Like many people I first heard the Human League via their landmark album Dare, which was a fabulous and exhiliarating ride. Once they'd gotten my attention though, it wasn't long before they started to miss the mark, as far as I was concerned. I found myself almost feeling obliged to enjoy later efforts but profoundly dissappointed that nothing came close to moving me to the extent that Dare had. I had lost interest in them a decade or more before they released such candy-floss as "Tell Me When". I never heard Reproduction back in the day, but now, in 2007, I find it to be in part a genuinely exciting experience that to some extent echoes the joy of first hearing "The Things That Dreams Are Made Of" and "Do Or Die", and in part quite frankly a bit gruelling.
"Almost Medieval" is a fantastic opener, probably the highlight of the album, and definitely enough in itself to give the band some credibility today as a pioneering act. The disconnected vocals describe dark visions from a confusion of ages, mixing them with a nightmarish here and now, while the rhythm builds and intoxicates. "Almost Medieval" sets the tone for things to come in a fractured, stark and sometimes off-kilter suite of songs that sounds like nobody else, even like a more complete Human League than the one that my generation was familiar with. "The Circus Of Death" and "The Path Of Least Resistance" complete a powerful opening trio of songs that stands with their finest work, if perhaps off to the side in a shady corner. Later on, the single, "Empire State Human" however, proves to be a bit of an anomaly, a compromise of the band's icy apocalyptic vision, with a requirement for something that'd be digestible for more-or-less normal people. It's not a bad track but it isn't an important one in the context of the album, and it is surrounded on all sides by rather sinister bedfellows. As the album progresses some tracks head off down corridors that don't work for me, such as the woozy and elongated "Morale...", whilst "Zero As A Limit" feels like a half-finished idea that falls short of being the memorable finale the album could use.
So this is what the Human League sounded like before they started dancing for dollars, when they were young and edgy. I wouldn't call it a masterpiece, but out of the context of the time and environment in which it was conceived it must surely lose some of it's dimensions for those of us who weren't there. I can appreciate that it must have been an important stepping-stone towards the techno sounds of the 90's and beyond, and the bonus tracks further emphasise this. And then over time they went from the cutting edge to sounding like Bananarama... who'd have thought it.