- The brief was simple: Take a David Bowie song, any David Bowie song, and do what you want with it. Twelve artists who claim to have been heavily influenced by The Thin White Duke responded and have done their best to go "beyond Mars," as it were. The title, of course, is a reference to Bowie's "Life on Mars," but it also nods to his prevailing interest in all things alien and pushing oneself past the normal. One of these reinterpretations certainly goes out there (and ends up in a place far beyond the fourth planet). But, for the most part, Life Beyond Mars draws out different aspects of Bowie's multifarious character(s) and, along with being very enjoyable, serves as a tribute to his gift for self-reincarnation.
The eccentric Kelley Polar, who more than anyone has claim to be The Duke's representative on Earth/grandson, nails the Bowie persona most people know—somewhere between Ziggy Stardust and The Thin White Duke. His cover of "Magic Dance" is operatic, theatrical, and gives you the feeling he knows exactly what he's doing (and wants you to know) without becoming ironic. Polar injects an enormous synthcore bassline and disco stabs whilst singing in a faux-machismo voice which, for some reason, is in a variety of languages. It retains the campness and daftness of the original, but bonds Bowieness with Polar's eye for the proto-retro-futuro disco dancefloor. Heartbreak achieve something similar with their wistful Italo interpretation of "Loving the Alien," although, as far as I'm concerned, it's all about baby dancing and saying: "hell yeah."
Five of the artists take Bowie downtempo, and the most successful is Au Revoir Simone's version of "Oh! You Pretty Things!" By removing the grand, bombastic choruses, the song becomes cuter and intimate, like a fireside favourite. Singer Erika Forster's childlike vocals lend a delicate tone and manage to make the song's theme, Nietzsche and/or an alien race subsuming humans on Earth, sound dreamy. Three other artists explore Bowie's groove with punk funk reworks. The Emperor Machine's rejig of "Repetition" wouldn't have been out of place on ZE back in the '70s, sounding somehow modern yet old at the same time. And the contribution from Joakim, no stranger to the dance/guitar crossover, is also impressive, ironing out the up-and-down of "New Life in a New Town" in favour of constant tempo.
All of these come across as terribly Earth-bound in comparison to The Thing's version of "Life on Mars," however, which bears no relation to the original at all. Haphazard choruses of creaking doors, hands squeezing balloons, and distant machines retain only the barest relic of Bowie's tune. The weird thing, though, is that by straying furthest from the source material, The Thing embraced the challenge of the album's concept more than anyone else.
Which brings us to Carl Craig and Matthew Dear. For two of the producers who are making some of the most forward-thinking electronic music around, their contributions are depressingly polite. Both tinker a little: Craig's "Looking for Water" cover is slower and more melancholy; Dear's "Sound and Vision" less funky, but more sweet. This is a criticism that, to varying degrees could apply almost to the entire project—aside from Polar and The Thing. Part of you really wonders what Life Beyond Mars would have sounded like had !K7 assembled a dozen artists that didn't cite Bowie as a massive influence. Just imagine if the likes of Appleblim, Autechre, I-F, Jeff Mills, or Flying Lotus were given the run of Bowie's catalogue. I don't know if it would make for a better compilation, but there certainly would have been more surprises along the way.
01. Au Revoir Simone - Oh! You Pretty Things
02. Heartbreak - Loving The Alien
03. Kelley Polar - Magic Dance
04. Leo Minor - Ashes To Ashes
05. Carl Craig Presents Zoos of Berlin - Looking For Water
06. Drew Brown - Sweet Thing
07. Matthew Dear - Sound & Vision
08. Susumu Yokota - Golden Years
09. The Emperor Machine - Repetition
10. Joakim & The Disco - A New Career In Town
11. Richard Walters & Faultline - Be My Wife
12. The Thing - Life On Mars