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With straight-ahead rockers like John Mellencamp and Sheryl Crow ingesting the previously forbidden fruit of drum loops, and U2’s dance music proving to be as interesting and embarrassing as EMF’s, the world of electronica is coming up from the underground white-label scene and into MTV’s heavy rotation. Surely Pat Boone is preparing a breakbeat album. It’s not that I don’t welcome artists experimentingDavid Bowie’s new jungle direction is in line with his savvy, careerlong scenery switching, and even U2 used technology inventively on Achtung Baby and Zooropa. But the success of computer-enhanced music has led to endlessly puked-out remixes and such cynical cash-ins as the new (and newly reissued) series honoring the Art of Noise, a group that broke up over six years ago.
The Art of Noise came together in 1982-83 as a loose group of musicians and producers working for Trevor Horn’s ZTT label (responsible for such new-wavers as his own group, the Buggles, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood). Named after a manifesto by Italian futurist Luigi Russolo, the trio of Anne Dudley, Gary Langan, and J.J. Jeczalik initially lived up to its lofty ambitions as a band of sample-centric neo-futurists. Art of Noise’s first album, (Who’s Afraid Of?) The Art of Noise!, appropriated the cut-up techniques of both dadaism and hiphop, and the record’s hit single, “Close (to the Edit),” made Tristan Tzara boogie with Jam Master Jay. But after the success of (Who’s Afraid Of?), the trio split with adjunct member Horn to form its own label, China, and unfortunately, its own sound, one that owed less to avant-garde art and more to the pop charts.
The marketing genius behind Frankie, as well as the prophetic “Video Killed the Radio Star” (that Buggles video was, of course, the first to be shown on MTV), Horn proved to be the new-wave Malcolm McLaren. Art of Noise’s releases without him showed the group to be a fine, if vacant, synth-pop outfit. The Best of the Art of Noise features tracks only from the post-Horn period, though when it was first issued in 1988 through Polydor, it did include such ZTT tracks as “Close (to the Edit)” and “Beat Box.” While songs like “Peter Gunn” (featuring Duane Eddy), “Paranoimia” (featuring Max Headroom), and “Kiss” (featuring Tom Jonesnotice a disturbing trend?) are all likable, they are hardly epochal. So why the huge push now to establish the Art of Noise as a techno innovator? Money, honey.
The Fon Mixes attempts to push the Art of Noise’s sound onto the ’90s dance floor, and on those terms it’s a moderate success: Originally released in 1991, it’s as chirpy as most house and techno, and it’s great for shakin’ your thang. Problem is, The Fon Mixes are less inventive than the best house and techno, and not nearly as groove-crazy as even the most mindless. Big names like the Prodigy, Carl Cox, Youth, LFO, and Graham Massey (the last two being favorite remixers of Björk) are called in to spice up the Noise soup. But no amount of thumping bass kicks, tinkly piano breaks, and rushing drum rolls can take away the feeling that tunes like “Instruments of Darkness (All of Us are One People)” and “Legs” (a version of “Legacy”) had their day years ago. It’s not that electronic music can’t age well: Kraftwerk still sounds futuristic, and Depeche Mode’s Black Celebration and Construction Time Again uniquely employed sounds from everyday objects, such as pipes, as melodic instrumentsa technique recently favored and mastered by Aphex Twin. But it’s far easier to see the Art of Noise as close relatives to Howard Jones than to Kraftwerk.
“This album marks the eradication of rock and roll from the face of the planet,” proclaims the windy slogan inside The Drum and Bass Collection. It also marks the eradication of the need for the Art of Noise in the mix. The only sounds the band provides are washed-out synth chords, typical of the preciously monikered “intelligent jungle” subgenre, which embraces lush ambience over frenetic hardsteppin’. But despite the watery sounds washing away in a sea of hazy green effects, The Drum and Bass Collection is the most successful of the series.
Though the sycophantic liner notes would have me believe otherwise, Doc Scott’s hardly “hard and dark” take on “Something Always Happens” favors the LTJ Bukem school of empty, effervescent jazzinessthe same college attended by A+-student PFM for his “Opus 4” mix. The rest of the drum-and-bassers chop apart the songs in whatever way they choose, often grafting on a booming, pressure-drop bass line over their syncopated beatdowns. But even despite the success of Seiji’s fervent (an adjective I never thought I’d use for an Art of Noise track) mix of “Island,” and J. Majik’s manic reworking of “Camilla the Old Old Story,” I can’t escape the feeling that this project’s prime mover was financial.
Nowhere is my skepticism more justified than in The Ambient Collection, a hopelessly clichéd mix of chill-out room puffery (the disc even starts with the sound of rainfall!). Granted, the album’s original release was in 1990, when the ambient boom was just getting started, and the remix was done by Youth with assistance from the Orb’s Dr. Alex Patterson, but today the set sounds less like head music than dopey headz Muzak. It’s truly terrible.
These three remix comps can be placed alongside 1986’s tepid Re-works of Art of Noise to form a quartet of failures, with only The Drum and Bass Collection approaching salvageability. It’s not that the Art of Noise is horribleI do like the group, but only as much as I like other pleasant synth-poppers like Dead or Alive, Blancmange, or Bronski Beat. Excepting (Who’s Afraid Of?) The Art of Noise!, to so self-congratulatorily represent its career as timeless, rather than of its time, is pure nonsense.CP