‘Sleepwalking’ is the long-awaited debut album from the classically trained German songstress NINA.
With a musical palette shaped by a love of QUEEN, DEPECHE MODE, DAVID BOWIE, ALPHAVILLE, KRAFTWERK, NENA, CHROMATICS and LADYHAWKE, it contains some of her most personal work yet; “I think it’s important to keep your work personal and evolve as an artist” she told The Electricity Club.
Since her second single ‘We Are The Wild Ones’ in 2013, Berlin-born songstress NINA has grown in profile and stature.
Support slots with ERASURE and DE/VISION followed in 2014 but it was her third single ‘My Mistake’ that became her breakthrough song.
Beginning the long player, nocturnal warmth exudes from ‘Beyond Memory’, demonstrating how NINA’s own brand of pulsating electronic pop acts as a bridge between synthwave and synthpop. With her vocals deliciously slicing the moonlit atmosphere with a superbly breathy chorus, ‘Beyond Memory’ is about past relationships. A close relative of the Mercedes-Benz endorsing ‘My Mistake’, ‘Beyond Memory’ more than makes up for its absence on the album.
Meanwhile, ‘Born To Live’ is embroiled in confidence with a soaring chorus recalling AVEC SANS, sweetened with a highly alluring almost spoken middle eight à la KID MOXIE, while the synth line recalls the rather obscure ‘There Goes the Cure’ by ONE DOVE.
Full of arpeggiators and pulsating synths, ‘Sleepwalking’ is a vibrant number that paces the mood to a gallop, with a delightful keyboard cascade finish. Bubbling electronics over a sparse intro lead into the nocturnal synth AOR of ‘It Kills Me’. With piano also entering the fray, it’s not unlike Toronto’s very own electronic pop combo PARALLELS.
The previously issued B-side ‘Purple Sun’ does what it says on the tin, is it a love letter to PRINCE or something else entirely? The layers of backing vocals might provide a clue…
The drive-friendly ‘Empire Of Love’ lifts the tempo again with a glorious whirring ULTRAVOX-styled synth solo to buoy up proceedings, but at the opposite end of the album’s colourful spectrum, ‘Diamonds In The Rough’ is a perfect Brat Pack movie ballad, while also emulating some of the best in Scandinavian pop overtures and allowing NINA’s soprano to shine. And although “everybody’s here, they’re having fun”, a forlorn NINA reflects on not fitting in… cut from a similar cloth, the cinematic Nordic pop of One Of Us’ is heartfelt, Fraulein Boldt’s musical catharsis about school bullying.
And when she is ‘Counting Stars’, the song utilises vintage synth sounds to the max, both rich and retro-futuristic with “a mission on our own” like classic PET SHOP BOYS. ‘Your Truth’ is more compelling neon-lit synth AOR, with another rousing chorus and some guitar inflections combining with those vintage love theme Emulator voices as she confirms “I’ll be there for you”.
For a fabulously optimistic conclusion to the album, ‘80s Girl’ comes beaming over like the missing theme song from the film ‘Mannequin’. With big Simmons drums, sampled orchestra stabs and driving synthbass triplets, it is however delivered with subtlety and restraint so that it doesn’t turn into a HEART or STARSHIP pastiche. Dedicated to her mother, it’s great song that sums up the best in NINA. And in a telling message to everyone, she declares “don’t let the past hold you back”.
Yes, it all does sound like a John Hughes film soundtrack but that’s not a bad thing. A highly enjoyable musical journey that’s strong on melody, Richard X, Oscillian and Sunglasses Kid have each done a very good job working with NINA to produce a cohesive body of work.
A positive album for outsiders and individuals, NINA is a songstress who speaks for the lonely and disenchanted without going all Emo. It’s been many years in the making, but NINA’s ‘Sleepwalking’ has been well worth the wait.
Canadian synthpop trio PARALLELS rode on some well-deserved international momentum in 2017 following the release of their third album ‘Metropolis’.
Championed by the likes of Rusty Egan, the Toronto combo formed in 2008 and released the 2010 debut long player ‘Visionaries’.
However, PARALLELS went through some personnel changes prior to the recording of their sophomore offering ‘XII’.
In 2018, the line-up comprises of Holly Dodson, her brother Nick and one-time CLIENT collaborator Oliver Blair. With their catchy sweetly flavoured songs like the ‘Metropolis’ title song, ‘Catch’ and ‘Heart Of The Wild’, PARALLELS’ third long player was an audio document of how “we travelled… fell in and out of love… rediscovered the places we call home…”, with the end result sitting down well alongside the likes of PURITY RING, CHVRCHES and AVEC SANS.
Singer, songwriter and synthesist Holly Dodson took time out from rehearsals to chat about the continuing progression of PARALLELS and their first live appearance in London which is happening alongside German songstress NINA in March…
Canada appears to have become a centre for modern electronic pop with the likes of PURITY RING, ELECTRIC YOUTH, GRIMES, AUSTRA and TR/ST. What inspired you to head in this direction as PARALLELS?
Starting out, we were very inspired by Italo disco and synthpop from the 80s. Piano was my first instrument, so synthesizers were sort of the next step for me when I got more into production. I love the colour that synths add. And we wanted to make upbeat dance music with pop vocals… plus we didn’t know how to play guitar so it was partly a matter of circumstance 🙂
Your third album ‘Metropolis’ appears to have been your breakthrough internationally, how has the reception looked from your end?
I’m really truly grateful for the reaction it’s gotten so far! I’m usually most nervous to find out what our long-time fans think of new stuff… I really just want them to be happy and excited from the getgo.
Thankfully it *seems* like it was well received. It’s been an introduction for new fans as well, which is wonderful. As long as it’s connecting on some level… any level… I’m thrilled.
How have you viewed the band’s progression over the years since your 2010 debut ‘Visionaries’?
Seems like yesterday! I’ve sort of ended up being the thread that’s tying it together – which I didn’t anticipate. We went through some line-up changes that at the time were pretty emotionally challenging, but so many bands do. For me, it’s always been about making music and playing shows… so I wanted to keep focus on that. The seeds were planted so let’s grow the garden. It’s been truly rewarding on many levels, creatively, and I’m really looking forward to going deeper.
Your lovely version of ‘Moonlight Desires’ on your second long player ‘XII’ points to perhaps a youth possibly spent watching John Hughes and Brat Pack movies?
So happy you like it! I’m a child of the 80s, so naturally, yeah… plus GOWAN is Canadian. We hear the original version it all the time in Canada. It’s always fulfilled all the necessary criteria – incredible hooks, the moon, magic melodies, nostalgia 🙂
I just recently learned that GOWAN’s actually heard the cover… and approves!! Which is SUCH a relief haha… you never know.
Do you feel any affinity with North America’s current interest in the Synthwave sub-genre?
It definitely seems to be having a moment right now – it feels very buzzy and grassroots which is wonderful. It also seems like a bit of a gateway for new listeners to get into synth music and an excuse for long-time listeners to get re-excited. I love knowing these communities are forming and have some dear friends involved in the scene – so it’s inspiring to see it coming together.
Photo by Sarah Llewylen
The ‘Metropolis’ title track does have a CHVRCHES vibe, has the success of Glaswegians been an indicator that a potential worldwide audience is out there?
I’m definitely a big fan of CHVRCHES – it’s so cool to see synthpop rise to that level! I’d love to write with them one day. Yes, I’m a firm believer that synthpop is for everyone whether or not they know it 😉
In 2016 – the year everyone wants to forget – I had a big binge on PRINCE’s music, which inspired ‘Metropolis’.
Actually, until the last minute, it didn’t have bass on it because ‘When Doves Cry’ doesn’t, but I realized I was just grieving and so recorded the bass… it brought a bit closure 🙂
There’s a hint of ‘Running Up That Hill’ in ‘Catch’, how important has KATE BUSH been in shaping your take on music?
‘Running Up That Hill’ is one of my absolute favourite songs of all time – KATE BUSH is my home for inspiration. If I have insecurities or self-doubt, I put on her records. When I first played my demos to a family friend of ours, when I was 17 or so, he said my voice reminded him of KATE BUSH… and at that time I had no idea who she was. So I went and listened to the ‘Hounds Of Love’ album and, I’m not joking, everything made sense.
She changed how I understood creativity and represents freedom of expression in its truest form. Some people spend so much time trying to fit in that they forget to find their own voice. With KATE BUSH, it seems like she knew – and wasn’t afraid to experiment and take risks, push boundaries with grace. And I love and admire that so much. I could talk about this for hours… obviously.
You’re releasing a great new RADIO WOLF remix of ‘The Last Man’ as the new PARALLELS single. It’s quite different from the album version, what was the thinking behind having the track reworked?
Our good friend (turned band mate) Oliver Blair had wanted to do a remix – he said he wanted to speed it up and “paint it red”. I love what he did with the remix. He really brought out the edge in that song. The song is about holding ourselves accountable for our actions toward the earth and each other… which is becoming more and more urgent. So I think he really picked up on that with his interpretation.
So which have been your own favourite songs on ‘Metropolis’ and why?
Well in case the songs are listening, I love them all equally. But… Isadora’ is one of my favourites – it’s sort of a séance song. I’ve never been a part of one but would love to at some point.
‘Tell The World’ and ‘Metropolis’ are ones that mean a lot to me. They remind me of home, my family and friends. ‘Tell The World’ is about story-telling, learning from the past and how stories connect us. It makes me emotional when I hear it, but I’m really happy with how it turned out.
Photo by Sarah Llewylen
PARALLELS covered NEW ORDER’s ‘Age Of Consent’ for the ‘Civilisation’ EP in 2015, what made you choose that and do you have any other songs you would be interested in reinterpreting?
There’s a list! I’m working on one now but want to keep it a surprise. We used to jam to ‘Age Of Consent’ during practises and it’s one of my favourite NEW ORDER songs… it reminds me of being a teenager and not having the words to express my emotions. I’d just say… listen to this song… this is how I feel.
Electronic music appears to have more sister / brother combinations eg THE KNIFE, XYLO, FAKE TEAK than say in rock, why do you think that might be and how is your creative relationship with your sibling Nick?
True, I never realized that. Nick joined in 2011… I said “I’m looking for a drummer… want to join PARALLELS?” and he said “well, I play metal but I guess I could play your stuff” 🙂
He’s a true talent and one of my best friends – always there for a critical critique, and I trust his opinion.
PARALLELS are coming to London in March 2018; as well as the gig with NINA, what else are you hoping to do while you’re here?
We are! It’s our UK debut – we’re so thrilled to be playing with NINA. Would love to see Abbey Road, Soho… our band mate Oliver lived in London for years, so we’re hoping he will be our tour guide. Any insider advice?
The Electricity Club gives its warmest thanks to PARALLELS
The world found itself in a rather antagonistic and divisive state this year, as if none of the lessons from the 20th Century’s noted conflicts and stand-offs had been learnt.
Subtle political messages came with several releases; honorary Berliner MARK REEDER used the former divided city as symbolism to warn of the dangers of isolationism on his collaborative album ‘Mauerstadt’. Meanwhile noted Francophile Chris Payne issued the ELECTRONIC CIRCUS EP ‘Direct Lines’ with its poignant warning of nuclear apocalypse in its title song. The message was to unite and through music as one of the best platforms.
After a slow start to 2017, there was a bumper crop of new music from a number of established artists. NINE INCH NAILS and GARY NUMAN refound their mojo with their respective ‘Add Violence’ and ‘Savage (Songs From A Broken World)’ releases, with the latter recording his best body of work since his imperial heyday.
But the first quarter of the year was hamstrung by the anticipation for the 14th DEPECHE MODE long player ‘Spirit’, with other labels and artists aware that much of their potential audience’s hard earned disposable income was being directed towards the Basildon combo’s impending album and world tour.
Yet again, reaction levels seemed strangely muted as ‘Spirit’ was another creative disappointment, despite its angry politicised demeanour.
Rumours abounded that the band cut the album’s scheduled recording sessions by 4 weeks. This inherent “that’ll do” attitude continued on the ‘Global Spirit’ jaunt when the band insulted their loyal audience by doing nothing more than plonking an arena show into a stadium for the summer outdoor leg.
Despite protestations from some Devotees of their dissatisfaction with this open-air presentation, they were content to be short-changed again as they excitedly flocked to the second set of European arena dates with the generally expressed excuse that “it will be so much better indoors”.
By this Autumn sojourn, only three songs from ‘Spirit’ were left in the set, thus indicating that the dire record had no longevity and was something of a lemon.
Suspicions were finally confirmed at the ‘Mute: A Visual Document’ Q&A featuring Daniel Miller and Anton Corbijn, when the esteemed photographer and visual director confessed he did not like the album which he did the artwork for… see, it’s not just The Electricity Club 😉
Devotees are quick to say all criticism of DEPECHE MODE is unfair, but the band can’t help but make themselves easy targets time and time again. But why should the band care? The cash is coming, the cash is coming…
The Wirral lads demonstrated what the word spirit actually meant on their opus ‘The Punishment Of Luxury’, while the former class mate of Messrs Gore and Fletcher demonstrated what a soulful, blues-influenced electronic record should sound like with ‘Other’.
As Tony Hadley departed SPANDAU BALLET and Midge Ure got all ‘Orchestrated’ in the wake of ULTRAVOX’s demise, the ‘Welcome To The Dancefloor’ album directed by Rusty Egan, to which they contributed, became a physical reality in 2017.
Now if DM plonked an arena show into the world’s stadiums, KRAFTWERK put a huge show into a theatre. The publicity stunt of 2012, when Tate Modern’s online ticket system broke down due to demand for their eight album live residency, did its job when the Kling Klang Quartett sold out an extensive UK tour for their 3D concert spectacular.
No less impressive, SOULWAX wowed audiences with their spectacular percussion heavy ‘From Deewee’ show and gave a big lesson to DEPECHE MODE as to how to actually use live drums correctly within an electronic context.
Mute Artists were busy with releases from ERASURE, LAIBACH and ADULT. but it was GOLDFRAPP’s ‘Silver Eye’ that stole the show from that stable. LCD SOUNDSYSTEM returned after seven years with their ‘American Dream’ and it was worth the wait, with the most consistent and electronic record that James Murphy’s ensemble has delivered in their career.
2017 was a year that saw acts who were part of the sine wave of Synth Britannia but unable to sustain or attain mainstream success like BLUE ZOO, B-MOVIE, FIAT LUX and WHITE DOOR welcomed back as heroes, with their talent belatedly recognised.
Across the Baltic Sea, Finnish producer JORI HULKKONEN released his 20th album ‘Don’t Believe In Happiness’ while nearby in Russia, a duo named VEiiLA showcased an unusual hybrid of techno, opera and synthpop and ROSEMARY LOVES A BLACKBERRY offered a ‘❤’.
One of the year’s discussion points was whether Synthwave was just synthpop dressed with sunglasses and neon signs but whatever, Stateside based Scots but MICHAEL OAKLEY and FM-84 made a good impression with their retro-flavoured electronic tunes.
Female solo artists had strong presence in 2017 as FEVER RAY made an unexpected return, ZOLA JESUS produced her best work to date in ‘Okovi’ and HANNAH PEEL embarked on an ambitious synth / brass ‘Journey to Cassiopeia’. Meanwhile, SARAH P. asked ‘Who Am I’ and MARNIE found ‘Strange Words & Weird Wars’ as ANI GLASS and NINA both continued on their promising developmental path.
Respectively, Ireland and Scotland did their bit, with TINY MAGNETIC PETS and their aural mix of SAINT ETIENNE and KRAFTWERK successfully touring with OMD in support of their excellent second album ‘Deluxe/Debris’, while formed out of the ashes of ANALOG ANGEL, RAINLAND wowed audiences opening for ASSEMBLAGE 23.
Despite getting a positive response, both iEUROPEAN and SOL FLARE parted ways while on the opposite side of the coin, Belgian passengers METROLAND celebrated five years in the business with the lavish ‘12×12’ boxed set
Overall in 2017, it was artists of a more mature disposition who held their heads high and delivered, as some newer acts went out of their way to test the patience of audiences by drowning them in sleep while coming over like TRAVIS on VSTs.
With dominance of media by the three major labels, recognition was tricky with new quality traditional synthpop not generally be championed by the mainstream press. With Spotify now 20% owned by those three majors, casual listeners to the Swedish streaming platform were literally told what to like, as with commercial radio playlists.
It is without doubt that streaming and downloading has created a far less knowledgeable music audience than in previous eras, so Rusty Egan’s recent online petition to request platforms to display songwriting and production credits was timely; credit where credit is due as they say…
While The Electricity Club does not dismiss Spotify totally and sees it as another tool, it should not be considered the be all and end all, in the same way vinyl is not the saviour of the music industry and in physics terms, cannot handle the same dynamic range as CD.
Music is not as emotionally valued as it was before… that’s not being old and nostalgic, that is reality. It can still be enjoyed with or without a physical purchase, but for artists to be motivated to produce work that can connect and be treasured, that is another matter entirely.
However, many acts proved that with Bandcamp, the record company middle man can be eliminated. It is therefore up to the listener to be more astute, to make more effort and to make informed choices. And maybe that listener has to seek out reliable independent media for guidance.
However, as with the shake-up within the music industry over the last ten years, that can only be a good thing for the true synthpop enthusiast. And as it comes close to completing its 8th year on the web, The Electricity Club maintains its position of not actually promoting new acts or supporting any scene, but merely to write about the music it likes and occasionally stuff it doesn’t… people can make their own mind up about whether to invest money or time in albums or gigs.
Yes, things ARE harder for the listener and the musician, but the effort is worthwhile 😉
Electropop duo AVEC SANS gave a wonderfully assured performance on the final night of their UK tour in London’s Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen with a dazzling combination of sound, colour and passion.
Since the release of their well-received debut album ‘Heartbreak Hi’ in June 2016, Alice Fox and Jack St James have been very much in demand for live shows where AVEC SANS have made the biggest impression.
While the pair have been compared to CHVRCHES and PURITY RING, Fox’s bittersweet vocal expression has a deeper resonance compared to the occasionally shrill voices of Lauren Mayberry or Megan James. Meanwhile in a concert setting, St James’ use of three back flipped Novation Launchpads alongside a Nord keyboard and electronic drums has solved that age old authenticity conundrum in electronic music to clarify what is live and what is Memorex…
Beginning with the moody synthwave of ‘When You Go’, cheers greeted the familiar blips of ‘Perth’, AVEC SANS’ electro cover of BON IVER’s folkie lament inspired by the late Australian actor Heath Ledger.
With its gliding arpeggios and spacey vocal manipulations, ‘The Answer’ proved equal to ‘My Mistake’ Mercedes-Benz favourite NINA, while the driving pop of album highlight ‘Hold On’ ensured the enthused dancing in the first few rows was maintained.
‘Resonate’ and ‘History’ both explored the offbeat sub-bass whips of PURITY RING before a catchy synthpop tune with an essence of CHVRCHES was offered in the marvellous ‘We Are’.
AVEC SANS pay close attention to detail in their live presentation from Fox’s glowing mic lead to the effective use of St James’ flashing controllers as both visual and connective tools; the platinum blonde singer punched the air with aplomb while the baseball capped instrumentalist multi-tasked with a joyful demeanour.
The swirly ‘Shiver’ and the R’n’B tinged fervour of ‘Heartbreak Hi’ title track concluded an energetic set but now established as a fan favourite, there was the bonus of an enjoyable cover of the Kate Bush classic ‘Running Up That Hill’ as an encore.
Having impressed with their crisp debut album, AVEC SANS now move onto their follow-up long player. With all the experience acquired since their formation in 2012, Fox and St James have the potential to deliver an opus to take them to the level of their lauded Scottish and Canadian contemporaries.
Professional, organised and hardworking, many acts could learn from AVEC SANS’ approach to live presentation, visual image, media engagement and audience networking. It may seem obvious to have a range of photos for press into organised folders but quite a few bands don’t even manage that!
With these basics sorted, AVEC SANS have climbed the first steps of the ladder.
The album ‘Heartbreak Hi’ is released by Beverly Martel, available via the usual digital outlets as well as CD and vinyl LP
SOL FLARE are the up-and-coming London based trio comprising of Jenny Jones (vocals), Dominic Wood (synths + programming) and Matt Marlow (guitars) who recently unleashed their first single ‘Easy Line’.
While Wood’s lush electronics and drum machine beats provide the vital musical backbone to SOL FLARE, it is Jones’ magnificent voice, ranging from a piercing high soprano down to a powerful contralto growl reminiscent of Rindy Ross from Portland soft rockers QUATERFLASH, which gives them their USP.
Indeed, if QUARTERFLASH had been a synth wave act, they would probably sound a bit like SOL FLARE. Evoking images of widescreen sunsets and neon lights, SOL FLARE began their account with the impressive ‘Not Holding On’, offered as a free download via their Soundcloud. Inevitably, the ‘Drive’ soundtrack sprang to mind although ‘Not Holding On’ was far more direct and uptempo.
‘Easy Line’ develops on this introductory template with a pulsing four-to-the-floor bassline and Jones’ haunting vocals punching to the heart, embellished by Marlow’s subtle scratchy rhythmic six string and Wood’s cascading synths.
The visual accompaniment created by Jesse Dvorak captures carefree youth in Reagan-era LA with echoes of the late Eric Watson’s video for PET SHOP BOYS ‘Domino Dancing’, as a love triangle and homo-erotic ruck in the sea provide the key moments of the storyline.
An engaging live act, particularly with Jones’ charismatic stage presence, there is more to come from SOL FLARE with the stomping ‘Find You’ and stuttering dance oriented essence of ‘The Hunter’ both highlights in their current set.
Sitting comfortably alongside acts such as NINA, AVEC SANS, PRIEST and FEATHERS, if they maintain the upward artistic trajectory that has seen them cross synth wave and classic synth pop with AOR and melodic new wave, then SOL FLARE might overtake them all and join CHVRCHES.
Having already impressed at Synth Wave Live, SOL FLARE possess an attractive style blend that could see them appeal to many more.