Tony Mills thinks Neuronium's curious blend of electronics, guitar-strumming, and psychedelic art could be just the thing to break the musical jelly mould in 1985. See if you agree.
Neuronium are a Belgian-born synth player, a Spanish guitarist and a psychedelic artist. Could 1985 be the year of the hybrid?
It's been a long hard road for Michel Huygen and the other members of Spain's best-known synthesiser band, Neuronium, but the general feeling now is that they've made it at last. With a powerful international record company behind them, it may be time for the band to break into the same world class as Jean-Michel Jarre, Tangerine Dream and Vangelis.
Which is ironic, because in the eight years the band have been playing they've become strongly connected with Vangelis, Klaus Schulze and many of the other major figures in the synthesiser music world. Neuronium's leading light, Belgian-born Michel Huygen, is firm friends with Vangelis, even persuading him to host and take part in a Neuronium jam session on Spanish television. Other collaborators have included Manuel Gottsching, Lutz Ulbrich and Ashra's Harald Grosskopf, who turned in a devastating performance with the band on Spanish TV show 'Music Express' a while back.
Neuronium got started in 1976, and a year later recorded Quasar 2C 361. About to be re-released, it's an epic composition that makes use of string synthesisers, audio generators, acoustic and electric guitars, synths and keyboards. In some ways, the instrumentation seems primitive for its time - Tangerine Dream were touring America with Oberheim polyphonics and a massive laser show that year - but things in Spain were (still are) rather difficult. A luxury tax on electronic instruments which makes them at least 50% more expensive than they are in the UK.
However, the album was well received and the band (largely comprising the duo of Huygen and Carlos Guirao, with contributions from various vocalists and guitarists) were able to invest in new equipment and performed some spectacular concerts. In 1978 they recorded Vuelo Quimico ('Chemical Way') which featured Nico on vocals, and played to an audience of 11,000 in the Athletic Bilbao football stadium. After that came Digital Dream, which remains one of their best albums, the epic 'Flying Over Kai Tak' standing out as a landmark in the history of floating synth music.
The record that followed - The Visitor - seems to split synth music fans down the middle: you either love it or hate it. I think it's their best album so far, but in many ways it's not typical of the band. The title track is a song with lyrics inspired by Dylan Thomas' short story of the same name (for a Belgian living in Spain Huygen is a good bit more culturally literate than the average Briton) delivered in heavily Spanish-accented English. This has put many people off, but it's possible to listen to the words as instrumental sounds rather than as lyrics - a view that's strengthened by the massively gothic 'Strange Affair', capable of producing nightmares even without its vocoded lyrics being entirely comprehensible.
Side Two of The Visitor strongly features guitarist Santi Pico, whose style is often reminiscent of Mike Oldfield's. 'I've heard Oldfield, of course', he commented at last September's UK Electronica show at Sheffield, 'but my real loves are the great jazz guitarists like Larry Carlton and Django Reinhardt'. In fact, Pico's a devastatingly versatile player, gaining awards as Spain's best guitarist (not bad in the country that gave the world guitars as we know them today) and switching with ease from heavy rock to flamenco and on to pop. By this time, Carlos Guirao had left Neuronium to pursue a career in commercial synth music (actually, he left and rejoined several times, as if in imitation of the T. Dream/Peter Baumann split), and logically enough, Santi Pico had taken his place as the other permanent member of Neuronium.
There's a third Neuronium member whose contribution is non-musical but nonetheless important. He's Tomas Gilsanz, a painter specialising in 'visions of the macrocosmic, microcosmic and ectoplasmic'. His psychedelic paintings adorn most Neuronium album sleeves and are projected onto a backdrop during concerts, giving the band a distinctive look as well as a distinctive sound.
Gilsanz' paintings are featured on Chromium Echoes and Invisible Views, as well as the latest Neuronium long-player, Heritage. It's their first album with Jive Electro, a relationship which came about largely as a result of a recommendation from Lotus Records' Andy Garibaldi. It was released along with Mark Shreeve's Assassin and Tangerine Dream's Poland, but apparently the big advertising push is due to come early in 1985, along with the second batch of Electro releases.
That's no reason why Heritage should be neglected, however. Huygen feels it's something a little unusual for the band: 'On The Visitor and Digital Dream we sometimes felt we had to fill up all 24 tracks on the tape machine', he commented during a recent visit to London. 'On Heritage, and particularly on the long track 'Secret Audience', there was no such compulsion. I wanted to create something sparser and gentler, so sometimes there are only three or four instruments playing.'
"I don't use MIDI doubling much in the studio: I prefer to record each instrument individually to give everything a human feel."
A sparser feel doesn't detract from the richness of Neuronium's sound. The band's current instrumentation is fairly up to date, though it falls short of the digital giants such as Fairlights and Synclaviers. At UK Electronica Huygen used a Roland MSQ700 sequencer, TR909 drum machine, Jupiter 6 and JX3P polysynths, Yamaha DX7 and a Moog Prodigy for lead lines, using those powerful 'sync bend' sounds the Prodigy does so well. In addition, his eight-track demo studio has a Prophet 5 (now virtually dropped in favour of the Jupiter's cleaner sounds), a Korg Poly 800 with EX800 Expander, various Casios and an SCI Drumtraks digital drum machine. At home he keeps another Poly 800, and purchased a Fostex X15 multitracker on his UK visit, to capture 'some of those midnight inspirations we all have occasionally'.
Pico's guitar set-up embraces a Roland GR500 guitar synth, a Gibson SG, a Yamaha SG, an Ovation acoustic and a Fender Strat. He also uses more effects boxes than Paul White could review in a week, and has recently got hold of a Roland 700 programmable guitar synth, which should prove highly effective in his practised hands.
At the Sheffield show, his guitars alternated with Huygen's synthesisers to great effect, making the audience wonder (particularly on up-tempo numbers such as 'Torquemada') how just two men could make so much noise.
Simultaneously with Heritage, Jive Electro released a Michael Huygen solo mini-LP by the name of Capturing Holograms. It's certainly off the beaten track for Neuronium, featuring as it does vocals, pop rhythms and shorter compositions in an attempt to break into a more commercial electronic field. Does this signal the end of Neuronium? 'Not at all. I just had to show that I could play other kinds of music apart from the 'cosmic', or as we call it, the 'psychotronic' style. In fact, pieces such as 'Torquemada' are quite commercial as well, and I'm hoping that we can remix that track and put it out as a single on Jive Electro.
'But the next album, which is called Hybrid Data, is going to be something very special. It uses a combination of analogue and digital techniques - which is why it's called Hybrid - but it also uses many musical styles, and will change from one to another during the course of each side.
'There's going to be a long track dealing with the downfall of the Inca civilisation and its cities, and there's a possibility I might use a well-known Spanish actress to add vocals to that part. We'll record the album on 24-track as usual; because we always use the same studio. I know the studio and the engineers, and they know the 'Neuronium sound'. That means that if I ask for a reverb effect they know exactly the kind of reverb I want, and chances are they'll already have it prepared.
'In the future I'd like to consider using a 16-track tape machine in my own studio to record the albums. The introduction of MIDI has made it possible to record many more tracks simultaneously and so save tape tracks, but at the moment I don't use MIDI doubling very much in the studio: I still prefer to record each instrument individually to give everything a human feel.
'Last month I used the new Akai MG1212 recording system for two weeks. It's a wonderful machine, with very high sound quality, and it lets you record 12 tracks onto a special tape and to drop in and out automatically, or play through a certain section as many times as you want until you've got the take right. At first I was dubious about the quality, but I certainly think you could master from it. Unfortunately, it's even more expensive in Spain than the £6000 it costs in the UK.'
By the time February gives way to March, Neuronium should have released their second album for Jive and be getting a little more exposure than they did for Heritage. That'll be no bad thing, since deserving though this kind of music may be, it has to be pushed hard if it's to gain wider acceptance. And of all the many musics that will no doubt be vying for audiences' attentions during 1985, there will be few more deserving than this talented duo's 'psychotronic music'.
Interview by Mark Jenkins writing as Tony Mills
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