Lockdown Listening 2

April 25, 2020

Lockdown Listening 2

This rather brief edition of Lockdown Listening is truly a C-19 special. Every day during these ‘unusual times’, various neighbours have been leaving boxes of CDs, DVDs and books out on walls and benches throughout the neighbourhood (thoroughly disinfected no doubt!). This has led to a few discoveries and a fair bit of reassessment. Consequently, I’ve deliberately devoted much of my recent listening to whatever’s been left in the boxes (and ended up in my collection).

Barry Adamson – Delusion (1991)

A long-term fan of BA’s distinctive bass playing with Magazine and Nick Cave, this was a welcome ‘box discovery’. An evocative soundtrack with an emphasis on deep synth textures, brooding organs and occasional Classical guitar flourishes, the ghosts of Ennio Morricone, Bernard Hermann and John Barry hover enticingly in the background.

Balanescu Quartet – Possessed (1992)

Another ‘box’ special. As much as I love Minimalism and the work of Michael Nyman, this was an album I consciously avoided when it was released. The concept seemed too arch and too obvious (Classical musicians flirting with ‘hip’ Pop repertoire in order to boost sales and credibility). In reality, it’s a strong album that I was wrong to dismiss on the basis of a speculative hunch (my bad as our American cousins might say).

The multiple settings of several Kraftwerk pieces work surprisingly well, remaining faithful to the pared-down nature of the original material while possessing a strong personality of their own. That said, the long-form ‘original’ pieces – Possessed and No Time Before Time – are probably even stronger. The sound is comparable to the classic Michael Nyman Band of the 1980s, but the pieces stretch out and ‘breathe’ more than the brief, often frantic, early Nyman compositions were ever allowed to.

Blondie – Greatest Hits (2002)

Yes, from a box! Like every child in the late 1970s, I was very aware of Blondie. Along with the likes of The Police, the band dominated the British charts. In an era of great singles artists (Squeeze, XTC, Police, Gary Numan, Stranglers, Madness and many more), Blondie were undoubtedly one of the best. Combining New York New Wave sensibilities with 1960s British Invasion hooks and artful nods to trends of the day (e.g. Heart Of Glass’s infectious Disco beats), for a time the band were unstoppably great. As the 1980s wore on and egos grew, Blondie’s magical Pop sheen became a little tarnished and tired, but the brilliance of songs like Rapture and The Tide Is High testifies to the fact that something special remained.

Tim Bowness – Late Night Laments (2020)

After trying out 26 sequences, the album continues to torture me. The latest version is a shorter 9 track 39 minute affair. Here’s hoping it sticks and that it doesn’t appear in the next Lockdown Listening list!

Depeche Mode – Some Great Reward (1984) / Black Celebration (1986) / Music For The Masses (1987)

More from the box. These three albums represent the peak of Depech Mode’s output for me. A massive leap forward from the more straightforward Electro Pop of their early work and more to my tastes than the bands Rock-infused experiments of the 1990s, this mid-1980s trilogy consistently hits a creative sweet spot.

There’s a real sense of discovery about these albums. Sonically playing with elements of Industrial, cinematic soundtracks, Minimalism and cutting-edge synth technology, the band also delivered their strongest set of songs on these releases. Hook-laden Pop epics sit comfortably alongside unexpectedly dramatic ballads and intriguing, brief instrumentals.

The other thing that struck me on re-listening to the albums was how ‘English’ the band sound at this stage in their career. Gahan and Gore sound like debauched Church Of England choirboys singing at the altar, while somewhere in the background the rest of the band have cheekily replaced the pipe organ with a bank of shiny new synths and pneumatic drills. A good thing!

Yes – Tormato (1978)

Ah Tormato, let me count the ways I love thee. Well, more than two anyway.

After mentioning this last time, I felt obliged to listen to the album as a whole to confirm my feeling that this really is a special release in the band’s remarkable body of work.

Tormato’s main problem was that it followed the towering artistic and commercial success of Going For The One (an album that stands alongside Close To The Edge as my personal favourite by the band). There’s no doubt that it lacks the focus of its predecessor and doesn’t have anything approaching the scope of the mighty Awaken or the accessibility of the ever-delightful Wondrous Stories. There’s an ‘after the party’ sense of confusion about the whole project. The throwaway title and sleeve, and the accidentally thin sound* didn’t help with its reception either.

While there are attempts to embrace then current styles (the Disco groove of Don’t Kill The Whale, the raw Rock rush of Release, Release, the overall brevity of the songs), the album seems as wilfully Yes-like as anything in the band’s catalogue. Anderson and Howe are at their most playful and eccentric, and the White/Squire rhythm section is by turns inventive and thunderous. Wakeman’s use of the Birotron isn’t to some people’s tastes, but I feel it’s something that gives the album a unique flavour.

Madrigal and Onward are two of the most beautiful ballads in the Yes repertoire, while the euphoric epics Future Times/Rejoice and On The Silent Wings Of Freedom could honourably grace any Yes Best Of compilation (ditto the Funktastic Don’t Kill The Whale for me). While I’d agree that the likes of Release, Release, Circus Of Heaven and Arriving UFO couldn’t be described as classics, they are unmistakable in their Yessy Yes-ness. The album may well be mad, muddled and twee on more than a few occasions, but as on all the band’s best releases, Tormato superbly captures the sound of a band making it up as it goes along. There’s a thrilling lack of hipness and self-consciousness in the crazed guitar soloing on Arriving UFO or the children’s voice on the coda of Circus Of Heaven. In some ways, this may well be the last time the band sounded unashamedly like itself. Drama and 90125 are more confident and more aligned to the times they were released in, but as good as both albums are there’s an overriding sense that they’ve been minutely micro-managed to work effectively in a commercial environment (which they did brilliantly of course). Tormato is the dying gasp of an impossibly exotic beast.

* In 2013, Yes remastering engineer Brian Kehew said that the album sounded, “Thin, flat and terrible”. He observed that Eddie Offord (Yes’s regular producer) usually incorporated Dolby A in his production work and that it hadn’t been used on Tormato. When he applied Dolby A to the original master tapes, he said, “Everything sounded amazing”. Kehew believed that the engineers who replaced Offord during the end process of the album’s production may not have known about Offord’s use of Dolby noise reduction.