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Paul Mann: Gary Numan Reinvents Himself for 21st Century

The godfather of 1980s synth music plays a pair of live shows in Los Angeles

Gary Numan, the godfather of English synth music, played a rare pair of live shows at the El Rey Theatre this week, Nov. 3-4.

The Los Angeles concerts had been rescheduled from the original April dates after the Icelandic volcano eruption shut down many of Europe’s main airports. The show was initially a tribute to the 30th anniversary of the U.S. release of Numan’s breakthrough album The Pleasure Principle. (The album was actually released in England in 1979.) The album included the hit “Cars,” and was the first to feature heavy use of synthesizers.

The innovative sound on the record paved the way for bands such as Depeche Mode, creating a whole new genre of music. Numan already had been a successful guitarist in the punk band Tubeway Army before experimenting with electronic music. (He actually played a song during the encore that he wrote for the band in the 1970s). Combining the eerie new electronic sound with his love of dystopian science fiction, his unique persona generated a huge cult following in the early 1980s. He even married a girl from his fan club, which only added to the mystique.

Numan has revealed in recent interviews that he has suffered form a mild form of Asperger syndrome since he was a teenager. A form of autism, it has always made personal interaction difficult for him, and it helped create his aloof and mysterious persona. But at the El Rey Theatre on Nov. 3, the veteran god of synth had no trouble connecting with the crowd of adulate fans packed in the tiny venue like sardines in a can.

The first set featured, as promised, The Pleasure Principle — played in its entirety. The presentation was an eloquent rendition of the retro sound that Numan invented. His band of accomplished musicians featured Ade Fenton and David Brooks on backing keyboards, Richard Beasly on drums, Steve Harris on guitar and Tim Muddiman on bass. The group played the classic tracks competently, although not very passionately, providing rich textures to the music.

The musical style that most remember as the classic 1980s soundtrack of course sounded dated. But it was the perfect opening to the band’s second set, featuring Numan’s newest material. It was like a living history lesson allowing the audience to view the evolution of Numan’s music firsthand. The band, as well as Numan, came alive when they began to play the new music with a much more ferocious and renewed sense of passion and intensity. To be sure, the music itself was much more intense, in the vein of industrial metal, much like Nine Inch Nails.

Numan’s new sound is no accident. In a recent showcase concert in London, Trent Reznor invited Numan to be his guest performer. Reznor credited Numan with being one of his biggest influences when founding Nine Inch Nails. He even included a Numan song on his first NIN album. Now, completing the creative circle, Numan admits that Reznor has become one of his biggest musical influences. The result is an inspired new sound that brings Numan straight into the 21st century.

Although there is a clear connection to Reznor’s NIN sound, Numan and his new band have put their unique stamp on the industrial sound. Numan’s vocals channel a variety of sounds from Reznor’s primal screams, to haunting vocals reminiscent of Chris Isaak.

Numan has produced a huge volume of work during the past 30 years, much of it flying under the radar of pop radio. His experimentation included jazz-laced albums in the 1980s and he had, in fact, been experimenting with the industrial metal sound as far back as 1994, with his album Sacrifice.

The Los Angeles audience responded enthusiastically to the material in his second set, including songs from his yet to be released new album Splinters. Numanoids across the globe can rejoice in the rebirth of this masterful musician who may be poised to gain a whole new generation of fans. Los Angeles fans, who had to wait years to see Numan perform live, may not have to wait so long for the next show. Numan is trying to relocate his family to the City of Angels permanently and certainly will have an avid audience panting for another performance soon.

Click here for KCRW’s live interview of Numan and his band performing before their Los Angeles show.

— L. Paul Mann is a Noozhawk contributor. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews.

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