It was nearly two years ago that I happened upon an article about Visions of Dune, an album by a mysterious artist named simply Z that was getting the reissue treatment. Now what caught my eye was that this album was a heavy synth concept album based on Frank Herbert’s Dune. The idea of a concept record based on Dune was intriguing enough, but after listening to some bits online I knew I needed to preorder this album as quickly as I could.
Turns out Z is the alias for musician and electronic composer Bernard Szajner. He’s of Polish Jewish descent, but spent a good portion of his life in France. Szajner was a pioneer of both electronic music and the visual arts. He created the laser harp(not sure what it is but pics of it are pretty cool.) He made 5 albums before retiring from music, but his first and to my ears his best is Visions of Dune.
I didn’t grow up a fan of Dune, to be honest. The book was a little too heady for me in school(I preferred my science fiction a little more ironic and humanistic…so Kurt Vonnegut was my guy.) I did watch the Lynch film and was even more confused by it, but I appreciated the scope Herbert had given his world. I still plan on giving that book another shot at some point, just not today. Thankfully I have Visions of Dune to give me the Cliff Notes version.
Visions of Dune came at just the right time for me. The summer of 2014 was spent walking and jogging outdoors in the high Midwest heat and this heavy synth record was a great soundtrack for sweating and heat exhaustion. As much as I love heavy synth, even I have to admit that a good portion of the music out there is equal parts cool and cheesy. It’s a fine line with synth music. One misstep with a filter or arpeggiated note and you go from dark and foreboding to something you’d hear on a Saturday morning cartoon from the 1970s. What’s so good about Szajner’s album is that the entire record brings a moody and hefty vibe. He seems to commit to the aural journey he’s promised to take us on. I think a big plus here is the mix of synth with drums and guitar. The drums add a real street-driven, urban groove to the songs they pop up on. The guitar isn’t schmaltzy or dated, either. It’s used sparingly enough that it feels more like it’s there to back the Z vision beautifully. Production-wise the record is tight and feels like a continuous, wavering movement. On the vinyl the tracks seem to bleed into one another, giving the album a constantly flowing vibe, like scenes in a film. Bernard Szajner, or Z, seems to have built these pieces in a very cinematic way.
The music ranges from atmospheric soundscapes to more groove-oriented songs that have a real rhythmic flow to them. Tracks like “Dune”, “Bashar”, and “Thufir Hawat” are these exploratory set pieces that pull you into Herbert’s world(as well as Szajner’s interpretation of it.) “Bene Gesserit” is some seriously moody synthesizer. It sounds like an underwater doppler radar with some theremin thrown in for good measure. “Fremen” sounds more like traveling through a wormhole than overlooking the expanse of some alien desert, but I’m not complaining here. There’s also some seriously groovy drums and synth interplay that pop up halfway through. Tracks like this are what separate Z from the rest of the heavy synth guys and gals at the time. The digital version of Visions of Dune comes with two bonus tracks, “The Duke” and “Spice”, both I wish could’ve made it onto the vinyl as they truly help to push the album along. “Spice” especially is a tasty morsel for the ears.
Since I procured this lost masterpiece I dug into Szajner’s other records and while they were interesting none of them had the flow and, for lack of a better word, vision that Visions of Dune had. Maybe the fact that Bernard Szajner was so inspired by the story that his own artistic drive was pushed to greater heights on this album than on his later work. What do I know? I could completely wrong(psst…I’m not.)Bernard Szajner is up there with guys like Jarre, Schulze, Froese, and(insert your favorite synth wizard here), and yet I’d never even heard of the guy until two years ago. I found the German synth composer/builder Rudiger Lorenz that same summer and felt very much the same way about him. Underrated and criminally overlooked.
2014 was the summer of synth.
Visions of Dune is going to be one of those albums that I will probably cherish and fetishize for years and years to come. It’s the perfect mix of spacey expanse and intimate, buzzing electronics. I listen to this album and it takes me on a journey. I may not be that knowledgeable regarding Frank Herbert’s Dune, but I’m quite fond of Bernard Szajner’s Dune.
Editor’s Note: After doing some research in regards to Frank Herbert, I realize I need to look into his work. Seems to be a very interesting character to say the least.