Review: IAMX – Volatile Times
Sometimes there is no winning for trying. Sometimes a bar is set so ludicrously high, that no matter what an artist does it will pale as compared to what has come before. The better the work, the increasingly impossible to reach those heights again. Two years and change ago Chris Corner released what Softsynth considers to be one of the greatest electronic albums ever recorded, our far-and-away pick for album of the year that year and one that we believe will stand the test of time. No matter what Corner and friends recorded as follow up was going to pale in comparison.
And it does.
But is that fair? Can we ever assess a work of art within a bubble, without the context of what has come before? Well that’s beyond the powers of this reviewer, so with that context laid out what hath M. Corner wrought in 2011?
Volatile Times is a markedly different album than Kingdom of Welcome Addiction. Clearly representing different sides of what makes Corner tick, while the earlier album played on some of his most powerful gifts – namely his talent for bombast, for huge, anthemic, calls to action, this album goes to the darker quieter, sometimes sadder places. No less beautiful and differently powerful, we nonetheless miss the bigness of what we know IAMX is capable of. Tragic and gorgeous, “Avalanches” haunts us but will it yearn to be played at full volume when we need an emotional kick two years from now? Maybe, it touches us differently, and we miss the touch of the anthem.
Song for song Corner establishes himself – again – as the leader of the messy, emotional electronic movement. His songwriting is as good as anyone in the business, his lyrics, odd and affecting. “Bernadette” is a musical updating of “President”, but tamer somehow. A circus march as love ode. It’s interesting to hear how Corner, recording with a live band in-studio for the first time (to mixed results sound-wise) adopts different styles, some of which work better than others. “Music People”, perhaps the strongest track on the album, harks back to Prince from the Purple Rain era; “Dance With Me” is a plucked minimalist ballad that doesn’t quite resonate; “Cold Red Light” sounds like mid-era Public Image Limited as they were starting their jag into disco and is a perfect match for Corner’s sleazier instincts.
But IAMX are at their best when they go big. They do big better than anyone in electronic music. Anyone. And so on a song like “Oh Beautiful Town” we catch that glimpse of Corner and co as they soar into the huge, terrific chorus (Oh beautiful town/Where are you now/with your binge insecurities?/I shut you down/beautiful town/Because you tear your children/Into pieces) and we are reminded of how important IMAX is, how vital, how alive.
In some ways, this is a quieter, more contemplative album than IAMX’s previous work, and it takes its place filling out of the Corner oeuvres. It’s an extremely solid album, dare we say, a great album. It doesn’t hold a candle to KOWA, but few albums do. Given how much Corner despairs of the state of the music business and how hard it is to be a professional musician of his ilk in this era of downloads and narrowcasting within the record companies and touring industry, we are simply grateful he continues to play the game, to give us a piece of his tortured soul when he deigns to pick up pen and paper and later synths and mics. In that respect he’s done it again, and what he’s shared is sometimes frightening, sometimes illuminating, and always provoking as hell. Long may he continue to do so.
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