Enigmatic describes Air, one of the most innovative European electronic bands of the past twenty years. Air were formed in 1995, in Versailles, France. Originally, Nicholas Godin, a former architecture student was the only member of Air. He was later joined by former maths student Jean-Benoit Dunckel. They’d previously been members of Orange, which included Alex Gopher. Three years after Air were formed in 1995, they released their debut album Moon Safari.
Moon Safari, which will be rereleased by WEA Japan on 4th February 2014, epitomises what Air’s music is about. It’s genre-melting music which was been influenced by numerous musical genres and influences. Everything from ambient, dance, electronica, folk, funk, reggae, rock and soul music influenced the making of Moon Safari which was released in January1998. On its release, Moon Safari was a success throughout Europe and launched the career of Air, one music’s most cerebral and elusive bands.
From what we already know about Air, they are an intelligent duo. This extends to their name. When the group were formed, many people were unaware that Air was backronym, which is a phrase that is formed so that an acronym can be formed. Air’s backronym is Amour, Imagination, Reve, which means love, imagination dream. This intelligence extends to their music, music which people have sought to pigeon hole. So far, they’ve failed to do so, referring to it as electronica.
Various styles of music, and musicians have influenced Air. Listen carefully to their music, and you can hear the influence of Vangelis and Jean Michel Jarre and the synthesizer based music they helped popularize. 1960’s psychedelic rock groups like Pink Floyd, and progressive rock bands like Tangerine Dream. The godfathers’ of electronic music, Kraftwerk, have also influenced their sound. Air, like Kraftwerk, use many electronic instruments. Both groups use a vocoder when performing live.
Closer to home two French artists have influenced Air’s music. Space were one of the pioneers of electronic music. Originally from Marseilles, France, they started making electronic music in 1977 until 1980. During this period, they released four albums. They reformed in 1992, and have sold over twelve million albums worldwide during their career. The other French artist to influence Air is the legendary Serge Gainsbourg. He was a singer-songwriter, who between 1958 and his death in 1991, released a wide variety of albums, which cross the musical boundaries. Gainsbourg was never afraid to experiment, and sometimes, this caused him problems. His music has influenced almost two generations musicians, and is as popular today, as it has ever been.
Since forming in 1995, Air have released a number of studio albums. The first album they release was a compilation, Premiers Symptomes. It’s a compilation of singles released by the band between 1995 and 1997. However, Moon Safari was Air’s debut album.
The ten tracks on Moon Safari were written by Air. Three tracks see them collaborate. This includes All I Need and New Star in the Sky, which Air cowrote with Beth Hisch. Patrick Woodcock cowrote Ce Matin Là. Recording took place between April and June of 1997, in Paris. The two members of Air proved to be multi-instrumentalists. Jean played keyboards, synths, organ, vocals, piano, pan pipes and glockenspiel. Nicholas played bass, synths, percussion, vocals, guitar, harmonica, glockenspiel, piano, organ, pan pipes and drums. Beth Hirsch added vocals on two tracks, Eric Regert played organ and Patrick Woodcock guitar and tuba. Once Moon Safari was recorded, it was released in January 1998.
On its release in January 1998, Moon Safari was well received and a huge commercial success. Moon Safari was a success throughout Europe. Ironically, it only reached number twenty-one in Air’s native France. Meanwhile, Moon Safari reached number six in the UK. Moon Safari, which I’ll tell you about, launched Air’s career.
Opening Moon Safari is La Femme D’Argent. In the distance water runs, then drums play, quietly at first, then loud and crisp. A keyboard joins the arrangement, forcing it way to the front of the mix. Quickly the sound builds, a melange of sounds, some sharp, some deeply melodic. This is joined by sweeping synths, producing otherworldly sounds. The overall effect is a mixture or retro and futuristic sound. They come together to produce a large soundscape, one that grabs your attentions. It’s impossible to ignore. Air have produced a track that veers between glacial and rhapsodic, and is an impressive start to Moon Safari.
Sexy Boy is a track thats roots’ are firmly in the past. The vocal is sung through a vocoder, the synths sound very old school. They squelch, sweep, squeak and beep throughout the track. Layer upon layer of sound is emitted from your speakers, surrounding, and almost overpowering you. There is sweetness present in the track, saccharine sweet. So sweet is this track, it’s like the biggest sugar rush you can safely experience. The track is hook laden, to say it’s catchy is an understatement. It’s an infectious, slice of retro-sounding Euro pop.
All I Need is a very different sounding track. Synths reverberate, wobbling like a jelly at a child’s birthday party. Suddenly, they stop. The track then opens out, a guitar plays, a metronome clicks, a synth sneaks a look in again, then Beth Hirsch sings the vocal. This transforms the track, totally. Her voice is strong and clear, perfectly suited to deliver the lyrics. For most of the vocal, a metronome and guitar are her only accompaniment. Later, occasionally, a keyboard flits in and out of the track, and a synth drones, then sweeps. When this happens, it slightly overpowers her vocal. This doesn’t detract from this track.
When I listen to Kelly Watch the Stars, two things come to mind. The first is the soundtrack to a sci-fi movie, the second is the old Heaven 17 track Temptation. When I hear that part of the track towards the start, it sounds like Temptation’s little brother. This repeats during the track. What Air have ended up with is a sweeping, new wave influenced track, with more than a little influence from space and sci-fi.
Talisman has a brooding, atmospheric start. Keyboards play, the sound is dark. It meanders, at a pedestrian pace. After just over a minute the mood lightens, the darkness lifts, the sound changes to different keys. Drums crisply and briskly play. Swathes of sound sweep, brightly. They wash over you. A mini symphony, plays before you. It’s a 21st century symphony, that transports you through different galaxies. The journey may not be long, but it’s one you’ll enjoy, and one you can go on time and time again.
The lyrics to Remember are sung through a vocoder. Here, the sound is loud, too loud. So much so it reverberates. This sound is very much, in your face. It gets close up and personal. Then an amalgamation of synths sweep in. They’re akin to a mini-orchestra. Some are dull, others sharp. Some sweep, some squelch. The sound is almost overpowering, This is purely because one of the synths. They’re too loud, and too far forward in the mix. Although this a decent song, the production could be better.
The start of You Make It Easy, reminds me of the start of a Kraftwerk’s Autobahn. Both tracks begin with the sound of a car traveling along a road. After that, the similarities end. You Make It Easy has a brighter sound. Beth Hirsch sings vocals again on this track. Her voice is light and bright. She’s accompanied by piano, synths and percussion. The longer the track progresses, the more the sound builds. By the end of the track, a multitude of instruments surround her vocal, contributing to an intriguing track.
Ce Matin La begins with a synth swooping, echoing distantly, gradually moving closer. It creeps up on you, catches you unaware. For an instant, your thrown, no idea what will happen next. Then, some pleasant surprises await. A rhodes keyboard and clavinet combine, the sound becomes much more pleasing. It’s sweet, almost symphonic, sweeping, massaging at your weary, troubled soul. The next surprise is when a tuba plays a solo. Surprisingly, it’s effective. After that, you’re hooked, fascinated by the variety of sounds that make an appearance. All you can do is sit back, relax and enjoy this track. Like other tracks on Moon Safari, this one has a real retro cinematic sound.
There is a much different sound on New Star In the Sky than the previous tracks. An acoustic guitar strums gently, then a harmonica plays, with just a bit of reverb changing the sound. The sound is quiet, gentle and meanders slowly, gradually getting louder, the sound filling out, expanding gently. When it does, it’s a lovely track, one that is spacious, allowing the song to breath. Synths whoosh and sweep, they enter, and leave the track. They combine with a multiplicity of musical instruments to produce a stunning track, one of Moon Safari’s highlights
Moon Safari closes with La Voyage De Penelope. It has a hesitant start, frantic discordant sounds play quietly in the distance. As the sound gets closer, the chaotic sound gets clearer. Not totally clear though. Reverb is use heavily on the track. This detracts somewhat from the track. When keyboards and synths play, the sound reverberates. Personally, this muddies the sound on track. It might work on some tracks, but this track would be a much better track with a cleaner sound, it would transform the track, from a good one to a very good one.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed revisiting Moon Safari. It’s an eclectic and intriguing album. Unlike many albums that fall into the electronica or dance genres, the sound on Moon Safari doesn’t sound dated. It still sounds fresh and innovative. This was Air’s debut studio album, and as such, is a very good debut album. Many artists or groups would take two or three albums to reach this standard. However, Air were talented musicians, who could play a multitude of instruments. This played an important part in Moon Safari’s sound and success.
If Air had relied purely on drum machine and synths, Moon Safari might not have stood the test of time. Instead they combined traditional and electronic instruments. This ensured Moon Safari proved to be an album that aged well. There’s a warmth to the music which is absent on many electronic albums. However, Moon Safari isn’t a perfect album. It’s has its faults. Mind you, this was Air’s debut album, so Moon Safari was part of Air’s learning process. One important thing that Air learnt was always to push musical boundaries. There was no point in their next album being Moon Safari 2.
After Moon Safari, Air ensured their music continued to evolve. They’re not content to find a sound that’s successful, and stick with it, no, they want to reinvent themselves, experiment, and push the musical boundaries. That is what they continued to do during their career. This maybe cost Air. After all, sometimes, if they’d stuck with the same sound, they’d have enjoyed even more commercial success. However, that wasn’t for Air, whose career began with Moon Safari.
Moon Safari is a compelling and innovative album. The music on Moon Safari is a fusion of musical influences and genres. Listen carefully and you’ll hear music that’s complex, multilayered and sophisticated. It’s also very listenable. If you’ve never heard Moon Safari, I’d recommend WEA Japan’s reissue, which will be rereleased on 4th February 2014. Moon Safari is an album full of subtleties and nuances. Many of them aren’t apparent when you first hear Moon Safari, but through time, they will reveal themselves to you. Standout Tracks: La Femme D’Argent, Talisman, Ce Matin La and New Star In the Sky.