HEAVEN 17 Virgin

Reviewed by Tony Reed in Melody Maker 01.Oct.1988

THEIR strength is that they have defined A Sound: their weakness is that they have defined A Sound. So there's another Heaven 17 album, and what is it? Not the heady agit-dance promise of "Fascist Groove Thang", a century away in another place and still their finest moment. Not the inspired dabbling in other people's talent that was ' Music Of Taste And Distinction", back when the British Electric Foundation (remember that?) read "corporate joke", not "career plan".

But the idea is still the same: Glenn Gregory, the idea of Pop Everyman, a Rutger Hauer android with a voice so ordinary it could be you up there The idea of whiteboy synth-funk co-opting it's black sources so completely that it s impossible to tell where ersatz soul ends and the real thing beings. We heard it on "How Men Are" were hearing it again now. The sound of people addicted to their own fakery. The slip covers tells us "real strings" (that instandt stamp of pop sophistication) were used on this album. But can't resist adding "... if you can figure out which are real."

One might ask the same of the songs. Side one opener "Big Square People' sets a familiar tone - a slice of Nile Hogers-ish rhythm, a slab of fat bass a swoon of Motown strings, lightly seasoned with a vaguely satirical lyric on the power of television. It's over before you know it, fast food for the ears. Perfect and like all H17 songs, vaguely uncomfortable listening. a gleaming musical machine with no-one (or at least Gregory, the next best thing to no-one) in the driving seat. No accident that Ware and Craig-Marsh make more money crafting such vehicles for the likes of Tina Turner than they do with their own material.

"Hot Blood", a bustling percussive chant seeking to cover its confusion in busy work, inadvertently defines the dilemma: "Something's wrong and the thing is me," intones the anodyne Gregory. "I need some of that hot blood."

There are departures from formula- "The Ballad Of Go-Go Brown" in particular offering the incongruous spectacle of a sub 'Sign 'O' The Times" crack lyric rendered as C&W myth. And at times ("Responsibility") the impersonation itself is so total that you can only admire the cheek of it, and wait for the inevitable Alexander O'Neal cover. But mainly, as the ever-helpful slip cover points out. Heaven 17 are still Martyn Ware, Ian Craig-Marsh and Glenn Gregory. Which is the whole problem.