Back in 1980, the supposed gulf separating new wave from prog rock was perceived to be only slightly less wide than the distance from the sun to Pluto. Proggers disdained the new wave’s ethos of DIY simplicity, while new wavers deplored prog’s pretensions to musical sophistication and general fuddy-duddiness. (The new wavers could sometimes develop a severe case of cognitive dissonance when it came to such things as “Vienna” by Ultravox, which ruminated on Olde Europa to the jaunty strains of a violin solo – tricks lifted straight from the prog playbook. But let’s not talk about that.)
So it was an act of purest heresy when Geoff Downes and Trevor Horn, the new wave duo The Buggles, replaced Rick Wakeman and Jon Anderson in Yes. Such things were simply not done at the dawn of the ’80s and the morally offended hosts of new wave shows on college radio stations quickly excised such songs as “Video Killed the Radio Star,” “Vermillion Sands,” and “I am a Camera” from their playlists. The Buggles had been one of us, but they’d gone over to the enemy.
A lot has changed in 32 years, and now the idea of blending new wave with prog is not particularly unusual. What is unusual is for someone to do it as explicitly and sort of weirdly as Athens, Georgia’s I Come to Shanghai do on “Nothing to Conceal.”
“Nothing to Conceal” starts out as straight-up synth-pop, sounding like an outtake from Depeche Mode’s Speak and Spell or The Human League’s Travelogue. The music proceeds as a fairly stark combo of synth-pulse and drum machines while vocalist Robert Ashley sings about a sleeping woman. During the bridge, what seems to be a guitar talk-box drops in and things start getting pretty florid in a hurry, as if the original line-up of King Crimson dropped into the studio for a visit. Things get even proggier at the song’s climax, when it sounds like I Come to Shanghai decided to mate Steve Hackett’s guitar solos from Genesis’ “The Musical Box” with Andy McKay’s demented oboe heroics from Roxy Music’s “Ladytron.”
The song is a synthesis of genres that at one time would have been unthinkable, and to I Come to Shanghai’s great credit, still feels pretty damn strange on “Nothing to Conceal.” Breeding prog with new wave may not be the unforgivable sin it was thirty years ago, but I Come to Shanghai manage to somehow still find a way to make it feel fresh and even slightly transgressive.
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