Happy 20th Anniversary to Hooverphonic’s debut album A New Stereophonic Sound Spectacular, originally released in Europe July 29, 1996 and in the US April 15, 1997.
Along with the dawning of the grunge rock movement, rise of Britpop, commercial ascendance of hip-hop, emergence of the neo-soul subgenre, and (regrettable) resurrection of boy-band pop, the musical landscape of the 1990s was also defined by the proliferation of the so-called chill-out phenomenon.
Particularly pervasive across Europe, and markedly less so stateside, during the final decade of the 20th century into the early years of the new millennium, chill-out was the convenient classification for music largely defined by lush, downtempo and midtempo electronic beats and rhythms. The perfect late-night, come-down complement to a long, adrenaline-fueled and/or drug-enhanced evening of dancing your fanny off to high-energy dancefloor stompers at your local club, in other words.
Compilation after bloated compilation of this lifestyle music designed for the self-proclaimed urban sophisticate crowd filtered its way into record stores and subsequently, people’s homes. I should know, as I definitely bought more than a few of these collections years ago, listening to them once or twice all the way through, only to relegate them to the never-to-be-played-again shelves of my irrationally outsized CD library.
While plenty of hackneyed acts gave the style a whirl to capitalize on the genre’s popularity, offering banal, soulless, and ultimately forgettable tunes in the process, there were thankfully a handful of respectable artists that actually crafted music of substance and stamina during the period. Artists who, while lumped within the broadly defined chill-out category, possessed noticeably more refined, kaleidoscopic musical vision and ambition that defied such lazy labels.
Included among this rarefied group were Air, Chicane, Groove Armada, Gus Gus, Kruder & Dorfmeister, Lamb, Morcheeba, Nightmares on Wax, Sneaker Pimps, and Thievery Corporation, among others, in addition to the Bristol contingent of Massive Attack, Portishead, and Tricky, all of whom, bless their creative souls, were often tagged with the chill-out brand as well.
Perched high at the top of the class with their aforementioned peers is Hooverphonic, the Belgian band formed in 1995 by the quartet of Esther Lybeert (vocalist, who was replaced by Liesje Sadonius soon thereafter), Frank Duchêne (keyboardist), Alex Callier (multi-instrumentalist, programmer, producer), and Raymond Geerts (guitarist). Originally named Hoover, the group added the “phonic” qualifier to avoid potential copyright issues with the famous vacuum cleaner company, not to mention the now-defunct Washington DC-based and German bands that had already staked their claims to the name.
Callier, the de facto mastermind behind the band, has referred to Hooverphonic’s music as “contemporary ambient pop music,” an apt description, though one that also obscures the outfit’s multitude of musical inspirations, which span trip-hop, drum and bass, bossanova, indie rock, shoegaze, and beyond.
Though the group has released nine studio albums across their prolific twenty-year career (many of them superb, mind you), their dazzling debut LP A New Stereophonic Sound Spectacular remains, at least for me, their watershed moment to date. It’s not the most lyrically expansive or intricate song suite by any means, as the words, by design, assume a secondary role behind the exquisitely conjured, multi-textured soundscapes. “The lyrics are mostly enhancing the atmosphere of the music,” Callier explained in a 1996 Gaesteliste interview. “So we just try not to tell stories, but with words try to evoke atmospheres.”
Also vital to the album’s polished, irresistibly divine sound are Sadonius’ beautifully hushed vocals, which are featured only on A New Stereophonic Sound Spectacular, as she exited the band shortly after its release.
Highlights abound across this flawlessly sequenced record, so it’s challenging to identify where to begin. Though it presumably makes the most sense to start with their first and most universally familiar single “2 Wicky.” Blessed with an instantly recognizable sample of Isaac Hayes’ devastatingly wonderful 1969 cover of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Walk On By,” coupled with Sardonius’ softly sung ruminations and references, appropriately enough, to the Prophet 600 and Roland SH-101 synthesizers, this signature song is a shimmering slice of sonic heaven.
But dare I say that for all of its many symphonic splendors, “2 Wicky” may not be the strongest track of the eleven here, when all is heard and done. The slow-building, bass-heavy “Inhaler” is an eerily gorgeous excursion of (drug-induced?) escapism, which finds Sardonius exhorting the listener to “Fight the clouds / Be an inhaler / Have no doubts / Let them take you on a voyage to another.”
Boasting a haunting drum and bass imbued arrangement, “Plus Profound” alludes to an unspecified psychosis that “tries to control you, tries to tear you down.” The dreamy, fevered pace of “Barabas” envelops and enraptures with its suspenseful crescendo and Sardonius’ hypnotic, repeated refrain of “Barabas, Barabas, Barabas.” Full of incongruous instrumentation and effects, the dissonant elements of torch song “Wardrope” eventually coalesce for an irresistibly slinky groove. The dense, guitar-driven industrial rock sound of “Sarangi” resembles Curve or Garbage at their muscular best, while the contemplative album closer “Innervoice” evokes the Cocteau Twins’ radiant, ethereal sheen.
The album’s most intriguing and gratifying track, in my opinion, is the stunning “Nr. 9,” awash in clanging, crunchy, reverb-laden guitars, which periodically segue into one of the most wondrously lush melodies you’ll ever hear. It’s a jarring juxtaposition upon initial listens, to be sure. But it’s ultimately an effectively enticing one.
Despite periodic adjustments to the band lineup that include a handful of different lead vocalists, Hooverphonic have quietly crafted some of the finest electro-pop of the past twenty years. An unexpected revelation when I first heard it, and a collection of songs that never strays far from my reach, A New Stereophonic Sound Spectacular remains one of my favorite albums of not only the past two decades, but of all time. If you haven’t treated your ears, your heart, your soul to this lovely album yet, you’re forgiven. As long as you do yourself the favor and give it a spin right this very moment.