Komputer – The World of Tomorrow

“Underwater cities / giant hovercraft / automated factories / trips to the stars”. There’s something about The World of Tomorrow that feels a bit like reading a space annual from the 1970s. And that’s the joke, really – Komputer brilliantly harnessed that combination of naïve futurism and scientific potential and married it with the slightly out-of-time electronic sounds of Kraftwerk to create something witty, ever-contemporary, and utterly fantastic.

Released two decades ago in the UK, as much time has passed between Kraftwerk‘s original career and this as has passed between its release and the present day. It really should sound a bit more dated than it does, but the huge swells of electronic rain that punctuate the opening title track somehow sound every bit as current now as they did all those years ago.

More Automation is gentler and less dramatic – definitely an album track, but a very good one nonetheless. What’s incredible in a way is just how natural this feels – just three years earlier, Komputer were Fortran 5, and were pulling together their third and final eccentric rave album. A decade before that, they were I Start Counting, making slightly wacky 1980s synthpop.

The common theme seems to have always been approaching their music with a slightly daft sense of humour, and so Bill Gates is entirely daft, with the Microsoft CEO’s name sung by a computer in a variety of keys and speeds to clean electronic backing. Valentina is less daft, and a very fitting tribute to Valentina Tereshkova, set against a beautiful electronic backdrop, although it does manage to entirely mispronounce her surname, which seems a bit unfair on her.

Next is the brilliant single Looking Down on London, which takes us on an auditory journey across the UK capital, including a brief pitstop in a pub, with some brilliantly authentic sound effects as accompaniment. This is absolutely excellent, and there’s no other way of looking at it.

Then comes Terminus Interminus, the centrepiece of the album, later released as a single as just Terminus. It’s an epic eight-minute electronic pop song about transport interchanges, with echoes of It’s More Fun to Compute. Which just makes Metroland‘s later It’s More Fun to Commute even more appropriate.

If you break it down, several of the songs here are just built around one or two phrases, and so Singapore really is just “Singapore / hear the tiger roar”, and while it really bears pretty much no resemblance to the island, it’s still a pretty good piece of electronic pop in the tradition of Neon Lights.

But whatever the slight flaws of some tracks might be, The Perfect Pop Band is pure perfection. The line “our songs are quite minimal” is entirely apposite, and there are plenty of other examples. It mixes into Komputer Pop, a similar track in many ways, but also another entirely brilliant one.

The lengthy instrumental Motopia rounds things out, before a short version of We Are Komputer right at the end. It’s another slightly existential track about who Komputer are, but it’s also a great album closer for a great album.

There may be little new on The World of Tomorrow, but what it does, it does exquisitely and with a wry sense of humour, and we really need more music like this in the world.

You can still find The World of Tomorrow at all major retailers.

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Kraftwerk – Die Mensch-Maschine

This week, we celebrate the fortieth anniversary of one of the most groundbreaking electronic albums ever recorded, Kraftwerk’s Die Mensch-Maschine (released in the English-speaking world as The Man-Machine).

Forty years on, it’s pretty much impossible to imagine what Die Roboter (The Robots) must have sounded like when it first came out. The synchronised beats and robotic beats and voices are completely unlike anything else that existed at the time, and honestly very little has come out in the last forty years that comes close to this level of quality.

Spacelab forms the centrepiece of the first side. Largely instrumental and less dramatic than Die Roboter, it uses similar beats and patterns to form a beautiful homage to the age of space. It is worthwhile remembering that Trans-Europa Express came out just one year earlier, and while the clicking beats share some commonality between the two releases, in other ways they are literally worlds apart.

But while Die Mensch-Maschine is typified by long tracks, this also means there’s only space for six, three on each side, and so we close this half of the album with the glorious Metropolis. If it hadn’t been previously apparent that this album owes much to Fritz Lang’s 1927 exceptional film, this track should help. It’s every bit as good as the film from which it takes its name, and if you’ve never tried watching the film with this album as its accompaniment, I can highly recommend it. You might need to play it a few times, though – Die Mensch-Maschine is just 35 minutes in duration.

By the time the second side opens, you probably have a pretty good idea of what’s going on here, and so you’re probably ready for the megahit Das Modell (The Model). Released contemporaneously in Germany, it took a full three years to become a hit in the UK, where it was initially hidden on the back of Computer Love and managed a modest top forty entry, before DJs started playing the other side, and the tweaked release shot straight to the top of the charts.

By 1981, of course, the UK was ready for an electronic pop hit about an idolised model, having seen dozens of similar singles top the charts in the intervening years, but in 1978 it apparently was not. So it is a slight shame, I think, that while everyone remembers The Model, they remember it as sounding a bit cheesy and outdated. For the first time, Kraftwerk had hit upon a contemporary sound – they just did it three years too soon.

I’ve no doubt written before about how the right way to listen to Kraftwerk is to track down the German versions, but Das Modell is possibly the exception that proves the rule. Quite what the in-joke was that led to the odd delivery of the  “immer Sekt korrect” line is beyond me, but I think on this occasion I prefer the more subdued “drinking just champagne” version.

Neonlicht, released in the UK as the second single (Neon Lights) is, of course, every bit as important as its predecessor. Clocking in at an astonishing nine minutes, it’s a beautiful, pure pop song, extended as far as possible, and perfectly executed. It’s also another track which hasn’t necessarily aged too well, unfortunately – it was imitated so many times that it’s easy to forget that this is really where minimal electronic pop began.

Of course, all good things have to come to an end, and while the tracks here may be long, the album as a whole is not. Fortunately, the title track, which closes the second side, is about as good as electronic music gets. Subjectively, it’s a nondescript near-instrumental with some clever rhythmic devices, but there’s just something ingenious about the execution.

Which really sums this album up, actually. Seven albums into their career (or possibly eight, depending on how you count), Kraftwerk had finally really found their stride. Within a year or two, the charts would fill up with imitators, and the slow downfall of the quartet from Düsseldorf would begin. But for now, they were really at the top of their game.

You can still find Die Mensch-Maschine or The Man-Machine at all major retailers. The essential version is the 2009 remaster, even if some of the magic of the original artwork was lost.

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – Dazzle Ships

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark‘s career had barely started thirty-five years ago, but they already had four albums under their belt. The most recent, Dazzle Ships, again owed much to their heroes Kraftwerk, but this time it was more overt than ever.

In a clear attempt to drop the shackles of commercialism, it opens with Radio Prague, an interval signal lifted directly from the radio station of the same name. I’d be interested to know how they felt about it. We then get the first single from the album, Genetic Engineering, the second and most prominent of the twelve tracks, very clearly mimicking the structure of the Radio-Aktivität album. That’s not the limit of the homage – Genetic Engineering is good, but does sound at times a little like a bad Kraftwerk rip-off. But let’s keep this civil – it’s a competent single, even if not perhaps the most commercial – it was even missed off the 1998 singles collection.

OMD were trying to be experimental, although at the same time they do owe a lot to their heroes Kraftwerk on this album. ABC Auto-Industry is built around samples and found sounds, and is a clear attempt to do something very different, but frankly it’s awful at best.

Telegraph was the second single, not quite making the top forty in April 1983. It’s a good song, probably as commercial as anything on here, but it certainly doesn’t sound as advanced as anything else the group had released recently – it might have even fitted well on the debut album.

After some of the earlier shorter tracks, This is Helena is a vast improvement, and for the first time does seem to do justice to the stark communist radio theme of this album. International is pretty pleasant too, with its throbbing bass sounds, although the vocal performance is off-putting to say the least.

Half way through the album, and this might actually be one of OMD‘s most coherent releases to date – the debut is fun but naïve, the second has Enola Gay on it and little else, and the third is mainly about Joan of Arc, for reasons that are unlikely to ever become clear.

Side two opens with the cryptic Dazzle Ships (Parts II, III and VII), which would have been a good b-side on a single and just about works here. Then The Romance of the Telescope is a nice piece that drones along pleasantly for a bit. This is definitely the low-point of the album – there’s nothing particularly wrong with Silent Running either, but it doesn’t exactly stand out from the crowd.

Radio Waves features some creative use of random synth signals and off-beat drumming, but generally seems to work, particularly when the main song starts up about a minute in. Time Zones is nice, although it’s basically a direct imitation of Kraftwerk‘s Nachrichten. And then we’re on to Of All the Things We’ve Made already, the final track. Previously released in different form a year or so earlier, on the b-side to Maid of Orleans (that one was about Joan of Arc, in case you were wondering), it might even be the best track on here. Admittedly, the drums sound a bit moronic, and the flanged guitar that strums the same key through pretty much the entire track, but it’s got a compelling atmosphere which actually fits here rather well.

So as with all OMD albums, Dazzle Ships has its ups and downs, and it was definitely widely hated at the time, but it’s actually a pretty good album, particularly if you’re as much of a fan of Radio-Aktivität as they are. What it doesn’t have is anything as good as Enola Gay, but you would need to wait another couple of albums for them to regain that form.

The 2008 remaster of Dazzle Ships is probably the essential version if you want to try for yourself.

Stowaway Awards 2018

After all the excitement of previous years, I’ve decided to tone down the Stowaway Awards a little this year, with just six categories. Here they are, with the full lists of nominees!

Best Track

Nominees:

  • Depeche Mode – Where’s the Revolution
  • Erasure – Be Careful What You Wish for!
  • Gary Numan – My Name is Ruin
  • Goldfrapp – Become the One
  • Kraftwerk – Radioaktivität
  • Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – As We Open, So We Close
  • Pet Shop Boys – Reunion
  • Saint Etienne – Whyteleaf
  • Sparks – Scandinavian Design
  • Yazoo – Only You

We announced the winner already – it’s Depeche Mode.

Best Album

Nominees:

  • Depeche Mode – Spirit
  • Erasure – World Be Gone
  • Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – The Punishment of Luxury
  • Saint Etienne – Home Counties
  • Sparks – Hippopotamus

The winner is Depeche Mode.

Best Reissue / Compilation

Nominees:

  • Liza Minnelli – Results
  • Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – The Punishment of Luxury: B Sides & Bonus Material
  • Pet Shop Boys – Nightlife
  • Pet Shop Boys – Release
  • Pet Shop Boys – Yes

The winner is Pet Shop Boys, for Release.

Best Artist

Nominees:

  • Depeche Mode
  • Erasure
  • Goldfrapp
  • Saint Etienne
  • Sparks

This year’s winner is Sparks.

Best Live Act

Nominees:

  • Jean-Michel Jarre
  • The Jesus and Mary Chain
  • múm

The winner is Jean-Michel Jarre.

Outstanding Contribution

Nominees:

  • David Bowie
  • Vince Clarke
  • The Future Sound of London
  • Leftfield
  • Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark

The winner: Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.

Grammy Awards 2018

I never really have enough patience to look into the Grammy Awards in too much detail – there are just way too many of them. But it’s always worth a quick skim, particularly this year it seems. So here are some headlines.

Best Dance Recording went to LCD Soundsystem this year for the irritatingly-spelt Tonite, beating Gorillaz‘s Andromeda, and both were also nominated for Best Alternative Music Album for American Dream and Humanz respectively, but lost out to The National.

One of my favourite awards, Best New Age Album this year overlooked a strong nominee for Brian Eno with Reflection and went with Peter Kater instead for Dancing on WaterBest Dance/Electronic Album surprisingly went to Kraftwerk for the sublime box set 3-D The Catalogue over Bonobo‘s Migration.

In a pleasant surprise, Dennis White won Best Remixed Recording for his Latroit Remix of Depeche Mode‘s You Move. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds got a couple of nominations, one in the Best Music Film category for One More Time with Feeling, and once in the Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package category for the work of the art direction on their singles compilation Lovely Creatures, but failed to win in the end. Roger Waters suffered the same fate for Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical.

That’s all I’ve got. There’s a more comprehensive list of winners and nominees on the Billboard website.

Albums chart of the year 2017

It’s been a great year for reissues, so it’s no surprise to see a few on the 2017 top twenty. Here’s the full list:

  1. Depeche Mode – Spirit
  2. Jean-Michel Jarre – Oxygène 3 [number 21 in 2016]
  3. Saint Etienne – Home Counties
  4. David Bowie – Legacy [number 27 in 2016]
  5. Kraftwerk – 3-D Der Katalog
  6. Pet Shop Boys – Release [released in 2002]
  7. Goldfrapp – Silver Eye
  8. Erasure – World Be Gone
  9. The Human League – Anthology – A Very British Synthesizer Group [number 37 in 2016]
  10. Pet Shop Boys – Nightlife [released in 1999, number 89 in 2004, number 177 in 2005, number 83 in 2006]
  11. Pink Floyd – The Dark Side of the Moon [released in 1973, number 34 in 2014, number 20 in 2015, number 42 in 2016]
  12. Pet Shop Boys – Fundamental [released in 2005, number 5 in 2006]
  13. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – The Punishment of Luxury
  14. New Order – Lost Sirens [released in 2013]
  15. Jean-Michel Jarre – Oxygène Trilogy [number 40 in 2016]
  16. Pet Shop Boys – Yes [released in 2009, number 172 in 2015, number 171 in 2016]
  17. Dusty Springfield – Reputation [released in 1990, number 35 in 2016]
  18. C Duncan – The Midnight Sun [number 12 in 2016]
  19. Gorillaz – Humanz
  20. Pet Shop Boys – Elysium [number 2 in 2012, number 14 in 2013, number 179 in 2014, number 120 in 2016]

Singles chart of the year 2017

These were the top singles for stowaways in 2017:

  1. Weeknd Ft Daft Punk – Starboy
  2. Depeche Mode – Where’s the Revolution
  3. Pet Shop Boys – Reunion
  4. Erasure – Love You To The Sky
  5. Goldfrapp – Anymore
  6. Depeche Mode – Going Backwards
  7. Pet Shop Boys – Leaving [number 2 in 2012, number 19 in 2013]
  8. Jean-Michel Jarre – Oxygène (Part 17) [number 28 in 2016]
  9. Kraftwerk – Trans Europa Express [released in 1977]
  10. Erasure – Be Careful What You Wish For!
  11. Pet Shop Boys – Memory of the Future [number 16 in 2012, number 4 in 2013]
  12. C Duncan – Wanted to Want It Too [number 7 in 2016]
  13. Saint Etienne – Magpie Eyes
  14. Pet Shop Boys – Winner [number 1 in 2012, number 18 in 2013]
  15. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – As We Open, So We Close
  16. Pet Shop Boys – Christmas [released in 2009, number 16 in 2015]
  17. Saint Etienne – Dive
  18. Depeche Mode – Cover Me
  19. Röyksopp feat. Susanne Sundfør – Never Ever [number 5 in 2016]
  20. Saint Etienne – The Reunion