John Costello

[The Enemy Is The State sleeve]

"The Enemy Is the State" (Album,2017) !Recommended!


A couple of very limited cassette-only releases a few decades back aside, this is, what I think he himself would also consider to be, John Costello's first album 'proper'.

The Enemy Is the State is available as a digital download, but also in a strictly limited edition and numbered CD pressing – which comes with Electrobiography - an accompanying thirteen track album of cover versions.

Frankly, it's a damn shame it has taken so long to pull these songs together. As not only is the songwriting of an impressive calibre, but Costello has a distinct ability to compellingly turn is hand (and impressively his voice) to many variations on a theme.

Although little-known, Costello has been involved with several key figures on the underground electronic music scene for many years. (He not too long ago worked on a dramatic re-arrangement of Apoptygma Berzerk's classic Until The End of The World for their remarkable Exit Popularity Contest album).

There's thirteen songs in total. Four of which (Artist, Architect, Cities In Question, Tell Me Now and Nothing) appeared on his previous superb Autotron EP.

Taking inspiration form a broad range of primarily electronic artists past and present, Costello has crafted a unique, and convincing, proposition in his own right.

Jet Propelled (Night Rider) opens proceedings, taking its inspiration (and choice samples) from the Night Rider character in the original Mad Max film. Costello instantly creating an infectious earworm that will have you subliminally repeating its memorable chorus days, even weeks after hearing it.

When he wants to instil it, there's a grandeur to his writing and arrangement. Take the sweeping synth pads backing to a checklist of architects Costello admires on Artist, Architect. It shares all those thrilling elements of Kraftwerk at their finest.

Or the similarly-styled globetrotting Cities In Question. It too reflecting a respectful recognition of what has gone before but enveloping it in a immaculately crafted, shimmering glamour uniquely his own.

There are three covers of artists Costello clearly admires. Testcard F's Blanket Expression, Hollywood Boulevard by The Cold Delivery and Rational Youth's Holiday in Bangkok. Honestly, I wasn't familiar with any of the originals, but having gone back to listen to them, it is remarkable what Costello has done with the material.

They're not radical interpretations. Instead, it's as if they exist alongside the originals, in some parallel universe, but where these versions are in fact the source compositions. Although he'd probably find it disrespectful to hear me say it, I honestly think some of Costello's are better than the originals.

A special mention has to go to a couple of others behind the scenes. Both of whom are no stranger this publication. Firstly, Geoff Pinckney (Tenek) for his absolutely top-notch production and engineering. Secondly, Martin Bowes of Attrition fame for mastering.

Threaded throughout all of this are a cluster of like-minded and foreboding songs including Desert of the Real, The Sweet Hereafter and LBJ-JFK-FBI-CIA and The Struggle. The aforementioned Autotron EP tracks aside, it's within the first three of these key songs that Costello reaches the pinnacle on his writing and performance.

I'm unsure if he's only quoting Morpheus from The Matrix, or from Slavoj Žižek's book of the same title on Desert of the Real. Possibly both. Either way, the resulting dystopian romance comes across like a musical/lyrical painting. It is the first in a number of songs on The Enemy Is the State that convey a chilling sense of wisdom about the real world operates. Both in love and war.

Not only is the dexterity of Costello's musical prowess showcased on these, but his lyrics are shown to be more than a match for his songwriting. His clarity of vision and mastery of his chosen words (especially on The Sweet Hereafter), conveyed without the fuss or purple prose that lets down so many others, is impressive.

In composing these, it's almost as if Costello is himself wrestling with his own mental demons.

The question is: are they conjured up, purely the product of an overly active imagination; or is there a genuinely disturbing meta agenda that Costello can see as clear as day? If you're at all unsure of the truth behind that rhetorical question then this album is unlikely to suit your mindset.

However, if like Mark Stewart (who demonstrated on As the Veneer of Democracy Starts to Fade), you know only too well that what Costello has actually crafted here is a last, desperate clarion call for action against an uncomfortable truth, then you've found the perfect soundtrack to accompany it.

The Enemy Is the State is an album of haunting beauty, delivering a piercing message. 8/10 

Rob Dyer (January 2018)

[Autotron sleeve]"Autotron" (EP, 2013) !Recommended!


Our present world of readily accessed digital music is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because there is so much good music to be unearthed. (Lord knows how many hours I spend in a year rummaging round YouTube discovering previously unknown gems – but it still isn't enough!). A curse because the quality filter and 'brand you can trust' role of the traditional label has been massively undermined. Just a couple of years ago I could have counted the amount of self-released music that was worth reviewing on the fingers of one hand.

This year, some of the best music I've heard has been self-released. What used to be the digital equivalent of the 'Free! Take me' bin has been turned right around by a continuous stream of good music, well-engineered and presented. All of which brings us to John Costello's Autotron EP. Available in a limited edition CD jewel case of 100 units as well as a digital download from Costello's Bandcamp page

Costello was unknown to me until he put on Reproduktion13 – a mini-festival of electronic music last month at the Roundhouse in London. He's been bubbling under the radar for a couple of decades, releasing a few cassette albums before joining forces with Attrition's Martin Bowes to write, record and release a track under the name Engram. This new EP is Costello's first solo release since his Halflife cassette in 1989. Costello defines Autotron as "A person existing in servitude to a corrupt system whose control is so effective that the subject is either unaware of being exploited and perceives itself as essentially free, or is aware but chooses to live in a state of perpetual denial.'

So, you'd be forgiven for thinking this was going to be a tad morose, but it isn't quite so. However, it does start with the haunting Tell Me Now, the shimmering theme to some forgotten cult ITC series from the early 1970s as if scored by a John Barry-inspired John Foxx. It's beautiful. Artist Architect is a compulsory foray into vocoder territory, with Costello reading out a list of architects he considers to be artists. It is defined by the deceptive simplicity of its construction. Its angular electronics reflecting back the glass and concrete of the buildings which inspired its writing.

Cities In Question is a brilliant slice of synthpop. It's almost as if Costello had secretly written Karl BartosCommunication album, keeping this song back for himself realising it would have been a highlight. Curiously, Costello's voice sounds remarkably like Bartos' and his lyrics, like his more famous German counterpart, also resound with the matter-of-fact commentary on a modern world of globe-trotting travel and bumping into celebrities in plush hotels in America: “Check out Scarlett Johansson, get high on her perfume”.

Nothing is the last of the four tracks and easily the most overtly dark entry here (reminding me of Costello's Lock, Load, Aim, Fire that featured on the Reproduktion 13 EP released earlier this year). For me it's the least memorable, seemingly going against Costello's natural writing style. Nevertheless, Autotron is all the evidence one needs to recommend the name John Costello. Time to acquaint oneself with his cassette back catalogue. 8/10 

Rob Dyer (June 2013)

See also:
Karl Bartos
John Carpenter
John Foxx
Reproduktion 13 EP