One may learn many things, but the Brexit-crazy country requires a breather.
So let’s all go back to school and study the one thing that can give us some respite: POP Music. And who is better at lecturing about the said POP, than INTERNATIONAL TEACHERS OF POP.
The South Yorkshire city of Sheffield has been home to many a great music act over the years, such as THE HUMAN LEAGUE, ABC, HEAVEN 17, ARCTIC MONKEYS, CABARET VOLTAIRE, DEF LEPPARD or PULP, amongst many others and this winter, another one surfaces with their eponymous debut album, and they’re the ones to teach the public the qualities of pop music.
The first single from the self-titled album was ‘Age Of The Train’, where Adrian Flanagan and Dean Honer, accompanied by Leonore Wheatley on vocals deliver a rather captivating approach to modern synthpopia, a little bit like THE HUMAN LEAGUE’s ‘Credo’, which was co-produced by Honer himself. The train which is running late may be the subject of the song, but it’s the musical extravaganza of sound that draws one in.
With the qualities of DUBSTAR almost mixing with LADYTRON, ‘After Dark’ ushers analogue sounds alongside a bubbly beat, that’s guaranteed to make you put your dancing shoes on.
‘The Ballad Of Remedy Nilsson’ waltzes in utilising sci-fi gaming elements, arpeggiating away into a quasi-disco fashion, describing the theme of naughty cats. You say “what!?”, Wheatley says it is “a lament for the modern cat owner, destined to live a life of frustration and unrequited love. You invest all that time, energy and money into them, nurturing and building up what you think is a solid relationship, just for them to struggle out of your arms and rip you to shreds… little sh*ts!”
Enter Italo disco meet the clubs of Detroit in ‘On Repeat’, depicting the obscurity of everyday life of all work no play to “keep on working”. ‘Time For The Seasons’ was the first song the trio wrote together, calling to “burn your technology”, yet it’s the technology that brings this piece to life, before we play Tetris on ‘She Walks’. This summertime ballad turns trippy and quite peculiar over sequenced inserts of contemporary sound, plugging in vintage elements when necessary.
Channeling her inner Sarah Blackwood, Wheatley goes ‘Interstellar’ with a lyric nearly challenging the WTF feeling on THE HUMAN LEAGUE’s ‘Night People’ from aforementioned ‘Credo’: “here we go again – defying gravity, where stars are ignorant – a floating cup of tea!” Yep, this totally makes sense… NOT! But who cares, when the package is so good musically, plus Britain was built on cups of tea, right!?
Where practice makes perfect, no, wait… ‘Praxis Makes Prefect’, there’s no room for messing around, just dance, dance, dance! Clever hooks, grand arpeggios and a generous amount of weirdness come to package the ‘Love Girl’.
Meanwhile ‘Oh Yosemite’ takes a leaf out of the latest DUBSTAR album, introducing a rather melodious waltz. The lyrical content describes an inability to pronounce words properly as per the talk of the new generation. But this very generation joins Wheatley on vocals in the chorus, leading away into nothingness.
Certainly a capable offering, given that Wheatley did her homework with THE SOUNDCARRIERS, while Flanagan and Honer, previously of THE ECCENTRONIC RESEARCH COUNCIL and THE MOONLANDINGZ, are no strangers to decently produced tunes.
This isn’t a minimalistic record, like what you would normally expect of vintage analogues and skippy drum machines, and that’s what makes it special. The knowhow is there in plenty and if you want to dance, go ahead; just do what the teacher says.
Now a duo comprising Sarah Blackwood and Chris Wilkie, with the guitarist taking on main songwriting duties, ‘One’ is DUBSTAR’s first new album for eighteen years.
Long standing fans who loved the long playing trilogy of ‘Disgraceful’, ‘Goodbye’ and ‘Make It Better’ have had nothing but praise for ‘One’, produced by Youth whose credits include CROWDED HOUSE and THE VERVE.
Despite sitting on the bridge between Britpop and Synth Britannia in their heyday, DUBSTAR’s appeal has always been via their down-to-earth kitchen sink dramas. There is certainly no shortage of those on ‘One’ which has been well worth the wait, as a work following the conflicts of an aborted reunion which was unable to be sustained despite live performances in 2013.
Sarah Blackwood and Chris Wilkie kindly chatted to The Electricity Club over their usual cup of tea about how the two of them became ‘One’…
How has been working together as a duo?
Chris: It’s been easier than as a trio *laughs*
The funny thing is though, it was never just a trio anyway, we’ve always had outside collaborators whether it was our live rhythm section, Stephen Hague or whoever, and Youth has felt like a member in lots of ways this time around.
So it’s rarely just me and Sarah in a vacuum. You don’t have to compromise as much, especially from my perspective as the instrumentalist. In the past, I was often having to field ideas that I didn’t like so much. Now, I get a feeling for how it should be and just do it.
Sarah: It seemed to go a lot more smoothly, Chris would send it to me, I’d sing it and anything he didn’t like, he just didn’t put in the final mix, so that was fine! Subtle enough to not hurt my feelings or anything like that *laughs*
So no writing songs in weird keys for you?
Sarah: Do you remember that Chris? – “Can you reach that note right at the top of the piano Sarah?”… I can with an “aaah” but it’s a whole different story with a word! *laughs*
So was working with Youth on ‘One’ a natural choice as I know Sarah, he had previously worked with you in your previous band?
Sarah: Chris and I have always been fans of his work on things like CROWDED HOUSE’s ‘Together Alone’ album.
Chris: After the adjustment in personnel within the group, we were closely in touch with Stephen Hague, but worried that we’d be putting him in an uncomfortable position by asking him to do it, so after a lot of head-scratching, Me and Sarah made a wish-list of who we’d like to work with, especially the ones whose phone numbers we had, and whittled it down *laughs*
Youth was top of my list and Sarah happened to know him already, so that made it much easier.
We didn’t have a label at this point, but Youth tackled the situation by adopting an early-60s approach, doing what people like George Martin used to do, and became the A&R guy as well as the producer.
We had around 30 tracks demoed, and made regular visits to his house for several weeks, working to get them down to a collection of songs which felt meaningful together, before the official production dates began.
‘One’ does come across like a proper album in that respect, perhaps more than our previous records, despite the style of the tracks being more diverse.
‘One’ has a much more live sounding feel than previous albums although it is still classic DUBSTAR, had that been a conscious move ?
Chris: Yeah, that’s definitely something I was after. Wherever you had programmed elements, I wanted them to feel like they were in the room. Even with a Moog bass or Solina Strings part, I wanted to be able to visualise the space it was in. Youth and his engineer have this down to a fine art. I think they got the best acoustic guitar sound I’ve ever had for instance, because they understand the environment it’s being recorded in so well.
Is the software and tech available now more straightforward to use and to get that organic feel within the budget constraints?
Chris: Very much so. Plug-ins have come so far that it’s difficult to spot the difference most of the time. I would do a lot of the programming, and even record a lot of the guitars at home, but when we got to Youth’s place, we’d have to make a decision about which bits could be improved by reworking in a proper acoustic environment, or would benefit from being left alone. Recording is so much more expeditious now, you could potentially make a whole album on your laptop and most people won’t be able to detect the short-cuts, but I do appreciate a lot of these developments, because back in the 90s we’d be going into a residential studio like Real World and spending four grand a day just to try and get a decent drum sound! *laughs*
That’s good because a lot of modern purely electronic recordings lack air…
Chris: Thanks, on tracks like ‘Locked Inside’ which is one of the most electronic ones on the album, we were really trying to approach it like JON & VANGELIS or the early GARY NUMAN tracks where you can really feel the air moving around the equipment; it might be a machine but you can sense the human being using it.
So on ‘Locked Inside’, is that a TEARS FOR FEARS sample or an actual Drumulator programme?
Chris: Ooooh! There’s a question! *laughs*
I don’t know if I should say, but it is a sample from ‘Shout’. It was something that Youth did to see if we’d spot it… we’d been talking affectionately about TEARS FOR FEARS a lot, and he added it between sessions when we weren’t in the room! When we came back, he had this cheeky look on his face and I went “that’s from ‘Shout’ that is!”
After you’ve heard it for a while you miss it when it’s not there, it’s become part of it! So you have to run the risk of keeping the sample, but if Roland and Curt are reading this, please don’t give us a hard time! It was done with love *laughs*
Sarah: Yes, please don’t! It was Youth’s fault, and we want to be able to afford to make another album! *laughs*
So Sarah, is the tech and software making things more straightforward for you now vocally?
Sarah: A bit, I had a lot of throat problems in DUBSTAR before because I’ve got a really fragile voice. I have a narrow neck, tiny ears and even though my nose is big, I’ve had tubes shoved up there to investigate what was going on and they said there wasn’t a lot of room, so I really suffer, I only have to go to a restaurant and talk too much and my throat is inflamed! This is why the performance thing caused me so much anxiety and stress, which made things even worse.
So I had to find ways to manage that, I’ve got really into pilates which has taught me to expand my rib cage properly and I’m learning to feel space in my head, but I’m still a work in progress. When Youth’s engineer Michael Rendall recorded me, he managed to get a really good sound in my headphones which meant I could sing higher with not much power, I didn’t really have to push for it. On ‘Love Comes Late’, he asked me to go an octave up and I instinctively went “no”! He just stuck the headphones on and said “you can now!”*laughs*
Chris: I think you’re a lot stronger and more proficient; your voice seems to work better than it ever did. I find you can do stuff now that you’d have never been able to do in the 90s and effortlessly. For me, as someone who worked with Sarah years ago, to come back with her operating at a higher level is quite thrilling. It’s great when you’re writing, knowing that whatever you write, she’s going to be able to do it.
Do either of you have any thoughts about the use of vocal effects in modern music? Are you in the mindset that you are making a record as opposed to recreating a live performance?
Sarah: I feel like I’m cheating, I’m remember the first time I went in a studio doing the first DUBSTAR album and the vocals were comped, I thought “that’s not right” but Andy Ross of Food Records just went “everybody else does it, and if you don’t want to sound as good as everybody else, then don’t do it”.
I would say Ella Fitzgerald doesn’t do it! But Andy would reply “Ella Fitzgerald sings those songs night after night after night and she gets muscle memory, she can do it perfect with her eyes shut. You’ve only sung those songs five times, you haven’t toured them, you haven’t explored them in your own voice” – and when you think about it, musicians in the old days would get their material together and take it on tour, get spotted and then go in the studio to record those songs, so it was different. But when you do your new songs, you’ve only sung them a handful of times before you record them, and then you’d take them out on the road, so that’s kind of interesting.
Chris: I understand what you mean, I used to think it was cheating to comp the guitars, and complain to Stephen Hague that I wanted to do it again from the top, worried that people would think I was a sample. I suppose you can improve as a result of being neurotic, though.
Sarah: Yeah, it feels wrong and that you’re compromising your artistic integrity, BUT what we make a point of doing is we try and do one take, and then drop tiny little bits in that are really offensive. But sometimes mistakes keep things authentic… there’s a horrible brown note on ‘Stars’ which Stephen Hague left in because he liked it.
Chris: Another thing about the ‘one take’ thing Sarah, even people who have never worked in studios can pick up on the way someone is breathing when it’s sung from the top to the bottom, you can feel it even if you don’t necessarily know why. So by retaining that element of performance, it makes it feel like Sarah’s in the room singing the song to you more.
To go back to your point about the use of effect, apart from the end of ‘Love Comes Late’ where you have a flanger treatment going on to create a different colour and distinguish from the other sung part, it’s true that Sarah does prefer a natural vocal…if you have too much effect going on, you lose that intimacy.
When you have a ‘character’ singer, like Sarah is, you want to feel her humanity, as if she’s in your ear and telling you something.
Sarah: It doesn’t distract from the words as well, if there’s lots of effects on it, you don’t listen to the words.
Chris: A well-known example of the software performing the song more than the singer must be CHER with ‘Believe’ and the autotune thing, which was still new then, but of course she didn’t have to prove anything. It is a shame these days when the autotune is singing the song and you suspect that they probably only performed it on one note and just dialled it in! *laughs*
Sarah: It does make it unlistenable when it’s overdone. When it’s someone like ALISON MOYET, its ok, because you know she’s an awesome singer, she’s got nothing to prove, so playing around with the vocal adds another dimension to the track. It’s how you use it I guess.
Chris: KATE BUSH creates different vocal sounds just with her delivery or the way she’s tracked it. She becomes something else…
Sarah: …yes, like those backing vocals on PETER GABRIEL’s ‘No Self Control’, I’d love to be a bit more experimental but I don’t know if I’ve got the courage.
Chris: The song suggests what you’re going to do.
There’s less of the ‘dub’ in DUBSTAR on ‘One’?
Chris: When we first started, we really loved ONE DOVE, and they had some great tracks remixed by people like William Orbit and Andrew Weatherall. There was something they were doing at the time which leaned heavily on dub in the bass especially, which was just incredible and the sound of it was something we aspired to do.
Having said that, even in the early 90s, the word “dub” had become a little bit hackneyed in pop music, I was sick of the sound of the word. I hadn’t really thought much about the dub element in our group, until our then-manager Graeme Robinson came to visit, saying “It looks like I’ve got you a record contract but the catch is, you’re called DUBSTAR!”, which he’d suggested to Food Records without consulting us, thinking it was a good idea.
I remember at the first meeting, Andy Ross said “that will be a great name because of the dub element”, but my heart sank because I thought “so do we have to keep doing those bass lines in perpetuity then?” The name was now part of the intended marketing, which felt like the tail was wagging the dog, and I found that really depressing! *laughs*
If you listen to the first three albums, by the time ‘Make It Better’ comes along, there’s not much trace of it left, but by then, you’ve become the name and vice versa.
Youth was a bit disappointed that we weren’t up for revisiting some of that dub flavour, since it’s a musical comfort zone for him, so maybe on the next one we will. ‘Two’ could be like ‘Disgraceful 2’!
Sarah: It’s quite surprising isn’t it, that got omitted from this album working with Youth. You’d have thought that’s one of first things he’d have got in.
Chris: It makes sense, because what he did back then was informing a lot of what was going on at the time. In some ways, he would have been a very sensible choice as producer for ‘Disgraceful’.
Sarah: Wasn’t his band BRILLIANT Food 1 by catalogue number??
Chris: Yes, that’s correct… I suppose there is some weird synchronicity going on in the Youth and DUBSTAR story, so it’s not really that surprising we ended up doing something together.
So is this DUBSTAR return a conscious reboot or more of a “suck it and see” approach?
Chris: It sort of crept up on us, we’d been spending time together from 2013 and we’d done some one-off performances. We knew we wanted to do something, I was enjoying having Sarah back in my life on a day-to-day basis, since I hadn’t for a few years, whereas we used to actually live together at one point.
I was really enjoying her singing again, so we started what I thought might have been a Sarah solo record; that was very liberating originally because it meant I didn’t have to think about it in the context of a new DUBSTAR record, and the ideas started flowing in a totally uninhibited way.
So when the likes of Youth started saying “this is essentially a DUBSTAR record isn’t it, so you might as well have the advantage of calling it that”, it obviously made sense and became quite exciting. But it was a pressure-free initiation stage.
How do you feel about today’s music business landscape, like with the current formats, you’re not under pressure to churn out B-sides and covers like in the past, it’s just “the album” now isn’t it?
Chris: Yeah, that’s right but also, the album has a different character now as a format because any one of the songs can effectively be the single, just according to how it’s received. You can still do what you used to do and nominate whichever one of the songs you feel best sums up what the album is about, and throw some money behind plugging it for radio or making a nice video.
We had two chosen singles off this current album: ‘Love Comes Late’ and ‘You Were Never In Love’, but you had ‘Waltz No.9’ and ‘Why Don’t You Kiss Me?’ being received as singles by the listeners, and they’ve subsequently become flagship tunes for us now, but it happens organically. So as an artist, you have to accept that you’ve lost control a bit, but that can be a good thing, it’s nice.
Sarah: I just get a bit confused because I sit there with my iPhone and I’ve got EVERYTHING in the world, what do I want to listen to? And that’s why it’s important that I go to The Electricity Club and go “oh what have you been writing about lately?”*laughs*
There’s no central filter, in some ways it’s brilliant because you have the whole world at your fingertips, but that has its drawbacks as well… I’m the sort of person that likes a little boundary because it gives me a bit of comfort.
Something which I’ve discussed this with Richard Barbieri of JAPAN is this skipping culture with streaming which is actively promoted on Spotify, it’s like no-one ‘listens’ anymore…
Sarah: Yeah! You know what? I’m guilty of that! It makes you wonder how albums like ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ would fare now, that’s an epic… are we going to have our epics anymore or is everything going to be digested in nice little bits?
Chris: It’s very much directed by playlist culture as well. You can have a track that your fans might not think is terribly important, but if it’s turned up on a certain playlist somewhere which has a lot of traffic, you look on Spotify and it suddenly appears to be your most popular song! So somebody who’s investigating the group and never heard you before listens to that one first. It might be something that’s not representative of the band at all, but if they don’t like it, they miss the entire canon of work after hearing the first 30 seconds! *laughs*
Did ‘Love Gathers’ with its lesbian affair on the school run narrative emerge from real life events and gossip from the playground?
Chris: I can’t go into too much detail because it doesn’t really help. The thing is, when you have children, you inevitably find yourself going back to school. And for a lot of people, spending more time at school, even though it’s only at the beginning and end of the day, is a welcome return.
I didn’t like school, and it took me years outside of school to rebuild myself as a person, so when I got there as a parent, all the old anxieties crept in. I noticed how for a lot of other parents, they had been waiting for that moment to return, and were visibly in their element! It was like they had children so they could go back to school! All these old categories returned, you could see who the bullies were and who the nerds were, and I was definitely in the latter *laughs*
So revisiting that school environment, I remembered why I had so much anxiety as a child myself because of this micro-community, and the way little things become big things. So if you fall out with somebody, everything becomes a much bigger deal. That story in ‘Love Gathers’ was based on stuff that was going on when I wrote it, but in order to make it ‘happen’ as a song, everything has to be as inflated to the scale it was felt in the yard… anyway, I hope that covers it *laughs*
Sarah: I loved singing that song because it’s a real story and the words are just fantastic to get your mouth around.
I guess with DUBSTAR, you’ve always been a storyteller?
Sarah: Yes, my voice doesn’t lend itself to drivel, some people can sing anything and it sounds awesome… my voice has to have something to say.
Chris: I think you’ve made a good point, because even though we didn’t want to do cover versions when we did the first album, ‘Not So Manic Now’ is on there because it said something about our ethos more effectively than anything we had of our own at that time.
But that’s a story song. I heard it on the radio a little while ago and I realised why people like it, there’s something about the way Sarah’s voice depicts the character in that story.
So much so that when ‘Stars’ was released the second time, and people finally got it, it was more interesting in the context of ‘Not So Manic Now’, because that character with the cup of tea in the tower block was suddenly underneath the firmament, singing this beautiful torch song, and it benefitted from the context.
You now virtually do own ‘Not So Manic Now’ and there are people who are still discovering that it’s a cover…
Chris: …although strictly speaking, it’s not so much a cover as what they used to call a ’cut’, like when Elvis would cut a song, as in the first recorded version people heard. When BRICK SUPPLY did ‘Not So Manic Now’, we were given what was basically a demo tape, so it wasn’t like a release which people were already familiar with. I always compare ‘Not So Manic Now’ to ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’ by SIMPLE MINDS, because that’s the song which defines them for the majority of people, despite not being self-penned. But you’re lucky if you’ve got one of those.
‘Please Stop Leaving Me Alone’ is such a DUBSTAR title…
Chris: Thanks, that one is connected slightly to ‘Love Gathers’ since it relates again to encounters in the school environment and the small village where I live. One of the parent couples were going through a divorce, and the effect this had on the community was like a tidal wave flushing through the village, because it’s a small place and other people seemed to begin having problems in their own relationships, like a domino effect.
I was close friends with one of them, and that legalese jargon was around a lot at the time. I noticed how you could get into a situation where you’re already spending money on lawyers, momentum has built, but you’ve gone so far down the road that you can’t turn around, even if you start having second thoughts.
It kind of wrote itself, there was a lot of unhappiness around, and if you listen to the electric guitar part at the end of the track, that take was recorded on the afternoon that I wrote it, so you can hear the frustration. I like the idea of having a shorter distance between the thought, expression, and what the listener gets in their headphones or speakers at home.
Sarah: I think that’s quite a Youth thing, even at proper production stage, we had little time to do the actual recording so decisions were made and often they were the first decision, so we didn’t dither around. It was all “we’ll go for this, is everyone happy?” which gave it a kind of immediacy that is prevalent throughout the album.
Chris: That’s why Youth prioritised many of the guitar takes I’d done at writing stage, even though I assumed that they would be replaced. There’s a lot of guitars on the record which I’d done on the day it was written at home, and they retain an urgency that you wouldn’t get when you’ve done it 25 times in the studio.
‘You Were Never In Love’ is classic DUBSTAR, how did that come together?
Chris: It came from that earlier period where me and Sarah were hanging out with Youth round at his house a lot. We’d developed a good relationship by then, and we were talking about the sort of records we liked, the producers we were into, the sound of record we wanted to make..
I was really wanting to impress him because he can be quite a fierce critic, but in a constructive way. There was a certain type of song we didn’t have which was closer to what we had been talking about in our conversations, so I really wanted to go back to him, and for him to say “yes, that’s what we’re missing”!
So I had a sound in my head, and visual image of Sarah looking like Virginia Madsen at the start of ‘Dune’, with her head in the stars, imparting benevolent advice about where you’d gone wrong. At the time, I was seeking some kind of celestial advice myself. I wanted it to be more electronic sounding and dreamy, and it seemed to write itself.
Sarah: I remember you sent me this really rough demo, you said “It’s a bit patchy, I’m not sure, I think I’m going to bin it…” and I was “NO! NO! NO! That’s got legs, we’ve got to keep going with this one, it’s awesome”.
What’s coming across in your relationship with Youth is its sounding like what DAF had with Conny Plank, in that its homely and encouraging. I know you’re friends with Stephen Hague but the impression from what I’ve read is he can be a bit school teacher type of character? Please enlighten me…
Chris: He has a reputation for formality, but he’s always very down-to-earth and fun-to-be-with, I’ve found, we always had a laugh.
He can be very disarming and genuinely hilarious when the mood takes him. And he’s a lot more experimental in the studio than he gets credit for. I’ve burned a lot of midnight oil with him, exploring the unexpected.
Sarah: He always seemed to literally weep with laughter when he was out with us!
Chris: I guess he has the image of a fastened-top-button sort of guy, but maybe that’s been projected onto him, because some his best known records feel so pristine, but that perfection makes them endure. He’s very thorough.
With Youth, as much as I loved his records and was really excited about working with him, I wasn’t in a good place in my own head when we met, and I was paranoid that he was going to be this ‘rock star producer’ who was going to throw his ego around and impose his will excessively onto everything we’d been working on. But it was the total opposite, I have to say; it was me who went in with bad attitude, and he’s actually very ego-less and generous in his spirit.
Although he can be a merciless critic, it’s usually for the greater good and to your benefit, I think. So we did some gentle sparring initially, but I really love the guy because he gave me something which no-one else has been able to give me, and we’ve made the record which I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, so I’ll always be really grateful to him for helping us to do that. We’ve been extremely lucky to have producers like Stephen Hague and Youth, and have learned so much from them.
The classic brass infused ‘I Hold Your Heart’ was a surprise and takes you on Northern soul journey….
Chris: That one started off as quite a mellifluous, dreamy-sounding thing, but Youth’s engineer Michael is a gifted multi-instrumentalist and one day we were just throwing ideas around and then Michael opens a drawer, produces a trumpet and starts playing it! *laughs*
I had mixed feelings initially, but it did make sense in that Northern soul, Dexys way… it made the track more robust than it had been, and you could see its pop potential, whereas it had felt more apologetic in the way we’d been delivering it. So it was a happy studio day.
Sarah: It was weird because when we were doing the demo, I was like “yeah, these words, they’re great, they’re about an abusive relationship”, and when I was singing it in the studio, I was “Oh my god! It’s me that’s the bunny boiler in this song, I AM ONE!”, all this stuff about “restricting your movements”! It’s so sinister man! *laughs*
Chris: But it’s nice that it’s so happy! *laughs*
‘Mantra’ is very Beatles-esque and has that lush vocal ending…
Chris: During the pre-production hang-out with Youth, he had expressed a desire to co-write with us. Right at the end of those sessions, I had this idea for the verse and was visualising it as a three part harmony, sounding like Karen Carpenter. I was really happy with the verses, which emerged like the ‘stream of consciousness’ lyrics in ‘Waltz No.9’ but I wasn’t completely sure what it was about yet.
When we were doing the demo for ‘Mantra’, Sarah would do this lyric-less part sometimes, and it seemed to be heading that way. My working title was ‘You Are Gone’. But after Sarah was doing that ‘wobbly’ stuff, I started calling it ‘Mantra’ because it felt like one.
We’d just had dinner with Youth and there was this strange atmosphere in the room. There was a palpable charge in the air, like static, and I noticed his breathing had changed a bit. He announced that we should try “the Mantra one”, so I asked if he had anything for the chorus section, and he immediately started singing it. We worked through the night and by dawn it was finished. It’s a good one for the end of the album.
Sarah: Youth was playing me like a Theremin, he made me open my mouth, moved his hands up in the air and my voice went up and then a little higher and then my voice followed his hands DOWN! It was like he was conducting me. That was quite a moment actually.
The acclaim must have triggered some interest in performing again…are live dates in support of ‘One’ in the offing, or even say an acoustic combined talk format?
Chris: We have been asked a lot, and we’ve tried to avoid the nostalgia circuit up to this point, because we wanted this to be an artistic endeavour rather than ‘making hay’ just because people are interested in the 90s again. It saddened me a bit that it took us so long to get it together, and by the time we got round to doing it, this 90s trip was already on, but I’m glad we at least beat SLEEPER to the post! *laughs*
Sarah: We’re just masters of cr*p timing!
Chris: It would be nice to do some live appearances in 2019, but rather than a tour, I’d prefer to do a number of small live events, or maybe a significant one-off. I like the idea of doing an acoustic thing. Sarah and I have done this in the past where it’s just the two of us and there’s an intimacy that I really like. When I’ve seen other artists do it, it’s like you’ve hung out with them for the night…
Sarah: It’s so honest isn’t it? There’s no hiding, your songs have to be good, the performance has to be good and it’s bloody nerve racking as well! With regards having a talk format, I don’t think I could multitask, I have to concentrate on singing… women are supposed to be good at multi-tasking but I’m utterly sh*te.
Chris: I went to see CHINA CRISIS at The Sage in Gateshead before Christmas and they did that particularly well, I thought. It was pretty much 40% chat and 60% music, but at the end of the night, you felt like you knew who they were.
Sarah: Miles Hunt from THE WONDER STUFF is like that too. About 10 years ago, he did these acoustic shows and would tell such entertaining nuggets about what the songs meant to him or how the songs came about… I remember there was one about him and David Gedge of THE WEDDING PRESENT having w*nking competitions so he wrote this guitar line that emulated his forearm whilst in the act called ‘Angelica Maybe’… it’s one of my favourite Miles songs.
I remember when DUBSTAR covered ‘Every Day I Die’ for the Numan tribute album ‘Random’, Gary did ask me if I was aware of what I was singing… I smiled sweetly as I said yes *laughs*
What next for DUBSTAR?
Chris: We were already writing the next record as we completed the last, and we’ve got enough to do another quite quickly now, but I don’t know if it’s exactly what we need yet.
Some of it is like the poppiest material we’ve ever done, while conversely, there’s some of the most inscrutable stuff as well.
So I imagine we ought to do what we did last time and hang out with Youth for a bit, to get that third party perspective where a producer can hear it more clearly than you can. I’m hoping we can do as much of that this year as possible.
Sarah: Same for me as well.
The Electricity Club gives its warmest thanks to DUBSTAR
Born in Halifax, Sarah Blackwood has been a most striking vocal and visual presence since 1995 when DUBSTAR hit the UK singles charts with ‘Not So Manic Now’, a cover of an obscure song by Wakefield band BRICK SUPPLY.
Sarah Blackwood studied Spatial Design at Newcastle University and it was while living in the city that she met Chris Wilkie and Steve Hillier, joining DUBSTAR as lead singer. Scoring hits under the auspices of OMD, PET SHOP BOYS, ERASURE and NEW ORDER producer Stephen Hague, kitchen sink dramas like ‘Stars’, ‘No More Talk’ and ‘I Will Be Your Girlfriend’ appealed to both electronic music and indie audiences.
DUBSTAR bridged the gap between Synth Britannia and Britpop, opening for ERASURE while also simultaneously being label mates with BLUR, JESUS JONES and SHAMPOO. But after three albums ‘Disgraceful’ ‘Goodbye’ and ‘Make It Better’ on Food Records, with worsening band relations, management tensions and waning audience interest, DUBSTAR disbanded.
In 2002, Blackwood joined multi-instrumentalist Kate Holmes in female synthpop duo TECHNIQUE after original singer Xan Tyler was unavailable for a European tour opening for DEPECHE MODE in Europe. The support slot was a success and led to the pair forming crucial friendships that would help their relaunch as a brand new project.
Morphing into CLIENT and releasing their self-titled debut album in 2003, they initially shunned using their real names, choosing to be mysteriously referred to as Client A and Client B in a ‘1984’ inspired Orwellian twist. Interest in their mysterious allure coincided with the emergence of acts like LADYTRON, MISS KITTIN, BLACK BOX RECORDER and GOLDFRAPP.
A favourite act of Karl Bartos who they opened for at his London ULU gig in 2003, CLIENT became a popular cult draw in Europe and released a further three albums ‘City’, ‘Heartland’ and ‘Command’ before Blackwood officially departed in late 2010, coinciding with a reunion of DUBSTAR.
But despite a well-received 2013 comeback concert at The Lexington in London, things went quiet until Summer 2018 when Blackwood and Wilkie announced they had recorded a new DUBSTAR album as a duo entitled ‘One’. Released in Autumn 2018, it was well-received and considered by some observers to be one of the best albums of the year.
Although best known as the front woman of DUBSTAR and CLIENT, Sarah Blackwood has always been open to collaboration and has lent her charming voice to a number of recordings helmed by artists from Germany, Greece and Canada as well as the UK. Also adept in the art of reinterpretation, among the artists she has covered are TUBEWAY ARMY, PET SHOP BOYS, ADAM & THE ANTS, VISAGE, NEW ORDER, DEPECHE MODE and THE SMITHS.
By way of a Beginner’s Guide to her work, here are eighteen recordings highlighting the varied musical portfolio of Sarah Blackwood, presented in chronological order with a restriction of one track per album project.
DUBSTAR The Day I See You Again (1995)
Possibly one of the standouts from DUBSTAR’s debut long player ‘Disgraceful’, ‘The Day I See You Again’ featured the immortal line “If the man you’ve grown to be is more Morrison than Morrissey”. Blackwood captured a deeply Northern English cynicism which actually transferred abroad, with the song’s American producer Stephen Hague dusting the tune off for the German songstress Claudia Brücken to cover on her reinterpretations album ‘The Lost Are Found’.
Available on the DUBSTAR album ‘Disgraceful’ via Food / EMI Records
One of the B-sides to ‘No More Talk’ and co-written by the late Charles Aznavour, ‘La Bohème’ became the Frenchman’s signature song and an acknowledged chanson classic, telling the tale of a painter recalling his younger years in the Parisian bohemian suburb of Montmartre, hungry yet happy. Applying a wonderful Anglo aesthetic to the translation, Blackwood gave a superb interpretation which more than suited its relocation to West Yorkshire over its icy electronic backdrop.
Available on the DUBSTAR CD single ‘No More Talk’ via Food / EMI Records
DUBSTAR featuring GARY NUMAN Redirected Mail (2000)
Having covered TUBEWAY ARMY’s ‘Everyday I Die’ for the ‘Random’ tribute album, it was now Blackwood’s turn to duet with Gary Numan himself, albeit remotely. “I was in Manchester when we recorded ‘Redirected Mail’” she said, “but Steve and Chris actually went down to Gary’s and sat and had ham and chips with him. They had a right laugh and had a really good time.” As a result of that visit south, Steve Hillier also bought a Roland CP70 electric piano from Numan.
Having secured a deal with Mute Records via Andy Fletcher’s Toast Hawaii imprint, CLIENT’s stark mission statement of “satisfaction guaranteed” also included a striking look which had a distinct element of Cold War chic. “It started because we didn’t know what to wear on tour with DEPECHE MODE” said Blackwood knowing they would be performing in front of some very partisan Devotees, “if they threw anything at us, we wanted it to be something that was sort of disposable so we thought of the uniforms!”
Available on the CLIENT album ‘Client’ via Toast Hawaii
For their second album ‘City’, CLIENT got more ambitious by featuring some guest vocalists which included THE LIBERTINES. But the most notable one was DEPECHE MODE’s Martin Gore in a collaboration that was instigated by Blackwood writing him a letter: “Martin had this newly set-up studio and recorded himself. The thing is, when we mixed the two vocals together, that was a moment! I didn’t know how it was going to work but when you heard it, it was like ‘woo!’…it was a bit spine tingling really!”
Available on the CLIENT album ‘City’ via Toast Hawaii
Of DIE KRUPPS‘ mighty industrialised cover, Ralf Dörper said to The Electricity Club: “When I first heard ‘The Anvil’ (‘Der Amboss’) by VISAGE, I thought ‘what a perfect song for DIE KRUPPS’ – it just needed more sweat, more steel. And it was not before 2005 when DIE KRUPPS were asked to play a few 25-year anniversary shows that I remembered ‘Der Amboss’… and as I was a big CLIENT fan at that time, I thought it would be a good opportunity to ask Fräulein B for assistance in the vocal department”.
To beef up their concert sound, CLIENT expanded to a trio to include bassist Emily Mann aka Client E and became a gritty live act which exuded an electronic body presence that powerfully complimented Blackwood’s stoic stage persona as Client B. Occasionally and fittingly, they would be joined on drums by Robert Görl from esteemed Industrial Godfathers DEUTSCH AMERIKANISCHE FREUNDSCHAFT and together they would end the set with their seminal EBM classic ‘Der Mussolini’.
Originally on the self-released CLIENT album ‘Live In Porto’, currently unavilable
Of Athens-based female duo MARSHEAUX, Blackwood said: “They sort of copied us but it was the biggest form of flattery because they’re such lovely girls! It’s nice to think I’ve inspired something”. So when the two parties toured Germany together in 2008, it was a most appropriate pairing. On their remix of ‘It’s Not Over’, some Hellenic shine was added to the original’s more dystopian demeanour with additional Eurocentric riffage for a slice of electronic pop perfection.
Described as “one of my favourite Northern folk songs” and arranged by Chris Wilkie on acoustic guitar more or less as such, this live solo performance of this NEW ORDER evergreen formed part of a free download series which also included stripped down versions of CLIENT and DUBSTAR songs as well as THE SMITHS ‘Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before’. “I just think a good song will work if you can do it acoustically” Blackwood would later remark.
Originally on the CLIENT B EP ‘Acoustic At The Club Bar & Dining’, currently unavailable
Having previously tackled new wave pop like ‘White Wedding’ and ‘Xerox’, CLIENT took a diversion and covered Curtis Mayfield’s soultastic and groove laden ‘Make Me Believe In You’. Co-produced by one-time KILLING JOKE bassist Martin Glover aka Youth who added a more rhythmic energy, things were danced up with an icy edge coming from his frenetic guitar work. This approach more than suited their fourth album’s “brazenly bossy” title of ‘Command’.
Available on the CLIENT album ‘Command’ via Out Of Line
DUBSTAR I’m In Love With A German Film Star (2010)
Although at the time Blackwood was still in CLIENT, the newly reformed DUBSTAR were invited to submit a cover of their choice as part of a project for Amnesty International Catalunya. While songs by THE ROLLING STONES and the late Kirsty MacColl were considered, the trio settled on this 1981 cult classic made famous by THE PASSIONS. While there was to be an emotional reunion concert in Spring 2013, the DUBSTAR’s reformation as a trio was not to last…
Originally on the compilation album ‘Peace’ (V/A) via Amnesty International, currently unavailable
WILLIAM ORBIT featuring SARAH BLACKWOOD White Night (2010)
While things had become uncertain within the CLIENT camp, Blackwood took time out to work on a Rico Conning penned track for William Orbit’s album ‘My Oracle Lives Uptown’ which dated back to their TORCH SONG days. Although her version did not appear on the final tracklisting, her take was offered as a free download. More accessible than some of CLIENT’s offerings but more purely electronic than DUBSTAR, this was a priceless pop gem which lyrically expressed her pain during that period.
Originally available as a free download, currently unavailable
SOMAN featuring SARAH BLACKWOOD Blue Monday (2010)
No stranger to cover versions, Blackwood was invited to add her suitably forlorn voice to German producer Kolja Trelle’s version of NEW ORDER’s signature tune. The esteemed musical ears of Stephen Hague always felt that Bernard Sumner and Sarah Blackwood would make a perfect duetting partnership but until that happens, covers are what the public has to make do with for now. Now imagine if she had had sung on ‘Tutti Frutti’ instead of Elly Jackson of LA ROUX?
Available on the SOMAN album ‘Noistyle’ via Trisol Music Group
FOTONOVELA featuring SARAH BLACKWOOD Justice (2013)
The concept of FOTONOVELA’s sophomore offering ‘A Ton Of Love’ was to produce a supreme electronic record featuring vocalists from all stages of classic synthpop. Andy McCluskey was the first on board for the project but the resultant song ‘Helen Of Troy’ turned out so well, it ended up on OMD’s ‘English Electric’! Undeterred, the duo recruited Sarah Blackwood. Halifax’s own Queen of electro took FOTONOVELA onto a cloudier but enjoyable hitchhike through the North West of England with the very personal ‘Justice’.
KOISHII & HUSH featuring SARAH BLACKWOOD Rules & Lies (2015)
Keeping herself busy, Blackwood collaborated with progressive house duo KOISHII & HUSH. “Sarah was one of the vocalists we had always wanted to work with. We managed to get in touch with her and decided to meet in London to discuss the idea.” said Alex Hush, “She was quite keen on the project and after that initial meeting, we sent Sarah a rough backing track which she wrote and recorded vocals for. We then did some tweaks and additional production on ‘Rules & Lies’ and are thrilled with the final version”.
Available on the KOSHII & HUSH single ‘Rules & Lies’ via Grammaton Recordings
VILE ELECTRODES featuring SARAH BLACKWOOD Captivity In Symmetry (2016)
The Electricity Club initially described VILE ELECTRODES as “Client B born and raised in the Home Counties fronting Dindisc-era ORCHESTRAL MANOEUVRES IN THE DARK”, so a duet with Anais Neon was perhaps inevitable. Blackwood added a nonchalant almost-spoken vocal to a variation of the gorgeous ‘Twin Peaks’ flavoured ‘Captive In Symmetry’ as part of a bonus CD ‘Not Everything Is As It Seems’ which came with the initial run of their second album ‘In The Shadows Of Monuments’.
RADIO WOLF featuring SARAH BLACKWOOD Rock ‘n’ Roll Forever (2017)
RADIO WOLF is Canadian musician and producer Oliver Blair who remixed ‘It’s Now Over’ and ‘Can You Feel’ under his KINDLE moniker as well as playing guitar on ‘Command’. Now performing with PARALLELS as well as recording in his own right, his debut EP combining electronic music with rock ‘n’ roll featured a stellar cast of female vocalists including his bandmate Holly Dodson, Marika Gauci from his previous combo HOTEL MOTEL, Kelli Ali ex-SNEAKER PIMPS and on the title song, Sarah Blackwood.
Just when it looked like that was it over for DUBSTAR, Sarah Blackwood and Chris Wilkie snatched victory from the jaws of defeat with ‘One’. While Wilkie took on prime songwriting duties, the classic bittersweet aura remained, albeit within a more organic setting. Produced by Youth, the most electronic number on ‘One’ was the gorgeous ‘Locked Inside’ with elements of KRAFTWERK creeping in and even TEARS FOR FEARS while Blackwood poignantly reflected on how “my hands are tied”.
Available on the DUBSTAR album ‘One’ via Northern Writes
2018 saw JEAN-MICHEL JARRE celebrate 50 years in the business and whether the world really needed another of his compilations, ‘Planet Jarre’ was probably one of the better collected representations of his work for casual admirers.
But not standing still and releasing his fourth new album in three years, ‘Equinoxe Infinity’ continued the story as the French Maestro tuned 70.
SOFT CELL made a totally unexpected return for a huge one-off farewell gig at London’s O2 Arena; and with it came a boxed set, the ‘Northern Lights’ single and other new recordings which have raised hopes for a new album.
From the same era, FIAT LUX announced plans for their debut album ‘Save Symmetry’ with an excellent lead track ‘It’s You’, while B-MOVIE came up with their most synth-propelled single yet in ‘Stalingrad’.
But one act who actually did comeback with a brand new album in 2018 were DUBSTAR; now a duo of Sarah Blackwood and Chris Wilkie, as ‘One’ they reminded audiences as to why they were the acceptable face of Britpop with their bridge to Synth Britannia.
IONNALEE finally released her debut opus ‘Everyone Afraid To Be Forgotten’ and her tour which included choice cuts from IAMAMIWHOAMI, proved to be one of the best value-for-money live experiences in 2018, one that was even endorsed by Welsh songstress Charlotte Church.
CHVRCHES offered up their third album ‘Love Is Dead’ and continued their role as international flagwavers for quality synthpop, while EMIKA presented her best album yet in ‘Falling In Love With Sadness’, an exquisite electronic record with a Bohemian aura.
JOHN GRANT was on an artistic roll both solo and in partnership with WRANGLER as CREEP SHOW with two new albums. However, he was beaten by Neil Arthur who managed three albums over a 12 month period as NEAR FUTURE and BLANCMANGE including ‘Wanderlust’, possibly the latter’s best body of work in its 21st Century incarnation.
It was a busy year for STEVE JANSEN with a new solo ambient work ‘Corridor’, the well-received vinyl reissue of JAPAN’s two Virgin-era studio albums and his epic, more organically flavoured band project EXIT NORTH with their debut long player ‘Book Of Romance & Dust’.
SARAH NIXEY went on some ‘Night Walks’ for her best solo album yet, a wonderful collection of everything she had ever been musically all wonderfully rolled into one.
Meanwhile TRACEY THORN went back to the ‘Dancefloor’ with her ‘Record’ which content wise was right up there with some of ALISON MOYET’s electronica output from the last five years.
Hungary’s BLACK NAIL CABARET offered some noirish ‘Pseudopop’ and promising Norwich youngsters LET’S EAT GRANDMA got more deeply into electronica without losing any of their angsty teenage exuberance on their second album ‘I’m All Ears’.
Less intense and more dreamy were GLASSHOUSE, the new duo fronted by former TECHNIQUE singer Xan Tyler.
While the new HEAVEN 17 album ‘Not For Public Broadcast’ is still to be finished, Glenn Gregory teamed by with live keyboardist Berenice Scott as AFTERHERE. Their long-time friend Claudia Brücken performed as xPROPAGANDA with Susanne Freytag and partnered up with one-time TANGERINE DREAM member Jerome Froese, releasing the ‘Beginn’ album in the process.
Highly appealing were a number of quirky Japanese influenced female artists from around the globe including COMPUTER MAGIC, MECHA MAIKO and PLASMIC. But there were also a number of acts with Far Eastern heritage like STOLEN, FIFI RONG, DISQO VOLANTE and SHOOK who continued to make a worthy impression with their recorded output in 2018.
Heavy synth rock duo NIGHT CLUB presented their ‘Scary World’ on the back of tours opening for COMBICHRIST and A PERFECT CIRCLE while also from across the pond, NYXX and SINOSA both showcased their alluring potential.
At the poppier end of the spectrum, Holger Wobker used Pledge Music to relaunch BOYTRONIC with their most recent vocal incumbent James Knights in an unexpected twist to once again prove the old adage to “never say never” as far as the music industry is concerned.
Meanwhile, Chris Payne co-wrote and co-produced the excellent ‘Walking In West Berlin’ EP with KATJA VON KASSEL while also revealing plans for an autobiography and opening for his old boss…
The surprise album of the year was CHRIS CARTER with his ‘Chemistry Lessons Volume One’ while using a not dissimilar concept with their second album ‘Hello Science’, REED & CAROLINE took their folk laden synthpop out on a US tour opening for ERASURE.
STEVEN JONES & LOGAN SKY harked back to the days when GARY NUMAN and OMD would release two albums in one year by offering ‘Hans Und Lieselotte’ and ‘The Electric Eye’ in 2016. Those veteran acts themselves celebrated their 40th anniversaries by going orchestral, something which SIMPLE MINDS also did when they opted to re-record ‘Alive & Kicking’ for the ’80s Symphonic’ collection although Jim Kerr forgot how a third of the song went!
With SIMPLE MINDS also performing a horrible and barely recognisable ‘Promised You A Miracle’ during BBC’s ‘The Biggest Weekend’, making up for the live joke that his former band have become was one-time bassist Derek Forbes with the album ‘Broken Hearted City’ as ZANTi with Anni Hogan of MARC & THE MAMBAS fame. Other former members of high-profile bands were busy too with Ian Burden, formally of THE HUMAN LEAGUE returning with the Floydian ‘Hey Hey Ho Hum’ while A FLOCK OF SEAGULLS reformed briefly for an orchestral re-run of their catalogue.
With the release of their second album ‘Kinetik’, EKKOES handed over THE HUMAN LEAGUE support baton to SHELTER who came up with their best body of work yet in the more introspective shades of ‘Soar’
That darker approach manifested itself on singer Mark Bebb’s side project FORM with Keith Trigwell of SPEAK & SPELL whose debut long player ‘defiance + entropy’ also came out in 2018.
There was a good showing from UK acts in 2018 with RODNEY CROMWELL, ANI GLASS, THE FRIXION, NEW ARCADES, OLLIE WRIDE and FAKE TEAK all issuing some excellent synth tinged songs for public consumption. However, the side was let down by the conveyor belt of lame profanity laden offerings from a number of British acts afflicted with deluded normality.
NINA’s long awaited debut album ‘Sleepwalking’ was a fine hybrid of synthpop and the currently fashionable Synthwave aesthetic; her live double billing with Canadian synthpopsters PARALLELS was one of the hottest tickets of the year. The sub-genre was indeed making waves and there were some very enjoyable artists coming out of it like GUNSHIP, DANA JEAN PHOENIX and MICHAEL OAKLEY.
However, the endless AOR excesses, moonlight sax breaks and highly unimaginative band monikers using numbers between 80 to 89 affixed to an archaic technology reference, illustrated by yet another neon sunset, VCR grid and Lamborghini, were becoming tiresome.
As Synthwave cynics, The Electricity Club’s touch paper was being lit big time! The whole point of the synthesizer’s role during the Second British Invasion of the US was to fight against the insipid overtures of AOR like TOTO, CHICAGO and JOURNEY, NOT to make music coated with its horrid stench as THE MIDNIGHT did in 2018 with their long player ‘Kids’.
But there was naivety within some quarters too; electronic music did not begin in 2011 with ‘Drive’, an above average film with a good if slightly over rated soundtrack. However, its cultural influence has led to a plethora of meandering tracks made by gamer boys which sounded like someone had forgotten to sing on them; perhaps they should have gone back to 1978 and listened to GIORGIO MORODER’s ‘Midnight Express Theme’ to find out how this type of instrumental music should be done?
Many of the newer artists influenced by Synth Britannia that The Electricity Club has featured have sometimes been accused of being stuck in the past, but a fair number of Synthwave acts were really taking the soggy biscuit with their retro-obsession.
Rock band MUSE’s use of glowing artwork by Kyle Lambert of ‘Stranger Things’ fame on their eighth album ‘Simulation Theory’ sent sections of the Synthwave community into meltdown. There were cries that they had “stolen the aesthetics and concept” and how “it’s not relevant to their sound”! But WHAM! had Peter Saville designed sleeves and never sounded like NEW ORDER or OMD, while electropop diva LA ROUX used a visual stylisation for ‘In For The Kill’ that has since been claimed by Synthwavers as their own, despite it being from 2009 when Ryan Gosling was peddling graveyard indie rock in DEAD MAN’S BONES 😉
This was one of the bigger ironies of 2018, especially as MUSE have always used synths! One of Matt Bellamy and co’s biggest musical inspirations is ULTRAVOX, indicating the trio probably have a better understanding of the fusion between the synthesizer, rock and classical music, as proven by the ‘Simulation Theory’ bookends ‘Algorithm’ and ‘The Void’, than any static laptop exponent with a Jan Hammer fixation.
It is interesting to note today how electronic music has split into so many factions, but there’s still the assumed generalisation that it is all one thing and that synthpop fans must also like Synthwave, Deep House, EDM, Industrial and those tedious beach chill-out remixes.
Back in the day and even now, some fans of THE HUMAN LEAGUE didn’t like OMD, DEPECHE MODE fans only liked DEPECHE MODE and rock fans had a token favourite electronic band. Out of all the synth based pop acts of the Synth Britannia era, The Electricity Club had very little time for THOMPSON TWINS despite their huge international success, but their leader Tom Bailey’s 2018 solo recorded return ‘Science Fiction’ was warmly received by many.
Just as COLDPLAY and SNOW PATROL fans don’t all embrace ELBOW, it is ok to have preferences and to say so. Not liking the music of an artist does not make you a bad person, but liking everything does not make you a better person either… in fact, it shows you probably have no discerning taste! In 2002, SOFT CELL warned of a ‘Monoculture’, and if there is no taste differentiation in art and music, it will spell the end of cultural enhancement.
Now onto album number three and without original musical partner Tomas Greenhalf, Ryan James continues to hone and develop his hybrid mix of luxuriant synthetics and subtle guitar textures as MAN WITHOUT COUNTRY.
Already preceded by three singles ‘Remember the Bad Things’, ‘Lafayette’ and ‘Achilles Heel’, ‘Infinity Mirror’ features another nine tracks and doesn’t deviate too far from the template that James has developed so far on previous longer form releases ‘King Complex’, ‘Foe’ and ‘Maximum Entropy’.
The album feels more electronic and slightly more contemporary because in the main, it lacks the presence of the breakbeat style drums that were a signature feature on earlier material such as ‘Puppets’.
Album opener ‘Preface’ features a combo of highly processed glitched vocal effects and the kind of ethereal guitar that THE XX used to do so well. ‘Lion Mind’ combines a shuffling drum loop reminiscent of DUBSTAR’s classic ‘Stars’ and some quirky high pitched synth lines. For those already familiar with MAN WITHOUT COUNTRY lyrics, much of the narrative here comes across as ultra-personal with the main hooks “running from the rest of my life” and “my lion mind has disappeared” displaying an open insecurity.
‘Remember The Bad Things’ has a synth hook in the style of THE BELOVED style (MAN WITHOUT COUNTRY have previously covered ‘Sweet Harmony’) melded to a chord progression inspired by THE CURE. Despite the title, there is something curiously life-affirming about ‘Remember The Bad Things’ and the sampled guitar power-chords drive the song to an epic conclusion.
‘Beta Blocker’ is arguably the biggest deviation in sound on ‘Infinity Mirror’, with a huge ‘Dr. Mabuse’ synth bass sound and ZTT-style production (replete with Fairlight Orchestra samples). Rippling filtered synth arpeggios which echo the omnipresent ‘Stranger Things’ theme bring the song to its conclusion.
‘Lafayette’ remains an utterly gorgeous track, listening to it is akin to relaxing in an electronic bubblebath; 808 percussion and beautifully understated guitar subtly underpin the track which is easily the stand-out on ‘Infinity Mirror’. Titled after the forename of L Ron Hubbard (science fiction / fantasy author and latterly Scientology leader), the lyrics are peppered with subtle references to the cult of Dianetics and ends with the cryptic hook “wrap me up inside your blackout curtain”. Don’t be surprised if ‘Lafayette’ ends up in The Electricity Club’s end of year best of…..
‘Skeletons’ is a waltzing piece, with backwards drum-loops and 8 bit Nintendo synth sound, whilst ‘Achilles’ Heel’ takes the album in a 4/4 direction with a welcome resuscitation of the classic Korg M1 house piano and organ bass sounds. Also worthy of mention is the brilliant vocodered synth vocal solo at the end, probably the best of its kind since the one featured on MYLO’s ‘Drop The Pressure’.
‘Infinity Mirror’ ends with the almost ambient title track; epic sweeping synth pads and echoed vocal textures slow the pulse down and take the listener into a dream-like state before the song builds to a crescendo and quickly descends into a sudden cacophony of noise.
Criticisms? There is but one, the auto-tuned over-processed vocal effects can get a bit wearing as they are present on all of the songs, but they do suit the lush synthetic aesthetic here and the attention to detail with their production is nonetheless technically brilliant.
The fact that ‘Infinity Mirror’ is primarily the work of just one musician is incredible, there is SO much craft and melody on show here you will struggle to hear a better electronic album this year – this is absolutely outstanding.