Countdown to Aerial 5: Hounds of Love

[Note: as of today, this is no longer, strictly speaking, a countdown. When I started the series, I hadn’t taken note of Aerial‘s German/Dutch release date, which was today. I have the album, have heard it, and will undoubtedly be influenced by these facts while reviewing the final three pre-Aerial Kate Bush records. But I’ll stick with the series title and the schedule so that readers in the United States and ditto Kingdom can pretend I’m still gearing up for the momentous events of Monday, October 8.]

Having made the perfect album in 1982, Kate takes three years to produce one that, in places, is even better. However, there are some faults in Hounds of Love that relegate it to the status of only the second-best album ever made by anyone in the history of popular music, without all-caps, multiple exclamation marks or curly brass knobs (although I’ll be more than happy to throw in some swearing). The production is a bit too clinical for my tastes although those big gated ’80s drums that so many recent reviewers of Kate’s work complain about suit the record just fine. A bigger problem is that the album has too many singles. Specifically, too many similar singles. The album opens with its biggest hit single, "Running Up That Hill", a sensual, sexy track built on a commando beat and synth vamps over a synth pedal tone. There are verses and choruses, but the overal feel is very free-form. For a while in the 1990s, I used to dislike this one, but I now think it’s great again. The second track, the title track, is every bit as good, but is another beat-driven number with a loose verse-chorus structure on top of it. In fact, I have a twelve-inch single version of it in which Kate sings a completely unrelated melody over the same beats, fitting equally well – that’s how much freedom the structure gives her. The third track, "The Big Sky" is another rhythm-based number with free-flowing song over it, and by this time, it’s getting to be a bit much. It’s the weakest of the three and while perfectly listenable and a hit single in its own right (it’s got a great bass part by Killing Joke bassist Youth), it might have been better kept for a B-side or CD bonus track. You’ll understand that I’m only grumbling about it because the rest of the record is so good; in any case, it picks up momentum quickly enough with the fourth track, "Mother Stands For Comfort". That is actually one where the clinical production enhances the work: the coldness of the drum machines makes for an exciting contrast with the soft vocals and especially German jazz bassist Eberhard Weber’s moving fretless bass accompaniment. I love the bass, I always make a point of listening closely to what it does in any song, but nowhere else that I know of has the instrument carried so much emotion. "Cloudbusting", a rhythmic, free-flowing track with repetitive backing from two drummers and a string sextet, closes side A of the album, the singles-oriented part that is properly entitled "Hounds of Love"

Side B has its own title, "The Ninth Wave" and is much more conceptual. It does the impossible by topping the undescribable goodness that is The Dreaming for 20 minutes. The seven songs are held together by a thin storyline about a woman’s near-drowning, near-death experience and rescue from the water, but that story is merely a peg for her to hang a series of mood pieces on. It starts dreamily with "And Dream of Sheep" conveying the protagonist’s slow fading in and out of awareness through Satie-like piano vamps and crystal clear singing. The second song, "Under Ice" intends to scare the bejeesus out of the listener. Having succeeded at that, Kate turns the fear factor up a notch with the hallucinatory, claustrophobic "Waking The Witch", a collage of electronic noises, sound effects, grunts and shrieks similar to the dialogue sequences in "Get Out Of My House" on The Dreaming. If that sounds disorganised, it isn’t – everything makes musical sense. That death metal grunt, by the way, is Kate’s own voice slowed down.
Panic gives way to acceptance as the nearly-drowned protagonist moves out of her body to watch her loved ones at home. "Watching You Without Me" is a serene, simple song with little in the way of frills. It sounds vaguely Chinese, especially with the strange backing vocals towards the end.
The most upbeat moment of "The Ninth Wave" is "Jig of Life", a hybrid Celtic/Hungarian dance piece with changing time signatures. It has the Irish folk musicians from The Dreaming again and works really well to lift the spirits. Lyrically, it does just that: the protagonist is lifted from her slide towards death by the vision of herself as an old lady telling her that

This moment in time
It doesn’t belong to you
It belongs to me
And to your little boy and to your little girl…
Where on your palm is my little line
When you’re written in mine as an old memory

which for some reason always makes me choke up.
Speaking of choking up, "Hello Earth" hits that spot more than once in its six minutes of playing time. Compositionally, it’s one of Kate’s most daring and most succesful ever, which is saying a lot. The opening notes manage to be simultaneously quiet and urgent (partly due to Kate’s vocal delivery, which is assured and clear as a bell), and what follows is a slow-building storm of a song, with the drums kicking in at a Pink Floyd tempo before disappearing into the first of two choral sections. It builds up again with the main melody, this time backed by the Irish folk guys, a response melody sung by Kate as overdubbed backing vocals, and then the second, longer, choral section, shifting the mood to one of loss and longing.

"The Morning Fog" is almost an afterthought. It fits; it promises hope and renewal. But alone among the tracks on this wonderful album, it would have difficulty standing up on its own. It has some nice bass and guitar work though and works well as a coda allowing the listener to recover from the rollercoaster ride that is "The Ninth Wave".

Hounds of Love, then, is really two great albums compressed into 40-odd minutes’ playing time. It’s essential. The 1997 remaster has a few bonus tracks that are okay; a bit of a grab bag to be honest. Simply Vinyl in the UK released a high-quality vinyl edition a few years ago, but it no longer appears to be on their catalogue. It is that vinyl version I used as a reference for this review.

Link of interest: Choral arranger Michael Berkeley on the creation of the choral sections of "Hello Earth"