Billy Mackenzie – Satellite Life: Recordings 1994-1996: Album Review

Satellite Life documents the collaboration between Billy Mackenzie, of The Associates, and Steve Aungle, showcasing  Billy’s remarkable voice and songwriting.  

Release date: Available now

Label: Cherry Red Records

Format: 3 CD Set

Billy Mackenzie, for this reviewer, is one of the best vocalists of the popular music era. His astonishing vocal range, and ability to fully project the emotional core of a song, has resulted in a body of work that still feels vital and contemporary, twenty-five years on from his sad passing. 

As the co-founder of The Associates with Alan Rankine, and across his solo work and collaborations with other artists like Yello, he shared with the world a unique voice, with a quite wonderful interpretive and empathic quality, combined with a fine songwriting ability. I was privileged to see Billy in concert at the Glasgow Pavilion Theatre, touring in support of The Associates’ Perhaps album. His voice just rung out across the theatre and was utterly captivating. 

Later this year, a 40th-anniversary edition of The Associates’ classic 1982 album Sulk, containing the sublime hit singles, Party Fears Two and Club Country, will be with us. In addition, Cherry Red Records have released a fabulous three-disc set, Satellite Life: Recordings (1994-1996), the subject of this review. So, there are plenty of opportunities this year to celebrate Billy’s life and music.

The genesis of Satellite Life is Billy’s four-year songwriting and musical collaboration with Steve Aungle.  Steve felt that the recordings they made together had to date not been presented or sequenced appropriately, and thus has curated this superb new release, bringing together both the recordings that had been issued across various albums and those that had remained unreleased. Including, a number of unreleased tracks, for which Steve and musicians Tom Doyle and Anth Brown have sympathetically developed new musical settings around Billy’s vocals. 

Steve Aungle said in an interview I came across, that Billy wanted to be a pioneer, and you can absolutely hear that in this new collection. It is a showcase for Billy’s restless creative spirit and Steve’s musical instincts, coming together to produce some memorable and compelling music. 

Across the three discs, one can discern a set of musical themes. On disc one, titled Winter Academy, we are treated to a sequence of wonderful keyboards-based ballads. The track Winter Academy is achingly romantic, with Billy’s voice at its most poetic and understated, accompanied by Steve’s gorgeous piano phrases, and enveloped in a sequence of quite beautiful string arrangements, by Andrew Skeet.

Wild Is The Wind, is the 1950s standard written by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington, and covered by David Bowie on his Station to Station album. It is a towering vocal performance by Billy, against a stripped-down musical arrangement, provided by Malcolm Ross’s gently strummed acoustic guitar and Steve’s subtle piano melodies. Billy convincingly conveys the song’s acute sense of loss, and sustains some incredible, haunting notes. The Soul That Sighs introduces some atmospheric electronics, in this evocative jazz ballad, where one can imagine Billy singing in Ronnie Scotts Jazz Club, and mesmerising the audience, as he once did in the 1980s.

When The World Was Young, is a delightful Mackenzie/Aungle composition, where Billy creates his own one-person choir, with the voices appealingly reverberating over the piano chords.  It is a musical and vocal arrangement that Brian Wilson would have been proud to have written.

Tallahatchie Pass, previously unreleased, with new music added by Steve, Tom Doyle, and Anth Brown, is a country and western classic, with some surprising electronic accents. Billy could sing any musical style, and make it sound his own and completely authentic, and the musicians have thrillingly picked up on this in the new arrangement. With the song title, there are of course echoes of the marvelous singer-songwriter Bobbie Gentry.

On disc two, which has the title Consenting Holograms, we move into a much more edgy electronic style. Highlights on this disc, include Put This Right, an unreleased collaboration with Laurence Jay Cedar. This is a hi-energy genre style dance track, with a pulsating uptempo rhythm and analogue synths flying in and out of the mix. Billy employs a range of great vocal styles, varying from an almost spoken-word delivery to a stunning falsetto. A great track that will have you dancing around your home.

Here Comes The Rain Again is an intriguing electronic dance cover of the Eurythmics classic. Billy and Steve here cross Kraftwerk with Bronski Beat, over which Billy delivers a dream pop like vocal, that creates a shimmering, elegiac mood.

Moving on to disc three, it has moments that take Billy and Steve’s collaboration into the field of classic pop. The previously unreleased Macarthur’s Son is an absolute classic amongst the many excellent tracks on this disc.  Here again, Steve, Tom Doyle, and Anth Brown have done a marvelous job of adding new music, that brings out the intentionality in Billy’s vocal. Billy’s voice supported by the sympathetic musical backing moves into soaring soul mode, which has the spirit of Motown Records flowing through its core.  

Without doubt, this is a set of recorded performances that does full justice to both the amazing vocal, and songwriting talents, which Billy Mackenzie was blessed with. The collaboration with Steve Aungle was clearly one that brought the best out of Billy, and Steve has curated a wonderful celebration over the three discs of Billy’s talents.  If you are not familiar with Billy’s work, I do hope this review will encourage you to explore his music, including this outstanding collection. 

Well done also to Cherry Red Records for ensuring this music has got the quality release it deserves.

Here is a music video of Breakfast from the Associates’ Perhaps album:

You can find out more about Cherry Red Records here: Website / Facebook

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