Bowie had a stock response to chameleon comparisons: “a chameleon’s trying to make you ignore him…that’s not my ambition!” Nor was it Adam Ant’s, who came from a similar art school background and cycled through an even more outlandish cast of characters: Indian brave, highwayman, cossack: visuals that sold (and were sold by in turn) some of the most exciting songs of the early 80s.
The first Adam and the Ants record is jittery, cold, and fraught, like ice cubes rattling in a glass. The second is a much easier listen, featuring powerful African-influenced drumming and really catchy songs. This is the third, which, as the title would suggest, is extremely charming and easy to like. It thus overcomes big problems, such as nearly every song on side B sucking.
It’s made of similar stuff to Dog Eat Dog, meaning sharp layers of vocals and guitars interspersed with empty air. There isn’t the omnipresent Burundi drumming of Dog, but the busy tom fills achieve much the same effect. “Scorpios” is a nice, sprawling song with horns and many-tracked vocals that seems to stretch itself out on the airwaves. “Picasso Visita El Planeta De Los Simios” is even better, featuring lacerating funk-inspired guitar. “Stand and Deliver” is an amazing classic that summarises Adam Ant’s career, like a leaf that looks exactly like the tree it came from. Energetic danceable post-punk decked in brilliant visuals that saturate the music beneath it.
Quality control issues become evident as Prince Charming progresses. “Mile High Club”: dogshit. “Mowhok”: dogshit. “Ant Rap”: dogshit inexplicably released as a single. This is another trend of Ant: about half the songs absolutely do not work, despite containing similar ingredients as the ones that do. At least the bad songs mostly run together this time, so skip button jockeying isn’t necessary.
Ant broke through in the gulf between two eras, like a surfer trading one wave for another. The Ants were originally signed (according to Adam) because Decca Records wanted “in” on the then-waning punk rock trend, and grabbed the nearest band to hand. Then they blew up in the MTV music video era, when listeners started using their eyes as well as their ears and it began to pay to not be an absolutely hideous fucking goblin.
You know what they say about Elvis: 90% of what he did was worthless, and the last 10% made him king. Adam Ant was inconsistent, but when he was good, he was very good. You might say he burglarised the king.
Imagine there’s a wall, right in front of you. It has always been there. You can’t walk or see through it. Other people pass through easily. The wall only exists for you.
My wall is hip hop. The condition amusia stops people from enjoying music. I may have selective amusia for hip hop. It’s not that I dislike it or find it annoying; my brain doesn’t recognise it as music. Listening to Lil Uzi Vert’s much-hyped Eternal Atake felt like reading Egyptian hieroglyphics and seeing birds and snakes and ears of grain: I have understanding, but it’s of the wrong sort and won’t let me decode the language. I have ample exposure to hip-hop: I’ve been listening to it unwillingly through car windows and gym PAs and TV shows for nearly thirty years. I should get it by now, and the fact that I still don’t makes me feel disabled.
I don’t have opinions on this album, I have questions, many of them stupid.
1) What’s the appeal of listening to someone else brag about owning things? Rap aficionados always defend this as rags-to-riches storytelling, but most rap isn’t about striving to be rich, it’s about simply being rich. The first song (and the second, and the third) reduces to”I drive a cool car”. So what? Where’s the struggle? Uzi could have gotten that Mercedes-Benz from his dad, for all I know.
2) Why do all rappers now have “Lil” in their name? My understanding is that the ubiquitous rap cognomen was once “Big” (Big Daddy Kane, the Notorious BIG, Big Boi) and now it’s “Little” (Lil Yachty, Lil Peep, Lil Peep). When did this shift occur? Is Biggie Smalls the transitional fossil?
3) Why are so many of these “Lil” rappers actually…not Lil? Lil Yachty is 1.8m tall. Lil Peep was 1.85 m tall. Lil Uzi Vert is just 1.63m, but he’s built like an NPC bodybuilder. Are they “Lil” in the sense of being young and hungry? What will they do when they turn 40 or 50? Don’t they think they’ll live that long?
4) Should these albums come with a glossary for idiot white people? At one point Uzi says “Man, she asked for some racks” and I thought his girlfriend was asking for breast implants in the weirdest way possible. Actually, a rack is a thousand dollars.
5) Why are the most memorable parts of rap always borrowed from things that aren’t rap? The “hit” of Eternal Atake is “That Way”, which samples the vocal hook of “I Want it That Way”. I won’t say Uzi just steals the chorus of a Backstreet Boys song – he interpolates it in a fairly creative way – but it’s still not exactly is. Samples can enhance a song, but when the only interesting thing about a song is its samples, shouldn’t you just listen to the original track?
6) Is this what growing old feels like? The years becoming a slow-acting acid that melts away my eyes and ears and nose, gradually destroying any connection to current culture? Locking me inside my head, until all I can do is look inwards? The older I become, the more I remember the past. And the more time I spend in the present, the less time it spends in me.
Like many classic metal albums, Bonded by Blood‘s legend is bigger than the album itself. The shadow of Exodus’s debut looms massively down the years, and the modern listener might be surprised – even disappointed – by the smallness of the album that cast it.
Exodus (along with Overkill) is often cited as “true” thrash metal, back from the days when men were men and FUCKIN’ POSERS MAAAAN hadn’t invaded the scene with their mainstream influences and melodies and coherent songwriting et cetera. Thrash metal can be awesome, but it can also be snobbish and insular, and strangely proud of its own smallness. In 1990 Exodus released a cassette entitled “Four Albums And Still No Ballad”. Is that a thing worth bragging about? Particularly when you couldn’t write an interesting ballad if your life depended on it?
Released in 1985, Bonded by Blood was actually recorded in August 1984 under the title A Lesson in Violence. The album was famously delayed for nearly a year through circumstances such as label shenanigans and a totally inappropriate cover designed by a hippie friend of guitarist Gary Holt (although that same guy also designed the Exodus logo, so maybe hippies are more brutal than is commonly believed). While the album languished, the Bay Area was flooded by bootleg recordings of the album. One wonders if Holt ever bragged to Lars Ulrich that he was fighting music piracy before it was cool.
Bonded by Blood is about riffs. It has no time for anything that’s not a riff. It demonstrated Gary Holt’s prowess as a rhythm guitarist, almost to the expense of the rest of the music. It’s the canonical example of thrash metal songwriting, where you get your best guitarist to improvise riffs for an hour, takes the five best ones, and presto, that’s a song. There’s just not a lot of thought given to anything that doesn’t have six strings.
The title track features a bruising yet intricate main riff, reminiscent of THAT part in “Fight Fire with Fire”, where even when you think you understand what’s happening on the fretboard you probably don’t. But chorus is boring and shapeless, with the guitars and drums and vocals all doing three different things. The band themselves seem to think “Bonded by Blood”‘s chorus is underwhelming: when they re-recorded the song with Rob Dukes in 2012 they added a bunch of extra drum fills to try and make it more interesting. The exact same problem occurs over and over.
The band doesn’t really “get” songwriting. They repeat vocal patterns from song to song (“Bonded by Blood” has the same verse as “Exodus”), Tom Hunting ride the same punk rock d-beat for half the album, and when they hit paydirt with a certified classic like “Strike of the Beast” and “A Lesson in Violence”, it seems almost accidental. The riffs are amazing, but they need to be. They’ll all the album has.
Paul Baloff sings on this album. It was the only studio LP he recorded in his life, and it made him a legend. I wish he lived up to the hype.
He sings like a drunk man pisses, squealing and yelping and cackling and generally flinging his voice all around the place. Maybe he’s not Darkwing Duck, but his voice has a definite cartoon character quality. You know when the villain sings his “I am evil” song? That’s Baloff. He’s hilarious and sounds like he’s having the time of his life, but the album would be much better with an actual performance on it.
So the vocals aren’t so hot, and the recorded-in-the-toilet quality vocals do Baloff no favors. Even the album’s best cuts rely on speed and power to overwhelm their shortcomings, and the bad songs could literally be modern pizza thrash shit if they were 10-15% stupider.
Forget 1985, what was happening in 1984?
Slayer’s transcendental heaviness on “Chemical Warfare”. Metal Church and Metallica’s sophistication. Bathory and Celtic Frost stepping outside the confines of thrash entirely and forging a new, blackened path. Next to those bands and albums and moments, Bonded by Blood is well-executed but a little stunted: a 40 minute exposition of Gary Holt’s right hand. The Bay Area sound was already burning itself out, and incorporating new sonic influences out of sheer necessity. Baloff was wrong, and the posers were right: thrash metal ultimately had to evolve or die.
I enjoy many parts of Bonded by Blood, but the popular perception of it as a paragon of metalness that we’ve all strayed from seems a little wrong. This is a powerful but limited album in a powerful but limited style. Where do you go from here, now that you’ve stretched Bay Area thrash to its limits? What does Bonded by Blood 2, 3, 4 etc sound like? How many times can you bang your head against the stage?
One sign you that you had overbearing egotist parents is that you have “Junior” after your name. Maybe a similar rule applies to rock bands that are titled “[Frontman’s Name] Group”.
Michael Schenker is known for his guitar skills, as well as his turbulent personality. He’s fortunate that he had most of his crack-ups in the days before social media: otherwise he’d be the heavy metal Kanye West: 30% musician, 70% source of amusement.
We’re talking stints in rehab, near homelessness, hunger strikes, feuds with with singers and producers and journalists and his own brother, cancelled tours, and a long list of other bizarre behavior.
Wikipedia advises me that forty-one musicians have played in Michael Schenker Group and have since quit or been fired. Schenker would probably fire himself from his own solo project, were such a thing were possible.
But he’s definitely brilliant. I listened to power metal for years, and one thing I’d always heard was that the style’s guitar playing owes a lot to Schenker. This is correct. There’s a straight line between most of what Schenker plays on this album and Helloween, and in the case of “On and On” – with its harmonized bends and cod-Bach synthesizer lines – it’s not even a line, it’s a dot.
This is one of the best-produced 80s albums I’ve heard, particularly the deep, thudding character of the drums. MSG has a real sense of precision and space in its mix, with everything built on top of each other like layers on a cake. It’s like you can throw a fishing line into the album and find where the vox are, where the guitars are, where the drums are, etc. Listening to MSG is a seriously good time before you even appreciate the notes.
“Ready to Rock” is an okay-ish cock rock anthem. “Attack of the Mad Axeman” seems like more of the same…but then Schenker pulls a drag-chute on the song and turns it into something adventurous and fascinating. His shredding over the final 32 or so bars…you are listening to power metal, at least five years before. Seriously revolutionary stuff.
“On and On” continues down this path, trading ethereal keys for smoldering wah pedal soloing. I’m struggling to think of more hard rock/heavy metal from 1981 that sounds like this. The Michael Schenker Group was an odd band: they didn’t sound out of place on MTV, but on a compositional level they had a quality that nobody else really possessed. Some quality of uncaring naffness and unfocused coolness.
“Let Sleeping Dogs Lie” and “I Want More” are forgettable. “Never Trust a Stranger” is the power ballad, and sounds like Elton John covered by Aerosmith. “Looking for Love” is a burning and agitated uptempo track with some great hooks and guitar moments. The final track is pretty good too, except for when the music drops away and they let Gary Bardem sing unaccompanied. He’s one of those guys who sounds great, but only if he’s located somewhere in a pile of 200 watt Marshall stacks.
The Argument, Grant Hart’s final solo album, was released in 2013, four years before his death.
Who is Grant Hart? If you know him at all, it’s probably as “the less famous guy from Hüsker Dü”. There are worse obituaries, but if you ask a group of children who they want to be when they grow up, few will say “the less famous guy from Hüsker Dü”. Not many will say “the more famous guy from Hüsker Dü” for that matter, either.
Hart deserved better than he got. Overshadowed both by Bob Mould’s pyroclastic distorted guitar chords and forceful personality, it was easy to see him as a lesser talent. But one day I took stock of my ten favorite Hüsker Dü songs, and about seven of them were written by Hart. From “The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill” to “She Floated Away” to his solo albums, he was a genuinely brilliant pop songwriter.
And he was weird. Bob Mould would never and could never have made The Argument.
It’s a 20-song adaptation of Milton’s Paradise Lost, based on a treatment by William S Burroughs. It sounds (and is) cheaply made, consisting of noisy guitars, synth loops, and found sounds apparently recorded around Hart’s house (such as a barking dog). Seldom has such ambition been realised through such humble material. Hart has created a tableaux of the Original Sin out of carpet fluff, dryer lint, and spilled breakfast cereal.
There’s not a trace of hardcore punk to be seen, and little alternative rock. It’s just Grant Hart’s stripped-back and heartfelt (Hartfelt?) songwriting, which always seemed to exist beyond influences. Sometimes the cheapness of the album works against it: “Morningstar”, for instance, features a loud programmed drum loop. It’s distracting, and all I can focus on. But far more often than not an entrancing mood appear. “Awake, Arise” is dire, and builds up like a thundercloud. It’s followed by “If We Have The Will”, a military march of painted toy soldiers written in 9/8 time. “Sin” goes heavy on the blues.
By the time “Letting Me Out”, “Is the Sky the Limit?”, and “So Far From Heaven” roll around, the album is (metaphorically) on fire. None of these songs contain a single dull or uninspired moment. “War in Heaven” is woven from agonizing jagging synths and samples. “Underneath the Apple Tree” is focused around lyrical storytelling – Grant Hart’s devil is far more avuncular and likeable than the Rolling Stones’ or Marilyn Manson’s. The six minute title track is boring and can be skipped. But the album ends on a high note, the energetic and frantic “Run For the Wilderness”.
One of Hart’s goals for the adaptation was to remove explicit references to religion – a blind listener might not even make the Paradise Lost connection. Lyrically, the story jumps around a bit and is kind of out of order. I think he might have taken inspiration from CS Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters – you think you’re reading the demonic missives in chronological sequence, but the celestial method of dating need not overlap with that of mundanity.
But mostly, Hart hasn’t recreated the world of Milton, or Burroughs, or even Moses, but has created a self-referential cosmos that’s entirely his own. Obsessive, detailed, and tuneful: The Argument could be a concept album about its creator’s mind. Grant Hart is gone, but will not be forgotten. Hüsker Dü. Do you recall?
Drop a stone in a pond. Ripples will spread out. Cultural events are similar, but sometimes the ripples occur before the stone falls. Facebook, iPhones, and The Lord of the Rings are stones. Myspace, Blackberries, and The Hobbit are ripples. Although important in their own right, they had the misfortune to occur before a similar (but much bigger) thing, and have been swallowed by it within the public mind.
Cassette tapes (and the culture surrounding them) were ripples: the stone would would fall twenty years later. They were ugly plastic rectangles containing about ninety meters of magnetic tape. Music recorded on them usually sounded hissy and noisy (this itself became an aesthetic), but the tapes were so cheap that it was now possible for the average child to copy music. People would tape songs off the radio (complete with hacky DJ voices and commercials), as well as make illegal bootlegs of live bands. This led to a full-blown kulturkampf between tapers and record labels in the 1980s, culminating in the BPI’s often-parodied “Home Taping Is Killing Music” slogan.
While some labels fought cassette tapes, others embraced them. C81 (a compilation cassette released by NME at the start of the tape boom) is an example of the latter, containing twenty-four tracks of British and American “indie” music circa 1981. I’m sure that all the bands involved were branded as sellouts until their dying day.
The tracklisting is as schizophrenic and scattered as any fourteen year old’s mixtape: legends like Pere Ubu and Scritti Politti exist alongside bizarre “art” projects like Furious Pig that apparently did nothing notable except appear on C81. It’s both ethnically and musically diverse, with selections of funk, ska, reggae, dub and so on. Also, whoever put this together clearly wanted to fuck Lora Logic, because she’s on here twice.
As with many compilations, it sprays and it prays. “You won’t like everything, but you’ll probably like something.” I enjoyed the apocalyptic mini-epic “The Seven Thousand Names of Wah!”, the histrionic but understated “Shouting Out Loud”, the Scritti Politti song, and “Parallel Lines”, which is a thesis on everything punk should be: taught, fraught, and small.
But the best piece of music C81 has to offer is Cabaret Voltaire’s “Raising the Count”, which initiates the listener into a kind of electronic Satanic ritual: a black mass powered by 200 watts. The song is as destructively repetitive as a pneumatic drill rammed through your basilar membrane. You will either turn it off in confusion, or get sucked into a hypnogogic state. Cabaret Voltaire had existed for most of a decade by the time C81 came out, and would continue to release music for about twelve more years (although I find their later techno/house music to be less interesting than their early experimental work).
So, good music, and good capture of a particular moment in British musical history. C81 is now most easily acquired in digital form, which was the next evolutionary stage of tape culture. Cassette tapes were ripples, and digital piracy was the stone, doing everything cassettes had done (including killing the music business) about two orders of magnitude more successfully. The record industry profiting off tape trading seems gruesomely poetic in retrospect. It’s as though Louis XVI, before the French Revolution, had invested royal money in guillotines.
For over eleven years, Reality wore a title it was never meant to bear: that of Last David Bowie Album.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Bowie had every intention of continuing recording and touring. But in 2004 (near the end of the grueling 112-date Reality World Tour) he collapsed on stage in Germany, evidently from a heart attack. The beautiful statue that had worn countless layers of paint had suffered an interior crack.
There were no more tours, no more albums. For over ten years, Reality was the end. It never felt like one: it was a small, transitory album, trivial at times, and lacked an identity. It wasn’t a grand, towering tombstone, with HERE LIES DAVID BOWIE etched in stone.
Maybe its battlefield promotion helped it, giving threadbare songs like “She’ll Drive the Big Car” and “Looking for Water” more attention than they deserved. But after The Next Day came out in 2013, Reality fell into its correct place. It’s in the lower half of Bowie’s albums, which is no demerit. It’s also in the lower half of Bowie’s post-70s work, which probably is.
It has good songs, as they all do. “Pablo Picasso” takes the Modern Lovers’ one-chord pony on new and surprising adventures. “The Loneliest Guy” is very unsettling, like a taut and humming spiderweb of Mike Garson’s reverb-soaked piano and Gerry Leonard’s vibrato-drenched guitar. Bowie seems to be drawing from Scott Walker’s approach to songwriting here, turning the soundscape into a huge blank space that crashes sea-shell-like with the sound of its own emptiness.
“Fall Dog Bombs the Moon” is like the last Tin Machine song, very dry and underproduced. The lyrics are both cryptic and heavy-handed, clearly exculpatory of George Bush while not really naming him. I sort of like it.
“Try Some, Buy Some” was originally produced by Phil Spector, and sounds like Regina Spektor. I’ve only listened to it once or twice – a little of this stuff goes a long way.
“Reality” is noisy and quickly becomes unwelcome: it’s like a jam session that nobody has the courage to end. But closing track “Bring Me the Disco King” is another album highlight. It’s another powerful minimalistic song, consisting of Bowie’s voice, Garson’s jazz-influenced piano playing, and Matt Chamberlain’s drum loops. The result is enchanting: it has some of the same magic that “Lady Grinning Soul” had, all those years ago. But then Garson starts vamping all sorts of neo-tonal stuff over the outro (as if trying to recapture “Aladdin Sane”), and a lot of the magic leaves.
And then Reality ends. It was supposed to be yet another stone in a road with no clear end or destination: the road of life. The trouble with such a road is that it can just stop at any moment, without warning, and you have to accept that the final moment has come. For a while, Bowie fans had to accept that this album was his Abbey Road. But eleven years later, a new stone appeared.
Every culture has a beloved national dish that amounts to “take all the leftovers and put it in a pot”. Hours is David Bowie’s version of that, an unfocused collection of tracks from a videogame, an unfinished Reeves Gabrels solo album, plus some other crap, with a production job so lame it ruptured time and space.
Look at the cover. You already know how it sounds. Tepid, breezy, housewife-hooking AOR pop rock with no edge or bite. Bowie tried to get TLC to guest on “Thursday’s Child”. I don’t know what’s sadder: that he seriously had that idea or that it probably would have worked.
“Thursday’s Child” is the first single. It features a lame R&B-inspired backbeat, gratuitous female backing vocals, and greasy, syrupy synths. Someone once said that synths are to American musicians what firewater was to the Native Americans. I agree, and wish they were what smallpox blankets were for the Indians.
“Something in the Air” is six minutes of boredom and glitchy sound effects. I don’t know what Reeves Gabrels is playing on guitar. It doesn’t relate to the music in any way. It’s like they recorded him noodling at soundcheck time and put it on the record. This was Gabrels’ final studio release with Bowie, quitting while he was behind.
“Seven” is an acoustic song with very loud slide guitar parts. Not bad, but anyone could have written it.
“What’s Really Crappening” is Bowie’s infamous “cyber-song”, meaning its recording was broadcast via livestream. There were probably people who racked up a $40 phone bill over their 56ks listening to Bowie make this – they should have watched the video of the dancing baby instead. The lyrics were partially written by a fan, Alex Grant, who won a contest on Bowie’s website. Nobody can find any trace of Grant now. He may have entered the witness protection program.
“Brilliant Adventure” is etc…
You get the idea. I dislike hours greatly, there’s something cold and dead about it that I don’t hear in any of the other “bad” Bowie albums. Even Never Let Me Down and Tin Machine I have odd charm that renders them lovable from a certain perspective, but this has none (and no artistry either). This is a strong contender for the worst thing Bowie ever recorded on a major label.
The digital sampler is one of the great musical instruments of its ages, nearly equal to the electric guitar. Or maybe it’s an anti-instrument – rather than creating music, it takes the music of other people, and fascinatingly tortures it to death.
The Akai MPC sampler is to music what the AK-47 is to firearms – a mass-produced weapon that allowed peasants to get into the game. Not knowing a damned thing about music was no longer an obstacle to making it. Illiterate rappers could slice parts out of someone else’s tracks, reconstruct them into Frankensteinian monstrosities, and play the results to a crowded dancefloor. Sampling culture reveled in taking music out of its natural environment, and shoving square pegs into round holes. It put Beethoven’s Fifth over hip hop beats, and uncool dad rock over souped-up breakbeats. Much of the Mona Lisa’s effect comes from the fact that you must pass through an austere gallery before you see it. It would have a different impact if you saw it in a sewer. Sampling works by the same principle: it allows us to hear old music in a new way, breaking preconceptions and forcing the mind into unfamiliar paths.
Bowie’s 1997 album makes a fetish out of sampling. Most of Reeve Gabrels’ guitar riffs are actually recorded samples. Wild scratchy noises spray like jets of graffiti from an aerosol can: these are saxophones, sped up and glitched in the studio.
It’s also supposed to be a celebration of jungle music, a style he was quite enamored with at the time. In the press, he referred to it as “the great cry of the twentieth century”. On tour he split the set into two halves – a rock set and a drum ‘n’ bass set. Critics didn’t like it, and neither did his fans. After he noticed that most of his audience left after the rock set ended, he defiantly put the drum ‘n’ bass set first for the remainder of the dates. Jungle was pretty trendy and oversaturated by this point, which didn’t do him any favours with the cognoscenti. It was as he’d decided in 2001 that rap-metal was the great cry of the twenty-first century.
Regardless, Earthling is aggressive, cartoonish, excessive, and brilliant at times. Most of the tracks speed along like little mechanical rabbits, flurries of breakbeats trying to throw you out of the groove. “Dead Man Walking” proves itself the strongest cut, with a tough KMFDM groove mixed with introspective lyrics: Bowie is pondering his own sell-by date. “Law (Earthlings on Fire)” is also pretty strong, ending the record on an apocalyptic note. The music seems to be blasting from lamppost speakers while chlorine gas swirls below.
“Seven Years in Tibet” is rather long-winded, featuring a kick and snare sample that seems inspired by Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing” (or maybe it is that kick and snare! I’m not sure). The song plods along, with massive gravitas, before exploding into an incandescent fireball of guitars. Bowie was a Free Tibet supporter for many decades: “Silly Boy Blue” on his first LP deals with it, and although he forgot about all those early songs, he never forgot Tibet.
“I’m Afraid of Americans” is more KMFDM-sounding material, with Bowie using synths the way he used Ronson’s guitars in the past, as riffs for him to emote over. The song was a rare chart hit in the United States. For the last time, they had to be afraid of him.
Although the two sound nothing alike, Earthling was made in the same spirit as Low. “How can I make human musicians sound like robots?” Low achieved this with motorik, synthesizers, layered drums, and Brian Eno. Earthling uses computers. For the first time, Bowie was cut on ones and zeros. Right around the corner were BowieNet, Bowie Bonds, BowieBanc, and all the rest.
Earthling is a fascinating example of an album that doesn’t particularly want to be loved or hated, just remembered. There was nowhere to go from here. How do you follow up excess? Even more excess? Bowie course-corrected after this with the stripped back …hours, landing so hard back on earth with that he buried the record in the ground. His subsequent records tended to be conservative and calculating, carefully doling out “experimentation” one pinch at a time. Earthling is a special moment: the final time Bowie truly went mad in the studio.
1. Outside is a masterpiece, Bowie’s greatest work in fifteen years, and barring a nanotechnological rebirth, will be his greatest work in the remaining sum of human years. (Sadly, I don’t believe Blackstar finishes as well as it began.)
But it’s exhausting. “Heroes” charges you up, this album drains you dry. The occasional pop song (“I Have Not Been to Oxford Town”, “Strangers When We Meet”) falls like a sweet berry between filth-stained cobblestones of industrial metal, avant-garde jazz, spoken-word interludes, and atonal ambiance. Sometimes the music seems to be reaching too far, and I feel I’m becoming lost. But when the next chord change hits, things always fall back into place.
Some parts I still don’t understand: in particular, the album concept. Something about ritualistic human sacrifice, a private detective, and characters called things like Algeria Touchshriek and Leon Blank. References are made to the “world wide Internet”, and Richard Preston’s alarming 1994 nonfiction book The Hot Zone. Something seems to have happened to this world, an event that Bowie won’t allow us to know. We’re peering through the window, guessing. We’re outside.
Maybe there’s not even a single concept. Like Diamond Dogs, Outside is a musical patchwork quilt, assembled from the wrack of a few different projects. In 1994, Q Magazine asked him for a “week in the life” type diary. Bowie felt that his real life wasn’t quite as exiting as they were probably hoping, so he wrote a fake diary by one Nathan Adler (this diary is reprinted in Outside’s liner notes). Two years earlier, he’d re-united with Brian Eno, and attempted to form a kind of avant-garde supergroup (much of their work eventually saw release on the internet as the Leon Suite.)
In addition to Eno, Bowie has his most powerful lineup in years. Carlos Alomar is back (holy shit!), as is Reeve Gabrels, whose rhythm tracks are distorted to near Static-X levels. Mike Garson makes a very welcome appearance – if you liked the middle fifty-five bars of “Aladdin Sane”, Bowie just gives him six kilometers of rope on this album. He just lays down solo after solo, on track after track, shredding Bowie’s chord progressions with hailstorms of chromatic notes.
The internet, or “information superhighway” (as it was ponderously called in 1995) is a big influence here. Outside seems married to it, somehow. Here’s a David Bowie FAQ from 1996 or so: it’s interesting to read Bowie’s fascination with computers (the digital art accompanying the Q Magazine story was created by him, somehow). Soon BowieNet would exist.
Picking out great tracks is hard, but I really like four. They come in groups of two, each positioned next to each other on the tracklisting (ignoring a segue).
“A Small Plot of Land” is aggressive, ear-bleeding jazz, paying tribute to Scott Walker and nearly upstaging him. “Hallo Spaceboy” is an industrial dance experiment that makes “Pallas Athena” sound like “All of the Dudes”. “Thru’ These Architects’ Eyes” riffs of Thomas Aquinas’s idea of God being an architect, and takes the album to new, celestial heights. And closing track “Strangers When We Meet” is powerful, dark, and tuneful. A perfect song to end on.
Some Bowie albums are best without their context. Outside is best with it. It’s flotsam from a confused and turbulent time in human’s history, when zero started to became one. Bowie was much better than average at predicting the future, but here we see him caught up amidst manifesting predictions – society unease and turmoil, and a digital pantokrator set to pave over humanity with silicon wafer. The album was meant to have a sequel, called Inside. This never materialised, but the wheels of time still turn, and soon we will see Inside for itself.