Soundchecks Music Reviews

Who's Afraid Of The Art Of Noise

ZTT/ Salvo SALVOMDCD22 Element 17

The Art Of Noise

review by Andrew Darlington

'Hey-hey they're the Art Of Noise, people say they donkey around but they're too busy talking to Bing Crosby...' - Paul Morley on Radio One Saturday Live, 24 November 1984.

Art Of Noise sucked Duane Eddy back into the charts with a radically reconfigured Peter Gunn. Art Of Noise rescued Tom Jones from his long wilderness years, reinventing him into his new ironic postmodern incarnation with Kiss. But, Art Of Noise were always more than that. On a kind of Italian futurist trip they brought contradictions into reconciliations that logically should not work, but do. A Time For Fear streams news cut-ups in what they used to call 'musique concr�te', enabled by the intelligent application of the first digital audio sampler technology - the Fairlight CMI Workstation, over mighty pile-driving rhythms that might be the crack of doom on the thermo-nuclear iPlayer, or the surgical laser-tuned strikes delivering imposed democracy on failed states, tenuously dance-connected. They can do that, but creative in the way that avant garde is supposed to be creative; rhythmic shocks of the new.

Sampling was never so agile or nimble. Back then, it had yet to devolve into the tired formulaic steal of obvious pop hooks to bolster the inadequacy of your rap. It's odd, for genres usually start out simplex and evolve through complex into multiplex. Sampling was the appliance of science making instantly possible what earlier experimentalists had done by physically snipping and rearranging, by splicing huge lengths of brown recording tape. Even the cheeky assemblages of S*Express, Bomb The Bass, M/A/R/R/S or Beatmasters had a mischievous exuberance that's seldom since been equalled. And certainly the Artful Noise here, on their debut album from 1984, has never been surpassed; only dulled through formulaic repetition by lesser hands.

Art Of Noise know/ knew how to make it work with clear musical dexterity and clarity. With Close To The Edit, sequencing treated voices all the way up the chart (#8 in November 1984), with cascading shimmers of keyboards, and disconnected voices, revisited in a Radio One session with the addition of doo-wop frills and found-sound quotes. There's scratching on Who's Afraid Of The Art Of Noise itself, mad soundtracks of careful delirium and laughter in alchemaic elision, punctuated by recurrent loops, then blips and electro-twitters in a brief Snapshot.

With Moments Of Love - "the sex-song of the 20th century," according to Paul Morley, with what sounds to be vibraphone but probably isn't. A third version comes live - on 31st March 1985 - from a Janice Long radio-session (plus From Science To Silence). All subsumed into chill-out calm and sublime melodic contours. With Art Of Noise, even the concept of the 'group' itself is in free-fall. New Musical Express' journalist Morley is claimed as the "non-playing member of the team." Annie Dudley, in a lace blouse with a black bowtie, also plays clarinet.

Programmer J.J. Jeczalik adds keyboards and cricket, wearing the kind of suit you'd expect Livingstone to wear exploring the jungle. Engineer/ producer Gary Langan wears a gold/ silver lam� jumpsuit in glitter, very nice too. He adds the Australian element. Morley explains their musical process as "it's not hippie, but it's magical. They surround themselves with all these weird buttons and instruments arranged in a circle."

For Art Of Noise is less pop group, more sound laboratory for calculating sonic equations into coherence. Trevor Horn too. In fact, the original team had already been operating as Horn's house-orchestra providing seamless settings for the twee Dollar pop-duo and for Malcolm McLaren. And I recall ABC's Stephen Singleton enthusing to me about the mysterious workings of Fairlight gate-technology during the recording of Lexicon Of Love, with not only Anne Dudley's onboard orchestration, but Gary engineering and J.J. programming. So welcome to more.

The name Art Of Noise was lifted from Italian futurist Luigi Russolo. While the 'ZTT' label was launched by Horn with Rimbaud-reading Morley, and smart business-head Jill Sinclair. ZTT stands for 'Zang Tuum Tumb', from a poem devised by Italian futurist Marinetti. The nine original tracks of Who's Afraid Of The Art Of Noise (19th June 1984), form their first album project - originally available in vinyl LP and cassette editions. It was preceded only by an EP, Into Battle With The Art Of Noise (September 1983), which includes the first appearances of Moments In Love, and Beat Box (designated 'Diversion Zero' to differentiate it from 'Diversion One' remixed for the LP).

But, as compiler/ curator Ian Peel states in the insert booklet "strictly speaking, elementally speaking, this isn't a CD reissue of Who's Afraid Of The Art Of Noise?, deluxe or otherwise. This is the first, proper, full-scale CD issue of Who's Afraid?, its first proper compact disc release." That is, this is an edition expanded with tie-in radio spots, with a Beat Box from the Richard Skinner radio session, diverted via a haunting keyboard refrain from Video Killed The Radio Star, quoting Trevor Horn's previous life as a Buggle, and sampling D.J. Skinner who pushes himself shamelessly towards inclusion.

And there's a further radio-version of Beat Box from the Janice Long Show, opening with near-classical poise. Plus a second disc of videos directed by the likes of Anton Corbijn, with ex-TV and cinema-trailer voiceovers from Kenneth Williams, Patrick Allan, and Pat Coombs. It's a re-issue (or issue) complicated by the London riots and arson-attack that caused its postponement. This particular arrangement of sounds could never have existed prior to their moment of recording. A quality that seems to have been subsequently lost as music eats itself in diminishing cycles.

Yet sometimes, haunting figures linger in the way that pop songs linger. For Momento footfall paces from channel to channel over the chime of bells, before erupting into peals of quasi-Bach organ, in playful suggestions utilising palettes of sound; a gallery installation as much an album track. In How To Kill, the looped voice "it's stopped" slows and distorts into cessation. There would be more from Art Of Noise, much more, including chart-adventures with Duane Eddy and Tom Jones. But there's an argument that they never came quite so fine as this again...

Edited by Tony Lee
for PIGASUS Press