Fiat Lux -- from the Latin for "let there be light" - were originally a synth-pop band that shone for a brief period in the '80s. Formed in 1982 and hailing from Wakefield in Yorkshire, England, they pioneered a unique sonic stamp, the influence of which is still felt today. Their pioneering blend was full of lush synthesizer textures, acoustic and electric keyboards, and studio effects - all anchored by Steve Wright's emotive vocals. Multi-instrumentalist David Crickmore provided guitar, bass, and keys, and Ian Nelson (brother of Be-Bop Deluxe guitarist/vocalist Bill Nelson) contributed saxophone and keys. The trio released one single - "Feels Like Winter Again" on the Cocteau label - before soon choosing to sign to Polydor. There, they delivered five singles from August 1983 to January 1985; landed several U.K. TV and radio appearances; opened for Howard Jones, Thomas Dolby, and John Cale; and had two minor hits ("Secrets" and "Blue Emotion") before calling it quits. Their full-length album debut remained shelved... until now.
In April this year, Fiat Lux's lone '80s "mini-album," Hired History, was expanded and reissued by Cherry Red Records. Originally only six tracks long, Cherry Red's Hired History Plus adds a further 12 bonus tracks, including their early Bill Nelson-produced sides (some of which were re-recorded with Hugh Jones at the console), non-album singles and 12" versions from the Polydor era, alternate mixes, and other unreleased rarities. Most surprisingly, the second disc contains that lost full-length album. Entitled Ark of Embers, it's been painstakingly reconstructed and presented as the band had intended more than thirty years ago.
These 29 tracks comprise every one of their commercially released tracks from the era and tell the whole story of the band's development. Whether on those early independent Bill Nelson-produced singles, or their more fully-formed Polydor material, Fiat Lux were masters of blending unusual electronic and acoustic instrumental textures to create dynamic, well-crafted tracks that are as melodic and beautiful as they are brooding. Their debut single, "Feels Like Winter Again" is a perfect example: it's ear-catching, detailed, easy to get lost in, but somehow not hit material. Hugh Jones, who produced much of Fiat Lux's Polydor material, admits in the liner notes that "the pressure from above to create radio singles never went away" and that they "were always behind schedule."
But the group worked through these pressures, working night and day at Liverpool's Amazon Studios crafting their demos and masters and mixing in many a fine London studio. The brief: to create a debut album that would electrify audiences and introduce Fiat Lux's unique sound. While that album would have to wait another three decades, Fiat Lux did release Hired History, which compiled some of their singles up to 1984 on one six-track mini-album. It's these songs that open Hired History Plus.
The album opens with the aforementioned "Secrets." The combination of brooding vocals and luscious synthesizer tones brings a moody air to this dark tune about a breach of privacy. It began its life in Amazon Studios under the name "Diary," but was transformed into one of Fiat Lux's signature tracks under the guidance of Hugh Jones. The more lively "Photography" follows. Originally released as the follow-up single to "Secrets," it features an array of effects, synthesizer textures, and vocal blends, with Ian Nelson's saxophone at the forefront. An earlier, previously unreleased version produced by Bill Nelson demonstrates the strength of Fiat Lux's vision. Indeed, the released cut seems to follow the template of the early version fairly closely, but is presented in a slicker, more radio-ready form.
"Comfortable Life" is a quirky, sentence fragment-laden list of desires. Like "Photography," "Comfortable Life" had been attempted with Bill Nelson in a 12" version during the band's earliest sessions. Once signed with Polydor, the band took the song to Strawberry Studios in Stockport and developed it further. It's set to a syncopated bass line and melange of oddball synthesized percussion textures that render it more "of its time" than many of the other tracks in the collection.
Rounding out the mini-album are the funky "Aqua Vitae" (originally the B-side of "Secrets") and 12" versions of "Blue Emotion" and "Sleepless Nightmare" (a shortened version of the latter is among the bonus tracks.) "Blue Emotion" shows Fiat Lux embracing a more rock-oriented sound with catchy guitar-like synth hooks, grooving bass, and trademark call-and-response vocals that at times evoke Berlin-era Bowie. "Sleepless Nightmare" is a more experimental track, its reversed tape effects, dissonant saxophone runs, and throbbing drums eventually evolving into a dance beat. Of all the tracks on the original mini-album, "Sleepless Nightmare" may be the furthest from the '80s pop mold, showing a band that was eager to meld influences from across popular music and avant-garde forms into something unique.
In addition to the mini-album, Disc One of Hired History Plus delivers a wealth of non-album singles. Aside from the aforementioned extra tracks, there's also "House of Thorns," a danceable track with a catchy singalong chorus. Collectors will be happy to learn that Cherry Red has chosen to include both the 5-minute 12" single version of the track, as well as the more digestible 3-minute radio edit. Hired History Plus also boasts a 12" versions of "Solitary Lovers," as well as two mixes of "No More Proud," a song prepared for the lost full-length album. The "Proud Mix" of the hard-driving track is propelled by horn riffs, fluid bass lines, and trademark heavy drums. Clocking in at nearly half the length, the Dub Mix of "No More Proud" is a more rhythmic interpretation that's no less affecting. Disc One closes with a Laurie Anderson-inspired vocal- and synth-led version of the old Cyril Tawney folk tune "Sally Free and Easy." Tawney himself declared Fiat Lux's interpretation, featuring an arresting vocal by Ian Nelson, to be one of his favorite covers of the signature tune.
While Wright, Crickmore, and the team at Cherry Red could have stopped at 18 tracks (which effectively collect all of Fiat Lux's official recordings), they've gone the extra mile by including a reconstructed Ark of Embers , that lost Polydor LP. Thirty-five years after its recording, the 11 tracks on Ark of Embers see Fiat Lux expanding on their wide-reaching style that they'd established on their singles. Among the songs are alternate versions of "Aqua Vitae," "Photography," "Blue Emotion," and "Solitary Lovers." Also included are the angular yet poppy "In the Heat of the Night," the sparse "Embers" with its winding clarinets and matter-of-fact vocal, the unsettling ballad "The Moment," a melodic earworm called "Breaking the Boundary," and a tabla-filled "Splurge."
Thinking back to those sessions, Wright and Crickmore recall in the liner notes: "Listening now to the blend of voices, synthesisers, growly bass guitars, trated pianos, Mellotrons, and marimbas topped wotj Ian's distinctive woodwin, you can hear that we were striving for our own sound - definitely spawned of the '80s but distinctly different from the others." Indeed, three decades on, the material holds up remarkably well. For all its synth-heaviness, it's pretty low in cheese factor. In collecting all their '80s output, Cherry Red has opened the door for a celebration of the oft-overlooked group.
In all, the band-approved compilation delivers not only excellent music, but also informative notes from Wright, Crickmore, and Hugh Jones; rare photographs and memorabilia; and detailed credits and track information. The music is also sonically superlative. All the tracks were sourced and transferred from the original production masters at Abbey Road Studios and remastered by Dave Turner at 360 Mastering. The team spent months raiding the archives and listening to tapes to track down the correct versions of every track. The results of the tape research and sonic sweetening speak for themselves.
If you're a fan of synth-pop, Hired History Plus is a must for your collection. Its 29 tracks spotlight an adventurous band that combed disparate influences to create a unique sound that can finally be enjoyed again nearly forty years on. The 2-CD collection is available from Cherry Red and can be purchased with the following links: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada!