Review of Alphaville, Strange Attractor (2017)

Alphaville - Strange Attractor (Promotional website banner)

It’s always a brave move to attempt to lead your audience rather than have your audience lead you. Alphaville’s Strange Attractor runs this gauntlet at great risk.

Many Alphaville fans are purists; they yearn for the deft, intricate sound of old and prefer the relatively small but intimate niche of like-minded new romanticists to remain undisturbed.

There’s nothing wrong with this; it’s a fierce show of pride, and above all a reminder of who the majority audience is – a maturing group with complex demands. To risk alienating a large group of them when the odds of gaining new fans are low is foolhardy. Haters gonna hate.

But carrying the courage of one’s convictions is sometimes the road to success, and Strange Attractor might well be the band’s biggest achievement.

It’s taken seven tragedy-filled years to complete, which lead singer Marian Gold admits has been a slog. It’s also been a reinvention test, which has involved reproducing songs whenever something major has changed.

The unexpected loss in 2014 of keyboardist Martin Lister has been felt profoundly. The pioneer and long-time Alphaville collaborator, Rainer Bloss, followed in late 2015.

It’s quite some redefinition job. But ideas can benefit from experience, and you sense that the best songs here were made better by the elegiac mood that haunts Strange Attractor.

The previous Catching Rays on Giant (2010) was a short-lived achievement: a synth-pop showcase that brought up-to-date and slightly heavy-handed production values to songs of a slightly dated style.

Strange Attractor is an altogether different beast – unpredictable, dark, weighty, and blending from the ridiculous to the sublime.

Alphaville - Strange Attractor

It’s a mixture of everything. Gothic electronic vibes are tempered by tender, harrowing ballads. Glitzy melodic synth – the signature sound of Bloss – alternates with rock elements in the second half of the album, building to a rousing prog-rock finale.

Old songs ‘Around the Universe’ and ‘A Handful of Darkness’, inspired by memories of war and the fatal consequences of it, are faithfully and lovingly reproduced.

A performance of the latter at the band’s 25th anniversary party in Prague afforded Martin Lister his first solo – a verse about memory. ‘All the things we’ve done… stay somewhere in our heads.’ His absence looms large in the plaintive vocals.

The album’s opening track, ‘Giants’, is an understated but strong beginning, and the dark vibe continues with the macabre and dystopian ‘Mafia Island’. Subtle, deft tones and yearning soundscapes hearken back to the shady timbre of Prostitute (1994). The purists are dealt their cap, if not a full outfit.

The warbles of ‘Heartbreak City’ (the first single) fit somewhere between the Bee Gees and the Scissor Sisters, clashing with the anthemic chorus. Gold’s falsetto is reedy, often weak. Then it’s gone, the electric guitar tosses a skilful riff…

I’ve never heard anything quite like it – certainly not from Alphaville. It’s catchy, strange, slightly grating at first, yet unnervingly enjoyable once it’s worn in.

The whole album seems a little bipolar – upbeat in places, melancholic in others; a little confused; riddled with loss and longing; and never quite settling on what it wants. Perhaps it befits a band that lost so much of its light in a fairly short space of time.

It’s without a place, but packs enough belief to know it deserves one. Whether it will find it, I’m not sure.

There’s something valedictory about the exquisite final track, ‘Beyond the Laughing Sky’, with its studied undertone of Pink Floyd’s ‘Comfortably Numb’. As one of the last songs Gold wrote with Lister, it’s up there as one of the most accomplished tracks Alphaville has ever released.

Strange Attractor is like fitting a novel into a novella. You struggle to understand it properly without knowing all of the story that’s been cut out. But it means there’s plenty of great, intense moments and not a lot of waste.

For a band that sits on the periphery of nostalgia and survives mostly from it, this is a committed attempt to add something different to the pop landscape. It could yet galvinise its fanbase.

Or, if it proves to be a risk too far, then what a way to go.

Alphaville’s Strange Attractor (Universal) is available on demand (country-pemitting) and through major retailers. Tracks from this album also feature in the band’s 2018 live appearance at the Whisky a Go Go.

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10 thoughts on “Review of Alphaville, Strange Attractor (2017)

    1. A great choice! ‘Sounds Like a Melody’ is a reminder that even at a time when music derived from similar sounds, it was still possible to carve out a niche.

      If you haven’t come across it yet, there’s a wonderful set of clips from the Meylensteine show this week, including some acoustic and duet performances. Forever Young sounds made for a re-release, and Sounds Like a Melody is there too! 🙂

  1. Awesome review – one just hast to applaude the band for taking such risks rather than sailing the safe and successful ship of retro-synthpop and 80s nostalgia. Strange Attractor shows what should have been obvious to anyone anyway after bold, risky releases like The Breathtaking Blue (1989), Prostitute (1994) and CrazyShow (2003), but somehow escaped many in the aftermaath of the somewhat regressive “comeback” album Catching Rays On Giant (2010): Alphaville is not about stardom, commerce and marketing – they are real artists who are serious about their art to the point of being nerdy, bold musicians committed to their dreams to the point of losing much of their audience when things become too aloof or crazy. That – despite and among experimental beasts like “On The Beach” or “Mafia Island” and genuinely innovative songs like “Rendezvoyeur” or “Waiting 4 the Nu Lite” – they keep writing glam-pop songs that border on the kitschy, too, (e.g. “Around the Universe” or “The Things We Got To Do”) shows how these come into existence: not because of a marketing-plan or the committment to cater to a nostalgic audiene, but because they are, and have always been, one of the currents in this complex stream called Alphaville…but they are not all of Alphaville; they are not even the mainstream.

    1. Thank you! Yes, Alphaville have attempted a broad range, from new romanticism to blues and jazz. I’m less fond of some, but I’ve always applauded the band’s musical curiosity and that’s still in evidence here. CrazyShow contains some very good music – sometimes simple, but always flavorful. (The live version of ‘Last Monday’ is beautiful.) I’ve always enjoyed Alphaville as accomplished and thoughtful melody makers and songwriters. It’s a fun experience to listen to a live version of ‘Heaven on Earth’ from every year since 2010. It’s very sad that the Gold/Lister/Bloss era has now come to an end. For me, the best songs on Strange Attractor formed from that team. But I suspect the experimentation that makes this album interesting stems from Marian pressing his own interests.

      There are fans (and friends of mine) who really don’t engage with this album, and I cannot blame anyone for that. There are bands like Erasure and the Pet Shop Boys whose plentiful new material does not set me aglow like it once did. I enjoy the paucity and complexity of Alphaville’s output. I would rather have one album in seven years that I will enjoy for decades to come than more frequent albums that I barely remember.

      1. That’s how I see it, too. I do definitely not agree with everything Alphaville releases (though for me, it is mostly the somewhat kitschier, bubblegum-ish-er songs I don’t like, but also some of the experiments just don’t seem to work for me). But I actually enjoy this very “complicatedness”: every new AV album thus far (with the exception of Catching Rays) has featured some songs that really confused or even annoyed me. It has never just delivered the fare I expected – which is, in my view, the very reason why most of their releases have stood the test of time so well. Actually, many of the songs that made me puzzled or even angry at first turned into my all-time favorites later on. While Alphaville remain perfectly capable of delivering catchy, consensus-oriented sing-along songs as well, the real allure of this group is in what’s below the waterline, in the subliminal and sometimes recalcitrant.

  2. Well, I’m going to disagree here. Not saying you are wrong, just that I have a different opinion.

    I’m a person reluctant to change myself. I like to keep things frozen in time (not a good thing, I know)
    Catching Rays on Giant was the closest Alpahville was to “staying in the 80’s” and I loved that album for that: the upbeat “The Things I Didn’t Do”, the strong “Heaven On Earth”, the mysterious “Call Me Down”, the energetic “Phantoms”, all of them symbols of an awesome era long lost.
    “The Mysteries of Love” is my all time favourite, and the closest to that (and other songs from that time) is from Catching Rays on Giant.

    This new album however… I have to say I didn’t like it one bit.
    It doesn’t sound like the 80’s, it doesn’t sound like Alphaville, and it doesn’t sound catchy to me. Too gloom and slow (more than half the album is like that with a few exception at the end). It feels like Gold talking over a track made from a basic melody.
    Don’t get me wrong, I can appreciate something different. I like artists like Katy Perry for example. Music doesn’t need to be from the 80’s to be good.
    But Katy’s albums are full of life, something that Strange Attractor doesn’t have. It’s not a good album on its own, nor it’s a good Alphaville album to me.

    As you said, some of their fans like to keep things untouched, unchanged. I’m one of those.

    I guess I’ll give the album another shot(s) but I really hope that, if there’s another album in the future (Marian is not young anymore), they go back to their roots.
    I mean, most (if not all) Alphaville fans, fell in love with the band back in the 80’s, with that music style. If they wanted a different kind of music, why listening to Alphaville in the first place?

    1. Nothing wrong with a different opinion, and I thank you for it! I was a fan of Catching Rays on Giant when it was released, but it hasn’t stuck with me as I hoped it would. I am grateful that it brought ‘Heaven on Earth’, however. That has probably come to rival ‘Still Falls the Rain’ as my all-time favourite – partly because of the way it has evolved in the live set.

      What I would say is that it’s not the 80s any more. Nor is the band Gold, Lloyd, Mertens, Echolette either. I think the 80s project is done, and there are three great albums and Dreamscapes to relive that. Moreover, I think the more a band is picket-holed to any era or epoch, the less of a future it is likely to have.

      I don’t think Strange Attractor is as lifeless as you suggest. (Yes, I’m a Katy Perry fan too.) Fever, Heartbreak City, Rendezvoyeur have their quirks. Nevermore packs a punch. But for me, Alphaville has always done what I would describe as ‘understated weighty’ very well. It’s always been the bridesmaid, though – glimmers here and there (Euphoria, Point of Know Return, Next Generation, On the Beach). Never the bride. To have an album framed around that mood is significant, I think.

      To my knowledge, the only evidence I’ve heard from the possible future writing set up is ‘Wine of Astonishment’, which was written by David Goodes and performed at the 30th anniversary party in Paris. Again, more narrative, more serious, more rock. I like the style. Whether it’s the direction in which they travel, who knows?

      I love this evolution – and as I state often, I feel fortunate for that. Thanks for the feedback!

  3. Always innovative and I love them for that. Kitschy from the beginning, and lyrics that don’t always make sense to everyone (if anyone at times!) this is my favorite band of all time. I might not love, or even like, all their songs, but they’re willingness to take chances, evolve, experiment, and just simply pour out their hearts is something I will always applaud. ‘Flame’, ‘Impossible Dream’, ‘Lassie Come Home’, ‘Apollo’, and so many others, including the quirky, catchy, strange, out-of-nowhere ‘Iron John’ all make this band, through it’s long, glorious journey, a splendid jewel.

    And, guess what? They are coming to Houston, TX on Friday night, and I will finally, finally, finally be able to see them live for the first time ever!! Thank you Alphaville for 30+ years of great music and amazing memories!! You’ve really put a smile on my face and put joy in my heart countless times over the years, and I can never express enough my gratitude and love for your contribution to my life.

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