Originally a pop producer’s idea of nouveau hip-hop instrumentals, the Art of Noise — a brilliant post- rock meld of studio/tape wizardry, floor-shaking dance percussion and adventurous audio experimentation — turned into a hardy, self-sufficient organization with a distinctive creative outlook. Trevor Horn pulled together the semi-anonymous studio band and issued its records as an art statement on his Zang Tuum Tumb label. Into Battle has the aptly named “Beat Box,” with choral vocals and crazy effects (including, repeatedly, a car starting) punctuating typically booming electronic drums. But it also has far lighter essays: “The Army Now,” with cut-up Andrews Sisters-style vocals, and “Moments in Love,” an obsequious, lush backing track (for Barry White, perhaps?) that goes nowhere for an unconscionably long time. Produced to some incomprehensible blueprint, bits from one track often turn up in the midst of another.
The full-length Who’s Afraid Of? album contains some of the same cuts, but most notably adds the brilliant “Close (to the Edit),” a furious and unforgettable march of highly organized rhythm, effects and jagged musical/vocal ejaculations. Elsewhere, spoken-word collages mingle with the disjointed assemblages to create newsreel-inflected dance music of enormous vitality and originality. Remarkable and significant, with an electronic language all its own.
Proving their autonomy, the heart of Art of Noise — Anne Dudley, J.J. Jeczalik and producer Gary Langan — split from Horn and ZTT in 1985. Forming the China label, the group issued the “Legs” single, revealing a desire to invade the pop market by locating a functional compromise with it. A full new album, In Visible Silence, followed several months later. Although no individual track is as gripping as “Close (to the Edit),” a semi-straight version of “Peter Gunn,” with twang legend Duane Eddy playing the unforgettable guitar line, became a substantial international hit; the rest is typically intriguing, aggravating and entertaining.
A long 12-inch mix of “Peter Gunn,” joined by two other previously issued 45s — “Legacy” (a drastic variation on “Legs”) and “Paranoimia,” recorded with the voice of Max Headroom breaking the usual vocal silence — comprise one side of Re-works. The rest of the long mini- album documents Art of Noise onstage in London, playing “Legs,” “Paranoimia” and the ten- minute “Hammersmith to Tokyo and Back.” The concert format has its obvious hazards for a painstaking group which is so reliant on the studio, but the results are more unsatisfying than disappointing. In any case, the ability to put this stuff over in front of an audience is noteworthy.
Shelving their pop ambitions, Art of Noise outfoxed themselves on In No Sense? Nonsense!, an overreaching undertaking that incorporates an orchestra, choir, horn section and guest rock musicians. The flaccid tracks are short on rhythmic power and wander all over the stylistic map with little logic or focus. Taken as a whole, this indeed makes no sense. The handful of numbers which indifferently plunder past adventures manage to be dull even when they resemble things that were exciting. Sonic quality is shortchanged by the technical considerations of recording so many musicians: abandoning modern high-tech claustrophobia for the inappropriately warm, open ambience of a cathedral ranks as a gross creative mistake.
The Best of the Art of Noise is a fine compilation, covering all of the band’s high points — alone (“Beat Box,” “Close (to the Edit),” “Legacy,” “Dragnet ’88”) and in collaboration with Max Headroom, Duane Eddy (a different mix than appears on Re-works) and Tom Jones (an endless rendition of Prince’s “Kiss” of more conceptual than musical merit). Although some of the tracks run on way too long, this colorful résumé offers a fine summary of the band’s unique experimentation. (The vinyl edition contains 7-inch versions; the CD and cassette instead consist of 12- inch mixes of the same songs.)
Below the Waste dabbles with world music (using South African vocal group Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens on several songs) and a Western orchestra, but the material simply doesn’t meet the challenge and succumbs to frequent film-score dullness. Beyond one energetically rhythmic hybrid (“Chain Gang”), this weak album shortchanges Art of Noise’s audio personality and fails to supplant it with anything equally potent.
Already covered by a half-remixes album and a greatest hits collection, Art of Noise undertook a more radical recycling program on The Ambient Collection, opening their tape library to producer Youth (ex-Killing Joke/Brilliant) who, to paraphrase the liner notes, “compiled, defiled and remixed” a selection of the band’s gentlest efforts (mostly from In No Sense? Nonsense! and In Visible Silence) into an album of new age wallpaper. The process involves editing tracks, either to brief snippets or lengthy loops, and adding real- world sounds (the word atmospheric has literal significance here) and other ephemera.