5 Albums: Flood
Original by Don Morgan (2017-02-24)
In celebration of #U2JT30, U2Songs is exploring the work of the studio team that brought The Joshua Tree to life. In our first installment we looked at five significant albums from Brian Eno. Today we’ll explore five noteworthy releases from The Joshua Tree’s recording engineer, Mark “Flood” Ellis.
Anyone with even a passing familiarity with British rock and dance music in the 1980s and 90s will recognize the name Flood. One of his earliest gigs was as an assistant engineer on the first New Order album, Movement. By the mid-80s he was something of an in-house producer for iconic UK label Mute, producing or engineering albums for erasure, Renegade Soundwave, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and many more. Over the years, and continuing right up to the present, Flood’s technical and production skills have graced albums from Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, PJ Harvey, Smashing Pumpkins, Ministry, Cabaret Voltaire, The Charlatans, Goldfrapp, Sigur Ros, a-ha, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and yes, even Tom Jones… plus many more besides!
The Joshua Tree was Flood’s first album with U2, but certainly not the last. He recorded and mixed Achtung Baby and did the same for Zooropa, in addition to co-producing the album with Brian Eno and The Edge. He was the primary producer on Pop (sometimes co-producing with Howie B. or Steve Osborne), and also co-produced tracks on How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (for which he won a Grammy) and Songs of Innocence. It was Flood who came up with the distorted vocal effect for Bono on “The Fly.” He told U2.com: “[Bono]was getting really frustrated with not being able to find his voice for the Fly… I said, ‘Look Bono. I’ve been trying a couple of effects, and this might help you.’ So I put distortion on his voice. Now, I’d been using this with people like Nine Inch Nails for years… But he heard it, went ‘Wow!’ and was transformed. He was off. It gave him a chance for a new personality, a new voice which would help him express what he wanted to say.”
Here are five albums outside the U2 orbit that bear the unmistakable Flood stamp:
Between his work on The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby, Flood produced this landmark album for Depeche Mode. The UK band had enjoyed moderate success up to that point, especially with 1987’s Music for the Masses and the subsequent live album and film 101. But Violator took them to an entirely new level. It was a massive, world-wide smash that gained the band new fans as well as accolades from their peers. In discussing the recording of their album Behaviour, Pet Shop Boys singer Neil Tennant said, “We were listening to Violator by Depeche Mode, which was a very good album and we were deeply jealous of it.” The first single, “Personal Jesus,” was recorded with Flood in Milan in 1989. The familiar guitar riff that opens the song introduced a fascination with American blues music that continues to influence Depeche Mode’s sound to this very day. The second single, “Enjoy the Silence,” was an even bigger hit. All told the album spawned four singles, each of which was accompanied by a raft of interesting remixes and b-sides. The album tracks are just as good, with the programming-heavy “Halo” and majestic closer “Clean” being highlights. Flood would return to produce the follow-up, Songs of Faith and Devotion, which pushed the band’s music even further in the direction of rock and blues while retaining its signature electronic edge. But Violator is the rightful heir to the throne.
Nine Inch Nails/Pretty Hate Machine
Released just seven months after Violator, Nine Inch Nails’ debut is considered a defining moment of the industrial genre. The songs are essentially demos that were recorded by Trent Reznor while he was working as a janitor at Right Track Studio in Cleveland, Ohio. After shopping the tracks to various labels, Reznor signed a deal with indie label TVT, who gave him just enough money to solicit the services of producers he admired to finish the tracks—among them Adrian Sherwood, John Fryer… and Flood. While the first single, “Down In It” was produced by Sherwood, it was the second single, “Head Like a Hole,” produced by Flood, that launched the album into the national and international consciousness. Flood also produced the album track “Terrible Lie,” programmed synthesizers on a couple of songs, and remixed several of the versions of “Head Like Like a Hole” and “Terrible Lie” that appeared on the legendary 11-track CD single promoting the album. On the strength of “Head Like a Hole,” Pretty Hate Machine became a major hit, introducing listeners to Reznor’s unique blend of angry, screaming guitars and sophisticated synth and drum programming. It became the first independently released album to sell more than one millions copies in the USA. Relations between Reznor and TVT soon soured, and Nine Inch Nails eventually signed with a major label, Interscope, for the follow-up Broken EP and album The Downward Spiral, both of which also contained significant musical and technical contributions from Flood. Reznor went on to enjoy a long and diverse musical career, but Pretty Hate Machine is where it all started, and it remains a fan favorite to this day.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds/The Firstborn is Dead
If Flood’s work with Mute Records is primarily associated with “electronic” music, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds represent the antithesis of that. The Australian band has a long history with Mute, and their first five albums were all produced by Flood. But their music bears little resemblance to the synth-based sounds of many of their British label-mates. 1985’s The Firstborn is Dead, recorded at Hansa Ton Studios in Berlin, is the band’s second album and is largely considered one of their early successes. The music has been described as an amalgam of post-punk, blues, and rockabilly, with a heavy emphasis on dark narratives and murder ballads. Highlights include the breathtaking opening track “Tupelo,” which was released as a single, and “Wanted Man,” which is based on another song written by Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan. Flood’s work with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds is reportedly one of the reasons U2 enlisted his services for The Joshua Tree, and it’s not hard to see why. In the slow, angry build of “Wanted Man” from The Firstborn is Dead, you can almost hear echoes of “Exit.” After working with different producers for much of the 90s, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds would re-enlist Flood for 1997’s The Boatman’s Call, a collection of quiet, spiritual, piano-driven songs that showcase a very different side of the band.
This 1992 full-length debut by UK band Curve is a monster. Every song employs a “wall of sound” guitar onslaught that provides a strong counterpoint to Toni Halliday’s impassioned vocals. The album emerged during the “shoegaze” and “dream pop” movements in the UK music scene, but Flood’s production sets it apart from other releases in those genres. The key is found in the propulsive grooves, a combination of live drums and sequencers/programming, that carry the guitar-based songs forward. It’s a formula that was quite unique at the time, although many bands went on to emulate it in the years that followed, most notably Butch Vig and Garbage. This innovative blending of “high tech” and “indie” was a winning combination with critics and fans alike. In his memorable 4-star review of Doppelganger for Q magazine, David Cavanaugh wrote, “Every song here is swimming in guitars – mashed, chewed, flanged, compressed, squally, howling, whatever. But no matter how cacophonous the music gets (and ‘Ice That Melts the Tips’ sounds as though three guitars are beating the crap out of a fourth), Halliday’s voice is terrifically sensual and seductive, sounding just the pretty side of evil.” The album has never been reissued, although the original US release is noteworthy because it adds “Clipped,” as a bonus track, a Steve Osborne-produced track that had previously appeared on a UK EP. Flood and Osborne would produce the band’s follow-up album, Cuckoo, as well, but it did not enjoy the success of the debut. Curve would continue to release music in fits and starts over the years, but they never seemed able to regain the magic of Doppelganger. It’s definitely the one to own.
This one’s a bit of a guilty pleasure, as some would suggest that 1989’s Belief is an album that hasn’t aged well. But it’s an excellent example, along with the first two erasure albums Wonderland and The Circus, of Flood’s early success producing electronic music for Mute. Whereas erasure’s music aimed for the pop charts, Sussex’s Nitzer Ebb were one of the pioneering EBM (Electronic Body Music) acts, combining minimal synths and electronics with live drums and aggressive, spoken-word vocals and chants. Their first album for Mute, That Total Age, was produced by Phil Harding. Flood’s production on the follow-up, Belief, refined the formula by adding a slightly more accessible, musical flavor on songs like “Drive,” “Captivate,” and the singles “Control I’m Here,” “Shame,” and “Hearts and Minds” (he also produced several of the extended remixes on accompanying Nitzer Ebb singles of the time). Despite the band’s aggression, the sound on Belief is ultimately characterized by clean, computerized synths, distinguishing it somewhat from other industrial acts of the time like Skinny Puppy. Flood’s relationship with Nitzer Ebb continued throughout its career, as he also produced 1990’s Showtime, 1991’s Ebbhead (with Depeche Mode’s Alan Wilder), and most of 1995’s farewell album Big Hit. Nitzer Ebb regrouped in 2006 for the self-produced Industrial Complex, but once again credited Flood with “guidance and consultation” in the liner notes.