NO ONE will ever be able to accuse David Bowie of not keeping up with the times. He is so quick to spot new pop music trends and incorporate them into his bag of tricks that he frequently ends up being praised as the originator of some movement he has merely helped popularize - just look how closely his name became associated with glitter-rock bisexuality and plastics, disco-soul decadence once he climbed on board those particular bandwagons.
If Bowie's creative antennae are as sensitive now as they have been during the last five years, then his new album, "Low," will probably be followed by a rash of records that use electronics to create a sound as cold and alien as the character Bowie played in the movie "The Man Who Fell to Earth." "Low," an errie, studiously artificial collection of machine-made music, marks both the end of a two-year flirtation with disco and the beginning of what promises to be a far more esoteric and experimental phase.
But, as so often has been the case, Bowie's "new" sound really isn't all that new. In this instance, he's suddenly been taken by the music of Brian Eno and Kraftwerk, leaders of a widespread (though not terribly lucrative) Anglo-European pop movement known as "Art Rock." Since they and Kindred spirits - Robert Fripp, Edgar Froese, John Cale, Robert Wyatt, Klaus Schulze and others - have been investigating the fusion of rock with so-called "serious" electronic and expermental music at least since the early '70s, Bowie is clearly a latecomer to the scene.
Bowie is the first to admit this. "My favorite group," he told an interviewer last year, "is a German group called Kraftwerk - it plays noise music to 'increase productivity.'" He was excited, he also said, by the idea of "sound as texture rather than sound as music. Producing noise records seems pretty logical to me . . . I like that idea if you have to play music at all."
"Low" (RCA CPL1-2030) is clearly an outgrowth of that attitude. Though one hesitates to classify such oddly appealing instrumental pieces as "Warszawa" and "The Art Decade" as "noise," what Bowie offers have is something more akin to "synthetic music" than to rock 'n' roll: His music now owes more to tape recorders, rhythm boxes and synthesizers than to guitars, drums and other conventional instruments.
Credit for this must go to Eno, whose role in the making of the album is more important than the liner notes might indicate. He's the one who plays the sweeping mini-moog figure on "Broken Glass," processes the swirling guitar lead on "Always Crashing in the Same Car" and overdubs the splashes of white noise heard on "A New Career in a New Town." As a matter of fact, when "Low" is compared to such recent Eno efforts as "Discreet Music" (Obscure 3) or "801 Live" (German Island 28187 XOT) it immediately becomes apparent that "Low" is as much his ablum as Bowie's.
What "Low" has in common with other records featuring Eno is an emphasis on "treatments" - Eno's word for his habit of using synthesizers and especially tape recorders to alter and extend already recorded sound. Of "Discreet Music" it might even be said that the electronic devices are the sound; "if there is any score for this piece," says Eno in his explanatory notes, "it must be the operational diagram of the particular apparatus I used for its production. The key configuration here is the long delay echo system . . ."
The techniques used on "Low," though in some cases far simpler, are similar to what Eno has done elsewhere. Eno's collection of Revox tape recorders - he is said to have more than 30 - is used to filter Dennis Davis' percussion work, for example, and when Bowie goes it alone on the drone-based "Weeping Wall," he borrows one of Eno's favorite roles, that of the planner and programmer who devises "situations and systems that, once set into operation" are largely "self-regulating and self-generating."
On several other selections, Bowie has compressed Eno's philosophy, which tends to produce lengthy, static pieces reminiscent of composer Lamonte Young, into a more accessible and hence commercially attractive form. "Sound and Vision," powered by a futuristic variant on the primeval Bo Diddley riff, or "Always Crashing in the Same Car" may even turn out to be the three-minute hit single that Bowie's record company would undoubtedly like to see emerge from this otherwise remote and somewhat unsettling collaboration.
Other new albums featuring leading members of the British rock avantgarde include:
Steve Hillage, "L" (Atlantic SD 18205). Teaming up with producer Todd Rundgren and the Utopia band has resulted in the most accessible record that Hillage, former lead guitarist with the Anglo-French group Gong, has ever made. A fuzzy, energetic version of George Harrison's "It's All Too Much" and a remake of Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man" are the easiest starting points here, but the most compelling selection on the album is probably the 12-minute, amazingly electric piece called the "Lunar Musick Suite."
Gentle Giant, "Playing the Fool" (Capital SKBB-11592). Nothing new here, but this album is welcome anyway. It's a live, double-record set that proves that Gentle Giant actually can reproduce in a concert setting the dense, complex sound it creates in the studio, Keyboard player Kerry Minnear is especially impressive throughout the album, but the group as a whole is probably most effective during "On Reflection," which begins as a neo-medieval chamber piece and evolves into a stunning madrigal.
Genesis, "Wind and Wuthering" (Atlantic SD 36-144). When Peter Gabriel left the oldest of the British "Art Rock" bands late in 1975, it was predicted that Genesis would soon fold. That hasn't happened though, and the striking vocal style of Phil Collins, who used to concentrate on drums, is the main reason. Though weaker on the whole than last year's", "especially in terms of lyrics, this new effort includes strong instrumental performances on "One for the Vine" and "In That Quiet Earth."