Heaven 17 – Before After

At the time of writing, Heaven 17‘s last full studio album was Before After, released a decade ago this week. There’s a fair chance you never came across it – its impact wasn’t especially big.

Heaven 17 albums are traditionally patchy at best. Some of their early works are more complete efforts, but by Before After, the pattern of half-baked song ideas and ill-advised instrumentation was well established. So the dire opening track I’m Gonna Make You Fall in Love with Me should come as no surprise.

Things do pick up quickly with the disco-flavoured second track Hands Up to Heaven. When they’re good, the Sheffield trio are masterful songwriters, and Glenn Gregory is an exceptional singer. And this isn’t even one of their finest moments, but it does hint at just how good they used to be.

Third track The Way it Is is an odd one. It starts off reasonably promisingly, and it isn’t till the chorus arrives that you realise quite how forgettable it actually is, in a weirdly catchy way. There are definitely songs here that are best skipped. But having got most of the dross out of the way, Freedom from Love is actually pretty good. There’s a lovely melancholy to it, and it gives Gregory a real chance to shine as a vocalist.

A cover of Don’t Fear the Reaper follows, which is entirely nice, but you have to wonder slightly what the point is. It doesn’t really say anything anybody else hasn’t already. But on the other hand, why shouldn’t it be here?

Things settle down a little with the second half of Before After. Into the Blue and Deeper and Deeper are both competent songs – one gentle analogue and one disco – which would probably grab you to varying degrees depending on how much you like Heaven 17. At the very least, both are pleasant and unobjectionable pieces.

With its synth-harpsichord stylings and catchy vocals, What Would it Take is the real surprise here. It’s an unlikely hit, but by the renaissance-inspired middle section you really ought to be remembering just how great Heaven 17 can be. If anything from this album ever makes it onto one of their many “best of” compilations, this really ought to be it.

The last track on the American release is the pleasant but ultimately forgettable Someone for Real, but the European versions add a particularly nice disco song Are You Ready? which is worth having if you’re going to own this album. But in the end, this is a conflicted release – by 2005, Heaven 17 were definitely embracing the fact that their day in the limelight had passed. It’s surprising how much disco there is here, given that the genre was already thirty years old. And given the title, it’s surprising too how little they really seem to address their own past. In the end, disappointingly, you find yourself accepting that Before After is just another forgettable album from a sadly overlooked group.

The version of Before After to track down is the UK release (the US version misses off the last track), which is available here.

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