Neil Arthur and Jez Bernholz are NEAR FUTURE, a project featuring the BLANCMANGE front man and the Brighton based artist who also co-founded the Anti Ghost Moon Ray art collective that spawned GAZELLE TWIN , ROSEMARY LOVES A BLACKBERRY and ANNEKA.
Their debut album ‘Ideal Home’ has been several years in the making, constructed through the modern medium of remote collaboration, although the pair have shared a stage on numerous occasions, notably on BLANCMANGE’s Semi Detached’ tour.
With both Arthur and Bernholz being vocalists as well as musicians, the pair experiment with voice-derived textures in NEAR FUTURE perhaps more than with their other work. Opening with the delightfully sombre ‘Ideal Home’ title track, it is a fractured number which takes a detached dual vocal into Eno-produced TALKING HEADS territory with a gently tribal rhythmic feel and asks “should I be full of regret?”
Meanwhile, ‘Field This’ is centred around a hypnotic bass mantra and a bleeping backbone surrounded by an impressionistic fourth world choir, as Arthur points to a period “pre-Madonna” while surreal lyrics recall “I remember when you were freshly peeled” before asking to “try semaphore”.
‘Overwhelmed’ captures shrill strings cocooned in an aural cavern with a claustrophobic Neil Arthur lead vocal that while recognisable, is quite different from anything by BLANCMANGE. The appropriately titled ‘Thought Terminating In Your Night’ sees Arthur’s voice raw and exposed before an eerie metronomic backdrop builds around him. The instrumental ‘Come And Play’ adopts a quite menacing atmosphere of synthetic chorals.
Based around a repetitive synth line, the spoken word art piece ‘Dawn’ features a skewed Bernholz reciting images of “coffee headaches” over sustained guitar sweeps and a building percussive rumble alongside uneasy thoughts of “teeth that felt like glassware”. But there’s the most amazing and chilling lead shimmer on ‘Gap In The Curtain’; driven by a primitive drum box, it comes over slightly like a contemplative OMD reimagining ‘Sad Day’… yes “you couldn’t make it up”.
Another spoken-word piece ‘Kites Over Waitrose’ is almost poetry over electronic backing with some exotic acoustic sounding Oriental textures where Arthur talks of the “scattering masses”, before closing with the sub-drone drama of ‘Bulk Erase’. Laced with a melancholic droll where “so much needs fixing but so little time”, Arthur takes the Eno-esque atmosphere into his own green world for “one thing at a time”, with the closing synthesized heartbeat echoing ULTRAVOX’s ‘Just For A Moment’.
‘Ideal Home’ is a fine debut record from NEAR FUTURE, and it’s one that sits well next to Neil Arthur’s BLANCMANGE and FADER as well as Jez Bernholz’s own brand of eccentric pop. It’s an extremely prolific period for Neil Arthur and with another BLANCMANGE album ‘Wanderlust’ on the way in the Autumn, there will be even more escapist expressionism to come.
Swelling in sonic density, NEAR FUTURE’s ten-track debut album ‘Ideal Home’ is an enjoyable experimental collection of songs and soundscapes.
From the art pop of the album’s title track and the serene ‘Gap In The Curtain’, to spoken word set pieces like ‘Dawn’, all blended in with assorted field recordings and neo-instrumentals, the album showcases the music combination of Neil Arthur and Jez Bernholz.
Arthur is best known as the front man of BLANCMANGE, while Bernholz will be remembered by some as the opening act on 2015’s ‘Semi Detached’ tour, having issued his first long player ‘How Things Are Made’ the year via the Anti Ghost Moon Ray art collective he co-founded with GAZELLE TWIN.
Having been involved in five albums since 2015, Neil Arthur is probably at the most prolific stage of his career. As well as juggling BLANCMANGE, there has also been FADER with Benge, resulting in the ‘Ideal Home’ album being several years in the making.
NEAR FUTURE kindly took time out to chat about their first full length fruit of labour and described how their partnership has allowed each of them to think outside of their regular artistic boxes to produce a quite unusual but accessible body of work.
Photo by GMB18
How would you each describe NEAR FUTURE compared with other projects you’ve been involved in?
Neil: Freeform. Good to share the work load. Half the pain, twice the gain!
Jez: Definitely. It’s been freeing as well, from a songwriting perspective. A lot less pressure than I put on myself as a solo artist.
You’ve shared live bills together but how was the bones of this album constructed? Has it been a lot of remote work?
Jez: I felt that it evolved from the email exchanges and anything goes approach, to when we prepared for our first live performance at Sensoria. Those rehearsals cemented everything for me, it gave the songs more structure and coherence.
Neil: Mainly by remote, with other parts on our meetings. The Sensoria cementing experience, followed by a trip to the home of gravity.
Being musicians of different generations, where did you find your common ground in influences and motivations?
Neil: No boundaries, anything goes. Discussions on lack of sleep and emergency repairs. Mundane everyday tasks, often became the detail of our focus I think.
Jez: The lyrics for me, ending the poetry in the everyday. We exchanged music by others and I discovered something new. I felt that subliminally we were both thinking of Michelson, NEU! and HARMONIA, but we never explicitly talked of other artists, it seemed to just gel naturally. Maybe I shouldn’t think too hard for fear of breaking the magic!
Photo by Richard Price
With you both being vocalists as well as musicians, how did you decide who would sing lead on particular tracks?
Neil: I think we only once discussed who would do the vocals on one song, ‘Dawn’.
We’d send ideas to each other, eventually it’d be time for a voice and somehow one appeared. A bit like choosing another synth sound really, oh yes, except there’s the words too.
Jez: My own view originally was that whoever wrote the music, the other person would eventually add a vocal to it. It didn’t quite end up that way but it definitely started in that way. I actually remember the track ‘Ideal Home’ coming more musically from Neil as a starting point and I finished it with the lyrics and vocals. ‘Overwhelmed’ came more from an inspired Neil vocal in response to some music that I had written. But in the end, it was just going instinctively with what felt right and trying out different things.
As a result of that, there appears to be a lot more experimentation in NEAR FUTURE with vocal texturing and processing?
Jez: Without any pressures with this project, I was definitely a chance to take that process further. I enjoyed the idea of Neil’s voice being so familiar to so many people and perhaps producing it in a way that would be totally unexpected, like on the track ’Thought Terminating’ where, as Neil says, it definitely fits with the music and the lyrics.
Neil: It seemed to fit not only the music and field recordings, but also the lyrics on some tracks.
The album’s title track ‘Ideal Home’ was also the first single, what do you remember of its genesis?
Neil: Jez started this idea off and wrote the lyrics. I chopped stuff up and moved the arrangement around a bit to fit the sounds added. Oh hold on… scrap that, it must have been another song. I’ll have to look through my hard drive, to find the origins of this. No doubt the title would have been changed knowing me.
Jez: I remember it completely the other way around! This was the first project that we did together and Neil had the basis track written and I did chop it up a lot and added the vocals and lyrics. Neil responded by adding his vocal and some other synth parts.
Neil: I found it. Of course, Jez is correct, I started it off and it was called ‘Pallet’ and stuck in my BLANCMANGE hard drive.
Photo by Richard Price
There’s a tribal rhythmic feel on a number of tracks?
Neil: As Jez mentions, it just felt right. Sometimes as you listen through to the song or parts that make up the track, you start to hear other stuff, that isn’t physically recorded, but is suggested by the interplay of what has been printed.
Jez: I think it just felt right, particularly on ‘Dawn’, like an angry pagan army coming over the hills with the sunrise behind them, some kind of reckoning; it somehow seemed appropriate.
You got a most amazing and chilling lead shimmer on ‘Gap In The Curtain’?
Jez: It’s a very, very heavily stacked combination of sounds from a PSS-170, about 40 different layered guitars, sax and a synth made from vocals and it just keeps building. Lots of reverb too. It really turned out nicely and it’s one of those elements that keeps the track unique to us, I don’t think it would be easily replicated.
‘Kites Over Waitrose’ is a great title and almost poetry over electronic backing, what inspired that?
Neil: Pincer movement panic buying! Jez sent some music over and we weren’t sure if it would be best left as an instrumental as I thought it worked without words. A while later, rifling through notes, I had these words and tried it out with the music, and our field recordings.
Jez: I love Neil’s lyrics for this. Again, I think he just captures the poetic mundanity of these otherwise forgettable moments. The title really does capture the duality of that.
Another spoken-word piece is ‘Dawn’…
Neil: I couldn’t sleep, so went to do some writing and heard this amazing early dawn chorus, that I recorded on the phone.
When I listened back to it, there in the background was this mechanical throbbing rhythm. I enhanced that with synths, then Jez took over and came back with these wonderful words. Last, we added the feedback sounds.
Jez: I’d had some words for a while which I could never really make fit without them sounding rushed.
When I saw Neil’s working title ‘Dawn’ for the music, it made me think about how my life had changed since the birth of my son, and I revisited those words with more clarity about what they meant, added more to them referring not only the past, but also the near future. The pace of the music gave me the impetus to speak slowly, and they worked nicely.
‘Field This’ has a quite mechanical backbone, is the “prima-donna” referring to anyone in particular and where is this “car park” that was?
Neil: Ha ha! Yes well, last thing first, the car park was in Leeds and first thing last, the story line is set in the time before Madonna. So it’s pre-Madonna. Not though, pre-Maradonna!
The neo-instrumental ‘Come & Play’ has a quite claustrophobic atmosphere?
Jez: It is definitely about that, like being allured to stay somewhere that’s maybe not quite right, there’s something sinister underneath it all.
Is NEAR FUTURE likely to hit the road alongside your other commitments?
Neil: No doubt.
The Electricity Club gives its grateful thanks to NEAR FUTURE
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 😉
It was a year when the veterans re-established their standing within electronic pop.
That was not to that comparatively newer acts weren’t making a good impression, it was just that a fair number of established acts gave their all and were producing some of their best work since their imperial heyday.
Great tracks by SPARKS, OUTERNATIONALE, SPACEPRODIGI, iEUROPEAN, PARALLELS, KITE, FEVER RAY, SOL FLARE, SOFTWAVE, KNIGHT$, 2RAUMWHONUNG, JORI HULKKONEN, FIFI RONG and KITE BASE made it onto the shortlist, but despite their quality, they did not make the final listing.
Also not included are songs from ‘Welcome To The Dancefloor’, the debut album from RUSTY EGAN; although gaining a physical release this year, it was reviewed by The Electricity Club in the Autumn of last year when download versions of the long player were distributed to those who had purchased it in advance via Pledge Music. Meanwhile, its closing track ‘Thank You’ was included in The Electricity Club’s 30 Songs Of 2016.
So restricted to purchasable releases only and one song per artist moniker, here are The Electricity Club’s 30 Songs Of 2017 in alphabetical order…
AESTHETIC PERFECTION Rhythm + Control – Electro Mix
Additionally featuring NYXX and WILLIAM CONTROL on vocals, ‘Rhythm + Control’ saw Daniel Graves take AESTHETIC PERFECTION’s industrial pop to the next level via his new singles only policy. The magnificent Electro Mix successfully realised this oddball blend of Darren Hayes, Britney Spears and Marilyn Manson. With a mightily elastic bassline, when asked whether The Electricity Club had gone crazy coming up with the comparison, Daniel Graves replied “God no. Spot on, guys!”
From only the third solo album in the long career of Richard Barbieri, ‘Solar Sea’ was a sleazy rhythmic excursion into another world. With the one-time JAPAN sound designer using a Roland System 700 for its bassline, the track’s atonal jazz feel was augmented by the haunting voice manipulations of Lisen Rylander Löve through a vintage Soviet submarine microphone and warping noises offset by soothing brass inflections and live drums.
The American electronic rock quartet BATTLE TAPES continued to develop from their 2015 debut album ‘Polygon’ via their ‘Form’ EP. The best track ‘Control’ hinged around a syncopated filtered synth bass and a brilliantly catchy chorus sung by Josh Boardman, with enough guitars for power and texture without distracting from the overall electronic aesthetic, and even coming over like a heavier Stateside version of SIN COS TAN.
“International in flavour, cosmopolitan in style” and sounding like a long lunch followed by a round of cocktails, Australian duo CLIENT LIAISON roped in one-time TV talent show star Tina Arena to duet on a lush slice of romantic pop that also rode on the current fashion for Synthwave. ‘A Foreign Affair’ could have easily been a Rat Pack movie song.
CULT WITH NO NAME All I Have Is Yours (Including You)
CULT WITH NO NAME have never been short of mood, but their eighth album ‘Heir Of The Dog’ proved to be their best yet, combining a variety of tempos and textures. With a memorable crooning vocal from Erik Stein complimented by an enticing harmony from Sirena Riley and lush electronic backing sounding like OMD by the Aegean Sea, ‘All I Have Is Yours (Including You)’ was a song that rose forever and ever like one of Aphrodite’s grandchildren.
Johan Baeckström made positive waves with his debut solo album ‘Like Before’ in 2015 but reunited with his musical partner Jarmo Ollila, producing an excellent third album with more tempo variation than their 2014 offering ‘Two’. Featuring the guest vocals of Mac Austin from cult synth trio WHITE DOOR who were one of the inspirations for DAILY PLANET, ‘Heaven Opened’ was an uncomplicated but wonderfully poignant slice of classic synthpop.
ELECTRONIC CIRCUS is the musical vehicle of Chris Payne, the one-time Numan band member who also co-wrote ‘Fade To Grey’. With a symphonic theme bursting with melody and musicality like ULTRAVOX galloping across the plains of Normandy, the brilliant neo-instrumental ’The Trapeze’ was given a wondrous tone of humanistic unity when Payne’s wife and daughter joined in on the final straight in Latin.
FADER are the synth superduo featuring BLANCMANGE’s Neil Arthur and Benge; ‘3D Carpets’ captured an independent post-punk intensity, like JOY DIVISION or THE CURE but realised with analogue electronics rather than guitars. While the pair worked on their parts separately, their creative dynamic produced a great debut album in ‘First Light’.
From the Welsh synth songstress’ first EP, the fabulous ‘Geiriau’ was a driving sequential drama that had more than a passing resemblance to the first part of SPARKS’ ‘No1 Song In Heaven’. Revolving around ANI GLASS’ experience of flying the nest and returning years later to reconnect with her Welsh and Cornish heritage, it was a spacey and futuristic soundtrack for a wonderfully uplifting homecoming.
‘Volupsa’, the promising Nordic flavoured debut album from THE GOLDEN FILTER came out in 2010, but the Aussie American duo of vocalist Penelope Trappes and synth programmer Stephen Hindman took their time with the follow-up ‘Still//Alone’, having relocated to London after spending several years based in New York. The hypnotic pulse of ‘Rivers’ with its precise drum machine pointed to a female fronted OMD, complete with a catchy riff and synthy jabbing bassline.
The immensely catchy ‘Systemagic’ was a prize electronic gem from the seventh GOLDFRAPP album ‘Silver Eye’, reminiscent of the lusty and beat laden electronic material from ‘Black Cherry’. But its riff asked the question as to whether you will always find Alison Goldfrapp in the kitchen at parties? In the event of Jona Lewie filing a lawsuit, the lucrative income from the song’s use in a BMW advert may ease any potential net payout.
After three acclaimed albums as IAMAMIWHOAMI with producer Claes Björklund, Jonna Lee went solo in 2017 although it was actually difficult to hear the join on the glorious ‘Not Human’, so seamless was the transition; there were still the icy electronic soundscapes, spacey dance beats and uplifting Scandipop vocals while the delightfully odd visuals were all present and correct.
Available on the download single ‘Not Human’ via To Whom It May Concern
I SPEAK MACHINE is the audio / visual collaboration between musician Tara Busch and filmmaker Maf Lewis. Soundtracking their film ‘Zombies 1985’, the story was one of greed and self-obsession in Thatcher’s Britain as a businessman drives home, oblivious to the zombie apocalypse going on around him. Co-written and co-produced with Benge, the brilliant ‘Shame’ with its cascading synths and noise percussion was a wonderful hybrid of THROBBING GRISTLE, THE HUMAN LEAGUE and GOLDFRAPP.
After a number of years gigging around London, KATJA VON KASSEL finally unleashed released her electro Weimer Cabaret to the world. The pulsating ‘In Little Rooms (Show Me Love)’ captured an aesthetic which closely resembled that of RONNY, a former protégé of Rusty Egan. Attached to Alex Gray’s intricate filmic electronics, Fraulein von Kassel’s deep vocal detachment was art cool sexy.
James Murphy returned as LCD SOUNDSYSTEM after seven years with this widescreen musical statement reflecting on the political situation in the US. Glancing across the Atlantic and back to the Winter Of Discontent, this 3/4 synth laden tune that had more than a passing resemblance to THE HUMAN LEAGUE’s ‘Circus Of Death’. So did “The Clown” referred to in that song remind Murphy of someone in particular?
Having started out in a more rave inclined environment, Lizette Nordahl ventured into more synthy climes and her debut mini-album had the air of KITE is all over it, which was not entirely surprising as its co-producers were Nicklas Stenemo and Christian Berg from the acclaimed duo. ‘Rest’ with its swirling synth sounds and widescreen Nordic atmosphere had an optimistic air of acceptance despite the melancholic tone and majestic growls.
Led by British born musician Dylan Willoughby, LOST IN STARS is a floating ensemble which also includes Elena Charbila aka KID MOXIE and producer/songwriter Darren Burgos. The latter takes the lead vocal on the spirited electronic pop of ‘Sky’; now if NEW ORDER were from Los Angeles instead of Manchester, they would have sounded like this.
After releasing her first solo album ‘Crystal World’ in 2013, Helen Marnie added more prominent choruses and guitar onto her second, resulting in a catchy Scandipop style. ‘Bloom’ was an optimistic burst of synth laden pleasure and while not totally dissimilar to LADYTRON, it was without their usual hardness or gothic gloom.
Having worked successfully in 2013 with Guy Sigsworth on ‘the minutes’, an acclaimed album which saw ALISON MOYET return to the synthesized music forms to compliment her powerful and self-assured voice, the follow-up ‘Other’ was a natural progression. The startling orchestrated electro-dub drama of ‘Alive’ gave Moyet’s two former classmates in DEPECHE MODE a stark lesson in how to actually fully realise electronic blues. Indeed, it was ‘In Chains’, the lame opener from ‘Sounds Of The Universe’ gone right…
With the narrative of ‘Savage’ provoked by Donald Trump’s withdrawal of the United States of America from the Paris Climate Accord, the mighty apocalyptic rock of ‘When The World Comes Apart’ was something of a revelation for GARY NUMAN. Using synths as the dominant instrument and having guitars less obviously prominent in the mix, with its richly anthemic chorus, this was the magnificent crossover song that both old and new Numanoids had been waiting for.
MICHAEL OAKLEY is a talented Glaswegian who describes his music as “Melancholic postcards from my heart wrapped up in synthesisers and drum machines”. The melodic ‘Rabbit In The Headlights’ came complete with Italo “woah-oh” chants and whether it was Synthwave, synthpop, electropop, Italo or whatever, it showcased Oakley’s fine songwriting abilities, regardless of genre.
The excellent ‘One More Time’ was a classic bittersweet OMD stomper, where “everything you gave me didn’t last”. Using electronic percussion as opposed to drum machines, the enticing verse and uplifting bridge were set to a plethora of gorgeous textures and distorted synth to add a touch of enigmatic weirdness. While Andy McCluskey cried “you can break my heart just one more time”, the track’s star was Paul Humphreys with his crystalline synth sounds laced with some portamento bounce.
As well as keyboards and violin, HANNAH PEEL can also play the trombone. Featuring an array of analogue synthesizers and a 29-piece colliery brass band, ‘Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia’ was her instrumental story about a fictional elderly musical stargazer. Beginning with the lift-off of ‘Goodbye Earth’, Miss Peel’s electronic arpeggios and synthetic noise built up to a crescendo of brass and timpani for a quite unusual combination of two very different musical worlds.
From the ashes of ANALOG ANGEL came forth RAINLAND. Their self-titled calling card was a vibrant synthpop statement, embroiled in a musicality that provided a journey through the Grampian Mountains. Ian Ferguson had already proved himself a worthy vocalist in his previous combo with dulcet tones not dissimilar to a certain Midge Ure and this was allowed to reign free on ‘Rainland’. Meanwhile, the ivories of Derek MacDonald stylistically aped the symphonic overtones of ULTRAVOX’s Billy Currie.
Between 1980 to 1984, RHEINGOLD were at the forefront of Die Neue Deutsche Welle, releasing three albums and achieving their first domestic hit ‘3klangsdimensionen’ in 1981. Led by Bodo Staiger, ‘Im Lauf Der Zeit’ was their first album of new material for many years. The melodic synth of ‘Paradieshafen’ drove along a beautiful instrumental that came over like a dream collaboration between OMD and Michael Rother.
With hypnotising hints of Kate Bush and percolating Ryuichi Sakamoto style textures, ‘Who Am I’ by electropop goddess SARAH P. was an ode to “humanity, the world we live in and our importance (or unimportance) as individuals and/or as a whole”. And as the Greek-born songstress announced that “I don’t know where I come from… do you know my name?”, a metronomic beat kicked in to lead a dramatic house-laden climax.
Available on the album ‘Who Am I’ via EraseRestart Records
The normally flamboyant Welsh duo SHELTER surprised all with their darkest and most accomplished song yet in ‘Karma’. “What you want is what you’ll get…” sang Mark Bebb, “…you will get a lot more that you planned”. A vibrant but edgy production from Rob Bradley complimented the sentiment as the message was relayed loud and clear…
Available on the single ‘Karma’ via Ministry Of Pop
From ‘From Deewee’, the first new SOULWAX album since 2004’s ‘Any Minute Now’, ‘Conditions Of A Shared Belief’ was a modular synth lover’s wet dream from the Dewaele brothers. With a retro-futuristic collage of detuned blippy sounds and a backbone of smashing white noise percussion recalling THE HUMAN LEAGUE in their Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh phase, it was complimented by some suitably abstractly pitched TALKING HEADS inspired vocals.
TINY MAGNETIC PETS had their best year yet with a UK tour opening for OMD and to accompany it was their second album ‘Deluxe/Debris’. Featuring Wolfgang Flür, the album’s best song ‘Never Alone’ sounded appropriately like SAINT ETIENNE fronting KRAFTWERK. Paula Gilmer has one of the best voices in modern synthpop and her alluring tone no doubt added to the song’s breezy dreamlike state.
The adventurous third VANBOT album ‘Siberia’ was composed and recorded during a 17 day journey on the Trans-Siberian railway. The crystalline ‘Collide (Krasnoyarsk)’ though captured a more Nordic vibe with its gorgeous melodies, while the surrounding rhythmic pace of a train ride made its presence felt. An aural exploration of the relationship between time, location and emotion, ‘Siberia’ was a bold musical experiment.
September 2017 sees the arrival of the eighth BLANCMANGE long player ‘Unfurnished Rooms’; co-produced by Benge and featuring contributions from renowned guitarist David Rhodes and the towering figure of John Grant, ‘Unfurnished Rooms’ is loosely based around the theme of feeling of being lost in a dream. As Arthur sings on the title track “no amount of online shopping will cover for the loss”.
Neil Arthur kindly spoke to The Electricity Club about ‘Unfurnished Rooms’, working with John Grant and his thoughts on the new LCD SOUNDSYSTEM album…
The ‘Unfurnished Rooms’ title song is a great opener, is that a metaphor for this world of joyless hedonism that society appears to be living in?
You know what I’m like, I prefer there to be less explanation as to what the lyrics may allude to, so that it leaves ambiguity. It would be like if I was a film maker, before you sat down and watched it, I told you what happened at the end! *laughs*
I like people to make their own minds up and obviously, we are all able to observe what’s happening around us, but some of the stuff that goes on in your head, only you know about and it can take you a long time to fathom that out! So it’s not just a metaphor, the idea of unfurnished rooms can mean unfinished work or a journey as well.
I noticed there are what appear to be Linn LM1 drum sounds on ‘Unfurnished Rooms’, how do you go about constructing a track these days?
This album, I worked on a laptop… I write on guitar or synths and put everything onto either Logic or Ableton, it was sort of half and half.
I used a variety of VSTs and a few old synths to make my noises and plus some guitar.
I was fortunate enough to work with Benge over the last couple of years including the FADER album and we thought it would be a really good idea for Benge to replace the VST sounds on the drum parts and rhythm sections with the real thing or analogue synth sounds. Benge has got the real equipment and not only is he a fantastic programmer, engineer and producer, but he’s also a good drummer… he played it all in so there’s a bit of movement there too. But there’s still VSTs on there and my guitar as well as David Rhodes, who’s done much better guitar than I can manage.
So where does FADER end and BLANCMANGE begin, what are the rules of engagement?
They are very different beasts despite both of us being involved. For example, the FADER album ‘First Light’ started with Benge sending me backing tracks and I responded by adding vocals and a few melody lines; after a few exchanges, we then got together in the studio to mix it.
With BLANCMANGE, I write the music and record most of the parts. But in this case, I took the album to Benge and we took it apart to replace the VST rhythms with the real deal and mixed it, so there’s a fundamental difference.
‘Anna Dine’, what a brilliant title, what inspired the wordplay and the song?
I’ve always enjoyed a bit of wordplay. In the first line, I’m finding space in between the normal things to write about *laughs*
Everybody, no matter who they are, those months which take up quite a bit of their time, all those bits joined together for me make a kind of existence. I’m very interested in that mundane aspect of those insubstantial moments, because if there wasn’t a space, there would be nothing to hold us all together.
‘Gratitude’ unleashes some aggression…
I had this groove going that I thought was a bit like ‘Honky Tonk Women! So I was mincing around thinking I was Mick Jagger! *laughs*
I remembered seeing LCD SOUNDSYSTEM on TV and James Murphy was bashing away on this cowbell and it really made me laugh, I thought “there aren’t enough cowbells in songs”; so I had this cowbell thing going! So in all the darkness that can be going on with BLANCMANGE, I was having fun with this music.
This idea of a few simple lines came together about how I was feeling about things and it just came out. If people need a reference, it’s a bit like how I feel when I sing ‘I Can’t Explain’, sometimes it’s good to get it out of your system.
And on the other side of the coin, there’s the sedate Eno-esque ‘In December’…
I don’t sleep well so if I can’t, I get up and do something like write. It was absolutely pouring it down outside although it wasn’t particularly cold, so I opened the doors and recorded the sound of this rain and I just started thinking about the seasons passing.
In terms of it sounding Eno-esque, there’s no intention but thinking about the stuff we did on ‘Irene & Mavis’, you end up trying to fit in somewhere and one of the big influences was ENO & CLUSTER without a doubt, as well as things off ‘Another Green World’ and ‘Evening Star’ with Fripp… when David Rhodes came along to do some guitar, he wanted to try some E-Bow over the top.
It was a feeling I had, lines like “January, don’t p*ss me off, you’re just a June in a mask”, I’m having a bit of fun with the lyrics because the depths of winter can be quite difficult to deal with for some people, I just wanted to write about it.
How did John Grant end up on ‘Don’t Get Me Wrong’?
It was through my manager Steve Malins, he manages WRANGLER and they were doing some stuff with John to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of Rough Trade at The Barbican. Steve got talking to John who asked who else he looked after and Steve mentioned BLANCMANGE… it turned out John was a big fan and really knew his stuff.
John’s got such a fantastic voice and great songs so when I heard about this, I thought “I wonder…”, so Steve passed this song ‘Don’t Get Me Wrong’ onto him and John said it would be an honour, which was flabbergasting to me! He did this piano part and sang along with the chorus with this beautiful backing, so it was an absolute delight when I got it back.
I love the line in ‘Don’t Get Me Wrong’ that goes “you look so well… in your online profile”… what’s your take on using the web now for music promotion, but also how it practically rules people’s lives?
How long can you keep your phone in your pocket for? *laughs*
This might answer your question; we were playing in Leeds with HEAVEN 17 and I came on stage. A lot of people were there which was great, but quite a few were watching us through their screen, these little screens! I just said “Watch us”, not in a conceited way, “Don’t watch that! I mean hold it there but don’t look at it”! I’m not immune cos I fall foul of it as well, the problem is that phones are now capable of so much, I write and record lyrics on it, I use it was a torch… I wish in a way I just had a phone that you could just call or text.
But we’re in this post-modern world and it’s quite interesting how social media works. It’s a fantastic way of communicating with people who are interested in your music or finding out about other types of music. But because everything’s accessible immediately, everybody’s got contact… so for example, if you bought a record in the 1970s-1980s, what would you do if there was something wrong with it?
…I’d take it back to the shop!
Ok, so you’d take it back to the shop… so somebody buys a record now, and I think this is quite funny, I get people contacting me! I think it’s lovely and most people know I enjoy a chat and online, I answer a lot of the stuff.
So you get someone going “I bought this off Amazon and two CDs are damaged”… I mean, I’m sorry that they are, but I thought for a moment, and I’m not saying I’m comparing myself to him… could you imagine in the ‘70s if I’d had bought BRIAN ENO’s album and I contacted him to say my record’s scratched?? *laughs*
But this is the modern world isn’t it? Everyone is contactable and 99% of it is fantastic, and that comment did tickle me.
BLANCMANGE are out on tour this Autumn. Now you’ve been back a few years, have you a photo-fit of today’s BLANCMANGE fan and have worked out a live set that can keep you and the audience happy?
I could to a certain extent, what I noticed on the last tour particularly was the audience is changing in that there’s a younger element, whereas when we restarted, it was people who had seen us first time round. We’ve still got those people thankfully and there are inquisitive people from a different generation who are interested in electronic music.
As for keeping people happy, I’m obviously going to promote the new album, but I wouldn’t be doing the new album if it wasn’t for the fact that I’d done all that music with Stephen years ago. So of course, I’d be giving them some blasts from the past. The other thing is since 2011, there’s been more material released than there was first time round. We have a very different audience now and we’re not going to get in the charts, it’s a different world.
I’m not trying to play the game, I’m writing songs that I want to write. Stephen and I did that all those years ago, but we were a lot younger and that’s what we wanted to do. Now what I want to do, I’ve opened the dark door and hopefully, there’s some people who’ll get some pleasure from the stuff that’s old and new. I’ve got to be honest to myself and do what I feel, first and foremost; hopefully, people will come along for the ride.
You have BLANCMANGE, NEAR FUTURE and FADER on the go, plus had the box set and deluxe reissues… how do you manage to juggle so many balls?
Well, I’ve got a very good manager and I think I’m driven. I had the opportunity to work with Benge which was fantastic and I’m looking forward to doing more. We had to work out “how do we finish that and get it released?”, make sure the boxed set was running to schedule and leave a space to get ‘Unfurnished Rooms’ out, so that was time management really.
I’m happy when I’m busy. So Jez Bernholz and I have been exchanging files to finish off the NEAR FUTURE album which will be due next year. I’m keen to move forward all the time.
What are your thoughts on the new LCD SOUNDSYSTEM album ‘American Dream’?
I’m a big fan, I’d heard a few songs earlier in the year and was wondering how they were going to fit together in an album and when I heard it in its entirety, I really enjoyed it and thought it was bloody great. It will be on again without a doubt. It’s fantastically referential, it references so much. James Murphy is a very clever man, there’s the Eno connection, the Frippertronics side of things, TALKING HEADS is in there, there’s a bit of everything and he even references himself which is quite remarkable *laughs*
The Electricity Club gives its sincerest thanks to Neil Arthur
Special thanks to Steve Malins at Random Management