Review: “Intrigue: Progressive Sounds in UK Alternative Music 1979-89” Uncovers Solidity Beneath the Fluff of the 1980s

Compiled by musician, songwriter, and producer Steven Wilson, the four-disc collection Intrigue: Progressive Sounds in UK Alternative Music 1979-89 presents songs from the 1980s that dwelt beneath that decade’s plastic pop veneer. You’ll find no Madonna or Whitney Houston here. Instead, Intrigue: Progressive Sounds in UK Alternative Music 1979-89 is a beautiful representation of a pre-internet world where finding daring music was a task worthy of a preternaturally gifted detective.

As a whole, Intrigue: Progressive Sounds in UK Alternative Music 1979-89 recalls time spent poring through stacks of albums in grimy record stores, hard-earned money burning a hole in your pocket, and looking specifically for something you had never heard of before. Maybe you recognized the name of a producer or a musician, something you could tangentially connect to your own musical experience. Most of the time, you grabbed stuff with interesting cover art, plunked down your cash, and hoped you had made the right decision.

“Yep, ambitious, weird and thrilling music was all around you in the ‘80s—if you looked in the right places,” Wilson writes in the introduction to the box set. “No matter what the music press might have you believe, the progressive aesthetic was alive and well.”

Names familiar to fans of that musical era are included, although Wilson often chose to ignore the obvious hits. The largest exception to that rule is “This Corrosion” by the Sisters of Mercy, which was and forever shall be a stirring, almost ten-minute-long glam-filth anthem. Even if you think you haven’t heard “This Corrosion,” you have.

Kate Bush’s stunning “Waking the Witch” from the 1987 release Hounds of Love goes from dreamy memory regression into a stuttering scene of crowds and oppression. Before gaining mainstream credibility with songs like “Rise” and “The Order of Death,” Public Image Ltd. released the hauntingly disjointed “Careering.” John Lydon’s quavering nasal monotone shoots across electro-static and a steady bass foundation, creating a sketchy view of modern society. Alternative stalwarts Tears For Fears makes an appearance with “Memories Fade” from The Hurting, the album which first garnered them worldwide attention.

While those songs are all excellent in their own ways, it’s the music that floated underneath the surface that truly grabs one’s attention on Intrigue: Progressive Sounds in UK Alternative Music 1979-89.

“Three Dancers” by Twelfth Night is a sweeping piece of neo-funk with unexpected key changes, airy synthesizers, and bass lines and drum fills that pop. A song that would have not felt far out of place on an early Duran Duran album, “Three Dancers” is a minor classic.

Technical weirdness and whimsy propels “Cognitive Dissonance” by Robert Fripp and the League of Gentlemen, a calculated step away from Fripp’s main gig as the leader of prog rock pioneers, King Crimson. Fripp’s unique manipulation of standard musical scales, along with stinging keyboards from future Shriekback founder Barry Andrews, give the song a manic feel. It’s like a toy car that won’t stop bumping into the baseboard.

Crispy Ambulance’s song “Are You Ready?” gives us a long introduction that layers upon itself until singer Alan Hempsall intones the titular question. The fact that we are never explicitly told what we should be readying ourselves for cranks up a mild form of existential dread, making this one of the more unsettling songs in the collection.

The variety of artists and influences displayed on Intrigue: Progressive Sounds in UK Alternative Music 1979-89 is a bit overwhelming and may not be best consumed entirely in one sitting. The more popular songs, such as the spooky “Ghost Town” by the Specials, are situated like save points in a game. They establish a place to cool down and get your bearings before venturing back into the caverns, where dark and delightful discoveries await.

Liner notes by James Nice provide both history and context for each song, as does Wilson’s introduction to the box set. Together, they lay out a compelling argument for the importance of this music and why it should not be shunned in favor of 80s music that was more corporate or deemed more accessible.

Intrigue: Progressive Sounds in UK Alternative Music 1979-89 is far more than a blast from the past. It presents music that remains vital and challenging, passing the test of time with flying colors. Listeners with a penchant for the dark, weird side of the 1980s will find themselves repeatedly returning to Intrigue: Progressive Sounds in UK Alternative Music 1979-89 for reminders that music from that era wasn’t all fluffy and substance-free.

Intrigue: Progressive Sounds in UK Alternative Music 1979-89 is available from February 10th on Edsel/Demon Records in a 4 CD or a 7 x 12″ LP edition. An edited 19-track 2 x 12″ LP version is also available. The set is available from Burning Shed, Amazon, and wherever fine music is sold.

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