1980's Empires And Dance brings things into sharper focus. Austere, drawn-out, aesthetically strict and keyboard-heavy, this is by no means the easiest SM album to listen to, but it's very rewarding nonetheless. The keyboards cover more square footage here than on Real To Real, while the guitar is really pushed into the background; in fact, on "Today I Died Again" and "Celebrate" the layman [you mean people who aren't know-it-alls like you--ed.] would be hard-pressed to identify it at all. Lyrics on songs like "Capital City" and "This Fear Of Gods" are stripped down to bare necessities, as is song structure; "Gods" in particular is very static and almost hypnotic.
But, as with all SM albums, there's more variety than at first meets the ear, and the material here is very strong throughout. Side one is mostly weighty-sounding stuff best listened to loud, with "Celebrate" the best of the bunch and one of their best tunes full stop. "Today I Died Again" shows that the group knows the difference between menace and melodrama. I don't foresee ever tiring of "I Travel," such a neat amalgam of controlled energy, insect-like guitar explosions and semi-comical almost-Latin motifs. Side two is more offbeat and quite claustrophobic in places, particularly the incessant and production-heavy "Thirty Frames A Second" and "Twist/Run/Repulsion." "Constantinople Line" is better than I remember it; it's sparseness, sense of instrumental anticipation and unwillingness to resolve its own tension are a real fascination. It's not all doom and gloom, though, as again there's a touch of humour in the loping, descending keyboard melody on "Captial City," a nice contrast to the pounding drums and general weight of the piece. "Room," like "Scar" from Real To Real rounds things off as an effective palate cleanser. All told, not the most suitable album for the neophyte listener, but definitely the most cohesive of the first three.
Contrary to what The Nation's Music Station told me the other night, the Use Your Illusion albums were not the first simultaneously released albums by a rock band. 1981 saw the release of the twins Sons and Fascination and Sister Feelings Call (the UK releases were evenly weighted, but in Canada Sons was tarted up with all the hits and Sister released as a five-song addendum ep; I'll split the difference and treat it as one record).
Opinion's somewhat divided on this one, but I've always found its vibe to be very appealing and an antidote to some of its deficiencies. It's their easiest album thus far to listen to; whether you view that as compliment or criticism is up to you. The sound's gentler and not so dense: it's mostly the four instrumentalists playing without the previous two albums' reliance on sound effects, processing and layering. The group opted for ex-Gong hippie-freak Steve Hillage as producer, with mixed results for the album: delightfully trippy and spaced-out in places, but also rather muddy and lacking in sonic detail and contrast in others (e.g., "20th Century Promised Land"). The instrumental balance is fairly similar to Empires And Dance, although with the guitar slightly more prominent in the mix and the keyboard sounds tending toward the sustained. Jim Kerr's sounding more confident: less tics and mannerisms, more singing.
None can escape the curse of the double-album, of course, but the material's 75-80% very good. The singles are all striking, if not uniformly brilliant. "Love Song," deservedly the band's first minor hit up in these parts, is the best of the three and like the rest, founded upon a killer Derek Forbes bass groove. "Sweat In Bullet" isn't quite the sum of its excellent parts, as it forces everything too rigidly into 4- and 8-bar chunks. "The American" kicks a modicum of buttock and has a sing-along chorus (sing-along word, at least), for those who enjoy such things. Of the rest, only "70 Cities" is a rival in terms of instant attention-grabbingness, and, like most good Minds songs of the period, is a great combo of front-line intricacy and monolithic rhythm section. Kerr really brings it here, and you gotta love that Angry Cow setting on the keyboard, too!
The remainder of the album(s) is mostly about flow, and I've always thought that several of the trippy songs, like "This Earth That You Walk Upon," the great instrumental "Theme For Great Cities" and the lovely "Seeing Out The Angel" would make a wonderful soundtrack for a space-exploration film--an impression unchanged with time. "In Trance As Mission" and "Boys From Brazil" are both repetitive structures in the manner of much of Empires And Dance, but it's a different kind of energy; tensions are released, rather than prolonged. "Wonderful In Young Life," "Careful In Career," and "League Of Nations" are the bean sprouts in this particular sonic spring roll. Sons/Sister is best viewed as a transitional work, but it's a very enjoyable one, if you're capable of going with the flow. As for what the band was transitioning to...
Yet more to follow...