Music

Swayzak: Loops from the Bergerie

Tim O'Neil

Swayzak

Loops from the Bergerie

Label: !K7
US Release Date: 2004-09-14
UK Release Date: 2004-09-13
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Every once in a while something comes along and surprises me. Considering just how much in modern music is utterly predictable, it's a rare occurrence, and all the more wonderful for its rarity. As both a critic and a music fan, there are few feelings quite as satisfying as being proven totally, unequivocally wrong in regards to an album that you had expected to be totally unexceptional.

Swayzak's previous work just hadn't done much for me. 2002's Dirty Dancing was too clever for its own good, skillfully welding the then-current '80s fascination to a cooler-than-ice tech-house undercarriage. It was essentially a bloodless exercise, however, as tracks like "I Dance Alone" and "In The Car Crash" were just too damn affected to be of any interest to us flesh and blood humans.

From the beginning, Loops from the Bergerie sets itself apart from its predecessors. "Keep It Coming" begins with a hard deep-house beat that immediately sets an anxious, emotionally frigid tone. The bassline that swoops down and forms the song's major hook could have wandered in off New Order's Power, Corruption and Lies, and it instantly proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Swayzak have raised the stakes immeasurably. There's an emotional intensity and honesty that just wasn't here before. The vocal by David Brown (one-third of Swayzak, along with James Taylor and new recruit Kenny Paterson), adds a hint of wistful romance as synth elements build in layers of increasing complexity.

This type of songwriting is hardly new. Underworld has made a lengthy and eventful career out of welding the coolly pulsating beats of old-school techno and deep house to more conventional songwriting forms. The recent explosion of '80s nostalgia has produced many acts with nothing more than a facile understanding of the emotional integrity that made acts such as New Order, Depeche Mode and the Human League so compelling. Loops from the Bergerie is thoroughly modern. It's hardly an '80s throwback, except perhaps in the broad sense that Swayzak are using similar tools as the great '80s synth-pop artists. The cool and detached exterior of overly-synthetic electronic music is rarely a means in and of itself, and great songwriting in this field has traditionally been mined from the juxtaposition between these elements and the heat of human emotion. There's an urgency here that was lacking on Dirty Dancing, and indeed was lacking for most of the recent crop of electroclash fashionistas.

"Another Way", with vocals by Richard Davis, is slightly reminiscent of Royksopp, with deep house elements set against a falteringly fragile male vocal. Davis reminds me of Depeche Mode's Martin Gore, a truly underrated vocalist with a surprising emotional depth. This track continues the anxious, slightly wistful mood that began the album, but adds a hint of unmistakable regret.

"My House" is another track in that vein, albeit slightly more intense. The mournful refrain of "You were once in my house / You were once in my head / You were once in my heart / You were once in my bed", digs its claws deep. The rolling bassline provides a sinister undercurrent.

"Snowblind" features another excellent vocal performance by Dave Brown. This track is slightly more optimistic than the rest of the album, somewhat reminiscent, in an odd way, of Simply Red or even Chris Isaak. The longing that was allowed to curdle into unmistakable regret on tracks like "Keep It Coming" is still a vibrant force on this track, even if the proceedings are still wrapped in sorrow. The listener knows this can't end well, even if the singer still entertains a weak hope. Sometimes a weak hope is enough.

Clair Dietrich's low-key spoken word adds a touch of sharp poignancy to the otherwise frigid "Then There's Her", perhaps the album's most direct evocation of the laptap style that defined Swayzak's previous incarnation. "8080" is the album's centerpiece, a slow-building instrumental built atop a frenetic drum loop. They keep adding elements, including synth swirls, stomping beats and muted vocals by Mathilde Mallen until the track is simply overwhelming.

"Speakeasy" is an uncharacteristically uptempo rock number, with walls of fuzzy guitars, crushing beats and feverish keyboard riffs. This serves as one last laugh before the end of the album, "The Long Night", an ominously brokenhearted number featuring loping, staggered drumbeats and, again, the vocals of Ms. Mallen. Although the album contains a verisimilitude of emotional shades, the overwhelming tone is one of regret, and "The Long Night" is a superbly evocative exploration of what St. John of the Cross called the "dark night of the soul", a satisfying capstone to a refreshingly mordant and starkly adult electronic pop album.

When David Brown, James Taylor and Kenny Paterson, decamped to a rural country house near Montpellier, France called the Bergerie last year, they had the simple goals of stepping away from the conventions of laptop pop and experimenting with a more organic way of making music. Certainly, their efforts have born unexpected and delightful fruit. Loops from the Bergerie is a startlingly fresh and mature rebirth for Swayzak, reflecting a deliciously composed and delicately balanced emotional honesty. I had low hopes for this album, and I am happy to report that Swayzak have not only exceeded my expectations but succeeded in producing one of the best albums of the year so far.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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