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This Weekend I’ll Mostly Be Listening to… New albums from Black Sabbath, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and Boards of Canada. July 13, 2013

Posted by WorldbyStorm in This Weekend I'll Mostly Be Listening to..., Uncategorized.
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This year has seen a raft of new albums from various groups, some long thought moribund, such as My Bloody Valentine, others who have struggled on regardless like Primal Scream and then others that have been on hiatus. So, instead of addressing those individually why not economise and look at three examples of long established groups who have released new albums and consider the way in which they have sought to refine, redefine or retain their original sound(s).

Black Sabbath of course have been around since the late 1960s. I’m one of those who regard both their Ozzy and Dio phases – albeit both were very different – as canon. GIllan and after? Not so much. Genre defining? Surely. So many incarnations, but this is the first album with their (almost, since drummer Bill Ward didn’t return) original line up since 1978.

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark arrived almost a decade later, borne on the wave of post-punk, but positioned within pop/dance/electronic, or as some liked to say at the time, they were sort of futurists. Sort of. But a group which after a burst of genuine experimentation on their first four albums moved towards increasingly diminishing returns in pop and eventually disbanded, only returning a couple of years back.

And Boards of Canada appeared around a decade and a half later in the early to mid-1990s producing albums that without question found new angles in electronica. Their last album proper was released all of eight years ago. So quite a gap in communications from them.

All three are, to some degree, touchstone groups. Emulated, admired. For example those of us who have an interest in all things synthpop, particularly US based, will know how OMD’s influence endures.

Each album poses a specific problem. Whether, and how, to do something different. Now in fairness, the OMD album is very slightly different to the others in that there’s already been a ‘reformation’ album, a few years back, but the problem remains. How do groups that have a long history and a career of genuine achievement in their given area reconnect with their music without simply emulating it.

The answers are fascinating. In the case of OMD they almost deliberately return and rework some of their most popular output, there’s a real sense that this album could have been produced in 1984 as a successor to Architecture and Morality. For BOC they try to shift the sonic palette, not hugely but sufficiently so to be recognisable, for Sabbath they take a different route, revisiting with all their Ozzy career,

Does it work? Let’s take OMD. Although there are some great tracks on the “English Electric” there’s a bit of a sense of ideas that are over-extended. There’s also an odd tension between faux-experimental musical shorts on the album and the songs. That isn’t to say the songs are bad. Metroland, Night Cafe are excellent, a tad long, but still excellent. All swelling choruses, melodic keyboard lines and crystal clear vocals (and then there’s Metroland’s overt nod to Kraftwerk). Helen of Troy attempts to channel some of the energy of Joan of Arc, and it works. But as a group they’ve long lost some of the Factory Records style chill that permeated their first three albums and while it doesn’t detract from the songs it does inflect them with a different sensibility.

Then there’s their interesting, for which read unusual, choice of keyboard sounds. Was that particular sound on Kissing the Machine such a great idea? The keyboards behind the chorus of Stay With Me sounds like small empires of saccharine have been toppled to provide them, and whether that is a good or a bad thing is up to individual taste. To my ears it sounds a fraction too close to Tears for Fear. Atomic Ranch is quite a shift in tone. It’s not hugely experimental, the Mac generated vocal samples aren’t exactly novel, and yet it sounds meaty. Where could they take this one wonders if they’d decided to shift decisively away from their more usual sound?

For Sabbath on “13”, another name that’s been waiting a while to see the light of…er…day, there’s a different issue. How much does this become emulation? Some. A lot. And yet. Metal has always traded on emulation. Those who like AC/DC will not usually complain too strenuously about Rose Tattoo or Krokus sounding very very similar indeed. So that’s got to be factored in from the off. Oddly, or not, “13” seems to reach back through their catalogue with sly nods to their near prog phase (the guitar break on Live Forever which surely is an echo of at least two tracks on Sabotage)… their jazz/hippy/doom sound (Zeitgeist which is nearly a twin of Planet Caravan) and all the way back to their first album with Damaged Soul, in a remarkably economic 3 and a half minutes or thereabouts, seems to be composed of primal Delta blues, harmonica and all. Of course the problem is that this is a reinterpretation rather than a reinvention (by the way Methademic from the extended version of “13” is great).

Those angular riffs are remarkably adept at masking places where the melody becomes just that bit dull or overly familiar, and there’s also an oddly textural aspect to the tracks. It’s not that the songs lack melody, but so much of it is about the sound they create. And yet, perhaps because they are locking into a sound that is now thirty odd years old that somehow functions better than might be expected.

One wonders if BOC had the greatest problem. Three albums of genre defining music and where to next? Particularly after eight years. They faced the problem that their own sound was widely imitated. Lone, Black Moth Super Rainbow and others have mined that seam quite overtly, others have been more subtly influenced. So there’s some changes on “Tomorrow’s Harvest”, fewer melodies, more textures. And a busier aspect to it as track after track is buoyed up by something new, a greater concentration on sequencers and arps. The textures are darker, the sequencers add a tense quality to parts of it – no doubt intentional, they’ve name checked John Carpenter’s output as a reference in their creation of the album – it’s all bleak post-apocalyptic landscapes, at least in the reviews it is. So it’s heavier on the menace, lighter on the pretty that characterised so much of their previous output.

It’s not until we get to Jacquard Causeway, four tracks in, that the characteristic detuned keyboards appear in force, albeit in this incarnation the percussion is more in the foreground, for all the chatter on the internet one might think they’d abandoned their original sound entirely. Not a bit of it. That remains extant through much of it. And where it isn’t the result is mixed. Some don’t catch fire – indeed the first half of the album is a mixed bag, other tracks, or would it be better to call them snippets, like Telepath (1 minute 40 seconds) are almost perfect IDM. Palace Posy is a good example – suggest that the renewed emphasis on sounds hasn’t seen melody entirely jettisoned. The last three tracks are perhaps the best on the album, New Seeds, Come to Dust and a short final piece Semena Mertvykh. And they’re good in part because they seem to be less forced than elsewhere, less in thrall to their past or to the expectations they themselves seem to have about abandoning that past.

Again, the question arises, do the different approaches cohere into substantial works. Yesish, I think, is the answer. They’re all solid, in some parts remarkably so. Each in its different way plays on pre-existing strengths, none is a failure, either on its own terms or more broadly. Are any of them classics? Well, perhaps BOC. But… early days yet to define it as such.

Arguably the flaws are more interesting than the strengths. I’d love to see Sabbath think about layering their music more, retaining the primal aspects of it but adding depth. There’s a telling moment in one track where they have choral synths, or at least it sounds like choral synths, but they’re far too low in the mix when to my mind a bit of bombast wouldn’t go amiss, some of that Sabotage-era prog madness.

Similarly with OMD. I’ve no problem with the melodic approach, but why not try to fuse that to some of their more experimental tracks, shake it up so to speak and see where the pieces fall. And for BOC there’s a sense that although they’ve struck off into new territory, for them, unfortunately it is largely already occupied. The John Carpenter inflections were used by Plaid donkey’s years ago, and the more ambient pieces are not a million miles from Biosphere. That said BOC are good enough to just about pull it off.

But in this day and age longevity is almost its own reward.

Flawed returns. Well, good enough, and in these instances better than no returns at all.

OMD – Metroland

OMD – Stay With Me

OMD – Atomic Ranch

Black Sabbath – Zeitgeist

Black Sabbath – Loner

Black Sabbath – Damaged Soul

Boards of Canada – Come to Dust

Boards of Canada – Split Your Infinities

Boards of Canada – Nothing Is Real

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