In July of 2018 and in the sesame-lit environs of Tokyo’s National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, Japanese composer and electroacoustic enchanter Keiichiro Shibuya debuted “Scary Beauty,” a work featuring an AI conductor leading a human orchestra in what he affectionately dubbed an “android opera.” It was simultaneously unnerving and impossibly beautiful. Within the sci-fi stereopticon of his eighteenth studio album, entitled Intruder, Gary Numan inverts this symphonic scenario – becoming the AI-brained humanoid, directing a choir of machines – and doubling down on both the captivation and the chills.
Though it is seldom talked of in these snort-inducing days wherein “EDM” kids really think they invented techno (bless their tormented little hearts!), the first use of electronic instruments in musical composition occurred shortly after the end of the 19th century and in conjunction with the development of the first circuitry-based musical device – the theremin (or etherophone) in the Soviet Union. From there you get magnetic audio tape in the 1940s in Egypt, musique concrète in Paris by 1948, music forged entirely from electronic generators in Germany by 1953, and Japan duking it out with the U.S. for the first algorithmic compositions throughout the 1950s.
We then shimmy through the hit-making musitron solo in “Runaway” by Del Shannon and on to the hallucinatory Doctor Who theme in 1963 before we land at the original kings of all klangchemiker, Kraftwerk, in 1969, who birthed what their adoring fan Bowie called “the folk music of the factories.” Out of the scene those kraut barons spawned came nearly every other genre of music you’ve ever loved – including hip-hop and house – and out of the hypnotic leoparding of many of those genres came Gary Numan, a synthpop studio theorist like none before, dancing to the distant drumbeat of Proserpina.
Alongside Brian Eno’s Romulus, Gary Numan represents the proverbial Remus in the holy Roman founding of electropop music. Gary Anthony James Webb, though he would prance through an additional pseudonym or two on his way, effectively became Gary Numan at 15 years of age the day his father gave him a Gibson Les Paul that would serve as his first portal into a sound world he would, ironically, be credited with helping to create in large part by repurposing – and at times fully removing – the guitar from.
Even taking into consideration how heaven-high the bar has always been set in the prolific world of his fellow androgynous androids, pellucid Pisceses, and audacious Aspies, Gary Numan is a dynastic phenomenon. In the same year that his first band, Tubeway Army, would release its destiny-making second record entitled Replicas and released in May, he would drop the long-reaching single “Are Friends Electric?” to widespread chart domination across both ponds, bin the Tubeway Army name after showcasing a bunch of his newest songs on John Peel’s BBC Radio 1 show, release “Cars” – maybe still his biggest-selling single ever, and then launch his third record entitled The Pleasure Principle in September to cap the whole stereo stampede all the way off. This is how a manic master does the first nine months of 1979, evidently. “Are Friends Electric?,” a smash hit with no hook, would go on to be covered by everyone from Information Society to Republica to The Dead Weather to Weezer. But Gary Numan had done something in that tiny time frame even more demanding and potentially damning than all of the above – he had dared to conceptualize a rock album without any guitars.
Sealing his eclectic ascent to stardom with aerial vocals and penchants for tracks full of curly characters – like those of the unforgettable “Stormtrooper in Drag”, which he sang on for his former bassist Paul Gardiner – and through his visually stunning “blue period” begun with 1984’s Berserker, Gary Numan attracted attention in an almost hygroscopic way, drawing its luster from the same rarefied air he seemed already to inhabit. Perhaps this has to do with Numan’s natural alignment with the otherworldly, and perhaps it is because firmaments far beyond fame were also already under his wing. Atmospherics of every league were to be his stealth logo.
Because what if one wanted to be a pop star and a pilot? It could be convincingly argued that the same set of skills is necessary to succeed at both professions. What is inarguable is that Gary Numan possesses those skills in spades and has, quite literally, put them to their highest purpose, flying freely into the galactic annals of pop, rock, new wave, and machine-made music history on currents of creativity that inspired everyone from The Human League to Adam Ant.
He has narrated video games, scored films, founded a record label, and created a charter flight company. He has flown around the world on music tours that set standards for the video filming and commercial release of concert footage, and he has also flown his own Piper Navajo in one full circuit of the globe with the aid of nothing but the war-footing of his wits and those of his courageous co-pilot. With display-flying pal Norman Lees, Numan formed the Radial Pair and later The Harvard Formation Team, choreographing and performing aerial acrobatics for multiple aviation seasons across England.
For 1997’s Random, a tribute album to Numan’s already extensive influence, Damon Albarn, The Magnetic Fields, EMF, The Orb, and Jesus Jones (to name but a few) all showed up to sing their affection for him. He furnished vocals to frequent collaborator Ade Fenton’s 2007 poetic gem “The Leather Sea”, tempted Australia’s own Severed Heads out of retirement to tour with him across Oz in 2011, won the Moog Innovation Award in 2016, and promptly followed that I-Can-Die-Now moment with an Ivor Novello for Inspiration in 2017. A one-trick pony Gary Numan could never be if you put every snaffle bit in the world in his mouth and hired him out for children’s parties.
It was on 1994’s Sacrifice that he made his first full veer away from pop and into the harder industrial elements that have defined the more recent arcs of his career, and underpin the aural anagrammatics everywhere on Intruder. Freud described the feeling of eternity as “an intellectual perception with an accompanying feeling-tone” and that synopsis nails the more nocturnal nuances of the newest Numan aesthetic equally as well. Vast vaults of what passes for industrial music today has unfortunately and heedlessly done what the art form’s early proponents strove so hard to prevent: forced the removal of the human element entirely or too far away from the center of the picture.
The original underground storm of industrial was supposed to be about fire-eating obtenebration and a certain automated ambience wherein the fallible flesh became more, not less, important because of how sparsely and carefully it was garrisoned throughout. When it’s done artfully, it is supposed to feel like The Crow had a romantic head-on collision with Depeche Mode, not like the purposeful demolition of a brick factory or a metal basket of unrelated objects breaking to bits in the throes of a Cascadian subduction. Eventually, the gradual effect of that anthropological absence being tipped in ultimate favor of the machines left much of modern industrial music cold enough to freeze the tits off an iron witch.
By ambrosial contrast, the way that Gary Numan approaches the genre is a dark daemonifuge that makes use of every rank of radiant heat, including that put off by his indefatigably brilliant pop sensibilities. Like the man himself, Intruder fairly scintillates at every semitone. It sounds like the music of demolished Fantasia when you’re zooming in on what remains of the Ivory Tower in The Neverending Story – and it has that kind of chimerical wonder in it. You will absolutely imagine that Numan must be tucked away someplace like Bletchley Park – Britain’s code breaking headquarters in World War II – figuring out how to encourage a Flexowriter to sing in F sharp. Even in the moments when Numan drops his voice down to its duskiest dungeons, each of those notes sounds filtered through the netherworld’s most purgatorial Kirakira app. You simply can’t unhear the princeliness and Percival in him.
It has been four years since Numan has sent us melomaniacal mortals a bat signal from his inky Icaria. Whether you are a Numanoid or not, Intruder insists that the only “intruder” you will perceive is any person, object, or time commitment that gets in your way of listening to the gorgeous thing on a loop that would make Florean Schneider proud.
The reveille for Intruder is an actual adhan, setting an early stage for an album teeming with muted Middle Eastern ornaments and homages. It’s a revealing choice for an avowed atheist such as Numan, and gives good face to the many corners of this record that boldly highlight the human weakness inherent in all religious dogmas. Sensational leading tune “Betrayed” calls to mind the Stranger Things intro soundtrack making a mayfly marriage with the darker parts of Labyrinth. Numan’s multicursal voice is completely remaindered in time – still characterful and camp in the lairy livery of the requisitioned vanquisher.
“The Gift” places the Persian sounds underneath incindered winds of string and organ accents. The sonic effect is the best gift of all – something akin to a canyon full of desert ponies running in wave-like unison through tones of amber and sterling grey. “I Am Screaming” is extraordinarily well-written and feels almost like medicine as violation. It is both a warning and its answer as it tells of “a thousand dreams unopened” and Numan forecasts: “You will come to walk with me / You will come to walk alone” – then he sings the same line three more ominous times but replaces the word “walk” with the series of promise-threats in “stand,” “sing,” and “die,” in that order. Holy Apollo and Brigit at the poetry. Gary, we are screaming!
Eponymous track “Intruder” has all of the planet-sized digital marvel of Tron but done up in Bauhaus ribbons. It’s not everyone that can make a shattering indictment of religious mania come off like (and be applicable as) a fractured love song, the whole melody founded on the heavy-familiar questions, “Will you walk on water / Like you said you would?” and “Don’t you wish you’d just listened more?”
“Black Sun” is the secret stunner of the record, featuring starry keys and a break full of what can only be described as jet-sounding lazers. It is likewise home to one of the more show-stopping lyrics on this album rife with show-stopping lyrics: “When I was a child / I played the hero who held the sky.” Ah, but didn’t we all!
“Saints and Liars” awards us synthesizers stacked like an Allen Jones painting and written in honest-to-God riffs, as though Thomas Dolby suddenly decided he wanted to be Johnny Marr. Outrageously cool! “Now and Forever” is a floating Corpse Bride ballad brimming with the kind of past-death devotion most of us have spent our lives actively dreaming of. Two versions of “The End of Dragons” live on Intruder, the second sailing atop some Daenerys-like vocals to places it seems certain only dragons can reach. Both renditions will effortlessly clock your card.
All of Intruder seems to echo with the rebuff of a Stygian love letter tossing in articulo mortis. The record rings with the special variety of Vesuvian violence that undergirds all truly great romances, be they with other people or only between you and yourself. Numan is wiretapping every midnight command we make to ourselves and our cherished ones. He is the gnomon on the sundial and the songs are our shadows.
There is a good reason the first electronic instrument was sub-dubbed an etherophone as this is music drawn from a place invisible, occult, and impalpable in its binding powers. The expansive reach hits your gut with a different baseball bat than a guitar is able. From the boundless well of such a welkin, Gary Numan has spent a 40-year career drawing entheogenic ear potions that have no trouble helping you see a few of the generative gods he avidly disbelieves in, and quite a galaxy of those Earth-bound ones we all worship so too. Keep in mind: we would have neither Nine Inch Nails nor Coldplay’s “Talk” without him, to say nothing of there never having been any OMD to soundtrack the end of our Pretty in Pink passions.
Numan’s highest accolade of all in
his pantheon of accomplishment is one that is not mentioned nearly so often as
it should be. It is likewise the one that should first speed past “Cars” on the
mental autobahns of anyone’s cultural awareness of him. That flash feat would
be the badge of genuine humility and gentleness that he has effortlessly worn
through the rocketing highs and levelling lows of a gargantuan life lived like
the gentleman he is. If you read or
watch every interview he has given since the 1970s, you will only ever witness
him very sincerely deny his talents, lay all of his successes at the bare altar
of “luck,” explain away his indelible performance image as a mixture of
acne-avoidance and self-consciousness, and promote his collaborators,
forebears, and perceived betters with the relentlessness native only to the card-carrying genius. There
can be no question that it is this rarest of qualities, the total lack of
megalomania in one so mega, that has disallowed Gary Numan from ever being an
“intruder” anywhere his venturesome electro-flight has banked and will
perennially prevent him from being so anyplace he soars next. Like the ultimate
Lost Boys vampire in reverse, we
eagerly invite him in over and over again, never to be harmed by the overture,
only to wish he could make us his
kind of motorized immortal. Only to forever try to listen more.