Ocean travel without a boat

Journal of Peter Greenwell

Tag: synthpop (page 1 of 2)

Icehouse – Primitive Man

I remember buying this on vinyl back on 1982, and hoping Icehouse had kept up the rocking new wave, borderline hard rock they did on their debut. Nope, no sirree. This is synth heavy, Linn drum-machine laden and very representative of the era it was released. Only one song here really rocks, and overseas releases didn’t even include it, and that’s Break These Chains.

The band that recorded the debut no longer existed, and though John Lloyd was still part of the band, he didn’t drum on this, and it’s all via  machine. More than any other record, this one could be labelled a Davies solo project. Davies still thinks he’s some lovechild of Ferry and Bowie here, and he never really sounded like himself on a record till Big Wheel, and that’s perhaps debatable too.

Bare-faced influences aside, Primitive Man grew on me. Apart from the obvious songs that were released as singles, there are tracks that have a slightly eerie edge even if Davies hadn’t intended such a thing. More than any other Icehouse album, this one goes into mystic places, if only briefly. The whole album has an “abandoned” feel to it, like it’s the soundtrack to empty, open spaces where humans no longer exist, and it’s not just Great Southern Land that conveys that. There’s only one filler track here and that’s Mysterious Thing, which sounds like a B-side. The remainder of the record varies for dreamy to hard rocking. It’s a widely ranging thing, but held back by production excesses and Davies’ imitating his favourite performers.

There’s a case to be made this is Icehouse’s second best record, though Big Wheel may have something to say there.

Choice cuts: Trojan Blue, Break these Chains, Street Cafe

howlers yo

Gary Numan – Warriors

Oh dear. This is the record where Mr. Webb officially loses it. There were signs on I, Assassin that he was fast running out of hooks, melodies and good song ideas, but its comes full and terrible circle here. From the kitsch of the cover to the random saxophone blasts, this platter screams that it is an unwanted relic of the 80s, to say nothing of it being an unwanted relic in Numan’s discography.

I mean, if you knew nothing about this record or even its creator, you’d scan the song list and see promising things like My Centurion, The Prison Moon, Love is Like Clock Law and you’d maybe think there’s some good science fiction based prog-rock or otherwise catchy and fulfilling music within. I mean, wouldn’t you think a song title like The Rhythm of the Evening promises something? You would, for sure.

And wouldn’t you be kidding yourself?

Instead, what you get are nine virtually identical low-key meandering tracks all laden with crawling fretless bass, grating female back-up singers, out of place saxophones and Gary Numan dialling his vocal performances in. This is bad pop music processed and regurgitated through the “I’m Short of Ideas” machine.

This record is a disaster, but alas, it was the start of an undistinguished era for Numan. He amps things up a bit on his next record, but until we come to 1993’s Sacrifice, it’s all a mostly sad voyage through blasterino loud 80s synths, booming drum machines and the ever-present female back-up. Oh yes, and the sax. Can’t forget the sax.

Choice cuts. Scraping the proverbial, but The Prison Moon is arguably the best of a sorry bunch.



The Expression expressed

A long time ago in a galaxy right here, there was a Sydney band called The Expression. According to a DJ on a radio station at the time, they were “the new band that everyone’s talking about”. I only ever heard one of their songs – 1983’s With Closed Eyes, which was about their only song you could classify as a hit. There’s two videos for it, a world-wide one showing the band involved in some unnamed warzone (though there’s an assumption out there it’s Nicaragua), and another they made so they wouldn’t offend American sensibilities, which just showed the band mostly playing live.

(Edit: it’s not letting me embed them any more)

The US release

The world-wide one

To be fair, of everything of theirs I’ve heard, it’s their best song by some way. The remainder of their material, which can be found on Youtube and sites like this one, is undistinguished new wave/synthpop with their second album veering into spacey adult contemporary territory. Nothing on either album really stands up and takes notice like With Closed Eyes though Total Eclipse is an OK track and some of the fretless bass work is pretty good. Yet, I’ll be brutally honest, and say they created two albums of filler. Anyone who bought their first record on the strength of their biggest single probably has cause to feel ripped off. There’s nothing else even remotely like it on the LP.

Faced with a distinct lack of chart success, they disbanded in 1985. The lead singer Tom Haran, has released a couple of solo records.

So why did I post about them and their music? I’ve had the chorus of With Closed Eyes jiving through my mind lately for whatever reason, so off to Youtube I went and did some rediscovering. There you have it.

Gary Numan – The Pleasure Principle

This album came out shortly after his last Tubeway Army effort was released. I mentioned there that this record is generally viewed as his magnum opus. On the strength of its songs, I’d agree, though I have a greater personal liking for Replicas simply because I heard it first.

In many ways, it’s more of the same. The major exception to that broad statement is that there’s no guitars on this record. It’s all synth and drums. It’s a showcase for the Polymoog.

As with the prior album, you’re in android territory here. Nearly all of the songs are from the view of a robot or a human caught in a robotic world and/or mindset. Even Cars, the world-wide hit, sounds like a product of an android’s fevered mind. It’s wonderfully impersonal music, though I have to say, it’s a lot warmer than its predecessor. The ballad Complex sounds far more human than the corresponding Down in the Park on the prior record.

There are no real weak tracks on this record, though you could argue it lulls a little through songs like Observer and Conservation. Some of the best music Numan has made is to be found right here, from the opening surging instrumental Airlane to the closing, pulsing Engineers. Apart from the aforementioned Cars (which isn’t even the best thing on the record) you have the classical groove of metal, the sad fey of Complex, the soaring charge of Films (album highlight), the mechanical pity of M.E and the steely reflectiveness of Tracks.

Make no mistake, this is a landmark record and it’s possibly the last great thing he ever made. The next album, Telekon, has its moments but it goes downhill from there as Numan moved away from the sound that brought him fame.

All hail this android masterpiece!

the pleasure principle

Tubeway Army – Replicas

This is album number two for Tubeway Army, before Gary Numan went on to do greater and lesser things solo. The first, self-titled, record has its moments, but it’s not the cold metallic and joyfully soulless robotic outing this record is.

From the opening pulse of Me, I Disconnect From You, you are aware you have entered a grey land that promises inorganic miserable delights. There isn’t one track on this record that you could describe as warm. Far from it. Even the touching instrumental I Nearly Married a Human is an electronic approximation of an end of the world lament.

The lack of warmth is what gives this record its eternal appeal. It’s an android’s paradise, even if many of the songs are from the point of view of humans. The precise and concise metallic rhythms here are right up a robot’s alley, jerking and pulsing forth with positronic energy. Even the hit Are Friends Electric? sounds like the sort of thing C3PO would’ve composed had he been given studio time.

There’s no filler here and there are plenty of highlights. From the tight grooves of The Machman, You Are in My Vision (album highlight) and When the Machines Rock to the reflective grey skies of the title track and Down in the Park, it’s a glorious journey through a post-Kraftwerk’s The Man Machine world. Critics say Numan’s next album is the classic and in a way I agree, but he was never as cold and concise as he was on this record.

I love it, miserable thing that it is.


Icehouse – Measure For Measure

This is record number four for Icehouse. It sounds absolutely nothing like anything that came before it. In fact, the evolution of this band’s sound from the nervy hard rock/new wave of their first album, to the “bottled” sounding fake-rock of Sidewalk is all quite amazing.

Measure For Measure is all smooth textures, round edges and dreamy rhythms. In fact, it’s Iva Davies approximation of Roxy Music’s Avalon and Simple Minds’ New Gold Dream ’81-82-83-84.

Keyboards are front and centre here, and the music tries its best to float by on some ethereal current. It works sometimes, especially on the opening track Paradise, and other album cuts like Angel Street and No Promises. It falls flat too namely on tracks like Baby You’re So Strange and Lucky Me. Strangely, the B-side to Baby You’re So Strange, Too Late Now, is probably one of the best things Icehouse have recorded. They wisely included it on the CD release of the album.

But it’s intriguing listening to Mr Big, then going back in time six years and comparing it to the first album’s Fatman, which I think are two connected songs. The change in sound…talk about rapid evolution.

Anyhow, Icehouse were to hit the big time with their next record, Man of Colours, which is more or less a continuation of this. This isn’t a bad record, but it’s certainly an 80s relic. Big drums and big synths. And there’s a little too much trying to be Bryan Ferry or David Bowie (or Simple Minds) here. Iva Davies never quite did sound like himself on a record.

measure for measure

Alphaville – Catching Rays on Giant

I vaguely recall this German synth-pop band from the 80s. They came out with a couple of synth ballads which made it big in a few places. Maybe Big in Japan did become big in Japan.

Anyhow, Catching Rays on Giant is their latest LP, and it arrived 13 years after the last. This is pure discofied synth-pop. 80s revivalist music at its finest. It’s all very operatic and major key.

This record immediately gripped me. There’s very few weak tracks on it, and its laden with melodies and hooks, from the opening pulse-beat of Song For No One to the dramatic waves of Miracle Healing. In between, there’s some utter gems of pulsating synth-rock, like Things I Didn’t Do (album highlight), Phantoms and Call Me Down.

The record slumps a little with its ballads and it probably would be better off without the slow sonorous stuff. This band sound a hell of a lot better when they’re choofing along at 100+ beats per minute.

The whole thing is beautifully retro, and wouldn’t be out of place stacked up next to stuff by Heaven 17, Human League, early OMD etc. It arguably outdoes any of these for sheer theatrics.

I’m glad I discovered this record.


The Stranglers – Aural Sculpture

I’ve not listened to any other Stranglers record. Don’t know why exactly…probably just never got around to getting one. Anyhow, critics says Aural Sculpture is one of their more middling efforts. I first bought this LP way back when, on the strength of the single, Skin Deep. Or more correctly, I bought the cassette of the album. The cassette came with a game for the ZX Spectrum, called Aural Quest. Never did play it, though I heard it was nothing great.

This is one of the better albums I’ve ever owned (or listened to) and there really isn’t a poor track on it. Skin Deep is not even the highlight song here. That would go to Uptown, a great romping piece of action. Let Me Down Easy and Souls are high up there as well.

The whole record is underpinned by Dave Greenfield’s wonderful keyboard work. In fact, without it, the music would be fairly blah. Especially since the lyrics are nothing to write home about either. Whatever the case may be, the entire record lilts and floats along on the keyboard and synth sound, and is worth getting hold of just on that basis, IMHO.

Great stuff.

aural sculpture

Roxy Music – Avalon

This was the last record Roxy Music cut before they disbanded (they’ve consequently re-united). It was a band that I’d heard nothing of or about at the time, but I liked the look of the album, with its warrior gazing over the still lake motif. In this case, you can rightly judge a book by its cover, for everything inside this record is a gem. “Making out music for yuppies” was how one critic called it. Maybe it is, with Bryan Ferry‘s seductive crooning and the expansive sheets of synth flowing over it all. Verily, you could call it “away with it” music and you’d be spot on. It’s all beautiful.

There’s not a weak song on this record and they all wonderfully stand on their own merits. Some of the songs contained within are among the most gorgeous things ever written anywhere, namely More Than This, Take A Chance With Me (album highlight) and While My Heart Is Still Beating. To Turn You On, the title track and True To Life are up there somewhere in the ionosphere as well.

Critics say this is the maturation of a theme started on previous albums like Manifesto and Flesh and Blood. I agree and in a perverse way, I’m glad they quit when they did, for I think they couldn’t have bettered this record if they tried. It’s that damned good.

Go out and get it and prepared to be placed under a seductive, swaying spell.


The B52s – Cosmic Thing

Every now and then, an album is released where every cut is a winner. Every song. No filler, no padding, no weak tracks. Cosmic Thing is such an LP. Disclosure: I’ve not listened to any of their other albums, bar the first one, so I’ve nothing to compare it with in their oeuvre. But that doesn’t really matter.

From the raging, happy opening title track to the last languid refrains of Follow Your Bliss there are ten songs of pure wonder. Upbeat, chirpy, poppy and very happy songs at that. Everyone on Earth has heard and grooved to Love Shack and Roam, and these are representative of the music within Cosmic Thing. Representative and not standing out as is the case for most other singles on an album. Songs like Bushfire, Junebug and Channel Z are every bit as a good.

The LP just shimmers and floats along on cosmic vibes and you know, it’s impossible to feel down while listening to it. Yes, it’s that good. So good in fact, I’m a little hesitant to go and check out their other work in case I get let down.

This is a watershed album for pop rock. Little comes close to it. Go forth and find it, and confront your life with joy. It truly is a cosmic thing.

cosmic thing

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