For the last eight years, French synthesist JEAN-MICHEL JARRE has mainly focused on his live work and reworking past glories, touring the world with a greatest hits set featuring most of the iconic pieces of equipment that were used on the holy trinity of albums he is most associated with – ‘Oxygène’, ‘Equinoxe’ and ‘Magnetic Fields’.
Despite nearly pushing 70, the creative urge has sparked JEAN-MICHEL JARRE to release some new material and ‘Electronica 1: The Time Machine’ sees his welcome return with 16 tracks and 15 collaborators.
Whilst for other artists (hello DURAN DURAN!), the collaboration option is often one which is resorted to a) when the creative fire has started to splutter out and b) when you cynically try to “get down with the kids” to attract a new audience, for Jarre it is the obvious and perfect route to take.
The album was a lengthy four years in the making, mainly because of his insistence to work in the same space as the collaborators, avoiding the internet route preferred by many electronic artists. All of the guests featured here are either ones who Jarre admires or who have been influenced by him, some of them are obvious choices, others are a little left of field, but more on that later.
The opening title track created with BOYS NOIZE is classic Jarre, both compositionally and sound wise, a very hooky melody with driving drums and sequencer parts that keep the piece moving throughout.
Entertainment for some can be had on this album by playing synth-spotting and seeing which sounds have been previously been used by Jarre. ‘The Time Machine’ features the Laser Harp sync bass sound used on the second half of the epic ‘Second Rendez-vous’ and works brilliantly here on what is an excellent album opener.
Unfortunately, the M83 song ‘Glory’, as well as being desperately mistitled, kills the momentum generated by the opener and still feels as plodding and pedestrian as when it was released as one of the lead-off tracks of the album earlier in the year. It’s not a bad song per se, it would surely have been preferable to have placed it towards end of the album… so for those of you that love to generate custom Spotify playlists, you know what to do!
The AIR pairing is a musical no-brainer, the duo being arguably the best electronic act to come out of France since Jarre first broke through. ‘Close Your Eyes’ features typical AIR chord progressions and ethereal vocals, both live and vocodered. But the surprise here is the rhythm track which lopes along like something from ‘Autobahn’; this is a good thing though and there are enough musical ideas in this piece which could easily have seen it extended by another 3-4 minutes.
The outro features classic pitch modulated synths and burbling EMS sound effects (both Jarre trademarks) and the song itself is sung from the perspective of a synthesizer “Switch me on, play my song and close your eyes”. On the strength of this track, one can only wish that there could be a whole collaboration album in the pipeline, it’s easily one of the most cohesive fits here and works beautifully.
For many, the VINCE CLARKE collaboration is a match made in synthetic heaven, and fans will be rewarded with two tracks here – ‘Automatic Part 1’ and ‘Automatic Part 2’. ‘Part 1’ is centred around an electro drum beat before leading seamlessly into ‘Part Two’ which goes 4/4 with the energy level being raised with another classic Jarre melody. Both pieces feature wonderful interlocking sequencer parts and they are everything that a follower of both musicians could hope for.
LITTLE BOOTS, whose recent profile in the UK has waned significantly, pops up with a typical piece of electropop fluff – ‘If..!’ sounds very MARSHEAUX-like in its conception with an ultra-hooky chorus and is only let down by some dubious tuning on some of Miss Hesketh’s ad-lib vocals. ‘Suns Have Gone’ featuring MOBY starts off like a long lost PHILIP GLASS piece, interlocking arpeggios recall the iconic minimalist composer before the former Richard Hall’s world-weary vocals and a solid beat take the track into more into EDM territory, but still with a melancholic feel to it.
‘Travelator’ is probably the biggest surprise on ‘Electronica 1’; despite being well known for his electronic experiments with THE WHO, few would expect Pete Townsend to appear on a Jarre album. The result is more successful than the pairing would suggest, although the sound of the rock vocalist surrounded by driving synths takes a few listens to get used to!
‘Zero Gravity’ is one of the other collaborations here that got fans of instrumental electronic music excited, it features TANGERINE DREAM and possibly one of the final pieces that Edgar Froese contributed to before sadly passing away earlier this year. Full of classic TD sequencer parts, it takes a few listens to truly appreciate, but once it has sunk in, acts as a fitting memorial.
In many eyes, Jarre is recognised as The Godfather of Trance, so a joint venture with a current artist from that genre would seem like a safe bet. ‘Stardust’ featuring ARMIN VAN BUUREN sounds pretty much as you would expect it to, very melodic with a thumping kick, descending synth melody and a hands in the air breakdown section.
The last couple of tracks on ‘Electronica 1’ will be welcomed by those that prefer Jarre’s mainly instrumental work, both the pieces with JOHN CARPENTER and LANG LANG are truly superb; ‘A Question of Blood’ (given its co-creator’s background) is a movie theme waiting to happen whilst the latter (‘The Train & The River’) combines classical piano over an extended electronic backdrop with one of Jarre’s classic sequencer riffs.
At approximately 4 minutes into ‘The Train & The River’, you WILL get goosebumps when Jarre drops in a descending phased Eminent string chord and just for good measure brings back THAT sync bass sound again… again this is another collaboration that is crying out for more pieces.
The only missed opportunity with ‘The Time Machine’ is that despite many of them being well known in their field, none of Jarre’s collaborators here could be classified as exceptionally strong vocalists; it would have been intriguing to have (for example) someone of the calibre of SUSANNE SUNDFØR vocalling, but it’s understandable why he chose the people he did.
Jarre has an embarrassment of musical riches here and with more saved up in the bank, a second volume is due next year due to the sheer volume of artists agreeing to work with him like HANS ZIMMER, SEBASTIEN TELLIER and GARY NUMAN.
This work, and hopefully ‘Volume 2’, will be a wonderful addition to the tradition and provides what is one of the best electronic albums that you will hear this year. As Jarre himself mentions in his sleeve notes, “Electronic music has a family, a legacy and a future…” and ‘Electronica 1: The Time Machine’ comfortably ticks all three boxes with consummate ease…
‘Electronica 1: The Time Machine’ uses the following electronic instruments: ARP 2600, EMS AKS, EMS VCS3, Fairlight CMI, Minimoog, Memorymoog, Moog Modular 55, RMI Harmonic, Roland Jupiter 8, Korg Micro-Preset, Theremin, Korg MS20, Roland AXS, GRP Modular, Elka Synthex, Laser Harp, Eminent 310, Mininova Vocoder, DigiSequencer, Coupigny GRM, Swarmatron, ARP Omni, ARP Pro-Soloist, ARP Odyssey, Waldorf Blofeld, Alesis Ion, Roland VP330, Virus Access, Clavia Nord Lead 1, Clavia Nord Lead 2, Clavia Nord Lead C2D, Emulator II, Korg PA500, Moog Taurus, Farfisa Pro 2, Vox Continental, Mellotron, Keio Minipops, Korg KR55, Roland TR808, Roland TR909, Roland CR8000, Eko ComputeRhythm, Keio Doncamatic, Linn LM-1, Linn LM-2, Metasonix D1000, Native Instruments Maschine
‘Electronica 1: The Time Machine’ is released by Columbia / Sony Music
Text by Paul Boddy
18th October 2015