Thursday, February 14, 2013

Hear Me Calling by De/Vision

In the mid-90s, synthpop was forced deep underground, but the advent of the Internet meant that it could keep itself alive in the ICU for a time; until the internet actually completely fragmented the traditional music distribution channels and opened the market up for all kinds of niche tastes.  Nowadays, finding good electronic music of all kinds of varieties--synthpop, futurepop, EBM, electro, and many, many others is something we take for granted, but during much of the 90s, finding stuff on synthpop meant following the e-mail newsletter and discussion list of Todd Durant of A Different Drum.  In fact, much of my first introduction to the label bands, and other bands associated with the scene in those days, was from the samplers and collections put out by A Different Drum.  The Mix, Rinse and Spin series, which had two entries (the second was a double CD) introduced me to De/Vision, which got a lot of chatter as an "important" player in the scene during the 90s (and beyond, although after the 90s, I didn't feel it was as important to follow the scene, since it was growing too fast to keep up with.)  The first volume had a longer remix of "Try to Forget", one of the band's earliest hits (in a relative sense, of course--they released it during the height of the synthpop crash.  Too bad; they were already formed; if they'd managed to release it in 1988, when they first wrote it, we could be talking about it in the same breath as Camouflage's "The Great Commandment" as an example of German synthpop that was heavily influenced by Depeche Mode.)  The second volume had a number of songs, including three remixes of the song "Hear Me Calling", which remains one of my favorite De/Vision tracks today.

Eventually I got a lot of De/Vision material--most of it, except for many of the remixes, actually--but it took me a while.  Not that I didn't like all of those songs, but because I got Zehn, which billed itself as a "greatest hits" kind of CD up through the late 90s.  And frankly, if it was the greatest hits, then it scared me to listen to the non-hits.  Eventually, I also got Monosex, which was released the same year, and it's excellent.  After that, I started collecting De/Vision more carefully--like I said, I eventually ended up with the entire album collection (including Zehn and Remixed, which are obviously compilation albums.)  I just picked up their newest album, Rockets & Swords, which prompted me to create mp3 CDs of the entire collection (in order) so I could throw it in the car and listen to their body of work in order.  I couldn't fit everything I had on a single CD, and in fact, I couldn't fit it on two CDs without either splitting one of the albums in half, or omitting about half a dozen remixes.  I opted for the latter.

In the car this morning on the way in, I finished the first CD, which goes through the Two album, and popped in the second one, which starts off with Remixed.  Doing it this way brought to mind the fact that it really took De/Vision a while to get rolling with good material, and it's a big part of the reason Zehn didn't immediately impress me much--it's mostly made up of early material.

Their debut album, World Without End has a total of three good songs (which admittedly, are quite good) and the rest are pretty forgetable.  Unversed in Love is even worse--I think none of the tracks on it are as good as the three stand-outs from the prior album (although admittedly some are better than the remainder, at least.)  Then De/Vision released Antiquity which was a compilation of sorts of some songs that were hanging around but not put on either of the other two albums, presumably because they weren't even as good as the mediocre, forgettable tracks that made up the bulk of the releases to date.  So, it really isn't until the fourth release, Fairyland, that we get a De/Vision release that's genuinely good, with several good tracks, and with non-stand-out tracks that are still respectable.  Zehn gives us the three good tracks from the freshman effort (including some great remixes of them as well) and then a smattering of songs from either Fairyland, Unversed in Love, or unreleased tracks that must have been b-sides or something.

Then, finally, we get to Monosex which was the best De/Vision release to date by a long shot.  Frankly, I wonder if maybe it isn't still the best De/Vision album, although most of the albums since have also been quite good.  The possible exception here is Void, which followed Monosex.  I actually think it's not bad, but I remember all kinds of bitter, hyperbolic, and melodramatic responses from the fans who felt betrayed by it, calling it "not even a synthpop album; it's a rock album" as if that were some kind of pejorative (or as if that were some kind of true; neither of which is the case.)

Sadly, for the Remixed CD, producer José Alvarez-Brill, who despite his name is a German, mostly took material from the same period as Zehn.  I think what he did with it was better, but I still would have preferred to see remixes of newer material.  Some of that has since come out too.

Browsing through their collection on Amazon, you get a weird mix of readily available and then... not.  You can find almost everything, but a lot of it is collectible, imported CDs and sells at prohibitively high prices.  Other stuff is available for mp3 download.  Which seems to be which doesn't always make a lot of sense.  There's also a fair bit of collected stuff; you can end up with quite a few repeat tracks if you're a real completist.  I've even got a lot, and I'm not a completist.

I would recommend skipping entirely World Without End, Unversed in Love and Antiquity.  Almost anything that's any good on those CDs are already on Zehn, plus if you get the CD version of Zehn (instead of the mp3 version) you get awesome remixes of the three freshman songs.  If you do like remixes, make sure and get the Limited version of Remixed which comes with a second CD of remixes, some of which are better (or at least as good) as the ones on the first CD.  The 2006 Best Of also has a second CD of remixes, many of which are excellent.  Many of which, however, are rather older--if you've been hunting down remixes already (as I had, in limited amounts) you may not see much here that you don't already have.  De/Vision seem to be learning from George Lucas how to repackage and resell the exact same content all over again.

Their 2010 release Popgefahr, which is really good, had a 2011 Remix release, and it also comes in many varieties.  The US Mix, which is readily available as an mp3 download, and you can get everything else as the Popgefahr collection, which sells for a pretty cheap price, considering that it's four CDs.  Between the two, you can get no less that six versions of the Popgefahr album for a price that's about the same as two reasonably priced import CDs.  Not at all a bad deal, and the remixes are--surprisingly--mostly pretty consistently good (of course there are a few exceptions.  Aren't there always?)  

But that's remixes: after Fairyland in regular, non-compilation, non-remix releases, I think most of the rest of the following albums are worth picking up with the possible exception of Void, which may not quite be to everyone's taste.  The accusations of it not even being synthpop are absurd, but it is true that it has a somewhat different sound than, say, Two, or Devolution, or n00b or whatever.  Subkutan also seems to me to be a little bit of a mis-step; it's not actively bad, but it just doesn't seem to stand out much either.  But listening to all of their music back to back like I did also made another point fairly clear; there's a fair bit of filler with De/Vision too.  If I really wanted to, I could cut out at least 2/3s of their body of work and not really miss it too much--in fact, sticking with just the more standout tracks, from their long, long collection, you still end up with a massive collection of great songs that only a handful of other electronic artists could match (Depeche Mode?  Maybe Erasure, VNV Nation, Assemblage 23 and a few others too?)

Anyway, like I said, I'm not exactly a completist, but one particular remix sent me on a merry wild-goose chase for a long time, the EnTrusted to Mesh mix of "Hear Me Calling."  That was supposed to be a third single release from Monosex (after "We Fly... Tonight" and "Strange Affection") but for some reason it was commuted to just being a promo-release.  The Compilation by A Different Drum Mix, Rinse and Spin vol. 2 actually included every remix from the single except the EnTrusted to Mesh.

In any case, a quick search of Youtube turned up at least three uploads of the song, so here it is, for your enjoyment.