So yesterday I got hold of the new Recoil album, subHuman. And pretty good it is too. It's brimming with the intense, dark atmosphere that Alan Wilder has made his own. If anything, despite the horrible prog-rock-esque artwork, this might be the least commercial thing he's released since leaving Depeche Mode. Certainly, it's the polar opposite of whatever execrable pop Depeche Mode are churning out nowadays. It’s almost as if he sucked all of the intensity out of the band when he left and honed it to perfection—impressive for an electronics wizard who only penned one—frankly awful—song for them.
Still, it's been seven years since the release of the awesome Liquid, and the first question is whether anything has changed. Yes and no. The album is arguably the most focused thing he's done, but it also lacks the diversity of its predecessor and 1997's Unsound Methods—and possibly 1992's Bloodline as well. That diversity was in some ways the strength and weakness of Recoil, and in the same way the focus of subHuman is both its strength and weakness.
Recoil pieces—I hesitate to call them songs—are usually collaborations between Wilder and a singer—directly, or sampled. Bloodline featured vocals by Moby, Toni Halliday, Douglas McCarthy, and a sampled Bukka White; Unsound Methods involved McCarthy again, Maggie Estep, Hildia Campbell and Siobhan Lynch; and Liquid enlisted the talents of Diamanda Gálas, Nicole Blackman, Samantha Coerbell, Rosa Torras, and Sonya Madden on a single b-side, while sampling The Golden Gate Quartet. That's quite a list of names, and quite a range of styles; but Wilder deftly managed to pull everything together into a coherent sound and make everything work. Still, with such a range of vocal talents, it's inevitable that some singers stand out more than others—although Samantha Coerbell's contributions are fine pieces, they're both overshadowed entirely by Nicole Blackman's. And only on the (extended) single release of Stalker do two of the artist contribute to one piece—in that case Maggie Estep and Douglas McCarthy, creating a disturbing depiction of the pursuer and the pursued.
subHuman has only two vocalists—five of the seven pieces feature bluesman Joe Richardson, with Carla Trevaskis contributing breathy vocals (which put me in mind of Kate Bush) to the remaining two. Naturally, Richardson offers the kind of continuity which was impossible on the previous albums—he's there from start to finish, lending a bluesy growl to everything. In some ways that's the problem—it isn't difficult to form the impression that subHuman takes the sonic landscape of, say 'Electro Blues for Bukka White' from Bloodline, or 'Red River Cargo' from Unsound Methods, and turns it into an entire album. Throwing your lot in with a vocalist to such an extent can be a risk for a 'band' like Recoil: much as I feel that the last Sofa Surfers album was flawed because it stuck with a single vocalist who didn't overly impress me. And so Recoil fans will either lament the diversity of subHuman, or praise its depth, continuity and sense of development. As for anyone else, well, it's hardly likely people will pick this up by chance, and people coming from Depeche Mode will probably be in for a shock.
But depth and beauty the album does have. More than perhaps anyone else out there is currently doing, Wilder is creating musical environments. Which isn't to say that it's ambient waffle—the pieces on subHuman are dramatic and richly rhythmic, building to almost cacophonic crescendos before collapsing into moments of tranquility. And there's nothing minimalist about subHuman either, but Wilder seems to do a lot without doing much—there's a sparseness and sense of economy which permeates everything, not a beat or note too much, or too little.
When it comes down to it, if you like dark, complex and, dare I say it, intellectual electronic music, you should definitely give it a spin. I can imagine it causing a something of a split amongst existing fans, but slightly confounded expectations aside, it's an album which you should listen to repeatedly to fully absorb. If possible on headphones with the lights out. And that way, you won't be able to see the artwork, either.
And if you are going to pick it up, try and get hold of the limited edition—the bonus DVD comes with PCM stereo, 24 bit DTS 5.1, and 5.1 surround versions of the main album; as well as all five of Recoil's previous promotional videos, along with new videos for 'Shunt' and 'Electro Blues for Bukka White (2000 remix)'. Perhaps most interesting, though are the 'Reduction' remixes—every piece in a more down-tempo form, lyrics (mostly?) intact, essentially offering an alternate version of the album. I can see some people preferring the reduced version to the original—the remixes are that good. The case lists the run-time as 162 minutes, if that gives you an idea of the amount of material here. Worth every penny.