Heaven 17: Pray UK 12″ 
- Pray [October 2014 mix]
- Illumination [October 2014 mix]
If one can remember back to the distant hazy time of September 2014, I had posted about the “Tour Of Synthetic Delights” that stalwart synth bands Heaven 17 and Blancmange held in the UK at the end of the year. One of the more intriguing things about the tour was news that there would be a new Heaven 17 ‘limited-edition” vinyl 12″ single from the legendary upcoming album produced in the same window. At the time, I surmised that this might be a Record Store Day single, but by October, when the tour was about to get underway, it was revealed that the 12″ was from their sessions for the Heaven 17 album yet to come.
It would be pressed in modest numbers and sold on the band’s merch table on said tour. Tantalizing! But this Monk had taken a vow of poverty last year, with all funds going toward a rare fortnight + vacation. One which included trips to the cities where all three Amoeba stores dwelled in California. So money for this sort of thing was necessarily curtailed. Besides, while it would have been conceptually delightful to own any and all H17 vinyl [an honorable pursuit, I’d say] with my budget, redundant vinyl of music I would be purchasing on CD is usually avoided, except for the rare few. That 300 copies were going to get released into the wild was interesting, but not necessary. That was until I saw when the release had been entered into the Discogs.com database that these were marked on their labels “work in progress mixes – October 2014.”
Cue the screeching of mental brakes! That changed everything! After the new year, it was imperative to buy this if at all possible. We’re talking H17 rarities and that’s what I’m all about. When some of my records sold on Discogs in the new year, as soon as I had enough for the £10 plus postage charge I went to see if the H17 store still had this for sale. And they did. [clicks purchase button] Shockingly, they still do. That is to say, 300 copies of this 12″ have not sold out even after sitting on a merch table for their last large tour in October/November of last year, nor have the subsequent months of web traffic and the odd gig at the Jazz Cafe [see left] depleted their stores of this disc. Let the world’s loss be your gain. Every H17 fan should buy this release. Not only to the proceeds go 100% to the completion of their new opus, but it’s the best single Heaven 17 have released since “Train Of Love In Motion.” Honestly, overall, it’s their best since “Crushed By The Wheels Of Industry.”
“Pray” began magnificently with deep synth bass redolent of the intro notes to Depeche Mode’s “Any Second Now” from way back when. Just a duo of notes that keep the meter moving while other synth elements and a drum click gradually build to a minor key majesty over the course of 2:15 before more burbling sequencers herald the appearance of Glenn Gregory. Then rhythm guitar and bass guitar, courtesy of their live bassist Julian Crampton, eventually kick in to fill out the sound considerably from the austerity of the introduction.
This is also the most political H17 song I’ve heard since 1996’s tragically under heard “Bigger Than America.” The lyrics call out the “privileged and elite, all smiles and honest eyes” while the track becomes more and more generous as it unfolds, with creamy sax courtesy of Rob Hughes appearing to my surprise at the 4:16 mark. His solo is most welcome in the mix, adding some real fire to the sentiments airing here. After the sax enters, there’s almost no further synths on the track apart from a little string patch sweetening. And when the song fades out, it’s all down to rhythm guitar, bass guitar, and sax having the last work. It’s a superb sound and it slots in very handily to the vibe that the band were working during “The Luxury Gap.” Yes, that good!
The B-side, “Illumination” is down to just the core duo on synths and loops, and it starts out with a kinetic disco sound not a million miles away from the vibe on their last album “Before/After.” Then, out of nowhere, the pure Joe Meek synth solo at the bridge that Martyn sounds like he ripped screaming from the Tornadoes “Telstar” arrived! That sort of wild card in a high pressure electro disco cocktail like “Illumination” is utterly delightful. So unexpected. So magnificent for it. Martyn Ware is a genius who is peaking now if records like this, 2013’s B.E.F. opus, and …one other… are any evidence. And I think that they are! Speaking of “Before/After,” the huge difference in “Illumination” is that the surveillance oriented lyrics are exactly what was missing from that last dynamic, but intellectually disappointing H17 album.
“Before/After” had the temerity to drop earthward with a hedonistic disco sound in the middle of Bush/Blair, fer cryin’ out loud! Heaven 17 owed us all much more than disco songs [however well made] concerned with finding and keeping lovers. This has been since corrected. The lyrics here are the sort that we need from Heaven 17. What was it Funkadelic offered? That’s right, free your mind and your ass will follow. These two tracks hit that target full on.
It goes without saying that in terms of visceral bite, intellectual content, and the pleasure of performance, these new tracks are poised to take their place near the upper echelons of the H17 pantheon. Glenn Gregory has never sung better. Now that he has years of concerts under his belt, his instrument has been tempered and refined to a powerful degree, but then so has Martyn Ware’s! His backing vocals have never been better and offer more pleasure to the discerning ear. The inclusion of outside players bodes will for the new project. Julian Crampton, in particular, fills a John Wilson-shaped hole that has been in this band for 30 years. His playing here makes me eager to hear more from his bass guitar.
Finally, it says something significant that the only cover art that Malcolm Garrett has designed for music releases in the last 20 years have been for just three groups: The Buzzcocks, Magazine, and Heaven 17. Discerning collectors of Heaven 17 will need to add this to their lovingly curated collections, and know that each disc comes with a download code for those lacking a record player [shudder].
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