808 STATE: GORGEOUS (1993)
1) Plan 9; 2) Moses; 3) Contrique; 4) 10 x 10; 5) One In Ten; 6) Europa; 7) Orbit; 8) Black Morpheus; 9) Southern Cross; 10) Nimbus; 11) Colony; 12) Timebomb; 13) Stormin Norman; 14) Sexy Dancer; 15) Sexy Synthesizer.
Buyer beware — despite the self-aggrandizing title (or, perhaps, because of the title) this record is frequently given the finger even by serious fans of the band. Me, I fail to see what exactly it is that makes it so much less thrilling than Ex:El, but I am no electronics wiz, and my standard judgement criterion is very simple — I just mentally rate these records by counting approximately how many times a quirky, remarkable sprite jumps out at me from the general electronic buzz. That is, if the records pretend to any sort of dynamic character. If they pretend to ambience, I mentally rate them by counting how many times a quirky, remarkable sprite does not jump out at me, docking points for each apparition.
Here, the sprite appears from the very first second, as 'Plan 9' greets you with the first appearance of acoustic guitar on an 808 State album. This sort of betrays the sacred formula, but gives the band extra room to variegate and diversify — not that the little Spanish melody is particularly complex or unforgettable, but it does give 'Plan 9' a new, fresh face as it plays out alongside the beats, bass lines, and keyboard loops. Besides, it is pretty much the only offense against the high art of digital technologies that Massey and Co. are committing here.
The habit of inviting non-electronic artists for collaboration continues with 'Moses', an electro-pop tune sung by Ian McCulloch (of Echo & the Bunnymen), a newly remixed version of UB40's 'One In Ten', and fellow Manchestrian Rachel McFarlane guesting on '10 x 10'. None of these tracks are all that good, even if 'Moses' begins with a nicely entangled web of keyboard rhythms that is almost King Crimson-ian in origin (thirty seconds later, McCulloch and the boys simply turn it into some sort of boring danceable adult contemporary).
One barely noticeable gem among this sea of mediocre collaborations is 'Europa', with some utterly outstanding vocal work from Caroline Seaman — the minute I heard it, I had «Cocteau Twins!» springing in my head, and, sure enough, Caroline Seaman is a little-known performer who was, at some point, connected with Ivo Watts-Russell's This Mortal Coil, singing on the Filigree & Shadow album in 1986. For 808 State, she brought some of 4AD's original fairy dust with her, and the band integrates it quite subtly into their swirling roller coaster. For 'Europa' alone and its charming wonderland attitude, the album justifies its title.
The guests say goodbye after track six, though, and from then on it's all in the hands of technology. 'Black Morpheus', with little sax passages scattered along the road, is like an attempt to recreate the vibe of 'Pacific State', but the melodic bits are not as attention-demanding here. 'Colony' and 'Timebomb' once again play with jarring industrial noise, particularly the latter, one of 808 States' most «brutal» inventions, even though a little cartoonish. And, just in case you've been wondering, 'Sexy Dancer' and 'Sexy Synthesizer' are two entirely different groove patchworks, and, although their titles are looped over the music, there is nothing particularly sexy about either. (Caroline Seaman's vocal parts, on the other hand...).
Overall, I do not really get what's not to like on here if electronic chowder is your kind of thing. There is plenty of diversity, some new ideas and approaches, and all of the tracks show just about the same level of care and complexity as 808 State have always upheld. Perhaps the world just got tired of the band, eventually, or perhaps such was the world's unfavorable reaction to the departure of one of the formative members, Martin Price, a year before the album was recorded — but, as far as I know, Price had never been the major driving force behind the music. Anyway, since nothing on here is really annoying, and since 'Europa' is simply my favorite 808 State number of all time, I'm giving it a thumbs up. (Then I'm cheatingly adding 'Europa' to my «Best-of-4AD» compilation and never listening to this album again, but let us not dwell on the negative).
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