The creation of artistic personas and active mythmaking is nothing new in the realm of rock ‘n’ roll. Going back as far as the days of early blues pioneers like Robert Johnson (who allegedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his extraordinary guitar playing abilities), artistic brilliance has always sought a connection with the magnificent and the unreal. More interestingly, it seems equally common that the artists most connected with dramatic character-reinvention eventually tend to become trapped in their assumed roles as they move beyond the initial period of rapture that always seems to accompany novelty.
As one of the most bizarre and attention-grabbing figures to emerge from the new wave scene of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Klaus Nomi and his music seem to have suffered this exact fate. While subsequent artists such as Morrissey and Antony & the Johnsons have noted as an influence Nomi’s unique brand of gender ambiguous, cyber-vaudeville, his work has hardly experienced anything that can be compared to the resurgence of interest that has characterized other cult icons of the period in recent years. This month’s release of the posthumous (Klaus Nomi died of AIDS in 1983) Za Bakdaz, a collection of recordings done in Nomi’s home-studio, should be reason enough for a thorough re-evaluation of his short career.
Equal parts psycho-science fiction and ambient sound collage, the set represents the sound of an artist completely unfettered. All whirring machinery and ghostly falsetto, songs like “Valentine’s Day” and “Metronomi” showcase a set of songwriting values in which traditional ideas about the medium are done away with almost completely. In general, the tracks are not so much songs as they are tone paintings: richly orchestrated meditations on one main musical theme, colored by a seemingly infinite number of sonic textures (primarily vocal-driven) over a relatively short span (the album clocks in at just over thirty minutes). Middle-Eastern and African influences are undeniable on tracks like “Enchanté” and “Perne-a-Gyre”, in which a narcotic, tribal pulse undulates beneath flamenco guitar strumming and more of Nomi’s phantasmagoric countertenor.
The album’s most sublime moment, however, comes in the ominous “Overture”. A funeral march announced by deep, cold bells and a menacing guitar riff, at the halfway point the song drifts into an abyss of panning electro-blips and stuttering synth flourishes that linger only long enough to melt into the sound of waves lapping on a deserted beach. As the piece nears its conclusion, the landscape becomes enveloped by an even thicker gloom, until Nomi’s voice rises to utter perhaps the only intelligible English lyrics on the whole album, “I haven’t got the answer, I think I die of cancer,” in a voice that is equally morbid and recklessly ironic.
From opener “High Wire” through closer “Silent Night” (a characteristically irreverent take on the classic German carol), the album is insistently sinister, and Nomi’s vocals tend to invoke an awful sense of disembodiment. More than just a stage-act, the idea of man merging with machine seems to have been a real artistic preoccupation, and affected vocal sounds become a trope that is immediately apparent on almost every track.
That said, Za Bakdaz is by no means an album of far-out, difficult avant-garde pieces. Nomi’s take on pop music is so refreshing because, in spite of being gifted with a prodigious classically-oriented ability, his performances on this disc never get bogged down by their complexity. Listening to Za Bakdaz, which incidentally signifies “Nomi Homeland,” (according to a press release on zabakdaz.com), feels as if you were creeping through a haunted house littered with the remnants of shattered mirrors. Nomi’s ghost seems to appear and then disappear in the broken shards, showing up in one place only to reappear suddenly behind you. It’s the sound of being followed—of feeling something without being able to see it—and at times it’s pretty disconcerting, but you remain mysteriously compelled.
Truth be told, Za Bakdaz is definitely representative of Nomi’s ambi-sexual robo-rockstar persona, but what makes it a relevant addition to his all-too-brief canon is that it also represents the raw sound of an artistic talent that far exceeded the bounds of obscure cult status. If nothing else, it is an album that indicates that behind the really weird haircut, white face paint, and enormous, boxy tuxedoes, Klaus Nomi created a distinctive kind of music that was both fearlessly original and undeniably accessible.
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