Saturday, September 19, 2009

Gary Numan - The Pleasure Principle (1979)

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

Rockets - Plasteroid (1979)

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 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 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

Pink Floyd - Animals (1977)

Pink Floyd's concept album, loosely based on George Orwell's 'Animal Farm,' which compares people with three types of animals. Dogs as businessmen: aggressive, back-stabbing in their quest to get ahead, but ultimately inferior to their ruthless leaders, the Pigs. Caught in the middle, Sheep are the pawns in their power-struggle, unwittingly driven to the slaughterhouse by their own pacifism. Now, this all sounds like heavy stuff, but bear with me. Under all the grim overtones and angst is some sublime music, and some fabulous synthesizer parts to boot.

There are five songs on this album, including a short acoustic intro and outro. The remaining three are what we'll be focusing on here. First up is Dogs. Starting off with acoustic guitar and organ, it gradually becomes more driving and electric, with solos on guitar and synthesizer. On the refrain, an ARP Solina String Ensemble comes into play. It features again on Pigs and Sheep, lending a wistfulness to the dark nature of the music. The late Richard Wright played all keyboard parts and was responsible for some of the arrangements, despite not writing any of the music this time around.

The Solina is back again for the lengthy bridge section, where you can also hear sampled dog barking fed through a vocoder (unfortunately I don't know the make or model, but I'll put my money on the EMS Vocoder).

Dogs (part 1), courtesy of: unstoppable3rd

On the album, Dogs is a complete song, but because of YouTube's restrictions, we'll have to make do with it being split into two sections. We re-join the action with another great synth solo as the bridge concludes and verse three cuts in.

Dogs (part 2), courtesy of: unstoppable3rd

Pigs - Not quite so much synth action on this one, but the musicianship more than makes up for that. Listen out for Dave Gilmour's Talkbox on the middle section, and more of the ARP Solina.

Pigs (Three Different Ones), courtesy of: VjZman

Sheep - Lots more synth here, and the vocoder makes another appearance on the bridge. Note also the effect during the verses, where Roger Water's voice fades out to be replaced by a cutting synth note. 

Sheep, courtesy of: FabioSici

There you have it, a classic album from a classic band.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Jean-Michel Jarre - Oxygene (1977) & Equinoxe (1978)

I'm including both of these classic Jean-Michel Jarre albums as a double feature. When I first heard them, they were issued as a double-LP (remember those?), and subsequently occupied opposite sides of a 90 minute cassette (remember those???). These were perhaps the most important albums to fuel my childhood synthesizer-cravings. 

Let's start with Oxygene, which was released in 1977, and recorded at Jean-Michel Jarre's home studio. The equipment listed in the original liner notes is as follows (my comments in brackets): A.R.P. synthesizer, A.K.S. synthesizer, V.C.S. 3 synthesizer, R.M.I. Harmonic synthesizer, Farfisa organ, Eminent (310 Theatre Unique organ), Mellotron, Rhythmin' Computer (Korg Mini-Pops 7). 

The string sounds on the album were from the Eminent organ, which has the distinction of being the first instrument equipped with a string synthesizer, before such an instrument was available stand-alone. It was run through an Electro-Harmonix Small-Stone Phaser pedal to give it the distinctive tone. The Korg Mini-Pops 7 rhythm machine had a built-in flaw that Jarre exploited to good effect: it could play more than one preset rhythm at once. Thus, on the iconic single Oxygene IV for instance, you can hear 'slow rock' and 'beguine' combined.

Oxygene IV, courtesy of alejandrodurand24.

Oxygene II is my favourite song from the album. Epic, sweeping, and somehow possessed of emotion, proving it's possible to be moved by a song made on machines!

Oxygene II, courtesy of jackrudybacks.

Oxygene III is a short track nestled between its better-known counterparts. Some evil-sounding discordant synths in the background, with a soaring theremin-like lead from the AKS (Jarre has played this part on a theremin at live shows).

Oxygene III, courtesy of oldiesfan520

Oxygene 7 used to crack me up when I was a kid. The sequenced percussion (from one of the ARPs?) sounded to me like a cat eating bikkies at double-speed. I fondly remember listening out for it whenever the album was played.

Oxygene V, courtesy of oldiesfan520

Equinoxe gear list: ARP 2600 Synthesizer, EMS Synthi AKS, VCS 3 Synthesizer, Yamaha CS60, Oberheim TVS-1A, RMI Harmonic Synthesizer, RMI Keyboard Computer, ELKA 707, Korg Polyphonic Ensemble 2000, Eminent, Mellotron, ARP Sequencer, Oberheim Digital Sequencer, Matrisequencer 250, Rhythmicomputer (Korg Mini-Pops 7 and Roland CR-78), EMS Vocoder.

While the mood largely continues in the vein of Oxygene, Jarre gets slightly more upbeat on tracks like Equinoxe 5.

Equinoxe 5, courtesy of ojciecnatoora.

The other single from the album was Equinoxe 4, perhaps the track with the most going on in it. Listen out for the excellent sample & hold bass warbles during the bridge.

Equinoxe 4, courtesy of kikkerfan.

Interesting melodies on Equinoxe 3. It reminds me of a medieval ballroom dance.

Equinoxe 3, courtesy of jaki386.

The epic Equinoxe 7. I always thought this would be a good final track for the album, but that honour goes to part 8, which is composed of two movements and could pass for two songs.

Equinoxe 7, courtesy of speedfreek67.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Alan Parsons Project - I Robot (1977)

Alan Parsons, an engineer at Abbey Road studios, famously worked on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon album – well-regarded for its use of found-sounds, tape effects, and innovative studio technique. The Alan Parson’s Project continued in this vein, creating thematic albums of pop/rock music with an evolving cast of studio musicians & vocalists. The use of obscure instruments and innovative sound-design gave their music an out-of-the-ordinary feel. Their first album, ‘Tales Of Mystery and Imagination,’ based on works by Edgar Allan Poe, is a case in point.

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 EMS Synthi-A. If you have more info, please post in the comments.

*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.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Supertramp - Fool's Overture (1977)

When I was born, my parents had one cassette tape: Supertramp's "Breakfast In America." Little wonder, then, that I grew up enjoying the band's music. Today's feature is a song from the preceding album: "Even In The Quietest Moments." There's not much synthesizer on the rest of the album, but it's no less enjoyable for it. 

"Fool's Overture" is the ten-minute opus that ends the album, weaving several musical themes into one track in true prog-rock fashion. It also features some bombastic synthesizer work. Synths credited are an Oberheim, and an Elka Rhapsody. The latter provides synthesized strings, and can be seen in action in the second video. I can only imagine how powerful this song would've sounded in concert.

Fool's Overture (album version)
Courtesy of: hilltops123

Fool's Overture (live in Toronto)
Courtesy of: TravisBickle

Monday, January 12, 2009

Elton John - Jump Up (1982)

While this is neither Elton John's most synth-heavy album, nor his finest usage of the synthesizer, it's special to me as the album that got me hooked on music as a kid. The song that stood out in particular was "I Am Your Robot," thanks, undoubtedly, to a fascination with robots fostered by TV shows such as Doctor Who, Metal Mickey, and The Goodies.

The album's liner notes state the synthesizers were provided by Yamaha, and played by James Newton-Howard. James has since gone on to do soundtrack work, notably the scores to M. Night Shyamalan's films and Batman Begins/The Dark Knight.

Elton John - I Am Your Robot 
Courtesy of mrseltonjohn

The best song from the album for me these days is the single, "Empty Garden," a tribute to the late John Lennon. Some very nice understated synth work on this one.

Elton John - Empty Garden 
Courtesy of 007koko007

One more for the road: "Princess," a ballad overlooked in favour of the "Blue Eyes" single, features a cheesy-but-fun synth-brass solo.

Elton John - Princess
Courtesy of mrseltonjohn

Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Doctor Who Theme

It would be remiss of me to start this blog without mentioning one of the most important pieces of electronic music in popular culture: the theme to Doctor Who. It's certainly what introduced me to the concept of synthesizers at an early age. Technically, it was created before synthesizers (as we know them today) existed; but nearly all elements of the tune were created by tone and white noise generators (oscillators, in effect), then processed and sequenced on tape machines. Composed by Ron Grainer and realized in 1963 by Delia Derbyshire at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, it's a piece of music that still sounds fresh and haunting today. Indeed, elements of Delia's original are used in Murray Gold's current version of the theme.

Mark Ayres, former composer of incidental music for the show, curator of the Radiophonic Workshop archives, and the man in charge of audio-restoration for DVD releases of the classic series, has written an extensive article on the history of the Doctor Who Theme which is well worth a read.

Exhibit 1: The original theme, 1963. Courtesy of TheDoctor001

A classic clip of Delia Derbyshire at work. Courtesy of radioshaolin

Exhibit 2: Peter Howell's version, 1980. Courtesy of timelord726
Synths: Yamaha CS80, ARP Odyssey, EMS Vocoder, and Roland Jupiter 4. 

The making of Peter Howell's version. Courtesy of thegreenman42

Exhibit 3: Dominic Glynn's version, 1986. Courtesy of timelord726
Synths: Roland Juno-6, Yamaha DX21, Korg 770. 

Exhibit 4: Keff McCulloch's version, 1987. Courtesy of timelord726
Synths: Sequential Circuits Prophet 5. 

These are by no means all versions of the Doctor Who theme. The original went through many subtle changes during the ten years it was used on the show, and there was even an aborted version Delia Derbyshire created on an EMS Synthi-100 (known as the "Delaware" version). Countless others have been produced throughout the years for audio-adventure releases, specials, etc... Not to mention the hundreds of fan-produced versions found at whomix.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Enter Synthspotter


The Synthspotter blog is aimed at fans of music made with synthesizers - past, present, and future; and, to a lesser-extent, synthesizers themselves (although there are far better blogs on that subject). The main focus, to begin with, is highlighting recordings I feel are unsung gems of the genre, buried in obscurity, or by artists rarely associated with the synthesizer. I'll also be posting about songs and albums I consider classics of the genre.

But wait... why should you trust my judgement in such matters? I have no illusions of grandeur; I'm simply a fan, like you. I've loved synthesizers since I was old enough to know about them (which wasn't very old, I have to say!). I grew up in the 80's, the decade the synthesizer was king. Perhaps, like me, you find yourself listening to a song on the radio and asking the question: Where are the synthesizers? That's a question Synthspotter can answer!

See you soon!
-The Manitou