When ’80s pop stars re-emerge from the wilderness, many years past their prime and defiant that “we never really broke up” (the reality was more ‘dwindling sales and mass indifference’), it is usually to try to squeeze their portly, baldy selves into the skinny jeans of their youth with slim success. So there was some, albeit muted, surprise when Blancmange took that return journey with 2011’s Blanc Burn, full of deadpan wit and tunes that didn’t hum but were hummable.
After the ‘music pop art’ of this year’s earlier release Semi Detached comes this wholly instrumental album. Shorn of the quirky existential wordplay and baritone musings of vocalist Neil Arthur and devoid of the quirky ‘tabla-synth-pop’ of their heyday, what remains?
Nil By Mouth (see what they did there pun fans?) isn’t a glorified vanity piece but a reminder of where Blancmange originally came from; very much borne of the DIY improvisation of the kitchen sink recording that typified their earlier years. This is stripped-down, bare bones Blancmange with music evoking films never written, scenes never soundtracked and popcorn never eaten. It is essentially a solo Neil Arthur album, with original member Stephen Luscombe appearing solely on the re-tooling of Holiday Camp from their 1980 ep Irene and Mavis.
Like former pop icons Lloyd Cole and Stephen Jones (aka Babybird) these are instrumental excursions that display another side to their pop plumage, imagine a re-mortgaged Ennio Morricone on a shoestring budget. Arthur has been actively working on film soundtracks since the ’80s (starting with Duet in 1983) so he is no slouch in this arena.
Arthur’s pop lineage gives him a unique ability to invent and divert tracks off their beaten tracks into musical hinterlands without losing his flair with a melody, as evidenced by the hook-laden opener Eleanor. There are Bond-like strings on the stately Cistern, delicate ambient pieces that recall pastoral Aphex Twin (Fall), the awkward quirky motif that runs through R and P, the cold synth march of Gone, the drift of vocoder samples infesting The Son, and a nagging build of shuffling synths interspersed with glacial slabs of noise on the sub-Hot Chip-esque Crystals Of Zircon. All this goes to show that while the tools may be limited, invention is not.
It’s not all austere mood pieces. The aforementioned Holiday Camp gets polished up from its distinctly ‘lowest of the lo-fi’ origins into a blissed out, bubbling definition of ‘chillout music’. The all-too-brief Matters Of Life has warm chords that hang and linger, the uplifting Landsea swirls in an acoustic haze and So Long Ago’s ambient flow seems to make time stand still like an audio spa (minus the whale sounds).
Clipped jazzy wah-wah guitar and brass stabs bring the album and Close Encounters to a suitably cinematic ending, but with no queues for over-priced snacks and no unpleasant feeling of being politely mugged.
This is not an album that will set the charts alight or inspire a ‘ker-azy’ dance routine; rather it is the thoughtful work of a man wired to the heart of machines pulling at the guts with a soldering iron to mould music for the soundtrack to the life you haven’t lived yet.