With the sad news that Icelandic musician and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson has recently passed away comes the realisation that the work of this exceptional musician has been silenced forever. The shock of this revelation is also given greater impact by the young age at which he passed.
Born in Reykjavik, Jóhannsson developed an eclectic series of musical influences, including Suicide, The Jesus & Mary Chain, Kraftwerk, Neu! And Tangerine Dream. His interest in combining different genres and approaches saw him later explore the combination of classical arrangments with electronic music.
In the case of Jóhannsson’s first album Englabörn, he employed the use of string instruments processed through digital filters. But it was his 2006 album IBM 1401, A User’s Manual (inspired by his father’s work as an IBM technician) that put the Icelandic composer’s name on the map. Featuring haunting elements of vocal samples, as well as the melodic compositions that his father had produced using the IBM so many years previously, the album is bolstered by some striking string segments.
Jóhannsson subsequently went on to establish himself as film composer, scoring the likes of The Theory Of Everything, Sicario and Arrival. He had also been the orginal choice to score Blade Runner 2049.
Our sister site Wavegirl features an obituary that pays tribute to the passing of Jóhann Jóhannsson – and the loss of future music for many generations: Jóhann Jóhannsson Obituary.
Iconic synthpop pioneer MARC ALMOND returns with a solid compilation of hits and more…
In his 1999 autobiography Tainted Life, Marc Almond reflected on the one thing that had motivated him from an early age: “Music is my passion and, until I can find a spiritual substitute, it will remain my higher power.”
It’s not easy to compress Marc Almond’s musical career down to one compilation, yet Hits And Pieces does a satisfactory job of introducing people to the broad musical palette of the singer and musician’s extensive career.
From his early years growing up in Southport, Marc Almond’s earliest impressions were gleaned from his parent’s record collection, which included the likes of Chris Montez, The Walker Brothers and Gene Pitney. “How I wanted to be one of these people singing those songs!” mused the young Almond. Then, in his later school years, the budding music enthusiast discovered the radio delights of John Peel and began to cultivate a wider interest in music, which included the likes of Marc Bolan, David Bowie and Roxy Music.
As with most musician’s road of discovery, it was the college years that set Marc Almond in the direction that he’d wanted to go since childhood. Meeting Dave Ball at Leeds Poly, the pair found that their creative outputs merged successfully and the result was Soft Cell. Emerging into a fervent scene of synthpop, Soft Cell manage to seize the flag with a cover version of the Northern Soul classic ‘Tainted Love’. With a performance on Top Of The Tops, the single’s catchy synth hooks and electronic arrangement caught the public’s imagination and the single hit the top of the UK charts in 1981.
Hits And Pieces provides an concise history of Soft Cell’s output, which includes the obvious choice of ‘Tainted Love’. The compilation comes in two flavours, with a single CD version as well as a more expanded 2 CD release. The double CD release opts for the 12″ mix of ‘Tainted Love’, which mixes in ‘Where Did Our Love Go’, offering perhaps one of the finest 12″ mixes of the era.
Along for the ride are a selection of other Soft Cell singles, including the kitchen sink angst of ‘Bedsitter’ and the torch song brilliance of ‘Say Hello Wave Goodbye’.
Even while still part of Soft Cell, Marc Almond was keen to broaden his creative talents, which led to the formation of Marc and the Mambas, a loose collective of musicians which included Anne Stephenson, Gini Hughes (later Gini Ball), Martin McCarrick and Billy McGee. Included on this compilation is one of the outfit’s later releases, the “Spanish torch passion” of ‘Black Heart’.
In the post-Soft Cell years, Almond’s musical alchemy went to work on both a solo career and a number of collaborative efforts, which included an undertaking with Bronski Beat for a particularly euphoric take on Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’. It also marked a more organic approach to music, such as ‘Stories Of Johnny’, culled from Almond’s 1985 album of the same name. It forms the stepping stone to the theatrical approach of later releases, such as the cabaret of ‘Melancholy Rose’.
This development of Almond’s approach to music shifted up a gear on the amazing 1988 album The Stars We Are, which featured the stunning pop perfection of ‘Tears Run Rings’ as well as a solid cover version of childhood hero Gene Pitney’s ‘Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart’. The wise choice to pair Almond with Pitney for a post-album duet of the song resulted in one of Almond’s finest musical moments, which also managed to achieve yet another No. 1 spot.
Hits And Pieces also drops by Almond’s Jaques Brel period, represented here by ‘Jacky’ (previously covered by Almond’s musical hero Scott Walker) which combines electro elements with an orchestral arrangement. This marked the period in Almond’s life when he was reunited with Dave Ball and also provided a welcome opportunity to work with Trevor Horn for 1991 album Tenement Symphony. It’s the same album that also produced the dramatic baroque pop of ‘The Days Of Pearly Spencer’, a superb cover of the David McWilliam’s 1967 single which also gave Almond a No. 4 chart hit.
Almond’s mid-1990s period is here represented by track such as the electro beats of ‘Adored And Explored’ as well as ‘Brilliant Creatures’ and the smooth ballad of ‘Child Star’, which sounds like a lost Morrissey moment. These songs were taken from the 1996 album Fantastic Star, an album which had been the culmination of 3 years of writing and recording work while Almond was between labels. It was also an album that saw Almond reunited with Soft Cell producer Mike Thorne.
Elsewhere, the compilation album moves into the 2000s with the icy pop of ‘Glorious’, showing a collaboration between Almond and Icelandic musician and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson.
Almond’s 2010’s album Varieté saw the musician dipping into material that nodded back to cabaret and chanson influences, represented here by the brassy ‘Variety’. There’s a much smoother approach to the strings-infused wonder that’s ‘Burn Bright’, culled from the 2014 album The Dancing Marquis, while the album’s title track has a more dramatic production (care of legendary producer Tony Visconti).
Things come up to date with the melodic pop of tracks ‘Bad to Me’ and ‘Scar’, both representing Almond’s 2015 album The Velvet Trail.
The album also features a new song in the shape of ‘A Kind Of Love’, a bright and breezy number that demonstrates that Marc Almond has lost little of his talent for melody. The video also sees Marc Almond reunited with the legendary director Tim Pope, who directed much of Soft Cell’s early promos. The new video takes inspiration from Russ Meyer’s Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls and includes cameos from The The’s Matt Johnson, reality TV star Eileen Daly (who was Marc’s love interest in Tim Pope’s 1982 video for ‘Say Hello Wave Goodbye’) plus jazz chanteuse and fellow ‘80s hitmaker Mari Wilson, who appeared in the original video for Soft Cell’s ‘What!’
Hits And Pieces is perhaps an unusual release following on the tails of 2016 release Trials Of Eyeliner. But as the latter was designed to be a super deluxe box set spanning 10 CDs of material, the new compilation offers a more concise selection of music that still manages to cover Almond’s extensive musical career in fine style.
Marc Almond will be performing the Hits And Pieces tour throughout the UK this month. 22nd March: London Roundhouse, 25th March: Perth Concert Hall, 26th March: York Barbican, 27th March: Buxton Opera House, 28th March: Warrington Parr Hall. More details on dates and tickets can be seen on the TEC Event Calendar.