Electro Postapocalyptic Blues
In 1991, Alan Wilder sampled the vocals from the 1937 track “Shake ‘Em On Down” by Mississippi bluesman Bukka White. Adding his own atmospheric electronic backing, Wilder named the track “Electro Blues for Bukka White” and placed it on the Bloodline album released under his recording alias, Recoil. Another track on the same album featured the underground dance music artist Moby—rapping. Eight years later Moby released Play, an album built mainly on samples of old blues and gospel singers set to atmospheric electronic backing. It became an international smash.
Wilder never got much mainstream credit for putting such seemingly disparate genres together to such great effect. He was hardly the first artist to combine indigenous music with electronics (witness David Byrne and Brian Eno’s 1981 My Life in the Bush of Ghosts), but he was one of the first to apply the experiment to modern electronica. So when Wilder gets a hard time for following the same procedure on his latter-day albums, it hardly seems fair.
What is fair to say, however, is that subHuman, Wilder’s latest album, is far from cutting-edge. It’s his first record since 2000 and only his third since leaving Depeche Mode in 1995. The intervening years have seen him effectively retired, and he’s admitted he doesn’t listen to a lot of current music. The result is that, for the first time in his career, Wilder’s music sounds a bit out-of-step technologically. subHuman traffics in the thick, surging, hip-hop-inspired beats, sweeping strings, and grandiose arrangements he hit on nearly 15 years ago with Depeche Mode’s Songs of Faith and Devotion. As is typical of Recoil, those elements are put in service of long, amorphous compositions rather than traditional songs.
Once more, the mood is bleak, oppressive, and sometimes “scary”. Once more, Wilder flirts with self-serious self-parody, especially since these days there’s no industrial or goth scene to fall into. And subHuman definitely shows no hints of contemporary electronica. If you thought Recoil was ridiculous then, you’ll probably find it ridiculous now.
But if you’re on the fence, or new to Wilder’s solo work, you just might find that subHuman is his best and most accessible album since Bloodline.
There are a couple reasons for this. First of all, the times have simply caught up with Wilder’s sound. This is Recoil’s first post-9/11 release and the tension, lack of subtlety, and apocalyptic feel are more than fit for this time of uncertainty and anxiety. Wilder’s dark, probing sound, however modern, always seemed a little silly in light of Clinton-era optimism and hedonism. In contrast, while hardly groundbreaking, subHuman would serve as the perfect soundtrack to your nightly world report. Greatly enhancing the album’s timely message is the man who delivers most of that message, heretofore little-known Delta bluesman Joe Richardson, whose voice is a deeply soulful, tortured cross between Howlin’ Wolf and Art Neville. Conducted via Google search, Richardson’s and Wilder’s unlikely pairing adds a newly visceral edge to subHuman, an edge which overcomes any musical anachronisms.
Wilder actually flew to Richardson’s current base of Austin, Texas to record vocals, guitar, and harmonica. He also sampled Richard’s rhythm section for looping. Consequently, subHuman sounds more organic than any previous Recoil album. Most of the time, Wilder’s content to stand back and act as arranger rather than primary musician. “5000 Years,” in particular, begins as a straight-up blues number with prodding guitar, wailing mouth organ, and a bassline that descends into its resolution. Richardson’s distorted howling and growling is soon met with a martial snare drum. The music swells to a crescendo and then breaks down as a woozy trumpet stumbles in the background. “So full of hate, you’ve sealed your fate / And your world’s still crumblin’ down”, sings Richardson aptly. Things get even stranger when Wilder’s wife comes in on haunted cello.
subHuman has been criticized for its use of that tried and true postmodern trope, the sampled televangelist. But the sound bite that closes “5000 Years” is frighteningly pertinent:
If necessary, God would raise up a tyrant, a man who might not have the best ethics, to protect the freedom interests of the ethical.
A number of essays could be written on how that sentiment has been applied over the last seven years.
Throughout the album, Richardson deals with themes of murder, death, and religion. “Prey”, with knee-slapping percussion and Richardson’s “Deep down in Louisiana…” intonation, is downright catchy…at least until it creeps out midway through. “The Killing Ground” whips up a tasty storm of slide guitar, thundering drums, and squishy electrobass. On “99 to Life”, Richardson adopts a Tom Waits-style rasp and adds some mean wah-wah guitar, while Richard Lamm’s drums rain down like hellfire. The shortest of the seven tracks is seven minutes, and most are multi-movement affairs. Those looking for a quick buzz won’t find it here, but the epic lengths are suited to the epic power of the compositions. On two numbers, Kate Bush-ish Carla Trevaskis takes over on vocals; the ethereal “Allelujah” is a nice respite from Richardson’s intensity, but the overwrought “Intruders” is comparatively weak.
Pretentious? Without a doubt. Contrived? Maybe, although it sounds surprisingly natural. subHuman definitely plays like no other album released in 2007, and the available 5.1 surround version is sure to hit even harder. Electro-blues indeed.
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// Notes from the Road
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