In early 1979, the UK success of Gary Numan’s second album Replicas and the single “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” made the charts safe for a generation of synth-pop artists including the Human League, Depeche Mode, and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.
Under the influence of Roxy Music, Kraftwerk, David Bowie, and Brian Eno, Numan fashioned an original brand of austere, robotic, hypnotic electronica that would have a lasting effect on the musical landscape both at home and abroad. Nowadays, Gary Numan’s influence is perhaps as far-reaching as that of the performers who initially inspired his own work. From Detroit techno pioneer Juan Atkins to the likes of Marilyn Manson, Beck, the Smashing Pumpkins, the Prodigy and Trent Reznor, numerous contemporary artists have acknowledged Numan’s role in their musical formation.
Despite consistently releasing new material, Numan spent a good deal of the ‘80s and early ‘90s in the wilderness. However, if 1994’s Sacrifice and 1998’s Exile hinted that he was back on the right track, Pure now offers incontrovertible evidence of a complete return to form. Interestingly, Pure shows that influences have come full-circle in that it draws inspiration from recordings by the very performers who took their cue from Numan’s early work with synthesizers, particularly Trent Reznor. Numan has talked about his interest in the newest wave of techno-industrial music and that sound defines this new CD.
Pure is Gary Numan’s richest, most powerful and most aggressive work in years. Across a range of tempos, the relentlessly dark assault of the music is perfectly complemented by a bleak and often angry lyrical vision. Most of the tracks have a deep layer of menace to them. This derives from varied combinations of grinding guitars, pounding beats, metallic noise, throbbing bass, and uncharacteristically forceful vocals, all of which tend to explode into the choruses. But while the foreboding feel of songs like “Pure” is generated by that combined sonic onslaught, at times, the threatening ambience is rooted in Numan’s voice alone. On “Rip” and “I Can’t Breathe” for instance, an air of disquiet emanates from predominantly whispered vocals.
Numan’s vocals are indeed a crucial ingredient in the success of Pure. Most people probably remember him from the late ‘70s as a detached, expressionless automaton with a brilliantly thin, affectless voice to match. On Pure, the once android-like Numan shows that he’s very much made of flesh and blood.
Nevertheless, the emotive reach of his vocals isn’t limited simply to articulations of aggression and menace, the feelings that tend to characterize the industrial idiom. There’s also a more measured side to Numan’s delivery that evokes melancholy and pain without recourse to abrasive histrionics. This is most successful on the arrangements that complement his affecting vocal performances with subtle melodic components such as haunting piano lines and drifting keyboard textures.
Two striking examples of this can be heard on “A Prayer for the Unborn” (not about abortion) and “Little InVitro”, the most intensely personal songs on the album. These tracks neatly encapsulate the achievements of Pure as a whole, showing that Numan is not simply appropriating a genre, but that he’s adding his own dimension to it. Whereas much of the industrial music that informed the writing and recording of Pure pays scant attention to vocal and instrumental melody, Numan combines them to great effect. “My only talent musically is as an arranger of noises,” the modest Gary Numan once said. Pure confirms that there’s a lot more to his music than that.
// Notes from the Road
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