Five Albums, Five Five-Piece Bands.
by Damian Evans.
Damian Evans dreams up instalment eleven in the 5:5:5: series, filtering the 5-way iteration that bit further. Presenting his own enthusiastic 5-strong tribute to five quintets, celebrating and surveying five seminal collectives' Long Players, while picking out a track from each along the way...
The Art Of Noise - Who's Afraid Of The Art Of Noise (1984, ZTT)
[1. Moments In Love]
The Art Of Noise's debut album from 1984 features some of the most pioneering techno-pop music of the 1980s. Put simply, nobody else sounded quite like this. Anne Dudley's musical arrangements coupled with JJ Jeczalik and Gary Langan's groundbreaking technique of feeding a variety of samples (including cars, aeroplanes, bells, human voices) through sequencers and the Fairlight CMI Synthesizer creates a pioneering yet accessible album which even spawned a handful of UK hit singles.
As the thunderous roar of synthesized drums and Bernard Herrmann-inspired screeching string arrangements draw to a close on album opener "A Time For Fear (Who's Afraid)" the answer to the question posed by the song (and album) title is fairly obvious - me.
Thankfully the fear is short lived as "Beat Box (Diversion One)" revs into gear and takes us on an 8-minute collage of innovative vehicular and vocal sample blasts over an incredibly funky bassline and pounding beat.
The top ten single "Close (to the Edit)" matches the funkiness of "Beat Box" and could well be the only top ten single in the UK to use a recurring sample of a car stalling as the basis of its sound - and you wouldn't want it to sound any other way.
Album highlight "Moments In Love" sees the immensely talented group of musicians create an ethereal orchestral symphony that rivals some of the finest instrumental pieces of the century. At 10.17, you still don't want its beauty to end.
Despite hitting the top ten and the album's success, the band became a 3-piece soon after its release. Dudley, Jeczalik and Langan continued with The Art Of Noise while Trevor Horn became one of the most in-demand producers of the 1980s and Paul Morley continued to run ZTT and write for various music publications. Even taking into account the creative talent and subsequent output of all five members, you could argue that only rarely was it as exciting or as groundbreaking as this.
Super Furry Animals - Phantom Power (2003, Epic / Sony)
[2. Slow Life]
Has any other band managed to channel such a wide range of influences into a unique and consistent output over a 20-year period as SFA? Phantom Power, their sixth album, could be the finest example of their wide-ranging brilliance and anyone thinking the band's creative juices could be on the decline almost ten years into their career couldn't have been more wrong.
The band wanted to move slightly away from the more electronic and computerised influence of their previous (and superb) album Rings Around the World. Most of the album's songs were written and recorded on acoustic guitar before electronic loops, samples and orchestration was added. This process may have led to it perhaps being the band's warmest album overall, with opener "Hello Sunshine", "Father Father #1" and "Venus And Serena" providing more uplifting goodness than a healthy dose of Vitamin D.
Quieter and more tender moments shine through also, as "Bleed Forever" sees lead singer Gruff give one of his most soulful and fragile vocal performances, while regular string arranger Sean O'Hagan from The High Llamas adds touches of orchestral magic to "Sex War And Robots" over guitarist Bunf's refrain of "If tears could kill, I'd be a long time gone".
As is typical with any SFA album, the mood changes fairly regularly and it's never too long before you're stomping your foot to the glam rock of "Out Of Control" or lead single "Golden Retriever". Both will have you eagerly marching back to the "repeat" button of your hi-fi, as will electro-pop album closer, and personal favourite from the album, "Slow Life", a song so good you want to force a pair of headphones blasting out its string-laden chorus upon anyone who has yet to hear it.
It's been nine years since the last SFA studio album and rumours have started that some new material will surface soon. Until then, if you've never heard this album, play it now. If you have heard it, you probably played it again fairly recently anyway.
Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band - Safe As Milk (1967, Buddah)
Two years before he'd helped warp the brains of many a John Peel listener with the free-jazz avant-garde classic Trout Mask Replica (Peel played the album in its entirety on his radio show), Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band produced a debut album more straightforward in its range of influences from blues to garage rock and psychedelia. All twelve of the album's 2-3 minute songs bound together by Beefheart's unmistakable Howlin' Wolf-inspired bellow and the intricate guitar work of 20 year old prodigy, Ry Cooder.
The album is perhaps the most accessible of Beefheart's impressive back catalogue. John French's pounding drums drive the garage rock of "Zig Zag Wanderer", a song that wouldn't sound out of place on a 13th Floor Elevators album, while the Captain himself rarely sounded as soulful or tender as on "Where There's Woman" or when he's pouring his heart out over the doo-wop harmonies of "I'm Glad". Yet it still has the ability to surprise and startle whether it be via the unpredictable tempo changes of 'Grown So Ugly" and "Dropout Boogie" (complete with one of the best uses of xylophone in rock) or through questioning whether you've actually been struck by lightning as the cacophony of drums, guitars and piercing theremin hits your eardrums on album standout "Electricity". Appropriately enough, Beefheart's vocals shattered the microphone in the studio while recording the song.
As numerous artists headed towards safer sounding ground after 1967, here was a band and a leader who welcomed risks and uncertainty. The album may be their most listener friendly but has glimpses of the world Beefheart - and not many others - wanted to explore.
The Rolling Stones - Sticky Fingers (1971, Rolling Stone)
[4. Moonlight Mile]
It's 1971 and, musically, the Stones are on a roll. Their last two albums (Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed) had been the most acclaimed and successful of their career to date. Yet the band entered the studio to record Sticky Fingers knowing this would be the first album not to feature founder member and multi-instrumentalist Brian Jones.
Mick Taylor had now joined the band and his superb guitar work peppers the album, most notably on "Sway" - Taylor's guitar solo drawing the song to a conclusion being among the finest in the Stones' catalogue. An album that opens with "Brown Sugar" is pretty nailed on to be a classic and as "Sway" gives way to the opening chords of "Wild Horses" you know you're in for a hell of a ride. You'd be forgiven for waking the neighbours up by shouting along to the chorus of "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" while "You Gotta Move", a staple of the live Stones experience at that time, sees the band pay a faithful tribute to the Blues classic (originally written by Fred McDowell and Gary Davis).
Another classic Keith riff on "Bitch", backed by the sax and trumpet work of Bobby Keys and Jim Price before Ry Cooder (again) and Jack Nitzsche are drafted in to provide slide and piano respectively for a revised version of "Sister Morphine", originally written with Marianne Faithfull. "Dead Flowers" sees the Stones at their absolute darkest before "Moonlight Mile", complete with Paul Buckmaster's stunning string arrangements concludes the album. This must be one of the most underappreciated songs in the Jagger / Richards canon (despite Richards not featuring on the recording) but another honourable mention must go to Mick Taylor for his guitar work on the song and his original suggestion of adding strings to it.
Of course, The Stones would maintain their level of success for another 47 years (and counting) but very rarely would they collectively sound as soulful as they did on Sticky Fingers.
Roxy Music - For Your Pleasure (1973, Island)
[5. Editions Of You]
“There’s a new sensation. A fabulous creation” sings Bryan Ferry at the very start of “Do The Strand”, the opening track from Roxy Music’s superb second album, For Your Pleasure, released in 1973. And these lyrics could easily be a nod to what to expect from the album’s eight songs instead of being an attempt to encourage listeners to partake in a new dance style. A fabulous creation For Your Pleasure certainly is and as Bryan Ferry then informs us how nice a flower a rhododendron is over Andy Mackay’s wailing saxophone, you’re on board, regardless of knowing how the Strand actually works.
The band's second album never lets up, despite swaying from fast to slow-paced songs throughout. Most other attempts to follow "Editions Of You" with "In Every Dream Home A Heartache" and "The Bogus Man" would fall apart at the seams but instead the album has no holes whatsoever, not even any fraying at the edges - much like the band's attire on the record's inlay.
Ferry’s almost-spoken-word vocal style was a major influence on the likes of David Byrne and David Bowie and he is on top form here, especially as he passionately croons over mid-tempo reverbed piano on Beauty Queen. However, it isn’t just Ferry who is on top form.
Phil Manzanera’s guitar playing throughout the album is superb. Whether it be providing a blistering solo to back Ferry on Strictly Confidential or trading feedback with Brian Eno’s alien synthesizer squeals on Editions Of You, he is note perfect every time.
Along with providing oboe and organ on the album, Andy Mackay’s saxophone is inspired, proving that the marmite of musical instruments can be used to enhance songs (particularly in the mid-section of Editions Of You). Paul Thompson backs each track expertly, his drumming styles varying from full-on rock (Editions Of You) to jazz (Grey Lagoons) while Eno, as you'd probably expect, is on fine form, particularly when given free rein to oscillate his VCS3 Synthesizer.
With copious amounts of creativity and all members singing from the same experimental hymn sheet, the resulting album is a full-on cornucopia of brilliance. Eno left soon after while the band continued to produce an excellent catalogue of albums until their 1976 hiatus. Reforming in 1978, they never hit the high levels of their early-mid 70s output in my opinion but for those first few years, they were possibly the most exciting and boundary pushing band on the planet.