Alien Skin – 1980 Redux – Album Review
1980 Redux you say? I could have sworn that over the past 6 months or so we’ve been living in 1984…
Alien Skin returns to the pages here today with a brand-new record, the first since last year’s release of European Electronic Cinema; I say that like it’s been forever…I shouldn’t. A year certainly isn’t that long to wait between records for any artist or band, let alone a record of the kind of quality and imagination that George Pappas of Alien Skin tends to put out there – so make no mistake, clearly he’s working incredibly hard. Plus he has an awesome penchant to create music that’s off the beaten path…and I love the guy for it.
I mean…just LOOK at this write-up that you can find on the Alien Skin website regarding the new tunes: “Besotted with 1970s Berlin-era Bowie, enchanted by pre-Victorian Mary Shelley while contorting & shape shifting into the geometric world of 1980; its arpeggiated synthesizers & melodies as keepsakes.”
You see what I’m saying? Where else are you gonna find an album described like that? George doesn’t exactly play like the other kids in the sandbox, know what I mean? He embraces ‘the bizarre, the strange, the beautiful’ – just as his website also states…and you can certainly hear it in his music.
As promised in the description, the Depeche Mode-era sounds immediately take shape on the opening track “1980 You Were A Boy.” He’s correct about that statement in the title in case anyone out there is wondering…it was 1980 when I was born a little hairy human lump, but indeed, I was a boy. Good lord is it GREAT to have George’s music back in the mix was the first thought I had…this guy is a damn genius as far as I’m concerned. Not only did I love the insanely smooth rhythm & groove of the opening track and all its robotically-voiced samples, but the melody in his own vocals were absolutely spot-freakin’-on in every way I wanted to hear. You’ll notice the slight musical history that accompanies the vocal-samples and how they mention the synthesizers and drum-machines coming into existence; they’re turned up loud’n’proud in the mix to make sure those points are driven home audibly. Welcome to 1980 Redux!
I was looking for subtle tie-ins…”I Am Adam” I thought might be a sly reference to the infamous Adam of Adam and the Ants given that he also takes time to reference Syd Barrett later on in the record, but no. “I Am Adam” is much more of a comment on being the ‘Adam’ of the electronic-synth world…or at least that’s what I was picking up among the glitches, top-notch production and addictive rhythm in the beat. If you listen to the electro-narrator (Mary Shelley) guiding you through, she mentions Prometheus…of whom I believe would have had to have created Adam? I’m never entirely sure of this stuff, but I love music like this that makes me think & look things up in Google; from what I’m reading here, it’s either based in Greek mythology or a Ridley Scott film…I’m pretty sure you’ll figure out which one he’s referring to. It’s a solid cut…the music is insanely complex at its roots, but everything is placed into the rhythm with immaculate care and precision in effort to have it all combine into one seriously clever electro-jam. My one and only complaint about “I Am Adam” is that he’s used ONE sound that is like, damn near 100% identical to a sound-notification that I receive on my computer for incoming messages in one of the programs I use and he’s had me checking my inbox literally every single time this song has come around – but don’t worry George…you didn’t know that and I’m certainly not holding that against you or taking away any points. If anything, even though it fooled me every time it came up, I’d still have to admit that the sound fit into the mix & into the song like it belonged there…so no real complaints from me.
“Sad Ghost” takes the music into a more sullen, reflective and melancholy sound – and lyrically he’s matched the mood of the music very well with the intentions of the words. This third song made me realize it’s important to note that while George himself has written about how the album is ‘arpeggiated synthesizers & melodies as keepsakes,’ that it’s all certainly much more than that. I’m pretty positive that anyone out there making music well-knows that an arpeggio-line can definitely be the fuel for a song and help it damn near write itself from that point forward – but it’s what George tends to the atmosphere in the surrounding elements that make the music have the depth it has on 1980 Redux. “Sad Ghost” is a perfect example of that…he’s got a tremendous amount of clever electro in the mix, surrounding the song’s main rhythm-lines. He’s also got a great mind for music and a real grip on the sound he’s looking to create…and as a result of that focus he finds excellent ways to bring his vocals to life with the best textures & tones to match the music.
Now…keep in mind that although Alien Skin is making music with an undeniable beat to it – it’s generally far from what you’d hear on the radio both in the present and back in 1980. I’d challenge that a shift occurs slightly when you get to “This Fantastic Voyage” and that the accessibility of this particular track could certainly find its way to the airwaves. An early highlight on 1980 Redux for those that are looking for something with a bit more of a danceable idea or something that you can sing along to; I’m not saying that George played this one straightforward from points A to B, but I am saying that “This Fantastic Voyage” likely stands a great chance of being a hit with those that listen. Great melody in this music and in his vocal-tones, solid movement in the structure of the song that keeps it compelling…I wouldn’t say call up MTV and necessarily get the video ready, but I think you get what I mean. There’s a more widespread appeal in an electro-melody like “This Fantastic Voyage” that people will quickly pick up on…that’s what I’m saying.
Just don’t go expecting that moment to last long…because George isn’t making the music he makes in Alien Skin with the radio in mind so much as he is looking to explore a vast amount of otherworldly terrain in music that hasn’t been mined yet. “I Need Voltage” immediately takes us back into the creative realm where George resides for a more subdued & subtle approach to a unique sound & style. The synthetic skin he’s wearing here suits him very well…you can hear the poetic nature of the lyrics in the imaginative way he puts his words together – and the added drama you’ll find in the music & performance here give them all the energy needed to really bring them vividly to life in our ears. His movements on the mic are careful, cautious and precise in the verse; in the chorus, the music expands to give him that extra voltage he needs and he lets out the vocals with added power to match. What I found really interesting in this particular cut was probably the way he went about the final run-through of that chorus and sank himself right into the swell of the sound…almost as if there’s an added message or metaphor in the mix here that might very well be over my head. In any event, it was the kind of switch in the approach that was definitely noticeable…a solid shift in the sound that’s subtle but highly effective & allows for a quick reprieve before the story of “The Berlin Trilogy” begins.
“The Berlin Trilogy” is another perfect example of where George goes left instead of taking the easy right in one of the largest departures from ‘the norm’ and into his imagination & creativity further than we’ve been so far throughout the album. Really amazing mix on this tune…frequencies, notes and tones continuously sparkle & hum like electricity throughout the song. Referencing Bowie subtly in the ideas of the lyrics, telling the tales of the recording of “The Berlin Trilogy” and shedding light perhaps on key elements that drive the album’s concepts within the narration…the story is wonderfully interesting and well-performed. TONS of character in the vocals here and that makes all the difference in the world in terms of keeping what is definitely one of the record’s more bizarre structures intact. I think he’s done an exceptional job of keeping what we hear highly interesting to the ears – and while it might not really ever be described as ‘typical’ in any way, it doesn’t need to be to gain the attention it deserves. There are just as many people out there like myself that seek out something wildly creative & detail-orientated like “The Berlin Trilogy” – we don’t always need to sing along. Sometimes we just truly want to be entertained by a great story and amazing sound – this song does exactly that.
Although if I’m being completely honest with you George…my dog left the room when “The Berlin Trilogy” began – you’re welcome to take whatever you like from that piece of info, I’m not quite sure what that means myself…she might just need to go outside to be fair to you sir, but I thought I’d pass that little tidbit onto you all the same. For what it’s worth I’ve only known her for a year…maybe a year and a half and she’s yet to completely prove her taste in music to me or divulge her favorite record. Seems a little shifty if you ask me.
Back to the music! “Atoms Dangling Endlessly” was another huge highlight on this album for me. Beginning with a beautiful electro melody, Alien Skin continues to pull us into this synthetic musical-universe with a multitude of layers that work a subtle magic. The song’s most electrifying elements MIGHT be perceived as a little grating to some…I honestly don’t know…they sound like heaven to me personally…I love how this cut finds the threshold and then pushes some of these extraordinary textures and sounds right up to maximum effect. The music itself has stunning clarity, especially in its intro & breakdowns…and once again, George succeeds in the mix terrifically here – he’s up loud in the mix when he needs to be, but also notice how he matches the energy and mood of the music in its quietest moments as well, perfectly matching the atmosphere as a master truly knows how. I think he’s got great ideas on the mix, but he’s also got really great ideas on the actual sound of the vocals as well with different effects enhancing the melody in incredible & insightful ways. Lyrically, it threads its hypnotic lines beautifully into the melody and the song itself feels like it provides a blissful moment of calm in between “The Berlin Trilogy” and “Walk On Water” to follow.
Now…again…understand I’d never accuse Alien Skin of trying to be radio-friendly…but if I’m being honest with good ol’ George, I’d have to say that there’s no denying the universal appeal of “Walk On Water” and how strongly this song connects to the core of the soul. It’s an absolutely exceptional and stand-out moment on this record without a doubt…a real time-stopper and dream inducer that’s completely sweet in its sentiment and massively captivating to listen to. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard George sound THIS good – and keep in mind, I always enjoy what he brings to the microphone – but this…THIS…is straight-up award-winning. If I gave out medals, he’d get a gold here – I think he’s nailed every aspect of this song from start to finish and really brought out the best of his melodic and tender side for this tune…and these results absolutely sparkle & shine like the purest of gems. What I absolutely loved about “Walk On Water” was that the music is always present, but really, it’s all supporting the amazing vocal-melody he’s come up with here, which ultimately carries the majority of the sound we hear. That means it’s all on George’s shoulders here to make this one work – and it’s with the very instrument inside of him that he really makes the most of every moment on “Walk On Water.” Even though I loved it, even though it’s assembled, played and structured perfectly, the electro-music on this cut becomes a distant second to how incredible George sounds singing this song.
“In A Film” takes the music into a more intense dimension of Alien Skin’s sound…amping up the energy and creativity to create a song that’s really unlike any other on 1980 Redux. George is so wonderfully gifted when it comes to composition, quality and sound – and I think on a track like “In A Film” you just can’t ignore those facts. You combine that with the startling amount of imagination that would be required to come up with something like this and you get the idea…this is what unique sounds like. You’ll notice that apart from a quick Depeche Mode reference at the beginning, there’s not a lot of ‘sounds like’ comparisons here in this review…and that’s because Alien Skin is really doing its own thing. “In A Film” is a highlight example of this…it’s part soundtrack, part spoken-word, part dream-sequence…maybe even arguably part nightmare as well…there’s an amazing amount of thickness to the song’s atmosphere & sound and overall, “In A Film” presents one of the most vividly cohesive concepts on the entire album. While it might sound extremely ‘new’ with its blend of old-school styles – it’s also an insightfully focused concept, theme and idea. George executes it all at an extremely high-level and completely gets the feelings, mood & atmosphere in this song across boldly to us as listeners as a result.
And talk about concepts I can get behind – “The Playground Of Syd Barrett” is definitely one of them! How that hasn’t become an entire theme-park before it became a song, I’ll never know. Sign me up for this though…I dig this very, very much…I’ve always been a sincere Barrett fan and this is a really cool, tributary song that echoes the colors of his beautiful mind in insightfully poetic ways. The lyrics of this song are among some of the strongest and most cohesive on the record…which oddly works…I suppose he could have gone either way when it came time to write those. You could mimic the insanity and brilliance by having disjointed ideas and imagery…or you could thread in sly & subtle references to Syd from a more distant perspective. “The Playground Of Syd Barrett” definitely speaks of him favorably, and no doubt the inclusion of a direct reference to the artist like this is also a hint of what an influence he’s been on the mind and music of Alien Skin. It’s bright, it’s playful, it’s focused where it needs to be – I think the performance put in by George on the music and the way his vocals bounce off of it worked really well. Syd was a playful personality and a colorful spark in our world – this song honors that.
“Dark Star” immediately sounds like an album finale. With a gradually enveloping sound, yet still an intimate sound…there’s a lot about this last song on 1980 Redux that seems to feel like it is even more personal than the songs before it. Of course, with the Bowie-threads & influence that run deep throughout this record, this could certainly be a nod to the final album David put out, Blackstar. It’s hard to say 100% for certain…the lyrics could definitely apply…but us writer-types also have a tendency to change those meanings to suit our own narratives. I’m reasonably confident that this comparison, the desolate atmosphere and the empty feeling you get here at the end exists for a reason…a musical mourning of sorts, assuming my assumptions are correct. Regardless of what the true story behind the lyrics may/may-not be – George has done a great job of scaling back the sound but not the intensity; “Dark Star” is one of the heavier tunes on the record in terms of its atmosphere…you can completely feel this final song stick to your bones and cling to your soul…I found it to be an incredibly intense and memorable moment on this album that made for an extraordinary lasting impression and ending.
Find out more about Alien Skin and be ready for the official release of 1980 Redux on August 21st by hitting-up the official website at: http://alienskinmusic.com