BE-BOP DELUXE: FUTURAMA (1975)
1) Stage Whispers; 2) Love With The Madman; 3) Maid In Heaven; 4) Sister Seagull; 5) Sound Track; 6) Music In Dreamland; 7) Jean Cocteau; 8) Between The Worlds; 9) Swan Song.
This stylistically similar follow-up to Axe Victim sounds somewhat inferior to me: the novelty of approach is gone, the hooks do not seem to be quickly hurrying to the rescue, and the slight toning down of «glam» elements results in the whole thing looking more sullen, solemn, and serious in form, but not necessarily in substance — at the same time sacrificing some of the humor and irony of Axe Victim.
The band itself is completely different: this time, we have a trio, with Charlie Tumahai (originally from New Zealand, no less) on bass and Simon Fox on drums — and the music produced by Roy Thomas Baker, who had earlier worked with Queen and Hawkwind, among others. However, the show is still completely run by Nelson, now overdubbing his own rhythm, lead, and keyboard playing — so that only a highly perceptive ear will notice the subtle changes from Axe Victim, at least, the ones that do not directly deal with Nelson's own artistic evolution.
The subtlest change, perhaps, is that there are no more songs like ʽJet Silver And The Dollsʼ: that strain of ceremonial-idealistic space anthem songwriting has been eliminated in favor of sharper, sneerier compositions that look more and more like free-form post-Shakesperian monologs. An example is ʽBetween The Worldsʼ, released as the first single from the album but withdrawn after just one day of (non-)sales — a stormy, theatrical performance that gets by on the strength of Nelson's passionate guitar parts and Hammill-esque vocals, but little else. It was then quickly replaced on the shelves with ʽMaid In Heavenʼ, a shorter, more heavy riff-based power anthem that could, perhaps, be described as «Boston covering Hunky Dory-era Bowie»: emotionally uninvolving music, redeemed by the frontman's personality and then, for some reason, provided with an extra level of thick distortion, phasing, background vocals, etc., as if putting on all this makeup might be enough to finally make our heads spin. No, I don't think it really works.
Sometimes it does — when the frontman manages to come up with a truly impressive musical or «sonic» solution. ʽSister Seagullʼ, for instance, has a two-part heavy / high-pitched riff that registers well in the head, and the «seagull» motif is featured very consistently in Nelson's playing, nowhere more so than in the directly birdcry-imitating outro. ʽStage Whispersʼ opens the album with a barnstorm of crazy licks, promising to be even more of a gas than ʽAxe Victimʼ — but then it ultimately fails to deliver on that promise. Everybody can produce that sort of gallop; not everybody can make it stand out, and this time, even Nelson's technique does not help.
I give the album a thumbs down. It was a tough decision to make: the frontman has lost none of the conviction, energy, or technique, and I have no reason to doubt that this boldly anti-commercial music (although one could probably list Nelson's kick-ass guitar-hero playing style as a commercial element all the same) truly comes «from the heart». But I was not able to get into almost any of these songs, with the exception of ʽSister Seagullʼ; even the music-hall and pastoralist elements in the Brit-pop-influenced ʽMusic In Dreamlandʼ never seem to gel together into anything genuinely meaningful, or at least «probing». On the whole, this just looks like one of those «sophomore slumps» — the best ideas having all been used up for Axe Victim, Futurama is just scraping the bottom of the original proverbial barrel.
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