The introductory video on the DVD half of this reissue talks about the legacy of the Art of Noise– mentioning Daft Punk, the Chemical Brothers, and Massive Attack. It’s easy to see why the group would be proud of such lustrous descendants, but it actually sells them short.
What’s interesting about Art of Noise– certainly the first phase of their project, which culminated in this debut album– isn’t so much their children but their parents. This was a pop band named after a 1913 art manifesto, deliberately aspiring to inherit the explosion of early 20th century conceptual creativity and make Futurists and Dadaists rub shoulders with b-boys and clubbers. The group’s own arch-conceptualist, music writer Paul Morley, apparently planned an album that would be a grand collage of the century’s sounds– what he actually got was an acrimonious split.
Morley may, in his words, have only “made the tea” in Art of Noise, but he dominates the visual half of this reissue: introducing videos, reading out essays onstage, continually playing the ideas man and provocateur even if his incessant wordplay’s an acquired taste. The group’s videos are proof that this apparent pretension came with a smart payoff. “Beat Box” is recast as the soundtrack to a city with lively, evocative footage of 1980s London cut to its rhythm.
“Moments in Love” mixes dancers and tortoises, grace and absurdity. And most famously “Close (to the Edit)”, the dream-logic realization of the group’s ideals, with a creepy punker kid commanding anonymous wreckers as they smash cellos and pianos to pieces.
“Close (to the Edit)” reminds you that Art of Noise were trying to be funny and sometimes scary– neither of them standard pop ambitions in 1984 or now. In fact, what’s striking about this album is the range of moods and effects it musters, while remaining an intensely playful record. It follows the savage, martial arrangement of Cold War bricolage “A Time for Fear (Who’s Afraid)” with a teasing version of “Beat Box” where the track’s purposeful electro keeps getting diverted by shiny new sounds.
On the title track, a snooty voice asks, “Can I say something?” and the music refuses to let it even say that, gleefully slashing the sample to ribbons. The album flirts with annoyance and even boredom– the way the stately, repetitive beauty of “Moments in Love” lulls you before unwinding itself into stranger places. But they could also be thrilling. Their immediate context was hip-hop, but their kind of funk– best experienced on “Close (to the Edit)”– has a brash rigor to it, calling to mind tireless pistons and marching feet.
“This limited circle of pure sounds must be broken,” Luigi Russolo wrote in the manifesto that inspired the band, “and the infinite variety of noise-sound conquered.” But the technological limits to sampling in 1984 meant that Art of Noise were stuck with a very finite variety of noise-sound, constantly worrying at and reusing snippets of samples.
The only problem with the many reissues of early Art of Noise is the group’s endless recycling of its two key tracks. “Beat Box”– of which “Close (to the Edit)” is a cousin– and “Moments in Love” were on their first EP, then issued as separate singles, appeared on every compilation, dominated this debut album, and now appear– counting the DVD– six times each on this reissue.
For diehard fans, the incessant tinkering is part of the fun– for listeners less caught up in the band’s process, it’s easy to get a little weary with the radio sessions and alternate video edits collected here. Stick with the core album and videos, though, and you realize the reason Art of Noise kept returning to these songs: Both are superb, anchoring a record that’s as sly, stirring, and occasionally infuriating now as it was on release.
Well, normally, everybody’s afraid. But give it just one spin and you’ll understand that in reality the album title is much more ironic than its is “threatening”.
You could indeed argue that this was the first techno-pop album ever; you could actually win the argument, too, because this is no goddamn Kraftwerk here. Producer Trevor Horn, yes, the same Trevor Horn that was once a member of Yes, and his gang o’ three weird production/engineering/mixing goons, with Anne Dudley at the top, set out to revolutionize popular music with this puppy… again. And pretty much succeed. Now I’m no expert on electronica-based genres of the Nineties, but I know for sure that techno, trance, house, you name it, they all owe a lot to this album; and I certainly know for sure that these guys were ahead of their time at least a good five or six years or so.
In fact, I wonder what kind of things shocked reviewers were writing about it at the time. See, this is by far the first, or the first well-known, album, that actually introduces the practice of sampling; and by sampling I don’t mean merely ‘cut-and-paste’ kind of things which Can were doing a decade earlier, but more like sampling in the modern sense of the word. Just the most simple example: the one-minute ‘Snapshot’ builds up a cyclic pattern of drum machines, synth loops and croakings around the famous three-note piano riff of ‘Baba O’Riley’. Simple and effective, actually fun, too, and as far as I know – unprecedented.
Apart from that, I guess the best way to describe Who’s Afraid would be “sound collage”, but unlike, for instance, the underground industrial bands of the time, Art Of Noise were definitely trying to mold their collages into rhythmic, almost danceable grooves. Heck, what’s up with “almost”? They are danceable! ‘Beatbox’, although in a somewhat different version, was, like, the ultimate break dance soundtrack of its time!
This is why they proved so “influential”, with tons of techno and trance performers ripping out the weirdness and imagination of this music and leaving just the rhythmic punch. Ah well, we can’t blame them for all the techno crap they’ve launched upon this world anyway, or else we’d have to blame the Beatles for Barry Manilow or something.
In any case, I can’t say that deep down in my soul, I like this album all that much. I’m not saying it has no emotional or entertainment value – it’s just way too weird and convention-disturbing and jerky for its own good. However, and this is very important, neither does it fall into that category of records which I perceive as “museum quality” (i.e. listen to it once or twice to get a unique, curious experience, then shove ’em somewhere deep in the cupboard so that you can forget all about ’em, then maybe rediscover them ten years later and get the same experience again). For the simple reason that I seriously had the urge to relisten to at least parts of it at least several times, and lemme tellya, this never happened with any Faust or Einstuerzende Neubauten record.
Weird, because the only more or less ‘normal’ song on it happens to be the ten-minute long opus ‘Moments In Love’, and ironically, it’s also by far the worst number: unlike all the other grooves, which are energetic and disturbing, ‘Moments In Love’ is supposed to be a slow moody romantic ‘electronic shuffle’, with no unpredictable melody/mood transitions, no sampling, no crazyass vocal effects, just a few New Age-style synth chords actually played throughout its duration.
For two or three minutes, I could reasonably tolerate it; five minutes would be justified if two of them were dedicated to that ‘different’ mid-section; but ten minutes of it is boring as hell. And it just sticks out like a sore thumb – not really innovative either. Maybe they just really wanted a “normal” composition in there so that people wouldn’t be put off that much, but why stick it in the middle then? Don’t get me wrong – the basic premise is beautiful, but ten minutes? Nah.
In any case, if a guy is gonna be put off by this record, he’s gonna be put off beginning with the first two or three minutes. ‘A Time For Fear (Who’s Afraid)’ opens the proceedings with a strange spoken anti-imperialist rant, then a raving onslaught of echoing drum machines that sometimes go into unpredictable loops together with the accompanying bits of said rant, then calms down with a short synth-only New Age-meets-medieval interlude, then the drum machines kick in again. Then, with a funny ‘oh no I don’t believe it… ba ba ba bam’ the record leads you into ‘Beat Box’, which is… nup, I guess it’s impossible to describe it. Sometimes you be gettin’ a funny funky bassline. Then suddenly the bassline is no more, and instead you get a poppy guitar riff, and then that bassline pops up somewhere from another direction and it’s all speedy and apparently computer processed and looped and whatever, and all around you you get swirling dancey synth patterns and vocals coming from every direction saying all kinds of jumbled nonsense.
Very often, you’re going to encounter the same melody bits and the same vocal bits in different songs; it’s all like an insane potpourri, a big piece o’ pie chopped into several pieces and scattered randomly throughout the forty minutes. I swear I did hear these looped car-ignition noises in several numbers at least, although, of course, they’re mostly prominent as the rhythm-substituting elements of the single ‘Close (To The Edit)’, arguably the best known song on the album. (And I do guess that the Yes reference is intentional, seeing as how there was Trevor Horn producing this thing, plus they actually pronounce ‘to be in England, in the summertime, with my love, close to the edge’ at one point). And if you listen very carefully, you’ll notice that the bassline driving the song forward is actually a slightly modified rockabilly kind of thing. But it meshes with the ignition rhythm perfectly.
One thing that people usually forget to mention about Who’s Afraid is how fun it all sounds. You probably wouldn’t expect a bunch of samples to beg for a description involving the words “lively”, “joyful”, “enthusiastic”, “childishly hilarious”, etc., but these are exactly the definitions that spring to mind. It is all perhaps best symbolized by Dudley’s unabashed, refreshingly sincere fit of laughter at the end of the title track – and the echoey ‘Boom!’ she yells into the microphone like a little kid who’s so innocently happy about just having discovered a supercool gadget and being able to mess around with it. I mean, the things they’re doing aren’t all that different from whatever you the cool (or, rather, the uncool) weird experimental guy are doing sitting all alone in the dark with your computer and a bunch of .wav files, dicking around trying to make something unusual. They just happened to be the first people to really gain notoriety with this – and also, to do this better than most other people.
I’m not going into details over the remaining tracks – they’re all pretty similar, with recurring themes and lookalike atmospheres. But anyway, this is certainly an outstanding record, and it actually symbolized a time when people were taking the practices of sampling and computer processing and trying to create a whole new musical world, a whole new sonic dimension, a whole new emotional pattern, mayhaps, with it. I guess in the end, they didn’t succeed – boring dance people just took over the easiest of their achievements and discarded the major ones.
But that doesn’t mean these records aren’t worth your attention; after all, just because hippies did not manage to bring peace and love to the whole world does not mean you can’t enjoy Crosby, Stills, & Nash even in the modern day world.