Blancmange: Commuter 23
March 11th 2016 | Blanc Check Records | Albums
Following the critically acclaimed ‘music pop art’ of Semi Detached in 2015 and their first ever instrumental album, Nil By Mouth, in September 2015, Blancmange return with Commuter 23: Fourteen tracks of electronic minimalism, sharp lyrics and wintry romanticism.
The sense of freedom and experimentation of Nil By Mouth is still present but, whereas that album had a lighter ambient feel, the textures in Commuter 23 are rougher, more aggressive, and ripped out of imagery that flickers between the surreal and the mundane; a sense of humour that is so dry it’s almost bleak and then at times sounds like it’s rising into a crazy, maniacal laugh.
The raw edges are exposed from the first industrial beat of "Red Shift (Blame Thrower)" which builds over a crashing metallic rhythm, until Neil Arthur’s vocal comes in with the words “Blame thrower / Back stabber”. It’s a fantastic opener – the echoing vocals and towering synths casting the longest of shadows. After the intensity of the first track, it’s almost a relief to be seduced with two instrumentals – "Flight 2157" and "Commuter 23" – though within the warm, artificial sounds there remains that strange mix of nerves, excitement and banality that comes with modern travel. Every trip to the airport or train journey feels like you’re a flowing statistic in someone else’s flawed 21st Century computer model while senses scan for unseen dangers, weather reports and sudden alarms.
"I Wish I Was You" feels more personal, but unlike "Red Shift (Blame Thrower)" this is a sweeter Blancmange - part throwback to their early days; part lilting, ambient tribute to Brian Eno’s Another Green World. However, the slow, repetitive mantra is double edged of course – an impossible dream of escape perhaps.
Meanwhile, "Last Night (I Dreamt I Had A Job)" is a feverish anthem where Arthur imagines himself “packing boxes” in a “dark space, each box full and brimming with gifts for other minds”. It spells out his own insecurities – an ex pop-star artist and musician, in his fifties; a veteran in an industry of shrinking finances. But, like all of Arthur’s songs, the lyrics and the mood go well beyond his own experience. This is something recognisable to all of us. The monotonous robotic imagery of 21st Century shift work – “Box on box on box, in line, in rows” is nightmarish, but so too are the unrealities of modern life.
"Jack Knife" continues this alienated feeling, but is more elegantly stretched out – a long, slow, beautiful electronic track with a direct, half talked vocal by Arthur about what he describes as a “Rhyming lorry journey, all emotionless communication via crap mobiles, from places you don’t belong … loneliness.” The sense of travel is also in the DNA of "Elemental Change" but this time it’s the motorik, uplifting beats of Neu! that give this instrumental forward motion. Obsessive but beautiful, it marks the mid point of the album as it speeds forward, only slowing right at the end to the tick tock of a single drum machine beat.
This is followed by one of the standout tracks, "Waiting All The Time", which opens with the words, “Cobwebs on the hands of the Harrison time piece; page upon page upon page is super-glued”. Time shifts, out-of-time … the dawning, early hours opening out into dreamlike, slowed-down imagery. Next up is NHS which sounds like a short Roxy/Bowie-esque fanfare as tribute to a “System being stretched beyond breaking point”, while the moody but playful "It'll Pass Maybe" toys with a vocal about experiencing new music.
"Judge Mental" crackles with word-splitting inventiveness and massive, tidal electronics. There’s a detached intelligence at work, playing with words as communications break down, “I Googled you, then I Googled myself too”.
The next three tracks form the ambient, mostly instrumental end to the album, though Arthur’s vocal on the brief "St Paul's" is one of his most moving. There’s a shift of focus; the rat race morphing into an empty cityscape; time is neither fully day nor night; it’s back to that feeling of being out of time; out of the every day experience. Of course that’s the place where personal horrors can still haunt but it’s also where we can dream other futures...
“ … I listen to Blancmange obsessively; probably the most underrated electronic act of all time…”
“ … Neil Arthur is now making the most fully realised music of his life …”
- MOJO Magazine
“ … It’s a pleasure to find Blancmange thriving in the 21st Century …”
- Q Magazine