August 24, 2009

Hear Again: Remembering the Future.

The last album recorded by Swedish electronic music duo Nasa isn't merely their best, but also one of the genre's most original. Steeped in the warm pool of retrofuturism rather than dystopian punk, it's an imaginatively packaged and skillfully produced album that checks off practically every box on the devoted synth pop fan's list of obsessions. It interpolates numerous instantly recognisable motifs, borrows all the prerequisite techniques, quotes all the hallowed sources — from the Beatles to Bowie, New Musik to Numan, and Kraftwerk in particular — yet never becomes derivative. It blends highbrow influences like the Futurist Mayakovsky, with pop culture phenomena like Star Trek. It's an album which despite a high level of esotericism should've appealed to everyone with even the slightest interest in electronic pop, never mind first class funky dance music. Yet it sank like a stone upon release a decade ago.

So what went wrong? Right from its beginning — which takes its cue from John Lennon's and Yoko Ono's response to the Nixon administration's attempt to deport Lennon from the USA, declaring themselves representatives of a fictitious "Nutopia" — it's clear that this is a collection of pop music far removed from the usual melancholy, minor-key minimalism commonly associated with preternaturally disaffected, black clad middle-class synth pop fans. Nasa's final effort to date is an upbeat, humourous album brimming with infectious hooks and grooves, not unlike those of Telex, the Yellow Magic Orchestra, or Yello, though not quite as flippant in execution. Which may explain why the album fared so dismally in the record kiosks: perhaps Nasa's exquisite balancing act displayed only too well how thin the line between earnest sincerity and feigned ignorance really is.

Initially a trio consisting of Patrik Henzel, Martin Thors, and Jonas Zachrisson, Nasa first garnered attention contributing to the soundtrack of Staffan Hildebrand's 1983 film G - som i gemenskap (literally "C - as in Community"). Patrik's older thespian brother Dominik played a part in the film, which became the closest Swedish cinema of the 1980s got the oeuvre of the recently deceased John Hughes, though with quite a bit more social realism. Then, after two albums, two Swedish top ten hits (Paula in May 1985, and The Bird in September 1987), and three top twenty hits (Stockholmssommar, a.k.a. City Girl, in August 1985, Point of View in November 1985, and Take Off Your Clothes in March 1986), Nasa were mired in the morass most Scandinavian bands recording in English eventually find themselves in: the attempt to establish an international career.

Signed to CBS subsidiary Columbia Records in 1987, Nasa arrived in America to record an album with producer and electronic music pioneer Robert Margouleff, perhaps best known for turning Stevie Wonder on to synthesisers, and were promptly asked to change their name. Allegedly so as not to conjure forth unfavourable connotations in the wake of the 1986 space shuttle Challenger disaster, though somewhat ironic in retrospect considering they were recording for Columbia. However, in 1988 the CBS Records Group (including Columbia) was acquired by the Sony Corporation and, in the inevitable restructuring that followed, the person responsible for signing Nasa was replaced by someone a lot less interested in the band, and the third Margouleff-produced Nasa album was left to deteriorate in storage.

At this point the band, now whittled down to a duo, attempted to relaunch their domestic career as Henzel & Thors, re-recording some of the tracks from their shelved third album in Swedish. But as their efforts failed to chart, they retreated into session recordings and commercial jingles. Later, in the mid-1990s, the resurgent interest in electronic music — in Sweden, particularly in pioneering Swedish efforts — prompted the small, independent label Memento Materia to suggest Henzel and Thors contribute a new recording to a compilation of their older material the label was preparing. To their surprise, the duo was far more interested in recording a completely new album, having not only honed their craft but finally possessing the technology their musical ideas required as well. The compilation, Echoes Down the Hall, was released in May 1998, followed by Back to Square One, the first new Nasa single in twelve years, in April 1999.

A stomping soul-tinged plea for a return "back to when everything was fine," Back to Square One was stylistically closer to the electronic funk revival of newer bands like Jamiroquai, though still owing a debt to New Musik's Back to Room One, as does the album it heralded. Its richly textured and processed vocals, relying heavily on phase vocoding, are particularly reminiscent of Tony Mansfield's early 1980s vocal work with New Musik. But the duo that recorded Remembering the Future could easily be a completely different band than Nasa of the 1980s. Even though their music was curiously analogous to Nattens drömmar (Nighttime Dreams), Nasa's very first recording from the G soundtrack, their new sound seemed lightyears removed from that which they were known for. Far more polished, more accomplished, with more depth, adroitly combining classic synth pop with R&B and drum & bass.

In a genre crowded with amateurs who couldn't carry a tune in a bucket, the fact that Henzel and Thors are both excellent vocalists (with only a hint of the instantly recongisable Swedish inflection) further contributes to make this an exceptional album. As do the skills of veteran sound engineer Alar Suurna (best known outside Sweden for his work with Roxette), providing the album with a clean, crisp sound. But what makes Remembering the Future unique is Nasa's reliance on what was then a new type of hybrid instrument, the analogue modeling sythesisers pioneered by Swedish electronic instrument manufacturer Clavia. These virtual analogue synthesisers emulate the synthesis of the traditional analogue variety through digital signal processing, offering many of the originals' advantages while evading their shortcomings. A retrofuturistic instrument par excellence, the utility of which compelled Nasa to include a Devo-esque "jingle" on the album, detailing the tribulations of installing the Clavia Nord Modular's voice expansion board.

The album's title track initially appears to announce the rediscovery of that positive, utopian outlook once common among futurists, yet is quickly tempered by almost dystopian — if not contradictory — realism: "Nothing is warmer than tomorrow's promise / nothing is colder than yesterday's truth." As Nasa playfully explore the linguistic singularities created by our attempts to describe time, the exhortation "Remembering the future: at last!" could be interpreted not only as a rediscovery of past, Gernsbackian visions of the future, but also as acceptance of finally seeing those visions for what they were. Similarly, their postmodern Beatles-inversion Nexterday appears to both celebrate the promise of a brighter tomorrow (aptly referencing their second album, In the Mist of Time), and simultaneously dismiss blind utopianism.

Tell Me, Woman addresses the dubiousness of simply hoping for (potential) future solutions to contemporary problems - as well as the impracticality of time travel - with a simple allegory illustrating how that which requires no effort often seems of little value: "But the absence of yearning / doesn't that in fact stop the burning? / Have you crossed oceans of time / without learning?" As the album's most formulaic synth pop track, It's About Time, succinctly announces, the main theme of the album is the relativity, fluidity, and subjectivity of time and memory, as well as the ideas we project on the past and the future. The exceptions being Cloudcontrol, an arpeggio-driven rallying cry for a monocratic environmentalism; They Call Her Love, which toys with the chauvinist cliché of male science pitted against female nature in the manner of 1950s Sci-Fi flics; and the wry commentary on racism that is Xenophobic.

Musically the album's most intriguing track, Xenophobic begins vaguely reminiscent of Kraftwerk's Neonlicht yet builds toward a solo that betrays the progressive rock roots of practically all electronic pop. Almost transforming the track into an ambient piece, the solo could've been delivered by a simple sine wave generated by a synthesiser and processed by guitar effect units, or simply been a straightforward electric guitar solo. The "genre confusion" it evokes reminiscent of Front 242's Controversy Between — similarly a track about xenophobia — which employed a guitar processed by a synthesiser as its main melodic and solo instrument. The lyric, mining yet another trope popular among the genre's fans, tells the story of an alien being stranded in New Mexico around 1947, though quite cleverly told from the alien's perspective.

It's tempting to wonder whether Xenophobic is a reflection on the Henzel brothers experience of growing up as Czechoslovak immigrants in Sweden, a highly homogenous and in most respects particularly parochial society on the outskirts of Europe. It's equally tempting to suggest a link between the Henzel's heritage and the affinity for Central European Modernism that permeates this album. Though a likelier explanation would be that Nasa tied their colours to Kraftwerk's mast. The progenitors of techno pop have frequently stated their ambition to reconnect the future with the Modernist past it was riven from by war and totalitarian intolerance. In fact, the booklet for Remembering the Future features a cover, created by Elin Mellbrand, lifted straight from a 1929 exhibition poster by Russian Suprematist El Lissitzky (more notoriously invoked on Kraftwerk's 1978 album Die Mensch-Maschine), with Henzel's and Thors' faces superimposed on the original's pioneers.

Despite being one of the most technically proficient and thematically smart of its kind to be recorded in Sweden, Remembering the Future was (ironically) lost on Memento Materia, a tiny label unable to compete with the majors, even as the arrival of the digital music trade began pounding the first nails into the traditional music industry's coffin. The sole video accompanying the album, directed by commercial film maker Mats Stenberg (likely a favour called in return for the band's contributions to that field), serves as an example of a smart, economical, and modern solution to the budgetary constraints Nasa laboured under. The album did however inspire American New Wave revival magazine Lexicon's editor David Richards to establish Ninthwave Records, a label dedicated to the much ignored and maligned synth pop genre in North America. Since its release in August 2000 as one of the new label's very first albums, Remembering the Future remains one of Ninthwave's bestsellers.

Perhaps the album's greatest obstacle was the intended audiences' inability to decide whether to laugh along or be offended. Though judging by Nasa's comments at the time, their intentions were quite sincere, wanting to create the best synth pop album of all time. In the process, they created one of the finest electronic pop albums ever recorded in Sweden, and one of the most memorable anywhere. Setting out to create a synth pop album with a capital "s", they ended up producing a pop album with a capital "p," an accomplishment contributing to the international appeal of electronic music, a genre with little regional inflection, sounding practically the same everywhere. An aspect the forward-looking Modernists of the interbellum years, with their internationalist, cosmopolitan outlook, would no doubt have approved of.

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