Synapse MARCH/APRIL 1978 - by Colin Gardner


"Heroes" is David Bowie's thirteenth album in ten years and marks his most fully realised change of direction, consolidating and expanding the innovations of the Low album. Bowie's music has always been marked with a strong tendency towards the schizophrenic - a juxtaposing of opposites that never quite synthesise into a well-rounded form. One thinks particularly of Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, Bowie role-playing albums, at once extrovertedly urgent and almost hysterical, yet at the same time vulnerable and introverted. This tendency is particularly prevalent throughout Low, where Bowie's temperament collides with Eno's subtler, more impressionistic personality to produce an album of startling contrasts: the rhythmic, disco-like short studies of side one, and the longer, synthesizer dominated instrumentals of side two.

Low however was an uneasy experiment. Many of the pieces seemed to be unfinished doodles, and the Bowie-Eno partnership was clearly tentative and unformed, the latter really playing second fiddle to Bowie's dabblings into "art-rock". "Heroes" is an altogether different story. At least Bowie seems to be collaborating with, rather than just using, his musicians. As well as Eno on synthesizers and keyboards, Bowie features Robert Fripp (ex-King Crimson) on lead guitar, Carlos Alomar on rhythm guitar, with Dennis Davis (percussion) and George Murray (bass). Fripp and Eno have already collaborated on two albums, and "Heroes" is as much their work as Bowie's.

Like Low, the album was recorded at the Hansa By The Wall studios in Berlin, and is divided into a rock song format on side one, and a largely instrumental side two of Eno's synthesizer, accompanied by Bowie on sax and koto, the latter being an interesting Japanese stringed instrument that is plucked to produce very percussive, atonal sounds. All of the individual tracks represent Bowie's most pessimistic vision of society since Diamond Dogs, yet different, juxtaposing ways. The first refers back to most of Bowie's rock influences from the past, the second looks forward, beyond rock, to new horizons.

The opening track, Beauty And The Beast, is clearly influenced by Bowie's recent collaboration with Iggy Pop. It could easily be a cut from the latter's album, The Idiot, which Bowie produced. The mix is heavy and muddy, the vocals emulate Iggy's, and the disco rhythm completely overshadows Eno's synthesizer. Fripp's treated, heavy-metal guitar underlines the theme of urban paranoia and displacement: there is slaughter in the air and protest on the wind.

Joe The Lion, Sons Of The Silent Age, and Blackout portray a nightmare world reminiscent of The Velvet Underground's New York. All of these songs are abstract, non-narrative studies, using random phrase juxtaposition, very similar to Bowie's lyrical technique on Aladdin Sane. The characters are psychopathic, isolated and junkied, they live in bars or in their cell-like rooms, contemplating murder or suicide. Musically, the tracks are dominated by Fripp's searing guitar, sounding very much like Roxy Music's Phil Manzanera, and the punchy rhythm section of Alomar, Davis and Murray. Bowie's vocals are at their most hysterical - almost over the edge but not quite. He chants, speaks, or shouts the lines, free associating, but reminding us at different times of Iggy, Nico, and even Tony Newley. Blackout alternates crooning with manic vocals, underlining the inherent schizophrenia in Bowie's music mentioned earlier.

The title track, "Heroes", provides a brief respite from this harsh reality, and is the album's standout track. If we can fall into dream-like introversion we can drive "them" away and be kings and queens - heroes for one day, immune to bullets and oppression. The track is essentially the rhythm section of The Velvet Underground's I'm Waiting For The Man, overlaid by Eno's synthesizer, the only track on side one where Eno is given any prominence - as if Bowie was using him to represent the introverted nature of the song. Bowie's vocals are again almost out of control in the second half of the piece.

Side two represents Bowie's retreat from rock and roll, and by association, from his past. V-2 Schneider forms the bridge with side one, a tongue-in-cheek mélange of 1960s funk with '70s electronics. Booker T & The MGs meets Kraftwerk - or Stax Memphis meets Kling Klang - as Eno treats the rhythm section and sax with phasing and synthesizer.

Sense Of Doubt, Moss Garden and Neuköln follow, forming a trilogy of impressionistic sound, fusing Bowie's and Eno's ideas most successfully and inventively. Bowie has already announced his debt to Tangerine Dream and Edgar Froese's solo albums, and their influence is most pronounced here: creating colourful textures and washes of sound, overlaid by treated sound effects and more cutting interludes that add a feeling of insecurity to Eno's synthesizer. Thus, Sense Of Doubt features a Liszt-like piano leitmotif; Moss Garden the koto over Eno's flute-like background; and Neuköln a wild saxophone, sounding like a ship's siren, in duet with the synthesizer.

The album closes with another song, The Secret Life Of Arabia, a return to the style of side one, with the synthesizer mixed down below the disco rhythm. This may be Bowie's last look back into his past as he hopefully explores further, with his new collaborators, on his forthcoming album, to be recorded in Tokyo. As ever with Bowie, we are left wondering what on earth he is going to do next.