IAMX: Kiss + Swallow & The Alternative


To say Chris Corner got an early head-start over his fellow electronic musicians would be understating things a bit, considering his original UK-based band Sneaker Pimps (co-founded by Corner and fellow DJ Liam Howe) hit the charts when the founder was the ripe old age of 15. Their 1996 debut Becoming X was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic, given a huge boost by the club-hot popularity of singles like ?Spin Spin Sugar,? and ultimately selling 1.5 million copies in the US alone, prompting the revered follow-up album Splinter three years later. Expanding his horizons further, Corner co-founded artistic collective Splinter Recordings (signing successful acts like Robots in Disguise), composed the score for French action film Knights of the Sky, and formed his own solo project known as IAMX ? the name of which is a riff on the Pimps' first album, positioning Corner's new alter-ego as the entity resulting from that band's creative evolution...

Shortly after first album Kiss + Swallow hit the streets in 2004, IAMX was selling out venues right and left, and building significant buzz in North America, leading to a sold-out US tour... and thanks to our pals at Metropolis Records, Corner and company are about to unleash their unique brand on this side of the pond with a revised edition of Kiss + Swallow this month, accompanied by the epic 2006 follow-up, The Alternative. I peeled back the wrapping of these slick packages to reveal the luxurious and provocative contents... and yes, I'm being deliberately naughty with my metaphors.

Recorded entirely in Corner's home studio, Kiss was a radical departure from the Pimps' early trip-hop and latter-day electro-punk ? delving into much darker territory, highly erotic themes and more sensual synth arrangements backed by huge thumping grooves... as well as some emotionally powerful ballads, all delivered with Corner's intense and passionate vocal style. Instrumentally, these new tracks build on the production technique that the Pimps had begun to explore in their 2002 album Bloodsport... in fact, many cuts from the planned fourth SP album morphed into IAMX tracks instead.

Thematically, Kiss couldn't be a bigger departure. The lyrical approach is raw, unvarnished and personal, drawing on the artist's own inner turmoil and aspirations, and given grandiose weight by his dynamic, often manically intense vocal technique ? which ranges from a liquid baritone to a delicate falsetto and bears a strong similarity to that of Muse's Matthew Bellamy, or Thom Yorke of Radiohead. Minimalist electro patterns joined with thudding, marching drums and often swing-inflected beats are hammered down with deep, heavy bass sequences; the resulting sonic landscape seems to float the effects-enriched vocals high above it.

The highlights are many: the screeching open of the title track; the overdriven camp of ?Sailor,? demented techno-waltz rhythm of ?Naked But Safe,? and '80s-era Roxy Music vibe of ?Simple Girl;? the soaring dynamics of ?Your Joy Is My Low,? oddly-timed harmonies (with guest singer Sue Denim from Robots in Disguise) and bump-n-grind urgency for ?You Stick It In Me,? the Gary Numan-esque ?Skin Vision,? down-tempo navel-gazing of ?Missile,? and the bouncy streetbeats and dirty guitar licks of Pimps-tastic ?I-Polaroids.?

The canvas expands to epic scale in The Alternative, which as its title implies, draws its themes from Corner's break with the commercialism of the music industry specifically, and the world in general, offering the audience a new skew on an old game. Instrumentally, there are still homages to '80s synth-pop and New Wave conventions, but this time Corner's taking the sound to bigger, darker places, wandering even further away from Pimp-land. As in Kiss, the decadent feeling of old-school analog electronics is the perfect setting for the melancholy sexuality of Corner's lyrics, but there's a pervasive sense of doom here that may reflect the artist's nihilistic mindset during its production; he had by this point left the UK behind for the isolation of the former East Germany (much like David Bowie during his ?Thin White Duke? phase, an obvious influence on Corner's later work).

The urgency that drips from these songs emerges immediately with opening track ?President,? which again uses a waltz rhythm to convey a sad, bitter disdain for corrupt human affairs. This sets the stage for the explosive title track, which demonstrates Corner at the top of his game, both as singer and songwriter, offering himself up as the battered, world-weary guide through a dark new world. With that done, we flip to the sordid underside of this twisted futurism for ?Nightlife,? which burns into the most intoxicating and irresistibly dance-worthy club tune IAMX has produced to date.

?Lulled By Numbers? is down-tempo but no less intense, with a trippy beat beneath swelling resonant chords and somber vocals... a brief respite before ramping up the momentum again with ?Song Of Imaginary Beings,? which showcases some of Corner's best songwriting with an arch delivery that reminded me of Peter Gabriel's early solo work. Guitar launches us into ?The Negative Sex? ? a scathingly heavy electro-punk number that packs a powerful punch ? followed by the chaotic, glitchy and drum-driven industrial cut ?Bring Me Back A Dog.?

In between dramatic piano-based ballads ?S.H.E.? and ?This Will Make You Love Again,? we get to time-travel to the '80s for two tracks: ?Spit It Out? feels like a lost MTV-friendly synthpop single, complete with gated drums, buzzy sequenced effects and piano melody lines, while ?After Every Party I Die? has that great rolling bass that puts you smack in New Order's ?Blue Monday? period. These were fun for me, but mainly because the nostalgia is so pure it brought me right back to those days. (I won't tell you how old that makes me.)

Capping it off is an amazing orchestral rendition (minus vocals) of ?Spit It Out,? which is not at all gimmicky as you might think, but sounds for all the world like a lost Michael Nyman piece. It made me want to hear more like this... and fortunately, that may come to pass, as Corner is planning a fully orchestral release in the near future. If it's as skillful as this track, I'll be at the head of the queue to pick up my copy. It also suggests that there's plenty of territory to be explored by this band in the future, and personally I'm amped up about that prospect.

Of course I'd be remiss in my duties if I didn't also point out the appeal of IAMX's incredible live set: their shows are campy, glitzy, and bursting at the seams with spectacle, totally infused with the decadent cabaret spirit of pre-WWII Germany (probably no accident, since the specters of that era continue to linger today in Corner's Berlin stomping grounds). Rumor has it they may be coming to the States in September, and I'd travel a fair distance to experience that show. I urge you to don a pink vinyl jacket and do the same.