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CD Feature/ Enigma: "Seven Lives, Many Faces"

img  Tobias
Michael Cretu’s approach to composing is the perfect antithesis to the promiscuous state-of-the-art ambitions of hot hit-producers like NERD and Timbaland: Operating from his outlying home base of Ibiza, he has steadily gathered a small but faithful family of friends around him, building a catalogue of works so utterly idiosyncratic that it completely defies categories like “up to date” or “contemporary”. The supposed rule that each of his albums has sold approximately half the copies of its predecessor is therefore less a sign of deteriorating quality control and rather a quite natural process: If zeitgeist and Enigma did come together in the past (as on amazingly succesful singles “Sadeness” and “Return to Innocence”) it has always been more of a chance meeting than a carefully planned encounter.

Over the past years, however, Cretu’s finca has slowly been deserted by his kin. Frank Petersen disappeared upon release of the debut, lyricist David Fairstein left after album number three while muse, singer and wife Sandra seperated from him in 2007. Rather derogative-sounding comments about long-time companion Jens Gad (“Jens Gad was my assistant in the studio and never co-producer of any Enigma record”), meanwhile, suggest a split might be immanent on this front as well. The media have been quick in interpreting the exodus as a sign for Cretu’s social incompatibility and notoriously “difficult” personality, but the plain and simple truth is that Enigma has always been a private party of his – to which not a soul in the world could claim a permanent invitation.

This “Members Only” mentality has only become clearer, as Cretu has shifted the emphasis of the project away from sampling, cultural juxtaposition and epic concepts towards a sort of unconventional yet commercial electronica act. Reinventing himself has not been easy, however as public perception has stood in complete contrast to his intentions: The musical risks he took on “Voyageur” (marked by moody, futuristic songs) and “A Posteriori” (a 21st century Krautrock album of sorts) mostly met with ignorance (at best) and outright anger (at worst). Explaining this phenomenon with a natural inertia among his fans or with their aggresively nostalgic tendencies will not do. Rather, the outside world is increasingly and somewhat justifiedly regarding Cretu as a whimsical outlaw, a creative loner spinning unpredictably around his own axis.

As “Seven Lives Many Faces” proves, Cretu has recognised the need to integrate fresh external input. The fruitful connection with vocalist Andrew Donalds has been reinforced, new ties with previously unknown Margarita Roig (songwriting and vocals) as well as with a certain Nanuk (narrational duties) have been established. Already, these collaborations rovide the album with two of the project’s all-time most instantly accessible and emotionally upbeat moments: Anthemic single “La Puerta del Cielo” and the softly hypnotic “Between Generations”. Like sunny islands, these pieces provide warm, harmonic refuge on an otherwhise remarkably dark and stern work.

Claims that “Seven Lives Many Faces” lacks melodic appeal are actually quite accurate in this respect. Never before has an Enigma album focussed this closely on rhythm and texture. “Seven Lives” boasts pumping human beatbox beats, echoing string staccatos and bouncing HipHop flavours; “Fata Morgana” rides on a wave of pumping Guitar riffs and electro-rock stabs and “Hell’s Heaven” charges between sceletised drum loops and bubbly bass vibrations. “Je t’aime till my dying day”, meanwhile, is more of a poppy Ambient wash than a veritable song and “Deja-Vu”’s string arrangements loose themselves in a pastiche-like easy-listening arrangement. One could even go as far as to say that the record eschews spelling things out in full, preferring intimations above verse/chorse schemes.

On the other hand, accusations that the album constitutes nothing but a collection of mid-tempo chill out zones can easily be dispelled. The core musical themes running through “Seven Lives Many Faces” are minimalism in instrumentation and compactness in form. All pieces bar one are shorter than five minutes, many don’t even touch the four minute mark. For the largest part, Cretu concentrates on three or four motives per piece, developping them softly, researching inspiring permutations and killing them off before the danger of repetition creeps in. There is not much spatial depth to be found in the production, too, which awards the music a strangely solitary ambiance, as if it were constantly in search of missing elements or concrete emotional outbursts.

What may sound like superficiality turns into the work’s strongpoint, though. Rightly because typical highlights are few and far between, the flow and mood of the album as a whole takes center stage. Like deadly effective cogwheels, individual tracks push the record’s machinery forward, relentlessly forcing the audience into their seats and their minds into gentle submission. The sonic screen has not been clustered with paint (as with the supernova-like shine of “A Posteriori”), which allows for creative input from the listener. If the back catalogue of Enigma has been minutely detailed on a three-dimensional map, listening to “Seven Lives Many Faces” is like walking through a metaphorical wasteland without compass.

It is hard to see this idea carrying more than an album, but there is no need to either. Cretu has, after all, already indicated that the next full-length will again mark a return to his more radically experimental roots. Not that we haven’t heard announcements like this before, but the already drastically reduced arrangements of “Seven Lives Many Faces” turn this statement into a credible claim. A state-of-the-art production in the line of hot hit producers like NERD or Timbaland seems out of the question, but if he can leave his solitary snail-shell and touch base with the streets again, a renewed encounter with that mysterious entity called Zeitgeist is anything but impossible.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Enigma
Homepage: EMI Music

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