This, right here, is a near-perfect example of an artist who gets better with time, who most assuredly did not peak with their first couple of efforts.
What is it?
Compass is the 2009 album release from Assemblage 23. Its normal, official form consists of ten tracks, with five more (two remixes and three additional discrete songs) available in the digital deluxe or multi-disc edition.
How does it sound?
We mix the sampler but it’s too late, we are engulfed:
Why this pick?
This was something of a coin-toss for me. I went back and forth for hours on whether I should select Compass or the later Bruise. I like the same number of songs on each, they’re both generally good in their own way, and so on. In the end, the fact that Compass includes my absolute favorite “A23” track (“Spark”) tipped the balance in its favor.
What’s amazing is that an A23 record made the cut at all. My first exposure to the act was one of those Last.FM recommendations that didn’t pan out: Based on my VNV Nation and other EBM-ish library picks, I was pointed at the Failure album. It wasn’t a total loss, as I ended up with one good track out of that entire record: “House On Fire.”
The rest of Failure… fails, for me. (Cue the collective closing of browser tabs by every longtime A23 fan who reads this post. Sorry, y’all.)
It took a lot to get me to give the brand another chance but here we are, with an album I have no problem recommending. Lucky me, lucky you!
Which songs are the highlights?
I’ve already mentioned “Spark,” which I consider the quintessential A23 piece in my collection so far. It’s at once dark and grim but also upbeat and hopeful, and it works. It works marvelously.
Before that, we get the opening trio of “Smoke” and “Collapse” and “Impermanence,” while later in the album there’s “Alive” and “Greed.”
Since I have the “deluxe” version of the album, a highlight among the bonus tracks is “Grind.” Yes, that’s two albums in this year’s line-up featuring really good songs called “Grind.” The other one? The Church’s Gold Afternoon Fix. There won’t be a third: That song title only shows up twice in my entire library.
Which songs don’t work so well?
I don’t actually dislike anything on the record. Some tunes just aren’t as compelling as the others. “Leave This All Behind” doesn’t quite gel, for instance. With an industrial-electronica-dance type of record like this, the “your mileage may vary” dictum applies doubly. What gets my toes tapping may leave you fully inert, as it were.
Which album did you almost pick in favor of this one?
Given that it’s where you find the excellent tracks “Crosstalk,” “Over & Out,” “The Noise Inside My Head” (my 2nd-favorite A23 piece), and “Outsider,” the Bruise album very nearly received pride of place in this year’s list. If you dig Compass, go grab that one as well. My only reservation with Bruise is the song “The Last Mistake,” the lyrical content of which is a bit on the ooky side, even for someone as bad at parsing lyrics as I am.
Any final thoughts?
I’m still working my way through the A23 catalog. I may have a new favorite album of theirs by this time next year. Who knows? I’ll definitely be sticking with later rather than newer releases, though. Failure landed with such a dull thud for me that I have basically no interest at all in digging that far back into the catalog. Tom Shear, the one-man-band responsible for the studio work, is definitely getting better with experience and practice. Long may he continue to do so!
(Yeah, this would’ve been a good album to slot after the Vangelis pick a couple of weeks ago for thematic reasons. Oh well. I can’t chase down every gimmick available in this project, can I?)