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(Geffen Records 933882 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/30/2002)
This is weekly album review number 1300, and I thought I would try something a little different in my approach. Our subject is Peter Gabriel's new CD Up, which was released in September 2002, and has already received a good deal of press and quite a few reviews, generally quite favorable. With that in mind, I doubt I can add a great deal to the discussion in terms of its musical merit, but since I found it engrossing on a number of levels, I thought that this time, I would focus this review almost entirely on a facet we usually touch on briefly each week, the sonic qualities of the recording.
As a bit of a producer and recording engineer, and one for whom the interesting use of sound has been a fascination since as long as I can remember, I often find myself drawn to the sonic presentation of a record, sometimes almost as much as the underlying music. And it has been some time since a CD has come along with the kind of sonic creativity as is shown on Peter Gabriel's Up.
Gabriel, of course, has been long been an innovative performer, first as a member of Genesis, which he co-founded in 1969 while still in school, then as a solo performer who brought a degree of theatricality into his performances, at a time when rock was expanding its horizons in such directions. Gabriel has also been at the cutting edge of music videos, making several that won awards in a field where there is precious little art. He remains a social activist, and a firm advocate of the exploration of other musical cultures through his Real World Records, and WOMAD -- World of Music and Dance -- tours and performances. Part of his enterprise has been Real World Studios in England, which has given him and artists on his label free rein to explore the sonic possibilities inherent in their music. No one has exploited that better than Gabriel himself on a series of solo albums, and music he created for the film The Last Temptation of Christ.
It has been a decade since Gabriel released his last full studio album. Since then, there has been a lot of sonic experimentation going on especially in the alternative rock field, with loops and samples of pre-recorded sounds, heavily distorted and altered treatments of various instruments and vocals, and a sort of intentionally "lo-fi" approach. For me, this has all been for the worse, a backwards step to the days when noise and distortion were common technical problems that those of us in the recording field strove ardently to exorcise. For the most part, I have found this kind of intentionally bad sound to be thoroughly irritating, and a reinforcement of the notion that despite the improvements in digital audio technology, the general level of sound quality on pop music CDs has taken a serious turn for the worse in the last few years.
Gabriel adopts these techniques, but not to be trendy, or as the alternative rockers and commercial pop artists do, just to be louder and more in-your-face. Instead Gabriel's Up has, I think, probably the most effective use of these techniques I have heard for musical emphasis, drawing on a wide variety of styles -- the distorted sound to be aggressive in a song, drum loops made up of real performances by such players as Manu Katche and Steve Gadd, for interesting sonic colors, Into the mix he also incorporates a real string orchestra, a Gospel group to provide some backing vocals, and very effective use of dynamics, going from a whisper to a full sonic assault in the course of a tune. Every track features different sounds in the service of Gabriel's generally plaintive-sound songs, many of which deal in some way with loss, including the loss of life. There is also some innovative use of stereo positioning techniques that can under the proper listening circumstances, hint at surround-sound with regular stereo speakers. It all creates a kind of alternate sonic environment, at times ethereal, at other times unnerving or disorienting. The way the moods and sonic qualities shift within each tune is also impressive. It reaches the point that the sonic presentation becomes as important as the underlying material. The lyrics tend to be laconic, and when seen on the computer screen -- the CD provides a series of graphics and the lyrics for computers, rather than including the lyrics printed in the CD booklet -- the lyrics seem spare and not particularly powerful. But when placed in the combination of the musical and sonic setting of the CD, the result is masterful.
Gabriel, with his variety of instruments, plus computer-manipulated sounds, is central to the album's instrumental sound. The regular players on the CD include the aforementioned Manu Katche on drums, guitarist David Rhodes, bassist Tony Levin and percussionist Ged Lynch.
The sonic approach of the CD is apparent from the start. The opening piece Darkness, which deals with fears, begins with a quiet little synthesizer sequence <<>> tempting one to turn up the volume to hear it, before the full sonic assault begins. <<>>
The following piece Growing Up contains hints of the Beatles and old Genesis, woven with the sonic mutations that are so much a part of this CD. <<>> Again, the skillful weaving of the sonic effects and dynamic shifts add to the often plaintive atmosphere of track. Particularly interesting from a sonic standpoint is the nearly three-dimensional shifting stereo imaging. <<>>
Rather more atmospheric is Sky Blue, also hinting at Gabriel's past work. <<>> A distinctive addition to the arrangement is the backing vocal support provided by the Gospel group the Blind Boys of Alabama in the track's lengthy coda. <<>>
Gabriel called his CD Up, though many of his songs have a decidedly darker mood lyrically. A good example is I Grieve, whose title is rather self-explanatory, dealing as it does with loss. Gabriel and his colleagues create one of the most engaging sonic spaces on the CD, at once murky and soaring. <<>>
The CD's most direct lyrics come on the Barry Williams Show, aiming a potent jab at the proliferation of sleazy TV talk shows. The instrumentation and sonic treatment are appropriate for such a musical philippic. <<>>
Yet another intriguing variation comes on My Head Sounds Like That. There are some vague hints of the Beatles' A Day in the Life with the addition of a melancholy-sounding orchestral brass section. <<>>
Peter Gabriel remains a popular commercial artist, despite his sonic experimentation, and it is not a disappointment to hear a song that might have some chance for chart success. The track on Up that would qualify is called More Than This, and it combines more of the familiar elements of Gabriel's sound with a more defined rhythmic beat, without dispensing with the creaitive sonic elements that mark this CD. <<>>
Over the past 15 years or so, Gabriel has been known for his work with world musicians. Up has surprisingly little of such influence. One place where it is heard is Signal to Noise, in which the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the Pakistani vocalist, who recorded for Gabriel's Real World label, is heard. There is no indication whether Khan's part was recorded for this CD before his death a few years ago, or whether this was a sample of an existing recording that was added. Also present, as an interesting juxtaposition, is a large orchestra. <<>>
It has been ten years since Peter Gabriel's last studio CD release. He has put the time to good use, creating one of the most sonically innovative recordings in a time when the general level of sound quality on commercial pop music albums has been in a serious decline. Gabriel has become a kind of integrating artist, borrowing some of the sonic distortions of the alternative rockers, and using them to great effect to create evolving sonic atmospheres that become an integral part of the music, rather than just being used to be loud and annoying, or trendy. In a way, this is a reminiscent of Gabriel's early days with Genesis and the art rock scene, where advances in multi-track technology in the early 1970s, following the innovations of the Beatles, were used effectively by the art rockers of the day to create large-scale symphonic-style rock. Gabriel has gone well beyond that emphasis on either size or volume to make a very innovative recording that amalgamates and synthesizes and some 30 years of sonic experimentation into a very impressive work.
The CD was produced by Gabriel himself, and for the most part mixed, interestingly enough, by one of least favorite mix engineers, Tchad Blake, whose sample and distortion techniques are usually much to the detriment of the artists involved. But Gabriel's creativity and ability to fuse all the elements, makes this Blake's best project by far. Still, I would have like to have a bit more clarity and openness in the album's more atmospheric moments.
After a more than three-decade career Peter Gabriel once again shown himself still to be at the creative forefront, especially sonically, on his new CD Up.
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