It’s a brave move indeed to attempt an unplugged version of Art of Noise track “Close (To the Edit)”. Its heavy use of (what was) cutting-edge digital sampling technology made it one of the most electronically innovative singles to have come out of the mid-’80s. Surely, therefore, it depends upon the repeated sounds of a car engine stalling, a car engine restarting, a discarded drum riff from a Yes record, the Andrews Sisters singing “tra-la-la” and a woman shouting “hey!” The staccato treatment of these found sounds, interspersed with an apparent robot singing “dum-dum dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-dum”, has got to be the whole point of the exercise, right? The reason for the record’s existence? Well, maybe not.
On new album Plays the Art of Noise, Anne Dudley, a founder member of the eponymous English synthpop outfit, is audacious enough to demonstrate that “Close (To the Edit)” is as much to do with melody and composition as it is the samples that once signposted an entirely new form of music. She offers a stripped-down arrangement of the track that marries piano with beguiling percussive touches, rendering it strangely compelling through her nimble playing, crashing chords and mischievous tempo changes, ahead of a jazzy “diversion” into “World’s Famous”, a tune she originally recorded with Malcolm McClaren (for the hip-hop-centric album Duck Rock) in 1983. In the process, she somehow manages to retain the essence of “Close (To the Edit)” as she frees it from the computerized studio trickery that previously shackled it to 1984, and transforms it into something quite timeless.
Dudley performs a similar feat on a further 14 Art of Noise tracks on this album, where we get a clear sense of her setting the record straight over exactly what she contributed to the group. She joined Art of Noise as keyboardist and arranger in 1983 with the express purpose of supplying the melodies, yet her tunes were frequently overwhelmed by the high-concept techno-artistry administered by fellow founder-members Gary Langan (engineer/producer), JJ Jeczalik (programmer), Trevor Horn (producer) and Paul Morley (music journalist), with the aid, of course, of their newly acquired toy: the Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument (CMI) sampler.
For one thing, Dudley’s compositions were obscured by the grand notion that Art of Noise was an “abstract” group, who wore masks and adorned their records with, let’s say, enigmatic liner notes. For another, first single “Beat Box” found success on the back of the big beats underpinning its samples, by which it won an unlikely hip-hop audience in the States, just as debut-album opener “A Time for Fear (Who’s Afraid)” thrived on a barrage of sampled orchestral stabs that punctuated excerpts of a Fidel Castro speech and a US army announcement from the time of the US invasion of Grenada in 1983.
Dudley’s melodies were further subjugated during the second incarnation of Art of Noise (minus Horn and Morley) when a novelty factor crept into the group’s increasingly commercial work. “Paranoimia“, for instance, became a hit single in 1986 largely due to a computerized TV character, Max Headroom, stuttering all over it (you had to be there). Then there was the success of their idiosyncratic cover versions, one of which was the Henry Mancini-penned “Peter Gunn”, in collaboration with King of Twang guitar legend Duane Eddy, which bagged them a Grammy Award. Another was the Prince-penned “Kiss”, in collaboration with big-voiced 1960s favorite Tom Jones, which became an international hit in 1988.
Dudley actually appeared to gain more recognition for her melodic skills outside of the group, particularly as a string arranger for a host of notable British names dealing in sophisticated, often synthesized pop. She memorably notched up the drama on ABC’s “The Look of Love” (1982) and brought an epic quality to Lloyd Cole and the Commotions’ “Rattlesnakes” (1984). She heightened the sense of romantic longing on Electronic’s “Getting Away With It” (1991), and ramped up the sleaze factor on Pulp’s “This Is Hardcore” (1998). Dudley further achieved fame by composing orchestral tunes for movies like The Full Monty (1997), for which she won an Oscar, and such shows as the BBC’s Poldark (2015-18). Yet, despite the acclaim she has won in both these fields, she has continued to be rattled by a lack of kudos in connection with her old group, as she admitted to M Magazine last year: “I get quite annoyed when people think Art of Noise was just about computers and computer music.” The reason, she added, was that: “there was a lot of playing about with sounds, really trying to get interesting chord sequences” (29 June 2017).
Dudley certainly lays bare the chord sequences on the minimalistic Plays the Art of Noise, in a concerted effort to mitigate these popular misconceptions concerning the group’s oeuvre. That is not to say, however, that the new — mainly piano — arrangements constitute boring or sanitized versions of old favorites, with all the fun extracted. The cover design alone suggests otherwise, by mimicking that of the group’s first, highly experimental EP, Into Battle With the Art of Noise, the image of the knight on horseback replaced by the semblance of a grand piano. A look inside the accompanying 12-page booklet further reveals that Dudley has chosen to emulate avant-garde composer John Cage on this album, through her use of a prepared grand piano. That accounts for the strange percussive sounds and vibrations on many of the tracks, as the prepared approach typically involves placing items such as nuts and bolts or pillows on or between the piano strings before playing, or simply plucking or thumping them, while maybe bashing the piano lid (whatever works!).
The most obvious outcome of the prepared-piano method on this album is that it is no longer possible to body pop to “Beat Box”. Nor, indeed, any of the tracks. You can, on the other hand, sit and ponder some inventive and remarkably fresh-sounding melodies. “Close (To The Edit)” is probably the most surprising of the tracks in the way the myriad sampled noises of old have now become, well, musical notes, but there are revelations all over the place. “A Time for Fear (Who’s Afraid)” is now devoid of the Castro speech but instead has a creepy piano motif that has been drawn out from the original, enough to give The Exorcist theme a run for its money. “Legs”, also, is transformed from a so-so club-friendly affair into a track that motors along on an enthrallingly, erm, woodsy rhythm (is Anne taking a saw to her piano here?), before drifting off into dreamy melancholia. And “Beat Box” may lack the hip-hop beats from before, but it more than makes up for it with a glorious piano hook (plucked from the outro of the group’s “Beat Box (Diversion One)”) and some thunderous playing, together with some crashing percussive noises (and, no doubt, more damage to the poor piano).
“Moments in Love”, meanwhile, is rendered here even more delicate than before, but it does suffer from overfamiliarity by having been remixed and re-recorded to death over the years and from having served as an all-too-frequent TV soundtrack to figure-skating routines and the like. It hardly matters, though, when all the other tracks sound so invigorated. “Il Pleure (At the Turn of the Century)”, originally on Art of Noise’s late-period concept album The Seduction of Claude Debussy (1999), actually benefits from the absence of John Hurt and an opera singer, by bringing a focus on some truly epic piano playing. “Backbeat”, also, has a tremendous juddery urgency and big sound that you would hardly expect without the aid of additional instruments. On this note, however, it must be the case that Dudley is cheating a bit on “Paranoimia”. There is a whiff of electronics here, for sure.
The overall absence of computers will take some getting used to for many, but there can be no doubt that Dudley has done an extraordinary job of reinventing the most iconic Art of Noise tracks on this album, adding enormously to the group’s legacy. She succeeds in bringing to the limelight a wealth of previously underappreciated melodies, at a point when the art of sampling has long lost its edge within hip-hop and throughout pop music. But one wonders what impact the album might have in relation to those other sampling artists who flooded the charts in the wake of Art of Noise — the likes of Bomb the Bass, S’Express and even, much later, the Avalanches. Might they attempt a similar project? Should we expect a piano-based version of the M/A/R/R/S hit “Pump Up the Volume”? There’s a sobering thought.