Colder has just completed his third, very long-awaited album, Many Colours, and it’s abundantly clear from the opening strains of the title track that the lengthy absence since 2002 debut, Again, and 2005 successor, Heat, hasn’t diminished Marc Nguyen Tan’s keen sense of mood and melody. In fact, as the remainder of Many Colour’s 10 mesmerising tracks attest, if anything the nine-year respite has given Tan a renewed sense of purpose and direction that reveals itself with a subtle beauty that resonates and endures. This is a mature work made by an artist of rare purity and insight, a man who makes music for the right reasons, or not at all.

Previously known for his trademark intense, sensual, almost apocalyptic compositions, Tan’s latest album won’t disappoint existing fans, though the layering runs deeper, the emotions more considered and the overall effect harder to evade, as if you would want to. When an artist disappears for such an extended period, expectation of their return is rightly weighed down by fear that they have lost their creative spark or that the motivation behind it is less than noble. With Many Colours, Colder has crafted the ideal antidote to such concerns, in the process producing one of the most compelling and original records in years, an album that continues the cycle begun in 2002 whilst taking the conversation in other, less familiar directions. 

Tan’s journey as a producer began in the early 2000s, when he quit his day job as a graphic designer and art director to focus on making strange, beat-driven electronic music that quickly morphed into the confident, accomplished tracks to be found on Again. To get a sense of the style of his music then and the transition to the immense depth and maturity of Many Colours, it’s worth noting he studied cinema for several years (leading to the evocative self-made video clips that accompanied a number of tracks on Again), as well as his work in design, especially for fashion clients such as Kenzo, Paris Premiere and Comme des Garçons. Colder’s music is cool. It is seductive yet unobtainable, intimate yet peculiarly disorienting. It resonates like Joy Division or LCD Soundsystem yet occupies its own space, taking the listener out of their comfort zone and into a world of unsettling feelings and sensations, each more tantalising than its predecessor.

Signing with Trevor Jackson’s seminal label Output (Four Tet, Circlesquare, The Rapture), Tan’s two albums and the singles Crazy Love, Shiny Star, Wrong Baby and To the Music cemented his reputation as a masterful producer capable of creating sonically satisfying dance music alongside introspective, thoughtful songs. British electronic pop pioneers Depeche Mode were impressed enough to commission Tan to remix
their track Clean, which he duly transformed into a twitchy, distorted slice of agitpop. Another of his heroes and influences, The Cure, picked Colder to support them on a European tour after Jackson wisely encouraged Tan to form a band to further express himself and expose his music to a wider audience. However, truth be known, the band blossomed in small clubs rather than stadium arenas, drawing comparisons to The Velvet Underground in the Warhol Factory years.

After stopping Colder in 2007, Tan relocated to the small mountain village of Xalo, between Alicante and Valencia in Spain, to reconfigure his future as an artist and to reconsider his life as a human being. The ensuing years have given him the time and space to tinker with other musical styles, including free jazz, but more importantly to contemplate deeper aspects of human existence, especially in the occidental world. His conclusions, especially on an abstract artistic level, both fed into his initial need to retreat from the music industry and his desire to return to it. The ensuing creative burst of activity led to the writing of the 10 tracks on Many Colours, then a month recording them at the end of 2013, resulting in an album of singular grace and power.

Opening track Many Colours rejuvenates the best elements of recent decades of modern music, juxtaposing its dominant synthetic template with a deeply affecting organic quality underscored by Tan’s use of piano, an instrument that appears on many of the album’s songs. Echoing the more experimental edges of The Velvet Underground, David Bowie, Kraftwerk, Joy Division, Orchestral Manoeuvres In the Dark, Bauhaus, Roxy Music, Tubeway Army, Matthew Dear and dozens of other reference points, Tan has produced a timeless album that belies its genesis in the mountains of Spain. The album’s mood is urban and urbane, taking the listener into the heart of the metropolitan darkness haunting Tan’s dreams. His spoken-word lyrics reflect ongoing concerns about the current state of the world, with Tan combining the levity of his music with the gravity of his vocals, and yet he never loses sight of the purpose of each song. This is an album to be assimilated and appreciated, a record that demands to be understood, loved and shared.

In Many Colours, Tan insists “this is a tale of life that doesn’t come from this world”. The lyrics and the music are otherworldly, the song beginning with a series of electronic blips and bleeps that continue to swirl beneath and within Tan’s almost robotic vocal. But there is warmth there too. The production is rich, engaging, and Tan’s voice betrays his humanity at odds with the words and the way they are delivered. Then Another Year is swept along by an achingly beautiful synth, while Tan’s penchant for pounding basslines propels the song forward with a sense of urgency in sharp contrast to words evincing fatigue and predictability.

Before it’s possible to infer that this is an album of electronic compositions, Tan introduces Turn Your Back with lush piano and a sense of production histrionics that strangely recalls Californian rock of the 1970s. Stationery Remote Anger drops the tempo and the piano takes on a mild funereal quality that made Joy Division’s The Eternal such a haunting piece of music. Midnight Fever’s retro synth pans left and right, though Tan’s vocals are front and centre, as always. The lyrics border on abstract language poetry, which helps maintain Tan’s abstruse appeal. Even when lyrics seem simple or straightforward, they escape easy definition, leaving the listener ample space to provide their own interpretation, or none at all. Tan has recorded a version of Midnight Fever with Uruguay-born, Paris-based singer and actress Elli Medeiros, who scored a couple of electro-pop hits in France in the 1980s, and the collaboration may materialise on a 7-inch single.

The more propulsive or experimental songs like A Flat and Empty Land and Keep For Yourself threaten to implode, with Tan appearing almost on the brink of losing control of his muse. But appearances can be deceiving and he keeps a tight rein on the unsettling rhythms, moulding a breed of mutant funk that is as arresting as it is alienating. The tribal urgency of Animal maintains the off-kilter edge and energy of the album before Your Kind arrives to thrill Colder fans to their very core. A towering achievement, easily the equal of Again centrepiece Silicon Sexy, it throbs and pulses with energy and urgency. “Divided, united, then divided again,” sings Tan, producing arguably the album’s best vocal performance in a song that deserves to be a single, and thankfully will.

In the tradition of Colder on Again and Burnt Out on Heat, Tan finishes his third album with a much slower track, appropriately called Silence. “Silence is golden,” he sings, but along the way we’ve been treated to 10 songs that resoundingly herald Colder’s return, the opposite of silence. In the spirit of a torch singer in a David Lynch film, Tan brings the album to a close with a piece of mournful piano and a few resonant yet cryptic words. As the final few bars of the song reverberate, the lasting impression is that Many Colours is an impressive, accomplished work made by an artist at ease with himself, but not the world. If the album is the beginning of a new creative phase in the career of Marc Nguyen Tan, we have much to look forward to.
Barney McDonald, NZ

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 Credit: Ramona Deckers

Credit: Ramona Deckers

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