Heaven 17 BIGGER THAN AMERICA - reviewed by Victor Cooke
Only a few weeks into 1998, and it already feels like we're living in oblivion all over again. Perhaps due to the recent media blitz on electronic music (or Sean "Puffy" Combs cynically exhuming every one-hit early '80s corpse in sight), it has never been as street-cool as it is now to be an old synth pop outfit from the halcyon days of MTV. With increasing regularity, the old-school analog kids have been re-emerging from the mists of time bearing delectable melodic gifts wrapped in shimmering mylar production.
Submitted for your approval -- the resurrection of Heaven 17, who have been absent from the music industry roll call since the release of their well-deserved best-of album HIGHER AND HIGHER in 1993. While this British trio never reached the level of success enjoyed stateside by the Human League (of whom keyboardists Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware were founding members), Heaven 17 have been responsible for some priceless contributions to the electro-pop pantheon like "Temptation" (featured during the club scene in TRAINSPOTTING), "Let Me Go," "Pent-house And Pavement" and "We Live So Fast."
It's heartening to see many of the old Heaven 17 touches are still evident -- BIGGER THAN AMERICA is rife with relentlessly catchy rhythms, Marsh and Ware's lush production flourishes and Glenn Gregory's dramatic, emotive baritone (still a commanding focal point despite all the carbonated electronics). In a self-reverential nod to their executive-imaged early days as the British Electric Foundation (which remains their production pseudonym), the booklet art casts Heaven 17 as a benevolent socialist triumvirate watching over the masses with reassuring seriousness while trumpeting such corporate-sounding slogans as "True International Understanding Starts Here" and "Still Opening Doors All Over The World."
Musically, BIGGER THAN AMERICA steps out of the corner swinging solid hooks. The elegant leadoff track "Dive" is surely one of the most beautiful tracks they've ever recorded. In a more cyber-Motown mode is the fitting single choice, "Designing Heaven," followed by the irresistible disco highlights "We Blame Love" and "Another Big Idea." The album's second half flounders a bit, but it rallies around an aggressive "Fascist Groove Thang" revisitation titled "Freak!," a sparse, affecting snapshot of a relationship on the rocks called "Do I Believe?" and the self-explanatory closer "An Electronic Prayer."
Throughout the new album, Heaven 17 continue to seed their lyrics with the same outspoken social commentary that gave their old hits a lasting relevance that their peers rarely attained. This is especially true on the title track, "Unreal Every-thing" and on "The Big Dip-per," which appears to contrast American reality versus American cinema through a sour eye -- The king of Hollywood is dead/I don't care what the president said/I don't believe in everything I've read/The Big Dipper's coming down/New York's just a shanty town/ That distant sound is L.A. burning down... Even Forrest Gump can't save us now.
It's a shame that only two or three tracks mar this otherwise stellar comeback. As it is, a recommendation is still awarded for anyone harboring a fondness for those synth-laced glory days of 15 (!) years ago. Despite those second-half bumps, BIGGER THAN AMERICA is a breezy, diverting ride through an old neighborhood renovated and remodeled for a new time. We live so fast, indeed.