A truly international line-up gathered for Synth Wave Live 3, with acts from three continents present at London’s Electrowerkz on a rare sunny day in what has been a very rainy June.
Combining synthpop and new wave, hence the “Synth” and “Wave” tagline of the event, it was as if acid house had never happened.
Featuring a range of musicians from original Some Bizzare trailblazers and prog synthpop veterans to various musical descendants of Mute Records, things all came nicely together for a varied but coherent bill with no rude awakening…
With a stage set comprising of TV monitors and glowing projections directed by Outland VJ Will Cunningham, THE DEPARTMENT opened Synth Wave Live 3 by performing tracks from the recently released ‘Pressure’ EP, a body of work channelling a midlife angst with observations on the now pathetically normal phenomenon of deluded narcissism in amongst its subject matter.
Following on was the stunning Parisian presence of YS ATLOVE who began her set with the danceable Europop of ‘Back To Yesterday’.With her alluring stage manner and appealing nouvelle vague disco, she also presented her cover of ‘True Faith’, NEW ORDER’s paradoxically radio friendly tune about narcotic dependency, and prompted the first audience singalong of the day. Meanwhile, ‘You Can’t Fool Me’ revealed her moodier side.
Having been out of music for nearly four years, her return to live performance has without doubt rejuvenated her muse. But while YS ATLOVE may have approached things cautiously, there was not fear of that from CIRCUIT3. Armed with his Behringer MS-101 clone, the Dublin synthpop chap took to the stage to showcase material from his well-received ‘siliconchipsuperstar’ long player and the forthcoming second album ‘The Value Of Everything & The Price Of Nothing’.
Wearing a heavy black leather great coat inspired by Midge Ure at Live Aid, Peter Fitzpatrick’s songs like the dreamy ‘Ghost Machine’ and frantic ‘Hundred Hands’ donned their hat to HOWARD JONES and HEAVEN 17 respectively, while an affectionate reinterpretation of THE HUMAN LEAGUE’s ‘Being Boiled’ affirming CIRCUIT3’s spiritual connection to Synth Britannia.
Meanwhile, new tunes like ‘Breaking Point’ offered some political reflection with accompanying footage of a dancing policeman highlighting the absurdity of the current divisive stand-offs.
JOHAN BAECKSTRÖM is possibly Europe’s greatest synthpop secret; best known as a member of DAILY PLANET, the Swede however has been making a fine impression with his escapist solo work, as with the delightfully ERASURE-ish ‘Running Away From Myself’. But there were also more weightier concerns like the environment on ‘Like Before’ and the madness of materialism on Utopia’. He then naturally ventured ‘Into The 80s’ with a synthetic cover of a 1979 song by Canadian rocker Nick Gilder.
Although Baeckström is unashamedly candid about the influence of Vince Clarke on his music, another lesser known facet to his sound is that of prog synth trio WHITE DOOR who released their only album ‘Windows’ in 1983. Having covered ‘School Days’ and ‘Jerusalem’ as B-sides, Baeckström invited Mac Austin, John Davies and Harry Davies to join him on stage for the first live rendition of those songs featuring the original band for 35 years.
Austin was in good voice although he was slightly overwhelmed as he came in a bar early for the chorus of ‘Jerusalem’. But this slight slip just brought smiles from all concerned on this highly emotional occasion. New material from WHITE DOOR featuring Baeckström as a new member is on the way with a promise of more live performances.
The wild cards of Synth Wave Live 3 and the youngsters of the event, synth assisted post-punk trio CENTRE EXCUSE offered some exuberant energy to proceedings. Comprising of Teddy Lewis, Alex Rush and James Caine, their sound can be best exemplified by the single ‘Let It Ride’ which combines THE CURE and guitar driven NEW ORDER with elements of Britpop and occasional synthesizer textures.
A tight and engaging live band, their good looks certainly won’t do them any harm, with front man Lewis particularly noticeable thanks to his resemblance to Joseph Gordon-Levitt when he was in ‘3rd Rock From The Sun’. The joyous ‘Thank You (For Moving Me Up)’ had the bonus of some cascading voice-derived samples and with ‘Moon, Sky & Stars’ expressing their interest in synthesizers, it will be interesting to see if CENTRE EXCUSE do a MUMM-RA and morph into something like MIRRORS!
Hailed within the Synthwave community, the charming Italian EUGENE gave a superbly energetic performance which included a passion and physicality that was the antithesis of the static laptop boys often associated with that scene. With his love of European synthpop, there were tunes, vocoders and uptempo rhythms too, particularly during the superb ‘HR Diagram’ with its inherent danceability and the Casiotone driven ‘Promenade’.
LISBON KID’s Danny De Matos joined EUGENE to reprise their collaboration ‘Waiting For You’ before the Portuguese singer / songwriter outlined an important message about suicide awareness via a cover of RADIOHEAD’s ‘No Surprises’ which would have upset purists with its electronic rearrangement, but was glorious none the less. Ending with the catchy Italo flavoured pulse of ‘Radiowave’, it was an impressive performance by Signore Valente.
Like WHITE DOOR, Mansfield quartet B-MOVIE deserved greater recognition for their work back in the day, having achieved critcal acclaim and BBC Radio1 airplay. Their appearance on the ‘Some Bizzare Album’ with SOFT CELL, DEPECHE MODE, THE THE and BLANCMANGE had earmarked them for great things, but wider fame as a band was to pass by Steve Hovington, Rick Holliday, Graham Boffey and Paul Statham.
However quality numbers like ‘Polar Opposites’, ‘Moles’ and ‘Institution Walls’ performed tonight only highlighted how their music has stood the test of time. There was a slight technical glitch during ‘Welcome To The Shrink’, but things got back on track with the synthetic chill of ‘Stalingrad’, a single as good as anything B-MOVIE did in their creative prime when they were considered to have more potential than SOFT CELL.
Of course, the songs that fulfilled that promise ‘Nowhere Girl’ and ‘Remembrance Day’ closed a highly enjoyable set and while commercial success may have eluded B-MOVIE, the fact that they are here still making great new music is a blessing and a bonus.
SOL FLARE have changed considerably since their charismatic vocalist Jenny Jones departed in 2018. But since then, Australian musician Dominic Wood has soldiered on with the name as a solo act with primarily instrumental material and the occasional song with guest vocalists. Not far from a DJ set with a neon tinged backdrop, the club friendly vibe kept things warm.
Closing proceedings were LUCKY+LOVE from sunny Los Angeles. With a new album ‘Transitions’ just unleashed for public consumption, April Love’s vocal enthusiasm could not be doubted on during their brooding set. The duo’s indie darkwave soundtrack was a fitting backdrop to finish Synth Wave Live 3 as Electrowerkz transformed itself into the long standing resident Goth club night Slimelight and the regular clientele drifted in.
With a wide age range of acts celebrating the art of synthpop and new wave, Synth Wave Live 3 entertained with its multi-generational line-up. What stood out most throughout the event were the songs being performed, whether as originals or cover versions from the Synth Britannia era or as brand new work influenced by that amazingly creative period of crafted synthetic material.
As JOHAN BAECKSTRÖM himself sang in ‘Synth Is Not Dead’, his own rather wonderful tribute to the electronic pop form: “Some might say that it’s an old forgotten relic from the past. But I claim it is the most inspiring music to be heard…”
The Electricity Club really couldn’t have put it much better itself ??
The Electricity Club gives its grateful thanks to Rob Green
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.
2018 was a year of good songs rather than good albums, with many of long players not as consistent or as of high a standard as the bumper crop from the Class of ’17.
However, The Electricity Club had plenty of material to choose from for its 30 SONGS OF 2018 and while it can’t include everything, worthy mentions go to ANI GLASS, BLACK NAIL CABARET, BRÜCKEN FROESE, DANA JEAN PHOENIX, DISQO VOLANTE, DUBSTAR, EKKOES, FAKE TEAK, FRAGRANCE, THE FRIXION, GUNSHIP, HILTIPOP, IAMX, LIZETTE LIZETTE, TRAIN TO SPAIN and WITCH OF THE VALE who were in this year’s shortlist.
Interestingly, three graduates from the ‘Some Bizarre Album’ made it into the final list, thus highlighting the longevity of that particular vinyl showcase some 37 years on!
So with a restriction of one song per artist moniker, here are The Electricity Club’s 30 SONGS OF 2018 presented in alphabetical order…
AFTERHERE Breaking Rules
AFTERHERE is the brand new project of HEAVEN 17 singer Glenn Gregory and live keyboardist Berenice Scott, but with their roles reversed. Exploring their inner GOLDFRAPP but in a funkier vein, with groovy reminisces of ‘Twist’ and ‘Yes Sir’, the song seductively boasted a captivating sexually charged electronic energy. Berenice Scott said to The Electricity Club: “We always wanted to have a driving track on the album that you could hopefully move your feet to, party to… possibly get in a little trouble!”
Available on the AFTERHERE album ‘Addict’ via Manners McDade
While the Clarke was strong with this one, the first impression that came across with ‘Utopia’ was that things became a slight bit darker in the world of JOHAN BAECKSTRÖM. Despite that, there was a rousing chorus and percolating sequences to savour as he pointed out the futility of seeking that perfect future, when life has so much more on offer. “I wouldn´t describe the album as dark though” the DAILY PLANET synthesist helpfully told The Electricity Club, “it´s absolutely a pop album.”
Available on the JOHAN BAECKSTRÖM album ‘Utopia’ via Progress Productions
For BLANCMANGE, ‘Distant Storm’ was rather unusual with its dance beat, reverberant Moog bassline and dreamy processed vocoder aesthetic. With a rousing, almost spiritual quality and elements of JAMES’ ‘Come Home’ creeping in for good measure, it displayed Neil Arthur’s comfort in working with producer Benge on effectively their third album together. “I wanted to sing it as though it was really detached with my voice being synthesized” he told The Electricity Club.
Available on the BLANCMANGE album ‘Wanderlust’ via Blanc Check Records
Veteran Mansfield quartet B-MOVIE made their most electronic pop single to date with the chilling aesthetics of ‘Stalingrad’. Complete with an infectious synth melody, an eerie mezzo-soprano and using the crucial Second World War battle as a metaphor for a doomed relationship, it was possibly Steve Hovington, Paul Statham, Rick Holliday and Graham Boffey’s best song since their 21st Century reformation; appropriately, its B-side was called ‘Something Cold’…
Available on the B-MOVIE EP ‘Repetition’ via Loki Records
‘Get Out’ may have acted as a superb launch single, but starting off their ‘Love Is Dead’ album was the wonderful ‘Graffiti’. This was a classic kaleidoscopic CHVRCHES tune that punched the sky with some rousing vocals. It was also a supreme singalong showcasing Lauren Mayberry, Iain Cook and Martin Docherty in full bouncy Taylor mode. Despite the downcast lyrical demeanour on lost youth and the passing of time, this was still a grand pop statement.
Australian duo CONFIDENCE MAN were a ray of sunshine in 2018 with their own brand of campy dork pop, being everything SCISSOR SISTERS should have been. ‘Don’t You Know I’m In A Band’ was an amusing satire on ego and sense of entitlement in the music industry. With an electro take on the groovy swoop of WAR’s ‘Low Rider’, a pitch shifted Sugar Bones came over like an inebriate Teddy Pendergrass while Janet Planet delightfully counterpointed in her alluring girly manner.
CREEP SHOW is the meeting of minds between eclectic singer / songwriter John Grant and the dark analogue electro of WRANGLER whose members comprise Stephen Mallinder, Benge and Phil Winter. On ‘Safe & Sound’, the quartet explored a spacious KRAFTWERK and GIORGIO MORODER hybrid to reveal gradually some wonderfully warm melodic synth textures to accompany Grant’s passionate lead croon. The project led to Benge also working on Grant’s ‘Love Is Magic’ album also released in 2018.
Driven by a meaty electronic bassline and metronomic backbone, the marvellous vocoder-laden ‘Comrades’ by RODNEY CROMWELL captured a really chilling Cold War atmosphere, bathed in an ensemble of sweeping synth oboes and cosmic string machines. “I ended up thumping at the MicroKorg and came up with the opening riff” he said. Rich with melody and a panoramic resonance, it surreally captured the sound of Moroder being played through a Soviet Foxtrot submarine intercom system.
With ‘Falling In Love With Sadness’, EMIKA produced one of the best electronic albums of 2018. The record was a concept album of sorts, a musical reflection on generations of sadness within the Anglo-Czech musician’s family in her most personal statement yet. The pacey ‘Promises’ made the most of her lower and higher vocal registers, providing an eerie cascading harmonic with some rumbling dubby tension and booming stabs driving Eastwards with solemn spine tingling qualities.
Taking in more synthetic ambitions, FARAO’s second album ‘Pure-O’ was a playful bleep forward. While ‘The Ghost Ship’ saw Kari Jahnsen focussed on her forlorn little girl lost lyrics, the wonderfully uptempo ‘Marry Me’ offered an accessible PET SHOP BOYS flavour and romantic layers of vocals masking a deep scepticism of the institution of marriage, while the lush backing and chugging electronic backbone carried the air of her compatriot SUSANNE SUNDFØR.
Available on the FARAO album ‘Pure-O’ via Western Vinyl
Releasing their first new material in over three decades, FIAT LUX returned with the most splendid ‘It’s You’. As well as the bassline and harmony from David P Crickmore, the sax style was a fitting tribute to the sadly departed Ian Nelson. Singer Steve Wright said: “Lyrically, I hope, it expresses feelings that possibly everyone can relate to…” – their long awaited debut album ‘Saved Symmetry’ is expected in 2019.
Available on the FIAT LUX single ‘It’s You’ via Splid Records
The ‘Everyone Afraid To Be Forgotten’ album was easily equal to Jonna Lee’s work with IAMAMIWHOAMI. Best of the set was possibly the marvellous closing number ‘Fold’. Featuring exotic cascading timbres and spacey pulsars, distorted string synths added tan appropriate chill as Lee’s passionate vocals completed the filmic vibe. Less mysterious, the IONNALEE transition was a triumph, especially with one of the best value-for-money live presentations of 2018.
Asking if “it is foolish to dream”, ‘Someday’ saw KATJA VON KASSEL questioning a moment of passionate haste. “The phrase ‘Someday’ just opened it all up and everything else just fell into place.” the chanteuse said. Capturing the beautiful melancholy of ASSOCIATES’ Billy Mackenzie, the doomed romantic tragedy of the sadly departed Scot was echoed by the chanteuse’s deep forlorn delivery, accompanied by CHRIS PAYNE’s hypnotic bassline and haunting vox humana treatment over a simple rhythmic loop.
Despite their age, LET’S EAT GRANDMA have a feisty but mature musical ambition, as successfully realised on ‘Donnie Darko’, an 11 minute tribute to the troubled teenager haunted by a monstrous rabbit-like figure. Utilising a sedate start before morphing into a wonderful movement of cascading electronics set to a metronomic beat, there were passionate reflections on the subject of human suffering. It all went a bit “batsh*t crazy” into a glorious synthony before calming to its conclusion!
Available on the LET’S EAT GRANDMA album ‘I’m All Ears’ via Transgressive Records
CHRIS LIEBING featuring POLLY SCATTERGOOD And All Went Dark
Noted techno exponent CHRIS LIEBING teamed up with Mute label mate POLLY SCATTERGOOD on a stark polyrhythmic number appropriately titled ‘And All Went Dark’. The brooding minimalist electronic piece with its eerily poetic spoken contribution from Miss Scattergood saw the Essex songstress haunted by a “dark shadow on my shoulder” and telling how “a sickness took hold early on”.
Available on the CHRIS LIEBING album ‘Burn Slow’ via Mute Artists
With the name transcending Toronto based Hayley Stewart’s fascination with Japanese culture, cyber space and a love of vintage synthesis, ‘Mad But Soft’ was her first album as MECHA MAIKO. The magically crystalline ‘False Memories’ could have been part of the ‘Stranger Things’ soundtrack. Uncomplicated on the surface yet multi-layered and airy, this day-glow pink neo-instrumental concoction was well-thought through and deliciously produced.
One-time RÖYSKSOPP collaborator Ryan A James continues to hone and develop his hybrid mix of luxuriant synthetics and subtle guitar textures as MAN WITHOUT COUNTRY. He said about the gorgeous electronic bubblebath of ‘Lafayette’: “It’s really a song about the end of a relationship, disguised as a song about Scientology, and how defectors of Scientology are disowned by their loved ones. The name comes from the religion’s founder Lafayette Ron Hubbard.”
Available on the MAN WITHOUT COUNTRY album ‘Infinity Mirror’ via Killing Moon Records
“Beware! It’s a scary world” and with their BRITNEY SPEARS fronting NINE INCH NAILS template, NIGHT CLUB took their sweet but sinister synth rock sound to its zenith with the title track of their second album. And when the children’s choir joined in the chorus to sing of demons everywhere, this was a musical trick or treat that no parent would want their offspring to be part of, the message being “they only love you if you swallow”!
A fabulously optimistic closer to NINA’s debut album, ‘80s Girl’ came beaming over like some missing song from the film ‘Mannequin’. With big Simmons drums, sampled orchestra stabs and driving synthbass triplets, it was however delivered with subtlety and restraint so that it wasn’t a HEART or STARSHIP pastiche. Dedicated to her mother, it had a telling message of “don’t let the past hold you back”.
Perhaps best known as the alluring if slightly blunt chanteuse of BLACK BOX RECORDER, SARAH NIXEY released her best solo album to date in ‘Night Walks’, a quality record with air and presence, collecting everything she has ever been musically, all rolled into one. One of its key tracks was the delightful ‘Journey’, a glorious number of the type that Marc Almond has often been so good at, laced with crystalline synths and gorgeously breathy vocal tones à la Jane Birkin.
Available on the SARAH NIXEY album ‘Night Walks’ via Black Lead Records
The ‘Savage’ album turned out to be both an artistic and commercial vindication for GARY NUMAN. ‘It Will End Here’ from ‘The Fallen’ EP was a natural progression from that, exploring a heavy but melodic electronic sound without relying on the predictable backing of rock guitars. With and anthemic chorus and the apocalypse is looming over the aural desert, there was even a soaring vocal pitch shift up at the song’s conclusion which added an extra eerie vampiric quality.
NYXX is very much her own woman, like the Greek goddess of night she is named after, a figure of power and beauty with a Britney-like vocal presence that sweetly offsets some of her darker overtones. A collaboration with Daniel Graves of AESTHETIC PERFECTION who contributed a glorious evangelical middle eight, she said “It would not be what it is without him. I came in with a sketch of a song, a melody and lyric of another song… Daniel heard nuances in it and we built what is now ‘Voodoo’.”
Available on the NYXX single ‘Voodoo’ via Close To Human Music
Eddie Bengtsson and Marina Schiptjenko initially came together in PAGE releasing their first single ‘Dansande Man’ in 1983. Since then, the pair have parted and reunited on a number of occasions but the mission for the ‘Start’ EP was to party like it’s 1979 when GARY NUMAN was No1. ‘Nere För Räkning’ was an urgent slice of pulsing synthrock with a piercing vibratoed lead line akin to the keyboard interventions heard on ‘The Pleasure Principle’.
Available on the PAGE EP ‘Start’ via Energy Rekords
From Mission Viejo in California, PLASMIC describes herself as an “Orange County one-woman dervish” and in a vivid haze that’s pretty in pink, “your abused Barbie doll from childhood”. Combining J-Pop with CRYSTAL CASTLES and DEVO, the undoubted standout from her ‘Validation Nation’ EP was ‘Baby Machine’, an immensely catchy feminist electropop anthem utilising a mixture of vintage Casio and Yamaha sounds that challenged the expectations of women to bear children.
Championed by none other than Vince Clarke, REED & CAROLINE successfully combine tunes with electronic experimentation. The haunting ‘Entropy’ was a tribute to a departed friend and a fabulously touching GARY NUMAN homage to his ‘Dance’ period, in particular ‘Cry The Clock Said’. The hypnotic soundtrack of gentle preset rhythms and eerie electric piano, courtesy of a Buchla modular synth, was complimented by Schutz even adopting the phrasing of the man born Gary Anthony James Webb.
Weird and wonderful, ‘Red Moon Voyage’ was a ghostly 10 minute epic comprising of glitchy voices and varying rhythm constructions recorded especially for Halloween. Free of album concepts and the pop song format, this was FIFI RONG at her most adventurous yet, delightfully adding her native Mandarin language towards the third part. She told The Electricity Club: “having a long journey means you can get very deep and lots of moods and transitions”.
Marc Almond and Dave Ball were the boys who came back-back-BACK as SOFT CELL in 2018. ‘Northern Lights’ reminisced about their days at the Wigan Casino and recaptured the pop essence that led to the duo having five consecutive Top 10 hits! Despite the grittiness and energetics, the duo always had melody and that came back in abundance on their welcome recorded return. The darker B-Side ‘Guilty (‘Cos I Say You Are)’ affirmed that as a creative force, SOFT CELL still had it.
Chinese six-piece STOLEN are reckoned by Berlin-based producer Mark Reeder to be possibly the most exciting band he has seen since NEW ORDER. Certainly their debut album ‘Fragment’ was impressive and one of the best of 2018, with ‘Turn Black’ being one of the standout tracks. “I like the idea of mixing of rock with techno…” said growly lead vocalist Liang Yi, “we are very proud that we don’t sound like any of the other Chinese bands.”
Ingo Hauss and Hayo Lewerentz handed back the BOYTRONIC brand to Holger Wobker and returned to being U96, teaming up with former KRAFTWERK percussionist Wolfgang Flür for the best track by either party in recent years. Stark and Teutonic with stark robotic vocoder aesthetics, the union of two German musical heavyweights from different generations was equal to Flür’s ‘Activity Of Sound’ collaboration with Ireland’s iEUROPEAN.
Combining piano, synths, field recordings, drones, occasional beats, old string instruments and HILARY WOODS’ wonderfully forlorn voice in the vein of Julee Cruise, ‘Jesus Said’ questioned the existence of God. Described by the Irish songstress herself as “a song that seeks catharsis”, her child-like expression over the drifting synthesized tones and hypnotic drum machine to augment her beautiful piano playing gave ‘Jesus Said’ a gentle meditative quality.
Available on the HILARY WOODS album ‘Colt’ via Sacred Bones
Some might say JOHAN BAECKSTRÖM has already found his utopia with his fabulous collection of synthesizers at his studio in Örebro, Sweden.
Best known as a member of DAILY PLANET with vocalist Jarmo Ollila, the duo have three acclaimed albums to their name, the first being ‘The Tide’ issued as far back as 1996. But in 2015, Baeckström began a parallel solo career with the release of his debut long player ‘Like Before’. Capturing the melodic spirit of classic Vince Clarke, he surprised listeners not just with his accomplished songwriting but his vocal capabilities too. His new album ‘Utopia’ is a natural progression of ‘Like Before’ but is perhaps weightier, both in its production and lyrical content.
Taking time out from preparations for upcoming live appearances in Europe, JOHAN BAECKSTRÖM kindly spoke to The Electricity Club about the making of his ‘Utopia’.
It’s amazing to think that when you started ‘Like Before’, you were returning to music after nearly 18 years but in the last 4 years, there have been two DAILY PLANET albums and two solo works…
Yes, you are right. I’ve had a very productive period in the last 5 years. I guess staying away from music for 18 years has something to do with that. Apart from the 4 albums, I’ve also done a number of remixes for other bands and a collaboration track with my friends in RATIONAL YOUTH. However, since finishing ‘Utopia’, I’ve actually felt quite “drained out”. I haven´t spent much time at all in my studio and, to be honest, not much music has been produced in the last 6 months.
In terms of writing, what do you think are the key differences between what you would do for DAILY PLANET and what you would do on your own?
Most of the DAILY PLANET songs start off with a brief idea from Jarmo – a chord progression and a vocal melody draft. From there, I take over and start building the rest.
The interesting thing with this method is that I never know what Jarmo intended with the song draft. For example, the two fastest of all our songs, ‘Set Me Free’ and ‘Milky Way’, were actually intended to be ballads, in his mind.
When I write for my solo project, I mostly start off by making a cool sound on a synth which often leads me to playing something. Sometimes this “something” ends up in a song idea. In that case, I force myself to turn this idea into a full song, at least I need to finish all the different components of the song, so I can start recording the synths I´ve used into my computer.
Since many of these old instruments don’t have any memory to save sounds, I need to record the parts before I can even touch that particular synth again. The topline melodies, vocals and lyrics are usually not written until I have a pretty complete arrangement. There have been times however when I haven´t come up with any vocal melodies that are good enough, and I’ve asked Jarmo to give it a go. ‘Goodbye Late Nights’, ‘Forgiven’, and ‘Silver Moon’ are examples of such songs. Once Jarmo’s melodies and voice were added, they turned into obvious DAILY PLANET songs instead of solo songs.
Despite its title, ‘Utopia’ as an album appears to have darker, more worldly matters in its heart after the escapist optimism of ‘Like Before’?
I never intended to make a darker album, but I´ve had this comment from a few people. I suppose it´s true in the sense that the general tempo is a bit slower than the first album, and with a little heavier sound perhaps.
Some of the lyrics touch upon rather deep subjects too, such as for example ‘Blood Red Moon’ which was written in the evening after attending the funeral of my close friends’ young daughter who lost a long, brave fight against cancer.
I wouldn’t describe the album as “dark” though – it´s absolutely a pop album.
The title track at the start sets the scene of the album, what’s the song about?
It can probably mean different things, depending on who the listener is. I guess I tried to say that sometimes we’re going way too far to find whatever we’re desiring. Look a bit closer and you may find it right where you are.
You’re influenced by Vince Clarke´s earlier productions and now you’ve even included a song named ‘Into The 80’s’ on the album? What´s the story here?
‘Into The 80s’ is a cover of a song from 1979, by the Canadian rock artist Nick Gilder. I had never heard it before, but Eddie Bengtsson from PAGE introduced me to the song and suggested I´d do a cover version of it. I fell in love with the song right away, and the cover turned out very good I think, which is why I included it on the album.
‘I Can Read Your Mind’ almost goes full YAZOO?
Really? Hmm, it must be the Linndrum samples. Jokes aside, yes, I guess it goes down that path a bit. The YAZOO stuff is what made me discover electronic, synth based music in the first place, back in the 80s, and it has continued to inspire me up until this day. I still think those two albums are perfect in every sense of the word. It´s only natural that this will sometimes reflect in my own music.
‘Better Stories’ pays tribute to ‘Any Second Now’?
I don’t know, I’ve had that comment from some friends as well. Actually, it´s just the bass figure and sound that´s perhaps flirting a wee bit with said song. The rest of it isn´t even close, I’d say. But hey – ‘Any Second Now’ is a great song, so I don´t mind the comparison, haha.
‘Cassini’ is a fine filmic instrumental, what inspired it and does soundtrack work interest you in the future?
I was looking at those amazing videos and photos from Nasa´s Cassini mission to the planet Saturn and its moons, which led me to try to make almost like a film score for those lovely images. I must admit, I was a bit nervous to put an instrumental piece on the album, since I have never done that before. I hope people will like it and I can certainly see myself doing something more in that direction.
‘Ask Them Why’ is quite aggressive by your standards?
Yeah, it´s got some attitude with a high tempo, 3-4 different bass sounds and even slightly distorted lead vocals, which is a first for me. On the other hand, I guess my friends in POUPPEE FABRIKK, WULFBAND or LUCIFER´S AID probably wouldn´t find it very aggressive…
Melody is still the key in your work, do you have any views on other forms of electronic music like dubstep or EDM?
No, not really. EDM is nothing I can listen to for more than a few minutes. Dubstep? I don’t even know what that is, to be honest. I could definitely see myself exploring other genres though, but these are not the hottest candidates, I can tell you that much.
You’ve used a Korg Volca Bass synth on the album and it does get a look a lot of good feedback from musicians, what do you like about it?
On this album, it´s not used for much more than a few small sounds here and there. Not because I don’t like it, but mainly because I prefer working on other stuff I have. The Volca is however a great little synth. I mean, a 3 oscillator analog synthesizer with a built-in sequencer, for the price of a decent bottle of scotch!
What other of the newer synths have you found to be a revelation in your creativity?
Most of the new synths I have are actually re-issues of old designs, like the Minimoog or the ARP Odyssey and MS-20s from Korg. I´ve realized I tend to always go to synths that give me a fast result.
For example, I have a Prophet ’08 from DSI, which is a really great synthesizer but I actually don´t use it very much – since it is quite advanced, and you now and then need to look on a screen to know what you´re doing, I´d rather turn to my Jupiter or Juno which both are very “what_you_see_is_what_you_hear”, with no sub menus or displays whatsoever.
So on the whole, you appear to have stuck to your trusty vintage synths like the older Rolands and the Pro-One?
Yeah, these are my work horses for sure. They sound amazing and like I said in the previous question – I get superfast results from them. The Minimoog is also used quite a lot on this album.
Interestingly ‘Nightbird’, one of ERASURE’s best albums of recent years used just softsynths… have you ever been tempted to go the exclusively software route?
Indeed I have – in the early 2000s I sold all my hardware gear to use software instead. I thought it sounded like a great idea to have everything in the computer. The only, small problem was that they didn’t sound very sexy at all back then, and the interaction with them didn’t inspire me at all. I basically didn’t write anything longer than 4-8 bars on that system since I lost interest within an hour, every time. Today, some 15-20 years on, software synths surely sound better than they did back then. They´re still totally uninspiring to work with though, for me, so I will certainly stick to my big old hardware instruments.
What inspired the PCB derived graphic artwork for the album?
The artwork was done by Mr Peter Nyborg, who also did the cover for our latest DAILY PLANET album, ‘Play Rewind Repeat’. Since I was very happy with that design, Peter was free to come up with pretty much whatever he wanted for ‘Utopia’. This PCB idea was the first thing he presented to me and I loved it right away. I am sure there is some clever thoughts behind it, but I guess you´ll have to ask Peter about that. To me it´s just a great looking artwork which I think suits the music very well.
You’ve been doing other covers, like ‘Cry Softly (Time Is Mourning)’ for the album ‘Night City Tribute – The Songs of SECRET SERVICE’, so for those reading outside of Sweden, why do you think this band was popular back in its day and why did you choose this song?
I would think the reason for their success must be the quality of the song material. They did some stunningly crafted pop tracks. The production was also spot on for that time, which probably also contributed to their success. I was asked if I would be interested in contributing to this tribute and ‘Cry Softly’ was an obvious choice for me. I think that it’s one of their best songs and I have thought about covering it for a long time actually. It certainly was a challenge vocally though – Ola Håkansson has a very wide vocal range!
Is it true you are working on a new WHITE DOOR album?
I can´t say that much about this, but I can confirm that I am working on something with the fine WHITE DOOR gents. What, and when, is to be seen.
What are you up to next?
I am, like I said earlier, not very productive at the moment as for writing new music. I’m working on other stuff instead, such as preparing and rehearsing for a couple of live shows coming up.
Hopefully there will be more gigs added as well – I’ve done a private gig in France, but I would really love to meet my audience in other countries!
The Electricity Club gives its grateful thanks to JOHAN BAECKSTRÖM
In 2015, ace Swedish synthesist Johan Baeckström made a call to arms, declaring that the ‘Synth Is Not Dead’. And now in 2018, he presents his ‘Utopia’.
Baeckström first came to prominence with DAILY PLANET, the synthpop duo he formed with Jarmo Ollila who released their debut album ‘The Tide’ in 1996. After a hiatus of 18 years, they returned with the album ‘Two’ while Baeckström began a parallel solo career a year later.
Titled ‘Like Before’, his album captured the synthpop prowess of Vince Clarke at his finest, while adding that melancholic but uplifting Scandinavian vibe, particularly within the environmental message of the title track and brilliant songs such as ‘Running Away With Me’, ‘Come With Me’ and ‘Tonight’.
While Baeckström’s vocal capability recalled Andy Bell, the appeal of ‘Like Before’ wasn’t so much because it sounded like classic ERASURE, but down to the brilliance of his songwriting and the engaging qualities of the long player’s synthtastic production.
But from the off starting with the ‘Utopia’ title song, the first impression that comes across on this sophomore offering is things are a slight bit darker and grittier. Despite that, there’s a rousing chorus and percolating sequences to savour as Baeckström points out the futility of seeking that perfect future.
Brighter pacier electronic tones make their presence felt on ‘Homeless’, although the metaphoric possibilities of the title reflect on the gloomier uncertainties that currently embroil the world. A near namesake of the DEPECHE MODE hit, ‘The World Through Your Eyes’ utilises a synthetic noise backbone in a steadfast tempo that has weightier thoughts and deeper resonances emanating from its core.
Continuing those deeper resonances, ‘Better Stories’ uses minimalistic expression at its heart, allowing Baeckström’s soulful vocal to shine before a multi-layered build as per the Altered take on DEPECHE MODE’s ‘Any Second Now’.
But the mood takes yet another turn when ‘I Can Read Your Mind’ delightfully goes into full YAZOO mode with its melodic circuitry and precise digital drums.
Imagining a dream collaboration between Vangelis and Vince Clarke, ‘Cassini’ is a wonderful instrumental that is swathed in filmic intrigue. And without a vocal present, it showcases that like Clarke, Baeckström has a place for every single musical part where individual lines and counter melodies give the impression of chords and sweeps for a spacious end result.
Adopting a more frantic pace, Baeckström rallies everyone to ‘Ask Them Why’, while ‘Blood Red Moon’ is understandably sombre as he bids his goodbyes to a loved one, despite some sonic sweetening.
An orchestrated sequence of synths, influenced at points by Wendy Carlos, takes proceedings ‘Into The 80’s’ with Baeckström’s post-modern take on Canadian rocker Nick Gilder’s 1979 thoughts on that future decade.
The bouncy ERASURE-ish superpop of ‘Silence’ pleas for restraint despite the party atmosphere, highlighting the contrast of light and shade that lingers simultaneously throughout this ‘Utopia’. Closing with ‘Blinded’, the soaring swaying ballad lets a young choir girl named Lina innocently offset the drama of its electronic interplay.
In hard times, people get nostalgic and through its composition of sound, ‘Utopia’ does as the ninth track suggests and makes references to the past. However, whereas ‘Like Before’ was very much about escape embroiled in optimism, ‘Utopia’ is much more of a reality check, darker and perhaps less immediate, but still pristinely crafted and textured. For all that, the spirit of ‘Utopia’ is hardly ‘Black Celebration’, although it adopts its attitude of being realistic rather than pessimistic.
Johan Baeckström uses his many analogue machines to turn his well-written songs into appealing and emotive synthpop, proving indeed that the synth is not dead. This is a fine and accomplished second album by the man from Karlskoga that gets better with each listen.
Instruments used on ‘Utopia’: Akai AX-73, ARP Odyssey, Arturia Minibrute, Crumar Bit One, Dave Smith Instruments Prophet 08, DB Noise Can, Korg Mono/Poly, Korg MS-20, Korg Volca Bass, Moog Little Phatty, Minimoog, Roland Jupiter 6, Roland Juno-106, Roland SH-09, Sequential Circuits Pro-One, Waldorf Streichfett, Yamaha DX7 and Yamaha CS-10