Album Review: Be-Bop Deluxe – Modern Music

Be-Bop Deluxe was one of those bands that didn’t fit neatly into a genre classification. Variously classified as progressive rock, glam rock and art rock, in truth none of those labels sits comfortably upon their body of work. Led by highly regarded guitarist Bill Nelson, the band – which lasted a relatively short six or seven years – released five studio albums and a live album during its time together.

The group’s fourth release, Modern Music saw Nelson and his band mates combining a sort of new wave-ish approach with all of the styles for which they’re identified. There’s certainly an art rock (think: Roxy Music) sheen to the songs on the album’s first side, and Nelson’s guitar applies effects (so often abused by others) in an intelligent manner: phasers, digital delays and the like only add to the texture of the music.

When the group rocks hard on tracks like “Bring Back the Spark,” it applies some prog character – stop/start meter and so forth – to make things more sophisticated, layered and ultimately interesting. And while the vocal harmonies led by Nelson aren’t quite on a par with Queen’s complex arrangements, they’re impressive enough, and serve the musical goals of the songs in fine fashion.

Be-Bop Deluxe’s artistic predilections come to the fore here, with the second side of the original LP taking the form of something called The Modern Music Suite. A sequence of nine tracks varying in length from 48 seconds to five minutes, it’s designed to hold together both musically and conceptually; in the liner notes for the new 2CD expanded reissue, Nelson describes the Suite as “a virtual movie in sound.”

The Suite is based on Nelson’s experiences touring America, and American textures are evident from the get-go: “Modern Music” opens with multiple lead guitar harmony a la The Allman Brothers and their Southern rock copyists. Not that Be-Bop Deluxe hadn’t used the approach before, but here it seems to not-so-subtly echo the vibe of American music of the period.

The extensive liner note essays in the booklet accompanying the new reissue add a great deal of welcome context to the package. A piece from Nelson himself is joined by a longer historical essay by Mark Powell. Strangely, in his essay Powell – who conceived of the reissue project – doesn’t address the motivation behind presenting a remixed version of the album. Still, the original mix (by Nelson and John Leckie) of “Bring Back the Spark” is a bit murky, and the remix on Disc Two is sharper. On initial listens, that’s the most obvious difference, but perhaps side-by-side comparison of the discs would reveal other improvements.

Taken as a whole, Modern Music distills the best of the band’s excursions into rock’s sophisticated-leaning subgenres and applies a radio-friendly pop sheen to the entire affair. On original release in 1976, the album fared well commercially; critics were perhaps a bit less enthusiastic, seeing it as less momentous than 1976’s Sunburst Finish. The digipak packaging for Esoteric’s reissue of Modern Music provides value for money: not only does it include the two discs, but also a fold-out with color images, the booklet and (like the old days!) a poster of the band.