work reminds them of time's passing and, by extension, their own mortality. Conservatism is a crutch for those who cannot handle change, and therefore one that everyone sooner or later leans on - rendering advocacy of change one of the most difficult undertakings.

Though Paradise Lost begun their career as a Death Metal inspired Doom outfit, they also occasionally claimed to find inspiration in such - comparatively - "lightweight" sources as the "gothic" rock of Dead Can Dance, or the electronic pop of The Human League. Which possibly appeared to reflect some of their fans' own informed, eclectic attitudes, but (literally) spelled doom to others as Paradise Lost decidedly veered towards more melodic and more electronic music as the 1990s progressed. The band's decision to record Host with Steve Lyon producing must've seemed like the final nail in the coffin, given Lyon's reputation as the studio squire of Depeche Mode's former master arranger Alan Wilder on recordings with Depeche Mode, Nitzer Ebb, and Recoil. Not that Lyon's influence simply turned Paradise Lost into a Metallica with synthesisers.

Vocalist Holmes' inflection had already changed considerably from the hoarse growl he used on the band's 1990 debut Lost Paradise, and the band's instrumentation had expanded beyond that of traditional rock. Lyon's presence certainly contributed to making Paradise Lost's application of samplers and effects appear less casual than the slapped-on efforts of their previous album, 1997's One Second. But the majority of music on Host was performed in a traditional manner, stylistically true to Heavy Metal - albeit processed to sound like something other than guitar, bass, and drums. Like every electrically amplified instrument, the electric guitar can be made to produce virtually any sound in the hands of a sufficiently skilled and technologically sophisticated musician. However, such technicalities were not perceived by - nor did they appeal to - fans and critics solely attuned to the modalities of "classic" rock.

Furthermore, Paradise Lost employed real strings for the parts of Host where most rock bands would've preferred the cheaper and more straightforward alternative of electronic keyboards. And not just any merry band of fiddlers either: Host practically reunites The False Harmonics String Ensemble, some of the most accomplished string musicians in British popular music of the 1980s. There's cellist Dinah Beamish, violist Claire Orsler, violinists Virginia "Gini" Ball, Julia Singleton and Anne Stephenson (now known as Brilliant Strings,) cellist Audrey Riley, violist Susan Dench, and violinists Leonard Payne and Christopher Tombling (then of The Hope Blister,) as well as violinist Jocelyn Pook, augmenting the advanced electronics with arrangements the band's guitarist and principal composer Gregory Mackintosh composed with former Communards and Banderas violinist Sally Herbert, and the aformentioned Audrey Riley.

These seemingly drastic changes were also reflected in the album's modest artwork. Instead of a logo that could double as a tattoo, incorporating a pentagram or some other illusory symbol, superimposed on fantastical imagery, the previously rather camera shy band pose in a vast, empty room. Though vocalist Holmes had already opted for a short crop at the time of the previous Paradise Lost album's release, the entire band now sported a short shorn and smartly attired look, more reminiscent of the alternative rock bands (like Blur) that photographer Paul Postle normally worked with. To have abandoned not only the hallmark sound but also the prerequisite Heavy Metal look, was perceived by the band's more reactionary fans as indisputable proof of Paradise Lost succumbing the the demands of their new, "major" recording company. Or what is referred to in the vernacular as "a sellout."

Having previously worked with independent companies Peaceville and Music For Nations, Paradise Lost released Host through EMI Electrola - the German subsidiary of the much larger British company - in what in fact was a conscious effort to broaden their mainstream appeal. While this worked in their favour in Germany itself, where practically anything labelled "gothic" is generally well received, and audiences had been successfully primed for a fusion of electronic pop and Heavy Metal by the likes of Die Krupps et al throughout the 1990s, Paradise Lost's new partners hardly exerted themselves in promoting the album outside their traditional markets. So, while Host claimed the fourth spot on the German album chart, in the band's native Britain - where it was released through EMI's subsidiary Chrysalis - it only managed to reach the lower sixties.

A benevolent guess would be that EMI were as surprised by the band's new sound and look as many longtime fans. Guitarist Mackintosh, bearing the brunt of the blame as it was he who brought in all those samplers and computers, has on several occasions since refuted claims that the recording company demanded Paradise Lost get a haircut and ditch the guitars. Expecting a "heavier" effort, EMI were perhaps equally bewildered by this pioneering "Gothic Metal" endeavour. Looking back, even more traditionally inclined fans and critics now admit - despite the initial hostility - that, musically, Host remains one of the band's best albums. It was a brave, imaginative experiment, which yielded excellent results - the closing title track being one of Paradise Lost's finest recordings - but was squandered by the recording industry's inability and general unwillingness to disseminate innovative popular music.

June 10, 2009

Kingdom of Welcome Addiction.

The third installment of Christopher Corner's crusade against Middle England's narrow-mindedness is the first not to feature any material from the Sneaker Pimps unreleased, fourth album. Yet despite being singlehandedly composed by Corner, it's permeated by the collaborative spirit of a band at work. Perhaps because it incorporates the hallmarks of IAMX's performances, more conventional in their instrumentation than their recordings. Percussion dominates the soundscape, creating a vast, cavernous space for Corner's soaring counter-tenor to inhabit together with seemingly sparse backing. A closer listen reveals sumptuous arrangements effortlessly blending electronic and acoustic instruments, with very skillful use of multitimbrality and - as has become de rigueur of New Wave inspired electronic rock albums - enough squealing guitar accents to prompt Adrian Belew's solicitors to check on his patents.

The album's artwork further reveals how much of an in-house effort it is, designed by acquaintances and fans, circumscribing the ostensibly minimal music in an appropriately 1980s version of Constructivism. It also implies the one-man band Harlequin that has become Corner's alter-ego on stage: rhythmically his songs rarely veer from the type of marches typically found in a cabaret or circus environment. Which, incidentally, would make them easy to transcribe to tangos or waltzes, should Corner ever consider a side-project more rewarding than a simple compilation of remixes. An exception being the "jungle" jazz groove of Tear Garden, a track that no doubt plays on the homophone anglophone ears hear in Tiergarten - the Berlin hunting ground cum municipal park. Though one understands many a tear is shed in the local Biergartens as well; that typical collusion of words seems just a little to simplistic for IAMX's quite complicated world.

A further exception is the processional My Secret Friend, to which Imogen Heap - another great British innovator of laptop pop - lends her unmistakable tenor with its distinctive passaggios. That track intensifies the impression that Corner's body of work, despite firm atheist leanings, increasingly resembles a hymnal. Again, not everything may be as simple as it first appears, and The Stupid, The Proud could interestingly (or rather, maliciously) be interpreted as an expression of the persecution complex affecting many Evangelicals - despite beginning with the assertion that "God is dead." But this, ultimately, is the characteristic of truly accomplished art: it leaves room for the audience's own imagination. Equally interesting is Think of England, which as a single release simply seemed to reflect on Corner's self-imposed exile in Germany, but in the broader context of the album turns into a refutation of not only fundamentalist beliefs but the boy's adventure tale world that still informs many of Corner's compatriots as well.

As for the title, "addiction" appears to mean an unbridled passion for or devotion to a specific lifestyle, rather than straightforward substance abuse, in the "kingdom" Corner's established within his IAMX bubble. While it may be a realm conventionally considered miserable, this album is not a litany of miseries. It ends with a life-affirming one-two punch that is the Neu!-beat driven You Can Be Happy, and the celebratory The Great Shipwreck of Life. At a time when even the once quite level-headed Pet Shop Boys are composing ditties about the "chore" of celebrity, it's also refreshing to hear a popular musician admit that he's terrified at times of being lonely. Closing an album of songs that drive their lack of faith home with an almost fundamentalist fervor, is Running - a song with the clearest humanist message of them all, pondering how despite fulfilling relationships, general happiness, and overall satisfaction, one can still remain utterly alone.

June 4, 2009

Hear Again: Head Music.

Because of its brevity, sparse arrangement, and rudimentary production, Crack in the Union Jack seems like an afterthought rather than a proper ending to Suede's fourth album. Looking back at a decade during which Anthony Blair's "New Labour" government proved to be Britain's most right wing since the end of the Second World War, it's tempting to interpret the track as a perceptive piece of prescience regarding "Cool Britannia" — the fad that followed the election of Britain's youngest PM in 185 years which sought parallels with the Wilson years' "Swinging London". As sassy as Suede may have been, they were rarely clever about politics, so if Crack… reflects on anything it's Britpop itself. A response wrapped in the British flag to North American Grunge that Suede had helped usher in during the 1990s, Britpop had begun to fracture and wane just as Britain's political winds appeared to be turning.

Suede may themselves have contributed to its demise by trying to recombine their formula — an outer-suburban middle class fantasy of central London streetlife combined with nostalgia for past British musical dominance — which had made their first album Britain's fastest selling debut (until Oasis came along) since Frankie Goes To Hollywood's Welcome to the Pleasuredome, and propelled their second and third to the top of the British album chart. Not that Head Music deviates much from the polished sound of Suede's 1996 mainstream breakthrough Coming Up. In fact, it could give a casual listener the impression of being cobbled together from that album's leftovers. Today it plays like an excellent — if unintentional — assessment of the decade's excesses by a generation that preferred getting lost inside their own heads to affecting the harsh climate outside.

However, at the time of its release a decade ago it was the shift toward a more electronic sound that captivated, and made Suede's first album with a title track their third chart topper. That conscious change in instrumentation is commonly cited as the reason for why Suede switched from working with producer and former Psychedelic Furs keyboardist Ed Buller, who'd produced all their previous albums, to Steve Osborne, who'd helped shape Curve's drum-machine and sequencer driven rock. But the switch behind the mixing desk was more likely brought about by necessity, as Buller — a founding member of the electronic music project Node — decided to pursue composition and orchestration studies at the San Francisco Conservatory. Suede's musical palette was more likely widened by the arrival of drummer Simon Gilbert's cousin Neil Codling on keyboards.

The initial accusations that Codling was simply added to Suede's line-up for his looks were quickly dispelled by his musical contributions. On Head Music Codling's credited with composition on five tracks, one of which he'll forever be blamed for alone — making him the only other member of the band besides vocalist and founding member Brett Anderson to receive sole credit for a Suede recording. A dubious honour as the track in question, Elephant Man, so displeased producer Osborne he reputedly refused to have anything to do with it. Instead, occasional The The collaborator Bruce Lampcov helped shape it into what could easily be mistaken for an outtake from an Adrian Belew session with Kiss — betraying that particular band's rather heavy debt to Glam despite their persistent efforts to obtain Heavy Metal credentials.

Codling's careful application of synthesisers and other electronic devices, as for instance on the album's stomping Glam opener Electricity (initially titled Stompy), brings to mind the equally measured and seamless embedding of electronic instruments on T.Rex's final album Dandy in the Underworld, or the first two albums recorded by Japan (the band, not the island nation). The ascending sine-wave glissandos which Codling adds to the ballad Down are particularly exceptional, as delicate as they — given the song's theme — are devious. More importantly, the electronic accents provide the final touch in Suede's crafting of an accompaniment vivid enough to immaculately complement Anderson, one of the most dramatic and distinct voices of 1990s popular music.

As if to mock his detractors further, Codling's also featured on the Head Music sleeve. That's him, the blob on the right. The other blob is Sam Cunningham, Brett Anderson's girlfriend at the time, and the subject of the album's She's in Fashion — not so much a confirmation of status as an indication of career. Anderson's initial idea for the sleeve had been a photo of two people facing each other while wearing interconnected headphones, listening to "each other's brains" as it were, to reflect the flow of connections between people that he perceived to be the album's theme. Fashion shutterbug Nick Knight snapped a variation of it, which designer extraordinaire Pete Saville tweaked, adding a minimal design completed by almost illegible, handwritten lyrics. Given that lyricism was never Suede's strong suit, Saville may have had a point.

That suburbia frequently features in former urban planning and architecture student Anderson's lyrics is perhaps not entirely surprising, but the amount of cut-up lines he delivers about life strung out on sex and drugs in some large, dirty metropolis often render his lyrics all the excitement of a grocery list. Even Anderson admitted at the time that they were more often than not designed to sound swell, rather than deliver some profound meaning. But any allegations of delivering nonsense could equally well be leveled at the sources of Suede's inspiration; T. Rex, Roxy Music, Japan, The Associates, even David Bowie have all at times sounded a lot better than they've read. Peculiar deviations (the foot fetishism of Savoir Faire) and plodding double entendres (the title track) aside, when Anderson's words fall smartly into place they tend to be memorable.

As, for instance, in He's Gone, originally intended for the 1997 Lazy single and one of Suede's finest ballads, which invokes The Carpenters and despite being the penultimate track is the album's proper closer. Or Indian Strings, the only truly introspective song on the album: "Open up my heart and see what's inside / Take a look inside me, inside my mind / And you'll see my heart is broke in two / 'cos' I've seen the real you". Garbled as they may be, such flimsy snapshots from a nation of council estates blighted by cocaine and carnality were always Suede's forte. Catchy, yet not entirely devoid of meaning. Just about groovy enough to keep laidback listeners awake, but nothing worth giving the bong a pass and getting up for. Head music, indeed.


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