xPropaganda – The Heart Is Strange: Album Review

Original Propaganda vocalists return with legendary producer to gift us an album that only gets better with every listen.

Release Date:  20 May 2022

Label: ZTT

Formats: CD / 2CD / Vinyl / Download

Almost forty years ago, the public was gifted one of the finest albums of the 80s – arguably one of the finest electronic albums ever released.   A bold claim perhaps but, A Secret Wish by Propaganda was way way ahead of its time.  Fronted by vocalists Susanne Freytag and Claudia Brücken with Ralf Dörper and Michael Mertens they provided some of the boldest and most exciting music around, pushing boundaries firstly with Dr Mabuse (which included departed band member Andreas Thein) then with Duel/Jewel which gave them their highest chart single.

Sadly for Propaganda, label mates Frankie Goes To Hollywood hand exploded into British pop culture and seemed to take the shine away from their inevitable glory. In 1986, the band split.  New record deals and new line-ups briefly followed but despite continuing to employ the services of legendary producer Stephen Lipson they never regained the promise that they originally tempted.

In 2018 Susanne Freytag and Claudia Brücken performed at several festivals across Europa under the name of Duel together with support slots for Heaven 17 in the UK as xPropaganda.  It seemed inevitable that there would be more.

And, so there is.  The Heart Is Strange sees the duo re-unite with Lipson who effectively becomes the third member of the group.  The crypticness and humour of the artwork returns too in similar style to the Paul Morley driven examples of ZTT years gone by.  On first listening, there seems to be a softening of the A Secret Wish sound but echoes remain as the tracks grow in maturity. 

The album begins with The Night which has vague reflections of 1985’s Dream Within A Dream as occupies the same tracklisting – maybe a conscience attempt to offer a slight replication to their debut album?  Perhaps, but it would be foolish of them not to try and appeal to fans of old who still hold A Secret Wish dear.  Lead single, the jagged Don’t (You Mess With Me) is a powerhouse of a single wrapped into 3 minutes, near shouty vocals and a throbbing bass and percussion thread.  It’s a grower if ever there was one.

There are potential singles in The Wolves Are Returning (a rocky pop affair with a thundering drive) and Only Human (a highly addictive electro anthem)  too and album closer, the near ten minute Ribbons of Steel, is a delicate, echoing journey into the sunset with a haunting spoken vocal that creates calm and transcendence.

xPropaganda have made an album that not only gets better with every listen but is a collection of “sonically thrilling, boundary-pushing pop music.”  A worthy addition to any fans of the band’s first incarnation and to anyone who hasn’t encountered them previously.  The Heart Is Strange, indeed it is.

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4 replies »

  1. Propaganda recorded an album called 1234 which was produced by Chris Hughes in 1990. It did rather well outside of Europe. It did not feature Brücken as vocalist who worked as Act with Lipson as producer…

  2. Hey Ralf. Had to look twice to check it wax you!

    Sorry for not mentioning 1234 but, as you said Claudia wasn’t involved.

    What are you up to nowadays?

  3. The album ‘1234’ I feel gets totally unnecessary negative comments from reviewers, especially at the moment with the release of ‘The Heart Is Strange’, who’ve probably never even listened to it. As with many people they don’t think a band can be any good if it has a different vocalist, even though the music is written by the rest of the band. Betsy Miller may not have been German but she was found in Germany as she had been living there since she was 12 and was spotted by the band at a gig in Munich. The original premise of Propaganda, which is what made ‘A Secret Wish’ so singular and dramatic, was to focus on the rhythm section of the band to create the melody of the tracks, so a focus on bass and drums. Dr Mabuse works so well as it was produced by Trevor Horn, a bass player, and you can feel the strength of the bass though out the track. While it was still there on the rest of the album it got lost a little, as they were produced by Stephen Lipson, a guitarist. 1234 had Chris Hughes as producer, a drummer, so this core inspiration comes across strongly, in particular on Vicious Circle, Your Wildlife and How Much Love (which has a wonderful ‘percussive’ instrumental bridge). Not only that but they also had one of the most legendary rhythm sections of the 80’s, ex-Simple Minds bassist Derek Forbes and drummer Brian McGee, who had both been in the live band for the tour to promote A Secret Wish, and were involved in the writing and recording of the songs, rather than session musicians as were used on ‘A Secret Wish’. So in fact 1234 is musically a much stronger sequel to ‘A Secret Wish’ than ‘The Heart Is Strange’ which, OK, has the original vocalist and producer. Other complaints from those who have written off 1234 is that it includes unacceptable ‘guests’ like Howard Jones and David Gilmour, proving to them how weak the music must be to include them. Howard Jones in fact only helped with some of the lyrics, because he was in the next recording studio, and how come including a guitar solo from David Gilmour is unacceptable on 1234 but including a guitar solo from Steve Howe on A Secret Wish was pure genius? So rather than grimacing from having to listen to a Propaganda record with an American singer rather than the original Claudia actually remember this album involved more original band members than ‘The Heart Is Strange’ does plus it also had two of the original live tour band and one of the most successful producers of the 80’s. For me 1234’s ‘Vicious Circle’ is the closest Propaganda ever got to matching the menace, drama and power of Dr Mabuse. I would say to anyone give 1234 a listen, and even better also download full 12″ mixes of the singles, which were recently remastered and made available as downloads on Amazon Music, iTunes etc. Don’t get me wrong, I love ‘The Heart Is Strange’ and it does include some genetic material from ‘A Secret Wish’ (by the way ‘Ribbons Of Steel’ is a much closer match to ‘A Dream Within A Dream’ than ‘The Night’ which doesn’t even include Susanne Freytag on it) but either forgetting, or slagging off 1234 (which many other reviewers have done) is not only unnecessary it is also incorrect. For the full background story to 1234 go to this archive interview http://www.muzines.co.uk/articles/the-art-of-propaganda/7252

  4. Although it was clearly a different musical project, I was just as much a fan of 1234 as I was of the ‘original’ Propaganda releases. What I’ll never understand though is how it’s taken me 32 years to discover that David Gilmour contributed a guitar solo. I really need to get my ears cleaned out and start reading sleeve notes more thoroughly.

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