Thursday, March 5, 2015

Howard Jones Engage Review

Engage is Howard Jones’ project that brings together his classic synth pop style with a number of different forms of art.  In his promotional video on PledgeMusic (Essential it’s the artists sales pitch on why you should contribute to their new project) he explained that he didn’t want to create just another studio album or live DVD, he wanted it to be an immersive experience with dramatic visuals that coordinated with the music.  This project was to combine elements from all of his influences including:

  • Classical Music
  • Electronic Music
  • Pop Music
  • Cinema
  • Contemporary dance
  • Ballet
  • Philosophy

WOW!  This was an exciting prospect for some new music.  Although I have a hard time getting into and appreciating dance and ballet, everything else on that list was right up my alley.  I’m a huge fan of prog rock, which took elements from different forms of music and combined them into something new.  Much in the way progressive music incorporated the ideas of classical music and complex conceptual ideas, Howard appeared to have taken a step to elevate the synth pop style he’s known for…but would this be a successful marriage?  Would my pre-order be worth it? 

Let’s find out…

When my CD/DVD combo pack came in the mail I couldn’t pop the music in fast enough.  I had already been feasting on a track called, “The Human Touch” that contributors were gifted when they pre-ordered the project.   If the rest of the record matched the caliber of that track – I would be a happy camper. 

The first thing was to absorb the music by itself before watching the DVD of the performance.  Jones had talked so much about the idea of the listener having an experience, but what about the music on its own?

The Music

I’m happy to report that the music definitely stands up by itself.  I was thoroughly impressed with this disc front to back.  This is, honestly, one of those discs you can hit play - and just let it go.  The whole thing reeks of Jones’ wicked pop sensibility (I say that as a huge complement) but with layers of depth and a contemporary feel to it. 

By contemporary, I mean that the electronic elements don’t all sound analog like the Moog Prodigy or Roland Jupiter/Juno sounds that you may be used to with Jones’ well known hits.  There’s a bit of that new electronic dance music feeling in there on songs like “The Human Touch” or “Hold On To Your Heart”.  What this ends up creating is a sound that sounds like the songwriting that Jones is known for, but with an “Updated” sonic palette over the top of it.  (As a huge synth nut, I would love to see what was used to make this record, i.e. the ratio of soft synths to analog)

One thing that I’d like to point out is the uplifting message of the music.  Jones is able to tastefully weave a lot of philosophy into his music without sounding “preachy”, or annoying (Like U2’s Bono for example).  This results in the album having a very positive vibe that’s much appreciated by this listener.


After listening to the music side of things for a good week, I finally loaded the DVD up to experience the “immersion” side of things (The DVD is mixed in 5.1 and Stereo for those that care).  This is where the whole project came together for me.  Listening to the CD was enjoyable, but watching the show AND experiencing the music took it to another level.  The ballet and contemporary dance that’s choreographed to the music does in fact add depth to the songs (OK I’ll admit it) and truthfully, the whole performance is just fun to watch.

In fact, it was so interesting that when the DVD was over I went straight to the tour schedule to see if he was coming anywhere near my hometown.  Unfortunately for me he’s not coming anywhere close enough for me to see the live show.   If you live near any of the cities he will be playing and you’re a fan of his music - Jones really hit the mark with this project and I think it would be a no brainer to grab a ticket and go.

The Songs

The audio version of Engage gives you two listening options.  The first track has no breaks in it and plays all the way through to the last song – it’s essentially the audio version of the DVD.  Starting with track 2, you can skip through the individual songs as you like.

“Seize The Day”

Right off the bat Jones captures your attention with a powerful, emotionally driven track called “Seize The Day”.  It’s slower on tempo but big on cinematic feeling.  He builds the song up nicely by first adding bass over the piano then slowly adding sequences and other synth effects until it reaches its peak after which he finally releases back into the gentleness of the piano.

“The Walk”

This song starts out with a choir singing and then moves into a little synth sequence.  The first time I heard it, I had to rewind it because I thought my Cd was skipping.  It turns out the last bit of the sequence has the note cut off so it ends abruptly.  This is one of those songs where it has that unmistakable Jones pop structure to it with the updated EDM-type synth sounds. 

“5 Pianos”

A cool little number with 5 piano parts layered on top of each other – it’s an enjoyable song.

“Sister Brother”

From the first few bars of the song, it presents itself as an emotionally charged number.  On the DVD two ballet dancers interpret this song as Howard plays.  It’s really a beautiful track.


Pure. Howard. Jones. 

“The Human Touch”

This was the song that got me hooked.  It has a driving kick on it that carries the song.  It’s probably my favorite track on the album…

Dear Workout Mix,

Meet “The Human Touch”, our newest member of the playlist.


The Management.

“Hold On To Your Heart”

This is a very modern sounding dance track.  This is typically not my style, but for those who dig it, this sounds like a “Club Hit” to me.

“The Moon Over Kamakura”

"The Closer”…it’s a great ending to a great record.  In a similar manner that “Seize The Day” set up the rest of the album, “Moon” closes the set perfectly. 
I don’t know how long this will last, but for those of us that received our copies of Engage, we were surprised with a free download of the piano solo that was the inspiration for this song.  That was a really nice treat.  For those of you who are into this sort of thing – it’s a nice lesson on how to build up a song using electronic elements from a bare bones track. 


Without a doubt, if you’re a fan of Howard Jones, pick up Engage; you’ll have no regrets.  It’s intelligent, uplifting, interesting, and engaging (pun intended).  Even if you aren’t 100% into Jones’ music, it’s still a worthy buy.  And as said before, if you live near where he’s playing, judging by the DVD this looks like it would be a really cool, interactive show.  Update: Howard Jones’ Twitter account said only pieces of this would be played during his electric live show.  The Engage shows were only at the O2 and in LA. : (

My only critiques of the project are:

  • In the booklet he used white lettering for the lyrics of “Hold On To Your Heart” which was laid over a lot of bright colors and it made it extremely difficult to read with the tiny print. 
  • The case came a little beat up from the journey from the UK (bent corners and the slot that holds the booklet was ripped)
  • The first track on the Audio Cd has Jones speaking some words of wisdom – it’s tough to hear in the mix and I would have appreciated those vocals bumped up a little more

Other than that, the only way I could see Howard taking this project to an even higher level would be if he could pull it off completely live – a-la Rick Wakeman’s King Arthur on ice.  Although it’s cool to see Howard up there alternating between triggering samples and playing live – I would love to see as many players as needed to pull this off with a bunch of analog synths, a choir, and live dancers.  In my opinion, that would take an already top-notch performance to another level.

Kudos Mr. Jones!

Thanks for reading.

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