What would Luigi Russolo make of this collection?
Russolo was the Futurist visionary who wrote the 1913 pamphlet from which Gary Langan, J.J. Jeczalik, Trevor Horn, Anne Dudley and Paul Morley borrowed the name The Art Of Noise. He was the first to associate the possibilities of industrialisation with music, developing noise-generating machinery that looks primitive by today's standards, but which set in motion a chain of events that undoubtedly contributed to the development of synthesisers and sampling technology.
Let us also not forget that Horn and co owe an additional debt to Russolo. Not only did his visionary tinkering in Milan just before the First World War lead indirectly to the technology that allowed this Eighties unit to make tracks like 'Moments In Love', 'Peter Gunn' and 'Close To The (Edit)', but also because his pamphlet yielded the name of their label, ZTT - Zang-Tuum-Tuum - taken from the poet Marinetti's evocative phonetic description of the sounds of warfare from which Russolo quoted in his text.
In his manifesto, Russolo wrote that "the art of noises must not be limited to a mere imitative reproduction" and it is against this that we should evaluate 'The Art Of Noise At The End Of The Century'. Expansive is hardly an adequate description: consisting of the producers' cut of 'The Seduction Of Claude Debussy', the unreleased album 'Balance - Music For The Eye' and a DVD containing no less than three hours' worth of concerts, videos and sundry offcuts, this is just about as much of a document of this period in the band's history as anyone would ever want or need.
The 'Seduction Of Claude Debussy' saw the band fusing strings, classical motifs and drum 'n' bass beats. Released in 1999, the album barely even registered in the charts at the time. Listening to the album now in expanded form, over a decade and a half after the event, it's easy to see why: it sounded several years too late, drum 'n' bass was already pretty passé by the end of the century and dare I say it the novelty of fusing classical and electronic sources together had long worn off by then.
Fusion music has always had a troubled tenure, and this album is no exception. The result, heard from a distance, is like incidental music from a home makeover show, like trying to make music that sounds 'cool' but yet still appeals to a crowd of daytime TV watchers. The best tracks are those - like the urgent 'Metaphor On The Floor' or the various alternative version of 'Dreaming In Colour' appended to the end - that dispense almost entirely with the fusion dimension.
Prior to 'The Seduction Of Claude Debussy', Horn was keen to produce an album that took the French composer’s influence and blended it with more contemporaneous themes; it had been an interest extending back to his production of Marc Almond's 'Tenement Symphony' and Pet Shop Boys' 'Left To My Own Devices' (where Neil Tenant was to be found singing about Claude and Che Guevara in one of the least likely lyrical couplings to ever come out of his mind).
Working with Morley, Dudley and Lol Creme, the unit recorded 'Balance - Music For The Eye' in 1996 but under the guise The Image Of A Group. This is because Horn had no right to the name Art Of Noise as it was, by then, the exclusive preserve of Dudley and J. J. Jeczalik. The album languished, unreleased, until extracts appeared on an Art Of Noise compilation some years after, and is presented here in full for the first time. Elements were also incorporated into the fully realised ‘Seduction…’ album, and it is interesting to contrast the before and after states of the themes of ‘Balance’ - a bit like a home makeover show.
'Balance' is a darker affair, extremely atmospheric but evidently of its time. The more arresting sections are those that deal in noirish, filmic texture like 'Hummingbird' or 'It's All In The Ears' rather than the likes of 'Bored On A Sunday', which sounds like Enigma's 'Return To Innocence', complete with pan-pipes. And then there's the introductions to the three segments of the album by Morley, and the least said about those readings the better. Overall, it's insightful, clearly well-executed and assembled, but suffers from an elevator music vibe; if the unit had just dropped some of the artsiness, this would have been an accomplished ambient / chill-out record, but as it stands it's little more than a curiosity and one for completists only.
The two concerts that are featured on the DVD - a private art gallery-style show from 2000 and another at Shepherd's Bush earlier the same year - can be best summarised as pretentious. This is largely down to the involvement of Morley.
Paul Morley is undoubtedly a very, very clever individual, and the evidence for that is abundantly clear from his writing and talking head involvement in countless documentaries, but as a frontman, his literary delivery between and during the songs here is nothing short of torturous. It's as if he read the 'art' part of the title of Russolo's manifesto, latched on to that and forgot to read the rest. His distracting involvement also overshadows some truly great musical moments, especially the contributions from opera singer Amanda Boyd, whose energetic performance on both concerts is beguiling and fascinating.
It's best that we don't even mention Paul Morley's dancing.
In the interest of balance, it should be noted that the copious liner notes here, by Morley, showcase his talents far better than as a frontman of this group. On the recorded counterparts of the 'Seduction Of Claude Debussy' songs, the spoken word contribution came from the legendary John Hurt, his delivery having a characteristic loucheness and mystery that has made his cinematic work so distinctive.
So what would Russolo make of this?
The Twentieth Century clearly saw huge changes, divisive conflicts and leaps forward in technology that he would no doubt have approved of. I suspect that if he was alive today he'd have preferred this band's more clamorous early experiments. He was, after all, trying to present something different to the established classical music of his day. This collection, viewed as a whole, feels a bit tame, a bit too high-brow, and most definitely best left to fans of the group.
Let us return to Russolo's quote - "the art of noises must not be limited to a mere imitative reproduction" - for the final assessment. By trying to capture and elevate the influence and pieces of Debussy, The Art Of Noise had sadly dwelt too long on the art of imitation, and Russolo would have been mortified.
CD ONE - Intro (Disc 1) / Dans Le Style D une Sarabande, Mais Sans Rigeur / The Falling Rocket / A Distant Ringing Of Horns / Bayonet / Bored On A Sunday / Hummingbird / Dans Le Style D'un Chanson Populaire / Intro (Disc 2) / The Food Of Love / Music for the I / Dreaming In Colour / Speechless Creatures / Middle, Index and Thumb / It s All In The Ears / On CD / Intro (Disc 3) / Driving Rain Plus / The Case for a Complete Performance / Blue Murder / The Interrupted Serenade / Ce N'est Pas Fini! / The Reflection of a Reflection / In the Balance (Across the Century) / Fin-De-Siecle / Un Tendre et Triste Regret
CD TWO - Il Pleure (At The Turn of the Century) / Born On A Sunday / Dreaming In Colour / On Being Blue / Rapt: In The Evening Air / Metaforce / The Holy Egoism Of Genius / La Flute De Pan / Out Of This World / Metaphor On The Floor / Approximate Mood Swing No. 2 / Pause / Dreaming (Colour Yellow) / Dreaming (Colour Green) / Dreaming (Colour Black) / Dreaming (Colour Silver)
DVD - Born Again / Born Again / The Art of Debussy / Serenade of the Dolls (Out-take from The Art of Debussy) / Rain (Out-take from The Art of Debussy) / Blue Murder (Out-take from The Art of Debussy) / Out Of This World (Version 138) / Something is Missing / Born On A Sunday / Moments in Love / Rapt: In The Evening Air / Metaforce / On Being Blue / The Holy Egoism Of Genius / Beat Box / Close (to the Edit) / Peter Gunn / Information / Il Pleure (At The Turn of the Century) / Art of Noise is for... / Something is Missing (Reprise) / La Flûte De Pan / Dreaming In Colour / Out Of This World (Version 138) / Something is Missing / Born On A Sunday / Moments in Love / Rapt: In The Evening Air / Metaforce / On Being Blue / The Holy Egoism Of Genius / Beat Box / Close (to the Edit) / Peter Gunn / Information / Il Pleure (At The Turn of the Century) / Art of Noise is for... / La Flûte De Pan / Dreaming In Colour / A Sales Device / Dreaming In Colour / Metaforce / Something is Missing / Something is Missing (Coexistence, Take 4) / La Flûte De Pan (Coexistence, Rehearsals) / A Public Audience with Art of Noise live at the Shepherd's Bush Empire (Paul Morley intro) / A Public Audience with Art of Noise live at the Shepherd's Bush Empire (Paul Morley outro)
'At The End of a Century' is out now.
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