Robert Miles – 23am

I was actually slightly surprised at how affected I was by the death of Robert Miles earlier this year. After all, he was hardly a superstar like Roger Moore. But he did define an entire (admittedly small) genre of music, dream music, and for a year or so while it lasted, it was actually pretty good, and I suppose he must have had much more of an impact on my life than I realised at the time.

His second album, the confusingly named 23am, was released an astonishing two decades ago this week. It opens with Introducing, a soft pad-and-thunder piece that sounds like something from Chicane but with very silly nonsensical babble over the top, before launching into A New Flower.

It doesn’t take a genius to work the concept of this album is going to be, as the baby noises kick in in earnest, but once the gentle acoustic guitar kicks in, this is actually a pretty nice track. Children it is not, but then neither was most of the first album.

Miles was, at this stage, not at his most creative though – the later albums where he really tried to innovate and explore are much more interesting. Many tracks, and particularly Everyday Life, would not have sounded too out of place on debut album Dreamland if he hadn’t been going out of his way to rehash Children at that point. This track was apparently a single in Italy, but it had to be backed with a couple of mixes of Fable to make people notice even in his homeland.

This album wasn’t the greatest commercial success either – Italy and Germany got another single, a huge package of remixes of Full Moon, but most countries only got Freedom, which reached a respectable number 15 in the UK. The three singles from the first album and the album itself had all hit the top ten, whereas this album fell just outside the top forty.

Which is not to say there’s anything particularly wrong with Freedom – it’s a good song. It does sound a little bit like Children though. Nothing really grabs you for a while during this middle section of the album – Textures is dull, and Enjoy is a pleasant dance track, again very much in the dream music vein, but it does sound pretty dated now.

This is not, to be blunt, an amazing album. Flying Away is unremarkable, and Heatwave is only entertaining thanks to the novelty of jazz-drum & bass-fusion. Which makes it all the more astonishing when Maresias starts. Named, presumably, after the beach in northern Brazil which is pretty much the only thing that turns up when you search for the title. This is a beautiful track, with an actual saxophone lead, some trumpets, and a whole lot of gently trippy drums. This is quite exceptional, and a complete surprise – it’s probably the best track that Miles ever recorded, and yet here it is hidden away towards the end of an unnoteworthy album.

This was, of course, a particularly extreme case of “difficult second album” syndrome – Robert Miles was very capable, as he proved on several individual tracks and some of his later works. He certainly wasn’t wrong to pull 23am together so soon after Dreamland, but under the circumstances it was probably never going to amount to much.

Full Moon is pleasant – again, one of the more interesting tracks on here, with some fun deep tribal beats. If this had turned up earlier in the album, it might have helped a lot. But it feels a bit too late now – all that’s left after this is Leaving Behind…, which echoes the first track, and the album is over.

But while 23am may have been his finest work, and it certainly hasn’t dated well in the intervening two decades, I’m still sorry that Robert Miles is no longer with us. At least once on every album – with ChildrenMaresias, and Paths from his third release – he pulled something incredible out of the bag. So long live the man who defined dream music, Robert Miles.

You can still find 23am at all major retailers.

Advertisements

Jean-Michel Jarre – Oxygène (Live in Your Living Room)

The last year or so has seen a lot of anniversaries for Jean-Michel Jarre, from his debut single La Cage / Erosmachine, which celebrated its forty-fifth anniversary last year, to Oxygène celebrating its fortieth, and its sequel celebrating its twentieth. Many of those have been celebrated here too.

A decade ago, for the thirtieth anniversary of the original release of Oxygène, Jarre went back and re-recorded the whole thing using exactly the same sounds and instrumentation, giving his lawyers a somewhat inevitable headache when his original record company decided to object. But more interesting than that is the DVD which accompanies the New Master Recording of Oxygène. Entitled Live in Your Living Room, it’s a fantastic live experience.

It opens with Prelude, a beautiful jam built around the sounds from Part I and Part II of Oxygène, which wanders along very pleasantly for just a touch over six minutes before passing the baton back to the first side of the original album. While the DVD’s sound quality is far from perfect, it’s a great and refreshing new way to relive an exceptional piece of music.

What I wouldn’t necessarily recommend is the 3D experience – there were four versions of the album when it came out: one free with a famously racist British newspaper; one as a single disc; then a double disc with the live DVD; and a separate double disc with the 3D version of the live DVD. At the time, the latter sounded pretty exotic, but as we now know after a decade or so of being forced to watch the latest Hollywood blockbusters in 3D, there’s really very little special about them.

Broadly, these versions are similar enough to the originals, although Part II now has a stomping bass part. But it’s the Variations that really steal the show here – after Part III ends, rather than you having to get up and flip the record over to Side B, you’re treated instead to another gentle piece, rippling along with shades and echoes from the first three tracks. Variation I is really a rather wonderful surprise.

This broader take on the album is expanded out to a full hour, but side B opens, as it should, with Part IV, sounding quite fantastic, again with a large stomping bass part, before the surprising appearance of Variation II, initially sounding a bit like a precursor to Part VI. Much as I love the second and third Oxygène albums, it is perhaps a bit of a shame that the Variations have never yet made it onto a full album release.

After the longest track on the album Part V, we get the last of the new tracks, Variation III, which frankly is brilliant – definitely the best of the new interludes, and possibly even one of the best tracks on here. Honestly, it’s just a continuation of Part V, but whereas the original is long and pensive, this is energetic and beautiful.

All you need after all that is the serene Part VI, and you have an exceptional anniversary celebration – something that’s possibly actually better than the original. Maybe in a decade or so, he could celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Oxygène 7-13 with something similar?

This album is sadly no longer available – hopefully you can find a second-hand copy for a sensible price.

Erasure – Pop! The First 20 Hits

Pop! With a simple synth chord, Who Needs Love (Like That) begins. A very minor hit in 1985, Erasure‘s career definitely launched with a slightly uneven start. This collection, released an astonishing quarter of a century ago this week, would enter the charts at number 1 just seven years after that debut single, but it did take them a bit of time to get going.

In the four years since leaving Depeche ModeVince Clarke had founded the hugely successful but turbulent Yazoo, and released two albums as part of that project before attempting a multi-vocalist collaboration called The Assembly which faltered after just one (admittedly substantial) hit. One flop collaboration with Paul Quinn left him scraping around for a new vocalist. Andy Bell replied to the advert, performed amazingly, and so Erasure began.

Debut album Wonderland was, bluntly, a bit of a mess, and the second single Heavenly Action, which flopped in late 1985, is pretty representative of that album. It’s definitely catchy, but it’s far from their best. Oh l’Amour, on the other hand, is one of the best tracks that Erasure ever recorded, and it really is a shame that it charted so low, peaking at number 85 in early 1986.

Fortunately, rather than splitting up immediately, Erasure went back to the drawing board, and reappeared in late 1986 with the astonishing Sometimes, peaking at number 2. The subsequent album The Circus yielded a further three huge hits, It Doesn’t Have to BeVictim of Love, and finally my favourite, title track The CircusErasure‘s legacy was sealed.

By the time The Innocents was released in 1988, they were really at the top of their game, and lead single Ship of Fools, while perhaps not as catchy a lead single as Sometimes, is a beautiful, melancholic, piece of synthpop music. The uptempo follow-up Chains of Love, after some initial signs of potentially being very cheesy, grows into another brilliant song. But I suspect what you remember from this album is A Little Respect, the biggest single from this album, released in September 1988.

I could probably live without the snappy Christmas hit Stop!, but it appears to have become a live favourite in recent years, so I might be alone in that regard. Then we’re on to the 1989 album Wild! (also spelt with an exclamation mark), which launched with the single Drama! (there’s another one) in September 1989.

By 1989, Erasure were pretty much guaranteed a top twenty hit – actually, they had an unbroken run between 1986 and 1997, but more impressive was their string of five consecutive number one albums, of which Wild! was the second. To say that the public loved them would be an understatement, as even their slower tracks such as You Surround Me, a beautiful piece released as their Christmas hit for 1989, still managed a very respectable number 15 at a traditionally very competitive time of year.

Now in the 1990s, the hits continue to fly, with Blue Savannah and Star, before the deeply analogue and beautiful Chorus album opens with its brilliant title track, a number 3 hit in mid-1991. Then, of course, comes Love to Hate You, with its injected crowed noises and middle section borrowed from I Will Survive. Pure pop perfection.

Seasons continue to pass, with the deliciously autumnal Am I Right?, followed by the bubbly spring hit Breath of Life, before the unexpected summer 1992 hit Take a Chance on Me, from the Abba-esque EP, which held onto the number 1 spot for five weeks. This was the most popular of the four Abba covers that made up the EP, and much as I like the others, the decision on their next singles compilation Hits! The Very Best of Erasure (2003) to include no fewer than three of the tracks was clearly misguided.

On the US edition of the album, that’s your lot, but the rest of the world fares better, with the brilliantly punchy Hamburg mix of debut hit Who Needs Love (Like That). This version finally took the song to its rightful place in the top ten, and bookends the album perfectly.

So there’s really no doubt about it – after a slightly uncertain start, Pop! The First 20 Hits builds into a fantastic collection, compiling the first seven years of Erasure‘s career. While they did have some very worthy hits over the next seven years, they slowed down and their consistency finally started to falter. But that’s another story, for another time.

The original Pop! is still widely available, but why not be brave and go with the slightly cheaper double-disc Total Pop!?. Sorry, the punctuation got a bit confusing there.

Jean-Michel Jarre – Sessions 2000

In 2000, Jean-Michel Jarre should have been on a high – already long-regarded as a legend, and a quarter of a century into his career, he had just celebrated the twentieth anniversary of his defining album Oxygène with its follow-up Oxygène 7-13, helped bring in the new millennium with an enormous concert at the pyramids in Giza, and was about to release his most commercial album to date, Metamorphoses.

It’s the “commercial” part that seems to have been where it all went wrong. While not badly received, Metamorphoses largely passed unnoticed, and Jarre’s longstanding record company Disques Dreyfus showed indifference. So Jarre did what we would all do in this situation: made an album of deep, electronic jazz music.

The feud with the record company would continue for several more years, and in the meantime we would see low-key releases of both Sessions 2000 (2002) and Geometry of Love (2003), although sadly Experimental 2001, which was long-rumoured, never appeared. Or maybe it’s not that sad – if it’s really as experimental as all that, maybe we don’t need to hear it.

If you aren’t expecting it, the warping bass, gentle pads, rippling piano, and occasional percussive drums of January 24 will come as something of a surprise – possibly enough of one that you might turn the album off in disgust without giving it a chance. But this is an album that rewards repeated listening, and this opening track is no exception.

Better though, is the beautiful March 23. One of the longer tracks on the album, it uses the bass line as a key part of its melody, and is full of elegance and subtle form. The brass lead helps of course, but somehow it feels as though it’s playing second fiddle to the bass, so to speak.

This is not, however, an album to be enjoyed solely as individual tracks – its forty minute playing time is best digested as a single piece of music, as it floats past you, and the more dub-inspired May 1 drifts along with its deep pads and piano.

Much as I liked the Jarre of the late 1990s, as he made the most of his legendary status and tried to sell some records, in many ways this is what he should have been doing at the turn of the millennium: retreating into his studio and making beautiful electronic music.

June 21 is one of the most jazz-inspired pieces, but you also can’t help but wonder whether perhaps it owes something to 1983’s Zoolook album, with its odd samples. There’s something rather beautiful about it, in spite of it ostensibly being jazz music.

The longest track of all here is September 14, clocking in at nine-and-a-half minutes precisely. It’s probably the least interesting track too, sounding almost plodding, as it steps along with its ride cymbals. Pretty much everything on here has been heard somewhere else on the album, including the bizarre vocal samples and the dub effects. Then again, enjoyed as a constituent part of the album, it does fit pretty well.

Finally, Christmas draws on with the wintry December 17. Far dreamier and softer than any of the tracks that came before it, it’s a perfect closing track to what may have been, assuming the dates are actual recording dates, an unintentionally well structured album. Or maybe they’re just titles, based on the mood of the pieces.

Either way, Sessions 2000 is a surprisingly good, understated album, and it’s definitely tempting to wish that Jarre had released a few more like this in the (largely quiet) fifteen years that have followed.

The CD version of Sessions 2000 has long since fallen out of print, but you may be able to find a second-hand copy floating around somewhere.

Recoil – Unsound Methods

Two decades ago this week saw the release of the third studio release from Alan Wilder‘s Recoil project, Unsound Methods. Whereas 1992’s Bloodline and its predecessors 1+2 (1986) and Hydrology (1987) had been primarily side-steps for Wilder, allowing him to explore different directions than he could with Depeche Mode, by 1997 he was now a solo artist in his own right, and this album came just months after his former bandmates’ comeback with Ultra.

It opens with Incubus, on which Francis Ford Coppola gets a writing credit thanks to a sample from Apocalypse Now. Vocals come from Nitzer Ebb‘s singer Douglas McCarthy, giving it a grimy quality which the preceding album had only hinted at.

Lead single Drifting is next, probably the most commercial of any of the tracks on here. It’s a bluesy, beatsy piece, with a brilliant vocal from Siobhan Lynch, and it serves as good preparation for the next track, the filthy, angry Luscious Apparatus. Narrated by the late poet and writer Maggie Estep, it’s a fascinatingly angst-ridden story of love and hate that fits the mood of this album perfectly.

Stalker is next, another collaboration with Douglas McCarthy, which is every bit as dirty as the title might lead you to expect. It was later released as a double a-side single with Missing Piece. Then comes the bleakly midwestern Red River Cargo, a huge piece of experimental semi-electronic blues rock which might actually be one of the best tracks on here.

Next is Control Freak, returning to earlier collaborator Estep for a slightly less successful but entirely enjoyable exploration, before we get the other half of that second single, Missing Piece. As with the first single, Siobhan Lynch appears to deliver the vocals on possibly the most laid back track on the whole album. It’s not particularly slow, but notably less angry than anything we’ve heard before now, and that’s pretty welcome by now.

By this point in the album you should pretty much have an idea of how it works, and be in the right mood to enjoy it, but it’s winding down already – Last Breath may not be the last track, but it is the penultimate. The tempo seems to be dropping too – this track still has the blues flavour (or perhaps flavor?) that previous tracks have brought us, but it’s also fairly relaxed now.

Finally we get Shunt, another dark and this time particularly rail-themed track that closes the album over the course of seven minutes or so. It’s an entirely appropriate ending to this curiously middle American album.

Unsound Methods is understated, challenging, experimental, and ultimately an excellent departure for Alan Wilder. Like many, I’d have been happier if he’d stayed to help shape Depeche Mode over the years that followed, but I’m also glad that we have Recoil to keep us challenged.

You can still find Unsound Methods at all major retailers.

The Human League – The Golden Hour of the Future

OK, ready, let’s do it. Celebrating the fifteenth anniversary of its release this week and also approximately the fortieth anniversary of its recording is the compilation of early recordings by The Human LeagueThe Golden Hour of the Future.

It opens with the brilliant single-that-never-was, Dance Like a Star, which sounds exactly as it should – The Human League Mk 1, as they are popularly called, the early lineup, featuring Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh alongside vocalist Phil Oakey, always seemed to be making eccentric pop which was a little rough around the edges. This is exactly that – and it might not quite be release quality, but you can still hear the sheer brilliance that’s still to come.

This compilation was curated by über-fan Richard X when he was pretty much at the height of his fame, and pulls together twenty tracks altogether, a mixture of early material by The Human League, their predecessor group The Future, and one solo track from Phil Oakey.

The second track is from The Future, entitled Looking for the Black Haired Girls, and is a fun experimental semi-instrumental track, and that is then followed by the pleasantly melodic and beatsy 4JG from The Human League. It ends, slightly unpredictably, with a child singing Baa Baa Black Sheep.

Most of the earlier tracks are from The Future though, often very experimental, slightly noisy pieces, hinting perhaps at vocalist Adi Newton‘s later industrial work with Clock DVABlack Clocks is pleasant, but definitely more odd than anything, while Cairo takes a lot of inspiration from the work of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and sounds every bit as fantastic.

As The Human League showed us long ago on those first two albums, they had always been fascinated with advertising, and so Dominion Advertisement should come as little surprise. It serves as a brief interlude before Dada Dada Duchamp Vortex, a very pleasant drifting piece which along for nearly six minutes before passing over to Daz.

You might find yourself drifting with the music, as Future Religion mixes into Disco Disaster. There’s more than enough variety here to satisfy a full career compilation, but there’s also a huge amount of material. Even among that, a few tracks really stand out – Interface is brilliant, as is Phil Oakey‘s solo work The Circus of Dr. Lao, and then there’s a fun instrumental cover of Reach Out (I’ll Be There) in case things need livening up.

There are some more experimental moments with New Pink FloydOnce Upon a Time in the WestOverkill Disaster Crash, and Year of the Jet Packs, a series which are all good, but only the last one really shines. Pulse Lovers is great too, and then we’re pretty much at the end already, with the short King of Kings, and then, after a lot of odd groaning and screaming, the extremely long Last Man on Earth.

Of course, the thing with Last Man on Earth is that it does, to some extent, help explain what on earth Phil Oakey was going on about on Circus of DeathThe Human League‘s first b-side, released just a year or so after most of these demos would have been recorded. This is definitely history in the making.

What’s surprising is just how good this is as an album. I’ve always loved The Human League Mk 1, but their sound on their albums is always a little raw and uncontrolled, and I suppose I expected their early demos to be even more manic. But they’re not particularly, and I’m very glad this compilation appeared to help add more context to those early years.

The CD has fallen out of print again, but you can still find The Golden Hour of the Future through your favourite digital retailers.

Dave Gahan – Hourglass

His 2003 solo debut Paper Monsters had been an uncertain affair, as Dave Gahan for the first time wrote his own tracks. Two decades of huge stadium rock showmanship at the helm of Depeche Mode meant he had a good understanding of how to write the music he wanted to make, but he maybe hadn’t quite got the hang of how to pull it off yet.

The follow-up Hourglass is very different indeed. Right from the first notes of Saw Something, you seem to hear a confidence that didn’t seem to have been there last time around. It’s fantastic – there’s a cello! There’s guitar work from John Frusciante!

Lead single Kingdom is next, every bit as good as any of the Depeche Mode singles of the last couple of decades – but not quite as successful. Whereas all three singles from the first album had reached respectable positions, this one stalled at number 44, and during a period when his contemporaries were still doing reasonably well. There’s nothing at all wrong with the song – it just didn’t quite do its job at promoting the album.

The third track is the dark and grimy Deeper and Deeper, released as a non-chart-qualifying double a-side with Saw Something early in 2004, which narrowly failed to reach the UK Top 100. It might be somewhat lacking the charm of some of Depeche Mode‘s noisier moments, but it’s still a catchy piece of electro-grime.

The rock track 21 Days that follows is great – it’s another grimy piece, but with a rhythmic and vocal quality that works extremely well. Gahan still isn’t really trying to do anything new here, but it’s a great example of what he does best.

There’s plenty of that in show here, anyway – for Miracles, we get a bit of “faith” and some “devotion” for a sweet, slow rock track with a particularly good vocal performance. But that’s the key really – if you’ve listened to Songs of Faith and Devotion, you’ll have already heard most of the ideas on here – add on Playing the Angel, and it should all sound very familiar indeed.

In spite of being pretty much exactly the right length to fit on one LP, it was inexplicably released as a double album, so I don’t even get to refer to Use You as the start of Side B (it opens Side C instead). It’s another grimy rock piece, with some nice effects work and a catchy chorus.

Insoluble is one of the weaker tracks on here, but that isn’t really saying a lot. Endless is better, with its dirty swing beat, but it’s A Little Lie that’s the last real moment of genius on here. It’s another slower piece, with lots of huge drums and another huge vocal performance, and it somehow comes together brilliantly. And then finally, the album ends with the pleasant but largely forgettable Down, the one where Gahan tries to channel Creep but doesn’t entirely pull it off.

So Hourglass may, in retrospect, be just a touch unambitious – but it is a good showcase of Dave Gahan‘s vocal talents and relatively new-found songwriting skills. It may not be essential for everyone, but if you like Depeche Mode, it’s definitely well worth owning.

You can still find Hourglass at all major retailers.