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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1281

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Craig Armstrong: As If to Nothing
by George Graham

(Melankolic/Astralwerks 11907 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/22/2002)

Ever since the 1960s, there have been periodic projects combining classical and rock, going back to the mid 1960s with the New York Rock & Roll Ensemble, and then on to the Beatles and all the groups that followed in their footsteps, leading to the whole art rock movement pf the 1970s. In most cases, these were either are attempts at working classical melodies into rock arrangements, or else creating orchestral arrangements of rock tunes. Relatively rare is a project in which classical orchestral and rock styles are on equal footing throughout. This week we have a fascinating example that combines large scale orchestral arrangements with electronica and techno influences in a highly innovative way. It's the new second album by Scottish composer and arranger Craig Armstrong called As If to Nothing.

Craig Armstrong, who is in his early 40s, has already developed an impressive resumé. His studies at the Royal Academy of Music included piano, composition and electronic music. In the early 1980s, he picked up an award in Scotland as young jazz musician of the year, and took up a job as a resident composer for the London Contemporary Dance Theatre. Since then, he has received various commissions for classical and electronic music works. Since the early 1990s, he has been creating music for BBC television and more recently feature films, including Kiss of the Dragon, Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge for which he won a Golden Globe Award. He has also been a part of various Scottish rock bands, including Texas, The Big Dish and Hipsway. Also in his resume is creating string arrangements for stars like Madonna, U2, Massive Attack and Björk, as well as writing orchestrations for the special benefit recording by Luciano Pavarotti and U2.

In 1998, he released his debut CD combining pop and orchestral elements, The Space Between Us. Now he is out with As If to Nothing, an instantly intriguing recording that juxtaposes seemingly diametric opposites -- the rich, cinematic, often nearly plaintive, and beautifully scored orchestral arrangements with the elements of techno -- the repetitive electronically sequenced riffs, the so-called lo-fi style with noises and occasionally distorted sounds. Add to that some interesting vocals ranging from a spoken multi-language chant to a full vocal by U2's Bono, and the result is striking.

While most of the music is original by Armstrong, he does collaborate with some lyricists and people whom he has admired, including a synthesist named Photek. But the CD also has a pair of unexpected covers an orchestral treatment of U2's Stay (Faraway So Close), from their Zooropa album, with a Bono himself doing the vocal, and a remake of a King Crimson piece, on which Armstrong more or less turns the idea of sampling on its head.

Armstrong's experience with firm scoring is immediately apparent in this CD -- it's music that's very evocative in both mood and imagery, but in this case, the listener provides his or her own pictures. Perhaps most notable is the quality of the arrangements and the orchestral performance. This is not just the kind of supplemental string backgrounds that are most often heard with rock and pop, but interesting, substantial writing that could qualify as valid contemporary classical music. And the group performing is a full-sized symphony orchestra of first-rate players. The music shows the connection between the minimalist style of composers such a Philip Glass and the techno scene, with the repetitions of phrases and riffs. But in Armstrong's case, the programmed electronic sequences are set against the constantly shifting colors and moods of the orchestral arrangements .

The generous 69 minute long CD starts with a piece that sums up the orchestral-techno amalgam. Ruthless Gravity revolves around a simple, but almost extra-terrestrial sequence of beeps, while the orchestral arrangement takes on an ominous quality. <<>> As the piece evolves, the electronic sound become distorted and aggressive, drowning out the orchestra <<>> before the piece ends on an ethereal choral arrangement. <<>>

The first of the vocal songs features Evan Dando, the lead singer in the Lemonheads. Wake Up in New York, was co-written by Armstrong and Dando. The dreamy composition, driven by a soft drum machine rhythm, makes effective use of Armstrong's opulent string orchestrations. <<>>

Also quite striking in sound is Miracle, which features a singer named Mogwai performing in a Middle-Eastern style while the orchestra seems to emulate the plaintive sound of the vocals in a very Western classical way. Again, it's the sort of music that can let your mind's eye run wild. <<>>

For me, one of the most fascinating pieces bears the simple title Waltz. The track juxtaposes a multi-lingual reading of what seems like a list of technical terms, performed by Antye Greie-Fuchs, with some of the most evocative of the orchestrations on this CD. <<>>

A contrast to that is Inhaler, the album's hardest-edged piece, in some ways blending both the grunge of alternative rock with the influence of King Crimson. <<>> Eventually, the orchestra makes its appearance, but remains dominated by the electronic sounds. <<>>

An appropriately named track called Hymn 2 brings together synthesist Photek with Armstrong's orchestrations, and in this case, a soprano soloist, Catherine Bott. Except for the angelic singing, the track does not have as much to offer as others on the CD. <<>>

These days, the practice of sampling runs rampant in pop, and especially hip-hop music, in which the so-called remixers take pieces of existing recordings and manipulate them, generally to strip them down, and usually dumb them down. Armstrong does almost the opposite. He takes King Crimson's 1974 piece Starless II from the Starless and Bible Black album, and instead of stripping it down, builds it up with very human orchestral setting, while adding a hint of electronic rhythms. The result is also a triumph. <<>>

If there is one track that is a bit of a disappointment, it's Snow, with a vocal by David McAlmont. It's a bit over the top toward the dramatic, and the clichéd lyrics don't help much either. <<>>

Armstrong's remake of U2's Stay (Faraway So Close) features Bono, as mentioned, and it takes very well to Armstrong's orchestrations. <<>>

Among the instrumental pieces, a definite highlight comes toward the end of the recording. Niente is also decidedly cinematic in sound, with the electronic rhythm sequence, which at times can resemble a heartbeat, complementing the looming, ominous chords played by the orchestra. <<>>

Composer Craig Armstrong's new CD As If to Nothing is a masterful blend of substantial orchestral music with very contemporary elements of pop and electronica. Each of the 14 pieces has some new surprise, from the fascinating juxtaposition of the machine-driven with the very human sound of the symphony orchestra, to the interesting guest vocalists. Some of my favorite classical-rock amalgams have involved chamber groups, going back to the Beatles Eleanor Rigby. But Armstrong proves he can bring a full orchestra to bear and make fascinating music that avoids the clichés of typical string arrangements on pop recording, by being equally at home in both fields. About the only drawback are the original lyrics, which are really not up to the level the music.

Our grade for sound quality is an A-minus. The orchestrations are nicely recorded and there is substantially more dynamic range than is typical for pop albums, so there is an impact when the arrangements build to a crescendo. But the recording does fall short of many traditional classical CDs. And the vocals were recorded separately from the orchestra, according to the credits, and it definitely sounds that way on the CD, with there being a lack of ambiance to bridge between them. Still, it does make for fairly impressive listening on a good stereo system.

Though he has worked largely in the background, Craig Armstrong has been involved with some music heard by millions. Though As If to Nothing is unlikely to appeal all of those millions, those who are drawn to distinctive new sounds will find this CD a definite highlight of the year.

(c) Copyright 2002 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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