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Sparks - Balls CD (album) cover

BALLS

Sparks

 

Crossover Prog

2.88 | 5 ratings

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tarkus1980
Prog Reviewer
3 stars In some ways, this is essentially the same kind of techno-laced keyboard dance pop as Gratuitous Sax, only without an obvious hit. While nothing on here has remotely the same kind of impact as "When Do I Get to Sing 'My Way'?" does, though, I would nonetheless have to say that the bulk of this album easily stands up to the balance of that album. The group actually sounds fairly at home with the techno aspects this time around, as opposed to using them in the background in songs that could just as easily do without them, and there's often an aggression and noisy edge to much of this album that there really wasn't on Gratuitous Sax. Of course, the kind of music they're making still largely sounds a bit foreign to my sensibilities, and it's hard for me to really love this album, but I definitely like this album plenty.

The opening title track establishes the more aggressive sound immediately, packing all sorts of noisy keyboard parts into the space above the busy percussion, while Russell speaks interesting lyrics interspersed with a chorus that makes prominent use of the title ("Balls! All you need are/Balls! To succeed are/Balls! All you need are ..."). The following "More Than a Sex Machine" is just as good, largely because of the silliness of Ron Mael writing lyrics around this title, but largely because of the moderately clever layering of the various upbeat keyboard parts underneath it. From there, the album goes in a gentler direction with "Scheherazade," largely based around an incessant synth noise that inevitably reminds me of Pac-man, but mostly featuring a softer mix of keyboards over which Russell sings a brief summary of "1001 Nights" (I have to admit that I find it stupidly funny that the last line is "I won't kill you").

Over the rest of the album, a few of the tracks ("Aeroflot," "Bullet Train," "It's Educational") feature the kind of up-tempo noisy techno pop of "Balls" and "More Than a Sex Machine" (not quite up to the standards of those tracks, but I don't skip them either) but the rest is more subdued and more prone to allowing for interesting musical ideas to develop. "The Calm Before the Storm" is up-tempo (aside from the opening slower bit) and based around some really cheesy keyboard tones, but I like the way the verses are clearly meant to be cheerier than the chorus, and I really like the part where three Russells start singing different parts with each other (plus, given that they're from 2000, the lyrics are oddly prescient). "How to Get Your Ass Kicked" and "It's a Knockoff" (which was featured in the soundtrack of a Jean- Claude Van Damme movie) are both mid-tempo pop-ballads with clever lyrics that, with different arrangements, could have fit in well in many eras of the group. "Irreplacable" starts of potentially sounding like it will be another gentle song (possibly too much so), but then a new, darker melody in a much faster tempo bursts in, and the track does a great job of merging those two main ideas in its remainder (and the part where a piano part emerges to play that darker melody is probably the best stretch on the album). And finally, "The Angels" (which features a repeated use of profanity so out of place that it could easily be Ween) has a magnificent vocal part from Russell (especially in the way he soars in the "Me, I take it in stride/Me, I know I'm on the right side this time"), with a terrific balance of keyboards and even some clearly discernable guitars, and it lets the album end on a very high note.

No, this isn't one of my favorite Sparks albums, but as a follow-up to Gratuitous Sax it's a welcome one. Here's the thing: the last two times (before GS) that the group had successfully found a new direction for presenting keyboard-heavy dance-pop (No. 1 in Heaven and In Outer Space), the following albums (Terminal Jive and Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat) had been massive disappointments. Maybe the group had managed to stagnate a bit (after all, they were guys in their 50s doing techno ...), but they'd stagnated at an acceptable level. This album isn't thought of as well as the ones that bookend it, but if somebody likes GS they should definitely give this a shot.

tarkus1980 | 3/5 |

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