ALBUM REVIEW: Duran Duran ready for spooky season on ‘Danse Macabre’

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Weddings, New Year’s Eve and Halloween—there’s few parties that hold as sacred of ground when it comes to building a playlist for a special occasion. And it should come as no surprise that a group of guys who’ve been dressing up and going out in public since the ’80s love the latter. On Danse Macabre, New Romancers Duran Duran play DJ with a mix of sleek spooky season covers of pop hits and a handful of seasonal reworkings of songs from their own songbook with three new tracks for your Halloween party.

Danse Macabre, which was birthed from a Halloween show Duran Duran performed a year ago, is a fun romp that doesn’t try to accomplish too much. It’s a fun listen from beginning to end, with song choices that aren’t always obvious but completely pair well together in this context and arrangements. Hearing Simon Le Bon, John Taylor, Nick Rhodes and Roger Taylor recreate hits by Billie Eilish (something other than “Bad Guy,” no less!) and the Rolling Stones is like injecting your ears with raw sugar.

“Bury Your Friend” starts with staccato’d synths (think “Super Mario World” castle music) and strips the song of its anxiety-ridden percussion in favor of a smooth, groove-laden throb. Then the band turns the song on its head with a ’80s dance pop jam. It’s even sweeter that this song features guitarist Andy Taylor, who’s currently battling stage 4 prostate cancer.

The harpsichord-like synths on “Paint It Black” gives the Stones’ song a gothic and glitchy feel, alongside the pulsating rhythm section courtesy of drummer Roger Taylor and bassist John Taylor, with Andy Taylor (no relation to either of the other Taylors) riffing along, swapping the blues rock of the Stones for DD’s signature pop sound. Backing vocalists Anna Ross (who has toured with Duran Duran for nearly 20 years) and Northern Ireland vocalist Rachael O’Connor provide melodic harmonies.

An adaptation of a Rick James classic follows. “Super Lonely Freak” kicks off with a modulated, robotic vocal before transitioning to a couple of verses from “Lonely In Your Nightmare” (off 1982’s Rio), which then melds right into “Super Freak.” This feels like an accidental discovery by the band, which then kept it in its live sets.

Danse Macabre‘s other other water-cooler-conversation cover is a take on the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer.” In the context of this album, it’s turned into a full-on disco banger. Simon Le Bon changes his vocal delivery on the verses, in homage to David Byrne. The band is joined by Måneskin bassist Victoria De Angelis, who also joins the other ladies in singing backup. There are also some moody string flourishes not present elsewhere on the album.

The other covers are French disco producer Cerrone’s 1977 hit “Supernature,” The Specials’ “Ghost Town” and Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Spellbound.” The former seems to also nod to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” in its first few moments but is otherwise a relatively faithful, if more muscle-heavy rendition. Good friend of the band Nile Rodgers adds his signature chucking style here, but it’s not over the top, and the song is one of several on the album produced by Josh Blair. Mr Hudson handles the production on the rest.

“Spellbound” drops the song’s original post-punk urgency for DD’s sleek dramatics, while The Specials cover doesn’t discard all of the original’s ska or reggae vibes. With the spooky intro and theme, the song was destined to make the cut.

The album kicks off with one of the reimagined Duran Duran songs, “Nightboat.” The original, off the band’s 1981 self-titled album, was already plenty spooky, but here Blair turns up the extra-terrestrial-sounding synths and airy reverb, taking it to another level. “Love Voudou” (originally 1993’s “Love Voodoo,” replaces that song’s dated rhythm section for symphonic strings and a bouncy retro groove. It’s also notable for the appearance of Duran Duran ex-member Warren Cuccurullo, who had stepped in for Andy Taylor in the ’90s

The third new-old song is “Secret Oktober 31st,” a Union of The SnakeB-side (originally “Secret Oktober”) that has never gotten a proper album release. What was once a relatively sparse ballad with the melody led by the piano now gets a spooky music box intro and more space synths and a ticking clock in the mix. Because Halloween isn’t known for slow-dancing, it’s a good time to refill your drink. Long-time fans will get a kick out of it, however.

There are three completely new tracks on the album, two of which were released as singles. The ominous, industrial grind of “Danse Macabre” is as good of a song as Duran Duran has released in the last decade. The staggered percussion, with metallic clangs and handclaps, with Cuccurullo on guitar, is chant-along ready.

“Zombie in the back room, nuns in the bed/ Kids in KISS makeup toasting the bread/ An Elvis moans a lone ‘Natty Dread’/ With Death in the living room, offering a head,” Le Bon chants, referencing not just the Bob Marley album but also the burning of heretic during the Spanish Inquisition.

“Black Moonlight” (hey, there’s Nile Rodgers again, more noticeable this time!) features DD’s signature mid-’80s groove. The guitar playing by him and Andy Taylor again recalls “Thriller” a bit as Le Bon sings about getting the party started. What it lacks in deep symbolism it makes up as a banger.

The funereal drove off “Confession in the Afterlife” concludes the album on a muted and somewhat serious note. There are wisps of regret and sadness. “These are words fallen from fire/ Ashes on the river tide/ Into love there will be a pathway/ And I will see you on the other side,” Le Bon sings. One has to wonder whether the song was written for this album or was a holdover that had been waiting for a home.

Courtesy RIFF Magazine

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