Review Summary: 3rd album by by Europhilic quintet manages to combine the best bits of Kraftwerk, Bowie, Genesis, Lou Reed and Roxy Music with frequently spectacular results. Vastly different from and much less accessible than their best-known material but no less impres1 of 1 thought this review was well written
1980 saw the release of the 3rd Simple Minds studio album, Empires and Dance, and while it was by no means a breakthrough release for the group and did not yield any notable hit singles, it built upon the modest success of their first two LPs. Reel to Real Cacophony (1979) had incorporated elements of art-rock and electronic music whilst toning down the slightly derivative Roxy Music and Bowie-aping shtick of their debut. Make no mistake – Jim Kerr’s wide-eyed, hiccup-y vocal mannerisms still channels Bryan Ferry circa 1972, and the music itself is certainly indebted to Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy with its picturesque soundscapes and moody demeanour. This is a very European record, with virtually no apparent ties to traditional blues-based rock music. Indeed, the group promoted themselves as a European act rather than Scottish. As with Reel to Real Cacophony, there is a strong Kraftwerk influence to be heard as well, but fortunately the meandering sound experiments are kept to a minimum this time around.
1) I Travel (04:05)
Probably the best known cut on the album, this absolutely scorching opener is Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” as reinterpreted by Public Image Ltd and filtered through the art-rock sensibility of the previous album. Featuring a hypnotic bassline by the underrated Derek Forbes, the song benefits greatly from Charlie Burchill’s razor-sharp bursts of guitar and Mick MacNeil’s minimalist synthesizer. Jim Kerr’s frenzied vocals lend an air of paranoia to his travelogue-style lyrics (nice Eno mention!), not only on this track but on most of the album. This was arguably the strongest song they had released thus far and it augurs well for the rest of the album. (9/10)
2) Today I Died Again (04:39)
That all-important second track brings about a change of pace and is less immediate than the opener, but the melodies here are just strong enough to nestle into the subconscious eventually. The “swooping” bass notes are the main musical hook of the song, making up for the slight monotony of the verse and chorus. (6/10)
3) Celebrate (05:10)
A catchy, handclap-assisted beat underpinned by yet another prominent bassline lays the foundation for this simultaneously upbeat and eerie-sounding number. It hints towards the more accessible synth-pop which would characterize the next few albums. With some tweaking of the arrangement and instrumentation, this could well have resembled an early 70’s glam rock stomper. (7/10)
4) This Fear of Gods (07:01)
Riding an infectious groove for a blissful 7 minutes, this and the next track make up the album’s epic centrepiece, and what a mesmerizing amalgamation of Bowie’s “Station to Station” and Kraftwerk’s “Europa Endlos” it is! This delights me no end, as these are most probably my favourite songs by those artists. Kerr’s neurotic repetition of certain lines and his reverb-ridden exclamations (“GODS!”) creates an atmosphere of unease that is miles away from his laid-back, almost whispered delivery on later songs like “This Is Your Land” and “Let It All Come Down” (which is less of a condemnation of these songs than an acknowledgement of the man’s versatility). (8/10)
5) Capital City (06:17)
This is probably the one instance on the album where the running time is not totally justifiable and the ideas seem stretched too thin. Another distinctive bassline and sparse instrumentation really gives the song room to breathe - and the song as a whole is no train-smash - yet a slight tedium does set in around the four-minute mark. Repetition in music is not a problem in itself (and may benefit a piece significantly), as long as what is being repeated is interesting. This is simply not interesting enough to be six minutes long, whereas “This Fear of Gods” got the balance just right. (6/10)
6) Constantinople Line (04:45)
I have always had a soft spot for this one, probably because of my prog-geek ears perking up at the sound of its unconventional time signature. This sounds like some kind of post-punk tango performed by paranoid schizophrenics, and conjures up a sinister mood punctuated by Burchill’s distant wailing guitar filling in the gaps of the very skeletal arrangement. Burchill maintains a relatively low-key presence here, and I certainly would not have minded to hear him contribute even more. A suitably off-kilter guitar solo would have boosted the rating for sure, but as it is I consider this a great song – nothing more, nothing less. (7/10)
7) Twist/Run/Repulsion (04:40)
Now this one is mad as a March hare. Featuring an off-beat, epileptic rhythm and dissonant bursts of saxophone (credited to Charlie Burchill, no less), indecipherable lyrics sung with utter disregard to convention and more short-sharp-shocks of guitar, this track is the new and improved “Naked Eye” (from Reel to Real Cacophony). A female voice recites some text in French throughout, but it is the absolute antithesis of Jane Birkin’s sultry aural sex show on “Je t’aime...Moi Non Plus”. In fact, this might be the least sexy song I have ever heard, but I digress. Some might dismiss this song as too manic, disjointed and even irritating for its own good, but I think it never crosses that line despite veering ever so close at times. I like to compare it to “Who Dunnit?” by Genesis (released around the same time on the Abacab album), which is too often derided as a flat-out annoying failed experiment, but which I not only tolerate but even enjoy. Also, like “Who Dunnit?”, nobody could possibly accuse it of being dull. (7/10)
8) Thirty Frames a Second (04:40)
This is another upbeat number that tones down the crazy and boasts some strong melodies and plenty of energy. One could even attempt a jerky disco-dance to it, were one so inclined! Considerably more streamlined than most of the other tracks on the album, it could have slotted in perfectly on 1981’s Sons and Fascination, whilst being just esoteric enough to be cosy bedfellows with “Constantinople Line” and the like. (8/10)
9) Kant-Kino (01:53)
A relatively short instrumental featuring a solitary guitar chord strummed throughout along with a decent but unspectacular synth motif. Luckily, the brief running time prevents it from overstaying its welcome and dragging the album rating down. Still – I would not miss this song if its master tape and all copies were somehow destroyed in a freak occurrence (which, let’s face it, is not exactly glowing praise whichever way you look at it). In summary: meh (a loaded word I deploy only when I really need to). (4/10)
10) Room (02:30)
Not the best way to bring such a strong album to an end, but at least it is mercifully short like its predecessor. Featuring some light percussion in lieu of Brian McGee’s sturdy drumming, they attempted to create another atmospheric slow-burner but instead ended up with a tuneless and nondescript dud. That I had to listen to this and “Kant-Kino” attentively for the first time in months for the purpose of this review, while I could easily describe the other tracks from memory, really says it all. (4/10)
Following this album’s release, Simple Minds would leave the Arista label for the infinitely hipper Virgin Records and produce Sons and Fascination, reaching the top 20 at last with a terrific single and touring with early influence and celebrity fan Peter Gabriel. The groundbreaking art-rock-cum-electro sound of this album would prove to be influential to a number of acts not only musically but also aesthetically (an obvious example being the reversed R’s and similar typography on the cover of both this and The Holy Bible by Manic Street Preachers, whose vocalist James Dean Bradfield is one of the few artists who have publicly proclaimed admiration for this truly overlooked record).
For the uninitiated, this is not the best place to start (that would be New Gold Dream or Once Upon A Time), but everybody who waxes nostalgic to “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” and “Belfast Child” should make a point of giving this a proper listen, if only to appreciate the wealth of ideas and musicianship on display here.