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Returning to Battle with the Art of Noise

           

Maintaining the nostalgic theme from the last post, I figure I should write something about a recording I got to re-hear for the first time in almost eighteen years a month or so ago. I was, in fact, so excited about its arrival in the mail that I called my brother to play the first track for him over the phone shortly after I pulled off the shrink wrap. I knew he’d be as into it as I was.

The recording in question is the debut EP from the Art of Noise: Into Battle… with the Art of Noise. Into Battle… CD CoverLJ and I bought it on vinyl probably in the summer of 1983 after hearing some of the hipper and older kids in the neighborhood playing it through their car stereos. A DJ named BC on Vanderbilt’s WRVU—who did a Saturday morning show complete with mixing, scratching, and the best of early hip-hop and hip-hop related music—was quite fond of “Beat Box,” one of the best-known songs from this collection. Having been really turned on to Kraftwerk by him, we were receptive to whatever he played. And since his show ran from the ungodly hours of nine to noon on Saturday, you knew he had to be on to something to have a dedicated listening audience—especially among people who couldn’t otherwise stomach the college rock played on almost every other show on the station.

At the time, we dug the ways in which the recording dovetailed with things we already knew and loved, especially music that relied heavily on the latest advances in drum machine and synthesizer technology. What we didn’t know and couldn’t have known was how important the record was for other reasons. While it wasn’t the first recording to rely heavily on the sampling capabilities of the Fairlight CMI, it was clearly among the first and most interesting to use that device. Nearly all of the percussion sounds and many of the others were triggered and played through it. Thus, the heavily gated drums on “Beat Box,” the eerie voices on “Donna,” and numerous other strange noises gained part of their hyper-real character from the CMI. They were so clearly and deliberately unnatural that they were refreshing.

The other important thing about this EP, for me at least, was that it was the opening to an understanding of the role that producers (and engineers) played in giving a recording its character. The name Trevor Horn seemed awfully familiar to me and LJ when we saw it on the record sleeve. A little detective work revealed him also to have been integral to other music we loved then: ABC’s debut The Lexicon of Love and Malcolm McLaren’s Duck Rock, in particular. In time, we’d also love his work on Yes’s 90125 (can you say “orchestral hit”?) and learn that he had been a member of both Yes and the Buggles—the latter most famous for “Video Killed the Radio Star,” the first video aired on MTV (which we actually saw when the network went on the air). And there was more to discover, particularly his work on Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Welcome to the Pleasuredome and every recording by Seal.

Available only as an import, this twentieth-anniversary release is a bit pricey, but totally worth it. At least it comes with a bonus DVD that has some of the band’s videos. (The one for “Close to the Edit” is hilariously surreal—featuring the band members destroying various musical instruments with hammers and chainsaws; those tools seem to match well with the sampled sounds of ignitions starting and engines revving.) The downside is that the compilers chose to replace the original version of “Moments in Love” with the version that showed up on the group’s first proper LP, (Who’s Afraid of?) the Art of Noise! Even with that disappointment, this reissue brings back one of those items that probably moved underneath most people’s radar but had a profound impact on what they heard nonetheless. It’s the sound of the ’80s, but with a noisy edge…

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