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Enigma performs ‘musical alchemy’ with Merlin, his Mac-packed mobile studio

“I’ve always felt like a musical alchemist. I take all of the ingredients and combine them in a way that nobody did before.”

When composer/producer Enigma dropped MCMXC a.D. in 1990, he literally turned the electronic music genre on its ear with his innovative use of Gregorian chants on Sadeness (Part I), an international dance smash that featured vocals in both Latin and French. That, coupled with the far-reaching impact of tracks like 1993’s Return to Innocence, which sported a Taiwanese chant and a sample of John Bonham’s signature drum beat from Led Zeppelin’s When the Levee Breaks, all helped propel Enigma to sales of over 70 million albums worldwide to date — not to mention hundreds of millions of overall views on YouTube.

After an eight-year absence filled with only MMX The Social Song, a single in 2010 created with the help of his fanbase, Enigma returns with the broad electronic strokes of his eighth album, The Fall of a Rebel Angel, out today in various formats via Republic.

Rebel Angel veers from the insistent, stereo-challenging percussive drive of The Omega Point to the wide-open keyboard-wash palette of Lost in Nothingness to the sequel-of-sorts Sadeness (Part II), featuring international female superstar Anggun on impassioned vocals. “It’s been a long, long quest, and it’s a very hard, long way until you find all the pieces that fit the puzzle,” Enigma told Digital Trends. “That’s one reason why it takes four-and-a-half years or more to get my albums done.”

Enigma looked to travel down new sonic roads for Rebel Angel. “I’ve always said that I hate to copy myself,” confirmed the artist born as Michael Cretu in Bucharest, Romania. “When I start with a new Enigma album, I always start with something new, without leaving the spirit of Enigma. But each time, it has to be a completely new approach, how I dive into my thoughts and my emotions. Doing the same Gregorian chants 25 years later would be impossible. I’ve chosen a new way for this album, and I’m very happy with the result. It is now exactly as I had it in my mind when I started to work on it.”

Enigma called Digital Trends from his current homebase in Ibiza to discuss how he creates his vast personal sound library, how Sadeness got “resolved” 25 years later, and how tension is key to the musical journey.

Digital Trends: You recorded The Fall of a Rebel Angel on Merlin, your mobile digital studio. The one you had before it was a grander, bigger version called The Alchemist.

Enigma: Yes, Merlin was something that was custom-made for me and my method of working. I have had this machine for four or five years now. The Alchemist was the prototype, and then as technology developed, it kept getting smaller and smaller. So I decided to make a smaller version, which, from the technical point of view, is more advanced.

Merlin also includes other gear like an Apple Mac Pro, LogicPro software, and, I’m happy to hear, surround sound speakers.

Right right right. In the early days, I just updated the technical elements. I changed to the new Mac Pro, and updated the hard drives. The concept of this Merlin is, while the outer surface survives with time, the insides can be renewed at any time as needed, so I’m always technologically up to date.

“I have a terabyte of sounds that I did just by myself.”

The Mac is equipped with the biggest size of RAM — whatever’s available, so that I can work properly. All the big sounds are in my libraries and available for my layering and building. The bigger I go, the bigger the sound files. (chuckles)

I have a terabyte of sounds that I did just by myself — all the atmospheres and other things I’ve done for the last 25 years. I’ve stored everything, including all the new sounds I came up with during the recording process of the new album. The library is just getting bigger and bigger and bigger. (laughs)

Would you say you’re always on the hunt for new sounds to add to that library?

That’s what I love, and what I’m known for — selecting sounds, editing them, building new layers; all these things. I’ve always enjoyed that very much. I’ve always felt like a musical alchemist, which is why I take all of the ingredients and combine them in a way that nobody did before. That’s at least the target. So yes, I’m always searching for the new sounds, as you said.

I know a number of listeners will access The Fall of a Rebel Angel via Spotify and other streaming outlets. Are you okay with people accessing such detailed music that you’ve created through streaming?

I have to accept the situation, because that’s how it is nowadays. The good thing is, the people have the ability to always carry the music along with them, whether it’s in a smartphone or a laptop, or whatever.

It is good, because in the early days, imagine — you would have to carry all these discs with you, and now it’s all in the smartphone. So I view it in a positive way, but my wish is you listen to any Enigma album from the beginning to the end, and not just pick between the songs. The ideal solution is to listen that way to better understand the music. I think that’s the best way. But if somebody likes one certain song and wants to listen to it 10 times or so, well, OK, fine.

With a record like this that’s comprised of 12 chapters, or songs, each chapter leads to the next part of the story as we follow this character’s journey from Circle Eight to the Absolvo moment. You really need to go from the beginning to the end to understand where the character is at any given point in the story.

Yes, you’re exactly right. I’ve always said Enigma music is like a book. If you read the book, you can’t just read chapter five and understand the story. You have to go through the whole book to understand exactly what’s behind it, and what’s meant.

I often use that book analogy too — you don’t start a book at chapter 29 and then jump back to chapter five; you need to follow the trajectory of how it’s presented to you. And I think Rebel Angel shows how the album format is still viable.

Yes, exactly. With an album like this, I agree with you that the album format is still important. It depends on the music, actually.

“Sadeness (Part I) was a kind of question, and now, 25 years later, here is the answer.”

Is there an album from another artist that just grabbed you when you were starting out listening to music?

(exhales) Ahhh… well, there are many albums over the many decades. I can remember the first time I heard Yes, or Elton John, or Led Zeppelin. I also remember 25 years ago, hearing Nevermind, the first big Nirvana album, which was amazing, or more recently, Rihanna, with her Umbrella. As you can see, I listen to completely different styles of music. And as I always say, good music is good music, and bad music is bad music.

I know people try to label the kind of music you’re doing with whatever the electronic phrase of the day is, but my view is the music is defined by the name of the artist. Your music should be called Enigma. That in itself defines the sound you’re going for.

It’s very hard, because it’s such a complex kind of music that includes elements from so many different kinds of directions, so it’s very difficult to classify, somehow. So I agree — the best thing is to call it Enigma. It’s a style all of its own.

It is. When MCMXC a.D. came out in 1990, we were hearing things that hadn’t really ever been done in that way before. That had to be satisfying to you as an artist, knowing you had that level of impact.

Yeah, I’m very happy. It’s the biggest dream that I could make a reality as a musician. To find a way to express myself — with my background in classical music, and also producing pop music and some other things — we had to put all my thoughts and feelings into a genre that nobody had done before.

So many people around the world love it. It doesn’t matter what religion they have, what talents they have, or where they live. Enigma is a global success; everybody from different cultures likes it. That shows me that music is an international language that everybody understands.

And now we get a completely different approach with the sound palette you’ve used for The Fall of a Rebel Angel.

The new album is still an Enigma album, but after 25 years, I wanted to remember a little bit of my beginnings. That’s why part of it I relate to The Neverending Story — religion and sexuality — or referring to Enigma number 2 [1993’s The Cross of Changes], the meaning of numbers, and thought.

“It’s very important to keep tension in the music from the very first second until the last second of the album.”

Sadeness (Part I) was a kind of question, and now, 25 years later, here is the answer. To symbolize religion for Part I, I chose maybe the most famous Gregorian chant, the medieval Procedamus in pace! (Antiphon) [a sample of the Capella Antiqua Choir from Munich, culled from the 1976 album Pascale Mysterium]. But for the new one, Part II, I wanted to do something that was completely different to Part I, so I chose a musical symbol for religion — the church organ. And what is the most famous phrase in that music? For me, it’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach, which I’ve loved ever since I was a little kid.

I recorded Part II here in my studio. We had four different church organs, and it sounds like it was really recorded in a church, to get that real church organ sound.

I love the overall sense of space that’s inherent to the album’s mix.

I wanted to enclose you with it when the music starts, all the way through the 45 minutes when the record is finished. And then your imagination is projecting into your mind a certain kind of movie. This time, I chose to do that with elements of a story that gives you a more detailed entry into the sound.

By reading the story and listening to the music, it maybe opens a new level of understanding the music, and that makes it different from the other Enigma albums.

Anggun has what I call the underwater vocal at the beginning of Oxygen Red, before it begins to morph and change into different-sounding shapes.

Yes, because I’m working with, as you mentioned before, EQs and delays, and pitching down things, and then up. I’m trying to experiment with things until I’m happy with the result. You get to a moment where you feel it is exactly how it should be. I feel it, and then I’m happy with it — all the delays and reverbs, and all the atmosphere.

I think you get the tension in the story through all these ups and downs in the scenes, and in the music. That’s very important, to keep the tension from the very first second until the last second of the album.

I felt like we the listeners needed a tone break after The Omega Point with Diving, before we got to the next part of the story with The Die Is Cast. We need some time to absorb the overall message, and be able to get to the next phase without being completely overwhelmed.

That was exactly my intention. You expressed it perfectly. That’s exactly what I thought when I was working on the music. I said, “No, we need this here in between.”

It’s why I feel Lost in Nothingness is also perfectly placed after Sadeness (Part II). That transitions us right into the back half of the record.

Yes! It is as if you were inside my brain as I was doing this! (both laugh) That’s exactly how I felt it. That makes me happy — that there are people outside who are feeling the same way I felt while I was making it.