Review Summary: Meticulous musical sculpting and a filmic sense of creepiness combine to form an intensely dramatic album. Listen to it with the lights off and tremble
‘Dark’ music is all very well and good. There are many artists out there that pump out album after album of waves of crashing, staccato noise, or cloak their verses in a cacophony of minor keys to try to give a sense of scariness to their work. Throw in some clichéd lyrics about death, blood and fire, and usually they’re done. Occasionally, however, there will come someone who realises that, like all the best horror movies, or all the worst nightmares, the fear and drama is unnervingly subtle. Far better to simply ‘suggest’ a mood through a sequence of carefully structured bass lines, creative samples and ambiguous words, and let the listeners’ imagination do the rest.
Alan Wilder was a member of Depeche Mode
for thirteen years, but Recoil
had been a side-project since 1985. He only gave his all to the project once he left the group ten years later in 1995. His talents as an arranger and composer are immediately noticeable - Liquid
is an intricately carved album, growing on the listener with repeated plays, yet Alan leaves enough space in the music to ensure it doesn’t sound too cluttered. Ostensibly an electronic offering, Liquid
nevertheless has a strong trip-hop leaning; fans of Massive Attack
will be pleased with the approach at least, if not the fact that this LP is less accessible than anything released by either of the above. Vocals follow the Recoil
tradition of being supplied by a multitude of guest vocalists, all adding their own character to each track. Tracks such as ’Strange Hours’
and ’Breath Control‘
could perhaps get away with being played to the casual listener, but on the whole this is an album
in the strictest sense of the word. It will only be appreciated fully if listened to carefully from start to finish; if you haven’t guessed by this point, this is very much a concept album.
In 1994, Alan Wilder escaped death by mere seconds when an RAF fighter jet crashed onto the road in front of the car he was driving. The effects of that experience lend themselves to the albums’ opener and closer, ’Black Box’ parts 1 + 2
, Reto Buhle narrating the scene of a plane crash on a bright day in a cold wilderness. The words (it feels wrong to use the word ‘lyrics’ here) suggest various themes and moments of a man’s life, without necessarily telling a story. Such prosaic speech is integral to Liquid
; the music is the essence of the album, but without the distinctive mix of guest vocalists (who all speak
rather than sing
), it would all lose its meaning.
Take a track like ’Want’
, where every line begins with the superb Nicole Blackman whispering, “I want…”
, before listing a disturbing set of desires such as;
”…your touches to scar me so I’ll know where you’ve been…“
”…you to watch when I go down in flames…”
”…to taste my own kind…”
Words away, and it would seem like a bunch of simple bass loops. Similarly, ‘Jezebel’
, with its ‘American Deep South’ feel and bassy hooks (probably the most trip-hop sounding track) is transformed totally with the words, and those bass lines and occasional harsh screeches suddenly become incredibly ominous, revealing the tracks' dark and spooky underbelly. ‘Strange Hours‘
is probably the best part of this melded album, telling the story of a suspicious man who keeps ‘strange hours’, who murders his fiancee for the ‘purity of all mankind’
, and all to a surprisingly melodious backing, culminating in one of the most disturbing breakdowns I've ever heard. You also get the feeling from the album as a whole than every sound has been examined from every angle ten times over before being placed. It really is a case of the whole becoming greater than the sum of its parts.
Unfortunately, therefore, with tracks of this nature, it only takes one misplaced brick for the whole thing to come tumbling down. Alan, in choosing guest vocalists (he doesn’t sing himself) makes the mistake of including several other female vocalists on the same album as Nicole Blackman, the multi-talented author, professional voiceover actor, poet and artist. She brings her own distinctive style and words to three tracks, and the others simply cannot compete. The only other effort to make any impression is that by The Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet, supplying the gospel-influenced vocals to ’Jezebel‘
, the only male vocals on the album to join Reto Buhle. And so, tracks such as ’Vertigen’
and the abrasive ’Last Call for Liquid Courage’
are marred only by the sound of the grating voice of Samantha Coerbell, and the bland Rosa M Torras.
The only other complaint I have with Liquid
, and perhaps the whole Recoil
project in general, is that, in the cold light of day, it’s all a little self-indulgent. But then, of course it is. That's because Mr. Wilder likes to make this music chiefly for himself; the critical acclaim, screaming fans and cold hard cash came with Depeche Mode
years ago. But albums on the same level of sophistication and complexity as this are few and far between. You have to be in the mood for this album. As mentioned before, it’s not immediately affecting; it will take a few listens to make sense of it, like all the best albums usually do.
The key word here is drama. You could imagine this doing very well indeed as the soundtrack to a moody thriller; think “Se7en” or “Sin City”. Dim the lights and give it a spin. It’s not a brash, scary monster. It’s a malevolent, smiling demon, putting its taloned hand in yours and gently and seductively guiding you down the stairs to the basement. And I doubt you’ll be able to resist.