Posts Tagged ‘Synth Pop’

Christopher Nosnibor

This is probably – no, certainly – one of the oddest events I’ve attended in a while. I came because I wanted to see La Costa Rasa, who I caught a couple or so times in their 90s heyday supporting The Sisters of Mercy at Birmingham NEC and at the Off the Streets Shelter benefit at the Town & Country where The Utah Saints headlined, with a guest vocal appearance from Andrew Eldritch, in ‘93, and because their 1994 album, Autopilot, released via Merciful Release has been an enduring favourite of mine. I had been a shade perturbed by the 80s ‘theme’ element mentioned in the event description, but figured my everyday clothes should pass.

On arrival, I ordered a pint of Lagunitas IPA, got something completely different from what I’d asked for – some lager or other – then headed upstairs – and then the weirdness hit as I commandeered as table just inside the door.

Everyone here seems to know each other, not in a club or college reunion way, but more like a birthday party for someone’s granddad, with three distinct generations, none of whose age brackets correspond with my own. The middle generation all look to be around 50-odd and more, which would probably fit with the clientele of the legendary 80s club venues which provide the night’s theme. Then there are some really decrepit old buggers who look like their parents, and then a bunch of women in their early 20s. No-one looks remotely goth. It’s mostly middle-aged and older men with beer guts in check shirts. Apart from me, sitting here in black jeans, jacket, shades and Stetson. It’s the first time I’ve felt so completely out of place at any gig, let alone a supposedly goth gig. This isn’t a matter of nostalgia not being what it used to be, this is a bewildering experience where I truly have no idea. I feel lost, confused, and with maybe twenty people here early doors, I feel exposed, conspicuous, like I’ve gatecrashed someone’s private do, like… like… Like I’m a miscast extra in a bar scene.

Here’s the convoluted but relevant bit. The evening it pitched as a celebration of legendary Leeds clubs, Le Phonographique, et al, with DJ sets capturing the spirit, as well as live sets from Power to Dream and La Costa Rasa.

La Costa Rasa seem an odd choice for an 80s night, being an overtly 90s band – grunge with a drum machine, as I tend to describe them. Of course, there’s the Merciful Release connection, and Mills is, or was, with legendary F Club and Le Phonographique DJ Claire Shearsby (who is significant in Sister circles as Andrew Eldritch’s ex, and who isn’t one of tonight’s DJs, who spin a mix of 80s tune and more recent stuff like Garbage from their laptops at the back of the room). And despite having released a run of three of singles in the mid-80s, this is Power to Dream’s live debut.

La Costa Rasa’s bassist Jim Fields is wearing a Bivouac t-shirt. It seems fitting that not only has it been almost thirty years since I last saw La Costa Rasa, and about the same since I saw a Bivouac T, and within seconds of their starting La Costa Rasa transport us back to back then with their strolling basslines, wall-of-sound guitars, and thumping sequenced drums.

No-one claps. They all just carry on chatting. A huge Jabba of a grandma sits on a sofa by the stage and bangs her stick on the floor in time – or not- for a bit and waves to the people sitting on the window bench. Eventually, three or four songs in, people seem to catch on that there is a band on.

Only two of the songs in tonight’s set are from Autopilot, the first of these being ‘Like a Machine’ which lands early. Slower than the album version, it’s followed by a raging ‘Burning Idols’.

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La Costa Rasa

Mills switches to violin for new song ‘White Rose’, a raging industrial stomper, and some guy looking like uncle fester sits on the sofa and starts clapping like a seal for the second half of the set, while mopping his bald head frequently with a handkerchief and waving to some of the oldies on the other side of the room. The closer is a squalling epic where Mills again switches to violin – played through his guitar FX units to build a screaming climactic wall of noise. It’s blistering, and elating to see – and hear – that after all this time, they’ve not lost the fire.

Oops. Sweaty Fester is Terry Macleay, the singer with Power to Dream. He plonks his red felt hat on and steps into character. Well, he tried, but he can’t stop grinning and gurning. He’s one of those flamboyant goths. Grating dense, dark ambience heralds the start of the set. They open with a cover of Alex Harvey’s ‘Faith Healer’, released as their second single back in the day. It’s surprisingly soulful, more Depeche Mode than Foetus.

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Power to Dream

1986 single  ‘Frantic’ is second, and lays down some taut grooves, although the style is somewhere in the region of Culture Club with more funk. ‘Fountain of Youth’ lands ironically. With just trebly guitar and drum machine, they sound really thin, and there’s just way too much vocal. But you can barely hear any of it over the chat. No mean feat when there are about 20 people in the room in total, all at the back. Fuck’s sake, they should turn their hearing aids up, or fuck off.

Guitarist Alex Green plays a solo rendition of Steve Harley’s ‘Sebastian’ while Macleay takes a seat. It’s barely audible above the babble. Terry keeps looking around, irritated, but to no avail, and I’ve seen enough. It’s time to split.

Darkwave act VVMPYRE begins a new reign in blood in 2022 with a horrific new single ‘Offering’. Inspired by vampire cults and 70’s cult horror films, ‘Offering’ is a track that personifies the leaders of these cults in an alluring anthem. VVMPYRE creates a modernized sound with a rekindled inspiration from artists like The Sisters Of Mercy and Inkubus Sukkubus.

In a search for the right voice, VVMPYRE reached out to CORLYX singer Caitlin Stokes. VVMPYRE’s twisted imagination is met with a set of lyrics as if the chant to a ceremony against the backdrop of increasingly massive and infectious melodies.

Together with VVMPYRE’s production, ‘Offering’ is a monstrous mix of classic electrogoth, 70’s horror scores, and modern darkwave to form a bloody anthem that unleashes a barrage of hooks. Brandon Ashley of DTuned Brighton Productions and The Dark adds a gripping guitar to the mix, building the track up further in the chorus and bridge, only equally met by VVMPYRE’s haunting organ melodies.

Check the video here:

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14th February 2022

Christopher Nosnibor

Passive is the second album from French post-punk band Je T’aime, and is the first of a two-part set, which will be completed with the release of Aggressive in the not-too distant future.

The album continues where its predecessor left off, and marks the development of a theme as part of an extended concept work, where we ‘follow the evolution of the same antihero; a common avatar of the three musicians. The tone hardens, the atmosphere becomes more melancholic, and the lyrics embrace bitterness and anger.’ The liner notes explain that Passive ‘continues the theme about the difficulty of growing up. Our main character is constantly caught up in the past, repeats the same mistakes and ends up not being able to move forward in his life. It is no mystery that the band’s music constantly looks for influences in the past 80’s for that reason’.

So many people do get hung up on the past, and seem to hit a point in their life – usually around their early 30s, in my experience – where they simply stop evolving and reach a stasis, a brick wall where they conclude that no good new music has been released since they were in their early 20s and nothing is as good as it used to be. It’s not all memberberries and memes, but there are many agents at play driving an immense nostalgia industry. And it’s easy money: no development required for new ideas when there’s a near-infinite well of past movies and music to plunder and rehash or at least lean on. Would Stranger Things have been the smash that it was if it was set in the present? However great the script, plots or acting, much of its appeal lies in its referencing and recreation of that intangible ‘golden age’. While that ‘golden age’ may depend on when an individual was born, the acceleration of nostalgic revivals and recycling means that kids who weren’t even born in the 80s or 90s are nostalgic for synth pop and grunge by proxy.

Passive is anything but. But what it is, is a dark, heavy slab of dark, bleak, brooding, a mix off sinewy guitars and icy synths with rolling bass and tribal drumming that lands in the domain of early Siouxsie, Pornography­era Cure and The Danse Society around the time of Seduction. The instruments blur into a dense sonic mesh. There’s a tripwire guitarline on ‘Another Day in Hell’, which kids off the album with a gloriously dark, stark, intensity that’s Rozz William’s era Christian Death as if played by X-Mal Deutschland. And if I’m wanking nostalgia over this, it’s less because I miss 1983 (I was 8) than the fact they capture the energy and production of that groundbreaking period with a rare authenticity.

‘Lonely Days’ is a bit more electro-poppy, but has a guitarline that trips along nicely and throws angles and shade. ‘Unleashed’ reminds me more of The Bravery and their take on 80s pop, but then again, The Cure’s influence looms large again, and elsewhere, ‘Stupid Songs’ goes altogether more New Order / Depeche Mode, but then again, more contemporaneously, it’s not a million miles off what Editors were doing on In This Light and On This Evening – and album I found disappointing at first because it felt like derivative 80s electro fare, before the quality of the songs seeped through to convince me.

One thing that’s often overlooked about 80s pop is that dark undercurrents ran through even the most buoyant of tunes from the most chart orientated acts; Duran Duran and Aha, even the music of Nick Kershaw, Howard Jones, A Flock of Seagulls, was cast with shadows flitting beneath that veneer of production. So when they go bouncy disco on ‘Givce Me More Kohl’, the parallels with The Cure’s ‘Let’s Go To Bed’ and ‘The Walk’ are apparent, with a lost and lonely aspect to the vocals, and they go full Disintegration on ‘Marble Heroes’. And that’s cool. It’s poignant, sad, wistful, an emotional cocktail. On Passive, Je T’aime revel in all of those elements of influence and pack them in tight, and they do it so well and with such discipline. They really know what they’re doing: the sound and production is class, and the songs and classic, and the sum of the parts is a truly outstanding album.

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A Projection are a post-punk/darkwave act from Stockholm, who signed to Metropolis Records in 2019 for the release of their well received third album, ‘Section’. Inspired by dark post-punk/proto-goth acts such as The Cure, Sisters Of Mercy and Joy Division along with the electronica of Depeche Mode, the band are known for their compelling and dynamic live shows.

‘Darwin’s Eden’ is a brand new single by the quartet and sees them more fully embracing the electronic realm, placing themselves in the intersection between the ‘80s synth pop and the darkwave hit lists of 2021.

Watch the video here:

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11th December 2020 – PNKSLM Recordings

Christopher Nosnibor

Trapped in a box, a loop of ever-diminishing life, it’s not difficult to comprehend why amidst the confusion, the sadness, the frustration, and anxiety, and general bewilderment, nostalgia should grow its presence. Your life sucks, and it probably always has, but it’s easier to cast a hue of fondness over the past than to accept that if the present’s bad, the future is worse. It’s a natural part of the ageing process, too, of course: kids get younger and the music and fashions get worse by the year.

Katja Nielsen, singer and bassist with Swedish punk act Arre! Arre! had been suffering from bipolar disorder a decade before diagnosis. With the outbreak of a global pandemic, band activity curtailed: she found that writing songs helped her process, and so She/Beast was born, with ‘In the Depths of Misery’ being the first of a brace of EP, both of which derive their titles from quotes from Vincent Van Gogh, another bipolar artist.

The liner notes recount how the songs were ‘written and arranged entirely in Nielsen’s living room’ and ‘mark a dramatic departure from the furious pace of Arre! Arre!’s output, instead evincing a lo-fi, pop-rock sound’.

How it translates is as all the dark side of the 80s distilled into a neat package: it’s very much bass-driven, propelled by a drum machine that thumps away mechanically, with economical programming – no fancy fills or extravagant cymbal work – and laced with stark synths. Throw The Cure, X-Mal Deutschland, Skeletal Family, and all the fringe artists from that 1979-83 period who ventured into the darker realms of post-punk, into a blender and you’ve got the sharply piquant flavour of She/Beast.

It’s poppy, but it’s heavy on shade. ‘I don’t know what to do with myself’, she sings lost and aimless on ‘The Sadness Will Last Forever’. The bubbling ‘Born to Fight’ is exemplary of the way Nielsen brings everything together. A looping buoyant synth line that would have sat comfortably on an early Depeche Mode single is welded to a thudding four-four Craig Adams style bassline that dominates the rhythm section, while Nielsen spins a message of self-affirmation in a dreamy style, her voice compressed and floating in reverb.

The loping drums of closer ‘A Fragile State of Mind’ are murky in the mix, but the snare cuts through in the way that’s characteristic of that 80s sound. It’s so, so evocative that it carries almost as much weight and impact as the tune and the lyrical content combined – meaning that in context, this short, five-song EP speaks and resonates on levels far beyond its constituent parts.

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Christopher Nosnibor

Leeds synth-led post-punk outfit FEHM have mellowed a fair bit since they first burst onto stages in and around their hometown three or four years ago. New single, ‘Scarborough Warning’ may lack the abrasive edges and wild, wide-eyed bass-driven gothy mania of early songs like ‘Sinking Sands’, but that isn’t to say this more commercial sound is without edge.

This means that while Paul Riddle’s frenzied holler has softened to a brooding croon, and the instrumentation sounds less like X-Mal Deutschland and more like early Human League with a hefty dash of The Cure in the mix, not to mention a lead guitar part that’s pure (early) New Order, there’s a dark, melancholy edge to this slice of disco-pop. It’s heavy on reverb and imbued with a nagging wistfulness, and it’s also still deeply rooted in the first half of the 1980s.

I dig.

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FEHM will also be playing a handful of dates in August support of the release:

2nd: The New Adelphi, Hull

3rd: The Brudenell Social Club, Leeds (With full supporting line up including Drahla)

9th:The Underground, Newcastle

10th: The Castle, Manchester

11th, The Shacklewell Arms, London

FEHM

Dependent /Amped – 26th January 2018

It would be easy to criticise Kirlian Camera’s new album for being a genre stereotype, entrenched in darkwave clichés of thumping disco beats propelling shuddering sequenced bass undulations and chilly, inhuman synth sweeps. But having formed in 1980, the Italian act, having mutated from pedalling synth-pop to progress into darker territories as the 8s progressed, are part of the first wave of bands to fore the style.

As maligned and misunderstood as it is, goth and its subcultures and musical substrains have endured, impervious to fashion, and any ebb and flow which has witnessed an upsurge in popularity has seemingly been coincidental.

I’ve no aversion to electronic music, but as a general rule, dark wave / cold wave music leaves me, well, cold. It’s not that synths and carefully produced vocals can’t convey emotional depth and that there is nothing to connect with, but as a style, it tends to lack humanity and consequently resonance. There’s music you hear, and music you feel. The electronic strains of goth all too often tend to be heavily stylised, entrenched in the well-established tropes.

As a listener and critic, I’m in no position to judge or undermine the actual emotional content of the lyrics or to question their sincerity. I am no-one to challenge how strongly any individual feels something, and I’m the last person to deride a so-called goth for being sensitive. It’s a matter of articulation: eternally drawing on a limited bank of metaphorical references and stock-phrase imagery, it feels more like the feelings are pulled tightly into a corset or genre conformity than a true release of pent-up, innermost pain. Moreover, the drama-focused delivery feels to careful, too meticulous in its presentation.

Despite a shifting line-up over the years, Elena Fossi has covered vocal duties since the turn of the millennium, and her melodies are excellent, strongly delivered with grace and nuance. So what’s the issue? It’s certainly not technical or compositional. It’s not about lack of range in terms of tone or tempo, either: ‘Helium 3’ goes all swampy, with whiplash snare and a stark, minimal synth chord sequence reminiscent of The Human Leagues ‘Being Boiled’ overlaid with creeping fear chords, atmospherics and samples. ‘Kryostar’ brings robotix vocals and a pounding technoindustrial beat, and a relentless juggernaut groove paired with soaring, choral operatics.

But whether it’s rolling piano and breathy vocals building the drama, as on ‘Traveller’s Dream’, or bombastic synth explosions, Hologram Moon feels very stylised, controlled. And thus we return full circle. It would be easy to criticise Kirlian Camera’s new album for being a genre stereotype, but however well-crafted, well-performed and well-produced, it would be difficult to compliment it for being anything more.

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Kirlian Camera - Moon

Dependent

Christopher Nosnibor

Bristol synth-pop duo Mesh are a classic example of an act underappreciated in their domestic territory but who have found a fan-base in mainland Europe and who are particularly appreciated in Germany. It may be that there’s a sense of the grass being greener, but even taking into account scale and catchment, I can’t help but feel that Germany has a better appreciation for certain strains of ‘alternative’ music. For example, can you think of anywhere else that The Sisters of Mercy still regularly headline festivals? And so it’s in this context that Mesh performed a one-off with the Philharmonie Zielona Gora to a sold-out audience at Neues Gewandhaus in Leipzig. Live at Neues Gewandhaus Leipzig is a document of the occasion, augmented with three new orchestral-based compositions

‘Just Leave Us Alone’ from 2013’s Automation Baby is the first song of the orchestral set, and it’s striking just how Depeche Mode it feels. The soulful richness of Mark Hockings’ voice is the key, but what’s equally striking is just how subtle and nuanced the arrangement is. The 65-piece orchestra contrive to build drama without at any point overstretching into extravagance.

They reach further back into to catalogue for ‘Only Better’, here led by a skipping piano and plucked strings, and the vocal harmonies work well alongside the layers of brooding theatricality, while ‘Save Everyone’ is simultaneously deep yet sparse. The fact the live orchestral show featured just five songs and ran for half an hour – and is captured in its entirety here – is admirable. So many acts, when presented with the opportunity to perform with an orchestra, will splurge, with overblown renditions and overlong performances. That Mesh keep it concise and keep a tight rein on the material, which, if anything, intensifies the effect and the emotional layers imbued therein. ‘Taken for Granted’ is the last of the live songs, and it broods through dark tension and builds to a soaring finale which utilises the dramatic and layered instrumentation to the max.

As a necessary aside, the audio quality is exceptional, and does the performance justice. Every detail is perfectly captured, as it should be. And there is a lot of detail; the songs are played with real nuance, and while the performances are powerful, there’s a palpable emotional depth that’s intrinsically linked to the subtlety and multi-dimensionality of the instrumentation.

The three new studio tracks compliment the live set very nicely indeed: recorded with a stripped-back orchestra, they still explore the same emotional terrain as the material chosen for the live set, and because the sound quality of the live recording is so god, they flow into one another rather than feeling like appendices which have been bolted on.

There isn’t a weak song in the new recordings, although ‘Can You Mend Hearts’ is a standout, being delicate and fragile, the surging builds bringing depth and resonance to Hockings’ affecting vocal delivery.

Live at Neues Gewandhaus Leipzig is one of those albums that could so easily be a drag, and fall to cliché, but instead offers a set of strong reworking of songs which lend themselves to the orchestral treatment, and as such, it’s not only successful, but an impressive release.

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Mesh - Live