No-Man: Love You to Bits (Caroline International) Review | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Tuesday, September 22nd, 2020  

No-Man

Love You to Bits

Caroline International

Nov 21, 2019 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


No one has heard of No-Man.

That's an exaggeration, of course. Love You to Bits, the British art-pop duo's first new album in 11 years, is getting a release on the major label Caroline International because there's a good-size audience waiting for it. Even so, No-Man remains obscure. There was a brief time, however, when the duo consisting of vocalist Tim Bowness and instrumentalist Steven Wilson seemed destined to become a household name. In 1990, Melody Maker was so taken with No-Man's breakout singlea cover version of Donovan's "Colours" featuring a sampled break-beat that predated trip-hopthat they were hailed as "conceivably the most important English group since The Smiths." No-Man was signed by hip indie label One Little Indian, then home to Björk and The Shamen.

 

Perhaps as a result of pressure to live up to such lofty expectations, No-Man flubbed its 1993 debut, Loveblows & Lovecries - A Confession. Despite glimmers of promise, its blend of bluntly aggressive dance music and dream pop was often as awkward as the album title. By the duo's own account, they compromised their music to heed the label's dictates. Ah, the folly of youth.

 

Since then, No-Man has toiled in relative obscurity. Assured sophomore album Flowermouth earned the confidence to open with a 10-minute epic featuring King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp. Fueled by a "fuck-off-world" attitude, third record Wild Opera plunged into the darker fathoms of trip-hop long before Massive Attack's Mezzanine. (It boasts the ultimate in clickbait song titles: "Housewives Hooked on Heroin" and "My Revenge on Seattle.") Yet it was only in the new millennium that No-Man fulfilled its potential. The albums Returning Jesus (2001), Together We're Stranger (2003), and Schoolyard Ghosts (2008) favored organic instrumentation and elements of jazz, ambient, classical, and post-rock.  

 

No-Man's audience began to grow. Picking up the art-rock baton from forebearers such as David Sylvian and Talk Talk, No-Man were off to the races...until they fell at the first hurdle. Steven Wilson's burgeoning success, first in his parallel band Porcupine Tree and then as a solo artist, proved an obstacle to further collaborations. A decade passed. No-Man's belated return to the studio grew out of a window in Wilson's schedule. Between co-producing Bowness's excellent 2019 solo album Flowers at the Scene and writing his upcoming solo album of synth-based pop, Wilson dusted off a musical idea that No-Man has been tinkering at since 1994.

 

Love You to Bits starts out as a throwback to the electropop of the band's first two records. The New Order-like throbbing synths and the telegraph-tap drum machines harken back to the dance-music sounds of mid-1990s Britain. The duo's modern musical maturity is nonetheless immediately apparent. There's a depth of texture in Wilson's production that makes the earlier stuff seem like painting that lacked an undercoat. 

 

But what about the glitter ball on the album cover design by Carl Glover? Two-and-a-half minutes into the first track, a disco beat comes in. It's a risky move. A four-on-the-floor bass drum and sizzling hi-hat can evoke visions of John Travolta doing A-poses in his sparkly jumpsuit. Fortunately, Ash Soan's drumming has a muscularity that suggests he could go 10 rounds in the ring with Mike Tyson. His robust and danceable groove anchors a sublime double-vocal chorus that becomes a recurring motif throughout the album.

 

Lest there's any lingering worry that the album might be veering into Village People territory, it's worth noting that Love You to Bits consists of two longform pieces. They're respectively 17 and 18 minutes long. It's a conceptual album about the breakup of a relationship as seen from the perspective of both partners. In short, it's perhaps the most ambitious disco music since Donna Summera touchstone artist for Bowness and Wilsonwho wasn't averse to crafting side-long epics.

 

Side One, "Love You to Bits" consists of five miniature suites. If the first bit emulates the euphoria of falling in love, the second one ushers in the end of the relationship's honeymoon phase. "Eyes are tired of weeping/heart is tired of beating over you," sings Bowness, a slump in his voice.

 

Tumult soon follows. The backgrounded mourning of Wilson's guitar (a familiar sound to fans of early Porcupine Tree and No-Man) gets rudely interrupted by guest guitarist David Kollar. The Slovakian axeman's played a thrilling solo on Wilson's To the Bone album and he once again dazzles with anarchic-yet-melodic guitarwork in the lineage of Reeves Gabrels (David Bowie, The Cure) and Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine). Kollar's latest solo alternates between flashy fretboard sprints and experimental sounds that evoke laughing hyenas, stampeding elephants, and R2D2 having a bit of a rant.

 

As Side One comes to a close, the disco thrum cedes the dance floor to a somber lament by the Dave Desmond Brass Quintet. No one could accuse No-Man of being pedestrian.

 

Side Two, "Love You to Pieces," combines disco with the deep-thump of trance music. After a jazzy, whirlpool keyboard solo by Adam Holzman (Miles Davis, Steven Wilson), the piece gives way to a more ambient feel. The quieter minimalism gives Bowness more space to reveal the pain of the breakup. Hemingway once compared writing to sitting down and opening a vein. In the case of Bowness, he sounds as if he's bled several arterial cavities in detailing the highs and lows of this romance. "After the horse play/there were fights in the hallway," he sings. An emotional and musical journey that feels neither overstuffed nor padded out, Love You to Bits ends as an anguished reverie that will resonate with the lovelorn everywhere. The song cycle reflects how we often ruminate over failed romances years later, pondering existential questions about what it says about us.

 

In an era dominated by home-made studios that utilize off-the-shelf software, Love You to Bits dazzles with its visionary production and arrangement. It briefly shakes hands with familiar genres before jiu-jitsuing them. As such, Love You to Bits combines the playfulness of early No-Man with the emotional heft characterized by later albums. For some, the non-linear approach and emotional seesaw may prove too disorienting. Others will be put-off by the disco tropes. Yet those with an ear for adventurous music will be enthralled.

 

It's time that more people heard No-Man. (www.no-man.co.uk)

 

Author rating: 8/10

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Average reader rating: 8/10



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