Synthesizer Classics is a new compilation of all-star synth-pop cover versions that feels like everyone involved is playing it safe.
Proving that we are always on the cutting edge of what is happening, no sooner did we run our examination of the synth-pop explosion of 1977 than Cleopatra Records announced the release of Synthesizer Classics, the last in the label’s series of cover version/tribute albums from all-star line-ups of acts that are loosely associated with the label (at least, the same names often pop up from project to project so I assume that there must be some sort of contractual connection). Given that several of the tracks on the album are the very same tunes that we discussed in that article, it seemed sensible to take a closer look at the record.
Now, we’ve reviewed a couple of these discs before – notably, the reconstruction of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here – and I don’t want to repeat myself too much… but a few points perhaps need reiterating. The most important is that I often wonder just what the point of these discs is, at least for the listener. By their very nature, they are not collections that set out to radically reinvent the original songs and recordings because that might alienate the buyer. Classic Rock (and let’s just call this ‘classic rock’ for a moment) fans are an increasingly set-in-their-ways demographic that has little time for the new and unfamiliar – hence legacy bands going out on tour performing old albums in their entirety rather than playing anything new that would have the audience either muttering discontentedly or openly shouting for whatever the band in question’s Freebird is. Once upon a time, these audiences craved the new and appreciated new interpretations of the songs that they knew inside out. Now, you tinker with the formula at your peril. Just play the hits and be done with it.
So these covers are not going to be especially original. But once you have that idea in your head, there is some fascination in seeing just what original flourishes can be brought to these tracks – and on this album, it feels as though there is a little bit more leeway given (or taken) because this isn’t a single band tribute but rather a collection of covers – and covers of tracks that are perhaps not (all) as familiar to that classic rock audience (assuming, of course, that the classic rock audience will even be interested in this). These are all great and important tracks but they perhaps offer more opportunities for slight tinkering, if only because modern technology allows the performer to beef up the number without losing its essence. These are, after all, instrumentals and so need to establish their own identity without the presence of a different vocalist – which has often been the only real point of difference between these covers and the originals.
The album opens with Tubular Bells, the Mike Oldfield track here performed by Derek Sherinian, and straight away there is an interpretation to be made here because even though everyone thinks that they know what Tubular Bells is – you know, that tune from The Exorcist – they are wrong. Tubular Bells is an album that consists of one (or, arguably, two) pieces of music and that particular motif is one movement within a greater whole. An entire album cover version of Tubular Bells seems too much – though I won’t be remotely surprised if one or more already exists – so Sherinian here focuses on the familiar rather than the bits of the album that are less well known. In a way, that’s a shame because there are definitely bits of the whole piece that could offer interesting musical opportunities. Sherinian sticks to what we recognise but underpins it with a moody, ominous bass background – his version of the track, perhaps because it exists as a stand-alone extract, takes on a 1980s Euro-synth movie soundtrack feel, which makes sense because Oldfield’s original is essentially just a repeating musical motif and once you have that in place, you can play to your heart’s content.
The track’s soundtrack vibe makes me regret that there are not more reinterpretations of famous synth movie scores included here. Perhaps those great Italian horror scores are just not that well known in the wider world, but it would’ve been interesting to see prog rock keyboardists tackling tracks by Goblin, Fabio Frizzi and the like. The movie music we do get is Pulse – Giorgio Moroder’s theme from Midnight Express, here given a sparse but lively interpretation by Jordan Rudess of Dream Theater – and John Carpenter’s Escape from New York is covered by Focus’s Thijs Van Leer in a version that doesn’t really add anything new and seems less atmospheric and sinister than Carpenter’s original.
No less than three former Yes keyboardists appear here. Rick Wakeman gets the plum track of Space’s Magic Fly and sprinkles a plethora of synth flourishes over the original disco beat, adding more flavour and at times coming close to over-egging things before smartly pulling back. It’s a great reworking, never losing the essence of the original track while adding a series of improvised noodling. Purists might hate this but presumably the original is not the sort of track that the purists are fixated on anyway. Elsewhere, Geoff Downes takes on Vangelis’ Pulstar (one of several synth tracks of the 1970s to be more familiar as a TV current affairs show theme than in its original context) and does a solid, if unremarkable job with the track, while Patrick Moraz takes on Jean-Michel Jarre’s Oxygene (like Tubular Bells, a small part of a greater whole, though at least in this case it is one that was released as a stand-alone single) without bringing anything new to it. Off all the tracks here, this feels the most like a facsimile.
Nite Jewel’s take on Kraftwerk’s Tour de France is the only non-instrumental on the album, which probably guarantees that it will be removed from the original courtesy of the female vocals. But otherwise, it feels oddly unadventurous and has an overly-busy 1980s production style that makes the original track seem positively spartan in comparison. Similarly, Larry Fast’s version of Koto’s Visitors is an over-produced recreation of the original. These two tracks are both originally from the 1980s and still sound like they belong in the era of production overkill. They both sound wildly dated while the songs from the 1970s seem fresh and modern. The 1980s was, of course, the worst time for music production, immediately dated and cumbersome in its excess – there really is no need to recreate a sound that feels woefully old-fashioned when covering the tracks of that time and I really wish there had been the will or the ability to try a completely new approach to these tracks, neither of which is awful in and of itself.
It’s this lack of adventure – the unwillingness to really go out on a limb and offer something new – that makes albums like this so frustrating. That goes for both the choice of track and the interpretation, both of which seem pitched entirely at people who only want the familiar. The problem with that requirement is that those people probably already have the original versions – why would they want duplicates, no matter how well crafted by big-name heritage acts? I’m sure these are easy and fairly enjoyable paydays for the performers, and presumably they must sell or else why would there be so many albums like this? Clearly, there is something here that I’m missing and I genuinely don’t know what that is. It does make a record like this difficult to critique because on the one hand, it’s a great collection of classic tunes performed by masters of their art, and on the other hand it’s entirely pointless and disposable. I’d be genuinely interested to hear from anyone who is buying albums like this – what is it that appeals about these collections? What am I not getting?
On that basis – if you like solid cover versions that don’t screw around with the original formula, or want to hear familiar-but-different versions of well-known music, or simply wonder what 1970s synth classics would sound like performed by (for the most part) prog behemoths of the era… then this is for you. I can’t say it is bad in any way. But equally, I can’t see a reason why I would want to play these versions over the originals.
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