Usually, comparisons to music gods like David Bowie or Talking Heads would elicit eye-rolling cynicism or heart-attack levels of hype. Luckily, Artificial Pleasure have managed to keep a profile low enough to avoid much of either. Thankfully, they seem to be revelling in it.
Their debut full-length, The Bitter End, is a saccharine-sweet, high-voltage pop album that does, indeed, invoke the godliness of Bowie (heavily), Brian Eno (regularly) and Talking Heads (periodically). Singer/guitarist Phil McDonnell’s vocals are so indebted to the tone, timbre and cadence of David Bowie that there are times you forget you’re not listening to the Thin White Duke (just listen to “On a Saturday Night”). There are also technicolour flashes of Moroder-esque sequencers, Gary Numan-style keyboards and wild, Frippertronic guitars scattered throughout the record. Most of the tracks are also incredibly over-caffeinated – the tension levels are almost unbearable. Everything sounds incredibly tight, like they recorded next door to a Starbucks.
Take the album-closing “I’ll Make It Worth Your While”: choppy guitars gleam like the chrome-plated sounds of Scary Monsters-era David, while the chant-along backing vocals instantly recall Remain in Light/Speaking in Tongues-era Talking Heads. It’s an odd, disconcerting phenomenon – to be presented with familiar sounds in completely new structures. You feel as though you’ve heard these songs before, but it’s certainly not an unwelcome feeling.
Whatever your favourite flavour of Bowie, Artificial Pleasure have you covered. Hey, you want Lodger? Get a load of “All I Got”, which features almost operatic, gloriously excessive vocals and a thick, crunching Berlin-era riff. You want Let’s Dance? Check out the chorus of “Young and Carefree”. Heroes? Try “On a Saturday Night” on for size. It’d be comical – even offensive - if the tunes weren’t so damn good.
The grimy, Berlin-era sounds continue on “Bolt From The Blue”, which instantly evokes Iggy Pop’s The Idiot – where a monstrous bassline groans and percussion thuds like a machine shop. Imagine “Sister Midnight” or “Nightclubbing” remixed by Robert Fripp or Brian Eno and you’re somewhere near the nocturnal, jet-black vibe of the track. Just don’t mention “Red Money”…
When Artificial Pleasure do buck the trend – as they do on the magical “Turn to Dust” – they produce some genuinely exciting, futuristic pop. You can imagine that they will do fantastic things when they cast off their titanic influences.
One minor, technical complaint is that the album is incredibly LOUD. The beauty of albums like Low or Remain in Light is only enhanced by their masterful construction of sonics – the light and shade, the dynamics. The Bitter End is unrelentingly noisy – even on the slower tracks - and it’s tough to get through the album in one sitting. As the album will not be seeing a physical release, it’s even more surprising that this kind of issue would arise.
However, the gloriously catchy nature of just about every track on the album only adds to the excitement around this young band – in time, the Bowie-isms will be reduced to a more reasonable level, and their sound will evolve into something unique. As for now, the Hallowe’en costume, picture-perfect impersonations will do. If you’ve ever found yourself wishing for a fourth album from Bowie’s Berlin period or wishing that you’d seen Stop Making Sense live – this is the record for you. If you’re a David Bowie fan – why are you still reading?