Saturday, September 19, 2009
Where to start, on this milestone of an album? Preceded by the number one UK single "Cars" it propelled synthesizers to superstardom, along with their enigmatic but ultimately down-to-earth champion. On its heels New Wave was born, and the early 80's became an exciting time for music. This year -- indeed, this month -- marks the album's 30th anniversary, celebrated with a special edition of the album which includes all the b-sides, outtakes, and demos that could be rescued from the vaults.
My personal link with the album dates back to 1995. At the time I was living in my Uncle's house, and had access to his large collection of vinyl. Music-junkie that I am, I spent many hours immersed in old Genesis records, among others. I passed-up The Pleasure Principle several times, but finally gave in to the intriguing cover with its one-word song titles. At once I found it familiar and strange, and after several listens I realised I'd discovered the music I'd been searching for all my life. I'd been a fan of David Bowie's work -- particularly his synthier moments -- and several New Wave bands, but none of them had quite crystallized the precise mood of starkness and alienation that The Pleasure Principle conjured up. Needless to say, I played the album far more often than was healthy for those around me, and sat there in the isolation of a small Canadian town wondering if Mr. Numan had recorded anything more...
He had. Some fifteen albums at that time, not including live records, collaborations, and extraneous material. But I didn't discover that until those heady early days of the internet. In the meantime, I managed to get hold of a two-CD 'best of' compilation, which became one of the most-played albums I've ever owned, and some early LP's.
But back to the album at hand. There are no guitars on The Pleasure Principle (save for bass) and it struck me at the time as being a bold statement for a rock musician. Instead, there are layer after layer of powerful synthesizer parts set against a backdrop of Cedric Sharpley's funky drumming, the unique bass-work of the late Paul Gardiner, and some beautiful viola flourishes courtesy of Chris Payne. Ultravox keyboardist Billy Currie also lends his violin to a couple of tracks, and played keyboards in the live band during the subsequent tour. Numan's exceptionally unique voice is often double-tracked, a technique which excentuates the science-fiction feel of the music; like some Big Brother figure broadcasting over a P.A. system.
The principle synthesizer is the Moog Polymoog Keyboard, which came stock with the unique and powerful Vox Humana patch, which Numan used extensively both live and on albums during the period. There are far better sources of information on how Numan used the Polymoog, putting it through effects-boxes and so-forth, so I won't go into that here. Suffice to say that it's one of the most incredible synthesized sounds you are likely to hear. Also used on this album were the Moog Minimoog and ARP Odyssey.
As luck would have it, all ten tracks are playlisted on youtube, as well as the bonus tracks from the original reissue. This has spared me the agony of choosing highlights, when every song, to my mind, is integral to the listening experience. Without further ado:
Gary Numan - The Pleasure Principle (YouTube Playlist)
The album opens with "Airlane," an upbeat instrumental. Immediately the biting, tearing, and soaring synth tones are unleashed. Even though guitar is absent, there are synth parts played like powerchords to give the effect. "Metal" follows, with its driving rhythm and crashing percussion. Nine Inch Nails, and the hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa have both covered this song. Next is "Complex," which is almost the opposite - lilting and strangely beautiful, but at the same time as electric as standing next to a power station. The viola also makes its first appearance. This song is a personal favourite. "Films" cranks things up again. The drum beat was a favourite with rappers in the early 80's, and is still sampled from time to time. "M.E." is another personal favourite. Some of you might recognise the riff: it was borrowed by Basement Jaxx for their song "Where's Your Head At." The synthetic hand-claps on this track are created by the Simmons Clap-Trap, which can also be heard elsewhere on the album. I always think of "Tracks," "Observer," and "Conversation" as something of a trilogy. Not because of any overall theme, but because of how they fit so nicely together in order on the album. The first two are quite short, but by no means ordinary, while "Conversation" is something of an epic. Second-last, but not least, "Cars." Number one in Canada and the UK, and it even broke the charts in the U.S.A. Undoubtedly Numan's best-known song, and it's been covered and sampled by many artists, notably Fear Factory. I have to admit that I've heard it so many times that I often skip it these days, but there's no denying the outro is awfully good. Lastly, the quirky mechanical marching song "Engineers," closes the album.
I've often thought The Pleasure Principle has a lot in common with utopian/dystopian sci-fi films. Bright and happy at the beginning, until all too quickly the seething underbelly of corruption is revealed and our protagonist goes underground on a flight for his life. Until, despite his best efforts, he is thwarted by his gloating oppressors. Numan's lyrics are often highly metaphorical, and there are of course a million different ways you could interpret them; a million different images they might conjure up. Such is the brilliance of music, and the brilliance of this album. I hope you enjoy it.
Friday, June 12, 2009
This being the thirtieth anniversary of a pivotal year for music, 1979, and also my birth, what better than to showcase some classic synth albums from that year? First up, this cross-over album from French band "Rockets" (also known as "Les Rockets"). I found this album on vinyl in the late '90s, and was blown away by it. In Canada the band was dubbed "Silver Rockets," probably to distinguish them from another band called Rockets, which was made up of members of Crazy Horse and had nothing to do with this space-rock quintet with their glam outfits and silver body paint.
I happen to think the band's look fitted their music to a tee. Some will argue they just look silly (it's clear the audience in the first video clip didn't know what to make of them!). But once you look beyond that to the music, their catchy songs and solid musicianship shines through. Precision drumming and funky bass work sits alongside excellent guitar reminiscent of Dave Gilmour's style. Synthesizers make up a hefty part of their sound, with vocoder and talk-box put to good use as well. Christian Le Bartz's accent may be off-putting to those who prefer vocals delivered with Western enunciation, but I quite like the European charm. It is, after all, music from space, and who's to say aliens would sing in perfect English?
The band went through several line-up changes over the years. Sal Solo, of the band Classix Nouveaux, became their lead singer in the mid-80's. Nick Beggs of KajaGooGoo was even part of the line-up during that time. Plasteroid was made with their 'classic' line-up of Christian Le Bartz (vocals), Gerard L'Her (bass & vocals), Alain Maratrat (guitar & vocals), Alain Groetzinger (drums & percussion), and Fabrice Quagliotti (keyboards).
Synths & gadgets used on this album (according to lesrockets.com): Sennheiser VSM 201 vocoder, Electro Harmonix Golden Throat talk-box, Roland Jupiter 4. According to the liner notes, the rest of the synths are by Crumar.
The opening track, "Electric Delight," is a disco-inspired track, and probably what made this album appeal to the North American market at the time. It sits more in the realm of Giorgio Moroder's synth-driven disco than, say, Chic's patent strings and rhythm-section. There is vocoder throughout, a splendid synth-solo, and a breakdown for the dance-floor crowd.
Electric Delight, courtesy of hugobertin.
"Astral World," is another key track. Listen out for the guitar solo on this one. There's more vocoder work on show as well. Please note - the video is just the performance of Electric Delight with the audio for Astral World tacked on. At least you get to hear it :)
Astral World, courtesy of Pioggiasporca.
"Anastasis," an instrumental anthem that transports you into space with pure bombast. I rate this as one of the best synth instrumentals of all time.
Anastasis, courtesy of italotubo.
Unfortunately, I couldn't find a link to the album version of my favourite song "Back To Your Planet." This live performance by Rockets in 2007 will have to suffice. Keyboard player Fabrice Quagliotti is the only original member still in the band, but the new members do a great job.
Back To Your Planet (live 2007), courtesy rocketsland.
For more info on Rockets, including their discography, clips and whatnot, check out www.rocketsland.net. The Silver Years Box Set, which includes Plasteroid and their other early albums, is well worth the investment. Another great source of info on the band is The Unofficial Rockets Home Page.
Saturday, March 7, 2009
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
Alan Parsons, an engineer at
On their next album, ‘I Robot,’ a funk-inspired affair, the synthesizer begins to play a larger role. It’s worth mentioning that a device called the Projectron was also used on this (and other APP albums). The Projectron was a one-off device created by Parsons himself:
“The Projectron was effectively an analog ‘sampler’. It could therefore produce any sound fed into it. It was a little like the Mellotron, but was capable of much higher quality. Usually it would reproduce tape loops individually recorded to a 16 or 24-track tape machine. The attack and decay times were adjustable using voltage control technology. One of the most featured sounds is the female background vocals on Breakdown. The Projectron looked something like a keyboard synthesizer but with lots of sockets on the front panel for connections to a multi track tape machine. Sadly, there are no known photos of it and it has disappeared into the annals of legend.”
The EMI Vocoder shows up on ‘The Voice’ (a track inspired by The Temptations’ ‘Papa Was A Rolling Stone’):
The Raven [from Tales of Mystery & Imagination] was the first rock song to feature a vocoder, which was designed by EMI's Research Laboratories. Eric Woolfson: "That's right, that was one of the earliest uses of vocoder. It was a machine that the EMI scientists had developed, a very cumbersome thing that was very much in its early stages. They had gotten it together in a way that let us do some relatively new things with it.”
This would be one of the rare occasions Alan can be heard doing 'lead vocals' in his career. "For The Raven it was not a real vocal sound at all, it was an electronic synthesis of my voice. I also did that electronic piece on The Voice ('he's gonna get you') [from I Robot]. The part on Time [from Pyramid] could be argued as a counter lead vocal. The real reason that I don't sing is that I don't think I'm a really good singer. Modesty prevents me from stealing any limelight. I'd much rather have people ask ‘why don't you sing?’, than 'why do you sing?’”
As for the synths used here, information is a little sketchy. Duncan Mackay played a Yamaha CS-50 or CS-60 (and a prototype CS-80 on subsequent albums); there may have also been an
*Thanks to Micke via the Vintage Synth Explorer forums for the interview excerpts.
The title track, an instrumental, opens the album. Some nice phased sweeps start things off, and a bubbly bass sequence propels the track along as various acoustic elements are added; including choir, cymbalom, and kantele.
I Robot, courtesy of unstoppable3rd
Next up, the otherworldy ballad "Some Other Time." The synthesizer parts here are such that they blend seamlessly with the orchestration. The most overtly synthetic-sounding part, ironically, appears to be guitar fed through an effects pedal.
Some Other Time, courtesy of leonheart54
'The Voice,' on which you can hear the EMI vocoder. This song was inspired by The Temptations' epic track 'Papa Was A Rolling Stone.' Well worth a listen if you enjoy this one.
The Voice, courtesy of colejordan123
The final track on the album is perhaps my favourite. My one complaint is that it's so short. Beautiful synth-work throughout, and the orchestra just tops it off. The concept here is an addendum to the Book of Genesis, in which robots, which we've created in our own image, inherit the earth.
Genesis Ch. 1 V. 32, courtesy of PARAFER2004
I could go on posting tracks from this album. There's the shimmering proto-ambient track 'Nucleus,' which I suspect features heavy use of the Projectron. There's the slide-guitar vs. synthesizer dreaminess of 'Day After Day.' There are the album's funkiest moments in 'I Wouldn't Want To Be Like You' and 'Breakdown,' which don't have much to do with synthesizers, but are fantastic tracks. Perhaps the only song I tend to skip is 'Total Eclipse' which is exactly the sort of dramatic music that should accompany an eclipse of the sun. Composed exclusively of choir and discordant strings, it doesn't make much sense alongside the other tracks unless you've listened to the 'Fall Of The House Of Usher' suite from the previous album. I hope, by hearing these excerpts, you'll be tempted to give I Robot a listen.