In 1978, a group of English schoolmates got together to create electronic pop music, under the influence of Bowie, Eno, and the very first tentative steps of what would become the full-fledged force of New Wave in the near future. Originally, this small collective included John Taylor, Simon Colley, Stephen Duffy, and Nick Rhodes. In a short time, the band was playing at a Birmingham club called Barbarellas, which took its name from the cult favorite Jane Fonda sci-fi film Barbarella. In a stroke of obscure genius, the band followed suit, taking as its name the villain from the same film, and thus Duran Duran was born.
Say what you will about Duran Duran’s music, the band as a whole helped define New Wave, the 1980s, and electronic music as a whole. International glam superstar models, Duran Duran seemed to exist on a plastic fantastic level of glitz and sheen and image-ready celebrity that gave them chart success and the hearts of legions of schoolgirls. Of course, this came only later, after Duran Duran had been retooled: Duffy had ditched the group to go his own route, Simon LeBon had been adopted as lead singer, a live drummer had been added in Roger Taylor, and the band had lost the clarinet in favor of a guitars-keyboards combo. In 1978, they were something different, something embryonic.
Twenty years later, Duffy and Rhodes run into each other at a fashion show (which somehow seems apropos for Duran Duran members, no?), and get to talking. Out of this accidental reacquaintance, Duffy and Rhodes decide to start working together again — Rhodes, of course, having continued to ride the wave with Duran Duran, and Duffy having gone on to form the Lilac Time, a band with altogether different aspirations. The reunion of the pair might seem unlikely, but in the Devils we see how an old vision can be rekindled and revamped.
Those familiar with Duran Duran will not be too surprised to discover that this is a primarily electronic affair. Those familiar with Duffy will probably not be too shocked either, considering his own music has vacillated between the pastoral and dance music for decades. However, the combination of the two isn’t exactly predictable either. Darker than Duran Duran, more experimentally electronic than Duffy’s work, this is a record that establishes the old late-’70s aesthetic within the much more modern production of contemporary electro-pop. Kraftwerk-meets-Aphex Twin has already been thrown around by other reviewers, but it’s not too far off the mark.
Thematically, the album seems like a throwback to the late-modern fascination with surface and excess. Perhaps nowhere on the album does this come across as clearly as on “Big Store”, which delivers a robotic-rhythm of lyrics, intoning, “I like going shopping / Shopping in the big store / Shopping in the large store / Or any store that’s big”. The cold glamour and excess of the song seem almost cheerfully dated, but never forcibly ironic. The same sense of zombie retro-futurism can be found in “Come Alive”, “World Exclusive”, and “Lost Decade”, but Duffy and Rhodes never seem to fall into the category of has-beens clinging to the past. Somehow, it just sounds appropriate. And good.
The Devils aren’t a one trick pony, though. “Newhaven Dieppe” and “Hawks Do Not Share” are both forlorn love songs, with the former riding on chiming organs and the latter sounding like a fragile Martin Gore composition. “Aztec Moon”‘s creepiness belies the truly soul-searching lyric underneath it, taken from “Mexico City Blues” by Jack Kerouac (in keeping with Duffy’s traditional of literature-inspired songs). However, it’s “Barbarellas” that really surprises. In its own way, it sounds almost like a wistful, melancholic version of the Beach Boys’ “Kokomo” (or perhaps the most like the Lilac Time), filled with softly sung harmonies. The softly ticking drum loops and light keyboard washes complement the vocals, standing in contrast to the darker edge of most of the rest of Dark Circles. Additionally, I would be remiss to forget to mention the backing vocals and harmonies supplied by Sally Boyden and Evie, beautiful high voices that give the songs a perfect level of ethereality.
The best thing about Dark Circles (and, really, there’s a lot to admire here) is that the Devils pull the whole thing off without a hitch. The retro-futurism doesn’t slip for a moment to reveal two aged wizards behind the scenes. Instead, the Devils could be among the best of today’s electroclash pop (better than most by far, actually), or it could be a lost album unearthed from 1979, restored and remastered for today’s production environment, but essentially unchanged. Moreover, while the Devils may not become the permanent home of Duffy or Rhodes, this disc is more than just a one-off side-project. Dark Circles is strange, and sexy, and charming, and nostalgic, and engaging from start to finish, and deserves more than just the title of Best Duran Duran Side Project (R.I.P. Power Station). It deserves your attention.