After a debut album of such rare quality in the form of ‘Pop Robot’, you could be forgiven for thinking that this new ‘compilation’ has been released merely as an afterthought whilst fans await the official follow-up entitled ‘Urbanism’ in 2003. Empire State Human’s second release on the essential US Ninthwave label contains more gems than most albums you are likely to find down your local record store. With 15 previously unreleased tracks (including some from the ‘Martian Anthems’ and ‘Pop Robot’ sessions), you will come away wondering how songs like this could have been neglected from the debut album ‘Pop Robot’. If any incentive were needed to part with your hard earned cash, many of the songs have been enhanced even further with mixes from the likes of Count To Infinity, Wave In Head & Freezepop to name just a few. What makes this compilation so unique is the fact that the tracks all seem to compliment each other. Like ‘Pop Robot’ before it, there is no halfhearted filler and the whole CD is an exciting hint of future delights to come as ESH, undoubtedly have more blinding tracks in their archives than is humanly possible. The album flows so perfectly and if they’re seemingly effortless ability to construct memorable melodies wasn’t enough, the band also prove that they know a thing or two about production and sound manipulation.
‘Alpha & Omega’ provides a vast array of musical styles, from techno through to pure unashamed synthpop, without ever losing the essence that makes ESH so distinctive. The opening track ‘Adrenalin’ is typical of what you can expect from this latest offering. Lush production with musical hooks rarely seen in today’s ‘pop’ charts, there is an immediate sense of urgency with this album. The drum patterns are louder with wonderful layers of chattering synths in the background whilst the instrumental break will remind fans of former Pet Shop Boys glories such as the classic ‘Paninaro’. The second track speeds things up even more with one of the album’s many gems; ‘Little Alfie’ (remixed here by Count To Infinity) is pure techno with another irresistible instrumental break.
This track is crying out for further club remixes, as it is perfect for the growing wave of electro nightclubs that are beginning to dominate London. Songs like this lift ‘Alpha & Omega’ way above the ‘compilation’ tag.
The pace slows down somewhat for ‘Paradise’ that has a wonderful intro full of atmospheric drum patterns before a sombre deep bass kicks in. One of ESH’s strengths is that they often manage to construct soundscapes that conjure up filmic images (much like Depeche Mode). ‘Paradise’ is a perfect example of this (though remixed here by Freezepop), sounds fabulous on headphones though it’s not quite as instant as the next one. ‘Strange Star’ takes us right back to pure synthpop courtesy of German based Wave In Head, and the lyrics are particularly memorable (and quite cutting in places). Concerning the story of a washed up old pop star facing the inevitable decline once the records stop selling, you sense there are intended targets here. Similar in vocal delivery to Neil Tennant on ‘Yesterday When I Was Mad’, Aidan delivers the line ‘Doleful tales of stingy royalty rates, hard sell albums, 10 per cent of gates’, before a classic chorus sets in to lodge itself firmly in the brain. ‘Strange Star’ represents one of ESH’s finest moments, another sign that this isn’t your average compilation album. Next up is a familiar highlight from ‘Pop Robot’. ‘Leap Of Faith’ was heavenly first time round, but this Acid mix adds vitality to the original with more emphasis on the drums and acid basslines, programmed to perfection.
Track 6 is an instrumental that was originally written for the Sony Playstation 2 advert ‘Anything Can Happen’ in 2001, and it again highlights ESH’s filmic quality. Remixed especially for Alpha & Omega, you can picture the band using this track as a live intro in the way that Depeche appear on stage with their instrumentals. The ‘Atom Of The Moment’ is another atmospheric & brooding instrumental only this time it’s in collaboration with Wave In Head (who actually wrote the track). Haunting synths conjure up images of distant places and it’s not too far removed from recent DM Exciter interludes or the work of Riuichi Sakamoto. A cover of Kraftwerk’s ‘The Hall Of Mirrors’ follows with the same eerie qualities of the last few tracks. Originally recorded during the ‘Martian Anthems’ sessions, it is presented here with a more up-to-date remix. ’Vegas Years’ takes us back to the traditional ESH sound of ‘Pop Robot’, with a chilled out ambient sound that is ideal for late night listening. Fans of the classic old ITC crime shows will be delighted by the next track, which is John Barry’s theme to ‘The Persuaders’. ESH give this much-loved theme the electronic touch (it was also a track that the Human League considered covering as a b-side in 1984). ‘Sullen Eyes’ is perhaps Alpha & Omega’s only weak spot. It’s easy on the ear and pleasant to listen to, but the shimmering quality of other tracks tends to drown it out. ‘Science Of Living’ provides a gorgeous slice of Kraftwerk inspired pop, with hints of the Human League’s ‘Travelogue’ era and you can even add a touch of OMD into that mix. It’s exciting to hear a track as good as this, with all the analogue warmth that much of the electroclash movement seems to lack. ‘Science Of Living’ would be an ideal introduction to the band for those who still haven’t discovered them, as it contains everything that should be cherished in electronic music.
ESH go on to provide homage to another cult director John Carpenter, with a clever electro re-working of the ‘Halloween’ theme. Though Carpenter’s films are generally held in high regard (‘The Thing’ is one of the finest sci-fi paranoia films ever made), the director’s pioneering electronic film scores are often overlooked. Some of his work even pre-dates the Human League’s ‘Reproduction’ album in 1978 (and he gets a thank you in the ‘Alpha & Omega’ CD sleeve, along with John Barry).
The penultimate track ‘Fallout’ continues the run of top quality songs, with an almost hypnotic synth bass that blends effortlessly with Aidan’s vocals. One of the few tracks to return to themes of sci-fi, with words of ‘toxic wastelands’, the lead synth melody is one of those definitive ESH moments. Could this album get any better? The best is very much left till last. ‘Wait Until The Night’ is possibly the finest ESH song recorded so far. Ironically, it is the most ‘organic’ sounding track of the album, with a few acoustic hints (but not enough to make fellow wireheads fear a possible PSB ‘Release’ catastrophe). The song opens with a piano solo much like Yazoo’s ‘Winter Kills’ and when Aidan’s vocals kick in, accompanied by the din of lush orchestral strings, ‘Wait Until The Night’ immediately grabs you. A tortured tale of lost love, the vocal arrangement is superb, with shiver inducing harmonies. When Aidan sings the line ‘And all the lies you told me, for every kiss you stole from me’, the hairs on the back of your neck begin to stand on end. You immediately think of Marc Almond’s emotion on the early torch songs of Soft Cell, whilst PSB fans may be reminded of ‘Your Funny Uncle’. My only complaint about the song is that it is far too short. With a running time of just 2.40 minutes, you will be hitting the repeat button for more of the finale before giving the entire CD another spin.
Alpha & Omega highlights ESH’s passion and love for music, successfully combining many styles and influences without ever forgetting their own individual sound. This collection will raise expectations of the forthcoming ‘Urbanism’ album, but it will also make the wait just that little bit more bearable…
Choice tracks: Little Alfie, Strange Star, Adrenalin, Science Of Living, Wait Until The Night
Webmaster of the Human League site Secrets Online
Artist Link: http://www.empirestatehuman.com