The Black Neon is the slightly disturbing moniker for an intriguing character. Ex-Fort Lauderdale member Steve Webster fronts it ostensibly as a one man band, with low key support from Falk U.Rogner and Yasuhiro Otani, with whom he recorded this album in Berlin. A rather stark sentence on his website indicates he no longer plays live, his last show in Poland nearly five years ago.
It’s an understandable move, given the suitability of this music for more intimate environments than the stage, added to the fact that he plays almost every instrument! Intimate is certainly the word, more so in the instrumental tracks than the vocal, which operate in a psychedelic sound world owing much to the early 1980s, with varying degrees of success.
Chief culprit is the catchily named affair between man and machine, TX81Z, a blustery outing that takes a generous helping of New Order but throws too many instrumental layers over it, with a mannered voiceover of “we are all just fools” toward the end, a kind of polar opposite to Moby‘s We Are All Made Of Stars. That said, the opening vocal rhyme of “plasticate, masticate and regurgitate” is a good example of Webster’s lyrical invention.
More sinister altogether is The Truth, with ominous harmonies and half sung, half spoken vocoder that promises “we won’t save you” at the end. Of immediate appeal is Ralph & Barbara, a humorous portrait of two lovers trying to get out of Germany.
With the vocal tracks inconsistent – but never dull – it’s when the subtleties of the instrumentals are allowed to shine through that this record really blossoms. Hollywood 1,2 & 3 is a spatial track, most effective with its lightly bluesy guitar interventions. The opening Ode To Immer Wieder offers a Numan-esque synthesizer line, while the heady Infinity Pool provides an atmospheric dressing to its lazy guitar riff.
And yet it’s possibly because of the relative lack of control in the vocal tracks that the instrumental numbers sound so much more effective, one of many questions that come to mind when listening to Arts & Crafts. It’s a sure sign that Webster makes music that asks questions and elicits reactions.
Vocal and instrumental combine to best effect in Cast That Light, a moving song where delicate arpeggios flutter around Webster’s thoughtful vocal, a touch of melancholy leading to something far more resolute as a beefier, guitar driven-coda starts to assert itself. A similar mood pervades The Ghosts, containing the choice lyric “don’t you forget that I know you well, I know your heaven and I know your hell”, with a sensitive keyboard solo at its core.
A most diverting listen, and never dull, The Black Neon seems to have something for everyone, in a way that brings Moby to mind but doesn’t seem to be quite so commercially pointed. As an accompaniment to nocturnal activities (other than sleeping!) it proves most effective.