Record Review: Visage – Demons To Diamonds [part 1]

visage - demonstodiamondsUKCDA

August Day UK | 2xCD | 2015 | ADAY023

Visage: Demons To Diamonds DLX UK 2xCD [2015]

Disc 1

  1. Before You Win
  2. Become
  3. Loving The Alien
  4. Days Become Dark
  5. Seven Deadly Sins [Part III]
  6.  Aurora
  7. Your Skin Is My Sin
  8. Clubscene
  9. Star City
  10. Never

Disc 2

  1. Before You Win [Radio Edit]
  2. Never Enough [Richard Stone + John Bryan In Prague Version]
  3. Star City [Orbital Ambient Version]

I have to admit it; the second I heard of Steve Strange’s tragic death last February, the first thought that ran through my mind was “Oh, I hope that they got his vocals down for the upcoming album!” Selfish, I know, but I had gotten so much out of the new Visage project. It completely exceeded all expectations and stood alone as an example of how to mount a comeback that respected the band’s legacy [and even enhanced it] but with all eyes pointing forward to the here and now. The album sounded fantastic; like a fantasy Visage album recorded in 1979 with Robin Simon on guitar straight out of Ultravox, but the songs contained emotional frissons that were absolutely not part and parcel of any previous music by Visage. It made the package a lot richer for me.

Word began to filter out a couple of months ago about “Demons To Diamonds,” the final Visage album, and when the preorder web shop copy was announced with a bonus remix CD-R, I wasted no time in ordering my copy.

It arrived on Thursday and I’ve been giving it a few listens. Like the “Hearts + Knives” album, this one leads off with a strong cut. “Before You Win” featured distinctive “detuned” synths juxtaposed against flanged synth riffs that parried with the tougher guitar lines. If there was a drum machine here, it was mixed far down, giving the track a live in the studio vibe. Steve sounded like he may have been addressing the song to himself. The arrangement was sophisticated and almost jazzy here for a real different vibe.

For “Become,” the synth bass in the intro syncopated wonderfully with the drums and the guitar of Robin Simon. Vocalist Lauren Thomas got a striking center stage spotlight on the song’s wonderfully hooky chorus, where Steve sang a subordinate melody line where he repeated just the song’s title. It’s an effervescent tune that really delivered. It was all the more shocking because I had heard the first release of this Midge Ure tune, which felt disappointing in contrast. In fact, the Visage version of this song was so good, I really didn’t recognize it as the Midge Ure single from last year until some research on the number revealed the shocking fact. The Visage team really pulled this one together in a way that I would have never imaged up front.

Then came a much higher profile cover version; “Loving The Alien.” I have to hand it to Steve; it took nerve to cover this star-crossed Bowie song. It has stood the test of time as the standout track from the ghastly “Tonight” album of 1984, but that didn’t mean that it couldn’t be improved upon. While Bowie’s songwriting and vocal there were on form, the arrangement and production of the number always veered into [I suspect] unintended kitsch. The CR78 rhythm bed, with shimmering bursts of synths setting up the song here got off on a much better footing. Robin Simon supplied what the original was most lacking in spades; memorable guitar playing. The end result had a much tighter band vibe than on the tentative earlier version by the Detroit Starrzz. While still no match vocally for The Dame, Steve sounded much stronger here than on the 2012 version. Strange could never out sing Bowie [and he’d be the first to admit it], but the arrangement and playing put across what this song had always needed; the fat trimmed off and a tougher dance stance supplanting the rococo camp of the original.

The resilient “Days Become Dark” featured stronger, grimier riffage from Simon over its insistent beat. This suited the lyrics perfectly until the lead in from the first verse to the upbeat chorus filled the somewhat downbeat song with the kind of paradoxical energy that always works for me. Lauren Thomas’ backing harmonies on the chorus really help to lift it higher. I really respond to euphoric music with melancholy lyrical content like this. I loved how the middle eight floated by in dreamlike, helf-speed tempo before tightening up for the coda.

The last song on “side one” was a known quantity to me. I’ve had the 12” of “Lost In Static” for some time now, and its B-side was “The Seven Deadly Sins [part 2]” and the nearly eight minute track was what I assumed was an extended version of the one on this album. I could not have been more wrong! Part Three as evidenced here, was a radically different version with a drastically slower tempo and featuring one of my favorite old wave synth techniques; white noise synth percussion for rhythm. Every aspect of the song was different. Primarily, the spaced-out, slow motion blues licks on offer from Robin Simon here recalled Charlie Burchill most strongly, which was an irony considering that Mick MacNeil’s distinctive keys were all over Part Two, but absent on this track. The verses were excised from here as well, and the chorus was enhanced with Lauren Thomas’ harmonies. Parts Two and Three were so different I really am wondering what Part One could possibly be like.

Next: …Side two beckons

About postpunkmonk

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5 Responses to Record Review: Visage – Demons To Diamonds [part 1]

  1. Gavin says:

    I’m so relieved you seem to like it as much as I do. Great observations,can’t wait to hear what you made of ‘Aurora’.
    The whole album is so catchy and memorable it’s untrue. Old Ma Egan is hopefully choking on her industrial-size bag of sour grapes.

    Like

  2. Echorich says:

    So here’s my set up. I purposely didn’t allow myself to get overly excited about the prospect of the songs on Demons To Diamonds matching anything on Hearts + Knives. Just as The Anvil didn’t really provide the follow-up pay off it could have – well not initially, time and tides have made it a much more vital album than I would have ever imagined.
    But with that air of fan cynicism offering a buffer, I was greatly surprised and happy with what came from my speakers when Demons To Diamonds got going.

    Before You Win opens with all the confidence and strength that Hearts + Knives could have possibly provided Visage – and they used it in a greatly successful way. The opening detuned synths absolutely transported me back to 79/80! Robin Simon plays with a cool, confident passion that comes from only the best guitarists. He knows it’s not only his show, but he doesn’t need to back off either. And Steve’s delivery and those oh so self reflective lyrics are the glue and glitter that makes this a Visage classic.

    I don’t know if recording Become – the song that legend has it was Ure offering to the stalled Strange/Egan version of Visage Mk.3 a few years back – was included as a passing swipe at all those, Ure and Egan included, who saw no hope of future in a Strange led Visage without them, or if it was, like Dreamer I Know on Hearts + Knives, the band making a statement that they knew exactly what was needed to make this song a Visage song. It’s funny that I think it’s one of the weakest songs on Ure’s most recent solo album, yet one of the strongest songs on this album.

    I still get embarrassed when I hear Detroit Starrzz (hate that band name) version of Loving The Alien. While both versions share the same opening tempo, the earlier attempt flirts too much with the Bowie version leaving it sounding hollow and overdone. Strange’s vocals on that version are also far from enjoyable, what with all the effects laid on it. But all is forgiven/forgotten with this Visage crack at Bowie’s misbegotten classic. The dance elements are much less cloaked in pomp and Robin Simon enhances with his guitar effects where the former version slammed the listener over the head with guitar solos. The CR-78/Jupiter 8 sounds as if Logan Sky was again let loose on it to give it some classic synth cred and that works in spades. This version of Loving The Alien is in every way a success.

    Deep into “side one” and Visage give us a song that screams SINGLE. There is a air of real redemption and acceptance in Strange’s lyric on Days Become Dark and the song has a positive, hopeful feeling about it – as if among the ruins, there’s still possibility. On Hearts + Knives I was immediately drawn to Living In Static and it is now one of my all time favorite Visage songs. Days Become Dark has that same sort of immediacy for me. I’ve hit repeat on it every time I hear it. Both songs feel like a window into Steve Strange that doesn’t require layers to pealed away – as if he is waiting for you to see him for what he is/was.

    Track 5 is a beautiful example of how beauty can flourish from minimalism. I’m not for a minute saying Seven Deadly Sins Part Three is minimalist. There is too much creative force in Visage Mk.3 for that to really happen, but the basics are present, simple patterns and vocal repetition with each line of rhythm and melody easily picked out but coming together to create something more complex. Robin Simon shines very hard here. Monk, your name checking of Burchill is spot on. This is truly Simon and Havlicek’s version of the song. It also puts a beautiful coda on the strength of the first four song and prepares the listener for what’s ahead.

    Like

    • postpunkmonk says:

      Echorich – In a perfect world both “Before You Win” and “Days Become Dark” would be triumphant Visage CD singles; packed with strong remixes. Alas, the likelihood of singles now is probably nil. We’re lucky to have the album and that may be it. Unless Team Visage have surprises I would not anticipate up their sleeves.

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      • Echorich says:

        I agree. The only possibility would be with Bryan and Havicek so involved in the music on this album, maybe they would feel ok remixing. Nothing is out of the question when it comes to Visage Mk.3. They have given quite a lot quality music though, so I won’t complain if this is everything.

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