Sunday, July 29, 2007

I'd Buy Anything By...The Art of Noise

For me, Kate Bush and Thomas Dolby were the gateways out of mainstream music, but The Art of Noise kicked my butt all the way through.

They were always a mysterious entity, shunning band photographs at the beginning and doing enigmatic (and often nerdy) interviews. Born from the production team that Trevor Horn had put together to add synths and sampled tweaks to bands like ABC, Pet Shop Boys, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and Yes, they were "studio rats" who obviously spent far too much time remixing things.

The only member of the original band who didn't fit this aesthetic was journalist Paul Morley, whose job was to direct the band's philosophy. Or something. He did come up with wonderful cover art and some totally confusing liner notes, but judging by his activities in the "new" Art of Noise (saying enigmatic things and jumping around in a hoodie), Morley was not essential.

At the time, producer Trevor Horn was the music world's golden boy. It's difficult to figure out what he did in the band as well, and after the band's nasty split in 1985 -- Morley and Horn wanted to "create art," while the other band members wanted to be "rock stars" -- J. J. Jeczalik said that Horn and Morley were responsible for about 0.4% of what Art of Noise did, which sounds like a pretty fair assessment.

Ah, J.J. The guy with the Fairlight sampler. There's no doubt in my mind that he was the backbone of the band, responsible for "The Noise." Engineer Gary Langan helped tone down and channel J.J.s experiments into workable rhythms, and trained musician Anne Dudley added gorgeous keyboard lines over the herky-jerky beats. They single-handedly invented breakbeats and inspired so much of the music that is still being made today. Prodigy and Fatboy Slim, anybody?

The Art of Noise taught me (and the world) that, as of 1980, you no longer needed acoustic instrumentation to make a song. They were particularly obvious about it in this insane video for "Close to the Edit." I do think it's a video with a manifesto, and I love love love it.

As with so many bands of the period, The Art of Noise eventually went astray. I assume that Anne Dudley was interested in doing more "traditional" work, and their albums got more and more acoustic, at the expense of the production and technology that had previously been their strength. Bongos and backup singers and Tom Jones pushed the Fairlight to the background, and by the time of "Below the Waste" they'd sunk into total mediocrity.

Then, in 2000, Morley, Horne, and Dudley came back. They released a somewhat blah and meandering album about Paul Debussey. For the most part it sounded like an excerpt from Dudley's soundtrack work, but it did have some outstanding moments, like "Metaforce" (another great video).

Albums to check out? "Who's Afraid of? (The Art of Noise!)" (their debut) and "In Visible Silence" (their follow-up, when they still "had it"). Albums to avoid: "Below the Waste" (the bland end of their first career) and "The Seduction of Claude Debussy" (the mediocre attempt at another). For fans only: "And What Have You Done With My Body, God," a 4-CD collection of studio mixes from their first album, showing how "The Noise" evolved. Fascinating, if you like that sort of thing.


JJ said...

Back to full form review! I wonder if u remember a similiar concept group from around the same time frame that used to get heavy MTV air-play - back in the days when music videos were genuinely cool and innovative,. :-)

I am afraid I am going to be impossibly vague but here goes:
1) Sound is definitely related to Buggies/Frankie goes to hollywood type sound.
2) Little or no singing. No "artists" featured in videos.
3) Memorable concept videos that included having mannequins indulging in BDSM kind of situations - flogging people, if i recall correctly.
Rings any bells?


Muffy St. Bernard said...

Intriguing, JJ! You think this was pre-1984 or so?

My first thought is Herbie Hancock's "Rockit," which was very Art of Noisey and did feature mannequins beating each other up, but I don't think Hancock's other videos were like that.

If you're thinking late '80s, maybe Meat Beat Manifesto? The "Strap Down" video was very fetishy and strange and had people who looked mannequin-ish, but the artists were definitely in the video. And there was "rapping."

You're not thinking of Kraftwerk, Bomb the Bass, or M.A.R.R.S? What about that "Warm Leatherette/TV O.D." song? Not The Flying Lizards?

No group rings an immediate bell, so I'm tossing out groups that might fit the description...

Eli McIlveen said...

Oh neat. I'd never seen that video, though I'd heard mention of it. I have new love for "Close to the Edit" now, especially the "Tra la la!" bit.

I read Paul Morley's book Words and Music recently, and found it ascinating in parts, full of amusing musical in-jokes, but mostly incredibly annoying.

I'll stick with David Toop, thank you very much. (Have you read Ocean Of Sound?)

Muffy St. Bernard said...

I'd never heard of David Toop before, but all his books look fascinating! I bet in a Toop-Morley fight, Toop would win.

Apparently Trevor Horn was TERRIFIED that they'd be sued by the Andrews Sisters for "Tra la la!"

Eli McIlveen said...

The Toop book is great. There's a whole chapter that traces the history of "noise" from the Italian Futurists (AON, of course, took their name from a Futurist manifesto) right back to the dawn of human history. "Instruments of Darkness", it turns out, is a phrase from Levi-Strauss, referring to the association of noise with death and chaos. Lots of stuff about the evolution of ambient, dance and other sorts of modern music.

I've gotta do some book reviews some time. Lots of catching up in general, for that matter!

Muffy St. Bernard said...

It sounds like you're too busy soldering to do reviews at the moment. :)

I need to pick up that book. Also need to send you that copy of "Damage" that's sitting on my shelf. Shameful.

JJ said...

Herbie Hancock's "Rockit," it is. But I do recall ANOTHER video with a similiar theme and more kinky mannequins flogging people. Like you said "Rockit" was a standalone work but these mannequin floggers had a regular line of videos coming out. :)

Muffy St. Bernard said...

That must have been "The Kinky Mannequin Band!"

I'm curious...if you ever figure out who these creepy creatures were, please let me know!