For me, Kate Bush and Thomas Dolby were the gateways out of mainstream music, but The Art of Noise kicked my butt all the way through.
They were always a mysterious entity, shunning band photographs at the beginning and doing enigmatic (and often nerdy) interviews. Born from the production team that Trevor Horn had put together to add synths and sampled tweaks to bands like ABC, Pet Shop Boys, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and Yes, they were "studio rats" who obviously spent far too much time remixing things.
The only member of the original band who didn't fit this aesthetic was journalist Paul Morley, whose job was to direct the band's philosophy. Or something. He did come up with wonderful cover art and some totally confusing liner notes, but judging by his activities in the "new" Art of Noise (saying enigmatic things and jumping around in a hoodie), Morley was not essential.
At the time, producer Trevor Horn was the music world's golden boy. It's difficult to figure out what he did in the band as well, and after the band's nasty split in 1985 -- Morley and Horn wanted to "create art," while the other band members wanted to be "rock stars" -- J. J. Jeczalik said that Horn and Morley were responsible for about 0.4% of what Art of Noise did, which sounds like a pretty fair assessment.
Ah, J.J. The guy with the Fairlight sampler. There's no doubt in my mind that he was the backbone of the band, responsible for "The Noise." Engineer Gary Langan helped tone down and channel J.J.s experiments into workable rhythms, and trained musician Anne Dudley added gorgeous keyboard lines over the herky-jerky beats. They single-handedly invented breakbeats and inspired so much of the music that is still being made today. Prodigy and Fatboy Slim, anybody?
The Art of Noise taught me (and the world) that, as of 1980, you no longer needed acoustic instrumentation to make a song. They were particularly obvious about it in this insane video for "Close to the Edit." I do think it's a video with a manifesto, and I love love love it.
As with so many bands of the period, The Art of Noise eventually went astray. I assume that Anne Dudley was interested in doing more "traditional" work, and their albums got more and more acoustic, at the expense of the production and technology that had previously been their strength. Bongos and backup singers and Tom Jones pushed the Fairlight to the background, and by the time of "Below the Waste" they'd sunk into total mediocrity.
Then, in 2000, Morley, Horne, and Dudley came back. They released a somewhat blah and meandering album about Paul Debussey. For the most part it sounded like an excerpt from Dudley's soundtrack work, but it did have some outstanding moments, like "Metaforce" (another great video).
Albums to check out? "Who's Afraid of? (The Art of Noise!)" (their debut) and "In Visible Silence" (their follow-up, when they still "had it"). Albums to avoid: "Below the Waste" (the bland end of their first career) and "The Seduction of Claude Debussy" (the mediocre attempt at another). For fans only: "And What Have You Done With My Body, God," a 4-CD collection of studio mixes from their first album, showing how "The Noise" evolved. Fascinating, if you like that sort of thing.