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The Art of Noise
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The Art of Noise

The Art of Noise was a pop group formed in 1983 by producer Trevor Horn, music journalist Paul Morley, and session musicians/studio hands Anne Dudley, J.J. Jeczalik, and Gary Langan. The group's mostly instrumental compositions were novel and often clever melodic sound collages based on digital sampling technology, which was new at the time. Inspired by turn-of-the-century revolutions in music, the Art of Noise was initially packaged as a faceless anti- or non-group, blurring the distinction between the art and its creators. The band is considered to be among the pioneers of electronic music.

Beginnings

In 1983, Trevor Horn, who had achieved a New Wave hit in 1981 with "Video Killed The Radio Star", which he recorded with Jeff Downes under the name The Buggles, was working in the studio with Yes on what would become the album 90125, and with Frankie Goes to Hollywood on what would become the album Welcome to the Pleasuredome. In his employ were keyboardist/arranger Anne Dudley, keyboardist/programmer J.J. Jeczalik, and mixing engineer Gary Langan.

The impetus for the Art of Noise was the advent of the Fairlight CMI sampler, an electronic musical instrument that Horn was reportedly among the first to purchase. With the Fairlight, short digital sound recordings called samples could be "played" through a piano-like keyboard. While some musicians were using samples as adornment in their works, Horn and his companions saw the potential to craft entire compositions with the sampler, tossing the traditional rock aesthetic out the window, or at least turning it on its ear.

Samples, some borrowed from other pieces of music, such as the baritone "dum" from "Leave It" by Yes, but most coming from original sources had to be bathed in reverb to mask the early sampler's low fidelity. These sounds were then assembled, in the studio, into various instrumental arrangements and sound collages. This was at first done with very little input from musicians "playing" instruments as they would in a typical band, but later works introduced traditional instruments into the mix.

With Paul Morley providing much of the band's art direction, Horn, Dudley, Jeczalik, and Langan formed the initial incarnation of The Art of Noise. The group's debut EP, Into Battle with the Art of Noise, appeared in December 1983 on Horn's fledgling ZTT label. It immediately scored a hit in the urban and alternative dance charts in the USA with the highly percussive, cut-up instrumental track "Beat Box," a favorite among breakdancers.

Art for art's sake

Morley managed the packaging of the project as a faceless "non-group", a work of art, itself, that merely existed. Band members never appeared in photos without masks, and sleeve art was filled with manifestos, quotes, photographs, and graphic design elements that stood in stark contrast to the unimaginative photo-of-the-band-and-some-lyrics motifs that were typical at the time. Musically, aside from the cleverness of deftly juxtaposing found sounds, the project was also intended to pay homage to the influence of Claude Debussy, who revolutionized popular music at the beginning of the 20th century, and to the sonic "Art of Noises" experiments of Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo.

The early videos for "Close (to the Edit)" were impressive and unusual, becoming cult favorites on MTV. Critics' reviews of Into Battle and the more fully realized Who's Afraid (of the Art of Noise?) album (1984) were mixed, with some hailing the group's unique, deconstructive approach to sound and song construction, and others dismissing them as a pretentious novelty band.

Changes

In 1985, Morley and Horn split from the group and pursued other projects. The remaining members moved to the UK-based China Records label, keeping some of the band's original imagery and ethos alive in their second album, In Visible Silence. This album spawned the Grammy award-winning cover of the Peter Gunn theme, recorded with twangy guitar legend Duane Eddy reprising the lead rather than just being sampled. From this same album, the "Beat Box"-like single "Legs" was a mild underground hit in dance clubs, and "Paranoimia" achieved some success when a remix of it was released as a single with overdubbed vocal samples provided by the supposedly computer-generated character Max Headroom.

By 1987, the band's membership was down to just Jeczalik and Dudley. That year saw the release of their album In No Sense? Nonsense, which is considered by many to be among their best work, despite the inclusion of arguably "cutesy" tracks composed for the soundtracks of the movies Dragnet and Disorderlies. The album featured Jeczalik's best rhythmic collages to date, plus lush string arrangements, pieces for boys' choir, and keyboard melodies from Dudley. It didn't score any hits, although their record label tried mightily to push remixes of "Dragnet" into the dance clubs.

Hits and misses

In 1988, a lackluster, one-off collaboration with singer Tom Jones, a cover of Prince's "Kiss" (a staple in Jones' stage shows) renewed the public's interest in the Art of Noise and provided their biggest hit in the mainstream. China Records included the song on a greatest hits album, and it also appeared on subsequent albums by Jones. Only the first edition of the compilation contained tracks licensed from ZTT, though, diluting the band's reputation in later years.

The followup album, Below the Waste, with only a few inspired tunes, sounded like a hollow imitation of its predecessors, lacking the aesthetic and creative fullness of previous releases, and failing to achieve much success upon its release in 1989.

Compilations and solo

In 1990, Dudley and Jeczalik declared the Art of Noise was done, although they did assist in the promotion of the lightly remixed The Ambient Collection compilation that the China label released to cash in on the burgeoning ambient house scene.

The 1990s saw China Records releasing various disappointing Art of Noise compilations: The Ambient Collection, The FON Mixes, The Drum and Bass Collection, Art Works, and reissues of Best Of without the ZTT-era tracks). Some of these featured new remixes by other artists. The only one that was noteworthy was The Prodigy's masterful 1991 rework of "Instruments of Darkness" from In Visible Silence. The China label eventually folded.

Dudley became well-known for composing numerous film and television scores in the 1990s. The most famous of these is probably The Full Monty, which won an Academy Award for Original Music Score.

In 19951997, Jeczalik and In No Sense? Nonsense! co-engineer Bob Kraushaar produced a number of instrumentals oriented toward dance clubs under the name Art of Silence. Jeczalik also embarked on a new career in futures trading.

Reformation

In 1998, Trevor Horn, Paul Morley and Anne Dudley began talking about the original intent of the project, its relevance in 20th century music, and the impending turn of a new century. The group temporarily reformed, adding virtuoso guitarist Lol Creme but leaving J.J. Jeczalik conspicuously absent.

A new single very much in the "progressive" trance/house vein was leaked to club DJs that year, and a second single featuring a rap by Rakim; preceded the 1999 release of the concept album The Seduction of Claude Debussy on the ZTT label.

The Seduction album marked an evolution, rather than a return to the band's glory days, being more cohesive than any albums that preceded it, and artistically much more thought-through. However, while impressive from a technical and critical standpoint, it was disappointing as a pop album, being almost too deliberate and seeming to lack the humor, accidental beauty, and edginess of the early Art of Noise releases.

After performing a handful of live shows in the UK and USA, the band dissolved.

The ZTT label continues to reissue old material, such as a remastered Into Battle on CD, with bonus tracks, and a compilation SACD called Reconstructed.

In early 2004, the Iris Light label released an Art of Noise tribute album, containing covers of various tracks, including a new version of "Beat Box" performed by J.J. Jeczalik under his Art of Silence moniker.

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