A second long-player this year from Lancashire’s finest and this time it’s purely instrumental
After a two-part 35-year career spanning half a dozen albums, as well as numerous re-releases and compilations, you’d be forgiven for thinking Blancmange have little left to give. With 2011’s ‘Blanc Burn’ return, the duo surprised everyone with a darker side to their sometimes camp and always eclectic electronic melodies. So began a genuinely exciting new era for them.
Since Stephen Luscombe retired following a prolonged illness, Neil Arthur continues to play with notions and notes, and here serves up a further surprise in the shape of ‘Nil By Mouth’, a wholly instrumental outing from someone whose vocals are more distinctive than most.
Its opener, ‘Eleanor’, is a witty combination of chord arpeggios that young learners of the pianoforte would refer to as “walking upstairs” in their daily practice routine, perhaps declaring the album as an intellectual reaction to Bach’s ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier’-inspired keyboard wizardry. A Blancmange lifetime theme has been to make the complex and deep sound free and easy.
This innocent trail of chords echoes throughout the whole album – even in the darkly compelling tracks like ‘Son’ or ‘Fall’. The latter is perhaps the most abstract contribution, with its open spaces and classical phrasing. ‘Landsea’ is perfect, a polite, intricate guitar and a simple synth melody, much the same as “walking upstairs” but now including “skipping downstairs”, aware of the purity it has in mind and therefore hitting the mark as supremely arty and wonderful, rather than just brilliant. But there’s more to come with ‘Crystals Of Zircon’ and its nod to tribal rhythms and the swell and pace of 90s trance dance. On any other artist’s album, this would be the stormer, here it’s almost the filler, seeming less deep, awkward and interesting than its friends.
The track titles suggest that Neil Arthur wants the listener to construct their own narrative, but as ‘Nil By Mouth’ progresses you realise he is building a scene, words or no, and the messages are clear. Many of these titles sound like a story unfolding, even without the guidance of a dialogue: ‘Gone’, ‘Close Encounters’, ‘Holiday Camp’… If anything, tracks without words turn daisies into exotic flowers, by which I mean there are multiple levels of aural delight: you are not restricted to attaching yourself to a storyline/song structure, and unlike a lot of modern electronic music, you are not given safety nets in the form of a consistent back beat or loop. Only the random echo of that chord arpeggio.
‘Nil By Mouth’ is such a good title for an instrumental record, it’s surprising no other musical pioneer has thought of it before, but it takes a lot of skill and confidence to trust that your art will explain itself without words. Especially when you are known for that very form of expression.