ZTT Records, the influential record label founded by Paul Morley (NME Journalist), Trevor Horn (mega producer) and Jill Sinclair (the business end), has been prolifically releasing and reissuing the limitless treasure in its vaults since the end of the label’s heyday in the 1990’s. Just when you think you’ve heard it all, they dump another bushel on you – and near every damn track is a breathtaking listen.
Last month saw the European releases of two more titles in the Element series on Salvo Records that already includes the essential Art of the 12” discs and The Organization of Pop.
The Art of Noise* at the End of a Century
The asterisk in the band name is more than ornamental – it could take you hours to wade through the different lineups and incarnations of the band to determine who owns The Art of Noise as a brand. At the end of the 20th Century, the line up was Morely, Horn, co-founder Anne Dudley and Lol Creme (of Godley & Crème fame and that ground breaking ‘Cry’ video of morphed faces).
By this time, the band itself had morphed from breakdance-fueling sound collagists (‘Close to the Edit’, ‘Beat Box’) to novelty pop single makers (‘Paranoimia’ feat. Max Headroom, ‘Kiss’ feat. Tom Jones) to cashiers of movie tie-ins (‘Peter Gunn’ feat. Duane Eddy, ‘Dragnet’). Not bad for a faceless Avant Garde ‘non band’ that was spawned from a sample created for a 12” single by prog rock darlings, Yes.
By this time, The Art of Noise was more on par with the likes of Massive Attack, creating house music more apropos for a W Hotel lobby than the streets of Brooklyn. Best described by the label: at the End of a Century compiles the music and films of Art of Noise as they regrouped, reprogrammed and rebooted from 1995 to 2000.
This elaborate set revisits the high water mark of The Art of Noise’s career, The Seduction of Claude Debussy. The original work brought in actor John Hurt as the narrator, rapper Rakim, opera singer Sally Bradshaw and a host of others to flesh out what sounds like an audio term paper on the importance of Debussy as a composer and architect of modern music.
Like most their early ZTT releases, The Art of Noise at the end of the century was steeped in equal parts pretension, anarchy, macabre and beauty. Perplexing liner notes, Anton Corbijn’s arresting B&W photography, references to Baudelaire and Debussy and masked musicians all added to the mystery of their identities and intentions. It would be all for naught if the music wasn’t so revolutionary, exquisite, exciting, unexpected and pristine.
This new set reveals secrets, resolves the mystery and lifts the curtain on the Art of Noise before taking you into deeper wells of their amazing universe.
Disc 1, balance – music for the eye is a 26 track collection of previously unreleased material. You won’t find lost hit singles in the mix, but you will find more than an hour of ambient soundscapes, purring rhythmic excursions and other low intensity treasure.
Disc 2 is a ‘producer’s cut’ of Debussy, retitled The Production of Claude Debussy. If there ever was a debate as to the superiority of CD as an audio source, the opening salvo, ‘Il pleure (At The Turn of the Century)’ will put it to rest. Hurt and Bradshaw intertwine over a warm and sensuous rhythm that just might give Barry White a run for his money for the title of Most Seductive Song of all Time.
By the time I prepare my year-end round-up of Best Reissues, I will have untangled the nuances and differences between the two versions of Debussy but it is absolutely clear this new version is a must-own.
Disc 3, the DVD, sends you down hours of rabbit holes, concert footage, promotional videos, interviews and documentaries. I’ve been a fan for more than 30 years and it is both exciting and a bit less romantic to have them unmasked; and unlike Kiss without the make-up, the Art of Noise fares much better here. It’s interesting to see them smile and laugh, one would think they would forever be carbon-frozen with glamorously dour faces.
A rich booklet of commentary from Ian Peel and liner notes from Paul Morley are your essential companions to this collection – well, that and Wikipedia. For fans of the band, this set is your PhD in the AON. For fans of ambient and house music, it will be a fresh discovery altogether.
The Value of Entertainment
If you’re looking for hits, CD/DVD release The Value of Entertainment is for you.
Best summarized by the label:
In 1985 ZTT released its first compilation album, IQ6 Sampled: a high-impact summary of two years in the life of the label. A series of concerts at The Ambassadors Theatre, London were held at the same time and the accompanying DVD – The Value of Entrainment – is a film of its highlights, presented on-stage and backstage by Paul Morley.
Propaganda collectors will already have most of the audio on the CD, but there is plenty on the DVD to get excited about since not much pristine concert footage of them exists. The Art of Noise has some hits and unreleased gems on the CD but are all but absent from the DVD (a walkout of the band over a record contract dispute). Frankie Goes to Hollywood is in the mix – singing a live version of Springsteen’s “Born to Run” of all things.
CD1, Zang Tumb Tumm Sampled, works wonderfully as a curated collection of ZTT’s artist registry in the late 80’s. Andrew Poppy, Anne Pigalle and Instinct round out the participants in this DJ mix of label rarities. Propaganda’s cover of ‘Femme Fatale’ always sounded out of place on their proper albums, here it sparkles without having to compete with their much better originals. The live Frankie track arrives mid-way through like the transmission dropping on a perfectly well running engine of studio music. It’s an easily avoided pothole on an otherwise smooth sonic road — on it’s own, the track is a cheeky delight. The highlight comes deep into the disc with the lengthy “Ambassador Reel” mixes of ‘Beat Box’ and “Another Time To Hear (Who’s Listening).’ ‘Looking for Love (demo)’ by Pigalle, a French singer and multi-media artist is the disc’s most heavenly discovery.
DVD1, The Value of Entertainment, chronicles a legendary live variety show, featuring the artists, performance art, dance, spoken word and what I guess was considered comedy. Paul Morley gamely hosts the interstitials and segues.
A rich booklet of photography and commentary by Ian Peel guides you through the affair.
Unless otherwise noted on the version you buy, the DVD’s on these releases are Region 6 – so buyer beware if you’re in a different region or don’t have an all region player or a hack.