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David Bowie - 1. Outside CD (album) cover

1. OUTSIDE

David Bowie

 

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3.56 | 94 ratings

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ExittheLemming
Prog Reviewer
5 stars There's Life in the Young God Yet

Oh, I've got the fondest hopes for the fin de siecle. I see it as a symbolic sacrificial rite. I see it as a deviance, a pagan wish to appease gods, so we can move on. There's a real spiritual starvation out there being filled by these mutations of what are barely-remembered rites and rituals. To take the place of the void left by a non-authoritative church. We have this panic button telling us it's gonna be a colossal madness at the end of this century.(David Bowie)

When I lived in the UK I used to listen religiously to a BBC radio programme called Mixing It hosted by two squabbling DJ's called Robert Sandall and Mark Russell. The presenter's on-air quarrels were reason enough to tune in but more importantly, the music they played was the most challenging and experimental that could be sourced from any major broadcaster at the time. The staple diet of 'Mixin' Gits' was PJ Harvey, Yo La Tengo, Mogwai, free jazz, hardcore, the Residents, Frank Zappa, This Heat, Pere Ubu and countless other shameless reprobates who had resisted manfully the palliative of doped conformity. Imagine my surprise and wrinkled snout therefore when they announced a David Bowie track called A Small Plot of Land from this album. I was gobsmacked. Were these wonderful sounds and textures that emanated from my radio the handiwork of a man who had in my estimation become nothing more than a set of cheekbones his fans could drape their fantasies over?. The last time Bowie had created anything that didn't attract my keen indifference was Heroes some 18 years prior. (Suitable gestation time for the next intake of Thin White Duke students of course) In the barren interim I envisaged the Chancellor of Cool had either patented a mouth brace to give you squint teeth, launched his own credit card or recorded a drum'n'bass album with the help of the dull young thangs in the dance fraternity.

Luckily I bought the album before I had a chance to read the sleeve-notes:

Tina...what does.. the Ritual Art-Murder of Baby Grace Blue: A non-linear Gothic Drama Hyper-Cycle mean hun?

Oh don't you worry your pretty little head about that, just make up bogus verbose crap like you always do....Have you fed Sparky?

Although there had been feint traces of the type of material contained on Outside on albums like the aforementioned Scary Monsters, Heroes and Low, there is nothing in Bowie's vast catalogue that is gonna prepare you for the sort of sustained tangential departures he frogmarches us through here.

Leon Take Us Outside - As any concept album worthy of the name needs a little curtain raising scoobysnack, this will appeal to the inveterate progger in all of us. This is one of the best in as much as it cannot be mistaken for any of the competition. e.g. it dispenses entirely with thunder and lightning, wooshy wind noises, bird cries or gradually fortissimo random Moog oscillator sweeps etc

Outside (Prologue) - Those expecting the saucy winks of Frankie Howard will be sorely disappointed. A brooding exercise in post punk guitar lattices and pedal point that should have the self appointed architects the Cure, Banshees, Bunnymen and Joy Division squirming in the dock for charges of shoddy workmanship.

The Hearts Filthy Lesson - Bo Diddley resurrected after electro shock therapy with a guitar texture like sandpaper frottage. The latter comes from Reeves Gabrels whose playing I normally happily steer a million miles away from thanks to the execrable Tin Machine debacle. Kudos are therefore way overdue for either his new found sense of restraint and economy in the intervening years or a clandestine but judicious hand on the mix fader. This track was included in the soundtrack for David Fincher's movie Seven (about a serial killer inspired by the seven deadly sins from the gospels) The omission of the apostrophe in the title is deliberate.(Should there be a hyphen in anal retentive?)

A Small Plot of Land - Quite possibly the greatest of all Bowie creations in my admittedly small and dog-eared book. It would be impossible to imagine the impact of this record shorn of the miraculous piano of Mike Garson which percolates delightfully throughout this number. I mean Bowie conspires to sound (gulp) sincere and might even have moved your habitually sang-froid reviewer for the first time in a 50 year career. The ending fade where a bristling tritone underpins the string washes and Gabrels spindling guitar is plain vanilla magnificent. In short: take away a single detail of this pointillist collage and it would disintegrate into incoherent foggy static. Miraculous but unstintingly secular.

Segue Baby Grace (A Horrid cassette) - 24 carat creepy, like hearing a ransom note read by Shirley Temple stoned off her tits into a Dictaphone held by her captors.

Hallo Spaceboy - Bowie appears to take the mickey out of his enduring image of being depicted as the 'rock star as alien' and clearly has great fun in the process. As close as he has ever come to self depreciating humour on a naggingly addictive and brilliant pop song. (Is the 'a' in the expected 'Hello' a swipe at his anointed status by fanboys?)

You're silhouette, so stationary you're released but your custody calls and I want to be free Don't you want to be free? Do you like girls or boys? It's confusing these days

The Motel - Although I haven't the foggiest what this whole undertaking could possibly be about, it does seem to share the sort of dissolute neon grandeur so beloved of the imagery of William Burroughs. This barely rises above a claustrophobic whisper over Erdil Kizilcay's singing fretless bass and even at its relative peak inhabits a down-town Hotel Portishead where a drunken lounge bar pianist regales an empty seedy foyer. Incongruous elements collide, merge, mutate and grow until cut dispassionately short yet somehow Bowie directs such unlikely bedfellows into a celebrated skin-flick orgy of the senses.

I Have Not Been to Oxford Town - Call and response techniques have stood the test of time and it's not hard to see why. What we anticipate in primary blues and folk devices is just as satisfying as what is delivered. By way of contrast, Bowie undermines the nursery rhyme limitations of the form with an ironic stadium chorus voicing dissent at collective values:

Toll the bell, pay the private eye, all's well 20th Century dies

No Control - Like an electro Cure covering a Charlatans tune but Mr B has a considerably firmer command of song-craft than his referenced inspiration.

(Segue) Algeria Touchshriek - Great name for a band yes? Why isn't there one? If a lobotomised Quentin Crisp had relocated to Tangiers with Hector Zazou as pool cleaner and broadcast a diary...here it is.

The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (as Beauty) - This at least hints at the erm..plot hereabouts i.e. Bowie envisages a future where the murder and mutilation of individuals becomes a new decadent collector art form. Certainly a hideous and repellent scenario but given the serial killer fetish endemic in the so-called civilised world he might not be as wide of the mark as first appears. The modern fashion for piercings, tattoos and ritualistic art for Bowie, somewhat tenuously I think, points towards a millennial neo-paganism. Crime as the new aesthetic? Regardless of such speculative bollocks on my part, it's a juggernaut of a great tune with some bi-polar Garson piano that relegates the spicy piquancy of Aladdin Sane to that of a muesli starter.

(Segue)Ramona A. Stone/I Am With Name - If the Residents had learned English by listening solely to the 'Eastenders' BBC soap opera this 'cyber cockney' is what their communications would resemble. Also appears to contain a sample from a Brian May song? (Dunno...but 'perma perm' did marry one of the soap's leading ladies in Anita Dobson)

Wishful Beginnings - Minimalist interior dialogue with a risible frog croak in the percussion department. Rather too self consciously 'unwitting' for its own good perhaps.

We Prick You - A leisurely paced melodic invention contradicted by the layered junglish beats that for reasons best known to myself resembles a dance mix of something that might have counted as an out-take from the Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Has a discernible Gabriel solo groove and sparing ethnic slant that Peter explored extensively on his post Genesis career.

(Segue) Nathan Adler - Couldn't find the name 'Mark E. Smith of the Fall' as guest on the sleeve notes but it sounds uncannily like 'the grumpiest man in Rock' in one of his carefully planned unguarded moments in front of a listening device with a half empty/full bottle of moonshine.

I'm Deranged - As delicious as an airborne phenomenon like music can get. Beautiful mournful singing and melody supported by Gabrels subtle and elegiac guitar and yet more uncanny piano from Garson which seems to inhabit that elusive cusp between tonality, chaos and poly-rhythm only hinted at by Keith Tippet's ivory sedition on early King Crimson.

Thru' These Architects Eyes - Another contender for best track on the album. Circling guitar hooks like birds of prey pick asunder any soft pop song carrion and the mutilated cadaver is either digested, assimilated or jettisoned contemptuously into all manner of unlikely but ultimately thrilling viscera along the way. The whammy bar 'whooping' exclamation marks on the tag chorus are sublime and Garson's piano towards the end is worth the price of the album alone progbuddys: take one humanoid critter armed solely with but 10 digits and 88 possible key destinations and there still ain't anything like this I've heard before or since. The playing seems almost unheeding to the harmonic limitations placed on it by its immediate surroundings yet transforms its neighbours into an alternative realm of key, scale and tonality.

(Segue) Nathan Adler - As if a narrator was speaking from inside a military snare.

Strangers When We Meet - A much more conventional song to close the album but given the startling innovation that preceded it, this ain't such a bad thing. Even on material that Bowie could produce in his sleep, (circa 75% of his entire recorded output) he is in complete control of every variable of his chosen style or genre. This was probably the obvious shoo-in contender for a single from the album but he perversely resisted the temptation to appease his more reactionary fans. (You know who you are) Way to go Davo.

No, I'm not going to guess what the whole can of worms is about cos I ain't got a clue. What is more relevant is that Bowie can, when the mood and muse takes him, still produce work that carries the indelible imprint of true greatness or genius. There were tentative plans to produce a series of albums in a similar vein to Outside (hence the prefixed '1' in the title?) but these projects appear to have been shelved. Whether this was due to the lukewarm response his diehards afforded this record or whether his interest waned in the aftermath of 'millennium fever' is a moot point. Either way, it does give me some cause for optimism that all things being equal Bowie should issue something I might again be remotely interested in by 2013.

If I can wait for that, then Sparky will just have to wait for his supper.

I've given Sparky his supper, but you ain't gettin yours smart-arse...

ExittheLemming | 5/5 |

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