The number of Scottish connected indie personalities who have gone electronic can literally be counted on one hand. Lloyd Cole took the plunge and started twiddling with modulars after the first decade of the 21st Century, collaborating with German legend Hans-Joachim Roedelius of CLUSTER along the way.
Now Andrew Montgomery, former vocalist of GENEVA who scored hits with ‘Into The Blue’, ‘Tranquilizer’ and ‘Best Regrets’ in 1997, has teamed up with Leo Josefsson of Stockholm trio LOWE to form US.
Label mates of SUEDE, GENEVA were characterised by Montgomery’s passionate vocals not far from a doomed romantic version of James Dean Bradfield. But despite their jangling guitars, their string assisted backing gave them a sublime cinematic quality.
That voice is carried over into US and combined with LOWE’s electronic Nordic noir, this unusual hybrid has been described as “a soundtrack for your dreams”. Now if Jeff Buckley had dumped his Fender Telecaster for a Korg MS20, then that is the dark anthemic sound of US.
The pair started writing together in 2015, with Josefsson stepping back to a musician role having been the front man of LOWE; “It took us four years to put together this album” said Montgomery, “but it’s been an absolute blast. I feel as if Leo’s synths and my vocals are a match made in musical heaven”.
‘First Contact’ is a curious mix of GENEVA and LOWE, with ‘Till the Dying of the Light’ their haunting debut offering. Released in 2017, it signalled US’ artistic intentions, exploiting the spirited choir boy range of Montgomery within an elegiac electronic soundscape; it recalled the anguished qualities of Jay-Jay Johanson who notably collaborated with THE KNIFE on ‘Marble House’.
But ‘First Contact’ begins with ‘Mute’, a track which starts in neo-acapella fashion before Josefsson constructs a cinematic percussive lattice around Montgomery’s distinctive melancholic tones, climaxing into something more militaristic. The lyrical couplet of “I will be mute, only silence speaks the truth” adds tension to the drama.
Meanwhile, ‘Voyager’ goes all spacey avant trance in a wonderful cross-pollination of styles that comes over something like MUSE at Gatecrasher. The glorious ‘The Stars That Arc Across the Sky’ will appeal to GENEVA fans, although its building metronomic beat might confuse those more used to hearing a full drum kit. While the guitar work of Mats Jönsson isn’t that far off classic U2, it’s a great song all the same.
The rousing poignancy of ‘In Denial’ is cut from a similar cloth. Interestingly, GENEVA’s second album ‘Weather Underground’ was half produced by Howie B who worked on the Irish quartet’s polarising ‘Pop’ long player.
The Schaffel laden ‘Technicolor also provides some more indie colours albeit with pulsing bass synths, but ‘Never Get Over’ brings back the Nordic moodiness before the intensity rises with a cacophony of guitars and live drums.
‘Flow My Tears’ also ventures into more indie rock territory and while it cannot be denied that Montgomery is a master of the uplifting topline, this track may be the one that will alienate regular enthusiasts of Swedish synth music the most. An epic diversion is provided on ‘As a Child’ with the utilisation of a string section and again, Montgomery’s emotive high register expression is impressive.
Without the aid of a safety net and Josefsson providing only subtle but widescreen backing for the first two thirds, the downtempo ‘My Heart’s Desire’ is all Montgomery and verging on operatic before the album closes with the brooding Celtic blues of ‘The Healer’ where the electronically treated vocals generate an even greater bleakness to taunt the soul.
An album of two halves with much promise, ‘First Contact’ is a well-crafted debut record, expressing broken dreams and midlife sorrows.
The template of contrast might confuse some, but indie and electronic can mix effectively and the results certainly have more melodic accessibility than say, a modern day RADIOHEAD or DEPECHE MODE long player. It really is all about US.
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.
There are many bands from the Synth Britannia-era that are often perceived as being electronic, when in fact they either started off in a traditional band format and integrated synthesizers/sequencers or remained like that throughout most of their career.
ULTRAVOX, NEW ORDER and GARY NUMAN all fell into that format, but what about others who have successfully managed to meld the rigidity and coldness of electronics with the more human element of guitars.
This list aims to highlight tracks both vintage and more recent that give the listener the “best of both worlds” when it comes to an electronic and live band aesthetic. It is presented in chronological order with a restriction of one track per artist moniker…
ULTRAVOX All Stood Still (1980)
With the exception of ‘Mr X’ (and even that featured Billy Currie’s viola), all of the tracks on ‘Vienna’ featured live instrumentation of one form or another; whether it be Midge Ure’s guitar or Chris Cross’ live bass. Despite being underpinned by the band’s’ trademark Minimoog bass pulse and Currie’s squealing ARP Odyssey solo, ‘All Stood Still’ rocks pretty hard with Ure’s guitar running throughout in what would become the fourth single to be released from the album.
A hybrid of Giorgio Moroder electronics and heavy guitars, the song with its extended middle section showcases some truly wonderful interlocking sequencer parts. Despite some major axe-wielding done by Midge Ure and John McGeoch, there was still room for some Simmons drum rolls by RUSTY EGAN and a trademark BILLY CURRIE synth lead.
Available on the album ‘Visage’ via Polydor Records
‘Quiet Life’ which was originally the B-side to the UK single ‘I Second That Emotion’, only became a chart hit when it was released by Hansa Records to capitalize on the success of the ‘Tin Drum’ album. Featuring guitar work from Rob Dean (who used an E-Bow to achieve the long sustained notes on the track), he departed the band after the ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’ album when his guitar work started be regarded as superfluous to the band’s sound.
Combining Jupiter 4 arpeggiators, a Roland CR78 and chugging guitars, ‘I Die: You Die’ was a song written by Numan about the symbiotic relationship he had with the music press. Considering the track was a single, it was notable in that during its 3 and a half minute length, nearly half of the track was instrumental with a long intro and extended musical outro.
Combining both of the signature electronic sounds from their eponymous debut, flanged sequencer and string synth, ‘Careless Memories’ also rocks because of Andy Taylor’s guitar which takes over the track from the second verse onwards, affirming The Guardian’s 2015 synopsis that DURAN DURAN were indeed “an electronic band with a heavy rock guitarist bolted on”.
Although only charting at No42 in the UK charts, ‘Love My Way’ still remains a mainstay of New Wave / synth compilations from its era. Featuring Numan-inspired synths and a marimba played by track producer Todd Rundgren, the promo video was directed by Tim Pope who would go onto make his name as director of choice for THE CURE while guitarist John Ashton had a sideline producing THE SISTERS OF MERCY.
TEARS FOR FEARS’ ‘Pale Shelter’ was released three separate times with an edit of the Mike Howlett produced version being made available after the success of the ‘Songs From the Big Chair’ album. The promo video for the Ross Cullum/Chris Hughes re-recording of the track is in turns both surreal and incomprehensible, but still doesn’t diminish the power of a song which combines acoustic guitars and electronics seamlessly.
Notable for its use in the sci-fi film ‘Hardware’, ‘The Order of Death’ is a primarily instrumental piece with Floydian-influences and a mantra-like chant of “This is what you want, this is what you get” being the only featured vocal throughout. This atypical PiL track was arguably one of the better things about the film ‘Hardware’ which was a low-budget affair that owed more than a passing debt to ‘The Terminator’ and ‘Alien’, while it also latterly appeared in ‘The Blair Witch Project’.
The glorious string synth melody helps this CURE track make it into the 25 of this listing. One of Robert Smith’s most covered songs, with interpretations ranging from a grunge guitar version by DINOSAUR JR through to one by the wildly inoffensive KATIE MELUA; what is less known is that an instrumental version of ‘Just Like Heaven’ was used as the theme music to the French TV programme ‘Les Enfants du Rock’, helping give the song a wider European exposure prior to its eventual release.
Despite courting controversy, ‘Personal Jesus’ was inspired by a book about ELVIS PRESLEY’s wife Priscilla; Martin Gore revealed to Spin Magazine: “It’s a song about being a Jesus for somebody else, someone to give you hope and care. It’s about how Elvis was her man and her mentor and how often that happens in love relationships; how everybody’s heart is like a god in some way. We play these god-like parts for people but no one is perfect, and that’s not a very balanced view of someone is it?”.
Available on the album ‘Violator’ via Mute Records
With a verse vocal melody scaringly similar to ABC’s ‘All of My Heart’, ‘Get The Message’ was the second single from the debut ELECTRONIC album. The Marr/Sumner collaboration cracked the Top 10 in 1991, but didn’t go down well with Melody Maker who described listening to the track as “Like watching a pony chew on a carrot for half an hour”!
With a synthetic introduction that sounds like a prime Violator-era DEPECHE MODE track, the song also features the twin guitar attack of Richard Kruspe and Paul Landers. Translated as “I want”, the track is noteworthy for the call and response section latterly in the piece, where RAMMSTEIN fans were recorded in an arena to get the epic and some might say, controversial Teutonic rally feel.
There are countless NEW ORDER tracks that could feature on this list, in fact you could probably fill all 25 slots with their hybrid electronic / rock tracks. The ‘Crystal’ promotional video is notable for inspiring Brandon Flowers from THE KILLERS to name his act from the fictional band which mimes to the song has the name emblazoned on the drummer’s kick drum!
Available on the album ‘Singles’ via Rhino Records
‘This Is The New Sh*t’ takes a lyrically cynical swipe at over-obsessed music fans devotion to their favourite bands. The track combines glitchy synths, analogue step sequencers, a ‘When The Levee Breaks’-style drum pattern and a dynamic screamed chorus from MANSON. In one of music’s most unlikely (and inspired) pairings, GOLDFRAPP re-interpreted the track with Alison adding a wonderful 20s influenced outro replete with her interpretation of the sweary vocals.
Available on the album ‘Hot Fuss’ via Interscope Records
With an opening 20 second blitzkrieg of synths and guitars, ‘Somebody Told Me’ needed a couple of releases for it to become a decent chart hit in the UK. Amusingly described by singer and keyboardist Brandon Flowers as “‘Rio’ with chest hair”, the song eventually reached No3 in the UK singles charts when it was re-released in 2005.
Available on the album ‘Hot Fuss’ via Lizard King Records
American act THE BRAVERY actually won ‘BBC Sound Of 2005’ and had a Top 10 single with their debut track ‘An Honest Mistake’, but unfortunately weren’t able to follow it up. Successfully merging sequenced synths and NEW ORDER-style guitars, the band also secured the support slot on DEPECHE MODE’s ‘Touring The Angel’ set of live shows but ditched the synths by their lukewarm second album ‘The Sun & The Moon’.
Led by Emily Haines, Canadian combo METRIC and their ‘Poster Of A Girl’ features a mixture of fizzing monosynths that evoke those used on THE CURE’s ‘Seventeen Seconds’ and ‘Faith’. The song’s deliciously filthy lyrics and seedy video combine to make this track a classic hybrid of guitars and synthesizers.
‘Only’ breaks all the rules of song structuring (the listener has to wait a full two minutes and eighteen seconds before the chorus hook comes in) and showcases a video promo which owes more than a passing debt to MIDGE URE’s ‘If I Was’. The song itself has one of those signature Reznor synth parts that immediately identifies it as a NIN track and combines this with sequencers and guitars to great effect.
It would be easy to dismiss Israel’s INFECTED MUSHROOM as an EDM / Psytrance act, but dig a little deeper and you will hear a multitude of influences. ‘Smashing The Opponent’ featuring vocals from Jonathan Davis of KORN, owes a major debt to DEPECHE MODE’s ‘Behind the Wheel’. A superb sequenced synth bassline drives the track along whilst a mixture of clean and distorted guitars help give the track an added live dimension & power that electronics alone would struggle to manage.
An unholy mix of the ‘Dr Who’ theme, ‘White Wedding’ by BILLY IDOL, ‘Call Me’ by BLONDIE and the BLACK SABBATH track ‘Children of the Grave’, ‘Uprising’ saw MUSE bring synths to the fore with this GOLDFRAPP-inspired schaffel stomp from the album ‘The Resistance’. The similarity with the BLONDIE song resulted in Debbie Harry and co mashing up the two songs when playing live.
One of the standout tracks from their debut album ‘To Lose My Life’, ‘E.S.T.’ was inspired by Electric Shock Therapy, the form of medical treatment that was given to WHITE LIES bass player Charles Cave’s mentally ill great grandmother. The track combines U2 style guitar lines and bombastic synths with Harry McVeigh’s Julian Cope aping vocal style to great effect.
KORN featuring SKRILLEX + KILL THE NOISE Narcissistic Cannibal (2011)
From the ‘When KORN went Dubstep’ phase, with SKRILLEX on production duties and synths/programming. The Electricity Club vividly remembers the general confusion which greeted KORN when they unveiled their new electronic direction in 2012; the act played Brixton Academy supported by Dubstep act DOWNLINK and a DJ set from frontman Jonathan Davis, much to the general bemusement of the band’s hard core fans.
With a German lullaby-style intro vocal, ‘I Come With Knives’ has a pretty low-key start until the listener is dragged screaming and kicking into the chorus with Chris Corner’s histrionic vocals at times evoking MUSE’s Matt Bellamy. The track successfully combines live drums, guitars and synths and is a definite standout in the IAMX catalogue.
The standout track from LA-based BATTLE TAPES’ debut album ‘Polygon’. ‘Valkyrie’ is a brilliant merging of rock band dynamics and sequenced electronic elements. Lyrically the song is one of those that the listener can analyse countless times and still not have a clue what it’s all about (…and that’s a good thing).
Taking their cues from JOY DIVISION but welding them to a dance music aesthetic, France’s VOX LOW’s epic 8 and a half minute single ‘Something Is Wrong’ is a slow builder with wonderfully quirky lyrics about patching synths and flangers. “You plug the wire… not the good wire…”