ART OF NOISE: WHO'S AFRAID OF THE ART OF NOISE? (1984)
1) A Time For Fear (Who's Afraid); 2) Beat Box (Diversion One); 3) Snapshot; 4) Close (To The Edit); 5) Who's Afraid (Of The Art Of Noise); 6) Moments In Love; 7) Momento; 8) How To Kill / Realization.
Today, sampling is so much part of the everyday culture — regardless of whether one loves the art for its unlimited capabilities or hates it for demeaning the whole idea of music — that albums like Who's Afraid Of The Art Of Noise are often thought of as possessing nothing but historical value. Critics with the ability to look back over their shoulder still rate it highly, but popular opinion no longer holds the hooliganry of Trevor Horn, Anne Dudley, and Paul Morley in any kind of high esteem. For better or for worse?
Obviously, this album — preceded by an EP called Into Battle With The Art Of Noise which I am not discussing separately (both of its major tracks are reproduced here) — is as much the inevitable offspring of the Fairlight CMI sampler as it is a creation of artistically minded humans. And, obviously, samplers have gotten much more clever since then, and humans have learned to use them in more sophisticated ways. But there is always something to be said for the joy of initial discovery; and whenever I listen to Who's Afraid, I share this giggly feeling, that of a mischievous little kid given full reins on some exciting naughty project — in dire contrast with lots and lots of complex electronic stuff from the last two decades, whose biggest fault is taking itself way too seriously. This bunch of noise is light and exuberant, in comparison.
Ironically, it is the most «serious» track that has managed to retain the most appeal; 'Moments In Love', whose sexy sensual synthesized sighs still impress impressionable lovers around the world. It may be aiming a bit too squarely at the «gorgeous» target — becoming a variety of penthouse muzak for post-graduate romantics — but it is still heads and tails above most competition in the genre, and it also helps to have the full ten-minute version that leads you into several different, unexpected directions along the way.
But the true soul of Who's Afraid lies in those tracks that take the art of hooliganish collating to the limits: 'Beat Box', 'A Time For Fear', and, of course, the famous single 'Close (To The Edit)' with its infamous video of a dressed up mini-Madonna-girl smashing up musical instruments. Even after all these years, the use of a car's startup noises as the backbone for a rhythm track still excites, as well as the understanding that, no matter how many times you listen to the composition, you can still never remember well what comes next — a synth horn blast? a funky bass riff? a shout of 'hey'? a bird chirping? a tra-la-la? a bunch of angelic backing vocals? and what the heck is it all supposed to mean?
Nothing, of course. Read all you want about it, but it is perfectly obvious that there was no concept, no ideology, no understanding. Just a bunch of people excited with new technologies and instruments and doing weird stuff with not the vaguest idea of where it will lead them. It is a good thing that all of them were accomplished musicians with a good ear for melody and a good foot for rhythm, because in less experienced hands such an approach would never have paid off. As it is, Who's Afraid is clearly dated, but I do not see how anybody who admits the values of sampling and electronica in the first place could pronounce that with shades of gray in his voice rather than yellow, orange, and red. It is not the actual sounds of the album — admittedly, coming across as cheaper and flatter than whatever can be produced today — that constitute its value, nor is it the alleged facelessness of the album (at that time, the band stood opposed to most competition in remaining as anonymous as possible). Instead, it's just the spirit: light, playful, humorous, and not giving the slightest damn about what the hell is going on. Except that the stakes are high, and that the question of "Can I say something? Can I-Can I say something?", endlessly looped on one of the tracks, would be a far more telling choice for the album title than the provoking question they put on the sleeve instead. Why else would they want to sample the Who's 'Baba O'Reilly', of all choices, if not to underscore that, whatever they are fiddling with here, they intend it to come across as an anthemic experience for the new generation?
As surprising as it may be, I think Who's Afraid is a record more for the heart than for the brain. All these collages and samples are pretty naïve indeed for today's standards, and they probably weren't all that complicated in 1984, either, not with the new sampler hanging around. But the fun part of it all, that's what's priceless. Like the end of the title track, with that echoey laugh and the girl going "Boom! Boom!" like she were just fooling around in a cave, enjoying life's options instantaneously as they come along, no second thoughts about it. That's so goddamn symbolic of it all. Kids at play, with creativity on the rampage. Thumbs up.