Is it Live, or Is It Art?
Art of Noise
Leaving the comforts of the studio behind, the Art of Noise step out into the real world of live music, taking their MIDI technology with them. Chris Meyer lends an ear to see how they fare.
How do a hand of studio engineers, misfit composers and session players take sampling technology out of the studio and onto the live stage?
SO HOW DOES ONE ATTACK the Art of Noise? Well, there are several ways. Remember how all the professionals moaned that synthesisers were being used to only a small fraction of their potential, and that too many people were willing to cash in on clichés and factory presets, instead of investing some time and originality in their machines? Well, it's even worse with samplers. Here are machines that can cover at least the same ground as many synthesisers, and also open up whole new vocabularies of sound based on both sampling and a cross-pollination of the two.
But just as they were with synthesisers, the vast majority of musicians are either in the camp of the flashy keyboardist looking for a new (or even imitative) vehicle for the same old solos, or in the camp of the low-skilled musician or record producer looking for a wonderful (and again, clichéd) hook. In this environment, it is wonderful, and in my stronger moments I would even say essential, that a group of anythings such as the Art of Noise exists.
To listen to the band's In Visible Silence album with sharply attentive ears is to get a listen on the innovative uses of sampling. These include exploitation of the process' weaknesses, such as the mechanical quality of the same sample played over and over (the orchestral poundings on the start of 'Chameleon's Dish'); clock aliasing noise (the slowed-down orchestra effect plus the metallic yell of 'No more!' on 'Instruments of Darkness'), plus ingenious uses of layering, with one car starting á la 'Peter Gunn', and even digital reverb (switching programs and delay times throughout the album).
It is interesting that it's not normal musicians, but a group of studio producers and engineers, who have brought us all this in an accessible form.
So, the Art of Noise have hip videos. 'Legs', 'Beat Box', and 'Peter Gunn' crashing through dance clubs, singles bars, and meat markets. Backing music to commercials. Fun interviews. Max Headroom! Plus an added show, and the worst crowding I've ever seen at Wolfgang's, San Francisco, complete with an enormous queue. I had both a normal ticket and a guest pass waiting at the door. (Later, trying to scalp one of our tickets, we even got one of them stolen.)
Since I'm supposed to be wearing the music critic's hat in this review, let me put it on firmly by making some broad generalisations about music. Most appreciated music can, more or less, be fitted into three categories: 1) Technically challenging, where the musicianship or complex pop composition is the main draw (like avant-garde or much of progressive jazz and rock); 2) Emotional, where the basic feeling of the music strikes some responsive chord (no pun intended), or some basic emotion or primitive instinct (such as blues, new age, and some heavy metal); and 3) Sonic fireworks, where the lure is the massiveness and newness of the sounds involved, be they DX7 pianos, 'mondo' drums or, yes, samplers. Into this last category, for better or worse, is the vast majority of modern pop music, and the Art of Noise.
The question is this. Can music that relies on excellent sound quality, careful mixes, and unique sonic tricks cut it in the always less-than-perfect environment of a live concert?
OUR ADVANCE MAN, Rick Huber, got to the show several hours early to secure our passes and take an inventory of the equipment. Anne Dudley was set up stage right with a Fairlight, PPG Wave 2.2, MemoryMoog, and grand piano. (Incidentally, that kind of line-up is a roadie's nightmare, including as it does the four pieces of equipment known as 'most likely to break down' or, in the case of the piano, go out of tune). JJ Jeczalik was set up stage left with brain to Anne's Fairlight and a Fairlight of his own, along with a Friend-Chip SRC. Gary Langan decided not to tour, and instead the band was rounded out by a bass player (David Bronze) with a Roland GR77B driving an Akai S612, a drummer (Paul Kevin Robinson) with a Simmons set driving an Akai S900, a percussionist (Simon Moreton), and three leather-clad backing female vocalists, the Noisettes.
At the mix position were two Lexicon 224s, a Korg DSP1, and the drummer's S900 and Simmons MTM. Drum sounds were switched at the mixing console, following the conventional wisdom that a drummer should be made to think as little as possible. Also on the equipment list was one cheerful, crowded audience, half of which was waiting on the dancefloor.
WE POLITELY WAITED through a set by rockabilly band Blue Movie, then Max Headroom came on to a projector screen for an amusing several-minute monologue, which included references to the Art of Noise as one of his backing bands. Then to the strains of 'Peter Gunn', the Art of Noise took the stage, and unfortunately spent the first two songs, 'Close to the Edit' and 'Paranoimia', warming up (wooden performances, off-key vocals, you know the sort of thing). Were my worst fears realised? Was this strictly a studio band?
But then some magic occurred. The band started to loosen up. Anne and JJ traded off pattering with the audience between numbers. A good performance of 'Eye of the Needle' was ended with a piano solo by Anne, proving that her roots are closer to bar jazz and classical than Jerry Lee Lewis.
This was followed by a rousing version of 'Legs' and a faithful, beautiful 'Moments in Love', concluding with another piano solo.
Then the band actually started jamming, with JJ leading off 'Beat Box' with a 'car starting' solo. In the middle was an extended solo with the bass player driving the 'Duh' sample on the Akai. I was left devastated. His licks were perfectly matched to the timbre and timing of the sample he was playing. (Unlike the drummer, who did normal drum solo licks with vocal samples later on in the show. Interesting in effect, but nowhere near as powerful.)
Then came a stripped-down version of 'Instruments of Darkness', a jam on 'Flip of the Tongue', with JJ live-loading a sequence loop as a solo, and 'Back Beat'. Finally, JJ did his best imitation of a country DJ in announcing Duane Eddy, and the Art closed with 'Peter Gunn'.
(Eddy left the stage, shaking hands with the audience, seemingly very happy to be back in the limelight again.)
Encores consisted of 'Opus 4' (first half done by the Noisettes, second half featuring the aforementioned drum solo), and a fun cover of the Andrews Sisters' version of 'In the Mood' done amazingly straight, except for JJ's sampled vocal lead in the middle. Nobody danced during the whole show, perhaps due to the overcrowded condition of the dancefloor.
After the show, a strange crowd (including ourselves, and a sole songwriter, trying to sell some of his songs to the band) tried unsuccessfully to haggle their way past one of the Art's managers.
Outside was an even longer queue for the second show. And despite the fact that I enjoyed myself, I came away vaguely disappointed by the weak mix, the stripped-down arrangements (although, to their credit, the band did indeed play the majority of the music live), and the loose timing. In short, the sonic fireworks weren't fully there.
Feature by Chris Meyer
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