Switzerland’s YELLO have never been an act to over-expose themselves in relation to the product that they’ve released.
Previous album ‘Toy’ was released in 2016 and prior to that ‘Touch Yello’ came out in 2009; so after a four year gap we now have the duo’s latest work ‘Point’.
According to their label Universal, ‘Point’ takes the classic YELLO aesthetic of albums such as ‘Stella’, ‘One Second’ and ‘Flag’ and “twists it into something ultra-modern.” the sound “part spy film, part Dali-painting, part strobe lit dance floor, part 4D car chase and part deep space torch song. It’s YELLO, absolutely on point.”
Within the first 10 seconds of album opener ‘Waba Duba’, there is no mistaking that this IS YELLO; the track is based around a tribal Dieter Meier chant and punctuated with staccato horn stabs which recall their biggest hit ‘The Race’. Thankfully ‘Waba Duba’ doesn’t take itself too seriously with gibberish-style lyrics “Do you want me to do/Don’t take me for a fool/I’m only happy man/I jump out of the can”. All in all, ‘Waba Duba’ is a feelgood track with enough synth parts to satisfy fans of their more electronic work.
‘The Vanishing of Peter Stong’ starts like an EBM track with a menacing synth bassline, but the live drums and vocal narrative from Meier takes the piece into a completely different direction. Throughout the album comparisons could easily be made with THE ART OF NOISE, both acts are known for their sampling with Boris Blank having a huge sample collection (400,000+). ‘The Vanishing of Peter Strong’ features more rhythmic vocal sampling and the kind of production sheen that Trevor Horn and Stephen Lipson cultivated with their associated ZTT acts.
‘Way Down’ features an offbeat skanking backbeat and a welcome female vocal layer above Meier’s trademark talking growl. Beautifully produced again with an amazing clarity to the drum sound; cinematic horns and echoed synth arpeggios excel on a short three minute track that doesn’t outstay its welcome.
‘Out of Sight’ starts like a distant cousin to KRAFTWERK and ‘Boing Boom Tschak’ before being joined by a “dum dum” vocal bass line which again echoes THE ART OF NOISE. The vocal sampling and stuttering of LES RYTHMES DIGITALES’ ‘Jacques Your Body’ seems to be an influence too…
‘Arthur Spark’ is far more electronic in nature, with low-slung synth bass sequencer work and APOLLO 440-ish vocodered vocals. A KRAFTWERK-style drum pattern dips in out of the track and subtle guitar work features throughout. What is admirable here is that five tracks in and each track has its own atmosphere with original sounds and none of the tracks become overly repetitive or linger around for too long (actually none of the songs on ‘Point’ are in excess of four minutes in length).
‘Core Shift’ features a fantastic synth breakdown at its 38 second mark, again another stunningly mixed track; if one worked in a hi-fi shop ‘Point’ would make a great sonic fidelity demonstration album.
‘Rush for Joe’ is a cheeky John Barry-style spy theme-in-waiting with added Korg M1 organ bass sounds, whilst album closer ‘Siren Singing’ features the only guest vocalist on the album with an appearance from British based Chinese artist Fifi Rong. ‘Siren Singing’ is an ambient downtempo piece which draws ‘Point’ to a more introspective conclusion. The only track not to feature Meier’s vocals and without him, results in a piece which is pretty un-YELLO like.
The deal breaker with YELLO has always been Dieter Meier’s vocals, he’s always been a storyteller rather than a singing vocalist, and there is no deviation from that template here. Arguably ‘Point’ would function better with more guest vocalists, but he is part of the duo’s signature sound and as album closer ‘Siren Singing’ proves, his absence ends up being missed.
From a production point of view, ‘Point’ is stunning throughout and although there are no huge stand-out tracks here, the album is a concise re-affirmation of the YELLO sound and long term fans will adore it.
‘Point’ is released via Universal Music, available as a collector’s box, CD, deluxe CD, vinyl LP and digital download
With THE ART OF NOISE’s influential and innovative reputation, this live gig was never going to be an ordinary one.
The British Library is certainly not your run of the mill venue either and this show was part of ‘A Season of Sound’, a celebration of the Library’s extensive Sound Archive which hosts in excess of 6 millions recordings.
With their reputation as early pioneers of sampling and use of the Fairlight to grab found sounds alongside more conventional drums and synth textures, this reboot of THE ART OF NOISE made a perfect fit to help celebrate the Library’s own collection of audio.
Special mention must be given to the show’s sound system, a sonically stunning Bowers & Wilkins set-up which throughout the evening delivered audiophile quality live sound, something which you rarely get at gigs these days. The sound system, a cut-down version of the one used at Primavera Sound Festival, which was apparently worth close to a million Euros became a real draw for crowds there.
The PA system was put to good use prior to the band coming on stage, with the audience being treated to a superb ‘Blessed Are The Noisemakers’ mixtape by Kevin Foakes aka DJ Food, with different AON-related tracks like remixes of SCRITTI POLITTI and FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD plus snippets of 10CC in ‘Life is a Minestrone’ and ‘I’m Not In Love’ in honour of Lol Creme who was a member of both acts.
As the band walked on stage, the screen behind became a Fairlight boot-up page, with each musician being ‘initialised’ in a kind of homage to KRAFTWERK who apparently shelved their ‘Technopop’ album after hearing AON’s pioneering sampling work.
Sadly there were no actual Fairlights on stage, but each member had Mac screens with the iconic green on black text to reference the machine which was so pivotal to the band’s sound. From left to right the set-up was Anne Dudley on synths / digital piano / electronic percussion, Gary Langan on mixing duties / percussion and JJ Jeczalik on Arturia Matrixbrute synth / Roland electronic percussion.
Also present but via a couple of pre-recorded video clips was ex-member Paul Morley… this was a bit of a surprise as the ZTT split with AON was very acrimonious. Although billed as an ‘In Visible Silence’ gig, the show was still very much a greatest hits set, with a few choice cuts taken from the trio’s aforementioned second album.
After introductory track ‘Instruments Of Darkness’, there was an early airing of ‘Beatbox’ from the band’s debut EP ‘Into Battle With…’ followed by an all-too-short rendition of ‘Camille’, the band’s ‘Moments in Love’ Part Two.
‘Paranoimia’ featuring Max Headroom was next to appear with suitably appropriate graphics behind the band before the stunningly beautiful ‘Moments In Love’.
This was preceded by an introduction from JJ on the various uses of the track, from a Brylcreem advert through to its usage at MADONNA’s wedding to Sean Penn!
To keep the sample trainspotters happy, there was an interesting mid-set diversion when JJ explained the background behind some of the AON samples used. This included the rhythm track for ‘Eye Of A Needle’ which samples the sound from a squash game; the ball being hit, the squeak of a training shoe on the court and the start of a groan from the impact of someone being hit by the ball. Also included was a special mention for the cash register sound which also ended up on ABC’s ‘Date Stamp’ from ‘The Lexicon Of Love’.
One of the more experimental pieces from the bands’ back catalogue, the Steve Reich-inspired ‘Opus’ with its looped / cut-up vocals was up next, followed by AON’s breakthrough hit ‘Close (To The Edit’). Complete with an extended and very comical three-way car not starting sample-off; this track received the best reception on the night and the now iconic “Hey!” vocal additionally recalled THE PRODIGY’s ‘Firestarter’ which sampled it. After a short break, the band came back on for an encore of ‘Peter Gunn’ with its Rik Mayall promo video projected behind, as the trio left the stage to a rolling set of credits behind them.
This gig was a real bucket list moment for many, the band had supported THE HUMAN LEAGUE last year in Liverpool, but live shows by the ex-AON members have been few and far between.
The deservedly rapturous reception that Dudley, Jeczalik and Langan received for their British Library gig should hopefully spur them into doing more dates as they are an utterly engaging live act with a pioneering back catalogue that is more than worthy of being re-visited.
If you get a chance to see this line-up (especially with a B&W sound system), don’t hesitate, it’s a timely reminder of how incredibly influential AON were and helps to cement their position in electronic music history.
‘Influence’ is still available as a double CD via Union Square
With ‘English Electric’ in 2013, OMD produced their finest album in thirty years with founder members Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys successfully playing to their strengths.
Utilising McCluskey’s conceptual overview and cryptic lyricism covered in metaphor, coupled to Humphreys’ musical direction and melodic magic, the end result was a work of art to savour with songs like ‘Metroland’ and ‘Kissing The Machine’ fully exploiting their Synth-Werk seeds.
Meanwhile, ‘Dresden’ and ‘Stay With Me’ were fine examples of their respective individual palettes adapted for the greater good of the band. And this was without the magnificence of ‘Our System’, the pastel synthpop of ‘Night Café’ and the passionate glory of ‘Helen Of Troy’.
‘The Punishment Of Luxury’ is OMD’s thirteenth long player and could be considered a natural progression from ‘English Electric’. The album takes its name from an 1891 painting by Giovanni Segantini.
The long player begins with the title track and a mighty electro rhythm section enhanced by a bright infectious melody, robot harmonies and incessant chants. Reflecting on the dilemma of first world problems and its incumbent joyless hedonism, it’s a fabulous opener that captures elements of KRAFTWERK, THE ART OF NOISE and THE PRODIGY.
Using more treated vocals and Vox Humana voice generators, ‘Isotype’ is a blip fest that embraces glitch and techno, with wild siren sounds fluctuating to provide a human counterpoint to their synthesised derivation. A commentary on how society has been going backwards in its communication via emojis, the inspiration comes from the international picture language conceived in 1924.
So far so good with the concepts and the tunes, but two tracks which spring a major surprise are ‘Robot Man’ and ‘Art Eats Art’. Both are fine examples of modern robotic pop which will delight fans of OMD’s more directly electronic work, but perhaps will dismay those hoping for sax solos and an update of ‘If You Leave’.
‘Robot Man’ starts as a tone poem before a huge machine rhythm emerges to shape an electro-funk rumble like a slowed down ‘Warm Leatherette’ reimagined by PRINCE… but then, there’s also more than a resemblance to ‘Fembot’ by ROBYN!
Much weirder, ‘Art Eats Art’ bubbles to a metronomic dance tempo with a chorus of vocoders over an aggressive octave shift. Recalling the work of former Kling Klang incumbent Karl Bartos, despite all the strange noises, this is frantic technopop offset by pretty melodies and shopping list lyrics. But it’s not like how OMD have sounded before, yet it is still retains the essence of their roots.
Taking a Synthanorma sequence set to a 6/8 rhythm and a melody inspired by ‘Forbidden Colours’, ‘What Have We Done’ sees a confident vocal from Paul Humphreys on some passionate Modernen Industrielle Volksmusik that could be seen as a passing observation on the current political climate.
A slow pulsing sequence and real bass guitar combine to form the interlude that is ‘Precision & Decay’, which “from luxury to landfill”, reflects on the disposable nature of the modern world and concludes “there is no such thing as labour saving machinery”.
‘As We Open, So We Close’ is an oddball experience to start with, as glitchy buzzes attach themselves to a disjointed rhythm of claps and backward kicks before everything grows into something more melodic, with a superlative vocal ring to “take me to your fragile place”.
Compared to the some of the other tracks on ‘The Punishment Of Luxury’, ‘Kiss Kiss Kiss Bang Bang Bang’ is almost conventional, but as this is OMD, there’s a twist! Like KRAFTWERK meeting Johan Strauss, the beautiful melodic vibes are interrupted by McCluskey’s scathing expletive laden attacks on Uncle Sam, Mao Tse Tung, Dr Spock and the current political climate; it’s a beautiful electronic lullaby that is a thematic successor to ‘International’.
The excellent ‘One More Time’ is a classic bittersweet OMD stomper, where “everything you gave me didn’t last”. Using electronic percussion as opposed to drum machines, the enticing verse and uplifting bridge are set to a plethora of gorgeous textures and distorted synth just to weird things out. While McCluskey announces “you can break my heart just one more time”, the star again is Humphreys with his crystalline synth sounds laced with portamento bounce.
The thought-provoking intermission of ‘La Mitrailleuse’ is a “grapeshot” collage with militaristic gunshots forming the rhythm track. The unsettling mantra of “bend your body to the will of the machine!” is inversed by a falsettoed cry from McCluskey. A mid-19th Century volley gun, the fact that a Mitrailleuse was difficult to manage, as well as being highly inaccurate, makes this a fine slice of clever social-political commentary.
On the final straight, ‘Ghost Star’ with its wildlife ambience and dramatic VANGELIS-like intro is a sub-six minute number that could be ‘Stanlow’ for the 24th Century. Lovely emotive synthphonic sweeps provide a pretty electronic cascade that is epically European with no pandering to the Yankee Dollar.
Meanwhile, the almost nursery rhyme feel of ‘The View From Here’ is elegiac, with orchestrations and even some guitar sounds.
Mature and reflective with a spirited vocal from McCluskey, this is a classic OMD sad ballad in the vein of ‘All That Glittters’. However, these two closing numbers do not sit as easily with the frenetic statements on the majority of ‘The Punishment of Luxury’. So for that reason, although the album IS strides ahead of ‘History Of Modern’ from 2010, it is maybe not quite as complete as ‘English Electric’ was.
But swathed in detuned synths and attached to a rigid percussive lattice, ‘The Punishment Of Luxury’ is an excellent OMD record with Germany still calling. The solos of Paul Humphreys are certainly something to savour while Andy McCluskey possibly delivers some of his best vocals, as the pair continue to push boundaries with their experimental but tuneful approach.
Compare that to the last three frankly dire DEPECHE MODE albums and OMD now take a two goal lead. Unlike the Basildon mob’s feeble fourteenth album, ‘The Punishment of Luxury’ actually HAS spirit and a sense of adventure, as well as a clever metaphoric narrative reflecting on issues that affect the human condition.
Nearly forty years on, OMD’s breadth of musicality, technological curiosity and lyrical wordplay is still something to be admired and lauded.
OMD’s ‘The Punishment Of Luxury’ 2017 tour, Ireland + UK dates with special guests TINY MAGNETIC PETS include:
Dublin Vicar Street (23rd October), Belfast Mandela Hall (24th October), Liverpool Empire (29th October), Bristol Colston Hall (30th October) , Southend Cliffs Pavillion (1st November), Ipswich Regent (2nd November), Cambridge Corn Exchange (3rd November), Leicester De Montfort Hall (5th November), Nottingham Royal Concert Hall (6th November), Sheffield City Hall (7th November), Reading Hexagon (9th November), Southampton Guild Hall (10th November), Guildford G Live (11th November), London Roundhouse (13th November), Bexhill Del La Warr Pavillion (15th November), Manchester Academy (17th November), York Barbican (18th November), Glasgow Royal Concert Hall (19th November), Birmingham Symphony Hall (21st November), Gateshead Sage (22nd November)
European dates with special guests HOLYGRAM include:
Erfut Traum Hits Festival (25th November), Hamburg Grosse Freiheit (26th November), Berlin Huxleys (28th November), Leipzig Haus Auenesse (29th November), Munich Tonhalle (30th November), Offenbach Stadthalle (2nd December), Düsseldorf Mitsubishi Electric Hall (3rd December), Tilburg 013 (5th December), Antwerp De Roma (6th December), Lausanne Les Docks (8th December)
The switch to digital technology in the production of synthesizers caused a seismic shift not just in the way that music was produced, but also how analogue devices were perceived.
The advent of pioneering products such as the Yamaha DX7 was the catalyst which caused many musicians to throw out/sell their old Moogs and Korgs with the viewpoint that these new devices could do everything sonically that they could plus more besides.
The newly pioneered Frequency Modulation and Phase Distortion forms of synthesis meant that harmonically complex sounds such as bells and pianos could now be simulated and the warm, analogue sounds of synths such as the Roland Jupiter range began to sound immediately dated in comparison.
The trend was continued when both Korg and Roland introduced their PCM/sample-based M1 and D50 synths which added in new layers of complexity in sound creation which again would have been impossible to create using a voltage controlled oscillator-based device.
One only has to listen retrospectively to songs like ‘Human’ by THE HUMAN LEAGUE or albums such as ‘Provision’ by SCRITTI POLITTI to hear how the sawtooth-based electronic sounds of the past had almost overnight become replaced by shiny bell-like tones and THAT omnipresent rubbery ‘Lately’ DX bass sound.
However, hindsight is a wonderful thing and many producers/musicians were left with major egg on their faces when it eventually became apparent that digital synths weren’t the be all and end all, lacking the warmth and ease of programmability that their earlier analogue counterparts were able to provide. Tales of vintage synths being sold for relative peanuts are now legendary and most keyboard players who experienced this era will have an appropriate sob story to tell relating to this!
The next wave of technology to have a significant impact was the birth of the digital sampler – now musicians were able to grab any sound and trigger it from a keyboard and again this had a huge effect on the sound of music production.
Ironically in 2016, everything has now come full circle; manufacturers are now frantically reissuing remakes of earlier analogue and digital products, while with the birth of the virtual synthesizer, packages such as the Arturia Collection V offer up software versions of the Prophet 5, Oberheim SEM and Minimoog at an affordable price.
The choice of digital synthesizers here is a fairly personal one and it isn’t intended to endorse a particular product. Some of the chosen synthesizers weren’t necessarily the highest specified ones either, but were adopted because a producer/musician managed to use it in such a way that belied their lower price point. The synths chosen are also from the first wave of digital synths and as such doesn’t include any of the current wave of digital-based products.
FAIRLIGHT CMI (1979)
The Rolls Royce of samplers and a fully integrated workstation that included a digital synth, sequencer and rhythm programmer, the Australian Fairlight CMI and its 28mb of memory (!) indelibly left its mark on music production. Costing as much as a decent sized house, the CMI helped transform the sound of artists such as JEAN-MICHEL JARRE who used it extensively on ‘Magnetic Fields’ and ‘Zoolook’. Its omnipresent ‘Orchestra 5’ “Whooomph!” patch was used and abused by everybody from PET SHOP BOYS, KLAUS SCHULZE and KATE BUSH to U2 and prog rockers YES…
Iconic example of use: PET SHOP BOYS ‘It’s A Sin’
NED SYNCLAVIER (1979)
The Synclavier was an all singing, all dancing sampling mega-workstation that was favoured by DEPECHE MODE, MICHAEL JACKSON and THE CURE. The cost of some of the versions of the Synclavier made the Fairlight seem affordable in comparison, with a top-spec system going for the outrageous price of $200,000 dollars! Like the CMI, the Synclavier was way ahead of its time and brought a higher quality of sampling and sequencing into a few privileged high end studios.
Iconic example of use: SOFT CELL ‘Tainted Love’
CON BRIO ADS200 (1980)
With only two units being produced, once seen, the Con Brio ADS200 can never be forgotten. Looking like something out of ‘Space 1999’, with a built-in display monitor and clad wall-to-wall in veneer, the ADS200 is probably the nearest the synth world came to an outlandish concept car; it looked incredible, but ultimately was doomed to remain a pipe dream. One belonged to BECK’s father David Campbell who reportedly paid £17,000 for it. The ADS200’s implementation of FM synthesis raised a few legal eyebrows at Yamaha although no action was taken.
Iconic example of use: Fittingly the Con Brio ADS100 got used for sound effects on the movie reboot of ‘Star Trek’
PPG WAVE 2 (1981)
The striking and very blue-looking PPG (Palm Products GmbH) Wave 2 synth became another popular digital synth. Its bell-like quality can be heard on DEPECHE MODE’s ‘A Broken Frame’. TANGERINE DREAM also toured with one extensively after assisting the company with the development many of their other products. Martin Gore had a Casio MT30 sat on his PPG Wave 2 with a ‘Fairlite’ name stuck on the back in what could be seen as a side swipe at Vince Clarke who had ploughed a large percentage of his royalties into a Fairlight purchase.
Iconic example of use: DEPECHE MODE ‘The Sun & The Rainfall’
YAMAHA GS1 (1981)
Despite its 19th Century appearance and looking for all intents and purposes like a grand piano, the GS1 was the first keyboard produced by Yamaha to feature the patented Frequency Modulation (FM) technology. Like the Fairlight, the GS1’s prohibitive price tag of $25,000 meant that it was out of reach for most musicians. The size and weight of the machine at nearly 90kg meant that it was never intended to be a touring machine; only a 100 units were manufactured too, but it still deserves its place in synthesizer history for kick-starting the FM revolution.
Iconic example of use: TOTO ‘Africa’
DIGITAL KEYBOARDS SYNERGY (1982)
The Synergy used additive synthesis to generate its sounds and its 74 note keyboard made it attractive to keyboard players like WENDY CARLOS who used the Synergy on ‘Digital Moonscapes’ and ‘Beauty In The Beast’. It was unusual in that it allowed the layering of four sounds and also possessed a four track in-built sequencer, but unfortunately lost its memory once the machine was powered down. Sadly, the DX7 signalled the death knell for the Synergy, costing three times less and being fully programmable…
Iconic example of use: WENDY CARLOS ‘Tron’ soundtrack
YAMAHA DX7 (1983)
Taking the technology first used in the GS1, the DX7 brought FM Synthesis to the masses and along the way transformed the sound of the charts between 1983-1989. The DX’s distinctive rubbery bass sound started to appear everywhere from A-HA’s ‘Take On Me’, HOWARD JONES’ ‘What is Love?’ through to LEVEL 42’s ‘Hot Water’. But unless you were a musical brainiac like BRIAN ENO, the DX7 was notoriously difficult to program and legend has it that most units which were returned back to Yamaha for any maintenance still had their preset sound banks left untouched!
Iconic example of use: BERLIN ‘Take My Breath Away’
YAMAHA DX1 (1983)
The DX1 could be considered as a connoisseur version of the DX7, every part of it is THAT more expensive looking from its fully weighted keyboard, deeper control panel through to its wooden end cheeks. The sound of the DX1 was much thicker than the often thin sounding DX7 because the user was able to layer two sounds together. If however you intend buying one of these, the secondary market is extremely limited as only 140 models were produced. Users included PET SHOP BOYS and DIRE STRAITS.
Iconic example of use: DIRE STRAITS ‘Money for Nothing’
CASIO CZ101 (1984)
The CASIO CZ101 and YAMAHA DX100 were almost like distantly related cousins; both had mini keys, utilised digital sound generating techniques and had guitar strap pegs which allowed them to be played in a keytar style. The 101 was adopted by Vince Clarke and was used extensively on the debut ERASURE album ‘Wonderland’. Despite being digital, the CZ range was still capable of some pretty rich analogue style sounds and patches like the Organ preset soon found themselves appearing on many a house track.
Iconic examples of use: BLANCMANGE ‘Believe You Me’ album
EMU EMULATOR II (1984)
Much beloved of DEPECHE MODE and NEW ORDER, the follow-up to the original Emulator was an 8 bit machine that had analogue filters. In contrast to the rack-mounted Akai range, the keyboard-based Emulator became a much more popular live machine, with sample storage being held on 5.5 inch floppy disks. The addition of MIDI compatibility, in-built sequencer and separate audio outputs made it a highly sought after sampler. PET SHOP BOYS’ Neil Tennant played one in the infamous Old Grey Whistle Test performance where he fluffs the string part in ‘Opportunities’.
Iconic example of use: DEPECHE MODE ‘Christmas Island’
ENSONIQ MIRAGE (1984)
The Mirage was a good value for money sampler/synthesizer, although the specifications these days look laughable with 8 bit, 333 note sequencing memory and 128kb of RAM. It featured analogue filters, a velocity sensitive keyboard and 8 note polyphony. Even now, players swear by the warmth that the filter can give to a sample, but the inscrutable programming method it utilised via hexadecimal-code manipulation meant that editing samples was only for the faint-hearted! Users included SKINNY PUPPY and JANET JACKSON on the ‘Control’ album.
Iconic example of use: SKINNY PUPPY ‘Jackhammer’
KORG DW8000 (1985)
The heart of the KORG DW8000’s sound was digitally generated from its DWGS (Digital Waveform Generator System). The DW8000 was a bit of a hybrid, half-way between a DX7 and an analogue synthesizer in that its waveforms were digital and its filter analogue. The synth gained a lot of fans because of its in-built arpeggiator and FX and although not as successful as the M1, it was still used by artists such as DEPECHE MODE and KEITH EMERSON.
Iconic example of use: EMERSON, LAKE & POWELL ‘Love Blind’
YAMAHA DX100 (1985)
The DX100 along with the FB01 sound module were the entry level points for those wishing to explore FM synthesis. Whilst not possessing the same amount of operators as its bigger DX brothers, the DX100 became popular with Detroit Techno producers like Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May and Juan Atkins because of its distinctive bass sound. If you also check out an equipment list from the ‘Electric Café’ era of KRAFTWERK, you will see that one surprisingly also found its way into the German electronic maestros synth armoury too.
Iconic example of use: RHYTHIM IS RHYTHIM ‘Nude Photo’
SEQUENTIAL CIRCUITS PROPHET VS (1986)
After their success with the Prophet 5, Prophet 10 and Pro One, the Prophet VS was a departure for Sequential Circuits and featured an innovative joystick which allowed the user to mix/program sounds. The VS was used on the soundtrack to ‘Tron’ and John Carpenter’s ‘Big Trouble in Little China’ with synthesist Alan Howarth using some of the synth’s more ‘eastern’ sounding presets to evoke the atmosphere needed for the film. This was another favourite synth for Vince Clarke and featured extensively on both ‘The Circus’ and ‘The Innocents’ albums.
Iconic example of use: ERASURE ‘It Doesn’t Have to Be’
BUCHLA 700 (1987)
Although generally known as Robert Moog’s competitor in the analogue modular synth stakes, Don Buchla actually produced a digital synth in the shape of the 700. Used by Alessandro Cortini of NINE INCH NAILS fame, it used a mixture of synthesis techniques (FM/Wavetable/Subtractive/Additive) and in true esoteric Buchla fashion, let the user create their own tunings with as many or as little notes per octave as wanted. Only six were made, but BENGE went on to create a mini-album using the 700 called ‘Chimeror’ produced as a result an hour’s improvisation with the machine.
Iconic example of use: BENGE ‘Chimeror’
ROLAND D50 (1987)
Utilising a combination of Pulse Code Modulation (PCM) and Linear Arithmetic (LA) synthesis, the D50 was another omnipresent synth. Its many famous users included ENYA, VANGELIS, JEAN-MICHEL JARRE and Nick Rhodes from DURAN DURAN. For some reason there was a bitter rivalry between M1 and D50 owners as to who had the ‘best’ synth, and to this day, debates still rage on in synth forums! Arguments aside, the D50 was certainly one of the ‘big three’ digital synths that transformed the sound libraries of most synth players in the period.
Iconic example of use: JEAN-MICHEL JARRE ‘Computer Weekend’
AKAI S1000 (1988)
Despite being a royal pain in the ar*e to program due to its small LED screen, the S1000 was THE digital sampler which found its way into the equipment list of every decent studio of the period. Bringing sampling to the masses it also featured a timestretch function which let samples be warped and became the de rigueur vocal effect on tracks such as JOSH WINK’s seminal acid track ‘Higher State of Consciousness’ and DOUBLE 99’s Speed Garage anthem ‘Ripgroove’.
Iconic example of use: PORTISHEAD ‘Dummy’ album
KORG M1 (1988)
Alongside the D50 and the DX7, the M1 was THE synth that was most likely to appear on ‘Top Of The Pops’ when a band featured a keyboard player. With a range of sounds from arguably the first decent ‘real’ piano sound through to some complex/atmospheric patches, the M1 was adopted by everybody from house producers using the organ bass like on ‘Show Me Love’ by ROBIN S through to your typical functions band of the day. OMD’s 1991 ‘Sugar Tax’ album is almost entirely Korg M1!
Iconic example of use: GARY NUMAN ‘Sacrifice’ album
ROLAND W30 (1989)
The W30 deserves its place if only for the way that Liam Howlett from THE PRODIGY was so devoted to it for nigh on 20 years. Despite being Roland’s 1st workstation synthesizer and featuring sampling technology, Howlett used the W30 primarily as a sequencer to drive sounds/loops from his Akai Sampler and would go onto use up until 2008. Howlett’s live use of the W30 was so extensive that he bought up the remaining keys from Roland Japan as he used to break them every other show…
Iconic example of use: THE PRODIGY ‘Everybody In The Place’
ROLAND JD800 (1991)
The JD800 signalled a return to the analogue-style design philosophy of its older machines with plenty of real-time control and sliders, but at the time wasn’t a terribly successful selling machine. The machine featured a keyboard with aftertouch which allowed extra control of its sounds, but if you manage to find a JD800 on the s/h market now, this was one of the things to fail on the machine as the glue used had a habit of melting. Famous users of the JD800 include: FAITHLESS, UNDERWORLD and DEPECHE MODE.
Iconic example of use: JEAN-MICHEL JARRE ‘Chronologie 4’
WALDORF WAVE (1993)
Although a digital synth (it was Wavetable based), the Wave had analogue filters which helped give it its warmth. Its users included HANS ZIMMER, LEFTFIELD, ANTHONY ROTHER, KLAUS SCHULZE and ULRICH SCHNAUSS who still has an orange model – it was also unusual in being expandable from 16 voices up to 48 voices. With only roughly 200 sold, the Wave pretty much put Waldorf out of business, losing money on each unit shipped. Due to its scarcity, the Wave is highly collectable with a price tag close to $10,000 for one.
Iconic example of use: BJÖRK ‘Violently Happy (Live Version)’
CLAVIA NORD LEAD (1994)
The original Clavia Nord Lead helped coin the term “virtual analog synthesis”. It was followed by a series of other machines all in a distinctive red livery and was adopted by many artists including NINE INCH NAILS, UNDERWORLD and FLUKE. The addition of several real-time controls plus the ability to mimic several retro analogue synths meant that the Lead became an extremely popular synth with a range that still endures today.
Iconic example of use: THE PRODIGY ‘Funky Sh*t’
KORG PROPHECY (1995)
The Prophecy was unusual in that it was a monophonic synth that used virtual modelling to emulate everything from blown and plucked sounds, through to thicker, more analogue textures. Probably most famous for providing one of the lead sounds on THE PRODIGY’s ‘Smack My Bitch Up’, the Prophecy was also blessed with aftertouch and ribbon control on what was often affectionately referred to as a ‘sausage roll’ on the left hand edge of the synthesizer.
Iconic example of use: THE PRODIGY ‘Smack My Bitch Up’
KURZWEIL K2500 (1996)
The K2500 in its keyboard and rack version was popular as a workstation synth, featuring a synth engine, sequencer and sampling with the additional ability to load in Akai samples. It found favour as live machine for several years with PINK FLOYD and in the studio with NINE INCH NAILS. The rack version wasn’t the most user friendly machine to use due its over-reliance on its editing screen, but the machine had a lush warm sound to them and many users continue to swear by them.
Iconic example of use: PLASTIKMAN ‘Plasticine’
WALDORF MICROWAVE XT (1998)
With the rise of melodic trance, synths like the brightly coloured (or some might say ‘lairy’) Microwave XT from the Waldorf range help artists such as FERRY CORSTEN re-introduce some welcome digital-based analogue sounds back into the musical marketplace. The Microwave XT, although a baby brother to the HUGE Wave synth, was still an extremely fat sounding synth and coloured its most prominent control (the filter cut-off) in a fetching shade of red to differentiate it from the other controls on its orange front panel. NINE INCH NAILS also count amongst one its famous users.
Iconic example of use: THE ART OF NOISE ‘The Seduction of Claude Debussy’ album
Trevor Horn is a producer who can be said to have shaped modern pop music.
He began his professional music career as a session bassist, most notably for UK disco starlet TINA CHARLES and her producer Biddu.
Another member of her backing band was keyboard player Geoff Downes; together they would go on to form BUGGLES and score a No1 in 1979 with ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’.
But Horn’s pop stardom was to be short-lived. Despite their musical virtuosity, BUGGLES were an unusual looking pair; so with his best interests at heart, his wife and business partner Jill Sinclair advised that while he wasn’t going to be the greatest frontman in the world, there was a chance he could make it as a top record producer.
In 1981, Horn started a run of producing and co-writing four singles for pop duo DOLLAR; this attracted the attention of NME journalist Paul Morley and they would later establish the ZTT label through Island Records.
Also listening were Sheffield band ABC who asked him to produce their debut album ‘The Lexicon Of Love’. It was during these 1982 sessions that Horn brought together his classic studio team of arranger Anne Dudley, engineer Gary Langan and Fairlight specialist JJ Jeczalik for the first time; the three would later become THE ART OF NOISE.
During this early phase of his production career, Horn favoured the Fairlight CMI as his tool of choice; it had been demonstrated to him electronic music pioneer and Simmons SDS-V co-designer Richard James Burgess, who had worked with him on the first BUGGLES album ‘The Age Of Plastic’.
The Fairlight also allowed for many arrangement possibilities and not just one, but two, three or four different remixes of a single track, a promotional tactic that was employed heavily at ZTT with FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD, THE ART OF NOISE, PROPAGANDA and ACT.
Horn had first become interested in more mechanised musical templates after hearing ‘Warm Leatherette’ by THE NORMAL in 1978. So when the Linn Drum Computer came along, it was like manna from heaven for the forward thinking Horn. He told The Guardian in 2004: “You could tell the Linn what to do, which was unbelievable because before then you had to tell the drummer what to do and he was generally a pain in the a*se”. However, Horn did use accomplished session musicians when needed to compliment his carefully controlled direction.
Horn would go on to win BRIT Awards for ‘Best British Producer’ in 1983, 1985 and 1992. In 2010, he received an Ivor Novello Award for ‘Outstanding Contribution to British Music’.
His production portfolio is vast, taking in PAUL McCARTNEY, TOM JONES, CHER, ROD STEWART, MALCOLM McLAREN, ROBBIE WILLIAMS, GENESIS, LEANN RIMES, LISA STANSFIELD and CHARLOTTE CHURCH among many, plus lesser known acts such as PHILIP JAP, INTERPLAY and THE MINT JULEPS.
Not necessarily collecting his best known or mainstream work, but certainly listing some of his more interesting adventures in modern recording, The Electricity Club chooses eighteen works from Trevor Horn that fit closest to its ethos, presented in chronological order…
ABC Poison Arrow (1982)
ABC’s first single ‘Tears Are Not Enough’ produced by Steve Brown was loose, scratchy funk that fitted in with the times, but the Sheffield combo wanted to be a far more polished and approached Horn to hone their sound. The first fruit of labours was ‘Poison Arrow’ was held together with a drum machine backbone and augmented by some dramatic piano passages from Anne Dudley in her first session with Horn. The chemistry of all involved led to a musical masterpiece of the era, ‘The Lexicon Of Love’.
Available on the ABC album ‘The Lexicon Of Love’ via Mercury Records
Horn reworked Richard James Burgess’ production of ‘Instinction’ and threw in reworked synths from Anne Dudley and extra bombastic percussion; it saved SPANDAU BALLET’s career. However, further sessions were abandoned when, according to songwriter Gary Kemp in his autobiography ‘I Know This Much: From Soho to Spandau’, Horn wanted drummer John Keeble replaced with a drum machine. Kemp stuck by his bandmate and went with IMAGINATION producers Swain and Jolley for the ‘True’ album.
Available on the SPANDAU BALLET album ‘Gold : The Best Of’ via EMI Records
In 1981, Horn had partly abandoned work on the second BUGGLES album to join Geoff Downes in YES; the press dubbed the new line-up YUGGLES! But Horn amicably left a few months later to finish what became ‘Adventures In Modern Recording’ and kickstart his production career. With Gary Langan and JJ Jeczalik on board, ‘Owner Of A Lonely Heart’, could be considered as the birth of THE ART OF NOISE; the stabbing samples of a jazz orchestra and tight programmed drums provided a distinctive counterpoint.
Available on the YES album ‘90125’ via Atlantic Records
THE ART OF NOISE “happened because of a happy accident” said Gary Langan. But Trevor Horn was not their producer – “Well, he wasn’t the producer!!” Langan clarified,“we were the producers! If I’m being really honest, we were a little naive. Anne, JJ and myself really had no intention of forming a band… so when we signed to ZTT, we needed somebody to do all the artwork and how it was going to portrayed which was really down to Paul and Trevor”. It was an indicator of how powerful Horn’s name had become.
Available on THE ART OF NOISE album ‘Who’s Afraid Of…?’ via Union Square / Salvo
Düsseldorf’s PROPAGANDA were the proto-LADYTRON or ABBA in Hell, depending on your point of view! They boasted within their ranks Ralf Dörper and Michael Mertens, plus two mini-Marlenes in Claudia Brücken and Susanne Freytag. The magnificent Fritz Lang film noir of ‘Dr Mabuse’ was their opening salvo. Produced by Horn, the success of FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD however meant the producer’s helm was handed over to his engineer Stephen J Lipson, although Horn was later involved in the final mix.
Available on the PROPAGANDA album ‘A Secret Wish’ via Union Square / Salvo
FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD The Power Of Love (1984)
A key signing to ZTT, regardless of who was actually playing and what the band would have achieved without Trevor Horn, in their short life FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD were a thrilling adventure that wouldn’t have worked without the songs, which were largely written by Holly Johnson, Peter Gill and Mark O’Toole. ‘Relax’ and ‘Two Tribes’ got the ball rolling, but the classical grandeur of ‘The Power Of Love’ was an outstanding piece of work in anyone’s book.
Available on the album ‘Bang!: The Greatest Hits’ via Warner Music
After they left 10CC, Kevin Godley and Lol Creme’s appetite for experimentation with tracks like ‘Babies’ led them to be called “the older generation’s Depeche Mode” by Smash Hits. They also branched out into directing promo videos for VISAGE and DURAN DURAN. It was while doing videos for FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD that they ended up working with Trevor Horn. Almost sparse by Horn’s standards with a metronomic tension alongside minimal guitar, ‘Cry’ was a terrific pop statement.
Available on the album ‘Cry: The Very Best Of’ via Polydor / Universal Music
Trevor Horn took his multiple remix approach to its zenith with GRACE JONES’s seventh album; rather than actually do a collection of songs, why not do an album that was effectively multiple remixes and interpretations of one song? While the familiar single version of ‘Slave To The Rhythm’ was wonderful, sun-kissed funky pop, the album’s fifth track take was far more aggressive, with a punchy synth brass riff taking centre stage to make the most out of Miss Jones’ enigmatically frightening demeanour.
Available on the album ‘Slave To The Rhythm’ via Culture Factory
Following her departure from PROPAGANDA, Claudia Brücken teamed up with early electro trailblazer Thomas Leer in ACT. The Trevor Horn produced ‘Chance’ was released as their third single, but withdrawn due to the 12″ mix containing an unauthorised varispeeded sample of ABBA’s ‘Take A Chance On Me’. Far more theatrical and spielerisch than PROPAGANDA, ACT were however, less well received with the eventual Stephen J Lipson produced ‘Laughter, Tears & Rage’ not making quite the impact that was hoped for.
Available on the album ‘Love & Hate’ via Union Square / Salvo
“Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat” was a concept coined by Horn while he was working in the studio with Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe. Taking in the then ubiquitous form of acid house, ‘Left To My Own Devices’ incorporated a dramatic string arrangement by Richard Niles and the opera stylings of soprano Sally Bradshaw. One of PET SHOP BOYS’ most striking recordings it had been intended to programme the synthesizers and record the orchestra in one day… six months later, the song was finished.
Available on the album ‘Introspective’ via EMI Records
The bombastic tendencies of the now stadium friendly SIMPLE MINDS were well-suited to the Trevor Horn treatment, although paradoxically by the time they got into the studio together in 1988, the Glaswegians were favouring a more restrained follow-up to the rock monster that was ‘Once Upon A Time’. Time has not been kind to ‘Street Fighting Years’ album, which now comes across as self-indulgent and over-politicised. But one track with a vibrant energy despite the soapbox was the more classic sounding ‘Wall Of Love’.
Available on the boxed set ‘Street Fighting Years’ via Virgin Records
SEAL found fame as the voice of ADAMSKI’s ‘Killer’ which reached No1 in 1990. Possessing a soulful voice that suited both dance and rock, Horn couldn’t believe his luck when he discovered hel was a free agent. A deal with ZTT was sealed and their first single together was the mighty techno rock of ‘Crazy’. It was the perfect platform for SEAL’s crossover potential and the Paddington-born singer found fame in America with ‘Kiss From A Rose’, which was also produced by Horn and netted a 1995 Grammy Award.
If it wasn’t for SOFT CELL, then the path for FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD and PET SHOP BOYS might not have been so smooth. Signing with Warners, this cover of Jacques Brel’s ‘Les Chanson De Jacky’, made famous in an English version by Scott Walker, was a compromise reached by Almond to regain both his pop and artistic high ground. While basically a technologically enhanced remake of Walker’s cover, Horn’s production was mighty and cute, in a stupid arse way 😉
Available on the album ‘Tenement Symphony’ via Warner Music
Virgin Records had always been pushing MIKE OLDFIELD for a ‘Tubular Bells II’ since the original in 1973. But ironically, when Oldfield departed the label for Warners, he did just that. Horn was a natural choice as producer for this long awaited follow-up. The first ‘Tubular Bells’ featured no synthesizers at all; with the titled inspired by an Arthur C. Clarke short story, not only did ‘Sentinel’ exploit the use of modern studio technology, but beautiful female vocals were also part of this more obviously melodic reprise.
Available on the album ‘Tubular Bells II’ via Warner Music
Written by Arthur Baker, Taylor Dayne and Fred Zarr, ‘Whatever You Want’ for TINA TURNER was an archetypical production from Horn. Using the most up-to-date technology yet retaining a vital musicality, there was always space for the lead vocalist to perform to their maximum. However, it always was a time consuming process. Legend has it that when ROBBIE WILLIAMS handed over his demos for the 2009 album ‘Reality Killed The Video Star’, he apparently said to Horn “I’ll see you in six months!”
Available on the album ‘Wildest Dreams’ via EMI Music
Faux lesbian duo Julia Volkova and Lena Katina caused a stir with the Horn produced No1 single ‘All The Things She Said’ and its accompanying video that broke many broadcast taboos. Much more interesting musically though was another Horn produced track ‘Not Gonna Get Us’. Sounding like THE PRODIGY fronted by fleas on helium, ‘Нас Не Догонят’ (as it was originally titled in Russian) was heavier than usual Europop, with a rebellious teenage angst message.
Available on the album ‘200 km/h In The Wrong Lane’ via Interscope Records
In 2003, Horn worked with Glaswegians BELLE & SEBASTIAN for the first time. And after the hangover of Britpop, indie bands were starting to embrace synths again. Southampton band DELAYS almost went the full hog with the brilliant ‘Valentine’, a Horn-assisted disco number. The pulsing sequences and syncopated rhythm section were pure DURAN DURAN, although Greg Gilbert’s raspy falsetto in the soaring chorus and some choppy guitar ensured the band weren’t totally detached from their roots.
Available on the album ‘You See Colours’ via Rough Trade
PET SHOP BOYS reunited with Trevor Horn, ‘I’m With Stupid’ was a perfect politically charged jape at the special relationship between George W Bush and Tony Blair. The satirical lyrical content was enhanced further with an amusing promo video featuring ‘Little Britain’ stars Matt Lucas and David Walliams. However, other than the brilliantly hypnotic opener ‘Psychological’, the remainder of the ‘Fundamental’ album was lacklustre, with the dreary Diane Warren penned ballad ‘Numb’ being a low point.
Available on the album ‘Fundamental’ via EMI Music