Back in the 1980s, technology triggered a tidal wave of experimentalism in popular music. Punk had established an “anything goes, anyone can do it” attitude, and punk bands like Tubeway Army, Wire and DEVO began to explore the possibilities of the cheap synthesizers being built by companies like Casio, Korg and Roland. This grew into the new wave movement, with groups like The Human League, Depeche Mode and OMD achieving chart success with stripped-down experimental sounds that would never chart today. Then came affordable sampling synthesizers and bands like The Art Of Noise, and even musique concrete became mainstream.
Encouraged by this, several record labels known for their pop repertoire flirted with classical music in the late 80s, trying to bring it to a wider audience. Factory Records started their Factory Classical division, and Virgin (who had been issuing classical music since the mid 70s) set up a sub-label called Venture.
Meanwhile at Zang Tuum Tumb, there was Andrew Poppy. I first heard his work on ZTT IQ6, Zang Tuum Tuum Sampled. I added the name to my “Buy on sight” list, and wasn’t disappointed.
However, the great popular modern classical music experiment died suddenly in the early 90s. Virgin was sold to EMI, and pretty much stopped releasing anything experimental. Factory went bust. ZTT imploded in a mass of lawsuits. Mute was still around, but Daniel Miller had never been interested in anything involving orchestras. I picked up a few more Andrew Poppy releases over the next decade, but only by scouring record conventions.
And then the Internet changed everything. The long tail became more viable. And then, a few weeks ago, I discovered there were five Andrew Poppy albums available that I’d never heard of. I had some gift money left over from Christmas, so I ordered them all, from the man himself.
Here are some brief notes on what the various pieces sound like, for non-completists considering purchase.
Running Naked Through The Garment District
- Drum Machining: Drum machine samples speed up, cluster, fragment, and collapse into soft clouds. This could almost be Autechre at times, or a robot version of Steve Reich’s “Clapping Music”.
- Double Stitch: Beautiful and mellow, shoegazey, like Harold Budd or quieter tracks by The Durutti Column.
- Lining For A Desirable Suit: Slightly more up-tempo mellow synth/guitar minimalism which dissolves into warm summer. Shades of Angelo Badalamenti and Twin Peaks.
- Last Light: Sometimes a piece of music sounds exactly like the title suggests it might. This is one of those cases. Strings.
- Snowdronia: Not at all what I was expecting, i.e. not a 20 minute piece of drone music. Instead, it could be a longer and more delicate and icy take on “Last Light”. There is some drone, but it’s just part of the overall picture. Stylistically, edges towards the quieter moments of “Godspeed You! Black Emperor”.
- Revolution Number Eight: The mood takes a turn for the sinister. If this is an airport, it’s the one from Stephen King’s “The Langoliers”.
- T.A.R.D.I.S.: “Time At Rest Devouring Its Secret”. Previously available on a CD of its own of the same name.
- Untitled track: A sketch of piano, echo and delay.
First, a series of solo piano pieces. Then, the recorded piano pieces are digitally sampled and manipulated.
…And the shuffle of things
- Something Secret: Electronic drone, ethereal voicelike tones, strings, and a voice discusses the nature of sound. Stylistically, reminds me of Derek Jarman’s “Blue”.
- Wet Fold: Wet thumping percussion, gentle droning buzzing, echo, and discreet piano. I liked this a lot.
- My Stress Mistress: A piano tries to relax, but the electric organ isn’t helping.
- Balcony Scene / Doppelgänger: Harks back to “Alphabed”, but with operatic vocals.
- Wave Machine Parts II and III: A caffeinated piano cadenza followed by one which switched to decaf.
- The Head of Orpheus Football: This one’s a bit Momus, a song about taking football back to its roots—by playing it with the severed heads of famous football stars.
- What Else: What Then Now: Back to Andrew Poppy’s roots with systems music.
- My Father’s Submarines: Another spoken-word-over-music piece like “Something Secret”.
- Almost the same shame: Solo piano with an interesting side effect that develops.
Shiny Floor, Shiny Ceiling
If you like pop music and classic music, and are at least neutral about opera, give this album a try. It defies me to come up with a genre for it or think of anything else it resembles. Classical lounge hip-hopera?