David Bowie

Virgin, 1977


REVIEW BY: Roland Fratzl


At some point in the mid 1970s, David Bowie became fascinated with the new, strange sounds coming out of the krautrock and electronic underground scenes in Germany. A very subtle influence from this managed to find its way onto his 1976 album, Station To Station, but after that, he promptly shacked up in Berlin with Iggy Pop for a few years and recorded three landmark albums known as the “Berlin Trilogy,” enlisting the considerable talents of producer Tony Visconti and one of the pioneers of ambient electronic music in rock, Brian Eno. Determined to make a genuine artistic statement instead of taking the safe road and courting the mainstream, Low, the first of these albums, marked a significant shift in sound for Bowie.

Anyone expecting catchy pop songs or glam rock anthems will probably be confused by this release. Full of puttering synths, atmospheric keyboards, odd arrangements, and vocals with avant-garde stylings, my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Low is an extremely interesting, and mostly successful art rock experiment.

Within this format, Bowie managed to write a bunch of interesting songs that show both very strong and unusual melodic development and offer creative musicianship. Factor in Bowie's newfound command of his voice and Visconti as the special effects man, as well as Eno, who anchors the songs by adding his brilliantly interwoven ambient soundscapes, and you've got a hell of an engaging listen.

Curiously, the album is essentially split into two sections. The first half mostly consists of poppier material such as the fantastically catchy, cute, and odd “Sound And Vision” and the hypnotically danceable “Breaking Glass” with its bouncy bass lines and mechanical drumming. These songs are all quite short (around the three minute mark, thereby completely turning around my main criticism of Station To Station), and this brevity does wonders for the album’s listenability. The approach is fairly minimalist and direct, and Bowie’s vocals sound quite detached, almost robotic even.

The second half of Low is almost entirely instrumental. Eno’s electronic contributions really take centre stage, and the mood shifts rather jarringly into very downbeat territory, starting with the chilling, epic funeral dirge, “Warzsawa,” which perfectly captures the stark Cold War dread from its symbolic epicenter. The remaining three instrumentals (with only a few vocal effects added) explore similar dark, plodding territory, but instead of sounding like incomplete filler, I find these atmospheric songs more gripping than the earlier conventional fare. They show a very daring side of Bowie that is deserving of great respect.

Simultaneously Bowie’s most fascinating, cutting-edge, and inaccessible release, it could be argued that Low essentially paved the way for the entire new wave, art rock, and synth pop musical genres that became so prominent in the ‘80s. It could very well be David Bowie’s best album – it’s certainly the only one without any generic moments.

Rating: A-

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© 2008 Roland Fratzl and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Virgin, and is used for informational purposes only.