'Fire Behind Me' - Electro/Pop By Michael Hensley
Even when electronic pop left me cold back in my college intellectual days, for the most part I still had a warm place in my heart and soul for Gary Newman. "Cars" was a dope cut, with the hard synth beat, the silly but cool singsong keyboard licks on the bridge and the disembodied "mechanical" sound of his voice. It didn't matter what he was saying, it sounded cool. On the album cover -- and later the videos -- he looked cool, like a '60's Italian sci-fi film's vision of the future, with pop art shades and everyone dressed in pristine sterile white. And then there was Devo with songs like "Jocko Homo," "Secret Agent Man" and the immortal "Uncontrollable Urge." It was what the future was supposed to sound like, the merging of man and machine, with humor and cynicism. It was punk rock socio-political commentary, an ef yu to a world that was become less human scaled and more mechanized and corporate and devolved, which makes this music, paradoxically, life-enhancing.
Sadly the future came and mechanical music gave way to cyborg music, computerized sounds that sound like a facsimile of human music. All of this came to mind when I played the new CD 'Fire Behind Me' by Michael Hensley. Whereas most electro opts for Disneyland-gloss ("it's a small world after all/ it's a small small world" Hensley goes for the sounds of low-tech alleyways of analog streets of the film Bladerunner's megalopolis. The processed voice and pop song structures are more Newman meets Devo than slick modern electro like Fischerspooner or, gasp, Madonna. The key to his CD can be found in the title and the CD cover. The title implies running from or being pushed by fear, doubt, lust, or some circumstance that sends him running, perhaps from the past. On the cover, Hensley, dressed in white, is prostrate on a white floor tangled in a chord of some kind. This suggests current state of exhaustion and anxiety in modern times here in the West (a state of existence that explains Red Bull and the cocaine revival). Where other records feature covers and titles that reflect narcissism ("DJ. Whatever Plays Trance Excellence, Vol. 1, featuring Lindsay Lohan"), a pornographic fascination with gadgets, or a trucker's mud flap view of women, Hensley's iconography suggests honest emotions and his music reflects a view of machines as part of human life and expression not a fetish unto themselves.
This record is electro pop with a human face. It's dancable, sure, but there is some emotional and philosophical connection to real life lived. The opening track "This Machine" is like the opening scene in a movie where the themes and characters are revealed: "Beat, bass, snare, chords, hi hat, vocals... what more do you need? Electricity vibrates inside of me... this machine will make you feel good this machine will make you feel." These words and the rest of the song are a tongue-in-cheek ode to machines and Hensley asks at one point "what more do you need?" Like with any good movie, he spends the rest of the record answering this question.
"Walk In" captures that moment of desire and desire realized when one walks in on the scene, whatever that scene is. It why people go out to clubs, bars, Dungeon and Dragons gatherings; we all have wanted that magic, that rush of passion when we say as Hensley's lyric goes "you're the one that I wanted, I dreamed of all this time." The music is fun, light and poppy but with the ever-present techno throb of a beat, of unrest. The next cut, "Take Me Away," is a slice of New Romanticism: "I want to leave where I am / I want to watch the flames run the distance I never want to go back... just take me away." This is what drives all humans, once we have assured survival - yearning for authenticity and the wholeness promised by romantic love. The music here is lighter still and filled with sweet keyboard licks and harmonies to go with vocals that are at once intimate and distant.
Clearly this character's romantic yearning has been rejected or otherwise doesn't work out (isn't that mostly the case?). On "Everyone Wants to Feel Something" the beat is more distorted and more insistent, the embellishments more stark, to go along with the late night desperation of the words: "...our search for emotion our only devotion / Go ahead punch me right between the eyes, go ahead and run your hands along my thighs... everyone wants to feel something." The drama of romance turns darker as, seemingly, the fire behind him is catching up and starting to engulf Hensley's protagonist.
The songs get a little more raw as they go along. "Never Loved Me" and "Totally Gone" have a rock edge and a make-it-plain lyrical approach; in the case of these songs the hero hurls accusations of deliberate hurt and betrayal, the former. The beats are harder too, and bring to mind vague wisps of memories of being out of one's mind on heightening substances and in the midst of crazy sexy drama. "Take a Hint" gets more intense with ever more distorted sounds in the voice, the beat and background texture. A crisp piano cuts through with horror movie anxiety licks that rise and fall in the break and build structure of the song.
Putting together songs in a unified flow is just as difficult as writing and recording the songs themselves. Hensley gets extra kudos for creating an overall theme and form for an album in this, the digi-iPod age. After the above-mentioned moments of intensity he waxes vulnerable and sadly romantic in that Manchester '83 kinda way on "Can I Do This Alone" and "Cold (All that I Know)." The official last cut (not including the final song, a remix) is the life-reflective "The Wrong Truth" as close to a romantic ballad as electro gets. Here he gets existential about life in general, since, as any dating and self help guru states you have to be what you want in another person. You have to be whole. Here, Hensley asks deep questions of life: "But am I basing my struggle on a misperception is my head going in the wrong direction I wish I knew the way to guarantee happiness... what happens if we let go... what if I'm supposed to be with you?"
The last cut, a remix of "Take Me Away" feels like the ending of a movie, with the film's theme captured in a song and a montage. Michael Hensley's 'Fire Behind Me' goes beyond most of the musical artists that he lists as "Sounds Like" on his myspace page in terms of asking questions of life and making it plain and heartfelt, with music that reflects and enhances the emotions expressed.
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