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Electric Light Orchestra - Secret Messages CD (album) cover


Electric Light Orchestra

Crossover Prog

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4 stars A most underrated album, this is a diverse, eclectic collection of Beatlesy Prog-Pop-Rock, with all of Jeff Lynne's trademarks: dense, detailed production - melodies that drip class - and that voice. This album was originally intended to be a double album but was scaled down by the record company, much to Lynne's chagrin, which is a shame as the tracks left off (since released as B'sides or in boxed compilations) would have really added to it. Even so, what remains is a triumph of creativity from a much-maligned band, that will be treasured by anyone who thinks it would have been cool if the Beatles had never broken up.
Report this review (#68442)
Posted Sunday, February 5, 2006 | Review Permalink
2 stars I remember Secret Messages being one of my first purchases on vinyl back when Columbia House was offering five records for a penny and then you had to buy one or two records at regular price for the year. But let's get one thing out the way right from the start. Just like every ELO album released from 1976 onward, there isn't an ounce of progressive rock on this interesting work. It's pop rock loaded with lots of synthesizers, but it's on par with some of the best pop rock the band had ever recorded, although the lyrics are clearly a cheese festival with swiss cheese holes distorting the local spacetime continuum.

Secret Messages was named after a controversy that followed ELO's career starting with their Eldorado album in which they were accused of recording Satanic messages backwards. Although these messages never actually existed, ELO mocked the controversy by recording backwards messages on Fire on High from their Face the Music album. As far as I know, they never again recorded backwards messages until Secret Messages, which has backwards messages in the beginning and ending of the album and in some small parts in individual songs. They also played Morse code using keyboards on the title track spelling out the album's name.

Another curiosity about Secret Messages is that Lynne had intended it to be a double record release, but the record company disapproved. So a lot of the extra material was released as B-sides and later on the Afterglow boxset. And that's a shame as some of this extra material was even better than what made it onto the actual album. One song in particular, Hello My Old Friend, was sort of like the Beatles meet neo prog.

Anyway, all that trivia aside, this is a great, if underrated pop album of the 1980's and the last interesting work of the band. However, since there isn't any progressive rock on it, I can only recommend to fans and collectors only, thus only two stars. Still, if you're interested in synthesizer-laced, but tasteful 1980's pop rock and can bear cheesy lyrics, you might want to take the time to seek this one out. Otherwise, go with something from their first three studio releases.

Report this review (#69293)
Posted Monday, February 13, 2006 | Review Permalink
Prog Folk Researcher
1 stars Secret Messages was almost the end for Jeff Lynne and ELO. There would be one more album (Balance of Power) a few years later, but I'm not really sure why. By this point Lynne was simply punching a ticket to fulfill record company contracts. Long gone are the lush and exciting cello/violin string arrangements, as well as most of the other non- synthesized instrumentation. Also gone is any semblance of creative expression in the music.

Lynne always had a knack for churning out assembly-line, by-the-numbers tunes, but usually reserved such tripe for movie soundtracks (Xanadu, Electric Dreams, Shanghai Surprise), or for his ultra-cheesy solo dance albums (Doin' that Crazy Thing, Every Little Thing). With this album he no longer kept up a facade of separating the band from his own fad-conscious sensibilities. The result is an incredibly boring and lifeless album, and one which features virtually no actual musical instruments on several songs, Lynne relying instead on DMX drum tracks, synthetic keyboards of all varieties, and something called a Bottronix (whatever!). There are a couple tracks with uncredited strings, but frankly it's hard to tell if even these are real given the heavy amount of studio remixing, overdubs, and other wizardy Lynne had by then become so adept at. Mik Kaminski does make an appearance with his violin for the last song ("Rock and Roll is King"), but this is such an obvious and trite attempt at a radio hit that even Kamisnki can't save it.

There's really not much point in walking through this track-by-track, since most of them are uniformly bland and lifeless. A couple of small highlights will do:

"Stranger" sounds like it's right out of Discovery, but without any real instruments except the voices, and even these are highly massaged. The rest of side A ("Loser Gone Wild", "Bluebird", and "Take Me on and On") are slow, highly-synthesized numbers that appear to have been recorded for the sole purpose of providing a middle-school roller-skating party with some slow music for the couples-only session.

Side B is quite frankly worse, primarily because Lynne appears to have decided to try and pass off some really low-grade Beatlesque music as something new ("Stranger", "Danger Ahead"). The next two tracks aren't worth expanding on.

The album closes with "Rock and Roll is King", an upbeat, rocking number (hance the name), but like I said - an obvious attempt at a single (which I believe it was, in fact). Aside from a mildly interesting violin solo by Kaminski, the rest of this one sounds like a poor imitation of the highly-annoying 80s retro-band Stray Cats.

I'm as strong an apologist as anyone for Jeff Lynne, especially in the early part of his career where not everything the band tried was a success, but at least they tried. On Secret Messages the 'band', if you could even call it that by this point, was simply phoning this one in to satisfy a contract. Stay away, not even for collectors. One star.


Report this review (#88251)
Posted Saturday, August 26, 2006 | Review Permalink
1 stars Another attempt to produce a "symphony" ?

Sounds so with the intro of the title track (as usual since "El Dorado"). Only with the intro. After forty-five seconds, we are back again in the pop / disco / synth ELO repertoire. Lots of poor stuff here. The worse is being reached with "Time After Time". It is a real pity. At least the ones who bought the vinyl album have escaped this track, but the lucky ones who purchased the CD version (not talking about the remastering one with three "bonus" tracks) had to suffer an additional four minutes of the poorest synth and uninspired music. Dreadful, really.

The first bearable track is "Four Little Diamonds". It is not a jewel of course, but at least it is a decent rock'n'roll song. A nice little rock break in an ocean of syrupous "music". "Stranger" is not too bad either : a nice melody like the master wrote an awful lot during all those years. The chorus is a bit childish, but compared to the other tracks, it is good to hear that Jeff's talent has not completely disappeared. I can also live with "Letter From Spain" which is a very smooth ballad.

"Rock & Roll Is King" is another bearable track. It is the closing number ... At least, when writing a rock'n'roll song, Jeff is still performant. He should have stuck more to this genre if the he couldn't find the inspiration for the fabulous melodies he used to write. At the very end of the song, the intro from the title shows up again (you know, like in "El Dorado"). But "El Dorado" was a masterpiece.

This album leaves me with the feeling of misery, really. Compleztely dull, almost all the way through. Gone the superb vocal harmonies, gone the wonderful melodies, gone the great string arrangements. What's left is just a boring record. An insult for this great songwriter that Jeff used to be.

At this point of time, I think it would have been wiser to call it quit for ELO, but they will still go on. Alas. This "record" will reach the fourth spot in the UK charts. Yes, number four, you are not dreaming. The best feature of this album is probably the cover artwork.

One star of course.

Report this review (#118465)
Posted Sunday, April 15, 2007 | Review Permalink
Easy Livin
Honorary Collaborator / Retired Admin
2 stars "I don't mind if violins don't play" (Loser gone wild)

The penultimate ELO album with Jeff Lynne until he repossessed the name in 2001, is very much a case of "Time" part 2. Indeed the title track which kicks off the album sounds very much like a discarded outtake from "Time", in terms of both the lyrics and the musical style. This was originally intended to be a double album, but the record company, probably wisely, vetoed the proposal. Some of the omitted tracks can be found on the re-mastered version of the CD.

If you regretted that ELO had surrendered to the lure of the pop pay-cheque on previous albums, you are going to be especially disappointed here. The contents make everything which came before seem positively complex and challenging. Every song here is a potential hit single, except that by this time the ELO bubble had burst. Their audience were tiring of the same verse/chorus pop songs which the band persisted in releasing as singles, becoming less and less receptive to continued requests for their hard earned cash. The "Orchestra" part of the band name is by now something of a misnomer, violin not even featuring in the line up. That said, Louis Clark arranged strings on three tracks, and Mik Kaminski returns for a violin solo on the last track. The album sold well nonetheless, but is largely forgotten in terms of their back catalogue.

The real problem here though is that the song writing is rather hit and miss. Jeff Lynne writes all the songs as usual, but it seems he has finally run out of inspiration, and is running on empty. Songs such as "Loser gone wild" and "Bluebird" are little more than facsimiles of facsimiles. They still have the strong Beatles influence which has always been an acknowledged feature of ELO's work, but they come across as little more than reworkings of previous ELO songs.

It would be wrong however to imply that the album is a complete disaster. Lynne is one of the masters of the three minute pop song. His production, the walls of sound, and the catchy melodies are all still here. Had this been the first album by ELO, it could have been a minor pop classic. The fact is though that it follows a string of such albums without ever breaking out of the well worn rut.

The album title by the way, is a reference to the accusations that ELO and other bands had included secret message in their albums. The sleeve here bears the notation "Warning: Contains secret backward messages".

Report this review (#123208)
Posted Thursday, May 24, 2007 | Review Permalink
2 stars ELO's Secret Messages is probably more interesting for its history than the actual music that was on it. Lynne admits that Secret Messages was just a fulfillment of contractual obligations with the record company, so really I guess he wasn't giving his full 100 percent. The record was originally planned to be a double album, but the record company indicated that it would have been too expensive (and besides, their sales appeal had been waning by 1983). I have to wonder if making a double album would have relieved Lynne of his contract, as he had to make one more album for them (Balance of Power in 1986). Anyway, he was left with six songs that would find their way onto B-sides and the Afterglow box set (released in 1990). The remaining material formed the Secret Messages album. Strangely enough, the songs that didn't make the album were often better than the album itself (e.g. Hello My Old Friend and Mandalay).

Although Lynne was only fulfilling a contract, the music he did create for this album really wasn't that bad for this time period in music history. In fact, many of the songs could still stand on their own years later as decent, nicely arranged pop rock, although the album did contain some filler. I would opine that Secret Messages was about on par with Time in quality, but sounded more polished and more "electric." The orchestra was completely missing on this album with only a guest appearance of Mik Kaminski on one song. Real strings were replaced by synthesizers (which was common for this time period). Thus it sounds sort of like a remodeled ELO and some might say a colder ELO because of the digitized sound, lacking the warmth of their traditional analogue instruments of the 1970s.

Secret Messages, as the title suggests, has scattered hidden messages throughout the record. These include backmasked messages and the album's name spelled out in Morse code at the beginning and end. This was Lynne's response to allegations that earlier ELO albums had hidden Satanic messages. This album would also see the dismissal of bassist Kelly Groucutt after it was completed. Groucutt later sued Lynne for lost royalties and settled out of court.

An interesting, yet inconsistent album. If Lynne had not been just fulfilling contractual obligations, I have to wonder where ELO would have been and how they would have sounded. Probably the same pop rock as before, but maybe better and higher quality material than what was released. Who knows? Definitely an interesting acquisition for ELO and Jeff Lynne fans. Since it lacks any real progressive rock, I can't go past two stars.

Report this review (#146906)
Posted Thursday, October 25, 2007 | Review Permalink
4 stars Electric Light Orchestra "Secret Messages" 1983

While in boot camp, I bought 2 cassette tapes, one of which was Secret Msgs. Besides having a naked statue on the front I adored E.L.O. I listened to this album every night.

1. Secret Messages 4:44. What a wonderful ELO beginning, reverse dialogue and a whispering "secret messages" solid drums then guitars take over with a Morse code type key. The production of this is excellent with Lynne's vocals, almost hypnotic. This brings you into the feel of the album which then takes a Parson's flow into the next track?.

2. Loser Gone Wild 5:26. Muted trumpet in a jazzy style "I don't mind if violins don't play, I won't listen to them anyway, I don't care what people say, some things just can't be arranged", I think a profound statement from Lynne considering he had fired his string section.

3. Bluebird 4:06. My favorite on this album. A strong feel good entrance after a somber closing from "Loser". Excellent vocals with backing, how he takes you through moods in this with flirting keys and changes is amazing, "The places that I go, don't feel good anymore" fly away???..such beauty.

4. Take Me On and On 5:03. Back to a soft flow of melancholy with Lynne emphasized on his vocals. Very clean, with great backing vocals. Almost Steve Millerish.

5. Time After Time 4:03. Opening sounds like it came right off of "Time"1981. Up tempo track, different styled vocal with rhythmic drums, floating keys, then changes and synthed strings I believe. "The beauty of Earth from way up high, shines like a jewel upon the velvet sky".

6. Four Little Diamonds 4:07. "Is this on? After 4.?4!" A rock n roll ELO song, good lyrics. Some nice changes and key swirls.

7. Stranger 4:28. Great guitar and key combo when Lynne comes in and takes you into his story. I guess you could call it poppy but not something you'd here on radio, (maybe if Clapton had done it). Screw radio. A very solid piece IMO.

8. Danger Ahead 3:53 Hard guitars then keys, then drums, enter vocals, another short poppyish tune. Only redemption is the change sequence with strings and reverse vocals.

9. Letter From Spain 2:52. At 2:52 I believe this to be one of the slowest songs ever recorded lol. I do enjoy it. Great lyrics about a guy missing his girlfriend who is an Actress in Spain. Backing vocals add to the storyline.

10. Train of Gold 4:21. Choo choo choo. Jazzy harmonica with reverberated vocals very strong. Guitar pick center very nice.

11. Rock & Roll is King 3:47. The only song from this album to get air play.

Though no epic pieces on this album lest we put the 1st 2 tracks as one which still isn't epic but very nice. You get the full sense of Jeff. I enjoy this album very much, I hope you do too. 3.8

Report this review (#359813)
Posted Tuesday, December 21, 2010 | Review Permalink
3 stars Ok. I'm gonna have to admit it. I actually enjoy much of this album. Yeah, it's synth-pop for the most part and somewhat dated, but dang-it-all I still listen to it every now and then. Only a few poor tracks like "Bluebird" and "Letter from Spain" dog it down and stop the nice flow it has. Jeff Lynne is a pop genius and knows how to craft a pop tune and how to place songs on an album so it flows well. Electric Light Orchestra is not really an orchestra on SECRET MESSAGES like earlier albums such as ELO II and ON THE THIRD DAY, but it is still recognizable as an ELO and Jeff Lynne album.
Report this review (#733590)
Posted Friday, April 20, 2012 | Review Permalink

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