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.
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.
Cover image: alphaville.info.