When I think of Man Parrish, my mind goes to NYC Electro and the fascinating flashpoint where musicians sparked up by the innovation of Kraftwerk and the emergence of Hip Hop started synthesizing new subgenres in the early 80s as the explosion of affordable synthesizers made for a revolution in dance music. With his club classic, “Hip Hop Be Bop [Don’t Stop]” laying the groundwork for Acid House with its reliance on squelchy synths for their alien vibe, and his mixing of Man 2 Man’s Hi-NRG classic “Male Stripper,” Parrish had covered the bases for a hard electronic dance sound. In the last few years, he’s collaborated with singer Steven Jones to revisit classic Synthpop sounds on the “Art Of Pop” albums for something different, yet still firmly electronic.

This new album is further apart from those examples and if I could see any antecedents in the approach taken, perhaps I could point to Parrish’s penchant for covering Vangelis [!] for an electronic target that was a little more cosmic than the dancefloor. The new “Sunset On Mars” featured the slowest BPM of any Man Parrish music I’ve ever heard but the vibe here was an exploration of chillout tempos to build this collection of languorous and downright romantic songs that posited the sultry energy of vocalist Jones as an effective artistic foil to Parrish. On the face of it, I’d say that Man Parrish just might be in love, l-u-v.

Man Parrish + Steven Jones: Sunset On Mars – DL – [2023]

  1. Sunset On Mars
  2. A Song For You
  3. Baby, I’m Yours
  4. Waitless Love
  5. Love Ain’t Easy
  6. Lonely In Space
  7. Time Flies
  8. Only You
  9. Sweetness Is My Weakness
  10. Starry Night
  11. You’re Beautiful To Me

The title track actually started out like a lost JAPAN [or Numan] cut with its piano, rhythm box and phased, portamento bass synths evoking Mick Karn before the synthetic BVs, slathered in vibrato pulled us out of that scenario and Mr. Jones made his appearance. Channeling desire down long corridors of echoic sound. It was all very slow mo.

Slow sustained synth chords with vibraphone offsetting the synthetic BVs created a dreamlike space for singer Jones to weave his seductive spell with tantalizing wah wah licks suggesting a space somewhere between Frank Sinatra and 70s Funk film music. Trippy. Dreamy. Sexy, but not explicit. Imagine “Fly Me To The Moon” as Trip Hop.

Interjections of brass surprised on the intro of “Baby, I’m Yours” and nicely offset the filtered vocal effects on the spoken word middle eight. Later Parrish proffered some lovely piano to frolic over the synth bass and when the rap section [not Steven Jones] appeared, I was spellbound that all of this held together as well as it did.

I liked the retro 70s Moog sound of the leads on “Waitless Love” that evoked some of the earliest synth sounds I was exposed to as a child. The delayed, doubled basslines were groovy on “Love Ain’t Easy.” They added some delicious Funk flavoring to the music. The synthetic lead vocals, less so. And that pointed to the zone where the album tips into the Uncanny Valley for me as what the band YACHT call “The Computer’s Accent,” manifests here.

Almost half of the album feature these synthetic lead vocals. Elsewhere they are a sci-fi Greek chorus to counterpoint Steven Jones’ singing, and on that score, I have an easier time with it. At least the millieu of this album was all-in on the science fiction leanings as Parrish and Jones have taken a page from A Flock Of Seagulls and have crafted an album of truly Space Age Love Songs. But the sense is, listening to this, that it’s Humanity As A Second Language when the cybervox are leaned heavily on. There’s a non-native feel to the vocal phrasing.

Man Parrish was smart enough to slather Jone’s vocals with effects throughout their history, so this album represents only a slight crossing of a line. He was never interested in verisimilitude or authenticity! But this was an album of romantic love songs, so the distancing effects of the synthetic vocals taking the lead on five tracks, presents me with an obstacle to overcome. Some AI BVs fit right in on this album.

“Lonely In Space” felt like a kicking synthesis of Trip Hop and Quiet Storm balladry. The synthetic glockenspiel hook followed by a slow blare of horns was perfection. The airbrushed AI femmevox and the guitar samples were a perfect balance of contrasting elements. Then three songs in a row with a computer singing make the album glaze over for me. I suspect it’s down to the phrasing of the cybervox. I don’t like a lot of actual human vocalists, either. Some singers just have an affected phrasing that irritates me. And the synthetic lead voice used here mostly comes down on that side of the fence for me. It sounds as if a crude approximation of Roland Gift [if he were Dutch, and singing this phonetically] were taking some of these leads. Whilst being buried in Autotune effects®.

I’m also down on Autotune® so maybe I’m just too old and crotchety for where music is obviously headed. After all, I was grumpy when Brian Eno and John Foxx were dabbling with the technology some years back. In the last fifteen years I’ve lost interest in emotionally distancing effects used on lead vocals. I wouldn’t deny anyone a good vocoder hook. Sometimes that makes the song! But as I get older, I find I’m more interested in breaking down the barriers between myself and the singer on the music I listen to. I don’t want perfect notes hit every time. Often, the greatest power is in the ragged failure of the artist, as long as it’s in service to the song.

That’s a shame as the distance that the AI voice engendered made a chunk of this album on “side two” relegate itself as background music that was best not focused on. Diminishing what I think that Man Parrish was shooting for here. At first I was delighted by what I was hearing but as it continued, the tabling of human vocals gave me pause. Perhaps it might have been better to not mix the lead vocals as it had been done here. I do know an album of all Steven Jones vocals would have sat well with me. And I would have likely ignored an album of completely synthetic vocals.

The truth is it’s 2023, and there will only be more of this coming our way. It’s probably easier than dealing with the ego of a singer. And much cheaper [for now]. It is likely that in a year from now, the robots will be so well trained that I may not be able to pick out any ringers on an album. And one could download your lead singer for a one time fee, but the tech industry will eventually opt for a subscription fee instead! We’ll have ‘bots making the art, and ‘bots generating “likes.” And that may lead to ‘bots listening.

Released concurrently with the album of original music was another of their cover singles, this time with a thematic bridge to classic David Bowie that fit right in with the vibe on the album material. The intro where the vocoder was counting down was a great way to get pulled into the drama of the song. Trilling synths stepped in for the strings, and sampled guitars added grit to the vibe as it plowed a very different furrow from the original. The slow-mo beats gave it a great sense of zero-G as a desensitized Mr. Jones projected the requisite numbness the song demanded. The cheeky devils, I swear I can hear an isolated Bowie vocal buried in the mix; harmonizing with Mr. Jones. Whose vocals are all filtered to achieve a NASA-like canned effect. Parrish’s synth solo on the bridge was a glorious thing that I wanted to last a little longer. The album and single are out there streaming and downloadable in the usual outlets. Mr. D.J. hit that button!