Heaven 17 – How Live Is

Heaven 17 famously never used to play live. It just wasn’t what they did. But somehow, in 1997, well over a decade since anyone remembered hearing anything new from them, they decided to tour, supporting Erasure. Released a couple of years later, the budget live album that recorded the first date on that tour, in Glasgow, has appeared under about ten different names now, initially as Live at Last through their own website, and then as How Live Is for the first commercial release.

This set opened with (We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang, the 1993 remix performed live. Their debut single is, honestly, every bit as good, or as awful, as it ever was. The whole Penthouse and Pavement album is, for me, a bit like a joke that everyone else gets but you just can’t see why it’s funny. You probably just had to be there at the time – and the remix didn’t do this one too many favours for me either.

But what does strike you, even despite that, is just how good a vocalist Glenn Gregory is. He may have barely sung live at this stage, but he’s a natural, which is clearly going to pay dividends as this album continues. This is even clearer on Crushed by the Wheels of Industry, which follows, giving Gregory the chance to really shine.

We Blame Love was their latest single at the time, and while it never quite made it into the shops in the UK, it sold a few copies in Germany. The whole Bigger Than America album, from which this is taken, is a bit of a sad tale, really, as the songs are among Heaven 17‘s best for at least a decade, but it barely sold anything.

Time for another hit – they were just a support act on this date, after all. Come Live with Me seems very seedy indeed now, three and a half decades after its original release, and I imagine Heaven 17 have done some soul searching about its lyrics in recent years, but at its heart is what I think is intended, at least, to be a very sweet love song about an age gap that really doesn’t matter to either party. Even if it sounds as though it’s about a middle-aged man obsessing over a teenager.

New track Freak! is next, proving that they’re still capable of recording rubbish. You have to wonder what Erasure‘s audience were making of this at this point – I’m sure they loved hearing the eighties hits, but the applause at the end of this track seems a little surprising, given that I can’t imagine many would have known it, and fewer still would have liked it much. Maybe the visual performance made up for it at this point.

I should clarify my feelings about Heaven 17, as it’s probably coming across as though I hate them here. I really don’t – I think they have written a lot of great songs, and Gregory always delivers a good vocal. I just think they’ve tended towards repetitive, unmelodic chants a few too many times, and Freak! is another example of that for me.

What Heaven 17 do have is a decent collection of songs to fix this with, and so here comes the brilliant Let Me Go to the rescue. Such a good song, and barely messed around with here – they have added a few extra wizzes and bangs here and there, but nothing too major. It redeems the previous track at least, if not the last few albums as well.

Let’s All Make a Bomb, originally an album track on Penthouse and Pavement, has been given an overdue update. There’s actually another version on this release, hidden away among the enhanced video section, and that’s a better rendition, but this one isn’t bad. Proof that there was often little wrong with the actual songs in the early eighties – just a lot of overambitious production, perhaps? Even so, this does get a little overwrought during the chorus.

The nineties were not kind to Heaven 17, though, and while some of their 1992 remixes brought a degree of new life to the songs, the house version of Penthouse and Pavement didn’t even make the charts, so this lively performance is worthy but just seems very waily here. For fans, it must have been amazing to finally see them live, and they have certainly got better over time – I saw an exceptional performance of theirs about ten years ago in Manchester – but the performance on this CD sometimes just isn’t that good.

Every time you have that feeling, though, they rescue it with something, and this time it’s 1995’s comeback, the number 128 hit single Designing Heaven. Again, they go over the top with the vocals, and Gregory trills his Rs in “running” to almost comedic effect, but while this was never going to hit the top spot, it isn’t a bad track or a bad performance.

It would, of course, be pretty disappointing if they couldn’t get Temptation right, performed here in its jaunty 1992 Brothers in Rhythm remix form. The dance nature of the version means that much of the track is given over to backing singers telling us that they can’t see our hands, which is probably something that works better when you’re there in the room than listening on CD. But all in all, this is a great track, a competent remix, and a good performance.

The treats are all stacked up towards the end here, which is entirely appropriate for a support act. But it’s the final track that really packs a punch – for the first time, Heaven 17 cover The Human League‘s (i.e. their own) debut single Being Boiled, in its punchier album version form. Obviously nobody could ever replace Phil Oakey, but Glenn Gregory gives it his best, adding vocal power and punch to a brilliant track. It’s an exceptional way to close the concert, and in a way it’s a pity that there wasn’t more of this.

So How Live Is, or whatever you know the album as, is, appropriately for Heaven 17‘s career, a bit of a mixed bag. When they’re good, they’re very very good, but when they aren’t they’re pretty dreadful. I’d love to be able to recommend the recording of this first concert as a great introduction to the trio, but let’s just say they have made better setlist choices in more recent years. For all its failings, though, this isn’t a bad live album.

There are numerous versions of this album floating around with different titles – the latest appears to have returned to the original Live at Last, although it loses the video tracks, but it’s available here.

Sparks – Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins

Twenty-five years ago is, as you might have realised in the last few months, roughly the time when I started listening to music in earnest. I was discovering electronic artists left, right, and centre, and loving pretty much all of them. Perhaps my oddest discovery of that time, though, was Sparks.

I’ve written before about their curious fame in the UK – by this stage, they had already been having hits for over two decades, but for me, they arrived from nowhere, in late 1994 or early 1995, with an intelligent, witty, silly, and also American form of Europop, with When Do I Get to Sing “My Way”. It snuck into the lower reaches of the Top 40 twice, getting nothing like its just desserts, but the mystique that they held for me was incredible.

Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins was an easy album to miss, if you didn’t realise who Sparks were, and I did – I don’t think I heard the album until two or three years later, and even when I did, I would have been utterly confused by opening track Gratuitous Sax. It’s an acapella piece, which really serves little purpose except to bookend the album and remind you of who Sparks used to be.

After that, the hits – or what should have been hits, anyway – come thick and fast. When Do I Get to Sing “My Way” still sounds catchy and majestic, with its huge synth lines and beautifully underplayed witty lyrics. Second single When I Kiss You (I Hear Charlie Parker Playing) brings an uncomfortably fast, entirely daft lyric. Unlike the earlier single, this probably shouldn’t have been a chart topper, but it should at least have been all over the radio – “For me it’s all just fine / Because she’s a Frank Lloyd Wright design,” must be one of the finest pop lyrics ever written.

The eighties had not been kind to Sparks – they had followed up the huge No. 1 in Heaven with the better formed Terminal Jive, but despite trying pretty much ever year after that, nothing had really lived up to their earlier material. But after a six year career break (they had gone off for their first attempt to break the Hollywood movie industry), Sparks had returned with some of their best songs yet.

Some of the best titles, too – Frankly, Scarlett, I Don’t Give a Damn is brilliant from the get go. By 1994, analogue synthesisers were making a long-awaited comeback, and the haunting warmth in the background of this song is particularly striking. Couple that with more great lyrics, and you basically have all the ingredients you need.

It doesn’t let up, either – I Thought I Told You to Wait in the Car has a sillier feel initially, as the title is chanted a few times over, but there’s a huge acid bass line (I desperately want to describe it as “burping like a bullfrog,” which was stated of another Sparks single National Crime Awareness Week when that came out, but for some reason that didn’t make it onto this album). One you realise that and start enjoying the verse, you’ll realise that this is yet another excellent track.

By Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil, which closes Side A of the ultra-rare vinyl edition, it’s starting to get a bit silly. The quality really ought to have let up a little by now, but it really hasn’t. The opening lyric “I’m the wife of Clinton / I don’t have a problem with all of this,” is, of course, timeless, and the chorus is a bit anticlimactic this time, but the verses are adorable.

Side B opens with third single Now That I Own the BBC, which I think might be my least favourite track on here apart from the bookends, but that really isn’t saying a lot. More clever, instantly quotable lyrics, more catchy melodies – just a slightly cheesy house piano part that perhaps makes Motiv8‘s single mix the better version of this (which should probably be a surprise, given how rude I’ve been about him in the past).

Sparks were, though, clearly masters of their trade by this stage. There was no sign of any of the mistakes they might have made on previous albums – they were letting themselves be gloriously silly, while also being entirely professional and slick. This was, I think, the start of their time of being seen as legendary, which would probably peak with Lil’ Beethoven a few years later.

If you weren’t familiar with Tsui Hark at this point, it won’t take you long to catch up – he’s a film director, he’s made several films, and he’s won several awards for his films. This is a typically hilarious laid back track which samples Hark, interviewed by Bill Kong, and listing his films. Perhaps because of their LA upbringing, the movie industry has always played a big role for Sparks, but this might be the album where it really comes to a fore. Tsui Hark is a silly track, yes, but it’s great fun too.

The thing is, though, Sparks‘ silliness is always carefully played, and so while The Ghost of Liberace may joke about blinding drivers with shiny suits, it’s also a tender love song at heart, with a rippling piano line. Then Let’s Go Surfing, a catchy West Coast sunseeker anthem that always felt a little confusing to the teenage me in grey middle England. Now, it just feels triumphant.

There’s just one track left, the other bookend piece, Senseless Violins. As with the opener, you probably have to have a decent understanding of Sparks to understand why it’s here, but at worse you’ll think it’s a daft way to close the album, so it doesn’t do too much harm.

So Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins is Sparks‘ grand comeback, after what was then their longest career break to date. Somehow in the meantime, they had found a confidence and strength that really shines on this album. There’s really little to fault here – sixteen albums into their career, and it must, surely, be one of their best?

The remastered edition of Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins is still widely available, and while I’m not really sure about what they did with the artwork, this is probably the easiest version to track down.

Jean-Michel Jarre – Zoolook

By 1984, Jean-Michel Jarre‘s career had already taken some pretty extraordinary turns. After a few false starts, it had exploded with Oxygène from late 1976 onwards. The follow-up Équinoxe (1978), while great, had offered few surprises, and while 1981’s Magnetic Fields took three years to appear and saw Jarre explore digital synthesis for the first time, it still has a lot in common with its predecessors.

Then things had gone a bit crazy – he became the first western musician to tour China, to huge acclaim, and released an excellent album to chronicle the tour (The Concerts in China, 1982). The following year, he did both the most and least commercial things possible, releasing just one copy of Music for Supermarkets and immediately destroying the master tapes, and then reemerging with a somewhat premature compilation, The Essential Jean-Michel Jarre.

By 1984, Jarre’s exploration of sampling was probably somewhat overdue, but the things he was doing with his samplers were quite unprecedented. Zoolook opens with the disturbing deep choral sounds of the twelve-minute epic Ethnicolor. All the way through this album, the sounds that he throws our way are warped, bizarre, and often somewhat disarming. He has taken vocal snippets, tweaked and retuned them, and layered them frankly all over the place. If anyone else had done this, it would have been a total mess, but Jarre seems in control here. It’s not the most exciting or uplifting piece of music ever written, and it hasn’t necessarily dated well all the way through, but it’s definitely always interesting, and there’s a lot to be said for that.

One of the most interesting things about Jean-Michel Jarre is the way he uses his music to explore humanity, and Zoolook is probably the earliest tangible example of this, portraying 25 languages from the human zoo in the form of weird, layered sound. Prior to this, it had been much more subtle, with layer upon layer of synthesiser. Now, many of those voices were human, but sometimes barely recognisably so.

Diva had appeared the previous year on Music for Supermarkets, but unless you were the lucky buyer, who I imagine has never actually listened to it, or heard it on its radio broadcast, or bought one of the bootlegs that inevitably immediately appeared, you’ll never have heard it. Laurie Anderson appears at this point, chattering inanely over a slightly cheesy arpeggio. On an album of odd tracks, this is definitely one of the oddest.

What comes next depends entirely on which version of the album you have. Originally, and on most versions, it’s a version of the title track Zoolook. The track on mine is bizarrely exclusive, Zoolookologie (Remix), a reworked version of the second single from the album. It’s a delightfully chirpy track that was clearly never going to do much on the charts – in spite of being packaged as a double 7″ in the UK with Oxygène (Part IV) on the other disc, it still didn’t go far.

All versions put the delightful Aboriginal-inspired Wooloomooloo next, probably the best track on here so far, if quirky samples aren’t entirely your thing. Which is probably true for most listeners picking this album up for the first time now – you were no doubt thrown off your stride somewhat by the first track, and you might have enjoyed its atmospherics too, but this steady piece provides a welcome distraction.

Then comes the jazzy title track, apparently also in remixed form, although I can’t imagine many could describe what’s different. Once you get beyond the great construction of vocal samples, it isn’t a particularly inspired track – thirty-five years later, it just sounds like the theme tune from a sports programme on television. At the time, though, it must have sounded quite unusual.

Blah Blah Café is next, still using samples to heavy effect, and still with a slightly odd, awkward feel, but this time the melody holds things together well. It’s pleasant, although towards the end, you might find yourself wishing it was a little shorter.

The album closes with Ethnicolor II, a similarly atmospheric piece to the opener, but lacking the need to punch you in the face with samples, this track doesn’t build into anything as huge.

Even now, thirty-five years on, Zoolook is a fascinating album. It’s not necessarily always a good album, though – the sample work is intriguing, and sometimes beautiful, and there are plenty of classic Jarre elements, but sometimes it’s also unpleasantly cheesy, and occasionally it’s actually pretty awful.

For all of that, though, Zoolook has its place in history, as one of the first sample-based albums, and it remains one of the most interesting. It’s well worth a listen, even if the words above don’t capture your imagination. Listen to the voices, and make your own mind up.

As with all of Jarre’s back catalogue, various reissues of Zoolook are available, with varying changes, errors and problems. Start your research here, and see where it takes you.

Deep Forest – Made in Japan

By 1999, Deep Forest had already seen some huge hits with their first couple of albums, and had now settled into a somewhat comfortable space, pulling musicians together from around the world and adding electronic sounds and beats. So having taken many of the Comparsa guests on tour the preceding year, the live album Made in Japan was a natural next step.

It opens with Ekue Ekue, which is one of the better tracks from Comparsa (1998), and you can definitely hear an impressive live energy in the performance. Where it suffers a little here is from a fundamental cheesiness, and it’s the same for Green and Blue, too – it’s a good song, but not necessarily the best version of it. By 1999, Deep Forest had been supplanted by many younger and more successful musicians as France’s favourite export, and some of their melodies just sounded a bit naff. It’s sad, in a way, because you can hear that the singers are having a great time, but they do just sound a bit rubbish in places, particularly when the synth noodling extends a song by a whole minute.

The less energetic pieces are better – Deep Weather feels infinitely less frantic, while still retaining some of the live emotions of earlier tracks. While the Japanese version squeezes in another Comparsa track next, there is, fortunately, some space left for some earlier songs, as a series of tracks from Boheme (1995) follow. First is Bohemian Ballet, which is one of my favourites. The live vocal doesn’t quite work for me, honestly – despite the fact that I don’t speak any Hungarian, so can’t understand a word of it, the singer clearly can’t either, which means the emotion and energy feels a bit misplaced sometimes. It’s still a good song, but I’d maybe have given the singers a bit of a break at this point.

For Deep Folk Song, they do, and while it’s a bit of a mess at times, it’s pretty faithful to the album version. Then it’s back to the faux-Hungarian, with the lovely Freedom Cry. The delivery on this one is better, actually working pretty well, to my untrained ear. Yes, the accordion playing is a little bit too much on this one, particularly towards the end, but it’s a nice song.

The Boheme section closes out with Cafe Europa, a sweet instrumental from the tail end of the album. It’s strange, in a way, that they weren’t confident enough to mix the albums in with each other, particularly given the way that each seemed to have been a little less good than its predecessor. This is one of the better tracks from Boheme, though, and fits well here, although I wonder if the piano wankery at the end might have worked better visually than it does on audio.

Forest Power is next, taking us back to Comparsa. It’s a worthy performance, with a lot going on, but again, you have to wonder whether the visuals might have made a difference here – there just seems to be a lot of the performance that’s missing somehow.

By 1999, Deep Forest had already seen some huge hits with their first couple of albums, and had now settled into a somewhat comfortable space, pulling musicians together from around the world and adding electronic sounds and beats. So having taken many of the Comparsa guests on tour the preceding year, the live album Made in Japan was a natural next step.

It opens with Ekue Ekue, which is one of the better tracks from Comparsa (1998), and you can definitely hear an impressive live energy in the performance. Where it suffers a little here is from a fundamental cheesiness, and it’s the same for Green and Blue, too – it’s a good song, but not necessarily the best version of it. By 1999, Deep Forest had been supplanted by many younger and more successful musicians as France’s favourite export, and some of their melodies just sounded a bit naff. It’s sad, in a way, because you can hear that the singers are having a great time, but they do just sound a bit rubbish in places, particularly when the synth noodling extends a song by a whole minute.

The less energetic pieces are better – Deep Weather feels infinitely less frantic, while still retaining some of the live emotions of earlier tracks. While the Japanese version squeezes in another Comparsa track next, there is, fortunately, some space left for some earlier songs, as a series of tracks from Boheme (1995) follow. First is Bohemian Ballet, which is one of my favourites. The live vocal doesn’t quite work for me, honestly – despite the fact that I don’t speak any Hungarian, so can’t understand a word of it, the singer clearly can’t either, which means the emotion and energy feels a bit misplaced sometimes. It’s still a good song, but I’d maybe have given the singers a bit of a break at this point.

For Deep Folk Song, they do, and while it’s a bit of a mess at times, it’s pretty faithful to the album version. Then it’s back to the faux-Hungarian, with the lovely Freedom Cry. The delivery on this one is better, actually working pretty well, to my untrained ear. Yes, the accordion playing is a little bit too much on this one, particularly towards the end, but it’s a nice song.

The Boheme section closes out with Cafe Europa, a sweet instrumental from the tail end of the album. It’s strange, in a way, that they weren’t confident enough to mix the albums in with each other, particularly given the way that each seemed to have been a little less good than its predecessor. This is one of the better tracks from Boheme, though, and fits well here, although I wonder if the piano wankery at the end might have worked better visually than it does on audio.

Forest Power is next, taking us back to Comparsa. It’s a worthy performance, with a lot going on, but again, you have to wonder whether the visuals might have made a difference here – there just seems to be a lot of the performance that’s missing somehow, particularly as the guitar and vocal works draws to a crescendo towards the end. Then Hunting, with a great live vocal, but again, a whole load more messing around that probably worked well when you were there in person, and the crowd very obediently shout back at the singers when they chant random things, but really drags a bit on the CD, I’m sad to say.

That is, with regret, the general story with Made in Japan – it’s a worthy live performance, but the vast majority of tracks are taken from what I think most would agree is the least good of those early Deep Forest albums. Where are all the great hits from the debut eponymous album?

Oh, there they are. Forest Hymn didn’t quite make it onto the original release of Deep Forest, but made it onto later reissues, and it works well here. The thing is, there’s no reason why the early material wouldn’t fit amongst the works from Comparsa, and that’s illustrated well here. It’s definitely a Comparsa remix, but it’s an older and more established piece, and it entirely works.

Then, finally, comes Sweet Lullaby, although it starts in slightly odd form with a rippling acoustic guitar and vocal. After a minute or so, it’s back to where it belongs, with the original weird pad leads and vocal samples. It’s an interesting take, which would work well if it weren’t for the fact that this remains, still, Deep Forest‘s only live album. As it builds, it gets better, but you do have to wonder a little why they chose to release this performance above any others. Or maybe performing live was such an irregular occurrence that this, basically a live performance of Comparsa with a few extra bells and whistles, was the best we could have hoped for.

Quite why that was the penultimate encore rather than the last one is beyond me, but Madazulu, from Comparsa, is what we have to close the album. But having said that, Madazulu is probably the best track on the album, so maybe it isn’t such a questionable choice after all? Of all the decisions they made here, closing with this track is probably one of the least daft. You can hear all the energy of the performance here – maybe it isn’t such a bad album, after all?

Well, Made in Japan is a bit of a mixed bag, if the truth be told. If you like Comparsa, this is fine, but just not very different. If not, there isn’t a lot of other material here. Either way, the fact that it exists is fine, but it just seems a bit pointless without the visuals, that surely must have been amazing? Nice, but it’s fair to say that it’s a bit pointless.

This album is still widely available. There’s a Japanese version with some extra tracks from Comparsa, if you want them. I haven’t heard it, but I would struggle to believe it adds much.

Yello – Zebra

If you could pinpoint the period when Yello really found themselves, I think 1994’s Zebra would be a decent estimate. Now eight albums into their career, they had gone through the slightly silly novelty stage, tried serious pop, motorsport-inspired energetic electronic pop, and a very strong smattering of jazz. But it was with Zebra that they truly embraced dance music – maybe not quite for the first time, but it was certainly the first time they had dived this deep.

It opens with Suite 909, a big dance piece with trance bass and tribal beats. It does feel somewhat dated now – Yello were, perhaps, never quite the sonic trailblazers that their contemporaries were. It’s technically a prelude to Tremendous Pain, which we’ll hear later. If nothing else, as an opening track, it does make for a bit of a shock to the system.

It wouldn’t be Yello if it didn’t have its sillier moments, and second single How How is one. It’s catchy and clever – it fuses jazzy elements with acid breaks and dance beats – but you also can’t stop yourself from wondering who other than Yello would ever release anything this daft.

Night Train is probably as good as this album gets. It’s dark, with throbbing, tribal beats, and lyrics that echo the nocturnal feel of the track perfectly. The samples – I don’t recognise all of them, but Alison Moyet‘s cackle from her Yazoo days is definitely one of them – complement the track perfectly. This is quite brilliant.

Lead single Do It is next (although curiously it’s pushed back to track 2 of side B on the vinyl and cassette versions of the album). This is clever, actually – it’s a classic Yello track, but with clean, simple, dance production. It’s a great single to re-introduce us to the wacky Swiss duo after the three year break that preceded this album. Remixes on the single came from Thomas Fehlmann and Mark Picchiotti, so they were in illustrious company.

I… I’m in Love is next, another classic Yello moment with huge dance beats. As with much of this album, I think it’s fair to say that it hasn’t dated particularly well, so this is perhaps more a track for those who were there at the time than it is for people discovering this act for the first time. That’s alright, although I might have to revise my beginner’s guide recommendations.

S.A.X. is a bit of a surprise on an electronic dance album, full, as you might guess, of saxophone solos and chanted lyrics, among the tribal beats. It’s great, in its own special way, because you really can’t see that anybody else would have been doing anything like this. By itself, it’s hardly contemporary, but it is at least interesting.

But Yello have always had a more serious side to them, such as the huge Lost Again a decade or so earlier. Fat Cry is hardly serious, with its pitch-tweaked backing vocals, but it does channel that atmospheric sound. In a way I’m glad they don’t do things like that all the time, as it just makes them stand out all the more, but Fat Cry does grab you in a way that some of the earlier tracks may not have. In spite of the whistling in the melody half way through.

Final single Tremendous Pain follows, with some very confusing lyrics (“How do you spell / Suite 9-0-7?”) If you’re tied to the traditional structure of an album, you’ll probably struggle to reconcile this track with opener Suite 909, but then you’ll probably be struggling with Yello anyway – they had already been dropping remixes onto albums in odd places for the last couple of albums. Tremendous Pain is a good track, with a particularly catchy chorus, but as is also sometimes the case with Yello, the impenetrable lyrics make it a difficult listen at times.

Move Dance Be Born feels very Teutonic, as though they’re channelling a certain Düsseldorf quartet. It’s great, full of squawking processed vocal samples, more tribal beats, and lots of instructions to move, dance, and be born.

This is, in a way, a fairly short album, the second half of which is reserved for darker dance territory, as The Premix (How How) follows. It is, as the name somewhat confusingly suggests, a remix of the earlier track – this time with fast beats and acid bass, alongside bizarre squelchy beats. It’s an odd remix, and maybe the name tells us that it was actually recorded before the single. It’s different enough from the other version to comfortably secure a place here, but it is a strange inclusion.

Finally comes Poom Shanka. Yello have never been scared of throwing something completely unexpected at their listeners, and this is a fine example of that. For a Swiss group to bring Indian influences is really no less incongruous than someone from Liverpool doing the same thing, but somehow something doesn’t quite seem right here. If you put that out of your mind, what you have here is a beautiful, gentle piece of music which fits well on the end of this album, but the track might be over by the time you’ve really got the hang of it. I think, in the end, I like it a lot, though.

So Zebra is classic Yello in many ways – it’s not exactly groundbreaking, because you’ll have heard most of the sounds already on earlier releases, but it was contemporary for its time, and the mix of jazz and electronic influences is, as always, spot on. It has all the trademarks – such as crazy lyrics and insane vocal delivery, but for pretty much the first time, they have tapped dance culture in a way that would never really stop on subsequent albums. It’s an essential release for Yello, just perhaps a slightly impenetrable one for those who don’t know them well.

You can still find Zebra at all major retailers.

The Space Brothers – Shine

For a while, in the late 1990s, The Space Brothers seemed to epitomise dance music. They would appear, once or twice a year, with a one-off single that was just so catchy and memorable that you couldn’t stop yourself wondering who exactly these people were. Then, eventually, two decades ago this week, they finally appeared with their first and only album, Shine.

It opens with Your Place in the World, a sweet piece with trippy beats and heady vocals. This is not, however, a piece that would catch your imagination by itself in particular – you need to have a bit of a feel for what’s coming up already in order to understand its importance. It’s good – although some of the vocal effects are a little unsettling – and the vinyl noise particularly helps, but it wouldn’t grab you if you didn’t know what you had picked up.

The title track is different. This was the single that had launched their career just over two years earlier. The Space Brothers had already had their hands on some of the biggest Balearic summer hits at this point, and it’s apparent even just from the high portamento-driven pads that there’s something a bit different going on here. As it builds, you realise it has everything – the slightly (but not uncomfortably) acid-infused bass line, the clicking synth riff line, the huge drum builds, and, of course, that vocal.

The vocalist, for this and second hit Forgiven, is Miss Joanna Law, who was at this stage already a decade into her career. A year before Shine originally came out, she had appeared on Way Out West‘s seminal The Gift, and both there and here provided vocals that lifted the song far beyond itself. This is entirely brilliant, and provided their biggest hit, although it only just scraped the top twenty.

This is Love is next, with a surprise heavy sample from Jean-Michel Jarre‘s Oxygène (Part I). It’s encouraging to see that The Space Brothers have no shame in revealing their influences quite this openly, but it still comes as something of a surprise. It makes for a curiously understated track, with the sort of chanting that kept cropping up on dance tracks around this time.

By now, the tracks are mixing into each other thick and fast, so the huge effect-laden snares of fourth single Heaven Will Come should come as little surprise. Most of the other tracks on here star Kate Cameron on vocals, who appears to have starred on pretty much every trance hit around this time. This is one of the slower pieces, but probably one of the better ones on here.

After all of that, the guitar twirls and disco beats of I Still Love You come as something of a surprise. It builds into another bounding trance track, so whatever variety seemed to briefly be promised quickly disappears. This is not a particularly eclectic album, but it is one of the best and most coherent examples of Balearic trance to appear under a single artist’s name.

In amongst the other pieces, it’s The Light that particularly stands out. The lyrics may be a bit new age, but the vocal delivery is impressively commanding. For me, though, it’s the remix that blows me away – this album, probably appropriately, comes with a second disc, mixed by Paul Oakenfold, and featuring a remixed version of pretty much the whole album, and the trance remix of this laid back track somehow seems to work a lot better. On the main album, this is one of those pieces that builds and builds, with a lot of promise, but it never quite seems to know where it’s going.

But in spite of putting the wrong version on the main album, you can’t deny that The Space Brothers are masters of their craft. Forgiven, originally released as Forgiven (I Feel Your Love) in late 1997 (The Space Brothers seemed to be putting brackets on the end of all their singles for a while), you have to remind yourself that this would have been the difficult second single, following after Shine. It does share a lot of the same sounds, including the portamento, and even the same vocalist, but in many ways it’s a better song. Just maybe not the best choice for second single, unless you don’t mind pigeonholing yourself.

The Same Journey opens with another piece of Jean-Michel Jarre, the unsettling vocal sample from Zoolook. Having got that out of the way, it’s a spacious piece, with plenty of room for vocal acrobatics. Ultimately, it’s probably fair to say that it’s one of the less good tracks on here, but it’s not bad, by any stretch of the imagination. The bar is pretty high here.

Then it’s time for more portamento, with the third single, Legacy (Show Me Love). They set a solid formula on those first three hits, but ultimately I’m glad they deviated from it for most of the album. This is another great single track, though, and not a bad comeback after a longer break, or indeed a bad choice of single to preempt the album. It just does sound a bit as though you’ve heard it all before at this point.

After all that, closing track Beyond the Sun is anticlimactic, to say the least. Kate Cameron does her best, but she’s really only just repeating “remember” most of the time while another vocalist wails something unintelligible. This track would be filler on pretty much any album, and while it works reasonably well in context as a closing track, you can’t really see it ever fitting anywhere else.

Until that final track, though, Shine is an exceptional album – a now-timeless document of late 1990s Balearic trance, that while now somewhat dated, still stands up well. I don’t know where The Space Brothers are now, but I’d like to think they’re still sitting on a beach in Ibiza, and continuing to large it. Whatever that means.

Copies of Shine still seem to be floating around, here for example, but keep an eye out that you aren’t actually looking at the single of the same name, as there appears to be some confusion!

Yello – Touch Yello

Yello‘s unusual sound was a mainstay of European electronic pop for several decades, but in a way, it had to stop at some point. They had had their low points, but by the time Touch Yello appeared in 2009 – after a six-year break – they were pretty much guaranteed the top spot in their native Switzerland.

Touch Yello opens with The Expert, a traditional Yello piece in many pieces, full of bass, low pads, and those low, low vocals. It’s a good opening track, but ultimately there’s little new here. You Better Hide is more like it in that regard. Roping in Heidi Happy on vocals, this was the first time they had used another vocalist to quite this extent on an album. The resultant sound is lounge through and through.

Some tracks manage to still be classic Yello but with new elements, and Out of Dawn is one of these, but also adds a brilliantly catchy chorus. In a way, this could have appeared on any of their albums – of which, for those counting, Touch Yello is their twelfth of thirteen to date. For an act that a lot of people have barely heard of, that’s quite an impressive back catalogue.

As a nod to this, Bostich (Reflected) takes them back to one of their earliest singles, originally released on Solid Pleasure (1979), and a minor hit in 1981. Including something with that heritage here is bold, to say the least, but it actually does fit well.

But this is, for the most part, lounge music, and so roping in jazz musician Till Brönner, on Flügelhorn of all things, is not quite as crazy as it might sound. It’s not entirely clear where this track is supposed to be going, but it’s gloriously atmospheric.

That is, of course, true for most of the songs on here – Tangier Blue is gloriously evocative of warm, North African nights. Part Love may not be the track that I would have chosen for lead single – it’s hardly the catchiest or most unusual track on here – but it’s pretty good.

Ultimately, and perhaps surprisingly, for a once somewhat novelty act like Yello, this is very much an album, rather than a collection of songs. The soft, slightly trippy lounge music bobs along sweetly via tracks such as Friday Smile, and unlike some of their sillier outings, you’ll find yourself feeling happy and relaxed. I hesitate to use “future jazz” as a genre, but it does seem fitting here.

Having established the guests already, it’s time for Heidi Happy to return, with her slightly hoarse, perfectly chosen voice – Kiss in Blue is a great duet, and a beautiful love song, delivered perfectly. It feels like the soundtrack to a million romantic comedies, albeit with slightly more manic drum fingerwork than normal.

Then it’s time for Till Brönner‘s second outing on Vertical Vision. His tracks on here are definitely jazzier, and while I’m not normally convinced that’s a good thing, it does work well here. The vocals return for Trackless Deep, though, which is a sweetly catchy piece. For those who aren’t quite as keen on jazz, the preceding track can just be thought of as a brief deviation before another full vocal track.

Heidi Happy returns, for the last time now, on Stay, another lush, lovely piece. It’s soft and unassuming, but hides a sweet message. Then Till Brönner is back for Electric Frame, probably the closest this album gets to freestyle jazz, but if that isn’t your thing (it isn’t really mine, if I’m honest) then at least it doesn’t last too long.

Finally, for Takla Maklan, Dorothee Oberlinger appears as a guest, turning up a little late to the party. It’s a suitably atmospheric closing piece, with a curiously North African feel, but an appropriately sweet way to finish off a brilliantly gentle album. It might have taken Yello a few years to reach this pinnacle, and six years since its predecessor, but Touch Yello is honestly pretty much as good as they get.

Seemingly the deluxe edition of Touch Yello is still available, and it’s worth it for no fewer than six bonus tracks and an entire “live” studio album which is worth having too.