Back to the future

Neo-modernists at birth, Heaven 17 still use their old kit. Is their new album hotter than Hades or merely suffering from paradise syndrome? By John O'Reilly
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When Romo appeared last year as the revival of new romance with bands like Orlando and DexDexter, Marx's belief that history happens first time as tragedy and second time as farce immediately came to mind. So on hearing that Heaven 17 were about to release a new single and album after eight years, my heart sank. As a callow youth in 1982, the nearest you got to a techno experience was a drunken-strobe effect of turning the lights on and off in your bedroom with Heaven 17 or Cabaret Voltaire belting out of your three-in-one. Or you could go to what was in this technologically primitive age called a `multi-media event', the techno equivalent of Morse code. Such an experience generally involved getting your face painted while watching Flash Gordon fend off the Emperor Ming to the soundtrack of Penthouse and Pavement. In 1982, Heaven 17 was the music of the future, and Penthouse and Pavement (the original title was, bizarrely, Elton John's Greatest Hits) was Melody Maker's album of the year.

So though Heaven 17 found themselves lumped in with the new romantics, they neither wore kilts like Spandau Ballet nor found in Dick Turpin a role model like Adam and the Ants. Their soundscape was the future. They were neo-modernists rather than new romantics. This was unsurprising when you consider that they emerged from the break-up of the Human League, whose album Travelogue remains a classic of sci-fi synth pop, from the surreal futurism of "The Black Hit of Space" ("The black hit of Space/ sucking in the human race/ How can it stay at the top?/ when it's swallowed all the shops") to the mutant, alien pop of "Crow and a Baby" ("A crow and a baby/ Had an affair/ My dream was the baby/ The crow was your hair)".

When the Human League split, Ian Craig-Marsh and Martyn Ware formed a production unit called BEF (British Electric Foundation) and Heaven 17 was its first project. The name was taken from a chart band in Clockwork Orange. With Glenn Gregory's vocals booming like obscure Leninist perorations on singles such as "Fascist Groove Thang" ("History will repeat itself/ Crisis point we're near the hour/ Counterforce will do no good/ Hot you ass I feel your power), they produced monumentalist dance music. They were a hybrid of Roxy Music and Kraftwerk, Can re-designed from Giorgio Moroder and Wendy Carlos, Stockhausen in platforms - catch the grinding concrete slabs at the beginning of "Crushed" by the Wheels of Industry on The Luxury Gap just before the abrasive beat kicks in.

Their two fingers to punk's anti-aesthetic aesthetic resulted in ironic, funky dance sounds. Dressed in suits and sporting ponytails on the cover of Penthouse and Pavement, Heaven 17 were a smartly dressed gob in the Bolly of nascent yuppie culture. Some city boys, who could afford to be conspicuously stupid, took songs such as "Let's All Make a Bomb" as an anthem. On the other hand, witless synthpoppers OMD were outraged at a song they believed was a celebration of apocalypse, an irony given the furore surrounding their third album, How Men Are. Ware admits that the latter owes as much to William Burroughs as anything the else and the album is a grandiosely weird catalogue of bio-politics, machine-soul and volatile mental chemistry. The sound is all euphoric surfaces shadowed by an immense decelerating drag. For one song, Gregory covered the vocals booth in sheet metal. The proceeds from one of the singles went to CND; Gregory and Marsh, fuelled by more than ideology one night, went up to the roof of the old AIR studios in Oxford Circus and unfurled a huge banner with the slogan "Heaven 17 says no nukes is good news". The next day, curious crowds were bringing traffic to a halt in central London.

I met the band in Martyn Ware's house, where they had recorded the new album Bigger Than America. As Ware explains: "After all those years in studios finishing at four and five in the morning, this recording was very civilised. It was like Magritte going into his studio with his bowler hat and his suit on, clocking on at ten and knocking off at five. Not very rock'n'roll." But that was then and this is now, nearly 15 years after Penthouse and Pavement. The dapper Ian Craig-Marsh was a thin white ghost of Kraftwerk, in white shirt, black suit and tie, and with his trademark Wing Commander quaff. Glenn Gregory arrived late, immaculately blond as ever in loafers and luxurious pin-stripe suit.

The publicity suggests that the album is a sequel to Penthouse and Pavement, and the artwork on the cover does indeed look like the original 15 years on. The band is in a tableau of an EU meeting, painted in the style of a designer socialist realism, with John Major, Helmut Kohl and other icons of politics as technocracy. Outbidding the retro-new romance of Romo, their new sound is spartan electropop with a musical aesthetic of severe modernist purity. The product of techno-aborigines, the sound and textures on Bigger Than America is generated not by digital sampling but with analogue synths such as the Roland 100.

It seems odd at first that the band who along with Cabaret Voltaire, Devo and Kraftwerk were the Cro-magnon men of house and jungle have gone back to more primitive tools. They admit that there was pressure to have drum'n'bass backing tracks, but the band wanted to explore the old technology. Martyn Ware explains that they wanted to use the "original sound palette to the Human League to see what our musical influences and experiences would have on that limited palette now - like an artist just using gouache or green." This is why the album is such a fascinating oddity. It's a bit like that Borges story in which fictional 19th century author Pierre Menard attempts an exact re-writing, not a copy or transcription, of Don Quixote. There is something wilfully quixotic about the sound. Glenn Gregory jokes that they are now an electronic folk band, and as Craig-Marsh happily admits, they were idiosyncratic first time round.

For this reason, Bigger Than America is like a missing album between Travelogue and Penthouse and Pavement rather than a sequel. It is minimalistic, with repetitive rhythms and mobile skin-tingling sounds that wash over you like a rush, especially on the album's title track. lt is music for the pin-eyed and laughing. Formally, it is as resonant of a Philip Glass or Steve Reich as it is of any pop sound, which is partly due to the nature of the music's composition. "What you've got is a very filmic soundtrack," says Gregory, "and then you put melody and lyrics to it. We got the backing track to a finished state, wrote lyrics and melodies, and then did the vocals here on a 30 quid mike." But whereas in the music of Glass, there is comfort in cyclical rhythms (it's an eastern thing, as Kula Shaker have belatedly discovered) Bigger Than America is utterly austere, and, unlike their later work, there are no instruments other than synthesiser. The sound and textures conjugate a calculus of the bright and bitter.

Though both Craig-Marsh and Gregory are self-described lapsed socialists, Ware is still a member of the party. You could say that Penthouse and Pavement is shorthand for the Pleasure Principle of Capital, and their music has always charted capital's wild psychic and economic juggernaut as it swings violently between ecstatic highs and inflamed lows. Bigger Than America and their last single, "Designing Heaven", delivers these sublime harmonies and textures in a way that only electro-pop can. As one of the corporate ironies sub-titling the album suggests, it is "quality at the touch of a button". If you don't believe me, listen to Ian Craig- Marsh's capitalised confession, "Trust Us, We're Entertainers"