Exploring the erotic, hypnotic and chilled-out ambience of Enigma.
The problem with reviewing five Enigma albums back to back is that after a while, they all begin to blur into one. Most bands, of course, have a sound that they might only vary from to slight degrees, but few of those bands have such an immediately distinctive and recognisable sound as this act, less a band and more a creative project for producer Michael Cretu. So the fact that you are essentially hearing variations on the same theme over five LPs becomes a lot more obvious here that it might do with some rock band who already sound like a whole bunch of their contemporaries. It’s a problem simply because it becomes hard to judge each of these albums as a separate piece. Instead, you become acutely aware of their similarities in a way that would still be obvious, but wouldn’t be a critical issue, if you were playing these over a few weeks, let alone hearing them over a thirteen-year period as they were originally released.
Admittedly, many of these albums could have been recording in the same sessions. But that’s not so awful – each stands up on its own as a solid piece of music. And while each album is made up of several tracks, they are all really single pieces – musically, if not lyrically conceptual and closer to film soundtracks than any sort of traditional album, with the tracks seamlessly flowing into each other. They are a curious conundrum – not records you can ideally split into individual tracks on an iPod shuffle, not something you might listen to in the way you would a rock or pop record, but also not the ambient background music of the new age or chill-out album. And not quite dance music either.
Instead, the Enigma albums seem to exist in their own unique space, where they allow the listener to float away into a different world, very much at the fore of your consciousness. The first album, MCMXC AD, was a popular soundtrack to fetish parties in the early Nineties – no surprise, given the nature of the recording – and there’s a sensuality running through each recording. Crude as it sounds, it does sometimes feel as though these are essentially albums to fuck to, providing you have an adventurous approach to sex. It’s no surprise that adult movie genius Michael Ninn used Enigma-inspired soundtracks on all his astonishing early Nineties movies like Sex and Latex.
Of course, for many people, the fact that there is more than one Enigma album might be a bit of a surprise. So this box set is a welcome reminder that the project was more than a one-shot. It contains the first five albums (there are a couple more after these), each in a cardboard gatefold cover and housed in a slipcase – a nice, if unspectacular package.
If you’ve heard an Enigma album, then it will be 1990’s MCMXC AD. And if you haven’t, you’ll probably still be familiar with the hit single Sadeness, which is actually part of a near 12-minute suite also comprising The Principles of Lust. When this first came out, it was pretty much unlike anything that anyone had heard before – the use of Gregorian chants, the dance beat, the Shakuhachi flutes and the orgasmic female moaning creating a heady combination of sexuality and religious devotion that sounded like it belonged on a European nunsploitation movie.
The album opens with The Voice of Enigma, which essentially sets out the concept of the album (and the project) and even gives listening notes (“turn off the light… take a deep breath… and relax… start to move slowly… let the rhythm be your guiding light”). This track moves seamlessly into the three-part Principles of Lust (Sadeness / Find Love / Sadeness), which of course was misinterpreted as many as being about melancholy. But this is Sade-ness, not sadness – as in the Divine Marquis. And that kinky sexual element is reflected in the beat of the track, that not only seems perfect for vanilla sex but almost demands the rituals of BDSM. It’s a near-perfect piece of music, and if the rest of the album seems a let down afterwards, that’s less the fault of the music than it is the impossibility of sustaining this level of quality for the whole album. In fact, tracks like Callas Went Away and Mea Culpa are highly impressive pieces in their own right, and the three-part closer Back to the Rivers of Belief is a grand finale to events, this time replacing the sensuality with spirituality.
Perhaps inevitably, the subsequent albums are somewhat cursed, feeling like they do as more of the same, but without the level of perfection that the first 15 minutes of the debut album achieved. That’s not to say that these are not good albums – each is an impressive mix of the sacred and the profane, a conceptual piece of music that is designed to take you out of the mundanities of life. But do you need them? Possibly not.
The Cross of Changes, from 1993, varies things up to a degree, with the Gregorian chants replaced with ethnic vocals – there’s a native American vibe running throughout – and more of a rock feel on certain tracks. I Love You… I’ll Kill You, for instance, breaks into a furious guitar solo midway through its nine-minute length. I’m not sure there even are guitars on the first album. Similarly, Out of the Deep sounds like someone trying to pastiche the Beatles, and feels rather out of place.
The album certainly has its epic set pieces – The Eyes of Truth – but there’s less of a sense of wholeness about the album, with more obvious single tracks (Return to Innocence, film soundtrack number Age of Innocence (Carly’s Song)). But it’s still pretty damned good on the whole, even if it does feel more like a traditional new age album than the debut. It’s perhaps at its best on stripped-back numbers like The Dream of the Dolphin or the title track, which have a minimalist beauty to them.
Le Roi Est Mort, Vive Le Roi from 1996 sees the return of the Gregorian chants, and feels like a combination of the first two albums, though definitely recreating the signature Enigma sound for the most part. Again, tracks are sometimes linked with female spoken voice-over, as in Third of Its Kind, a nineteen-second link that sets out the connection between the two earlier albums. There’s a lot more vocal from Cretu here, which isn’t necessarily a good thing: Enigma works best as a musical project, and when it breaks down to vocal-led dance tracks, the album is at its weakest. Songs like Why! are not particularly memorable or impressive. Much better are quiet instrumental pieces like Shadows in Silence or Almost Full Moon.
The Screen Behind the Mirror, from 2000, is very much like the first album, with breathy female vocals, gasps and moans of passion in the background and a sense of orchestral epicness underpinning the chilled out dance beats of the opening track (if we disregard atmosphere builder The Gate) Push the Limits. The Gregorian chants are replaced with a choir on the moody ballad Gravity of Love, which is even closer to movie soundtrack grandeur than most Enigma tracks. Smell of Desire, primarily instrumental but for buried backing vocals and sighs, is as erotically charged as anything from MCMXC AD, while otherwise forgettable Euro rock numbers Modern Crusaders and Camera Obscura are salvaged by Omen soundtrack chants which are pleasing to hear. The other impressive tracks are also callbacks to the original album – Endless Quest in particular.
The final album in the set, Voyageur, hails from 2003 and is rather more forceful than what has gone before. The title track, Incognito… all have a sense of funked-up aggression in place of the sensuality of the other records. Subsequently, there’s less of a musical flow in evidence and less here to grab you on an emotional level. No Gregorian chants, no Shakuhachi flutes and too much euro-pop make this a disappointment.
But here’s the thing – I don’t know if Voyageur didn’t grab me because it’s not as good an album as the others, or simply because it was too much of a sudden lurch into a (relatively) different sound. Had I heard this without having just listened to the other albums, I might well have appreciated it more. I can’t, hand on heart, say it’s a bad album.
If you have fond memories of Sadeness and The Principles of Lust – or if you simply enjoy lush, erotic and seductive ambient dance music – this collection is well worth picking up, especially at a bargain price. All the albums are worth a listen and are ideal late-night listening.