Public Service Broadcasting – The Race For Space

The Race For SpaceA concept band tackling a concept album, Public Service Broadcasting applies its quirky style (mixing amazing musical proficiency with clips and samples from vintage public information films) to a singular topic: the technological sprint that took humanity from Sputnik to Tranquility Base in just over a decade. Individual tracks are devoted to everything from the earliest spacewalks to Valentina Tereshkova to the Apollo 1 fire.

The technical and musical highlight of The Race For Space is “Go!”, a rapid-fire piece built around the machine-gun pacing of the Apollo 11 flight director getting go/no-go reports from his room full of controllers. The result is that these rocket technicians are basically rapping over a piece of music built around their responses (which have been only slightly edited to keep a steady tempo). “E.V.A.”, “The Other Side” and “Gagarin” are upbeat numbers that combine vintage sound clips with musical virtuosity.

The most haunting piece is “Fire In The Cockpit”, which PSB has vowed never to play live out of respect to the Apollo 1 crew. The title track is a little bit on the ponderous side – I think that it’s a given that 3 out of 4Kennedy’s public urge for NASA to reach for the moon was a monumental moment, so piling a choir on top of that comes very close to over-egging the pudding.

It’s a neat history lesson, and one to which you can tap your toes or play a little air guitar. Public Service Broadcasting has carved out a fascinating little niche for itself, and I’m curious as to what they’ll do next after the remix album built around The Race For Space, due very soon.

Order this CD

  1. The Race For Space (2:39)
  2. Sputnik (7:09)
  3. Gagarin (3:48)
  4. Fire In The Cockpit (3:01)
  5. E.V.A. (4:15)
  6. The Other Side (6:19)
  7. Valentina (4:29)
  8. Go! (4:12)
  9. Tomorrow (7:22)

Released by: Test Card Recordings
Release date: February 23, 2015
Total running time: 43:14

Jeff Lynne’s ELO – Alone In The Universe

Alone In The Universe15 years after his last album that took 15 years to arrive, Jeff Lynne is back, once again operating under the ELO banner, with an album that straddles his own tendencies toward classic rock and the trademark sound that his fans all but demand anytime he surfaces.

It’s not as if he’s been completely dormant during this time: an album of re-recorded-all-by-himself ELO covers, some of them fairly close to the sound of the originals, as well as an album of rock covers of classic hits and standards, done in Lynne’s trademark style. Armchair Theatre, his 1990 solo album, was reissued with bonus tracks. He’s also been producing albums for the likes of Joe Walsh and Bryan Adams, so it’s not as if he and his sound have gone completely underground.

But what has been missing is Jeff Lynne, writing new songs and performing and producing them himself. Long Wave and Mr. Blue Sky, nice as they were, were covers albums. Alone In The Universe is what Lynne/ELO fans have really been waiting for: new music from that familiar, laid-back voice. “When I Was A Boy” opens the album with languid nostalgia, perhaps as autobiographical a song as we’re ever likely to hear from Lynne, chronicling his childhood love of music that led to a life of writing and performing. There are hints of strings, all synthesized/sampled, though they’re kept far enough in the background that it doesn’t break the song.

“Love And Rain” picks up the tempo with a guitar groove reminiscent of “Showdown”‘s clavinet, while “Dirty To The Bone” bestows a cheerful sound upon some surprisingly biting (and occasionally silly) lyrics. What follows next is a one-two punch of two of the album’s best numbers, the mesmerizing “When The Night Comes” and the strangely relaxing and uplifting “The Sun Will Shine”. “When The Night Comes” takes some tried-and-true elements, such as a chorus that owes more than a little bit to the chorus of the Traveling Wilburys’ “Not Alone Any More”, and sets them to a beat that’s as close to reggae as Lynne’s ever likely to stray. “The Sun Will Shine” is a gently uplifting song with some of Lynne’s best lyrics in ages, with a soothing synth-and-guitar wash in the background. (In the electronic press kit interview for the album, Lynne says he wrote it to help a friend who was depressed; I can tell you that it does work in cheering up someone in dire straits.) “Ain’t It A Drag” is a delightfully cheery song about karma catching up with someone who’s done you wrong, while “All My Life” is a more plaintive, idealized love song, but a very pretty one.

“I’m Leaving You” sees Lynne going for the full Orbison, which is a gutsy thing to do because, as Bruce Springsteen himself once said, no one can sing like Roy Orbison. Still, this is a better approximation than most could manage. “One Step At A Time”, added at a late stage out of concern that the album didn’t have enough upbeat tracks, is a curious mix of a driving rhythm that wouldn’t have been out of place on Discovery, slathered with languid slide guitar that is simultaneously at odds with that rhythm and yet fits over it nicely. (And, for the first time in many years, it’s an ELO song with more cowbell!)

“Alone In The Universe” brings the album to a close in its intended configuration, Lynne’s ode to – of all things – space probe Voyager 1, outbound from the edge of the solar system, and it turns out to be the most ELO-ish song of the entire album, in both subject matter and presentation. Where Zoom might’ve left some fans thinking that it was an ELO album in name only, this album’s title track demonstrates that ELO is back in more than name only, even if it’s just Jeff Lynne in his studio. The sound of ELO is back as well.

Various deluxe versions of the album somewhat jarringly add anywhere from two to three extra songs after that perfect closure, from the country-rock of “Fault Line” (probably inspired by Lynne’s proximity to San Andreas), “Blue” (an addictively Wilbury-ish number), and the very ’80s-ish “On My Mind” (whose production touches include helicopters flying overhead for some reason).

4 out of 4Assembled as a musical package, Alone In The Universe is almost everything I’ve missed about ELO, tied up with a bow – this is why I still get excited to hear about Jeff Lynne heading into a studio, and why I hope he doesn’t keep taking off 15 years between albums.

Order this CD

  1. When I Was A Boy (3:12)
  2. Love And Rain (3:30)
  3. Dirty To The Bone (3:06)
  4. When The Night Comes (3:22)
  5. The Sun Will Shine On You (3:30)
  6. Ain’t It A Drag (2:36)
  7. All My Life (2:51)
  8. I’m Leaving You (3:08)
  9. One Step At A Time (3:21)
  10. Alone In The Universe (3:55)

    Bonus Tracks

  11. Fault Line (2:07)
  12. Blue (2:36)
  13. On My Mind (3:09)

Released by: Columbia
Release date: November 13, 2015
Total running time: 32:23 (standard edition/LP), 37:06 (deluxe CD/download), 40:23 (Japanese Blu-Spec CD)

Welcome Home, Hayabusa

Welcome Home, HayabusaHayabusa was a Japanese space probe that landed on and sampled asteroid Itokawa in 2011. This would be a stunning space feat for any country’s space agency, but Japan happened to get there first, and the surge of national pride for this technological accomplishment has spawned no fewer than three movies, ranging from documentaries to – in the case of Okaeri Hayabusa (Welcome Home, Hayabusa) – a fictionalized family drama with the mission as backdrop and framing story.

And who better to score a movie whose drama takes place around the launch and flight of one of Japan’s crowning space achievements? None other than the late, great Japanese synth pioneer Isao Tomita. Whether you realize it or not, Tomita’s connection with space exploration is lengthy – and almost purely coincidental. Tomita’s late ’70s synth reworking of Debussy’s “Arabesque No. 1” was appropriated by the Miami Planetarium to top and tail each installment of the planetarium’s long-running PBS series Star Hustler (later Star Gazer, after the realities of the search engine age caught up with the show and began directing young viewers toward a certain adult periodical with “hustler” in the title). Tomita’s music was synonymous with astronomer Jack Horkheimer’s exuberant weekly lessons on amateur astronomy from then on.

Tomita is an absolutely brilliant choice to score this film. Not only is his synthesizer work as crisp and inventive as ever, but he gives brilliant musical accompaniment to visualizations of data being transmitted to Earth from deep space, and uses appropriately icy synths to illustrate the bleak emptiness of space traversed by Hayabusa. There have been many musical odes to major space missions, and by fairly high 4 out of 4profile composers (Vangelis springs to mind), but Tomita’s translation of event to music makes this among the best. This soundtrack also steps outside the usual all-synth comfort zone with which Tomita is associated, allowing the composer to bring his classical training into play with real trumpet solos, woodwinds and strings augmenting his normally “icy” synthesizers with a warmer human touch.

The real tragedy is that Japan has launched Hayabusa 2 to dare even mightier things, and Tomita is no longer around to give that mission its own soundtrack.

Order this CD

  1. Challenge To The Universe (5:03)
  2. Engineer Crush (1:20)
  3. Dreaming Of The Flyby (1:21)
  4. Toward The Asteroid (3:30)
  5. Touchdown On Itokawa! (2:43)
  6. Recollection Of Naoko (1:34)
  7. The Fight Against Sickness (3:23)
  8. 1-Bit Communication / Connecting The Hope (3:19)
  9. Mother’s Joy / Surgery Success (1:49)
  10. Cross Operation? (1:52)
  11. Finally To Return (1:36)
  12. Tristan & Isolde / From Beyond The Galaxy (8:15)
  13. Hayabusa / Tristan & Isolde To The Future (5:47)

Released by: Shochiku Records
Release date: 2-29-2012
Total running time: 41:32

8-Bit Weapon – Disassembly Language: Ambient Music for Deprogramming, Vol. 1

Disassembly Language Vol. 1An interesting new experiment for 8 Bit Weapon, Disassembly Language returns the chiptune duo to its Commodore 64-centric SID-sound-chip roots, but trades in the usual punchy three-minute originals for epic-length new-age chiptune instrumentals. The effect is nothing short of hypnotic.

“Phase I: Lexical Analysis” opens with mesmerizingly looping sequences over a gentle, slow pad; by the end of the track, the pad has gradually taken over as the dominant sound. “Phase II: Debugger” sticks with the hypnotic repeating figure idea, again to great effect, while “Phase III: Refactoring” and “Phase IV: Release” concentrate on slowly changing harmonies. The first two tracks have enough variation to relax you while still leaving you awake; the last two tracks are not listen-in-the-car material.

Is it great going-to-sleep material? Yes – it’s been sending me off to the sandman for a week now, and it even sent my oldest, also a chiptune fan, off to sleep. Can you ask for better depreogramming than that?

4 out of 4Fans of such hypnotically mesmerizing synth music as Vangelis’ Blade Runner soundtrack, Tangerine Dream at its dreamy best, and the trance-inducing repeating musical ideas in Raymond Scott’s Soothing Sounds For Baby trilogy will find a lot to love here. And perhaps the most promising thing is that, like Scott’s Soothing Sounds, this album promises to be just the first volume.

Order

  1. Phase I: Lexical Analysis (13:37)
  2. Phase II: Debugger (13:08)
  3. Phase III: Refactoring (20:16)
  4. Phase IV: Release (22:44)

Released by: 8-Bit Weapon
Release date: February 9, 2016
Total running time: 1:00:45

Alan Parsons Project – The Turn Of A Friendly Card: 35th Anniversary Edition

The Turn Of A Friendly Card: 35th Anniversary EditionTime, as the hit single from this album croons, keeps flowing like a river, but the sight of a new 2-CD remaster of the Alan Parsons Project’s The Turn Of A Friendly Card makes me feel like time is bearing down on me like an oncoming flood. It can’t really have been 35 years, can it?

Indeed it can, and in that time The Turn Of A Friendly Card has already been remastered once, and deservedly so: while I Robot and Pyramid and the other early Project albums were nothing to sneeze at, there was some kind of harmonic convergence going on here, putting the right vocalists on the right songs at the right time to get massive radio airplay. “Time”, sung by the late, great Eric Woolfson, and “Games People Play”, sung by Lenny Zakatek, are immortal 1980s radio staples, and they’ve never sounded better. The remainder of the first disc is filled by the bonus material from the earlier remastered release.

The second disc, however, is completely new to this release, containing recently unearthed home demos – billed here as a “songwriting diary” – from the archives of the late Mr. Woolfson, who wrote all of the Project’s songs (despite what any shared credit on the album sleeves might state). There are basically cleaned-up transfers of garden-variety cassette tapes that Eric Woolfson kept rolling as he sat down to discover and shape his songs at the piano, long before any of them went into a studio. For those interested in the process of songwriting, this is fascinating stuff, as we hear Woolfson travel down various unexplored avenues, occasionally landing on gold…and occasionally putting it in reverse and backing up to his original idea.

But the highlight of the second disc, and the real reason to buy this whole album one more time, is down to a single track: the unaccompanied orchestral backing track from “Time”, which also includes backing harmony vocal overdubs performed by the late Chris Rainbow. This is, quite simply, one of the best orchestral backing arrangements that has ever graced a pop song, giving 4 out of 4what was already a gorgeous song incredible depth and power. I can listen to this one track over and over again (and I have done).

It’s rare that I recommend something on the basis of a single track of barely two minutes’ duration, but if you’re already a fan of the Alan Parsons Project and/or a student of how music is put together (by masters of the craft), that track, and indeed the whole second disc, is worth the upgrade.

Order this CD

    Disc One

  1. May Be A Price To Pay (5:01)
  2. Games People Play (4:23)
  3. Time (5:09)
  4. I Don’t Wanna Go Home (4:59)
  5. The Gold Bug (4:32)
  6. The Turn Of A Friendly Card (Part I) (2:43)
  7. Snake Eyes (3:17)
  8. The Ace Of Swords (2:58)
  9. Nothing Left To Lose (4:07)
  10. The Turn Of A Friendly Card (Part II) (3:31)
  11. May Be A Price To Pay (intro demo) (1:32)
  12. Nothing Left To Lose (instrumental backing track) (4:37)
  13. Nothing Left To Lose (Chris Rainbow vocal overdub compilation) (2:01)
  14. Nothing Left To Lose (early studio version with Eric’s guide vocal) (3:11)
  15. Time (early studio attempt – instrumental) (4:42)
  16. Games People Play (rough mix) (4:32)
  17. The Gold Bug (demo) (2:50)
    Disc Two

  1. May Be A Price to Pay (Eric’s Songwriting Diary) (3:26)
  2. Games People Play (Eric’s Songwriting Diary) (3:06)
  3. Time (Eric’s Songwriting Diary) (4:06)
  4. I Don’t Wanna Go Home (Eric’s Songwriting Diary) (2:12)
  5. The Turn of a Friendly Card (Eric’s Songwriting Diary) (3:19)
  6. Snake Eyes (Eric’s Songwriting Diary) (3:13)
  7. Nothing Left to Lose (Eric’s Songwriting Diary) (2:46)
  8. Turn Of A Friendly Card / Snake Eyes / I Don’t Wanna Go Home (Eric’s Songwriting Diary) (4:32)
  9. May Be A Price to Pay (Early Version – Eric Guide Vocal & Unused Guitar Solo) (5:03)
  10. Games People Play (Early version – Eric Guide Vocal) (4:32)
  11. Time (Orchestra & Chris Rainbow Backing Vocals) (4:19)
  12. The Gold Bug (Early Reference Version) (5:08)
  13. The Turn of a Friendly Card Part 1 (Early Backing Track) (2:18)
  14. Snake Eyes (Early Version – Eric Guide Vocal) (3:20)
  15. The Ace of Swords (Early Version with Synth “Orchestration”) (3:03)
  16. The Ace Of Swords (Early Version with Piano on Melody) (2:40)
  17. The Turn of a Friendly Card Part Two (Eric Guide Vocal and Extended Guitar Solo) (3:32)
  18. Games People Play (single edit) (3:35)
  19. The Turn of a Friendly Card (single edit) (3:44)
  20. Snake Eyes (single edit) (2:26)

Released by: Sony / Legacy
Release date: November 13, 2015
Disc one total running time: 64:05
Disc two total running time: 70:20

Ghostbusters – music by Elmer Bernstein

GhostbustersThough Elmer Bernstein’s orchestral score for Ghostbusters was represented by a pair of tracks on the original soundtrack that arrived in record stores as the movie itself arrived in theaters back in 1984, the full score wasn’t made available until Varese Sarabande issued it on CD in 2006, two years after composer Elmer Bernstein’s death. Listening to the complete score is a fascinating experience, because you quickly realize how much of what Bernstein wrote and recorded didn’t wind up in the movie. And that’s not because it’s lacking in any way, but because the studio (Columbia Pictures in this case) had a surefire hit in Ray Parker Jr.’s theme song, as well as a “various artists” album featuring other songs prominently placed in the movie (Mick Smiley’s “Magic” bring the only song to get nearly as much screen time as Parker’s). And the thing is, Parker’s single brought the movie so much free publicity (adding as much as $20,000,000 to the movie’s gross, according to at least one estimate), yeah, you want to drop the song into the movie where you can. Most of this happens in the first two-thirds of the film: after Venkman talks himself and his fellow Ghostbusters out of prison, there’s no place for the Parker song after the police escort scene until the end credits.

With that in mind, be prepared to hear plenty of Bernstein-crafted “pop music” scoring that you’ve simply never heard in the movie before. Much of it is along the lines of the scene where Ray and Winston turn on the car radio after discussing Biblical prophecy, though many of the dropped cues riff on Bernstein’s jazzy, almost-klezmer-inspired theme for the Ghostbusters, a tune which is capable of being driven through a surprising number of major and minor key changes and rhythm changes… most of which was covered up by the movie’s signature single. Some good stuff was left on the cutting room floor, but this is case where, somewhat reluctantly, I have to agree with the decision to track parts of the movie with Ray Parker Jr.’s song (particularly in the movie’s montages).

And the stuff you do remember hearing in the movie? It’s great listening minus the dialogue: Bernstein really seems to get his teeth into the darker, more supernatural scenes. Early in the movie, the ghost sightings are played for laughs, complete with the theramin-esque sounds of the Ondes Martenot, but as the story progresses and the depth of the ghost-sighting crisis is revealed, Bernstein nails it to the wall with some real dramatic scoring. Much like the script for Ghostbusters, Bernstein’s music for the movie manages to dance effortlessly on the knife’s edge between comedy scoring and dramatic scoring. (it’s worth pointing out that Bernstein was a master of his medium – he scored The Ten Commandments as easily as he scored Airplane!, with no detectable drop in quality to hint at any feelings that comedy might somehow be “beneath” him. For those too young to remember much of Bernstein’s work, if you need a gauge of the composer’s cool factor, consider this: he also personally mentored Bear McCreary of Battlestar Galactica fame.)

The music for the final third of the movie, with Zuul’s multiple attempts to stop the Ghostbusters before they can show the supernatural big bad to the door, is breathtaking and memorable stuff. And yet, to really get the full effect of the movie’s music as you remember it, you’re probably going to need both this album and the original 1984 “various artists” album combined. I don’t often say this of movies where perfectly serviceable score 4 out of 4was jettisoned to make way for pop songs, but the tunes featured in Ghostbusters, from the overplayed-by-radio-before-the-movie-even-opened theme tune to such songs as “Cleaning Up The Town” and “Magic”, are extraordinarily well-judged, and in their own way become an indelible part of the movie’s sound.

Listen to both, set up a custom playlist, and travel back in time to the corner penthouse of Spook Central. It’s some of Bernstein’s best, and fit the movie like a glove.

Order this CD

  1. Ghostbusters Theme (3:00)
  2. Library and Title (3:02)
  3. Venkman (0:31)
  4. Walk (0:30)
  5. Hello (1:36)
  6. Get Her! (2:01)
  7. Plan (1:25)
  8. Taken (1:08)
  9. Fridge (1:01)
  10. Sign (0:54)
  11. Client (0:35)
  12. The Apartment (2:45)
  13. Dana’s Theme (3:31)
  14. We Got One! (2:02)
  15. Halls (2:01)
  16. Trap (1:56)
  17. Meeting (0:38)
  18. I Respect You (0:54)
  19. Cross Rip (1:07)
  20. Attack (1:30)
  21. Dogs (0:57)
  22. Date (0:45)
  23. Zool (4:12)
  24. Dana’s Room (1:40)
  25. Judgment Day (1:19)
  26. The Protection Grid (0:42)
  27. Ghosts! (2:15)
  28. The Gatekeeper (1:12)
  29. Earthquake (0:33)
  30. Ghostbusters! (1:13)
  31. Stairwell (1:14)
  32. Gozer (2:48)
  33. Marshmallow Terror (1:25)
  34. Final Battle (1:30)
  35. Finish (2:13)
  36. End Credits (5:04)
  37. Magic (1:37)
  38. Zool (3:12)
  39. We Got One! (Alternate) (2:04)

Released by: Varese Sarabande
Release date: 2006
Total running time: 68:55

Robot Vengeance – Cruising The Space Time Continuum

Cruising The Space Time ContinuumThe second album from electronica act Robot Vengeance, Cruising The Space Time Continuum is a dandy collection of instrumentals, centering around two common themes: a strong beat and a “space” theme. In some respects, Cruising is fairly retro, in places using samples that I could swear the Art of Noise once used. Standouts include “Dancing Weightless”, with an ever-shifting beat pattern and retro synths, “Fast Enough To Slow Time” and “Faster Robot” (both with great bass lines that appear and disappear), and “Star Clad” with its spacey vocal samples.

3 out of 4Cruising is an album that needs to be listened to at least once on headphones and then on speakers. The bass and beats aren’t done full justice by headphone listening – they’re a decent subwoofer workout – but the intricate synth loops demand at least one “up close” listen.

It’ll be interesting to see what further Robot Vengeance may await us in the future; it’s a promising enough collection that I’m up for more.

Order this CD

  1. Accelerating Universe (2:20)
  2. Dark Energy (3:02)
  3. Dancing Weightless (3:14)
  4. Fast Enough To Slow Time (2:45)
  5. Absolute Zero (3:29)
  6. Antimatter (2:49)
  7. Faster Robot (2:49)
  8. Infinite Solutions (2:32)
  9. Oort Cloud (2:59)
  10. Paradigm Shift (3:45)
  11. Star Clad (3:21)

Released by: Robot Vengeance
Release date: 2014
Total running time: 33:05