In my previous post I mentioned the appropriateness of finishing a book on nuclear culture having just given a presentation on a related subject at a conference in Cologne, where we also visited a nuclear shelter. That wasn’t the only bit of synchronicity that happened. While I was in Cologne, xPropaganda (the current name for 80’s band Propaganda), themselves from nearby Dusseldorf, released their latest album. It was a very busy conference, so I didn’t get much of a chance to listen to it while I was there, but I have been listening to it almost non-stop for the last few days.
First, as xPropaganda/Propaganda are perhaps not the most well-known band (I even came across those at the Cologne conference who did not know of them, despite being into 80s music… they were soon educated), let me provide a bit of information about the band and how I came to love their music.
Here is the summary on Wikipedia…
Propaganda are a German synthpop band formed in Düsseldorf in 1982. After relocating to the United Kingdom, they signed with ZTT Records and released their first album, the critically acclaimed A Secret Wish, in 1985. Two of the album’s singles, “Dr. Mabuse” and “Duel”, were UK Top 30 hits. A second album, 1234 (1990), was recorded with a markedly different line-up and released by Virgin Records to less success. There have been several partial reformations of the group in the 21st century, with original vocalists Claudia Brücken and Susanne Freytag currently active as xPropaganda.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Propaganda_(band)
All of the above is correct (though probably should include mention to them being known as “ABBA in Hell” by some), but it really doesn’t speak much to my interactions with xPropaganda. One of the key words in the above text for me is ZTT – the same record label as my favourite band Frankie Goes To Hollywood (see also details about my book Frankie Fans Say). Back in the 80s, ZTT could do no wrong as far as I was concerned (I appreciate now that things were very different for those on the inside), so when I spotted that the song “Duel” was on the label (“Dr Mabuse” passed me by for some reason), I had to get it – helped also by the incredible performance by the band on Top of the Pops. And, although I came across a single by P4F which mixed “P:Machinery” and “Relax” by Frankie together during the summer of 1985, I never actually got a copy of “P:Machinery” itself or even the album “Secret Wish”. I have no idea why. One of my life’s great mysteries.
Roll forward all the way 2012, and, for reasons I cannot remember now, I got the albums. Now, from the summary above, you may get the impression that there weren’t many albums to get – but this is ZTT, so there were many different remixes to get hold of. The music was inspirational, to the extent that it kicked started me into working again on my first novel, Hijacking Japan, into which I inserted mention of Propaganda music (I ditched a plan to include a quote from “P:Machinery” (by now my favourite track by the band) at the start of the book itself due to needing to be careful with copyright).
Since then there have been a few concerts – which sadly I could not get to – including, a concert in this past week to help launch the new album. I would have gone to that, to see the band live for the first time ever, had I not been at the rescheduled Pet Shop Boys concert that same night.
So, let’s turn to the album. Or should I say albums? Because there is more than one version. Well, of course there is. As well as different formats (the red vinyl looks amazing), even on CD, there are at least two versions. I assume that if you stream music, you won’t have any problems getting all the tracks, but I prefer to have physical copies too – even if I only ever use the CD once and don’t often look at the accompanying booklet. Consequently, I got both the version which comes with 2 CDs (one of which is the instrumental (or “No Voice”) version of the main album) and the “Deluxe Version” which contains four bonus tracks.
I’ll just comment on the main tracks here – but you really should get all versions and the bonus tracks are really worth having.
The first thing to say though that, overall, this is just such an incredible album. This isn’t about pure nostalgia and trying to recreate an 80s sound. Neither is it an attempt at being Peter Pan and fitting with the sounds of today. It’s a natural follow up to “Secret Wish” (I’m not mentioning “1234” so much due to the difference in band line up) with the added wisdom and life experiences of the past 30 years.
“The Night” – This track is almost 50% instrumental, but it’s just such a great introduction to the album and music of the band. It’s new, and yet feels familiar. What a fabulous bridge between “Secret Wish”.
“Chasing Utopia” – One of things I love about this track, perhaps due to my visit to Cologne, is that there is a bit of German on it (most Propaganda/xPropaganda tracks are in English). Really great track.
“Beauty Is Truth” – Such powerful words to this song. Very typical style of the band – with echoes back to tracks on “Secret Wish” – with soundbites and statements rather than a need to join it all together in longer sentences.
“Only Human” – very different to the previous track as the sentences are longer, and the voices are less in-your-face, but the message is no less powerful. There’s so much that I find relatable in this song. The more I listen to it, the more I love it.
“Don’t (You Mess With Me)” – the softer side of xPropaganda couldn’t last long! This is another feisty, in-your-face, track – including some more German lyrics. And it’s great.
“No Ordinary Girl” – this track was the one that blew me away more than any other when I first heard it in Germany. The lyrics are just so powerful. The way they work with the music is just so unsettling, but easy to listen. How do xPropaganda keep doing this through their whole career? This one will always make me remember being in Cologne. Although you should be going and getting the album yourself, here’s a YouTube video of this track – do yourself a favour and listen to it.
“The Wolves Are Returning” – This song is about the return and rise of right wing nationalism. The music just makes the whole thing sound so tense (the “No Voice” version really makes me feel uncomfortable and raises my heart rate… but that’s not a bad thing given the topic of the song).
“Ribbons Of Steel” – you know when you’re dealing with the old ZTT stable when you get a track that’s much longer than others on an album than most other bands would dare. This one tops out at just under 10 minutes. It’s the perfect conclusion to the perfect xPropaganda album. Actually, pretty much a perfect album.
I’m sure that there are many other reviews of the album out there – and I have read a few. If you’re still (why?) undecided about getting the album, then the one I would particularly recommend is the one in The Guardian. “The Heart is Strange” is such a great album. I will listen to it loads, but it’s left me hoping for more (not just remixes, but new albums)…. and, of course, I want the chance to finally see them live.