KLAUS NOMI REVIEWS:
Klaus Nomi (1981)
Album Score: 12
I saw the 2004 documentary about Klaus Nomi, and I was a bit disappointed they didn't spend more time discussing and analyzing his music. Granted, I'm probably one of the few viewers who had that concern, but I guess that's just who I am! Anyway, Nomi's image and personality were so interesting that there was no time left to look at the songs. However, hearing snippets from his music on the documentary, I immediately became interested in it and quickly got a hold of his two albums.
This guy is an iconic figure of the New York underground, and that's more reasons than one. Right off the bat, you've probably already noticed how he used to dress. You at least *wondered* about him, right! Also, he died just as his popularity was taking off, which immediately thrust him into legendary status (even though he never attained the popularity of a Jim Morrison or Kurt Cobain). Another unusual aspect of Klaus Nomi was the way he sang. He had childhood ambitions of being an opera star, and he spent most of his adult life developing a beautiful countertenor voice. However, he wasn't getting too far in the legitimate opera... so he decided to become a new wave star who happens to sing like an opera star! You might already be thinking that there was another German underground figure who combined punk with opera, Nina Hagen. (I have no idea who came first). But the two sound starkly different. Hagen is snarly and vicious. Nomi is quirky, gentle and otherworldly.
To finally answer the most important question of them all: I think this album is fantastic! I was familiar with all these songs from watching the documentary, but delving deeply into the music itself provided a number of rich and rewarding experiences that I would never have picked up from the doc. “Lightnin' Strikes” is a brilliant cover of Lou Christie's hit from 1966... and it greatly improves the original. The instrumentation is very goofy (making it a *fun* experience beyond everything else), but Nomi's operatic voice lends it a vastly interesting tone. When he hits the chorus, it sounds like he's singing about the apocalypse, which is something that caught me off guard the first time I heard it. He does the same sort of thing with the chorus in “Total Eclipse.” Both of these songs are not only incredibly fun, but they're catchy as hell.
His version of Chubby Checker's “The Twist” is about as weird as it gets. Instead of speeding up the tempo (like most new wave bands would), they slow it down and gives me visions of a weird alien dance party. Nomi's countertenor voice makes that already creepy idea even creepier. You're going to have to hear it to believe it. “Nomi Song” was written seemingly as his signature song... it starts out like an operatic aria and then a catchy, jerky new wave song comes in. That one's also a lot of fun! A substantial number of listeners are insistent that Nomi's straight operatic exercises are the undisputed highlights of his albums. While I beg to differ, I can see where they're coming from. “The Cold Song” is a cover of 17th Century composer Henry Purcell, and it's one of the most mesmerizing moments of the whole album. It's gorgeous, actually.
On the downside, I'm not a major fan of the album's opener and “Nomi Chant.” Both probably require viewing his stage show to get their full effect. “Keys of Life” is a weird, repetitive thing that proclaims “He came from outer space / to save the human race.” A great introduction of the character, but not necessarily a great song. “Nomi Chant” probably didn't have to be included considering it's just a wave of synthesizer sounds and Nomi's not even singing on it. ... But considering the album is a surprisingly short 32 minutes, you can see why they had to include it! Anyway, I can see where it might fit into some sort of concept. On the stage show, I assume that would be the segment where Nomi goes back to outer space, or wherever the hell he came from.
Anyway, this is a fantastic album, and if you have an affinity to new wave music, you should hear this immediately.
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Simple Man (1982)
Album Score: 11
It's not as good as the debut album, but if you enjoyed the hell out of it, nothing should stop you from getting Klaus Nomi's second and final studio album. That's right, this was his last one---he would succumb to AIDS just one year later. It's unfortunate that his career was over just as it seemed to be taking off, but I guess that's life.
Even after delving into the debut album, listeners are going to have different opinions about what should have happened in the sequel. Opera devotees probably wouldn't like hearing his cutesy and throwaway version of “Just One Look,” and those who preferred his silly novelty numbers wouldn't care to hear his dark Henry Purcell cover “Death” (even though it was clearly appropriate considering his health crisis). I doubt anybody wanted to hear him sing “ICUROK,” which is bland synth-pop that consists of Nomi singing in a voice altering machine. Above all other things, we definitely don't want his voice to be altered!
The album opens and closes similarly to the debut... The opener, “From Beyond,” is an atmospheric piece consisting of synthesizer waves and Nomi singing what sounds like a Gregorian chant (a piece written by early 17th century composer John Dowland). The closer “Return” is the same thing except Nomi's singing a cappella with tons of reverb. The second track, “After the Fall,” is an excellent number from the same composer who wrote the phenomenal pop masterpiece “Total Eclipse” from the debut album. It's just about as good, too --- it has a wholly memorable and catchy melody, and it showcases Nomi's operatic singing style. It's such a pure blast from beginning to end! The same composer even wrote the title track, another catchy masterpiece that was perfect for Nomi. If you don't hear anything else from this album, hear those.
If you're a Dr. Demento fan, chances are you've already heard “Ding Dong,” a cover of the "witch is dead" song from the film The Wizard of Oz. It's hokey, of course, but it's a bout of cheeky fun featuring a playful vocal performance and a wide array of well engineered sound effects. That song really could have sounded too cutesy and inconsequential (a fate that begot “Just One Look”), but they handled it just right. “Rubberband Lazer” is an amusing combination of country western and science fiction --- the melody is clever and lyrics are silly and memorable. People who love novelty music definitely won't be disappointed with this release.
Still, I gotta compare it to the debut. I relent the fact that this is lacking a creepy/fun equivalent to “The Twist!” As far as the opera stuff goes, I greatly preferred his “The Cold Song” to anything here. Nonetheless, both of these albums are great, and they're sure to provide you with endless hours of entertainment ... that is, if you're weird like me.
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In Concert (1986)
Album Score: 11
Here's the rough thing about live albums... The recording quality is rarely ever pristine. When they are pristine, then that probably means it was either made in the digital age, or it's from one of those mega-famous bands like The Rolling Stones or U2. Poorly recorded live material is almost a certainty when it comes to underground figures like Klaus Nomi whose live recordings could have only come about through an audience member leaving a mid-priced tape recorder on the side of the stage. Making matters worse is this album's total unavailability on CD, which means that I can only listen to this through a vinyl rip. So, indeed, this is pretty rough. I mean, the drums and bass are usually way louder than the vocals... except for the times when the vocals are so loud that they maxed out the capabilities of the recording system.
Even though the sound quality is marginal at best, this thing is pretty damn enjoyable. I certainly wouldn't call any of these live versions better than their studio counterparts, but some of them are quite different. “The Twist,” for example, Nomi had originally sung like he was playfully trying to entice his extra-terrestrial minions into dancing like Earthlings. This version, on the other hand, Nomi pretty much speaks the lyrics as though he were passive-aggressively barking orders in his ultra-thick German accent, and the result is far more menacing. His band members supplement that song with an array of messy arpeggios on their guitars, or awkward drum fills, and there's also somebody playing a bunch of strange sound effects. ...This is definitely something out of a horror movie.
Another excellent moment here is the beginning of "Total Eclipse,” which unlike the studio version, starts with a pretty sparkly but screwy saxophone solo! That saxophone doesn't squeak quite as much as a Roxy Music saxophone solo would in that band's prime, but it's along those same lines. After that goes along for a bit, Nomi starts to sing that pop song that we're all familiar with... And, unfortunately, his voice sort of wavers in and out of audible range thanks to the iffy recording quality, but he still sounds pretty awesome breaking into his signature counter-tenor voice in the chorus.
I had been under the impression, until finally doing some research on the matter, that Nomi was very close to death when this was recorded. Although a source on the Internet claims this was recorded in 1979. ...That would have to mean he was performing “Falling in Love Again” before it appeared on his 1982 studio album... At any rate, Nomi does seem worn out—for whatever reason—during the performance of “Lightning Strikes.” The studio version of that was just an energetic and sparkly jewel, but here he seems to have a relatively difficult time jumping into that chorus. But that chorus is still pretty great. I also notice a few imperfect notes being hit during the album's closing number, “Samson and Delilah.” But it's nothing to get our panties in a bunch.
In a lot of fans' opinions, the crown jewel of this album is "I Feel Love," a Donna Summer cover that is not featured on any of his studio albums. Like every good cover should, it sounds nothing like the original... it's characterized by a raw and mechanical bass synthesizer while Nomi hams it up in that special way he does with his counter-tenor vocals. The band members supplement that with a wide array of bizarre-as-hell sound effects, which includes baby noises, people laughing, and squeaky and whooshy guitar feedback sounds. Unfortunately the recording quality of it is so rough that it only makes me wish that Nomi stayed with us long enough to make more albums so that maybe there could have been a studio version of it down the line.
It's unfortunate that this was never released on CD, and fans who want it nowadays will have to rely on a vinyl rip (or to especially low-tech fans, find an actual vinyl version of it). ...I mean, I wouldn't recommend this to anyone but huge Nomi-philes, and I'm sure they'll love this to pieces. For sure, it's not a perfect recording, but with these sorts of artists who only lasted a brief time and in the underground, I think we're all just happy that this even exists. There was a guy on 2010's season of America's Got Talent that pretty much looked like he was Klaus Nomi's reincarnation (I feel a little bit goofy publishing his name, but here it goes: Prince Poppycock). I looked on Wikipedia and I learned that he's now actually performing songs new songs written by Kristian Hoffman, who was Nomi's original musical director and also songwriter. ...Of course, nothing could ever replace the original guy, but it's interesting that we've seen someone like a lot like him resurfacing lately.
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Za Bakdaz: The Unfinished Opera (2008)
Album Score: 5
The first time I listened to Za Bakdaz: The Unfinished Opera, it pissed me off royally. I vowed then and there to write a review of it so the whole world could know how awful it was. First of all, how much of this opera did Klaus Nomi actually finish? It mustn't have been much since most of these tracks sound like someone took a sample of Nomi's operatic tenor, turned it into a wordless synthesized instrument, and just let it hover over what are effectively instrumentals. And—man—that synthesized voice is creepy. Not only is it creepy because it sounds like a horrible ghost that's out to snatch my soul, but I also can't get the notion out of my mind that someone violated Nomi's grave to make this. I mean, doesn't using modern technology to reproduce a dead person's singing voice seem wrong to anyone else? (Can you imagine, 20 years from now, someone trying to release an album with a computerized Frank Sinatra that actually sounds like his legitimate voice? I hope I'm not very good at predicting the future.) However, as it stands in Za Bakdaz, the attempts to computerize him are so poor that it's un-redeemable. Just listen to how awkward it sounds in “Cre Spoda.” It basically consists of a two-second sound-byte that keeps on repeating.
Taking a step back from the ethical dilemmas of this project, I'd imagine I could probably enjoy an album filled with nothing but synthesized ghost-voices in it. Unfortunately, all hope for that happening with Za Bakdaz is lost since this is easily one of the worst produced albums I've ever heard. Furthermore, this is supposed to be some sort of opera, but there's no indication in the music of what it's about. Could Nomi have really envisioned something so confused? I'd like to think that he would have lent his weird sensibilities to give this whole project a clearer direction had he actually finished it. Or maybe Nomi didn't finish it because he realized it wasn't going anywhere?
One of the worst “songs” I've ever heard in my life is called “Metronomi.” Now, the idea they had for that song—guitars clicking about like clocks—could have sounded positively epic, if only Nomi's counter-tenor vocals were there to sing as though he were counting down to the End-of-Days. However, since we don't have the real Nomi singing there—instead that horrible, synthesized apparition—what's the point of it? Besides, those clicking noises get so cluttered that I can hardly make heads or tails of it.
Diehard Nomi fans who are hoping to hear his actual singing voice will find a few nice bits in here, but not much. There's an early version of “Rubber Band Lazer” in here. However, given how heavily processed his vocals sound, I'm guessing the recording they worked with was so ROUGH that they had to put that weird rumbly texture there to give it a fuller sound. A much better “treat” is his rendition of “Silent Night,” which closes the album. However, for some reason the instrumentalists wanted to turn it into a herky-jerky new wave tune, and so they played an ill-fitting, disjointed groove over Nomi's vocals. What makes it worse is those guitars sound three-dimensional while Nomi's actual vocals are flat and thrust deeply in the background. Wouldn't it have been better if the producers let the performance be ethereal like you would instinctively think a song like that would work the best and do something magical with background synthesizers? It's possible that a dance tune was how Nomi had originally envisioned it, but if it was going to sound as poorly as that, then maybe it's a good thing this album was never produced?
OK, I'm reviewing it, so it must have been produced! But it's pretty clear to me that these guys should have left it alone. If there were salvageable scraps of unreleased material here, they should have put them in a box set or something. I know I've indicated in previous reviews that I'm a heavy proponent of capitalism in the sense that if there's a quick buck to be made (in the arts), then more the power to the person who pursues it. Well, I took that “buyer beware” mindset and let it kick my ass when I actually laid down cold-hard cash for this album. What a rip-off.
I don't think the release of Za Bakdaz detracts from Nomi's earlier albums, but it does put a dark stain on his discography. Whether or not the opinions from an obscure amateur critic mean anything, I just awarded this album a 5/15, which is a low only few artists' discographies I've reviewed ever sink to. A few bucks might have been made with the release of this album, but is it really something to be proud of?
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