When Matthew Bourne and Franck Vigroux first met in 2007 they bonded, as Bourne recalls, over: “a shared love of vintage analogue equipment, ear-splitting frequencies and the music of Scott Walker”.
Their only previous duo recording is the playful and exuberant 2008 album Call Me Madame (Good News From Wonderland), on the d’Autres Cordes label, but Bourne also played a prominent role on Vigroux’s improv/opera/electronics mash-up Broken Circles Live (2011, Ars Nova).
They first envisaged Radioland: Radio-Activity Revisited as a “nostalgic and melancholic” take on Radio-Activity, the Kraftwerk classic that Vigroux calls: “a great pop concept album about this idea of ‘radio-aktivität’ – not just the atomic power but the idea of communication.”
In 2015, on the 40th anniversary of the origional’s release they re-tooled it for live performance, using only analogue equipment plus installation artist Antoine Schmitt’s live visuals, which are sparingly reproduced in stills on this album’s cover and within the CD booklet.
It wouldn’t be possible to replicate the original Radio-Activity, in part, Bourne admits, because: “Kraftwerk used … things like the Vako Orchestron, of which there are only 75 in the world costing ten grand each, or vocoders which nowadays would cost £12,000”. So thankfully the project was never going to be straightforwardly or literally imitative.
Vigroux says: “In the end, we kept the melodies, we kept the main element but then treated it in more of a jazz way.” That said, it’s not jazzy at all, at least not in a literal sense. Where Call Me Madame was an unruly high-octane exercise in exuberance, here the duo’s ids are subordinate to their egos.
So Kraftwerk’s original outlines, melodies and rhythms are recognisable, but Radioland is more streamlined and impersonal than Kraftwerk’s Radio-Activity. This treatment suits the recast “Radio Activity”, which remains true to the seductive glide of the original, enough of an ear-worm to be both a big hit and a radio show jingle in ’70s France.
“Antenna”, the original album’s second most immediate piece thanks to its pulsing motion, reverb’d vox and pinging synth-drums, was both mechanistic and anthemic. Here it’s transformed, given a suspenseful downtempo cast with a distinctly a-harmonic twist, the origional’s rhythmic impetus heard only in a mechanistic voice track. This transformation is key. It makes Radioland more of a head trip than Kraftwerk’s music ever was.
This transformation of “Antenna” also makes Radioland a more coherent unity than the episodic Radio-Activity, on which many of the original pieces functioned chiefly as atmospheric vignettes.
The new album opens not with the classic, static-charged crump of the eponymous “Geiger Counter”, but with the clear, incrementally excitable blipping of a modern tracking device, and that’s indicative of the glossing and streamlining that takes Radioland into colder, more abstracted electronic terrain. “Radio Stars”, originally a sci-fi alarm juxtaposed with an ohm-like mantra, all experientially corporeal, is now just a looping drift of disembodiment.
“Airwaves” retains traces of Kraftwerk’s theremin-like waveform sing-song and bass-bolstered drum machines, but everything else is subsumed by deeper, darker-toned Depeche Modish synthpop, and “The Voice of Energy”, previously a simple interlude of vocoder’d vox, is spun out, made richer and more ominous. “Transistor”, on the other hand, does retain a gloss of its original star-bright and optimistic radiance.
Likewise, the original muffled voices and early 60s Richard Scott/Manhattan Research-like electronics on “Intermission” and “News” have been traded up for a treatment more akin to a Ryoji Ikeda installation piece; and on “Ohm Sweet Ohm”, instead of the original naive stylophone-esque synth and drum machine rhythms, which prefigured so much 80s synth-pop, we have more Ikeda-inspired micro-glitch emanations, and deeply textured laminate drones.
It took me a few replays of both albums to decide, but familiarity is breeding greater appreciation of Bourne’s and Vigroux’s judgement. They’ve got the balance between distance and estrangement from source and the retention of key sonic and emotive identifiers just right, and I’m increasingly disinclined even to contemplate the correspondences. Radioland stands on its own merits.
Vigroux, meanwhile, has also collaborated with Mika Vainio (ex-Pan Sonic), on a new album of crunchy electronica titled Peau froide, léger soleil, which it’s recommended you check out on Boomkat.
Previous Bourne projects have ranged from the avant-funk Electric Dr. M collaboration (2003), to the Songs From a Lost Piano concerts played on pianos salvaged from scrap (2009), but he’s best known as an improvising pianist. His solo Montauk Variations album of predominantly melodious piano music, his 2012 debut on the Leaf label, was mooted as just the first in a string of new works that would demonstrate Bourne’s stylistic variation, but nothing materialised until now.
Radioland is released alongside Mandalas in the Sky (Babel Label), a set of all-acoustic improvisation, which features the established Bourne Davis Kane trio in its second collaboration with heavyweight saxophonist Paul Dunmall. And Spring 2016 will see the debut, on record and in concert, of Bourne’s Moogmemory project for solo Memorymoog synthesizer.
Matthew Bourne synthesizers, voice; Franck Vigroux electronics.
Buy Radioland direct from the Leaf label (two formats: hardback book/CD limited to 2,000 copies; gatefold vinyl LP + CD limited to 1,000 copies.