The rehabilitation of Gary Numan is a demonstration of just how open minded metalheads can be.
Once routinely derided by the mainstream music press for seemingly everything (from his hair, to his politics and ending with the music), his influence on various rock/metal/industrial acts such as Nine Inch Nails, Fear Factory, Marilyn Manson, Queens of the Stone Age, Front Line Assembly, Skinny Puppy has seen him reappraised as a pioneer (and, of course, his influence on hip hop and electro speaks for itself).
Would this have happened if the likes of Terrorizer magazine hadn’t interviewed him in this period?
Possibly. But, by doing this, it meant a generation of metal fans who had dismissed him as a washed up synth man gave him a chance.
Highly impressive. But it couldn’t have happened without some good, current, music to back these lofty claims.
Thankfully the album that started the ball rolling for this, 1994’s ‘Sacrifice’, is worthy of the praise.
Bursting onto the scene with Tubeway Army in 1978, there was always something unique about Numan. Although his influences were obvious (Marc Bolan, David Bowie, John Foxx, JG Ballard, William Burroughs), his sound and outlook transcended them, creating an alienated young man who functioned as an android and prayed to the aliens. Being one of the first people to have hit singles with synths, Numan became an unlikely pop idol.
Singles like 'Are Friends Electric', 'Cars', 'Down in the Park', 'Complex' ushered in a new era for post punk and chart music. And they sound utterly contemporary in 2019. Quite a feat, I'm sure you'll agree.
However, this period would be short lived, owing to a combination of insecurity, vitriolic journalism and the ever shifting sands of musical fashion.
Throughout the 1980's Numan released a string of albums which saw him move further away from the individual, icy synth-pop of 'Cars' and 'Are Friends Electric' in favour of chasing the pack (the likes of Japan, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Prince and Janet Jackson would all influence his music in this period). Although reappraised today for their (at times) tough, proto-industrial sound, the albums did not trouble the UK top 20, and he was quickly relegated to 'has-been' territory in the minds of the general public and music press (although he retained a loyal following which would ensure sold out tours).
By 1992, Numan’s critical and commercial stock were at an all time low: that year's LP, ‘Machine + Soul’, was a blatant attempt to tap into Prince’s market (hence the cover of ‘U Got the Look’) as well as an attempt to pay off spiralling debts. While Numan influenced acts such as The Orb and Nine Inch Nails were enjoying chart success by this time, he (by contrast) seemed stuck. A relic of a long forgotten past.
Released in October 1994, 'Sacrifice' saw the one time pop star stepping off the treadmill and creating a record that was very much in sync with the mood of the time, as well as demonstrating how the musical trends of the period helped bring the bleakness back into his songwriting. As well as this, NiN had become the biggest cult act in the world, various electro acts openly sang Numan's praises in interviews and even bona fide pop stars like Damon Albarn and Jarvis Cocker talked about him in reverential tones.
And, by making one of his best albums, he stepped up to the plate and justified the praise.
Beginning with ‘Pray’, the wall of atmospheric synths and minimal melody immediately sets it apart from Numan’s (at that time) recent work.It’s more in line with dark wave than funky chart pop (which was de rigour for Numan in the early 90’s). His distorted vocals further the mood and the lines “There is nowhere left to hide/No safety in old glories” are an indication that we’re not going to get a retread of ‘The Pleasure Principle’ nor 'Machine + Soul.'
Using a drum machine that sounds like it was stolen from Scorn, the trip hop sounding beats shape the atmosphere into something else. Something murkier. Something much more haunting, especially with Numan’s howls of despair come into the mix towards the end.
‘Deadliner’ is when the keyboard lines that are heavily associated with Gary Numan come into play. It’s a more uptempo song, and there’s a little hint of ‘Are Friends Electric’ in the verses (in terms of the spoken word delivery). Lyrically, it talks about nightmares (presumably after reading too many Clive Barker books). The groove is undeniable, and the descending piano line acts as a nice contrast with it's gothic feel and the obligatory "whooagh" in the chorus acts as a release of tension.
‘A Question of Faith’, although sounding like a relic from Belfast goth club Cornucopia circa 1992, is where Numan’s noted anti religious stance became prominent. Casting himself as the Lucifer (as portrayed in the first act of ‘Paradise Lost’) via the cut up technique of Burroughs and Gysin, he offers images of destruction and evil to a danceable beat, with the power chords in the chorus adding gravitas to the music. The final line ‘When children kill children/Don’t it make them wonder…” is a simple, yet chilling response to the, then recent, murder of toddler James Bulger.
'Desire' is a moody, atmospheric (and vaguely Eastern sounding) number where Numan challenges God (or an ex) to reveal themselves and strike them down. The minimal lyrics mean that it acts more as an Roarschach test as opposed to a 'song' per se, but the vibe it captures makes it an essential track.
‘Love and Napalm’ bears a riff that sounds like ‘The Life Machine’ from the first Tubeway Army album being played on electric guitar, but the beats make this more reminiscent of Depeche Mode or (if you’re being rude), Jesus Jones. The lines “Are you afraid dear listener/Nothing in here but us… I collected scars like a man at war/ And I thought ‘Isn’t life peculiar'” gives us an insight into the frame of mind while writing ‘Sacrifice.’
Finishing with ‘The Seed of a Lie’, it ruminates on a failed relationship in suitably moody fashion, reminding the person who did the narrator wrong that “like a fear in the heart, I’ll be yours.” The music is suitably bombastic (the beats) and subtle (the keyboard lines). Numan’s delivery for the first part is suitably boastful, before descending into hurt as the reminiscing begins. It’s a beautiful closer to ‘Sacrifice’, and a demonstration of Numan’s gift for melody. I love how he pretty much collapses in the final seconds of the song, as if the self-pity has reduced him to tears.
Playing and (effectively) producing everything himself (which I’m guessing was because of budget limitations) was an excellent move in hindsight as it gives ‘Sacrifice’ a unique feel: a murky, claustrophobic feel. It feels like it was recorded in his bedroom as he brooded on the direction of his life, watching fuzzy VHS tapes of old family parties and finding that they don’t correlate with his own memories.
Admittedly, the album isn’t without it’s flaws: the bare bones production can sometimes leave the songs feeling tinny (‘Love and Napalm’ is a prime example of this), the cover (as “comedians” Adam and Joe once remarked on their show) makes it look like a Phil Collins record and some of the lyrics are so juvenile (and delivered with such po faced seriousness) that your average goth would cringe.
But what comes through on this record is Numan going back to the ideas that fired him up to make the first Tubeway Army album in 1978, without consideration of how this would sell or be received. Like the best Numan records, it has a single minded focus, an intensity to it that cannot help but suck the listener into the world that this record inhabits.
Sadly, this album tends to get overlooked now in favour of the higher charting, better sounding albums like ‘Pure’ and ‘Splinter.’ And it being out of print hasn’t helped matters as well. But his standing today wouldn’t be what it is without ‘Sacrifice.’
Pay homage to ‘Sacrifice.’ It’s a testament to the eclecticism of metalheads.
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.