Delerium – Spheres II

Reviewing early Delerium is always a bit of a challenge. Prior to Silence, the vast majority of their work was dark, spacious, instrumental, a little industrial, and very different indeed from everything that came after.

Morphology is a case in point – among the long pad swells and growling acid bass line are periodic industrial beats and obscure spoken word samples, and just generally nine and a half minutes of musical space. It isn’t beautiful, exactly, but it is very good.

What’s interesting, in a way, is how similar it is to the later material, though. The big change was the addition of vocalists – firstly just on a couple of tracks with Semantic Spaces (released an astonishing two weeks earlier), and by Karma (1997) and Poem (2001) on pretty much every track. But other than that, the sounds and style on Spheres II is actually very similar.

It’s easy to forget that Delerium was, for those first five years, pretty much just a side project of the much more successful industrial, almost electro-metal act Front Line Assembly. By the end of 1994, Bill Leeb and Rhys Fulber already had eight albums to their name under that moniker – but they had also released as many albums again as Delerium, and were showing no sign of slowing.

Lacking the vocals, though, makes this all seem a bit more lacking in direction. Transhumanist is driven by a slow, churning acid bass line. You can see how this outlet for broader, longer, tracks would have appealed to Leeb and Fulber, and so the change that came next is all the odder, in a way.

Having started out with two albums in 1989, one in 1990, another two plus a huge EP / mini-album in 1991, they were already pretty prolific right from the start. Oddly, they had then disappeared for three years, one assumes working hard on writing and recording what would become Spheres (February 1994) and Spheres II (September 1994). Then in the meantime, they also recorded Semantic Spaces (August 1994), which added their first vocalist and paved the way for Karma, and ultimately the mega-hit Silence.

That would be, for anybody, a pretty odd release schedule, and quite why they didn’t decide to hold Semantic Spaces back a few months is a bit of a mystery to me. You can only assume that they decided they liked the new direction better, and decided to rush-release the remaining old stuff before launching in too deeply. But either way, I think it’s safe to see Spheres II as the closing piece of that early era – even if it actually appeared a little after the new one started.

Shockwave is an oddly titled piece – you want it to be huge and explosive, but it’s a gentle, tentative, and drifting piece with weird glitchy vocal samples and hard stereo mixing.Four minutes or so in, it grows into a beautiful, pad-filled, glitchy analogue piece. Some of Delerium‘s early material is so vague that it’s pretty much inaccessible to most listeners, but this is an exception.

It never really stops being pleasant, though – Dimensional Space, one of the shortest tracks on here, clocking in at a mere five and a half minutes, is broad, expansive, and populated mainly by pads. It’s almost orchestral in the way it plays out, although I’m not sure quite how this would play out if an orchestra tried to repeat it.

Hypoxia is great – probably my favourite track on here, actually – it has a wonderfully analogue eighties feel at times, with plinky plonky sounds and softer, less industrial sounding drums. It grows into a huge, Blue Monday-esque choral pad. It’s brilliant – in fact, the only thing I’d change would be the name – as I understand it, hypoxia is a state of panic and anxiety caused by oxygen deficiency. That’s an industrial title – this track feels neither panicked nor anxious to me.

Otherworld is the shortest track in here, although still nearly makes five minutes. It’s a sweet, rippling synth piece, with simple but pleasant chords played by pads, and oddly reverberating chimes. And finally comes In Four Dimensions, which starts with an almost ticking clock, before oddly growing into a weird, Amazonian piece, sampling heavily from Recoil‘s debut 1+2 EP. It’s long – so long, actually, that it’s hard to really enjoy over its full twelve and a half minute duration. It has moments that lift it, such as the rippling synth arpeggio half way through, but it’s not, on the whole, the most exciting closing track ever.

To describe Spheres II as the best of Delerium‘s early material would be a leap for me, as I simply don’t know the rest of it well enough. It does feel more like a compilation than a decisively sequenced album, which lends credence to the idea that it might have been a rushed release. It is mature, though, and well produced – this, to me, is the sound of a duo who know what they’re doing and are comfortable with their sound, but are just in a bit of a hurry to get it out of the way so they can move onto something else.

You’ll struggle to find it new, but second hand copies of Spheres II are widely available.

Front Line Assembly – Implode

Celebrating its twentieth birthday this week is Front Line Assembly‘s eleventh (roughly) album Implode.

If there’s one thing you can guarantee with Front Line Assembly, it’s that they will always be dark and industrial. So it is with opening track Retribution – it merges dark, crunchy beats with harsh electronic sounds. There are plenty of pads in the mix – this isn’t, at least at this point, some kind of electronic form of heavy metal, but it is definitely dark.

Describing Front Line Assembly‘s sound to someone who hasn’t heard it is difficult, as there’s little like this on the charts or on the radio. You could try to come up with an explanation that merges some overproduced pop star with a flamboyant rocker in black make up, but the truth is that most people will have never really heard anything like this. What you can say, with some confidence, is that this is pretty good.

Where Retribution was a bit less tuneful and more experimental, Fatalist is closer to what Front Line Assembly sound like when they’re really good. There’s a punchy acid bassline with disorientating, discordant electronic sounds mixing in and out. Until the chorus, the vocal is pretty awful, honestly – a distorted mess of shouting, but the softer chorus lead more than makes up for that.

Next comes the lead single, Prophecy, probably the best track on this album. It’s a whirlwind of grizzly, plodding beats with another punchy bass part. This is probably as close as this album gets to perfecting the idea of “electronic heavy metal” – it’s still quite shouty, but the drama, this time, is played out masterfully. If those aren’t guitars crunching along in the chorus, then they’re very well realised.

What is particularly well realised with this album, though, is the packaging – the disturbing man-beetle hybrid shapes on the cover and all over the sleeve are rather beautiful, and are complemented well by the gold and brown colouring and other design choices. But the lyrics are, as usual with Front Line Assembly, not great – the line “even angels love to fall,” in Prophecy is not, I think, a poetic statement about the death of love, but a selection of dark and grim words that have been chosen to add to the mood of the piece without necessarily meaning anything particular. Or maybe it’s just the delivery that makes it feel that way?

After a while, the tracks start to blend together somewhat. The biting, acidic instrumental Synthetic Forms works well, but does little to stand out. Falling is slower and more atmospheric, but still doesn’t make much of a mark. Similarly, Don’t Trust Anyone is fine, but doesn’t somehow quite seem to capture the feeling of the earlier tracks.

Next track Unknown Dreams is more noteworthy – there’s a problem, again, with the lyrics, as “Forever and ever / tomorrow may never come,” only really makes sense in a limited context. But this is unfair – Front Line Assembly do have good lyrics from time to time, but it’s hardly going to be the main reason that people listen to them.

Torched is pleasant too, with lots of grimy beats and blistering electronic squawks alongside a deeply atmospheric song. The static breakdown in the middle doesn’t quite seem to work, but otherwise it holds together well. Machine Slave is good, although by this point you’re probably thinking that you have definitely heard pretty much everything you’re likely to on this release.

So actually the closing instrumental Silent Ceremony is a pleasant surprise. With some of the dark, melodic charm of roughly the same duo’s work with Delerium, this is a standout track to hide right at the end. It’s no less dark than anything else on here, but it’s much more melodic, atmospheric, and frankly, beautiful.

It’s not even quite the end – a chirpy little instrumental called Stalker is what actually closes things out, and it does so in pleasant fashion. Like much of this album, it’s often exhilarating, and sometimes unpredictable – but occasionally also repetitive and somewhat dull. Implode is a very good album, and certainly a challenging listen for many audiences – but it’s not a great album.

You can still find Implode at all major retailers, although it may come at a premium in some territories.

Delerium – Faces, Forms and Illusions

Three decades ago this week, Delerium released their debut album Faces, Forms and Illusions. It would take nearly ten albums and ten years before Sarah McLachlan would suddenly propel them to the upper reaches of the charts outside of Canada, but many of the elements that made them popular were already audible on their debut release.

Two years earlier, Canadian duo Bill Leeb and Rhys Fulber had formed two-thirds of the dark industrial trio Front Line Assembly, and by 1989, they were already two cassettes and four albums into their career. Faces, Forms and Illusions

It opens with Monuments of Deceit, with a dark, punchy, industrial bass line that reminds me of the early material from Alan Wilder‘s Recoil

Mecca

Less respectful, it seems to me, is their use of one of the images of Thich Quang Duc‘s self-immolation for the cover image. It’s a stirring and shocking image reduced to yellow and black, and while it may have served an artistic purpose at the time in somehow reflecting the artists’ vision for the album, it’s hard not to see it as a little crass.

The music is, in general, surprisingly mature for a duo who were still in their early twenties, but it’s a little difficult to tell whether they were trying to convey a particular spirit of self-sacrifice and Eastern theology, whether it was just slightly misguided mysticism, or whether they were channelling something else entirely. The other images in the release don’t really clarify this, and the track titles seem to suggest they may not have had a clear vision in mind at the time.

But put all of that aside, and concentrate more on the music, and there’s a good album here – Inside the Chamber is a good, longer track; and Sword of Islam is haunting and dark. Then the second half of the album opens with the atmospheric New Dawn, never really breaking from the core sound of this album, but bringing the mood lower still.

Certain Trust breaks that mould, though, with a rippling arpeggio part that must have sounded dated very soon after its original release – the digital synthesisers of the late 1980s didn’t stay fashionable for very long. There are some nice vocal melodies on this track and well-placed chimes, but the drumming seems a bit half-hearted. It’s probably the best track on this half of the album, though.

Hidden Mask, curiously hidden from later versions of this album, is good too, as for the first time on this album the beats drop away, and give way to broad, sweeping pads, and warbling vocals. Then we’re on to Strangeways, a slightly dull but confusing track punctuated by synthesised machine gun fire that suggests that maybe this album wasn’t just about confused mysticism after all. It’s strange though – the riots at the prison of the same name wouldn’t happen until the following year, and would be unlikely to be well known to Canadians anyway. It’s difficult to know exactly what they’re channelling here.

Intriguing typographical errors and spelling mistakes seem to have always been a part of Front Line Assembly and Delerium‘s career, as the CD adds bonus track Subvert/Wired Archives/Sieg of Atrocity. Clocking in at just under twenty minutes, it’s an ambitious track to challenge the listener, and it does offer some nice new synth melodies, particularly during the first part. It’s an interesting enough additional track that you probably wouldn’t want to end up missing it by owning the vinyl version, anyway.

Faces, Forms and Illusions is raw, the sound of a duo who haven’t fully worked out what they’re doing yet, but there’s plenty to enjoy here, particularly for those who like Delerium‘s later work. It might be best avoided if you don’t, though.

Unfortunately Faces, Forms and Illusions no longer seems to be widely available, either in its original form (yellow sleeve) or its later reissue.

Greatest Hits 2019

Time now, at the start of the year, to explore some of the reviews you might have missed in the last year or two. Here’s a selection…

Retro chart for stowaways – 11 October 2003

Fifteen years ago this week!

  1. Dave Gahan – I Need You
  2. Goldfrapp – Strict Machine
  3. Richard X feat. Kelis – Finest Dreams
  4. Kraftwerk – Tour de France 2003
  5. Madonna – Hollywood
  6. Kosheen – All in My Head
  7. Paul van Dyk – Nothing But You
  8. Delerium feat. Jaël – After All
  9. Ladytron – Blue Jeans
  10. Tomcraft – Loneliness

Retro chart for stowaways – 9 October 2004

Sorry for the delay today! Here’s a retro chart again, as the technical issues causing problems for the chart continue.

  1. Client – City
  2. Jean-Michel Jarre – Aero
  3. Delerium – The Best of Delerium
  4. Groove Armada – The Best of
  5. Air – Talkie Walkie
  6. Faithless – No Roots
  7. Client – Client
  8. Delerium – Chimera
  9. Bent – Ariels
  10. Pet Shop Boys – PopArt

Delerium – Chimera

By 2003, pretty much everybody had sampled O Euchari, and nearly a decade or so into the good bit of their career, it was time for Delerium to join in the fun. Actually, a lot of people had worked with Zoë Johnston by this stage as well, so Chimera‘s opening track Love may not have much new to offer, but it’s a pretty good song nonetheless.

It was hardly a concept invented by Delerium, but this was early in the age of overprocessed vocals, which is a shame, as Jaël is a good singer, but After All, the single which preceded the album by a few weeks, does suffer initially somewhat from sounding as though it’s being sung by a robot. Having got beyond that, there’s a good song hiding here, and packaged with the traditional million-or-so remixes, this was a reasonable hit. Well, except for the fact that it came out during the sorry era when the UK record industry killed itself by limiting singles to a twenty minute duration.

Ultimately, it isn’t until Just a Dream that we really get a taste of the beautifully scenic sound that had had typified the preceding albums Karma and Poem, and it’s every bit as good as you might have hoped for.

The pop sound returns with the promo single Run for It, for which they drafted in vocalist Leigh Nash of Sixpence None the Richer (that’s even how she was credited). It’s a good song, but somehow seems a bit insubstantial after the preceding track. Proper second single Truly follows, with none other than Nerina Pallot on vocals. Another pop song, but a particularly good one, and since they waited until 2004 to release it as a single, it managed to get a slightly more substantial CD release.

Serenity is next, one of the longest tracks on here, and perhaps the closest yet to the blueprint laid out by the preceding albums, with its operatic and multinational vocal samples and rippling synthesisers. Touched is sweet too, although honestly, after a decade and a half of listening, it does sound rather dated now.

Forever After suffers from this as well – the Turkish vocals from Sultana are nice, but the scratching in the middle section seems a bit questionable now. It leads into the adorable Fallen, starring Rani, who previously sang on Underwater, the final single from the previous album. Fallen is really sweet, although it does seem to be about someone who’s about to commit suicide in the morning by throwing themselves of a star, which isn’t so cheery.

Leigh Nash of Sixpence None the Richer reappears for Orbit of Me, which for me is another of the weaker tracks on here, but then Julee Cruise turns up to deliver Magic. This one is a bit schizophrenic – in a way, it doesn’t really work (and no, I’m not a warlock – to be honest, I’m not entirely sure what one is) – but in a way, it does. Either way, it definitely worked a lot better for me fifteen years ago.

Eternal Odyssey is a very pleasant, if long, instrumental, which does a bit of an Enigma by sampling Samuel Barber‘s Adagio for Strings halfway through for no particularly obvious reason. Which, by the way, is also something someone had done by this stage, probably more than once.

The general theme, in case you hadn’t worked it out by now, is that with ChimeraDelerium were trying to go “pop” by borrowing ideas from lots of other people. It works, for the most part, as this is an entirely competent album, but it lacks the innovative streak that had characterised their sound in the mid-1990s.

Delerium mainstay Kristy Thirsk appears to lead the vocals on Returning, which might actually be the best track on here – it’s a sweet, almost lullaby-like track that closes the album well. But just as you start to wonder why the rest of the album couldn’t have been a bit more like this, that O Euchari sample turns up again. Chimera is a good album – it’s just not quite innovative enough to be a great album.

The only CD of Chimera currently on sale in the UK appears to be an import, but you can find that here, if you like.