Before we get to The Flat Earth though, those of us old enough to remember eccentric TV scientist Dr Magnus Pike (and if you are, do you make that expelling of air noise when you sit down? Yeah…) will remember the song and video of ‘She Blinded Me With Science’ from New Wave/Electro Wunderkind Thomas Dolby.
His debut, 1982’s ‘The Golden Age Of Wireless’, tickled the charts and although it was Pop, it was even more than Art Pop, it had so many Rock, Funk, and Electro influences that it certainly made me want to play it over and over again. Still do…
This was man who was bucking the trend.
‘The Flat Earth‘
And yet no one expected the second album to sound like it did. The BBC nailed it;
‘When The Flat Earth was released in March 1984, no-one in the UK quite knew what to make of Dolby. And he delighted and perplexed his audience with a record that refused to fit into any pigeonhole whatsoever.’
The Flat Earth, released two years after the debut, was almost branded by the nervy, trumpet-infused dance Funk of ‘Hyperactive!’, which was a top 30 smash in the UK.
The single was a big statement and so the album it came off is sometimes overlooked. That’s such a shame.
Because The Flat Earth is almost Prog. From the drama of the airless opener ‘Dissidents’, with the clacking of the keys on a typewriter as the main musical offer to the almost sucking beat and lazy bass of nostalgic lost love paean ‘Screen Kiss’, this was Dolby almost turning his back on the charts, but keeping one eye on it.
That was ‘I Scare Myself’, not really a hit, barely top 50 in the UK but an example of where he was with singles releases. Written by Dan Hicks, a Bluegrass, Jazz, Country and many more artist, elements of all those are here.
This is a cabaret, bass led confessional, with contemplative backing (‘and with that voodoo’ – ‘voodavoodavoodooo’) and a waking in the night feel – he even admits ‘it’s me I’m scaring’, that vocal line stretched by machines to a squeak and down to a sludgy baritone.
As Progography said
”Even a relatively straight cover of I Scare Myself is nothing more than a ticking time bomb designed to throw the listener off balance.’
It’s brilliant. And unexpected.
What Else Makes The Flat Earth So Good?
Well, the title track is a tight little New Wave backing which sways as the Police did in their pomp, then makes a cry in the chorus that ‘the earth can be any shape you want it…’ By the way, this track has a wet, unsettling feel.
But then a lot of these tracks do, another standout is ‘The White City’ which has Electro Rock arena-sized aspirations and, in its overwrought feel, resembles modern-day Muse, another Prog touchstone. The big beat and crunchy riffing don’t hide the sudden bass twang or the Dolby conversation about topography which ends with his disappointed ‘Oh, you’re not there either…’
The voice swells, almost threatens. This is a centrepiece for The Flat Earth, the dramatic, almost African-sounding soundtrack style.
The track is actually ‘Mulu The Rainforest’, the feel here is incursion, Dolby’s plaintive soft vocal and the massed cries of the rainforest dwellers or the rainforest itself.
This is not Pop. Decidedly not. This is atmospheric, filmic, almost a soundscape; so Prog but never diving in.
It stands aside from everything else on this album. Thinking differently is a Dolby trait.
The Flat Earth Is A Cut Above
Not Prog, but Prog. Not Pop, but Pop. Overlooked, but revered. By me.
And not only for this album, Dolby kept the brilliance up, always. Have a listen, you’ll never be sorry.