Sharps & flats

On "The Seduction of Claude Debussy," Art of Noise offer a playfully pretentious tribute to the father of modern music.

Published July 13, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Art of Noise have never been afraid to risk being corny or pretentious. The English group's playful early hit "Close (to the Edit)" (1984) was incredibly ahead of its time, even if the outsized silliness of its geeky-funky synth lines and bombastic bass sound a bit cringe-worthy today. That song, like much of the band's early work, prefigured a lot of techno and big beat by marrying deep hip-hop bass to hyperactive electro melodies and of snatches of vocal samples -- an old formula now, but relatively new when Art of Noise formed in 1983, taking their name from a Futurist manifesto. Their first and best album --
"Who's Afraid of?" -- tempered noise-collage artsiness with a passion for the most accessible pop, a combination that made their work seem at once intellectually ambitious and charmingly kitschy, like a cross between German experimentalists Can and the Swiss duo Yello.

That mixture of sophistication and cheesiness is especially evident on the odd, intermittently gorgeous "The Seduction of Claude Debussy," the first Art of Noise album with the original lineup since their full-length debut. Significantly, the record marks the return of founder Trevor Horn, who left the band in 1985. After the departure of Horn (who also co-founded '70s one-hitters the Buggles), Art of Noise's experimental ebullience seemed a bit forced. Now he's back, and so is the band's fearless, playful genre alchemy.

"Seduction" is a kind of drum 'n' bass homage to the French impressionist composer who, because he prized pure sound and texture over harmony and melody, is considered the father of modern music. It is, unquestionably, a pretentious album, pairing opera with a rap about Baudelaire, a capsule Debussy biography and samples of the composer's work interlaced with digital beats. Electronic music, like pop generally, has an uneasy relationship with highbrow theory -- witness the venom directed at DJ Spooky when he name-checked Derrida -- but "Seduction" is nonetheless a fascinating record that, unlike Spooky's work, matches erudition with beauty and thrilling rhythms.

Electronic music blends far more easily with classical than with rock, both because the new genre has never been limited by a verse-chorus-verse structure and because strings, horn and piano samples have always found their way into techno compositions. Art of Noise's use of Debussy sounds entirely natural, lending the slower, more ambient tracks a pristine pastoral grace. On the wilder "Born on a Sunday," a throbbing jungle rhythm vies for prominence with an enchanting bit of Debussy's famous "La Mer," giving the sense of a sonic time machine racing between a turn of the century concert hall and a pre-millennial nightclub.

In the end, "The Seduction" is as emotionally beguiling as it is thought-provoking: It's about beauty and romanticism, not postmodern dissonance and anxiety. "Dreaming in Color" is the most stunning track on the album, with airy, subtle drum 'n' bass and whispery French vocals that give way to soaring operatic interludes. Structurally, it almost recalls Debussy's own "Fjtes," in which grandiose orchestral climaxes arise from a reverie of soft, rumbling percussion and delicate, ticklish horns.

Actor John Hurt narrates the short Debussy biography and makes it at least as profound as it is pedantic. "Sound and perfume swirl in the evening air," he quotes Baudelaire on "Rapt: In the Evening Air." Evolving from a simple piano melody into a lush, velvety ambient track, the music seems like the very embodiment of that evocative phrase. In the same song, it's exhilarating to hear old-school rapper Rakim rhyme "compare" with "Baudelaire," creating a link between two wildly disparate generations of hedonistic poets simply with the force of his deep, rough voice.

Not all of the album works so seamlessly. Some of the opera parts are especially overblown into Andrew Lloyd Webber schmaltz, and the jazz passages are mired in fusion banality. But "The Seduction" is nonetheless a huge accomplishment, one that demonstrates how mature electronic musicians can transcend the phat-beats brainlessness without falling into the kind of overblown ponderousness that marked, say, Goldie's Oedipal epic "Mother." By returning to the 19th and early-20th century instead of the popular sampler scavenging grounds of the '60s and '70s, Art of Noise have brought classical romance into the most modern of music.

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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