I’ve been getting the distinct feeling of late that maybe the time had passed for bands like A23 and similar EBM/futurepop acts. This kind of music reached it’s peak (in terms of popularity, and maybe even in creativity) a few years back, even though the odd song still happily fills dancefloors. In it’s place has come a rather more aggressive sound from the likes of Combichrist, and even from Rotersand, which seems to have picked up the baton of popularity and run with it.
So in 2007, nearly nine years after debut album Contempt, can A23 cut it on their sixth album? Happily, the answer is a resounding yes. And it opens with the slow-burning Decades (V2). This first appeared last year on a compilation [Accession Records Vol.3], as the taster for Meta. It was fantastic then, and it’s reworked state is even better. Underpinned – unusually – by a ticking clock and then the more usual A23 staples of a great beat, meticulous production and a soaring chorus, it all meshes wonderfully into the best A23 track in years.
Things continue in a positive vein into second track Raw, which re-uses an unusual verse structure last seen on old track Surface, but while keeping the old-style feel, it still sounds fresh and new, with an almost-live drum sound and another strong chorus (with a whole chorus of effects behind it). Sorry is yet more classic A23, and lyrically feels a postscript to Let Me Be Your Armor, a scathing critique of someone who hides behind their “depression” for everything that goes wrong.
Incredibly, Ghosts is even better, with A23 becoming yet another artist to tackle the thorny subject of organized religion, with the verses spat out with some venom, before the chorus once again takes off for the stars. There is an elegaic wistfulness to it, though, asking during the chorus “…and what if no-one comes/to liberate our souls?“. More questions are asked on recent single Binary, seemingly (in very veiled tones) a critique of the Bush Administration. It also follows the tradition of every A23 single being a big dancefloor track, but ironically at this point in the album feels to be the weakest track so far – and it is not as if it is bad!
Damaged is the big ballad on the album, and it’s sweeping string effects and lyrics that take life in a positive light rather than a negative one (a hallmark of Tom Shear’s lyrics) keep it away from being rather schmaltzy, and instead leave you with hope for the protagonist. There is no hope displayed within Madman’s Dream, another track that firstly sounds like it has rather more live instruments in it than usual – certainly an actual bassline, if nothing else, and then secondly it is another track critical of the US Government, this time the subject being the shameful treatment of those affected by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. I’m not entirely convinced this track works – in some respects it barely sounds like an A23 track at all, but as with all of this album it is refreshing to hear an artist in this genre who actually has something to say.
Truth is back to familiar territory, but again with harder beats than before, while Crush seems to half experiment with glitchy beats, for the verses at least, before returning to a usual 4/4 for yet another big chorus. Closer Old is a pretty plea to keep the flame burning in later years, and like Damaged again stays away from the line marked ‘cheese’.
So against all expectations, after a couple of so-so albums, and seemingly diminishing interest, Tom Shear has managed to bring A23 back ’round to everything that made them so great in the first place. Emphasis is on the lyrics (there are few artists in EBM/futurepop/electro/whatever you want to call it that have so much to say), and on the tunes, and this album has both in spades. It’s hardly likely to gain all that many new fans (saying that the Binary single debuted just outside the Top 20 on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles Chart!), but for all those who have had a past interest in A23, this album is most certainly worth a look, as frankly it is their best release since the debut Contempt.