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In the middle of the 1980s, suburban dads everywhere were showing off their new CD players with Dire Straits' "Brothers in Arms", but the true classic of this era was Kate Bush's "Hounds of Love". It's a timeless and still unique record full of frighteningly original music. Her previous album "The Dreaming" was also brilliant but much darker and less accessible. But "Hounds of Love" was by far her most assured effort to date, with a new coherence and outgoing confidence to her experimentation. It's arranged as one side of straight songs, and a second "dark" side, entitled "The Ninth Wave", consisting of a continuous suite of tracks based on the story of a drowning woman. Half a concept album in fact, but singularly imaginative and without any pretention or bloat - it's the real thing.
The first five songs were solid pop songs, but wildly eclectic and inventive. The one constant factor is Kate's love of percussion - whose insistent beats vary from the tribal toms of the hit single "Running Up That Hill" through the folky party rhythms of "The Big Sky", to the military drumrolls of "Cloudbusting". The title track is a wonderful song about throwing away inhibition, with choppy strings, thumping drums and Kate's astonishingly wide-ranging voice right up front. "Mother Stands for Comfort" was the only one of these not released as a single - and has some rather creepy fretless bass from Eberhard Weber, howling and window smashing. This could have slotted easily into her brilliant previous album "The Dreaming". "Cloudbusting" is another inspired song with a shuffling string section, building up a hypnotic intensity (with those drums again) towards a big chanting chorus.
"The Ninth Wave" is a remarkable artistic achievement - poetry, and poetry in music. It apparently narrates the hallucinations and dreams of a woman lost at sea. After trying desperately to stay awake in the gentle piano piece "And Dream of Sheep", we hear her dreaming of being stuck under a frozen lake with suitably jagged and chilling music. It gets darker with some chaotic and savage music telling of her trial as a witch. The pace is relaxed with "Watching You Without Me", coloured by some Oriental-sounding vocals. Kate's Irish roots, hinted at earlier on, are brought to the front on the powerful "Jig of Life", as the protagonist seemingly fights for life (but I could be wrong!). The climax is reached on "Hello Earth", which morphs masterfully between powerful ballad and male-voice choral chanting. It could easily have ended there and been equally satisfying, but "The Morning Fog" brings us back into the light, with an apparently happy ending of the woman's survival. All the musical darkness is washed away with a delicate little pastoral tune.
December 21, 2003