Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Overlooked Synth Classic: Anthony Phillips' 1984

Anthony Phillips is best known as a guitarist, and a mostly-acoustic guitarist at that.  (He was a founding member of Genesis, preceding Steve Hackett as the band's lead guitarist.)  But in 1981, he produced an album unlike anything he has done before or since: 1984.  This is an album of unabashed synth music, with only a few smatterings of guitar here and there.  Other than that and some percussion, everything here is synth.

The album came as a total surprise to Phillips' fans at the time.  A brief opening theme and an equally brief closing theme serve as bookends to two long compositions that took up nearly all of their respective album sides on the original vinyl release.  Bearing little resemblance to the Orwell classic novel, the album opens with an upbeat "Prelude '84" containing a pulsing bass line, fast lead synth runs, jangly piano-ish chords, and an electric guitar counterpoint.  That leads into "1984 Part 1" which begins at a slightly slower tempo, but with huge washes of chords with a massive, sliding bass line, segueing into a steel-drum patch playing a poppy sequence of chords and melodies.  The piece continues in a most amazing fashion; there are around a dozen different themes in the song, but it segues from one to the next so effortlessly that the listener hardly notices the transitions.  There are fast bits, slower bits, loud bits, quiet bits, all blending together into a seamless sequence of melodies.  The song, and the album side, conclude with a big wash of pad chords leading to a cliffhanger ending.  (Back in the days of vinyl, this was the way to do it; the ending set up the listener to anticipate what would come next, during the couple of minutes that it took to get up off the couch and flip the disc over.)

"1984 Part 2" begins with a reprise of the first part's opening theme, but quickly goes in a different direction, building up tension with a series of leads played over an ominous bass and percussion line.  But this leads to a set of quick theme statements and changes, which eventually wind down to what sounds like the end of the piece -- but after a short pause, a flute-patch melody leads to the climatic buildup.  Some sort of vocoded vocal sings the title "Nineteen eighty four" several times (the only vocals on the album), there is a brief tempo diversion, and then the piece builds to an abrupt end.  The slow, stately "Anthem 1984" concludes the album.

As noted above, the mostly uptempo music appears to have little to do with the Orwell novel; the many style, key, and tempo changes through the two extended pieces cause the listener to eagerly anticipate the next bit of the music -- in other words, the future, unlike Orwell's Winston Smith.  In fact, it almost seems that Phillips rejected Orwell's dystopian vision of the future, and made this album as a refutation of the novel.  Whatever the reason, this is one neat bit of synth music.  Some of the sounds are a bit dated now, but mostly it has held up well.  The synths used appear to be nearly all analog, and the beatbox drums fall into the so-retro-it's-cool-again category.  (It helps that they are complemented by percussion parts contributed by Richard Scott and Morris Pert.)  The origins of the compositions are a bit murky -- an Analog Heaven rumor from a few years ago had it that Scott (who would later be Phillips' co-conspirator in the group Invisible Men) actually wrote most of the music.  There may be some truth to that, given that the album is absolutely atypical of Phillips' output.  In fact, at the time of the original release, it sold poorly; Phillips' usual fans didn't take to it, and people looking for synth music didn't think to look under Phillips' name in the record store.  Some time after the original release, a CD was released containing all of the tracks of the vinyl album plus some more.  A brief Amazon survey shows that people who have copies of the CD for sale want $40-50 for it now, so someone certainly recognizes it as worthwhile.  If you get a chance, check it out.

1 comment:

Top cat said...

Wow..I have this cd. I've been a AP fan since the early days, I believe The Geese and the Ghost was my first album.
Very interesting facts about the work, many I did not know.
$40-$50 eh??
Through his collaboration with Rupert Hine I also discovered his work, Samsara being my favorite.

Thanks for a great post.
tc