Available as a FLAC download
I am not one for video games.
I bring this up because recent spurious rumors have surfaced that I was, at one point, known to stay up until 4am playing Castle Wolfenstein on a Pentium PC. This probably isn’t true. I mean, there might have been, say, a certain extended dalliance with Riven back in the day, perhaps. And that was just for research purposes.
So, when Kranky-label artist Loscil (a/k/a Scott Morgan) announced it/he was contributing music to the Apple Arcade-exclusive game entitled Lifelike, I didn’t rush out and update my OS and buy a subscription to Arcade in order to check out the game.
I did, however, buy a download of the music from Bandcamp. And I’m happy I did because it’s one of my favorite bits of music from late-2019.
As with all of Loscil’s work, it’s electronics-based, and instrumental. It’s quiet. It drifts. It sounds best at night, or while driving through fog. Y’all drive through fog occasionally, right? I mean, literally. To me, Lifelike sounds good all the time. It’s so good I’m almost tempted to upgrade to Catalina and subscribe to Arcade so I can see if the visuals are as sublime as the music.
Available as a FLAC download
Franck Zaragoza is Ocoeur. Everything is his fifth album for the n5MD label. Fans of low-key, mostly-beatless, floating electronics are going to need this one.
The eleven-minute “Dawn” and ten-minute “Dusk” micro-epics are my favorite tracks, but, at press time, the only selection available for streaming is “Glow”:
While Everything is predominantly slow-moving, and might be termed “ambient” by some (not I), it benefits from being played loudly; the reverb textures alone beg volume. A firm clockwise twist will fill your home with warmth. It may not be everything to everyone, but Everything is already at the top of my 2020 list of good things.
The Cure Faith and Seventeen Seconds
Available as LP reissues
These are on the Russian Vinyl Lovers label (which is affiliated with the Lilith label, who’ve done some impressive reissue work on seventies Euro-prog albums. They appear to be remastered from the 2005 Rhino double-CD reissues, packed with same extra tracks of each album’s era.
I’m not certain of the provenance of the masters, but the pressing and mastering quality on these two reissues is excellent — right up there with the UK vinyl reissue of Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark’s Organisation a couple years back. Faith and Seventeen Seconds encapsulate the monochromatic, minimalist glory years of The Cure, and date back to a time before the overamped claustrophobia of Pornography and the goth-pop to follow.
The extra tracks on the second discs of both sets are largely forgettable and/or available elsewhere… but, as far as I’m confused, this vinyl version of Faith is the only LP-flavored (and, for a long time, cassette-only) place you can find “Carnage Visors,” a 27+ minute bit of gradually-building, Dr. Boss-clicked, bass-dominated, relentless foreboding — that goes nowhere, but is a pleasantly dark, tense ride, all the same.
Be Bop Deluxe Modern Music
Available as a 4CD + DVD box set
During Winter 1976/77 I was working at Flipside Records in Downers Grove, Illinois. It was my first record-store job. I was mere holiday help, and my colleagues were older, wiser, and more knowing / ironic than I (which wasn’t that difficult, as I was still in high school, and more than a bit of a squirrel). My sole task was Watching The Store for Shoplifters. I wasn’t trusted to run the register, or the Ticketron machine. I didn’t care. I got LPs at a discount, and first shot at concert tickets (hello, front row center at Alpine Valley for the Utopia “RA” tour).
I learned a lot during my brief time at Flipside. Not least of all about the albums selected for in-store play. The one that made the most lasting impression upon me was Be Bop Deluxe’s Modern Music.
It was the band’s fourth album, but I’d never heard of them, having been too busy in my bedroom, relentlessly spinning LPs and cassettes of Led Zeppelin, Wishbone Ash, Todd Rundgren, and Joni Mitchell until (and far beyond the point where) my parents soon began to hate all four.
They would soon be adding Be Bop Deluxe to that list.
Be Bop founder and leader Bill Nelson forged a unique nexus among art rock, glam, futurism, and progressive rock. He wrote imaginative, romantic songs, crafted with a literary flair, and he coaxed beautifully unspeakable sounds from his Gibson ES-345 and Yamaha SG2000 guitars with solos inspired by jazz, Hendrix, Beck, and Clapton, causing even the most jaded axe-victim aficionados to plotz.
Nelson’s lead-guitar work didn’t always meld so effortlessly with the ambitious — yet David-Bowie-tinged — songs on the first two Be Bop albums. But on Sunburst Finish (reissued in 2018, also as a multi-disc package with stereo and 5.1 remixes) and, especially, Modern Music, they fit perfectly. These weren’t your basic obligatory-guitar-hero histrionics. Bill, along with Robert Fripp and Todd Rundgren output of a the late seventies, however, could share that mantle more than adequately — the solos supported the songs and the songwriting, and the songs and songwriting buoyed the solos.
Modern Music was co-produced by Nelson and John Leckie. This Leckie fellow? He produced Sunburst Finish, as well. Other than that, he has a somewhat credible portfolio: Magazine, XTC, Roy Harper, The Skids, Cowboy Junkies, New Order, and dozens more. He was house tape-op and engineer at Abbey Road studios, and helped engineer Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here and Meddle. Leckie was indispensable in translating Bill Nelson’s words, music and conceptual vision into what was to become Modern Music.
In December 2019, Esoteric/Cherry Red UK released a deluxe box set consisting of four CDs and a DVD. There are bonus (but previously available) live performances, non-LP tracks, some charmingly dated video material, a remastered original CD, and, courtesy of Stephen Tayler, a 2019 stereo remix CD, and a new 5.1 remix (it’s worth mentioning that, best I can tell, Nelson had nothing to do with the remixes). Also included is a 65-page color book with (a somewhat wry) historical perspective by Bill Nelson, period photos, ad clippings and reviews, some oversized postcards, and a replica tour program — excuse me, programme — all bundled in a sweet slipcase.
Side one of the original LP isn’t a medley, but it may as well be, with little in the way of discernible pauses between the tracks. The new stereo mix clarifies much of the mastering murk of the original, and affords needed space between the instruments; there are some enjoyable surprises — the phase-shift effects sound “chunkier,” especially on the descending progressions in the opener, “Orphans of Babylon”, where the warble-swept guitar of Sunburst‘s “Life in the Air Age” again appears. ARP Solina/String Ensemble synths soar graciously, as in the manner of the day; you can almost hear the Leslie speaker spinning as the keyboards whirl. The twelve-string guitars gleam, and Nelson’s deftly tasteful guitar overdubs — sometimes dulled in the original mix — burn afresh.
“Twilight Capers” has always shown 10CC how a reggae break is done up proper (again, first exhibited on Sunburst Finish‘s “Ships In The Night”). The lead vocal has newly-unmuddied slapback echo. Andy Clark — who went on to contribute keyboards and synths to Bowie’s Scary Monsters album — unleashes synth-gremlins that dart in and out of the rear channels on the 5.1 mix. “Kiss of Light” is as catchy as ever, with its churning bridge and double-tracked guitar solos, and a whooshing, near-psychedelic, phase-shifting middle-eight. How did 70’s FM radio miss this obvious hit, which was released as The Single in the US? Rhetorical question.
“The Gold at the End of My Rainbow” dawns with a bewilderingly lovely, cascading, reverse-tracked guitar solo that never fails to leave me in a helpless emo puddle on the floor. As bittersweet romantic odes, go, it’s the bittersweetly-romantic-est.
The last track on side one (well, back when we only had LPs and cassettes, anyway, and the lucky among us had pet dinosaurs that lifted the needle at the end of the record) is “Bring Back the Spark”, another made-for-radio, riff-laden art-pop masterpiece.
The “Modern Music” suite on side two remains something to behold. It’s aged well; better, anyway, than many hit (and near-hit) albums released around the same time. If the title song had been played as often as…I dunno, say, Boston’s “More Than a Feeling”? Well, then, perhaps Be Bop Deluxe might’ve received its due. But it wasn’t to be, and Bill Nelson and the band would have to be content with merely producing one of the most inventive and listenable sides (well, entire albums, even) of music of 1976, and, likely, beyond.
The 5.1 mix is more functional than flashy, but the backing vocals on “Honeymoon on Mars” swirl gloriously, making way for the bonkers cacophony of “Lost in the Neon World” (more of that descending phased-guitar carried over from “Life In the Air Age” again, everyone?). And hey, what to make of all these sci-fi metaphors? Bill Nelson, from the liner notes:
[…M]any of the songs were written in hotel rooms while touring America and some of them relate to the growing disillusion[ment] I was feeling with life on the road. Since I’d been a child, I’d had a fascination with America, mostly through Hollywood movies, custom cars, skyscrapers, and, of course, rock n’ roll music. Finally getting to see America first-hand seemed exciting, a dream come true. But what had appeared so familiar to me as an enthusiastic devourer of pop-culture, in the end turned out to be rather different. I was surprised to find that American sensibilities were, despite a common language, far more “foreign” than I’d expected. Perhaps this realisation was intensified by the glossy superficiality of the music industry, where competition, greed, lies and ambition often counted more than decency or ethics. At first, I accepted this for what it was, but the glamour began to lose its sheen.
[The backstory that provoked a certain second-to-last sentence above deserves more than a footnote, and, most likely, a post all its own].
That loss of innocence is evident in the unvarnished cynicism of the slurred sound bites in the middle section of “Dance of the Uncle Sam Humanoids” (“hi Bill, glad to see your guitar, wanna do some Quaaludes?”); the whirling-channel-dervish (especially on 5.1) climax presents some of Nelson’s most mercilessly emotive — and, most likely, angry — soloing ever. The final, furious guitar lead before the coda to the suite remains goosebump-worthy, even with 43 years of record-business blood under the bridge.
But wait. There’s more. After the suite’s conclusion, the butt-rockin’ “Forbidden Lovers” segues with nary a crack into the Bowie-inflected, apocalyptic thunder of “Terminal Street”; the latter has always sounded downright anthemic, all rumbling, doubled, reverbed riffs — but the 2019 remaster and mix is a monster. This is a floor-shaker, and can’t be played loud enough.
And if there’s to be a all-too-brief fairytale ending to this dark, Wizard-of-Oz-like concept album, it has to be “Make the Music Magic.” It seems our Bill is still a romantic, despite the star-making shenanigans that threatened to shatter his rose-tinted glasses.
Nelson never stopped making music following Be Bop Deluxe’s demise after 1978’s Drastic Plastic. His solo output — before I lost count, over a hundred self-released albums (and most of them out of print) since — couldn’t be done justice by a dozen blog posts, if not a book all its own. For those looking to find a starting point, 2011’s Fantasmatron is among the best. I’m also a huge fan of such early-80s solo material as Quit Dreaming and Get on the Beam and The Love That Whirls. For those who can’t get enough of instrumental, four-track, home-recorded semi-ambience (you are my people!), it’s difficult to go wrong with Sounding the Ritual Echo.
Now, at 71 years old, Nelson is coping with multiple health issues, including hearing and eyesight loss, but he continues to record and self-release new music, and engage with his thousands of fans on social media and via his oft-updated website.
If you’re a fan of the original release, the 2019 stereo mix of Modern Music (especially on decent headphones, with a tube headphone amp pumping at indecent volume) and 5.1 mix reveal that so much more was going on during the recording of than was let on by the original LP.
The remaster and new mix has added a wondrously potent punch to what was already one of the headiest, smartest, well-crafted (and inexplicably underappreciated) albums — and bands — of the seventies.
About the Author
Paul Ashby has, gratefully, retired from the music business but still can’t resist sniping from the sidelines from time to time.
He lives in Contra Costa County, California, with his partner Kate, and their cats, Wafflehead and Timmy. He is approaching the tipping point where he enjoys gardening and landscaping more than music.
We’ll see how that pans out.
You can find Paul regularly on his own site, Anything But MP3.