MCMXC a.D. (the Roman numeral representation of 1990 numerals followed by an abbreviation of Anno Domini) is the first studio album from the music project Enigma, headed by Romanian-German musician Michael Cretu, officially released in December 1990 on Virgin Records in Europe and two months later on Charisma Records in the United States. In 1989 Cretu developed an idea for a New-age music project named Enigma and later on, he declared his creative philosophy in a Virgin Records press release: “Old rules and habits have to be rejected and dismissed so that something new can be created ”. He began toying with the idea of mixing a Gregorian chant into the pop/hip-hop beats. It was something completely new and different at that time “(…) my starting-point was very simple: I wanted to make music that I like myself, I wanted to return to the mysticism,” Michael Cretu explains. The reason for calling the project “Enigma” into life, is the desire to make music that I have long heard in my head. Till now, I’ve had neither the time nor the opportunity to make my plans reality. “Enigma” has given me the possibility to experiment in the studio without paying any regard to musical conventions whatsoever. Additionally, with “Enigma” I wanted to create music that I cannot buy anywhere. I found a particular challenge in creating a concept album combining the apparently conflicting elements of style of Gregorian chants, black dance rhythms, French spoken-word and the keyboard sounds of Art of Noise and Vangelis. The music of “Enigma” was to produce a relaxed atmosphere, not like typical synthesizer music, however, but rather on the basis of black rhythms that practically form the backbone of contemporary music. The overall album is founded on this basic idea”.
The path of excess leads to the tower of wisdom
– William Blake (a misquote of “The Road of Excess leads to the Palace of Wisdom.”)
Some contribution to this work made Frank Peterson who had provided the samples that were used in two songs and he fully supported Michael’s musical concept during the recording sessions for the album. Cretu and Peterson utilised the pseudonyms Curly M.C. and F. Gregorian respectively. Later during the production of the tracks Fabrice Guitad was brought in to assist with lyrics, and he too, adopted a new name -David Fairstein. MCMXC a.D. was recorded in eight months in 1990 at A.R.T. Studios located in Cretu’s home in Ibiza. It is one of the very first albums recorded on a hard disk drive. “With Enigma, (Cretu explained to Larry Flick in Billboard) I have created a complete piece of music that I wanted to let stand alone. There is a sense of mystery in the music that I wanted to leave untouched by the perceptions and preconceived ideas that come with the past history of a producer or a songwriter.” He continued, “Contrary to the usual record company philosophy, people are open-minded and starved for something unique. This is music that is different from any other available at the moment. I think people have responded to that.” Cretu told Alan di Perna of Keyboard, “I conceived of the whole album as a single song. The words and sounds are like flashlight beams. They don’t show you everything. You have to look at what’s between the lines.” A mixture of sixth-century Gregorian chants, bewitching French whispers—provided by Cretu’s wife, Sandra—and hypnotic, ethereal music set to intoxicating dance rhythms, MCMXC a.D.
Let The Rhythm …Be Your Guiding Light….
On 1st October 1990, the first single release off the forthcoming album, “Sadeness (part I)” was brought out to the public for the very first time, first in France and Germany and within next a couple of weeks it caught the attention of whole radio Europe. It is a sensual track with an insistent rhythmic hip hop grooves based around “questioning” the sexual desires of Marquis de Sade; hence the German/European release name of “Sadeness”, as opposed to the English word of “Sadness” used in the UK release. The French lyrics in “Sadeness Part I” are actually a dark homage to the Marquis de Sade, an eighteenth-century erotic novel writer from France from whose name the word sadism comes. In analyzing this element of the debut Enigma album, Vince Aletti of the Village Voice stated, “Cretu isn’t celebrating the notorious Marquis… but his mere presence in this context is a provocation, surely a deliberate and delicious one. Sade reserved his fiercest contempt and some of his most exquisite literary tortures for the pious and the prim, so even if he remains offstage here, the writer is a devilishly successful device. Cretu uses him to introduce questions of virtue and vice, faith and sacrilege, love and lust.”
(…) et introibit rex gloriae, Qius est iste Rex glorie?
Sade, dis-moi … Sade, donnes-moi…
(…) and the king of glory shall come in, Who is the king of glory?
Sade, tell me … Sade, give me…”
The music video supporting the promotion of the newly released single “Sadeness” shows a scholar, possibly a reference to Marquis de Sade, who falls asleep at a desk in his room while writing … and has a fantastic, seductive, and enlightening dream. The scholar finds himself wandering among cathedral ruins. He comes up to Auguste Rodin’s The Gates of Hell, which is probably the “Forbidden Door”, according to the album concept. As the young man looks on, he sees a beautiful, succubus-like young woman (played by French model Cathy Tastet) beyond it. She whispers the main lyrics to him in a seductive tone – “Sade, dis-moi”; “Sade, donne-moi”. The man turns and tries to flee, but relents to his desires and is “sucked” back through the door. At this point, the young man wakes from the dream and looks around anxiously, but finds only a light from his window shining down on him.
The song went from number 92 to number 1 in three weeks, and sold nearly 650,000 copies just in Germany within a month since its premiere. “I had no ulterior motive,” stresses Cretu, “The music has neither verse nor chorus, and if I ask you to sing a melody line you won’t be able to do it, because it’s all based on a mood and an atmosphere,” he points out. It is his wife, the artist Sandra, who performs the groans and moans, directed to Marquis de Sade. Originally it was planned that a French woman would do the vocals on the final recording, but the powerful boss for the record company Virgin, the media magnate Richard Branson, was so enthusiastic about Sandra’s contribution that he insisted that her groans was kept as they were.
When “Sadeness” was proclaimed single of the week by Dutch national radio network TROS, the station received three bomb threats from listeners said to be shocked by what they had heard. Another national broadcaster, KRO, which has a strong Roman Catholic background, refused to play “Sadeness”, saying it was a “pure blasphemy.” As Cretu revealed to Michael Azerrad of Rolling Stone, “MCMXC a.D. was like revenge against everything I was hearing. I didn’t want to write songs, I wanted to write moods.” When Azerrad drew a comparison to the way pop icons Madonna and Prince explored sexuality, Cretu replied, “What Madonna and Prince did is pure marketing—it’s predicated on causing scandal. It’s not a sexual music that I did. It’s a sensual music. And there’s a big difference.” Some radio stations in Europe with a large Catholic audience could not see that difference. They banned “Sadeness Part I,” considering it “pure blasphemy.” Himself an atheist, Cretu told Azerrad of Rolling Stone, “The institution of the Church doesn’t really fit with our times. I believe in destiny, which is a much more powerful belief.” Cretu related to Keyboard’s di Perna, “I wanted to use things that there are questions about, that are mysterious. You don’t have to go too far to read all kinds of accusations about the Catholic Church—scandals, inquisitions, and wars—and you wonder how you can reconcile this with the idea that the Church is supposed to stand for universal love. But at the same time, I’ve been told that the Marquis de Sade was a very religious man, that he wrote what he wrote as a revenge against certain pious people who were hypocrites. So again, there are questions, mysteries.”
If you believe in the light, it’s because of obscurity, if you believe in happiness it’s because of unhappiness, and if you believe in God then you’ll have to believe in the devil
— Father X, Exorcist, Church of Notre Dame, Paris
In terms of record sales, Cretu’s beliefs were apparently embraced by many listeners. By January of 1991 “Sadeness Part I” had reached number one position in seven European countries: Germany (where it eventually became Germany’s biggest-selling single ever), Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, the United Kingdom, and Greece. The record would ultimately attain the number one position in 15 countries. In the American market, “Sadeness Part I” broke into Billboard’s Hot 100 in February of 1991, and by April the record was in the Top Five after 11 weeks at Number One on the combined European charts.
In the beginning of the March 1991, “Mea Culpa (part II)” – a second single promoting the album was released in conjunction with the video (all four singles from MCMXC a.D. will have their own videos) to support and maintain the album’s high sales figures in Europe while in the United States the main promotion had just set off intensively with the “Sadeness” being aired in top40 on MTV. “Mea Culpa” opens with an ominously chiming bell over the sound of rain. Marching drums herald the return of the Gregorian chanters, and after a few bars the heavy drums return in a fast, straight-ahead rhythm. A few measures of flute lead into the song’s “verse”, made up of Sandra’s whispered French vocals. The Gregorian chanters create a “chorus”, and the flute provides short interludes. The Orthodox mix offers an eastern feel to the album. Focusing on the new chant used in the fading shades mix towards the start, it heads off to a distinctive beat which is hard to describe at the 55 second mark which is mixed heavily with female moans and groans. The idea is apparent – to make the track naughty in the sense of the sensuality and sheer sexuality it is trying to create. Also mixing the flute used in Sadeness (part I), the track works wonderfully and there is also a killer guitar solo. The song ends with the marching drums receding into the distance.
MCMXC a.D. (originally released on 10th December 1990) starts with the mellow sounds of a foghorn, later on to be known as the “Enigma horn” and the voice of Louisa Stanley, who at the time was an executive at Virgin Records speaking in “The Voice of Enigma”. The Gregorian chant “Procedamus in pace!” then segues into the three-part “Principles of Lust” track. The first part, “Sadeness”, received the most attention through its unique and previously unheard mix of Gregorian chants and dance beat. The track features triangles and synthesized shakuhachi flutes with French lyrics and breathy sounds from Cretu’s wife Sandra. “Sadeness” fades into the second part, “Find Love”, in which Sandra instructs the listener to follow their lust. Reversed chants signal the start of “Sadeness (Reprise)” and continues with a short piano theme based on the earlier shakuhachi flutes. The flute returns as chants of “Hosanna” gradually bring “Principles of Lust” to an end. Besides the four major tracks of the album released as singles promoting the album: “Sadeness”, “Mea Culpa”, “Principles of Lust” ( album’s “Find Love”), and “The Rivers of Belief” the album also contains other good moments worth listener’s attention such as “Callas Went Away” which is a tribute to the opera singer, Maria Callas (it ends with some samples of Callas singing the aria ‘”Ces lettres! Ces lettres!” from the opera Werther by Jules Massenet) or “Knocking On Forbidden Doors” , a good mix of a drum beats, synthetic sounds, flute, horn and a distinct deeper bass line emblazoned with an electric guitar, female voice sounds and some Gregorian chants appearing here and there.
MCMXC a.D. is considered a landmark and innovative New-age album. Cretu developed the idea of sampling. Though samples had been used by artists such as Jean-Michel Jarre and Klaus Schulze, Cretu built his music around whole sequences of previously recorded parts. This method was adopted by many hip-hop and electronic music artists. The LP eventually sold more than 12 million units worldwide, by January 1994, the album had sold 14 million copies worldwide. The album received a total of over 60 Platinum awards
A limited edition of MCMXC a.D. was released in 4 November 1991 with four remixed tracks being taken out of the singles. The original part of the album blends into the first of the four additional tracks, and each of the additional tracks also blend into each other. This gives the album a sense of continuation from start to finish. One of the remixes, The Returning Silence of The Rivers of Belief, does not appear on any of the singles.
Facts to remember:
- “Sadeness” single was sold in more than 5 million copies worldwide, the album itself has been sold in more than 15 million copies worldwide.
- “Sadeness” reached number one spot on the music charts in 24 countries (1991) . *click here to get to know more information on the “Sadeness” video.
- “MCMXC a.D.” album received a total of 18 platinum and 46 gold certifications, reaching the top 10 in ten countries and having stayed on the Billboard 200 chart for 5,5 years !
- Echo Award 1991 – Most Successful German Production Abroad
- Echo Awards 1992 – Best Marketing, Best National Artist
- The very characteristic sound of wavering horn from “Knocking On Forbidden Doors” can be heard in other song created by Cretu two years earlier, for the project Cretu & Thiers – “Mona Lisa”. In fact, the progenitor of this sound had been performed for the very first time another two years earlier, back in 1986 when Cretu produced a song “Don’t Cry” for Sandra. In 1999 Mr. Cretu got back to that sound once again and included it in the Enigma’s “Gravity of Love” track. Enigma fans call it an “Enigma horn”.
Marcin Papke, Adrian Rode, Billboard materials,
Enigma-Archives, Joar Grimstvedt, EnigmaMusic.com,
Discogs, Virgin/EMI press releases, Wikipedia,
public internet materials.