And: 2001: A Space Odyssey * Angel Heart * Apocalypse Now * The Big Lebowski * Caravaggio * The Company Of Wolves * The Cook The Thief His Wife And Her Lover * The Crow (original) * Dawn Of The Dead (original) * Day Of The Dead (original) * Donnie Darko * Hellraiser (original) * In The Mouth Of Madness * The Mist * Pan's Labyrinth * Starship Troopers * The Thin Red Line * The Thing (original) * Videodrome * The Wicker Man (original) *
I've been a fan of Silent Hill since playing the first game on PS1 back in 1999, and it is – the first three entries at least – one of my favourite series. Indeed it was a big influence on my novel She Waits By The Water. Unfortunately I've found much of what has been released since those initial three games somewhat patchy. In light of the recent renewed interest in all things Silent Hill, with Silent Hill Ascension releasing at the end of this month and the remake of Silent Hill 2 on the way, I thought I'd take a retrospective look at the series. I've not included the first three here since they're difficult to play on current consoles (The Silent Hill HD Collection aside; see more below) but all are five star games for me and highly recommended.
Am I excited about the future of the series? I'm more curious than anything. The forthcoming Ascension barely even counts as a game in my estimation, being more an interactive show, and that Bloober Games – whose previous titles haven't much-impressed me – are remaking one of my favourite games ever fills me with trepidation. 'It'll be 100% longer than the original!' they proudly boast. This is not necessarily a good thing. Silent Hill 2 is loved by fans for a reason. We don't need Bloober second-guessing what we might want to see and making a hash of things. Just stick to the source material please.
Silent Hill 4 The Room (2004) ****
The Silent Hill series can be divided into two distinct phases; those games developed in-house by Konami in Japan (the first four) and those farmed out to American or European studios (the rest). The former are uniformly superior to their western brethren. Of those four however, Silent Hill 4 The Room is undeniably the weakest. The game casts the player in the role of protagonist Henry Townshend, who finds himself trapped in his apartment. The only way out is through a mysterious hole which appears in his bathroom and leads to surreal and horrific other worlds. These vary from an abandoned subway to a forest to a prison to an apartment building to a hospital, all of which are a spooky delight to venture into and feature the series' bespoke mix of puzzling and exploration and monster encounters. Unfortunately the second half of the game dashes most of what the first half works hard to set up. The exact same area maps are traversed again albeit with slightly different objectives, with the player frequently pursued by unkillable enemies and saddled with an AI companion one must keep alive, often resulting in frustration rather than enjoyment. Even The Room's monsters are less freaky compared to previous games, ranging from dogs to burping nurses (really?) to fungi (again... really?) to annoying flying buzzers. Only the twin monster, double-faced and running on its hands, has the power to unnerve the player. Still, The Room is better than the Silent Hill games that would follow. The Akira Yamaoka soundtrack is as usual fantastic, the graphics look great for PlayStation 2/XBox, and the creepy and oppressive atmosphere the game musters when at its best is almost unbeaten elsewhere in the series. I just wish Silent Hill 4 had been given more development time by Konami (it was produced in just a year, as opposed to two years each for Silent Hill 2 and Silent Hill 3) to fully flesh out its possibilities and its potential.
Silent Hill Origins (2007) ****
The first and probably the best of the western-developed Silent Hill games, Origins evokes the brooding survival horror atmosphere of early entries in the series well but the story is lacking, and makes little sense when set against the first game, the events of which it allegedly precedes. Despite this, as a dedicated Silent Hill fan I had a lot of fun with it, and it ticks all the right gameplay boxes in terms of tension and combat and puzzle-solving and monsters and exploration. Graphically the game is no slouch by PlayStation 2/PSP standards, and the soundtrack, by series regular Akira Yamaoka, is a thing of beauty and deserving of listening to in its own right. Not as good as Silent Hill 1-4 then, but decent enough. It's also perhaps worth noting that the PlayStation 2 port is generally considered superior to the PSP original, which was far too dark in places to the extent that it was difficult to see what was going on on-screen sometimes without cranking up the contrast. Either version though is more worthy of your attention than pretty much everything else that would follow Silent Hill-wise over the next half-decade. If you're a fan dispirited by the direction the series took in these later years, I'd recommend that you revisit this one if you can.
Silent Hill Homecoming (2008) **
Homecoming, the second western-developed Silent Hill game, begins (or continues, depending on how you felt about Silent Hill Origins) the series' downward spiral. First off, Silent Hill Homecoming is a much more action-heavy affair than previous games (and we all know how well the shift towards action worked in fellow survival horror series Resident Evil, don't we? Answer; it didn't). I remember reading an interview with Homecoming's developers in which they stated that the combat systems in the early games ‘sucked’ and that they wanted to improve on them. No, the combat in Silent Hill 1-4 - which could often be entirely avoided if you wished - did not suck. Those games' protagonists were ordinary citizens without weapons training, and their lacking fighting skills were intentional. So what have the developers replaced the allegedly poor combat with? A combo-based system. That's right, this is an action-oriented Silent Hill game with combo-based combat. It doesn't fit at all in my view, and the parade of enemies to kill destroys any atmosphere of foreboding and isolation that the game tries to conjure. You can't even evade them as in earlier games; if you don't kill them there and then they just follow you, and after a while you can even have a conga line of monsters pursuing you through the area you're trying to explore. Said monsters range from the blatant (nurses and dogs, because it's a Silent Hill game so it's got to have nurses and dogs in it) to the ridiculous-looking (most of the rest), and Red Pyramid Thing (often called Pyramid Head) puts in an appearance purely for fan service despite its presence making no sense outside of the events of Silent Hill 2. It's also worth mentioning that Homecoming - particularly in its look and in some of the enemies - draws more on the first Silent Hill film than it does previous games. The narrative, centred around a man looking for his missing brother, is serviceable enough I guess, but humdrum in comparison to earlier entries, though I won't spoil it for those who have yet to play. On the plus side Homecoming looks lovely by XBox 360/PS3 standards, and the music by series mainstay Akira Yamaoka is beautiful and evocative. I'd even go as far as to say the soundtrack is superior to the game itself and that you'd be better off buying that instead, whacking the volume up on headphones, and reminiscing on Silent Hill games of yore. It's such a shame that Homecoming, along with the middling Downpour and the shoddy HD Collection is amongst the few Silent Hill games available to the current console generation via backwards compatibility, as it's far from representative of the series at its best. Silent Hill's legacy really deserves better from Konami.
Silent Hill Shattered Memories (2009) **
When Shattered Memories was first released it was presented as something of a remake of the first game (which still desperately needs a remake), but in reality it's nothing of the sort. Though the plot bears a superficial similarity, being centred around a man named Harry looking for his missing daughter Cheryl in the deserted town of Silent Hill, all of the characters and settings have been entirely reimagined. Scares, or even the ever-present sense of dark foreboding for which the series is famed, are pretty much absent. Enemies are only a threat when the game shifts - as it periodically does - to the ice world, and when they do appear all you can do is run, you can't fight back; other than that you're free to explore with no risk or tension at all. Even the Akira Yamaoka soundtrack - with the exception of the brilliant new song When You're Gone - is phoned in in comparison to Yamaoka at his peak. I know some Silent Hill fans swear by this game, but I just don't get it. In atmosphere and gameplay it's about as far removed from the superb and iconic survival horror of the best of the series (which would be the first three games, and to a lesser extent the fourth) as you can get.
Silent Hill HD Collection (2012) ****
Silent Hill 2 and 3 (along with the first, which isn't included here) are easily the best entries in the series. I'd even go as far as to call Silent Hill 2 one of the greatest games ever made. It pains me therefore to say that the HD Collection is a substandard affair. First off, the word 'collection' implies more than just two games to me, so where is Silent Hill 4 The Room? I can understand why the first game was left off, being a relic of the PlayStation 1 era, but the absence of Silent Hill 4 here is inexplicable and inexcusable. So what's wrong with these alleged 'HD remasters' exactly? They were crafted using incomplete code (the final code for both games having been lost by Konami) and so have been patched. Perhaps as a result of this both games are buggy, with numerous visual and audio glitches. The graphics have apparently been given a polish, but if anything the PlayStation 2 versions looked better. The voice acting for all characters has been entirely re-recorded, and despite the new cast doing an okay enough job it's just not the same (though in the case of Silent Hill 2 at least one does have the option of selecting the original voice tracks). Very little effort seems to have gone into making these the definitive editions of these games, and it's difficult not to come away thinking the whole thing is just a lazy cash-in on the series' popularity. That these are the only available versions of these two fantastic games playable to the current console generation via backwards compatibility is a depressing thought. Does Konami care nothing for their legacy?
Silent Hill Downpour (2012) ***
If Downpour was released under a different title and franchise, it would perhaps have been better received. As it is, it had a mixed reception from critics and fans, sold very poorly, and was pretty much the decade-long death knell for the series until its 2022 revival announcement. As a third person horror game Downpour is competent enough, but as a Silent Hill game it has big shoes to fill. Gameplay-wise everything is very much efficiently done if by the numbers, with the signature blend of exploration and puzzling and monster-encounters, though the ominous sense of terror for which the series is famed is largely absent. It's a long way from scary. The town of Silent Hill feels a lot more open (if a little empty) this time round, and there are even optional side-quests to take on as you pursue your main objectives. You can fight or evade the enemies (there's an achievement for completing the game without killing anything), and weapons break now, forcing you to constantly pick up new ones, which is fine if you're whacking monsters with bits of wood but less realistic if you're using a crowbar or the like. Said enemies are mostly humanoid, and generic, and not at all menacing. The story - centred on a prisoner protagonist who killed the man who murdered his child - is good enough for the game's purposes, if uninspiring. Graphics are decent by XBox 360/PS3 standards. The soundtrack by Daniel Licht does the job but is a far cry from the iconic sound of series regular Akira Yamaoka. Play Downpour for what it is though, ignore the Silent Hill moniker and attendant baggage, and you may even find yourself having some fun with it.
The completionist Silent Hill fan will note that I've missed out Book of Memories, for the simple reason that I haven't played it (I never owned the sole console it came out on). Likewise the mobile games and Arcade, omitted for the same reason. From a glance none of them seem to comprehend the essence of what made Silent Hill such a good series in the first place and I can't say I feel as if I've missed out on anything notable.
The second in an occasional series of lists of favourite things. This time round it's the one everybody always asks; favourite authors. I've said elsewhere on this site that my own work is likely more influenced by music than it is by other witers, though I do read a tremendous amount too. Here are some of the authors that have stuck with me over the years.
And: Martin Amis * William Blake * William S Burroughs * Dennis Cooper * William Gibson * Allen Ginsberg * Milan Kundera * H P Lovecraft * Bill McKibben * Vladimir Nabokov * Edgar Allan Poe * H G Wells * Robert Anton Wilson *
Following my Marc Almond retrospective, herewith an album-by-album look at the music of Love And Rockets, a band I was a big fan of in the eighties and have recently rediscovered. How well does their music hold up thirty to forty years later? Read on to find out.
Seventh Dream Of Teenage Heaven (1985) *****
Love And Rockets' career is an odd one in retrospect. Two excellent and striking albums followed by two middling ones, then a total change of musical direction into ambient techno which almost derailed them, then a return to form and then a fizzling out. I'm pleased that the band have recently reformed and are playing live again, but wonder if they'll ever again reach the grandeur of their debut Seventh Dream Of Teenage Heaven and its follow-up Express.
Love And Rockets are - in line-up at least - essentially Bauhaus without vocalist Peter Murphy, though their sound is a long way from the theatrical goth stylings of said band, being more a multilayered and psychedelia-infused blend of rock and indie pop. They formed almost by accident; a Bauhaus reformation was discussed, with the members agreeing to meet in a rehearsal studio and see how things went. Everybody turned up except for Murphy. The remainder - guitarist Daniel Ash, bassist David J, and drummer Kevin Haskins - jammed together anyway, and out flowed Love And Rockets. What may at first seem a radical change of direction from Bauhaus should come as less of a surprise to those who have heard Ash and Haskins' previous and much-unsung project Tones On Tail, or David J's early solo albums. I'd even argue that Love And Rockets' roots can be found on final-at-the-time Bauhaus album Burning From The Inside from 1983, in tracks such as Slice Of Life, King Volcano, Who Killed Mr Moonlight?, or Hope. Those four together could almost be a lost Love And Rockets EP.
Seventh Dream Of Teenage Heaven makes for a very confident debut, and contains some of the band's most-loved songs (for example Dog-End Of A Day Gone By, If There's A Heaven Above, Seventh Dream Of Teenage Heaven itself, or A Private Future), only one dud (The Game), and - in the form of Haunted When The Minutes Drag - my vote for best thing they ever did. Even album closer, the wistful instrumental Saudade, has a surety about it that promises good things for the future.
By way of a bonus on the remastered CD you get the non-album single Ball Of Confusion, some B-sides, and some non-essential and not-radically-different remixes. It's a shame they didn't include the 7" mix of Ball Of Confusion too though, which is much better than the extended version featured here and worth hunting down.
If you're new to Love And Rockets, you can't go wrong by starting with Seventh Dream Of Teenage Heaven, then working through the rest of their catalogue in chronological order. Things do go downhill after second album Express, but their first two albums are mostly wonderful.
Express (1986) *****
The album that broke Love And Rockets in the US, while the English were scratching their heads and saying 'Love And who...?' They always were pretty much unheard of in their home country (except to Bauhaus fans), which is a shame as their first two albums in particular have much to offer. Sadly, the more America embraced them, the more their music deteriorated in my view; I'm not sure how much the two are connected.
Along with debut Seventh Dream Of Teenage Heaven, Express is definitely the strongest of their seven albums. Side one opener It Could Be Sunshine is one of the their best, and the bouncing psychedelic pop of All In My Mind is a much-underrated highlight. Side two is excellent throughout, from the wild opener Yin And Yang (The Flowerpot Man) through to the guitar-heavy Love Me, the delicate and forlorn acoustic version of All in My Mind which sounds like a completely different song to its full-band counterpart, and the slow-building finale An American Dream. On the side A downside, I've never been a fan of band favourite Kundalini Express though know that many people are, and could happily never hear Life In Laralay again.
By way of CD bonus tracks, you get the daft David J track Holiday On The Moon, a delightful cover of Pink Floyd's Lucifer Sam, the instrumental Angels And Devils which I remember the band used to use as their live intro music before coming onstage, remixes of Yin And Yang (The Flowerpot Man) and Ball Of Confusion, and two brief instrumental scraps intended as B-side ideas. None of it is as good as the album proper, but don't let that dissuade you; Express is solid enough as it is.
Earth Sun Moon (1987) ****
A much more straightforward affair in some respects than Love And Rockets' previous two albums, and in retrospect perhaps the start of a downward slope for the band. As is sometimes the case for me with Love And Rockets albums, I much favour the Daniel Ash songs over the David J ones on Earth Sun Moon. Ash for example gives us the stonking Mirror People or the gorgeous acoustic numbers Youth and Earth Sun Moon. J gives us the ridiculously earnest Everybody Wants To Go To Heaven or the duff Rain Bird. The one collaboration on here, Welcome Tomorrow, is a high point though, as are Lazy by Ash and No New Tale To Tell by J. Other tracks fare less well, such as the pompous Here On Earth or the faux ardent Waiting For The Flood. The Telephone Is Empty is an experiment that doesn't work. The Light is a plodder that really shouldn't have been a single.
The CD re-release gives you just one bonus track, a slowed down version of Mirror People that I've never been that fond of. All the B-sides and the like that should appear as extras here can be found on the odds-and-ends disc Assorted! for some reason, so if you want the complete picture with this period of the band, be sure to pick that one up too.
Love And Rockets (1989) ***
Love And Rockets' best-selling album at the time of its release (in America at least; they were largely unknown in the UK back then), and in my view one of their weaker efforts. I seem to recall that the band's remit here was for a more stripped down and back to basics sound, which I have to say is to the music's detriment. Also unlike previous albums, which featured a lot of collaboratory lyrics, here there's a strict division between the songs of Daniel Ash and those of David J.
J's contributions are the weaker, to my ears at least. ***** (Jungle Law) and Bound For Hell, which opened sides one and two of the original vinyl album respectively, are raucous rockers that don't go anywhere. The ambient and mostly instrumental The Purest Blue is a reworking of Waiting For The Flood from their Earth Sun Moon album, was previously released as the B-side to the Lazy single in 1988, and doesn't belong here at all. Only Rock And Roll Babylon, a sub-Beatles acoustic number with strings, is worth writing home about. Ash's songs are stronger, the hit single (again only in the US) So Alive aside, which I've always found somewhat throwaway and which sounds as if it was knocked up in all of ten minutes in the studio. No Big Deal is fun though, and the gentle I Feel Speed and the acoustic The Teardrop Collector are both lovely, as is album closer No Words No More. Motorbike on the other hand, a bass-heavy and feedback-drenched paean to biking, manages to outstay its welcome despite being all of three and a half minutes long.
If I were rating this album solely on Daniel Ash's songs I'd probably give it four stars, but I'm not, and have knocked a point off for David J's side of things, which really lets it down. One to selectively download the best tracks from, rather than buy in its entirety.
Hot Trip To Heaven (1994) ***
To say that Love And Rockets' fifth album and first in five years was a detour from their usual style is a massive understatement. Gone was the layered and psychedelia-suffused pop rock of the past, to be replaced by an ambient techno sound that had more in common with the likes of The Orb or Orbital. I wouldn't say I dislike it, but I don't consider it a Love And Rockets album. It really should have been released as a side-project under a different name. As it is, the album tanked, and pretty much killed the band's career, especially in America where they'd been huge following the #3 hit So Alive. As Daniel Ash put it, '[the album was] commercial suicide because we were sort of known as a guitar band. I heard stories of, especially in the US, of people taking the CD back and saying, "This isn't Love and Rockets. I want my money back."' Forget everything you know about past Love And Rockets though, and you may even find something to enjoy here, and with time and in retrospect Hot Trip To Heaven is now looked upon a little more fondly than it was by fans and critics. Just don't go into it expecting the glories of Seventh Dream Of Teenage Heaven or Express.
Sweet FA (1996) *****
One of Love And Rockets' best albums, and probably their most unsung. Many people had written the band off following 1994's techno detour Hot Trip To Heaven, and may not have realised there were two follow-ups. Sweet FA is the better of the pair, and reverts to a guitar-based sound, sedate and laid back and acoustic at first and growing steadily more raucous as it proceeds. I prefer the first, Daniel Ash-dominated two thirds, but it's all good, and unfolds from start to finish wonderfully, giving way to David J's more spiky numbers as the album nears its end. If you'd given up on Love And Rockets after Hot Trip to Heaven but wonder what became of them, Sweet FA is an unexpected delight.
[See also My Dark Twin below]
Lift (1998) ****
Love And Rockets' seventh and final album pretty much disappeared without trace immediately after it was released, due to the bankruptcy of the record label and the reformation of Bauhaus weeks afterwards.
Lift bring a blend of styles to the table, very much a return to the electronica of the maligned Hot Trip To Heaven but more guitar-aligned. Highlights include the Bauhaus-sampling Resurrection Hex and the funky Holy Fool. It's far from an album for newcomers or for non-converts, but existing fans should find something to enjoy here. If they can even get hold of a copy, that is; it's rare to see these days, not currently available on any streaming or download services, and long overdue for a re-release.
5 Albums (2013) ****
By no means a complete Love And Rockets collection – it only contains the first four of the band's seven albums - though you do get most of the best of their work (to my mind their first two albums Seventh Dream Of Teenage Heaven and Express, and their sixth Sweet FA, which isn't included in this set). I won't go into the first four discs in depth, which contain the band's first four albums with bonus tracks, since I've done so above. Collectors and existing fans will be far more interested in the fifth disc (which has also been released separately - on download at least - under the title Assorted!), an odds-and-ends collection taken mostly from the mid-part of the band's recording career. I'm at a loss as to why these tracks couldn't have been appended to the Earth Sun Moon and Love And Rockets albums as bonuses and had to be a disc all to themselves, but there you have it.
First up we have the excellent 1988 re-recording of Earth Sun Moon opener Mirror People, which I've always preferred to the original. This is followed by the unreleased-at-the-time Swing! EP, which is a mixed bag all in all. The David J contributions - Cuckoo Land, The Early Worm, and Bad Monkey - are somewhat lightweight both lyrically and musically. Daniel Ash's songs fare better, especially Wake Up, which I remember hearing live as early as 1988 and which it's nice to finally have a studio recording of. 1000 Watts Of Your Love, a version of which previously appeared on the B-side to the No Big Deal single, is good too, as is Sorted, featuring David J on lead vocals and the source of which eludes me. David Lanfair, B-side to the Mirror People single, is worth having only for the sake of completeness.
Next up are a selection of live tracks from The Bren Centre, Irving, California, December 1987, the bulk of which were originally released as B-sides to Earth Sun Moon-era singles. They're great to hear but unessential. Recording quality is adequate though not the best.
The disc finishes with the four tracks from The Bubblemen EP from 1988, which were terrible when released and are still terrible today. If you've ever been curious what Love And Rockets rapping would sound like, wonder no more. It's every bit as awful as you'd imagine, and I only hope the drugs the band were blatantly on at the time were worth it.
My Dark Twin (2023) ****
Well this came completely out of the blue. It's known that Love And Rockets lost months of work on their sixth album Sweet FA when they were caught in a studio fire, and had to begin recording again from scratch. My Dark Twin, a collection of eleven unreleased songs and nine alternate versions from those sessions, gives us a glimpse of what almost was, and since Sweet FA is one of my favourite Love And Rockets albums I've been looking forward to hearing it.
The alternate versions, though nice to listen to, for the most part aren't that different to their final album counterparts it has to be said. Of more interest are the unreleased songs. Though few are quite as strong as the tracks which made the final Sweet FA listing, fans will definitely want to hear them, since they effectively comprise the equivalent of an entire unreleased Love And Rockets album, and My Dark Twin is worth buying for that reason alone. On the downside, also featured here at the end of the first disc are two very lengthy (seventeen and fifteen minute) and noodling jams, which I really can't see myself listening to more than once, and I wonder why the band even thought to include them. They really do let the overall quality down, and My Dark Twin makes for a much better album without them.
And by way of a few extras...
The Love And Rockets guys have released a lot of music, under numerous different identities. Here are some favoured or more interesting ones.
5 Albums – Bauhaus (1979-1983) *****
Perhaps it's a cheat for me not to look at each Bauhaus album individually, but this article is about Love And Rockets, and the 5 Albums collection has (almost) all you need.
It's very difficult to say which of Bauhaus' albums is the best; all have their merits, and all are worth owning and listening to (I even like the reunion album Go Away White, though admit that one can be an acquired taste). This release collects their initial four studio albums, In The Flat Field, Mask, The Sky's Gone Out, and Burning From The Inside, together with an extras disc. Though the music itself is five-star-superb, I almost knocked off a point because for some unexplainable reason these discs don't contain the numerous bonus tracks (non-album singles, B-sides etc) you get when buying the albums individually. The extras disc does in part make up for that, but there are still a number of omissions (and even more frustratingly there are three tracks - the plodding Spirit In The Sky cover, the unreleased-at-the-time Poison Pen, and the B-side Paranoia Paranoia - that can be found here but not on the individual disc editions). The completionist fan will want to buy the albums separately, but if you're just after the music without all the frills, this is the edition to go for.
Everything – Tones On Tail (1982-1984) *****
The extended Bauhaus family tree, with its many off-shoots, can be bewildering to the newcomer. Everybody knows Love And Rockets, and Peter Murphy's solo career, but there are some other delightful and unsung diversions lurking there to those who take the time to fully explore the rest. One of my favourites was always the much-under-looked Tones On Tail, fronted by Bauhaus guitarist Daniel Ash and also featuring Bauhaus drummer Kevin Haskins and former Bauhaus roadie Glen Campling. They only released one album, Pop, in 1984, along with an assortment of singles and EPs, and effectively disbanded once Ash and Haskins formed Love And Rockets with David J. Everything collects - appropriately - all Tones On Tail recordings. The singles and EPs, here featured on disc two, can be hit and miss, but the Pop album - which comprises the whole of disc one - is wonderful, and deserves to be listened to in its entirety. 'Weird pop', as Ash sings on Movement Of Fear, a barbed take on Peter Murphy (who would later return the favour on The Answer Is Clear from his first solo album). Fans of Bauhaus, and Love And Rockets, are really doing themselves a disservice by not checking this one out.
Coming Down – Daniel Ash (1990) *****
Following the US chart success of a #3 single and bestselling album, what would most bands do? Capitalise on it with a swift hits-laden follow-up. What did Daniel Ash's band Love And Rockets do? Take a five-year break to work on obscure solo projects before returning with an album that sounded like an entirely different group. It's almost as if they didn't want to be the mega-selling and adored rock stars America was clearly begging them to be.
During that interval Ash and fellow-Love And Rockets front-man (for the band had two) David J each released a pair of solo albums; Coming Down and Foolish Thing Desire in the case of Ash, and Songs From Another Season and Urban Urbane for J. Coming Down is definitely the strongest of the four, and probably the best thing Ash has done since Love And Rockets' Express.
It's a mostly laid-back album, with a spectral and nocturnal air to it, one to listen to late at night with the lights low. There are some rockers - for example Coming Down Fast, or This Love - but they are in the minority. Most tracks are slow and slinky and bass-heavy, with Ash's understated guitar overlaid. One track even has a gentle salsa vibe. There are three covers - Me And My Shadow, a fragmentary Blue Moon, and The Beatles' Day Tripper. Ash writes the rest. Natacha Atlas guests on vocals on a couple of tracks, Kevin Haskins adds percussion and keyboards, and Ash plays everything else. It's quite a leap from Love And Rockets though not too far, and if anything reminds me more of Tones On Tail in its mood and playfulness. Fans of both will enjoy it.
Daniel Ash – Daniel Ash (2002) ****
Almost an excellent album, and almost one of Daniel Ash's best.
Why almost? I've always preferred the guitar and song-based Daniel Ash over the electronic one, but from listening to this album I don't think he agrees with me. My favourite tracks on here, the ghostly cover of Spooky and the slow-burning Chelsea, were the first I heard, and they set a template which I wish the rest of the album followed. To an extent it does, but there's also a bit too much electronic noodling for my tastes. I don't mind electronic Ash, but here it gets a bit relentless. I sometimes wish he'd just turn off the sampler and sequencer, pick up his guitar, step up to the mic, and do what he does best. He's an excellent and much-underrated guitarist, one of the greatest to come out of the post-punk era, and a distinctive vocalist, but this isn't the album for showing off either. That may just be me of course, and your mileage may vary.
Poptone - Poptone (2018) ****
Poptone comprises Daniel Ash on guitar and vocals, Kevin Haskins on drums, and Haskins' daughter Diva Dompé on bass. Effectively their own covers band, their live sets and sole album consists of versions of Love And Rockets, Bauhaus and Tones On Tail songs, all bands of which Ash and Haskins are former members. They're more a nostalgia act than anything, and do well enough on the live circuit, particularly in America where Love And Rockets and Tones On Tail always were more popular anyway. None of the tracks on their self-titled debut album - four from Love And Rockets, seven from Tones On Tail, one from Bauhaus - are much-different to the originals, which is a shame in a way as there's plenty of space for radical reinterpretation here, but perhaps that's the point. Just enjoy them for what they are and don't ask too many questions; they're clearly having fun with it. Only on the album opener, a cover of Heartbreak Hotel, do they truly step outside their comfort zone.
As previously announced, my latest spoken-word-with-music album Becoming Akhenaten is now available as a pay-what-you-want download here.
Text, voice, music, all by me. Recorded May 2022, final mix June 2023.
My next release, the spoken-with-music album Becoming Akhenaten, lands this coming Friday, 16 June 2023. I know I've been promising this one for a while, and here it finally is. I'll post the link shortly, and give it its own dedicated page. It'll be a free or pay what you want download.
The first of a series of lists of DF's favourite things, from music to books to films and beyond. All will also be collected on the links page.
And: Marc Almond * Aeon Sable * The Angels Of Light * Bauhaus * The Black Angels * Black Mountain * David Bowie * Leonard Cohen * The Cramps * Goldfrapp * Inkubus Sukkubus * Ladytron * Marc And The Mambas * Massive Attack * Mazzy Star * Placebo * The Psychedelic Furs * Siouxsie And The Banshees * Soft Cell * Suede * System Of A Down * Tricky * Underworld * VNV Nation * Tom Waits * Akira Yamaoka * The Young Gods *
The third and final part of my retrospective look at the music of Marc Almond.
Stranger Things (2001) ***
Marc Almond is the kind of guy the term 'national treasure' was coined for, but I find that some of his later albums can be hit and miss affairs. I've given Stranger Things more than a dozen listens through, and few of its tracks stand out for me. Sometimes this can be a good thing, and denotes an album for sustained and deeper listening rather than one for just dipping into, though I fear that won't prove to be the case here. The vocals are fine as ever and the musical backing does the job, but the songs just come and go with few enticing me or lingering in my memory. I will listen to it further before giving up on it. Either something will suddenly click into place and the album will open up for me, or I won't much care to hear it again. I really can't say yet which way it will go.
Cruelty Without Beauty (2002) ****
I have no problem in theory with bands reforming after years apart and recording new material - Suede and Bauhaus are two of the more notable ones that come to mind who have made it work - but it often doesn't end satisfactorily in practice. The two new tracks on yet-another-compilation album* The Very Best Of Soft Cell from 2002 showed great promise, but I find Soft Cell's comeback proper Cruelty Without Beauty, also released in 2002, to be a mixed affair, sometimes unremarkable musically yet redeemed by some often excellent and acerbic observational lyrics. It pales in comparison to their eighties releases, but fans will still find much to enjoy in this new and grown-up version of the band.
*There are now far more Soft Cell best-of collections than there are actual studio albums to compile them from.
Heart On Snow (2003) *****
For the last month or so I've been working my way through the albums in Marc Almond's sprawling back catalogue I'm not familiar with in a non-linear fashion, picking up each in whatever order appeals to me at the time, and this was one of the last I listened to. I'd been putting it off, truth be told, but I now wish I hadn't. It's probably his best since 1993's Absinthe and has swiftly become my favourite Almond album of the 00s, albeit I can see that it's an acquired taste and perhaps not for everybody. If you're only a fan of Almond's more commercial albums like Enchanted or The Stars We Are or Tenement Symphony, you might want to steer clear of this one.
For those not afraid to take a dive into more experimental waters, what do we have here exactly? In 2000 Marc Almond relocated from London to Moscow, renting an apartment there and intending to further explore the Russian folk and romance and torch song scene he'd previously encountered a decade prior while touring the country. Three years later Heart On Snow was the result, a collaboration between Almond and numerous and varied traditional and popular Russian musicians. All songs are translated into English - and indeed many had never been sung in English before this album - and the musical accompaniment stays just the right side of traditional and folky with a contemporary sheen. Almond's vocals are uniformly excellent throughout.
It should perhaps be said that Heart On Snow is unlike anything else in Almond's discography aside from the later Orpheus In Exile from 2009, which is very much a companion- or sister-album; the only other comparison I can find is with the aforementioned Absinthe, when Almond attempted something similar with French song. If you're unfamiliar with or dislike Orpheus In Exile or Absinthe, you might want to stream this one before taking the plunge and buying it as it may not be for you.
Stardom Road (2007) ***
An album comprised almost entirely of covers of fifties and sixties songs, featuring songs originally by the likes of Dusty Springfield, Frank Sinatra, David Bowie, Charles Aznavour, Roberta Flack, Gene Pitney, and Bobby Darin. Sarah Cracknell, Anohoni of Antony And The Johnsons, Kiki Dee, and Jools Holland guest. The lose theme is an abstract telling of Almond's career and life through songs that had been significant to him. I wouldn't say it's a bad album, per se, but I find it all a little insipid compared to Almond at his peak. His voice is as fine as ever, the musicianship accomplished, but I'm not sure how well either suits the material. Your mileage may vary.
Orpheus In Exile (2009) ****
Very much a sequel and companion album to 2003's Heart On Snow, once again featuring Russian popular songs translated into English and sung by Almond to an accompaniment by Russian traditional and folk musicians. The album was released as a tribute to Russian singer Vadim Koin, a gay icon and dissident who had been exiled to a gulag in the Arctic Circle for his refusal to honour Joseph Stalin.
I don't find it as effective as Heart On Snow, which is my favourite of Almond's 00s albums, and don't like it quite as much as I feel I should, but I'm not entirely sure why. On paper everything works, but in practice it lacks the grandeur and scope of Heart On Snow, and the song-choice doesn't feel as strong this time round. If you liked Heart On Snow though, you'll like this one too. If you didn't, this album won't convince you.
Varieté (2010) ****
Marc Almond's first album of original songs in nine years sees him indulge a music hall and cabaret interest in places. One can easily picture him on the stage of a smoky Victorian theatre in limelight and greasepaint, delivering some of these tracks to a rowdy auditorium, and the mostly rudimentary instrumentation and arrangements aid in that immeasurably. If that sounds like your bag then by all means give Varieté a listen, but it's not particularly mine (says the guy whose favourite Almond solo album is Mother Fist).
That said, not every song here is in that vein, and many are more traditional Almond fare. However this schism in the album's disparate styles works against it in my view, with the tracks interspersed throughout when it would perhaps have been better if the album were either one or the other, or if the songs in the two styles were grouped together. As it is, it feels somewhat chaotic and jarring. Amongst it all there are some strong tracks - for example the gorgeous Lavender (by far the best thing here), or The Exhibitionist, or My Madness And I - but not enough to hold the whole together as an album. By all means check Varieté out if you're an Almond aficionado, but it's not one of his strongest collections of original material to this writer's (and long-term fan's) ears.
Soho Songs For Piccadilly Bongo (2010) *****
Marc Almond is often at his best when keeping things simple, stripping the musical accompaniment down to the basics and allowing his voice and songs to shine. Soho Songs For Piccadilly Bongo gathers seven of Almond's Soho-themed tunes from his back catalogue into one set of entirely new recordings, including one Soft Cell song (Seedy Films) and three from Marc And The Mambas (Fun City, Sleaze, and Twilights And Lowlifes). Instrumentation is bare and unadorned throughout (or even entirely absent in the case of the acappella Eros And Eye), primarily just acoustic guitar and with occasional brief though unobtrusive flourishes of electric guitar, harmonica, or percussion. Even though I already knew most of these songs inside out, this release brings them to life in an entirely fresh and rather fantastic way. There are even some - in particular Twilights And Lowlifes, and Soho So Long - that I've never been a fan of in the past, but now have a newfound love for. Soho Songs really is something special in my view, and the best thing I've heard from Marc Almond in a good while.
Feasting With Panthers (2011) *****
A collaboration between Marc Almond and Michael Cashmore, better known for his work with Current 93 and Nature And Organisation, featuring the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud, Jean Genet, Paul Verlaine, Gerard de Nerval, Count Eric Stenbock, and Jean Cocteau, all in translation and sung by Almond to Cashmore's delicate musical backdrops of mostly acoustic guitar, sometimes piano, with occasional percussion or electric guitar. It was recorded over several years, with both men in separate countries and sending music and voice files to each other, not that you'd notice.
Released mostly to indifference, Feasting With Panthers didn't chart at all, and it remains one of Almond's most under-looked albums, wistful and fragile-sounding and somewhat decadent. You won't find anything approaching a hit single here, so if commercial pop Almond is your thing you might want to look elsewhere. Others will find a great deal to savour and to delight in.
The Tyburn Tree (2014) ****
A song-cycle with lyrics mostly by Almond and music by John Harle, exploring London's dark and macabre and criminal history. The musical backing is varied, ranging from electronic to classical to acoustic to ambient, and matches the material perfectly, and Almond's vocals are as on point as ever. Famed soprano Sarah Leonard also appears in places, and pychogeographical author Iain Sinclair guests on voice on one track.
With the absence of anything resembling a single, and some tracks that couldn't even be considered songs, The Tyburn Tree definitely falls on the more experimental side of the Almond spectrum. Like the not-dissimilar (though in my view inferior) Ten Plagues, it does require attention and focus, and is far from a casual listen, though makes for a dramatic and rewarding experience for those willing to take the time to engage with it.
The Dancing Marquis (2014) ****
The Dancing Marquis collects tracks from some singles - the 7" vinyl EPs Burning Bright and Tasmanian Tiger - along with a couple of bonus songs exclusive to this album release. The opening title track The Dancing Marquis is strong indeed, but things go downhill from there (albeit Burning Bright and Worship Me Now demonstrate great promise) and don't fully pick up again until penultimate track So What's Tonight? The excellent finale Idiot Dancing is even better, but by then it's all a bit too late to redeem it as an album. In the interim guest vocalists and musicians come and go, including Jarvis Cocker and Carl Barat. Legendary David Bowie collaborator Tony Visconti even stops by to produce a couple of songs. Two pointless remixes of Worship Me Now round off proceedings.
Ten Plagues (2014) ****
Ten Plagues is a song cycle for voice and piano concerning the 1665 Great Plague of London, written by Mark Ravenhill (words) and Conor Mitchell (music) especially for Almond. It was performed at The Edinburgh Festival in 2011 and elsewhere before being recorded. Other Almond releases of voice and piano have been great (for example Violent Silence, or Against Nature, both much-recommended) but I'm less convinced by this one. It's a difficult album to review, or even form an opinion of, and I deliberated for a good while as to what to give it in the way of a score. It isn't the sort of album one can just stick on and listen to in the background. It requires attention. It requires focus. It needs to be heard in its entirety in one sitting, and isn't something one can savour selected tracks from. Though I like it, and it's impeccably composed and performed, I can't imagine listening to it again very much. It's a curio, an album to be appreciated rather than enjoyed.
The Velvet Trail (2015) ***
The Velvet Trail was Marc Almond's first full album of original songs since 2010's Varieté, and written in collaboration with Chris Braide. The remit for the new project, according to Braide, was to create 'the ultimate Marc Almond album', a curious choice of wording in this author's view when the ultimate Marc Almond album has already been made numerous times over, in the form of - to give but a couple of examples - Mother Fist And Her Five Daughters, or Stories Of Johnny. Even Against Nature, released a mere six months after The Velvet Trail, is more an 'ultimate Marc Almond album', albeit more experimental in style.
So what do we have here exactly? Sixteen new tracks (of which four are brief instrumentals) all composed by Almond and Braide, with all lyrics by Almond. The musical accompaniment is to-the-point and unobtrusive, just guitars and programmed drums and strings for the most part, and Almond's voice is strong. Unfortunately I can't say that I find many of the songs particularly catchy or memorable, and that's ultimately where the album falls down for me. It all feels somewhat by the numbers, and there's little here that Almond hasn't written better before. He can be an excellent songwriter and lyricist, one of the best and most underrated of his generation, but I find much of what's on offer on The Velvet Trail to be weak and unfocused compared to Almond at the top of his game. There are some highlights - which for me would include Bad To Me, Demon Lover, Scar, and Life In My Own Way - but they feel too few and far between. I do seem to be in a minority with this album though, with many fans considering it a highlight of Almond's career, so by all means give it a listen and make up your own mind.
Against Nature (2015) *****
One of my favourites of Almond's more recent releases, Against Nature is a stripped-down affair, just voice and piano and occasional strings. All words are by Almond and poet Jeremy Reed, with music by Almond and pianist Othon. The album is titled and styled after the book by Joris-Karl Huysmans, which Almond has described as 'still probably one of the most decadent books ever written.' Tense and dramatic, Against Nature definitely falls on the more experimental side of Almond's discography; if you're only into his poppy and commercial aspect it won't be for you, but others not afraid to dive deeper will find much to enjoy here.
Silver City Ride (2016) *****
As a long-term Marc Almond and Soft Cell fan, I can't say that either of Soft Cell's comebacks, Cruelty Without Beauty (2002) and *Happiness Not Included (2022), are amongst my favourites; see my commentaries elsewhere on this page. If you're looking for a contemporary return to Almond's synth pop roots, this album may be more to your liking. It's also definitely one of the most obscure of Almond's recent efforts. It's a shame it was put out under the name Starcluster & Marc Almond, and not simply as a Marc Almond solo release; it would likely have fared better commercially.
This author is unfamiliar Starcluster outside of this album aside from seeing their name on a remix here and there and knowing they are an Anglo-German duo comprising Roland Faber and Kai Ludeling, but they craft the perfect synth backdrops for Almond's vocals and lyrics, which are strong throughout, and all in all it sounds more like Soft Cell than Soft Cell do these days. Highlights for me would include the title track, Pixelated, The City Cries, Smoke And Mirrors, To Have And Have Not, and I Don't Kiss, but the whole album makes for a satisfying listen.
Trials Of Eyeliner: Anthology 1979-2016 (2016) *****
As a rule (and with the exception of A Virgin's Tale and Treasure Box, both featured in part two, and Little Rough Rhinestones and Keychains And Snowstorms, which are up shortly) I've avoided including compilation albums in this retrospective but this one is notable, a ten-disc collection compiled by Almond himself and spanning his entire career, from the Soft Cell and Marc And The Mambas days and through his solo years up to 2016. Though many of the tracks are easily available on other releases, and it inevitably includes all the same hits as every other Almond and Soft Cell compilation, there are also some rarities and exclusives, making it the perfect release (unless you're the sort that has to have a physical copy of everything you buy) to selectively download the tracks you don't have from and forget about the rest, which is precisely what I did with it. There are a fair few songs unearthed from the vaults here that I'd never heard before. I won't list them all, but they'll jump out at any fan browsing the track listing.
I do sometimes wonder who these kinds of multi-disc releases are aimed at exactly. They're not the sort of thing a casual listener would pick up if not familiar with the artist, and dedicated fans will already have the vast majority of what's included, meaning they're shelling out a large sum for a relatively small number of tracks. Much better would be to just release all the rare stuff on one disc, but I guess there's far less money in it for the record label that way. No, instead let's fleece the fanbase again. Thank heaven for single track downloads, I say.
As for my rating, I've begrudgingly given it a five purely for the quality of the music on offer. If I were taking into account the business practices behind its release as detailed in the previous paragraph, I'd probably go for a three.
Shadows And Reflections (2017) ***
A covers album very much in the vein of the earlier Stardom Road from 2007. The musicianship and vocals are all in fine form, but like Stardom Road I find the song choice to be somewhat middling. I'd even go as far as to call the whole thing 'easy listening'. Maybe it's just me, but I much prefer Almond when he's interpreting for example obscure European poetry and song than when he's tackling fifties or sixties pop. I find the source material a lot richer and more interesting, and the results more fruitful and more rewarding to listen to. That said, if it's a side of Almond's music you like - and the man does indeed have many strings to his bow - then you'll find something to enjoy here. It's just not for me.
Little Rough Rhinestones vols 1 & 2 (2017) ****
Named after a track on Soft Cell's third album This Last Night In Sodom, Little Rough Rhinestones is a demos, out-takes, and obscurities collection originally put out in two parts in 2002 via Marc Almond's website and later given a wider release as a single volume.
There are a few duds here it must be said, songs that likely weren't released first time round for a reason, and some tracks that have since been reissued elsewhere as bonuses on other albums, so it's one to selectively pick your way through and compile your own playlist from. That said, both volumes are now available as a single album download, and it's difficult to argue with thirty songs and two hours of music for less than the price of one CD.
Keychains And Snowstorms – The Soft Cell Story (2018) *****
Confusingly there are two Soft Cell releases named Keychains And Snowstorms (title taken from a lyric to early song Memorabilia), both released simultaneously and with similar cover designs. One is a single-disc, twenty-track collection featuring the same songs as the myriad other Soft Cell compilations out there for the most part. The other, which is the one that concerns us here, is a nine-disc plus DVD retrospective featuring numerous rare mixes and recordings. Though there's previously released material that most fans will already have, more than half of its 120-odd tracks have never been released before, including a complete gig from Los Angeles in 1983 originally intended as a live album but not put out at the time. It's pricey and hard to get hold of these days, but fans will want to track it down.
A Lovely Life To Live (2018) ***
I approached this release - which really isn't my sort of thing usually - purely as a long-term Marc Almond fan. I find that all of his albums contain at least something of interest to me, even the ones I don't particularly like, but this one did nothing for me at all. It's a collaboration between Almond and Jools Holland featuring a full band (Holland's Rhythm & Blues Orchestra), for a set comprised entirely of covers including the inevitable Tainted Love. The band is very much in a traditional blues/jazz vein, with Almond's vocals - usually dominant on his recordings – sometimes subsumed into the mix. It feels much more like a Jools Holland album than it does a Marc Almond one. It's thoroughly average to my ears, albeit accomplished and well-performed, and not my thing at all.
Chaos And A Dancing Star (2020) ****
Chaos And A Dancing Star is Marc Almond's second collaboration with musician and co-writer Chris Braide, following The Velvet Trail from 2015. I can't say I much enjoyed The Velvet Trail (see my commentary above), but this is better, if only because the songs are stronger.
That said, it's far from a cheerful affair. Many of the lyrics are somewhat bleak and apocalyptic, filled with loneliness and collapse and dust and black suns and chaos and stars burning out and ultimate fleeting insignificance; one song even has 'love's an apocalypse' as backing refrain to its 'when the stars are gone, who will sing our song?' chorus. This isn't a problem for me, but some might find it a rather depressing listen. Personal highlights amongst its tracks would probably be Black Sunrise, Cherry Tree, Fighting A War, and When The Stars Are Gone, but yours will likely vary; it's that kind of album.
If you enjoyed The Velvet Trail, you'll likely enjoy Chaos And A Dancing Star too since it is very similar in style. If you didn't, I'd say it still warrants investigation, being the better album of the pair. That said, I know many Almond fans disagree with me, and find The Velvet Trail preferable; he ever was the sort of artist to provoke diverse and divisive reactions.
*Happiness Not Included (2022) ***
I was in two minds about Soft Cell's 2002 reunion album Cruelty Without Beauty, finding some pleasure in it yet considering it a shadow of the wonders of their early eighties days.
*Happiness Not Included (and yes, the asterisk is part of the title and not a typo) is more of the same but duller, and largely bereft of memorable tunes or noteworthy lyrics to my ears at least. After nigh on a dozen listens, few of its tracks do much at all for me. And did anybody really need or ask for a Soft Cell/Pet Shop Boys collaboration?
Things We Lost (2022) ****
Effectively a six-track studio EP massively expanded to a three-disc release by the addition of thirty-seven live tracks recorded at The Royal Festival Hall in London. The studio tracks are fine, albeit mostly not essential, and the live songs - a mix of hits and more obscure album numbers from throughout Almond's career - do the job. It's worth having to complete the collection, but not one of Almond's more vital releases aside from penultimate studio track A Flowered Goodbye, which is my favourite new song of Almond's I've heard for a while and probably better than anything off of his last solo release. Whether you consider an album worth picking up purely on the strength of one song is up to you, but the rest definitely has its merits too. Your call.
Paperback copies of my novel She Waits By The Water are now available direct from me (signed if you wish) for UK readers. I've specified UK here only due to the extortionate cost of sending books overseas; if you're non-UK and specifically want one from me, message me letting me know where you are and I'll calculate postage.
Price is £12 including postage. I've tried to keep this as low as I can but the cost of posting books these days is absurd. Payment is by Paypal to email@example.com Email me also at firstname.lastname@example.org to flag your order with me so I know to dispatch your book.
Non-UK readers may prefer to order it direct from the publisher at https://www.aospublishing.com/francis or even (shudder) Amazon or the like.
More info on the book can be found on my website at https://darrenfrancis.co.uk/she-waits-by-the-water
Part two of my retrospective look at the music of Marc Almond, covering the nineties. Scroll down for part one; part three to follow.
Enchanted (1990) ****
Marc Almond's first album of the nineties and first since the #1 hit he attained with the Gene Pitney duet Something's Gotten Hold Of My Heart saw him maintain the distinctly pop trajectory of previous Parlophone album The Stars We Are. That said, Enchanted is a very different-sounding album to its predecessor, and in my view a better one. Production and accompaniment are less lush and orchestrated, cleaner and more electronic, and the songs are stronger for the most part too. The singles The Desperate Hours, A Lover Spurned, and Waifs And Strays still stand up, and the remainder of the tracks are deserving of a listen too for the most part, albeit there is some inevitable filler (for example Toreador In The Rain, or Widows Weeds). Personal favourites amongst the remainder would be Madame De La Luna, The Sea Still Sings, and Orpheus In Red Velvet. The cover art by Pierre et Gilles is a delight too (and is Almond's personal favourite of his album covers). If you favour the more commercial and poppy side to Marc Almond's music, Enchanted definitely warrants exploration.
Tenement Symphony (1991) ***
Probably Marc Almond's most overtly poppy and commercial solo album (despite only reaching #39 in the UK chart following its release in October 1991), and a mixed bag in all.
Tenement Symphony can be divided into two halves, which formed sides one and two of the original vinyl release and are subtitled 'Grit' and 'Glitter' respectively. The first, produced by Almond, Billy McGee, Nigel Hine, and The Grid (featuring Almond's old Soft Cell band-mate Dave Ball), is stronger in my view, song-wise, though the second, produced by Trevor Horn, is where the singles Jacky and My Hand On My Heart and The Days Of Pearly Spencer (Almond's last top ten chart hit to date, reaching #4) can be found. The whole affair may be a simple case of 'too many cooks' for me. Marc Almond is frequently at his best when keeping things simple. An excess of production and accompaniment - with credits listing more than twenty-five musicians alongside the five producers - may have over-egged things somewhat. Almond himself has also expressed some dissatisfaction, saying that the album didn't reflect the artistic direction in which he wanted to be moving at the time. That said, if you favour the more mainstream pop side to his music, you'll no doubt find some enjoyment here.
A Virgin's Tale (1992) *****
B-sides collections tend to be hit and miss affairs. Song quality is key, and since so many bands and artists seems content to reserve B-side status for their weaker or more self-indulgent compositions, collecting them all in one place seldom makes for a satisfying sustained listen. That (largely) isn't the case with A Virgin's Tale. Song calibre is - some throwaway moments aside - high, and many of these tracks have never appeared on CD before. Also in the album's favour, for me at least, is that it solely covers the period Almond was signed to Virgin Records - hence the album's title - which is probably my favourite of his solo eras. Since I tended not to religiously collect all of Almond's singles back then, there's much here that I've never heard before, and it still sounds good nearly forty years on, having barely dated at all production- or arrangement-wise.
What else features apart from the B-sides? You get (most of) the A Woman's Story EP from 1986 for a start, though inexplicably - and inexcusably - the excellent title track from that EP doesn't appear, an omission so glaring that I very nearly knocked off a point from my score because of it. Running time can't be the reason, since several (though by no means all) alternate versions or remixes of single A-sides do appear, though personally I can take or leave those. I also remember occasional multi-artist compilation appearances and other tracks from the period - one called Oily Black Limousine springs immediately to mind - that should probably have been included here too for the sake of completeness but aren't, though A Virgin's Tale would likely need to stretch to three volumes to exhaustively collect everything.
If you're a fan of Almond's early solo era, this is an essential purchase, and the perfect accompaniment to the studio albums. If you're a recent explorer of his vast catalogue, those first albums - Vermin In Ermine, Stories Of Johnny, and Mother Fist And Her Five Daughters - also come recommended, being the cornerstone of his solo career and containing some fantastic song-writing. Buy them all, then both volumes of A Virgin's Tale. Even better, buy the digital download, which gives you both volumes for less than the price of a single CD.
Absinthe (1993) *****
In some ways a companion to Jacques, Marc Almond's 1989 album of Brel covers, Absinthe sees Almond interpret French pop songs and poems newly translated into English for him by Paul Buck. I don't know any of the originals but maybe that's a good thing, allowing me to come to them entirely new and without any preconceptions.
It has to be said that Absinthe is something of a grower, and took me two or three listens to get into. Opening track the extravagant Undress Me is probably the weakest here, but don't let that put you off. Skip it on a first listen and go straight to track two, which is much better, and the rest of the album is consistently good. Instrumentation is unadorned and to the point, largely piano and strings and sometimes drums or brass or guitar. It does the job without getting in the way, allowing Almond's voice to dominate.
That this album came out so soon after Enchanted and Tenement Symphony, probably the two most commercial releases of Marc Almond's entire career, is one of the many things I love about him. He's never been afraid to follow his instincts and go off in whatever artistic direction seems right to him at the time. If you favour this side of Almond's music as opposed to his more poppy aspect, by all means give Absinthe a listen. It's probably one of the least-known albums in his extensive discography, and thirty years later is ripe for reinvestigation.
Treasure Box (1995) ***
An odds-and-ends collection from Marc Almond's short-lived period signed to Parlophone between 1988 and 1990 which saw him release two of his most commercial albums, The Stars We Are and Enchanted. All the tracks on Treasure Box also feature on the expanded versions of those albums, so if you own those you'll already have them. This is written for those who don't, and are approaching Treasure Box on its own terms.
What exactly do you get here? Ten remixes, five demos, and ten B-sides spread over two discs. I can take or leave the remixes, and can't say that any of them are an improvement over the original versions. The demos - all of tracks from Enchanted - are good to hear though, presenting those songs in a more primitive and less ornamented form. And the B-sides? The majority of them are filler to be honest. Only two, Real Evil and Old Jack's Charm, rise above being average. All of which raises the question; is Treasure Box worth buying? If you're a fan of The Stars We Are and Enchanted, only have the single-disc versions of those albums, and are looking for more music in that vein you might want to take a punt. Everybody else can probably skip it without feeling as if they're missing out on anything.
Fantastic Star (1996) ****
The climax of Marc Almond's most commercial solo period from the late eighties to the mid-nineties, and the least-selling and least-known of those albums, charting at a mere #54 upon release in February 1996. The highest-charting of its four singles, Adored And Explored, reached #24, with the lowest, the double A-side Brilliant Creatures/Out There, barely scraping the charts at all at #76. The album's creation was a tangled one over several years, with work begun in the UK under one record label and producer, later resumed in New York with a different producer, and finalised in London for another label entirely and with a third producer still. Much was recorded that hit the cutting room floor, and the finished album perhaps reflects its convoluted process. Notable guest collaborators along the way included Martyn Ware of Heaven 17, the iconic and ever-underrated John Cale, David Johansen of The New York Dolls, famed session guitarist Chris Spedding, and Neal X of Sigue Sigue Sputnik. Almond was also wrestling with a prescription pill addiction at the time, for which he took a break from recording sessions to enter rehab.
All that taken into consideration, Fantastic Star is a better album than you might expect. It's also one of Almond's longest studio albums, clocking in at more than 76 minutes spread over sixteen songs. The sleek and polished pop of The Stars We Are, Enchanted, or Tenement Symphony is mostly absent, to be replaced by a more layered and complex yet still largely mainstream sound. Personal favourites amongst its songs include The Idol, Baby Night Eyes, Adored And Explored, Love To Die For, Betrayed, and Come In Sweet Assassin. It's not a displeasing album to listen to at all, and should have fared better commercially than it did. Its extended creation process taken into account, an expanded version with unreleased takes and tracks is long-overdue.
Open All Night (1999) ****
For me, Marc Almond's creative peak will always be the run of releases from the first Soft Cell album through the Marc And The Mambas period to the solo albums for Virgin, i.e. 1981 to 1987. I seem to be largely alone in holding the view that 1988's The Stars We Are marked not a new high but the beginning of a decline (see my review of this album elsewhere on this site). Open All Night came as a pleasant surprise, though I have to confess it took several plays for it to properly open itself up. It can be hit and miss as an overall listening experience, and I'm still undecided how well it holds together as an album, though there's plenty to enjoy here. Highlights include the slinky nocturnal pop of Night And Dark or Almost Diamonds, the title track Open All Night itself, the dramatic The Beautiful Light Of Madness (which features of all things a drum and bass break), the Siouxsie Sioux collaboration Threat Of Love, the Soft Cell-tinged One Big Soul, the spectral Half World or Sleepwalker, and, in Black Kiss, Almond's best commercial single for years.
That said, it's not all good. For a two-disc set (three in the expanded edition), there's inevitably some filler - for example the bland When Bad People Kiss, the lightweight blues of My Love, the by-the-numbers Tale Of A Tart (Hell), or the throwaway Lonely Go Go Dancer. The demos included are nice to hear I guess, though don't differ drastically to the finished drafts, and I doubt I'll listen to them more than once. There are also, alas, a couple of tracks that are just awful. My Porno Star, I'm looking at you specifically. I can't decide if this song is trying to be funny or ironic or playful. It's none of those things. It's just dreadful. Thankfully it's relegated to the second disc of supporting material and doesn't form part of the main track listing, and can thus be safely ignored.
An album worth taking your time with and getting to know then, if you're a fan, though one to dip into rather than immerse yourself in. It's hardly Almond at the top of his game (that would be the aforementioned 1981 to 1987), and not recommended for newcomers as a place to start, though aficionados will find much to enjoy.