Ferry Corsten: “Blueprint” Review
Disclaimer: I’m an electronic music fan who doesn’t go to clubs. I don’t find the prospect of going to dance music scenes particularly exciting and I’m not sure that I ever will. I do not hate it. And while has its problems, there’s an entire wonderful culture surrounding it. It also has certainly thrived and found new love and widespread recognition in the past 4 years as the “EDM” bubble grew to monumental sizes and producers like Zedd, Avicii, Skrillex, and Martin Garrix become cultural pop icons within one year. But those festival circuits and glow-stick waving events are not something I connect myself to personally. I love the music and think many of its creators are genuinely good people creating, at times, good creative expressions.
Because I don’t go to festivals or club music events, I oftentimes consider the possibilities of these types of electronic music breaking away from their origins and what is really possible with the music when that happens. Essentially: What happens to “club music” when it is built to not be enjoyed at the club scene? Our world of modern technology has allowed us to enjoy music of all types through the headphones, which means you don’t need to go to a specific “venue” to enjoy a specific type of music. So the concept of a type of music being built for a type of event or place could potentially be superfluous as time goes on. I’m a person who looks forward to times when electronic or club music breaks its own molds and tries to be something different. And I feel it’s really necessary to bring that up before I go on with my review of Ferry Corsten’s “Blueprint”. Because it tried to do just that.
And in my book, it only kind of worked.
“Blueprint” is a a new 2-disc album by a trance musician who has attained moderate success and recognition like Solarstone. The difference with Ferry Corsten is that the musician oftentimes explores music as some sort of a unique approach to the genre or his personal experiences. His Gouryella project from the 90s was and is an attempt to create a particularly heavenly or angelic instrumental trance sound. His debut album was a hodgepodge of pop and breakdance sounds influencing the rugged instruments trance could use. A widely successful track from that debut album, “Punk”, became a stepping stone into his 2006 album “L.E.F.” (Loud Electronic Ferocious). Here Ferry’s trance sound became a solidified mixture of uplifting sources with a style and approach that worked against the common grain that would be oftentimes used as his default punky aesthetic with his music. His 2008 album reduced the rather explosive and overblown elements of his music to appreciate the wonder of becoming a father and a husband. Since then his music has seemingly been about following or predicting trends and revisiting past successes and even trying to modernize them. But this seems to have all been busy work to keep the money moving as Ferry Corsten has in fact brought to the table a full album that is unlike anything he and many other of his colleagues have ever done. “Blueprint” is sold as a concept album telling a story about robots, humanity’s potential future, dance music, and signals being sent through space or time or both. And, technically speaking, it is that. It just doesn’t excel at being this.
Tackling Blueprint’s issues unfortunately means going into spoiler territory but on the plus side this story is meant to be taken in such a direct way the entire story is made available to read online. If you don’t care to read all of the story snippets for each track, here’s the summary: An alien signal sent to Earth from space is heavily studied by humans but its message is unable to be decoded. However, the signal notoriously known as “The Drum” speaks to a young loner boy named “Lukas”. His understanding of the signal tells him to build a robot that seemingly becomes self-aware and goes by the name “Vee”. Lukas keeps Vee a secret by hiding her in his basement and visits her every day, becoming more and more affectionate for her while she grows more and more curious of the world outside said basement. Lukas fears what humans will do to Vee due to their tendency to fear and tear apart the unknown. Vee’s impatience leads her to revealing to Lukas that she is not a robot but a consciousness existing in the shell Lukas made for her sent from across the galaxy for some unknown purpose via “The Drum” signal. She does this by tapping into Lukas’s mind and briefly showing him space, time, and her world. Lukas is now amazed by the possibilities of Vee’s world and shows Vee some of Earth but refuses to show her more. Vee runs away, gets literally torn to pieces by other humans, and the rest of humanity decodes “The Drum” signal to mean that it is a weapon. This happens not long before a giant alien ship descends to a location on Earth. Lukas and others who believe the ship is not a threat sit in front of it to defend it. “The Drum” signal is used with the crowd wishing to defend it to disarm masses of soldiers and those who wish to destroy the ship. The ship sends down Vee in her true form, Lukas and Vee embrace, and the story suggests that Lukas was in fact from Vee’s world to begin with or that the two of them have existed in times before and after through space and time. Roll credits.
The story is unfortunately something that lacks much depth. Inspiration feels like something one can easily point to from films, books, or television. “Blueprint” plays a concept album in perhaps the safest ways possible. I’m not an expert at concept albums by any means but I do enjoy them thoroughly: The Wall, Dark Side of the Moon, American Idiot, Selling England by the Pound, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory, etc. Concept albums in general either explore ideas or tell a story through the musical form. The inherent strength in these types of albums comes through the use of music to reinforce emotion and complex lyrics to help show the movement of the story. There are weaknesses to this method as well, especially in explaining a world or showing the specific movements of a narrative. You don’t know exactly how The Jesus of Suburbia in “American Idiot” meets Whatsername, nor do you even know her name, but the album’s progression and lyrics help reinforce an understanding of their relationship and what draws them to each other. In albums like “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway” extended instrumental sequences served the purpose of letting listeners understand concepts of traversal or a sense of place. The weaknesses of trying to explore stories or ideas in musical form are used to serve the strengths of letting the musical experience feel somewhat unique. Music is left open to interpretation and even lets those listeners attach their own imagery of the music to their minds. This also sometimes gives an album a need for multiple listens to gain an understanding of what actually might be happening or be implied in the music.
So little of these above strengths to concept albums are used to give “Blueprint” its wings. The narrative is a fully written thing that can be read without even listening to the album. Some of the more haphazardly paced concept albums supplement the music itself with a lyrical booklet that may also include a general explanation of the story (The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway did just this). This isn’t a bad thing and I even applaud it as it can help push listeners towards what themes, ideas, or narrative moments are happening in the music. These booklets are not a necessity though, listeners can attempt to understand the concepts on their own merits and some may prefer to think of various interpretations of the music instead of one idealistic nail-in-the-coffin story. Blueprint, unfortunately, doesn’t trust you to figure out its narrative. The story is told to you throughout each of its 17 tracks piece-by-piece with a blend of a narration voiceover and the exchange of dialog between Lukas and Vee as the story goes onward. The booklet doesn’t have the story laid out for you to read, the album instead shoves its story into your ears. There’s no misunderstanding the core moments of this album’s plot, leaving listeners to really just assign a few theories as to whether or not Lukas is in fact one of the conscious minds from across the universe. It also leaves listeners to pick up on some of the themes or ideas being reinforced in the album. And those themes or ideas being reinforced are just not very exciting for anyone who has seen a few popular science fiction stories with loftier, grander ideas.
For starters, Lukas as a centralized loner character who is given the appearance and style of an outsider who falls in love with his own creation isn’t entirely new or refreshing. Meanwhile there are even some conceptual oversights in the story. For example, it does make sense that Lukas might actually be a consciousness that came from another universe without origin. There is little mention of his friends or family and if he came from the same world as Vee it would make sense that he is able to decipher the “The Drum” and use it as the blueprint to build Vee’s shell as intended. How Lukas wound up as this individual though is given little explanation or depth to explore as he has parents and seemingly has a life story. Meanwhile this may be a nitpick but I think it will show how the story is not one that tries much in many interesting ideas: After Lukas realizes Vee is not from this world, the narrative says that Lukas learns he has “built a consciousness” that has memories of her life and her world. This feels hard to grasp, like the intention was actually to say that Vee wished to take human form on Earth and learn about the planet and huamity. This would mean “The Drum” was sent with the blueprints to build her shell so she could reside there like any other human. This is how Vee is able to leave her body, cross the stars and universe. The body that Lukas built is irrelevant to her own existence. We’re told by Vee that he didn’t create a consciousness. But the narrator tells us he did.
Blueprint isn’t entirely robbed of good storytelling though. The subplot of Lukas actually being a life from another world isn’t something you catch onto easily as you passively listen to the album and hear its story. And the later elements of the story involving Vee’s world coming to Earth to bring their technologies to humanity and change its history forever is decently told at the least, with all the excitement that builds as any other well structured story. The big dividing line for me is the element of music being the key to peace and resolution in the story. At one point the narrator tells us Vee’s world is without “war and famine, fear and disease. It is a world where love has triumphed, and music is the common language.” Later as militant groups threaten to destroy the alien ship, “The Drum” signal is used in synch with Lukas and the group of people protecting the ship as a literal music build to blow back an entire offensive. They literally clap and dance in synch with the music. Music here is being used as a literal conflict-stopping tool in a not-so-peaceful method. It doesn’t disable the electronics or disarm the soldiers (Vee and her people do that later by just appearing) or magically help people understand each other like we’re told about Vee’s world. Instead it’s used as a big blowback cannon to simply say that their technology is stronger. The subtext here is that big festivals and club music scenes are places of love, peace, and that music can change us to help resolve conflict. But the literal manifestation of that subtext is a more direct opposing force instead. And trust me, I’m all for people being united by something to help resolve differences between each other. I think having a metaphorical club-crowd being the defenders against an army is a short draw though. It lacks impact. It also lacks much to talk about as it isn’t some sort of a reflection of a current world controversy. Lots of people like electronic dance music, it’s just not for everyone.
The real ongoing controversies in club music are authenticity, the diminishing income, the constant push for the stage-life, and abuse of alcohol or drugs leading to injured or dead people at festivals. This album isn’t reaching very far and is more or less saying that dance music can change our hearts and the world while delivering it in a way that doesn’t directly say that. It’s really plain, to put it bluntly. Sadly, Above & Beyond said a lot of this stuff in a much more underhanded way with “Group Therapy” in 2011, six years ago. The only difference here is that “Blueprint ”at least tries to scale the scope of what dance music can change to that of political or militant agendas (or perhaps a larger view of how the world might see Lukas and his dance friends). But “Blueprint” doesn’t explore that with its story because the story is so wrapped up in Vee and Lukas, the love story. Instead the album just shows you in one scene how music may be able to do something good in political climates. And it doesn’t show much.
Speaking of music, Blueprint is supposed to be an album but is lost in trying to be something different. The above mentioned element of the narrative being read to the listener throughout all 17 tracks is a lot more heavy-handed than I personally think I would like it to be. Ferry Corsten worked closely with a screenwriter to develop the plot and he also worked closely with a key few vocalists and songwriters for the album. In ways this feels like a good move. If Ferry doesn’t feel like he can develop a story, I see no problem in him bringing a professional to the table (even though that professional may not have had the best perspective to write a club music concept album). And Ferry’s choice of vocalists here is limited, allowing the dual perspectives Vee and Lukas can bring to the table to actually be brought to the table pretty well. Eric Lumiere does the most part of presenting Lukas-theme songs while HALIENE showcases Vee’s perspective in the later half of the album (okay technically she does tracks that are framed for Lukas but can work both ways). There are a few very notable numbers with Niels Geusebroek and Clairity. This is a decent element that can add more depth to the songs. The trouble is the jarring element of these songs and tracks being interrupted with narrative as well. We’re getting songs and a few key instrumental tracks that are working hard to help tell a narrative but you’re never given a chance to feel “in the music” or “in the narrative” because the beginning and ending sections of every track have to have some voice work and narration. Colleagues who have heard the album playing while I’ve been listening to it at work all tell me this sounds like an audiobook more than an album. And it does, unfortunately. This album is hard to hone in on unless you’re alone and isolated with it. Even at home I find my mind wandering more easily with the album’s narration feeling like this background element placed in the foreground. It took some more “closed” headphones to really grab my attention and push me into listening to the finer details of the music and the story it is trying to tell me outside of the album’s narration. They fight against each other.
Which is a real shame too because it turns out this album has some really good numbers on it that you’ll wind up ignoring too easily. The album starts on a stirring orchestral number depicting the potentially fading signal with grand energy before “The Drum” is made manifest in a steady trance number titled after the album itself. Ferry Corsten uses his signature Gouryella sounds to present “Vee’s Theme” or “Venera” in a lovely trance anthem. More modern new trance approaches can be found on “Your Face”, “Waiting”, and the blissful ride of a track, “Edge of the Sky”. Breakbeats, hip-hop, and general electronica serve as some interesting pieces in the album where Ferry is getting to flex his muscles and experiment with the genres to serve the story instead of just chasing genre trends. I get the feeling “Here We Are”’s lush chorus pads are going to help make it a successful alternative single for the album. And the two center tracks of the album that end disc 1 and start disc 2 are phenomenal works that I think present the album in its best light. “A World Beyond” features just the right balance of narration/voiceover to music (about 10 to 90 percent) and its playful piano is a great movement into a more dreamy trance end for the first disc. Disc 2’s starter “Trust” uses a rising melody to illuminate the impending breakdown between Vee and Lukas taking place while the rest of the world is growing in fear and panic of what “The Drum” means. Similar things can be said of the high-tension climax track “Drum’s a Weapon”. The later has already been released as an extended single for listening without the narration and I’d love to see the same happen to “Edge of the Sky”, “A World Beyond”, “Trust”, and “Waiting”.
But not everything works perfectly. Fortunately none of these tracks are duds but some leave you wanting more or wishing the influences of modern music wouldn’t quite infect Ferry’s production. The high impact climax of “Drum’s a Weapon” at track 14 means there’s three more tracks to wrap up the story. One of those three was a decent idea: Eric Lumiere & HALIENE sing a song together to showcase Vee and Lukas together again. But instead of maybe bringing a duet to the table, Eric and HALIENE just take turns from one verse to the next. And the music on that track isn’t particularly inspiring or beautiful. If anything it’s calming to help move into the final piece. The track before it shows a lot of promise. “Reanimate” has some nice touchy house beats in the verse and a strong organ pad in the chorus that reminds me of “Always” by BT. But it’s caught up in modern pop music sensibilities of the steady sway march timed with firework drums also at modern pop music tempos. It’s hard to exactly tell whether or not Ferry built the music to serve the story or if he was working on tracks of this nature long before the album came into being. It might be neither, but honestly these just “okay” tracks are not nearly as troubling as the previously mentioned narrations. They really take the wind out the music, especially with repeat listens unless you’re dedicating your time and ears to the music in a more closed scenario.
Just for science, I decided to pull out a stopwatch and run the timer every time narration or voicework was placed over the music. Disc 1 features 8 minutes and 51 seconds of this dialog, roughly 19% of the 45 minute run time. Disc 2 really takes the cake and burns 18 minutes and 16 seconds with voices and narration, a full 42% of the remaining 43 minutes on the album. In total, about 33% of the music you’re listening to is something you’re being distracted from at the same exact time. I know I’m hitting the same nail in the album’s woes twice but I wish to bring up the fact that you just can’t enjoy this album any other way because inevitably more singles for Blueprint are going to come out. And that’s where the consumer (and the fan) in ways becomes disadvantaged. If you ever want to just listen to some of Blueprint’s music or songs, you currently are forced into enjoying them with dialog and narration. The only way around this is skipping the beginning right to the core of the track, and then jumping around to whatever you want to listen to next to skip the end-track narration. This will slowly be resolved as different tracks get released as their own tracks or EPs without the narration in them. The full mixes. I can even see a version of this album released WITHOUT narration or dialog a year from now just to spin a few extra dollars on Spotify. But if you buy music like I do, you’re going to shell out more money. I have no intention of accusing Ferry Corsten of creating a way to make me maybe pay him more readily to enjoy the music from his album the way I’d prefer to enjoy it. But that’s something that I’m actually going to have to wrestle with as a person. And that kind of stinks to be honest. I almost wonder if this will have a negative effect for “Blueprint”’s streaming sales on Spotify because people just might get tired of hearing the album’s narration. But I made my point half a paragraph ago I think.
At the start of this review I made the disclaimer that I’m someone who would really want Blueprint to be successful, I want more club music albums like “These Hopeful Machines”, “Group Therapy”, “Empire”, and “while(1<2)”. And I want that to be my closing thought as well with this review. “Blueprint” is a decent album with plenty of likable tracks and a few moments where the intent jives together extremely well. You get a chance to see what could have been with maybe a more nuanced story that takes a more dedicated listener to unravel. Instead it comes out just a little too plain in the world of music, but definitely something refreshing if all you listen to is EDM. A bigger name like Ferry Corsten doing something like this is awesome, and worth talking about and supporting. I hate to break it to you, but Armin van Buuren is a good producer who is working hard to stay relevant. Ferry Corsten has spent the past few years working hard to create something different in his field that might make him more irrelevant if EDM fans widely reject it. So, I personally recommend you put money towards it somehow. Stream it, pay for it digitally, buy a physical copy like me if you really want, and give it a listen. You might not be dying to listen twice, but it’s worth your time for one really focused listen.
*Oh, and not to really add or detract from what’s been said, but I actually think the artwork done on this album is pretty nice stuff. Nothing mind-blowing or staggering, but the style is nice.