The abduction of The Art Of Noise
or a group swiping its name from an Italian futurist, there was always something gloriously retro, even Old Europe, about Art of Noise. Maybe it was all those marble statues adorning their album sleeves. Or perhaps it was because its members were, by and large, career professionals all entering their mid-30s by the time Trevor Horn’s studio crew showed their boss what they’d come up with during a late-night session (bizarrely, for Yes’s 90125 album). But whether it was the stop-frame video for “Close (To the Edit)” that featured a little girl leading grown men in the destruction of orchestral instruments, the 18th century theater masks that became their iconic calling card, or the Stalling-esque blasts of orchestra and (most famously) samples of cars starting that comprised the music itself, Art of Noise’s brand of futurism always seemed to depend on the past it professed to transcend.
Appropriate, then, that one of pop’s oldest forms of flattery, the tribute album, would be bestowed in 2004 on the infamous anti-group, now hailed as one of the principal harbingers of electronica. Three years in the making, The abduction of The Art Of Noise features new versions of 12 AoN tracks spanning the group’s entire career, from the inaugural release on Horn’s Zang Tuum Tumb imprint, the Into Battle EP, onto its work with China Records, where AoN found notoriety with art-house cover versions of famous songs with famous guests (most notably Tom Jones on Prince’s “Kiss”), prior to reconvening with ZTT in 1999 for a brilliantly flawed concept record about French composer, Claude Debussy. Like most tributes, abduction seeks to comment on the prescience and influence of the original by way of illustrating its relation to today’s music scene. But as journalist/ZTT expert/Karvavena supremo/compiler Ian Peel well knows, when you’re dealing with a legacy as broad and hard to pin down as Art of Noise’s, extracting its essence is a task easier said than done.
But it’s one well worth undertaking. At the heart of that legacy is the group’s ZTT work between 1983 and 1984 (largely compiled on 1987’s Daft), which challenged the very notion of what a pop group was, putting album sleeves, song titles and marketing tactics before any face the listener could identify. Originally comprised of engineer Gary Langan, computer programmer J.J. Jeczalik and arranger Anne Dudley, with Horn overseeing matters and former NME scribe and provocateur Paul Morley making the noises committed to print, AoN manufactured their industrial symphonies using the most exclusive of expensive toys: the Fairlight sampling synthesizer, which allowed the band to manipulate sound in real time. And manipulate they did: producing mechanical cartoon music with songs such as “Beat Box” and the aforementioned “Close (To the Edit)” (itself a radical remix of “Beat Box”), featuring jackhammer beats and stuttering jazz bass samples. Despite these harder-edged songs, it was the lush impressionism of “Moments In Love” that became the group’s signature piece, taking Eno’s ambient concept to new, somewhat unnerving levels, marrying atmosphere with a breathy vocal sample reminiscent of 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love” and slowly deforming it over 10 ethereal minutes. Almost too fittingly, “Moments In Love” would serve as the soundtrack to Sean Penn and Madonna’s doomed union for their 1985 wedding.
Of abduction’s 12 tracks, 7 date from the ZTT era, no less than three of which are versions of “Moments In Love”. Immediately apparent is how singular Art of Noise’s voice really was. Where the new recording of “Beat Box” by Art of Silence (half of which is AoN founder, J.J. Jeczalik) largely undermines the austerity of the original by replacing the choppy 8-bit Fairlight textures with the filter-sweeps and organ pads found in contemporary progressive house, Benge’s version of “Moments”, recorded with a Fairlight CMI synthesizer that was programmed by Jeczalik himself, manages to sound both faithful and contemporary. Part of it may lie in the difference in technology; or perhaps house and four-to-the-floor techno simply owe a lot less to Art of Noise than IDM and glitch.
And while Banco De Gaia’s fine rendering of Who’s Afraid’s “Snapshot” (under the pseudonym of Disco Gecko Productions) might challenge that notion somewhat, the case that AoN midwifed contemporary IDM is furthered by BitTonic & si-cut.db’s take on one of Into Battle’s oddest tracks, “Donna”, infusing the track with a sense of dubby weirdness that also recalls Moebius and Plank’s seminal Rastakrautpasta. And proving that it wasn’t only electronica that paid its respects, Michael Schiefel and Chi2 present an equally formidable case that post-ZTT AoN made a deep impression on contemporary concert composers, with the latter’s reading of “Eye of the Noodle” successfully marrying Chinese strings, vocal percussives and beats supplied by Goldfrapp to a longing melancholy melody.
This being a tribute record, all the cuts don’t work. Though Velvet Chain’s take on “Beat Box (Diversion 2)” smartly focuses on the original’s impressionistic piano comping coda, Elliot Levine’s quartet-with-a-DJ take on the Debussy-drift of “Rapt: In the Evening Air”, all live drums and heavy jazz solos, comes off heavy-handed. But all in all, I’m quibbling—abduction’s packaging (including several clever ZTT factoids) and tracklisting alike are top notch.
The larger question is: does The abduction of The Art Of Noise capture the ephemeral genius and sense of irreconcilable conflict that was Art of Noise? Yes...but not quite to the point where it recreates it. At its best, Art of Noise always betrayed a desperate loneliness lurking underneath the wicked, geekish mischief; despite the generally high quality of the tracks presented here, that sense remains frustratingly absent. Like so much early 80s futurism, reconstruction or even dissection after the fact often proves challenging—just ask Ladytron or Phil Oakey. The future, once so alien, stops feeling like the future and starts to feel more like the here and now—which is fine…just not as inherently thrilling. As such, abduction is a engaging listen, but perhaps one best suited for the faithful, the already converted for whom the thrill keeps on keeping on.
Reviewed by: Matthew Weiner
Reviewed on: 2004-04-15