For music that sounds like it took so much effort to put together, Extraordinary Ways sure does slip easily into the background.
As it turns out, in the world of electronic music and production, there is such a thing as "too perfect".
Rhys Fulber made his name as one half of industrial music giant Front Line Assembly -- where primary songwriter Bill Leeb had the ideas and the bass lines, Fulber always had a knack for knowing exactly what it would take to fill out those ideas and build on those bass lines. The two made a perfect duo, and eventually reached a point of prolificacy that saw them releasing two, even three albums per year under various monikers like Noise Unit, Synaesthesia, and, perhaps most importantly, Delerium. In fact, despite Delerium's status as a "Front Line Assembly side project", Leeb and Fulber went on to garner more accolades and album sales for Delerium's Enigma-esque 1994 release Semantic Spaces than they had for any album to that point in their career, and finding success on the pop charts in Canada. By 1997, they were enlisting Sarah McLachlan for guest vocals and winning Juno awards for dance recordings -- as their productions became more polished and refined, their sound grew poppier (think Madonna's "Frozen" with Gregorian chants added), and their worldwide popularity exploded.
Fulber split from Leeb in the late '90s to work on his own solo efforts, eventually resulting in the first, self-titled Conjure One album, which happened to be ... well, it was a lot like Delerium, really. Generally, Conjure One is more interesting than the later Delerium efforts without Fulber, but there isn't all that much to distinguish the former from the latter, save that Fulber has a more "worldly" (in the most generic sense) sense to his music, and the production sounds crisper. The release of Conjure One's second effort, Extraordinary Ways, sees Fulber expanding on the sound of the first album with what could be the poppiest set of songs to date from either himself or Mr. Leeb.
The primary problem with Extraordinary Ways is apparent from its opening frame, as the beat to "Endless Dream" kicks in. Fulber seems to generate all of his beats from the Generic New Age Beatmaker (G-NAB), coming up with drums that float along and keep time well enough, but never actually engage. When I'm listening to music that's generated using a computer, the beats need to grab me, pull me in enough to care about listening to anything else. That never, ever happens through the entirety of Extraordinary Ways.
Of course, Fulber's mastery of melody nearly makes up for his bollocks beatmaking.
Even within the harsh confines of Front Line Assembly, Fulber has had a knack for knocking out a beautifully lush chord progression or a disarmingly lyrical melody, and it always seemed to fit. That talent is on full display throughout "Extraordinary Ways". The three-note piano twinkle that ornaments "Endless Dream" is priceless, and the way Fulber turns his own voice into a pulsating, quarter-note synth in "I Believe" is extraordinary. Everything is in its right place, every sound dropped gingerly into the mix like spices in the hand of a master chef. The guest vocalists are just another ingredient in the mix, adding a sense of identity to the songs but never really pushing them into the memorable territory of the best pop music. One gets the sense that if these singers (which include Conjure One mainstay Chemda, Tiff Lacey, and Ms. "Angry Johnny" herself, the one and only Poe) weren't here, their places could easily be taken by so many more well-placed synth lines. The vocalists' lyrical contributions are largely negligible as well, unless you count lines like "If you can face the future / It sets you free from your past" or "It's the aim of existence to offer resistance to the flow of time" as thought-provoking. Mostly, the words are there to rhyme and give texture to the vocal melodies.
But it all sounds so nice.
That is why, for all of the overdone production, for all of the butter-slick feel, for all of the trite lyrics, I cannot despise Extraordinary Ways. It sounds "nice". Even as the melodies offer no surprises, they don't descend into clichés often, either. The piano is a great instrument to use to fill out a song, and pianos are used liberally throughout the album. It's very lush, and very inoffensive, and it even sports some nice moments of musical development in the longer tracks that allow themselves to develop a bit. It never demands your attention. It is perfect background music -- yet that's precisely its biggest flaw.