Tag: Steve Jansen (Page 1 of 3)

Ten Years Of TEC: STILL PUSHING THE ENVELOPE

The Electricity Club celebrates its tenth birthday and it really has been synthly the best.

At the HEAVEN 17 aftershow party for their triumphant gig at The Magna Science Park on 6th March 2010, following chats with Glenn Gregory, Martyn Ware, Paul Humphreys and Claudia Brücken, interview opportunities opened up.

It was obvious there was gap waiting to be filled for a quality web publication that featured the best in new and classic electronic pop without having to lower itself to using the dreaded “80s” label. The Electricity Club was it and became reality on 15th March 2010.

Electronic pop music didn’t start in that Thatcher decade and certainly didn’t end there either. So there was even an editorial diktat which banned The Electricity Club’s writers from using the lazy”80s” term as a reference. Tellingly, several PR representatives said that one of the site’s main appeals was that it avoided the whole nostalgia bent that had been presented by both virtual and physical media.

At the time, kooky female fronted keyboard based pop like LA ROUX, LITTLE BOOTS, LADYHAWKE, LADY GAGA and MARINA & THE DIAMONDS were among those touted as being the future at the time. But it proved to be something of a red herring, as those acts evolved back into what they actually were, conventional pop acts.

The Electricity Club preferred the sort of innovative synthpop as outlined in BBC4’s Synth Britannia documentary with the next generation of artists like MARSHEAUX, VILE ELECTRODES, VILLA NAH and MIRRORS more than fitting the bill and that ethos of featuring pop music using synthesizers stuck too.

Meanwhile, The Electricity Club’s portfolio expanded swiftly with key personalities such as Rusty Egan, Sarah Blackwood, Richard James Burgess, Warren Cann, Chris Payne, Thomas Dolby, John Foxx, Andy McCluskey, Neil Arthur, Alan Wilder, Mark Reeder, Gary Langan, Jori Hulkkonen, Howard Jones, Mira Aroyo, Sarah Nixey and Hannah Peel among those giving interviews to the site during its first two years.

The Electricity Club has always prided itself in asking the questions that have never usually been asked, but which fans want to know the answers to. And it was with this reputation for intelligent and well researched interviewing that in March 2011, the site was granted its biggest coup yet.

Speaking to Stephen Morris of the then-on hiatus NEW ORDER, the drummer cryptically hinted during the ensuing chat that Manchester’s finest would return by saying “I never say never really”; and that is exactly what happened in Autumn of that year and the band have been there since, as popular as ever and still making great music with the release of ‘Music Complete’ in 2015.

Monday 21st March 2011 was an interesting day that partied like it was 1981 when it saw the release of albums by DURAN DURAN, THE HUMAN LEAGUE and JOHN FOXX & THE MATHS. Also in 2011, Mute Records celebrated their influential legacy with a weekender also at London’s Roundhouse which culminated in ERASURE, YAZOO and THE ASSEMBLY performing in the same set.

Despite the ‘Brilliant’ return of ULTRAVOX, 2012 paled in comparison after such a fruitful year and several acts who were featured probably would not have gained as much coverage in more competitive periods. With pressure from outsiders as to what was hot and what was not, this was the only time The Electricity Club felt it was obliged to support a domestic scene.

But realising acts like HURTS and STRANGERS were actually just jumping on an apparent synth bandwagon and possessing more style than substance, The Electricity Club decided to change tact and only featured acts it felt truly passionate about, even if it meant upsetting the wider synth community. The reasoning being that just because a band uses a synthesizer doesn’t mean it is good.

During this time, MIRRORS sadly disbanded while VILLA NAH mutated into SIN COS TAN. But the year did see the launch of CHVRCHES who stood out from the crowd with their opening gambit ‘Lies’. With their Taylor Swift gone electro template, Lauren Mayberry and Co managed to engage an audience who didn’t know or care what a Moog Voyager was, to listen to synthpop!

2013 turned out to be one of the best years for electronic pop since its Synth Britannia heyday. What The Electricity Club achieved during this year would take up a whole article in itself… there were high profile interviews with Alison Moyet, Gary Numan and Karl Bartos while OMD released the album of the decade in ‘English Electric’. PET SHOP BOYS made up for their ‘Elysium’ misstep with ‘Electric’ while there was finally a third volume in BEF’s ‘Music Of Quality & Distinction’ covers series.

Although 2014 started tremendously with The Electricity Club being invited to meet Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flür in Cologne, the year suffered next to quality of 2013.

The interviews continued, particularly with key figures from the Synth Britannia era including Midge Ure and the often forgotten man of the period Jo Callis who was a key member of THE HUMAN LEAGUE during their imperial phase.

But the year saw grandeurs of delusion at their highest, with one artist of a far too normal disposition in particular failing to realise that in order for a crowdfunding campaign to succeed, they needed to actually have quite a few fans in the first place!

Then, there was the similarly clueless Alt-Fest debacle which saw the organisers play Fantasy Festival with no cash to underwrite the infrastructure to enable it to actually happen!

Sadly today, there are still egotistic chancers organising events with zero budget and the money from ticket sales being fleeced to fund their holidays. But these artificial factors are rarely considered and so long as there are lower league artists desperate to play for nowt and a misguided enhancement in profile that is often on a platform that provides minimal exposure anyway, then the confidence tricks will continue.

2015 saw the local emergence of Rodney Cromwell and Gwenno, while the majestic Swedish duo KITE proved that they were the best synth act in Europe with the ‘VI’ EP and their impressive live show.

It was also the year when ERASURE front man Andy Bell gave his first interview to The Electricity Club to offer some revealing insights.

Making something of a comeback after a recorded absence of nearly eight years, Jean-Michel Jarre presented his ambitious two volume ‘Electronica’ project which saw collaborations with a varied pool of musicians including Pete Townsend, Lang Lang, John Carpenter, Vince Clarke, Hans Zimmer, Cyndi Lauper, Sebastien Tellier and Gary Numan.

VILLA NAH returned in 2016, as did YELLO with Fifi Rong as one of their guest vocalists while APOPTYGMA BERZERK went instrumental and entered the ‘Exit Popularity Contest’. Riding on the profile generated from their ‘A Broken Frame’ covers album, MARSHEAUX released their biggest-selling long player to date, a two city concept in ‘Ath.Lon’. This was also the year that The Electricity Club first became acquainted with the analogue synthesizer heaven of Johan Baeckström, a modern day Vince Clarke if ever there was one.

2017 saw a bumper crop of great albums from the likes of I SPEAK MACHINE, LCD SOUNDSYSTEM, SOULWAX, IAMX, GOLDFRAPP and DAILY PLANET, while veterans such as Alison Moyet and Gary Numan produced their best work of the 21st Century.

However DEPECHE MODE unleashed their most dire record yet in ‘Spirit’, a dreary exercise in faux activism bereft of tunes. Salt was rubbed into the wound when they merely plonked an underwhelming arena show into a stadium for their summer London show.

The trend was to continue later in 2019 as DEPECHE MODE just plonked 14 albums into a boxed set, while OMD offered an album of quality unreleased material in their ‘Souvenir’ package.

And with DEPECHE MODE’s sad descent into a third rate pseudo-rock combo during the last 15 years to appease that ghastly mainstream American institution called The Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame with guitars and drums, Dave Gahan in particular with his ungrateful dismissal of the pioneering synth-based material with which he made his fortune with, now has what he has always coveted.

And don’t get The Electricity Club started on the 2019 Moog Innovation Award being given to Martin Gore, a real insult to true synth pioneers if ever there was one, including Daniel Miller, Vince Clarke and Alan Wilder, the three men who actually did the electronic donkey work on those imperial phase DEPECHE MODE albums! Gore may have been a very good songwriter during that time, but a synth innovator? Oh come on!?!

With regards Synth Britannia veterans, new albums in 2017 from Richard Barbieri and Steve Jansen saw a revived interest in JAPAN, the band with which they made their name.

Despite releasing their final album ‘Tin Drum’ in 1981, as a later conversation with one-time guitarist Rob Dean proved, cumulatively from related article views, JAPAN became the most popular act on The Electricity Club.

The return of SOFT CELL dominated 2018 with a lavish boxed set that was not just comprised of previously released long players, new songs, new books, a BBC documentary and a spectacular farewell show at London’s O2 Arena.

Meanwhile, adopting a much lower profile were LADYTRON with their comeback and an eventual eponymous sixth album. A Non Stop Electronic Cabaret saw Canadian veterans RATIONAL YOUTH play their first ever UK gig alongside PAGE and PSYCHE, but coming out of Brooklyn to tour with ERASURE was REED & CAROLINE.

EMIKA was ‘Falling In Love With Sadness’ and Swedish songstress IONNALEE showcased one of the best value-for-money live presentations in town, with a show that surreal imagined Kate Bush at a rave!

But from China came STOLEN, one of the most exciting bands in years who were then later rewarded for their graft with a European tour opening for NEW ORDER.

2019 was the year when synthwave graduates Dana Jean Phoenix and Ollie Wride were coming into their own as live performers, while electronic disco maestro Giorgio Moroder embarked on a concert tour for the first time with his songs being the true stars of the show.

Gary Daly of CHINA CRISIS gave his first interview to The Electricity Club to tie in with his solo album ‘Gone From Here’, while a pub lunch with Mark White and Stephen Singleton mutated into an extensive chat about their days in ABC. Lloyd Cole adopted a more synthesized template on ‘Guessworks’ and Britpop went synth as GENEVA’s Andrew Montgomery formed US with Leo Josefsson of Swedish trio LOWE.

If The Electricity Club does have a proudest achievement in its first ten years, then it is giving extensive early coverage to VILLA NAH, MIRRORS, VILE ELECTRODES, METROLAND, TINY MAGNETIC PETS and SOFTWAVE, six acts who were later invited to open on tour for OMD.

Partly because of this success, some of those who were less talented felt aggrieved despite feeling a narcisstic entitlement to be featured. A few deluded artists even went as far as to blame The Electricity Club publically for their lack of traction! NoW that’s what The Electricity Club calls deluded!

If an act is good enough, the fact that The Electricity Club hasn’t featured them should not matter, especially as other electronic and synth blogs are available. After taking its eye of the ball once before in 2012, The Electricity Club maintained a trust of its own gut instinct.

Meanwhile, its stance has been tested by those shouting loudest who instantaneously champion what they perceive as the next big thing like sheep, without really looking ahead at a wider picture. However, TRAVIS on VSTs is just not The Electricity Club’s thing frankly…

The Electricity Club’s participation in the annual ELECTRI_CITY_CONFERENCE in Düsseldorf for on-stage interviews with Rusty Egan, Chris Payne, Mark Reeder and Zeus B Held was another high profile engagement to be proud of. Then there were six TEC branded live events and five rounds of hosting ‘An Audience with Rusty Egan’ in one of the most unenviable but highly entertaining refereeing assignments in music 😉

Other highlights over the last ten years have included The Electricity Club’s 2015 career retrospective on German trio CAMOUFLAGE being edited and used as booklet notes for the Universal Music sanctioned compilation CD ‘The Singles’.

There was also ‘The Electricity Club’ 2CD released by Amour Records in 2019 which included TEC featured acts like MESH, SECTION 25, SIN COS TAN, KID KASIO, NIGHT CLUB, QUIETER THAN SPIDERS, ELECTRONIC CIRCUS, DAYBEHAVIOR, LIEBE, TWINS NATALIA, KID MOXIE, GIRL ONE & THE GREASE GUNS, ELEVEN: ELEVEN, AUTOMATIC WRITING, FOTONOVELA and QUEEN OF HEARTS among its 34 excellent tracks, including a bangin’ MARSHEAUX remix of Katy Perry!

As 2020 settles in, highly regarded artists within the electronic community continue to engage with The Electricity Club. Neil Arthur recently gave his seventh interview as BLANCMANGE and his tenth interview overall, taking into account his side projects FADER and NEAR FUTURE. Not far behind, Martyn Ware has also been a regular interviewee having spoken to the site on six occasions while Paul Humphreys has been interviewed no less than five times.

The Electricity Club is still pushing the envelope, continuing to reflect the interests of people who love the Synth Britannia era and have a desire to hear new music seeded from that ilk. With artists like ANI GLASS, IMI, KNIGHT$, NINA, MECHA MAIKO, GEISTE and PLASMIC among those on the cusp of a wider breakthrough, there is still more excellent music still to be created, discovered and savoured.

One inferior revivalist platform featuring far too much normal rubbish once complained that The Electricity Club “only feature bands that are popular…”; what they actually mean is “only feature bands that are really good”! 😉

The Electricity Club gives its sincerest thanks to everyone who has taken the time read any article on the site over the last ten years, it is greatly appreciated.


‘The Electricity Club’ is released by Amour Records / Minos EMI / Universal Music in collaboration with Undo Records as a 34 track 2CD set in a deluxe 6 panel digipak with track-by-track commentary and ‘O’ card; the compilation be purchased from the following retailers:

Europe http://www.poponaut.de/various-artists-electricity-club-p-18056.html

North America https://stormingthebase.bandcamp.com/merch/various-the-electricity-club-2cd

The tracklisting is:

CD1

01 MAISON VAGUE Synthpop’s Alive
02 KID KASIO Full Moon Blue
03 ELECTRONIC CIRCUS Roundabout
04 DAYBEHAVIOR It’s A Game (Marsheaux remix)
05 MARNIE The Hunter
06 ELEVEN:ELEVEN Through The Veil
07 NIGHT CLUB Cruel Devotion
08 QUEEN OF HEARTS United
09 KATY PERRY Hot ‘N’ Cold (Marsheaux remix)
10 ERASURE Be The One (Paul Humphreys remix)
11 KID MOXIE The Bailor
12 KEEP SHELLY IN ATHENS Oostende
13 FOTONOVELA featuring JAMES NEW Our Sorrow (Original mix)
14 GIRL ONE & THE GREASE GUNS Jessica 6
15 AUTOMATIC WRITING Continuous
16 METROLAND Thalys (London Edit)
17 RODNEY CROMWELL Black Dog

CD2

01 SIN COS TAN Trust
02 POLLY SCATTERGOOD Other Too Endless (Vince Clarke remix)
03 TENEK What Do You Want? (Alternate TEC version)
04 ANALOG ANGEL We Won’t Walk Away
05 ARTHUR & MARTHA Autovia
06 MARSHEAUX Suffer The Children
07 SECTION 25 My Outrage
08 047 featuring LISA PEDERSEN Everything’s Fine
09 TAXX Is It Love?
10 LIEBE I Believe In You
11 QUIETER THAN SPIDERS Shanghai Metro
12 iEUROPEAN featuring WOLFGANG FLÜR Activity Of Sound
13 TWINS NATALIA Destiny
14 MESH Tuesday
15 MIRRORS Between Four Walls
16 OMD Time Burns (Fotonovela rework)
17 VILE ELECTRODES Deep Red

Please note this product is NOT on sale through The Electricity Club website and only via retailers


Text by Chi Ming Lai
Image Design by Volker Maass
16th March 2020

TEC’s 2018 End Of Year Review

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.

Those who liked their electronic music darker were well served with NINE INCH NAILS, IAMX, KIRLIAN CAMERA and HELIX, but after experimenting with the single only format for a few years, Daniel Graves announced he was taking the plunge again with a new AESTHETIC PERFECTION album.

The Sacred Bones stable provided some quality releases from THE SOFT MOON, HILARY WOODS, ZOLA JESUS and JOHN CARPENTER. Meanwhile, providing some fierce socio-political commentary on the state of the UK was GAZELLE TWIN.

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.

Aussies CONFIDENCE MAN provided some wacky dancey glitz to the pop world and after nearly four decades in the business, Canadian trailblazers RATIONAL YOUTH finally played their first ever concert in London at ‘Non Stop Electronic Cabaret’ alongside dark wave compatriots PSYCHE and Numan-influenced Swedish poptronica exponents PAGE.

Sweden was again highly productive with KARIN PARK, JOHAN BAECKSTRÖM, TRAIN TO SPAIN and VAL SOLO while Norway took their own approach with FARAOSOFT AS SNOW and ELECTRO SPECTRE setting their standard. Veteran Deutschlanders THE TWINS and PETER HEPPNER returned with new albums after notable recorded absences while next door in Belgium, METROLAND presented themselves as ‘Men In A Frame’.

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.

It was a year of interesting collaborations all-round with UNDERWORLD working with Iggy Pop, U96 linking up with Wolfgang Flür for an excellent single called ‘Zukunftsmusik’ and German techno pioneer CHRIS LIEBING recruiting POLLY SCATTERGOOD and GARY NUMAN for his Mute released album ‘Burn Slow’.

Based in Berlin, THE KVB offered up some brooding gothic moods with ‘Only Now Forever’ while Valerie Renay of NOBLESSE OBLIGE released her first solo album ‘Your Own Shadow’.

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.

IMMERSION provided a new collection of their modern Motorik as SHRIEKBACK, FISCHERSPOONER, THE PRESETS, HEARTBREAK and QUEEN OF HEARTS all made comebacks of varying degrees with audiences still eager for their work.

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.

Having been championed by RÖYSKSOPP, Wales’ MAN WITHOUT COUNTRY returned with ‘Infinity Mirror’ while riding on the well-deserved momentum from opening for OMD, Ireland’s TINY MAGNETIC PETS embarked on their first headlining tour. Representing North of the border were RYAN VAIL and HANNAH PEEL, but hailing from Scotland were WITCH OF THE VALE who proved to be one of the most interesting new acts of 2018 having supported ASSEMBLAGE 23 on their most recent UK visit.

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.

Taste is always the key, but then not everyone who loves chocolate likes Hersheys… and with that analogy, The Electricity Club bids farewell to 2018 and looks forward to a 2019 that includes the return of TEARS FOR FEARS and the first full live shows from GIORGIO MORODER, plus new releases by VILE ELECTRODESKITE, VILLA NAH, I AM SNOW ANGEL and LADYTRON.


THE ELECTRICITY CLUB Contributor Listings of 2018

PAUL BODDY

Best Album: MAN WITHOUT COUNTRY Infinity Mirror
Best Song: MAN WITHOUT COUNTRY Lafayette
Best Gig: TANGERINE DREAM at London Union Chapel
Best Video: THE SOFT MOON Give Something
Most Promising New Act: VOX LOW


IAN FERGUSON

Best Album: BLANCMANGE Wanderlust
Best Song: ELECTRO SPECTRE The Way You Love
Best Gig: OMD at Glasgow Kelvingrove Park
Best Video: NYXX Voodoo
Most Promising New Act: WITCH OF THE VALE


SIMON HELM

Best Album: DUBSTAR One
Best Song: PAGE Start (Poptronica Version)
Best Gig: DIE KRUPPS + FRONT LINE ASSEMBLY at O2 Academy Islington
Best Video: FIFI RONG Horizon
Most Promising New Act: ZANTi


CHI MING LAI

Best Album: EMIKA Falling In Love With Sadness
Best Song: FIAT LUX It’s You
Best Gig: SOFT CELL at London O2 Arena
Best Video: FAKE TEAK Bears Always Party The Exact Right Amount
Most Promising New Act: WITCH OF THE VALE


MONIKA IZABELA TRIGWELL

Best Album: GUNSHIP Dark All Day
Best Song: SHELTER Karma
Best Gig: IAMX at London Electric Ballroom
Best Video: JUNO REACTOR Let’s Turn On
Most Promising New Act: MECHA MAIKO


Text by Chi Ming Lai
8th December 2018

EXIT NORTH Interview

EXIT NORTH are the brooding quartet who comprise of Thomas Feiner, Steve Jansen, Ulf Jansson and Charles Storm.

Lead vocalist Feiner first worked with Jansen on his solo albums ‘Slope’ in 2007 and ‘Tender Extinction’ in 2016, but EXIT NORTH began in 2014 when the pair enlisted the talents of Ulf Jansson and Charles Storm.

The combo are about to release their magnificent debut album ‘Book Of Romance and Dust’, a captivating collection of nine songs seeded in Gothenburg and swathed in a variety of wintery instrumental colours including piano, synthesizer, trumpet, harmonium and a string section conducted by Mikael Backegård.

‘Book of Romance and Dust’ is a quality recording that also sees Steve Jansen, who first found fame as a member of JAPAN, returning to drums and percussion following the more ambient nature of his last two releases ‘The Extinct Suite’ and ‘Corridor’. He kindly chatted to The Electricity Club about the genesis and realisation of EXIT NORTH.

How did EXIT NORTH come together as a project?

In 2014 I asked Thomas how he felt about working on a more long term collaborative project with the hope of putting out an album together. His response was positive and since he’d begun writing with Ulf on piano, it seemed like a good idea to pull resources and make it a ‘band’ project.

Later Thomas had the idea to ask Charles to join us. Charles, a popular producer in Sweden, had already worked with Ulf for various sessions and he and Thomas had known one another since their first meeting at a show I performed in Sweden many years earlier.

‘Book Of Romance and Dust’ has had a long gestation period…

Yes, although if you condense the amount of time we actually spent on the making of the record, it would probably be around 3 months work. We each had other commitments and it wasn’t easy to move things forward at a regular pace. But the periods of stagnation were ultimately productive since we were able to re-evaluate more and take one another’s ideas onboard. It sounds the way it does because it took 4 years to complete and I wouldn’t want to change that.

In terms of the compositional dynamic, how often were you able to work together in the same room and what elements could you leave to more remote processes?

I made numerous trips to Gothenburg so that we could record together but after the piano parts were recorded, much of the initial arrangements were dealt with remotely. It’s pretty common these days to exchange audio stems and work on overdubs in the comfort (and affordability) of your own workspace. But we wanted to include a lot of real instruments and performances and because Charles has his own studio in Gothenburg which is fully equipped for live recording, we were able to make the best of both worlds.

Despite being a band project, ‘Book Of Romance and Dust’ does have this amazing forlorn quality about it…

I think it’s simply a matter of each of us being on the same wavelength musically. As is often the case with makers of ‘serious’ music, we’re not forlorn characters by any stretch of the imagination but we are sensitive to, and appreciative of, those more weighty emotions we all carry within us and if we can represent some of that stuff in music without boring everyone to tears then it’s a worthwhile exercise. I don’t think it’s something you can achieve very well when you’re still in your youth, so it makes sense to play to your strengths the older you get.

Much of the music is very cinematic, was there any particular approaches or influences that pointed it in this direction?

Much of the material derived from Ulf’s piano parts and as you can hear he is always introducing melody lines with the chords, and Thomas’ vocals follow different melodies, so as a listener you’re registering more than just the one melody line. There has to be ample space in the music to allow for this and so we managed to strip away anything superfluous and allow the music to breathe. The use of strings help to embellish these melodies and I think perhaps this combination might suggest a cinematic quality.

Thomas Feiner’s vocals have that distinct aged resonance which suits this type of material?

I think Thomas’ voice has a tremendous amount of gravitas and resonance and his delivery is better than most native English singers. I feel very fortunate to be working with someone this good.

What was it like for you to be back involved in songs and playing percussion after your more recent ambient releases?

Great. I’ve missed the experience of being in a group and sharing responsibilities whereby each member focuses on those elements that best serve the recording. There’s a tremendous level of diplomacy in the group and we all played a variety of instruments, some of which we’ve not bothered to credit as it would just look daft. And writing lyrics for songs with beautiful melodies provides a wonderful sense of job satisfaction.

Opening song ‘Bested Bones’ is quite a haunting number with some lovely strings and mysterious tones of brass?

This particular song was one that Thomas and Ulf worked on prior to the four of us teaming up. I think it demonstrates well how the two of them dance around one another melodically. All the strings on the album were added towards the end of the recording sessions and were very much the icing on the cake.

The acoustic elements on the album have a wonderfully airy touch about them, how did you set about achieving this during recording?

The sound of the record is down to Charles and his skill at recording and mixing. He worked tirelessly at making the very best of each and every process of the recording, since this project was so important to him.

‘Passenger’s Wake’ has some unexpected dynamic bursts?

Yes, it’s the most dynamic track on the album. After adding some brass type bursts to the chorus, it set the path to becoming much more aggressive and bombastic. It’s one of those tracks that found its place without any of us seeing it coming.

‘Lessons In Doubt’ has a rich timeless European feel… it would seem that this album has no real influence from across the Atlantic, had that been a conscious decision?

‘Lessons In Doubt’ had a working title of ‘The Russian’ because of the piano melodies. We all like this flavour. For such a simple sounding track it took a lot of work, but the string arrangement and percussive detail really added to that Bolshevik twist. I think it’s fair to say this isn’t an American sounding record which wasn’t a conscious decision, but to be honest I can’t recall ever making an American influenced album.

To The Electricity Club’s ears, ‘Spider’ appears to combine Scott Walker with latter day TALK TALK and THE BLUE NILE?

That didn’t occur to me but it’s a fair enough observation and now that you mention it, I can see what you mean.

The emotive and shimmering two parter ‘Losing’ with Anna Bylund’s angelic soprano counterpoint from   to Thomas’ hum conveys exactly what the title suggests?

The lyrics refer to looking after that which is fragile. I wouldn’t want to describe specially where the inspiration comes from but if that image is relayed then I’m pleased about it.

Who do you hope EXIT NORTH will appeal to?

Ideally anyone who can draw deeper emotions from music but I know that not everyone needs that. I certainly don’t but that’s because I spend too much of my time working on it.


The Electricity Club gives its grateful thanks to Steve Jansen

‘Book Of Romance and Dust’ is released via Bandcamp as a CD and download on 1st October 2018, pre-order from https://exitnorth.bandcamp.com/releases

https://www.exitnorthmusic.com/

https://www.facebook.com/EXITNORTHMUSIC/

http://www.stevejansen.com/

https://www.facebook.com/Steve-Jansen-Official-803014983085400/

https://twitter.com/istevejansen


Text and Interview by Chi Ming Lai
Photos by Thron Ullberg
12th September 2018, updated 14th May 2019

The Electronic Legacy of AMBIENT

Ambient electronic music is a much misunderstood genre.

One is not talking about JEAN-MICHEL JARRE or VANGELIS who are far too comparatively lively to be truly considered ambient. And it is not ‘chill out’ that’s being talked about either, which seems to lump in any form of dance music that is under 112 beats per minute.

Modern ambient probably came to prominence with BRIAN ENO. While lying in a hospital room after a car accident in 1975, a friend visited him and put on a LP of harp music. However the volume had been set at an extremely low level and one of the stereo channels had failed. Unable to move to adjust this, Eno had a new way of listening to music forced onto him.

In recalling this story for the sleeve notes of his ‘Discreet Music’ album, Eno said the music now became “part of the ambience of the environment just as the colour of the light and the sound of rain were parts of the ambience.”

Eno may not have been the inventor of ambient, but he was almost certainly was its midwife. With its lengthy gradual processes and unpredictable changes, ambient can be listened to and yet ignored. Going against the Western tradition of music where vocals, melody and rhythm are essential components, ambient music is designed to accommodate many levels of listening without enforcing one in particular.

One of the other beauties of ambient music is that the pieces are often so progressive that it becomes quite difficult to remember individual sections.

Therefore on repeated plays, the music can still sound fresh and rewarding. It was an approach that fascinated many and while they may not have released whole works, artists such as DAVID BOWIE, THE HUMAN LEAGUE, OMD, BLANCMANGE and RADIOHEAD recorded ambient pieces for album tracks or B-sides.

Comments about ambient music being “boring” are missing the point, because at points of the day where the state of near sleep looms, music with no vocals, no rhythms and not too much energetic melody is perfect.

Restricted to one album per moniker or collaborative partnership, here are the twenty long players presented in chronological and then alphabetical order which form The Electricity Club’s Electronic Legacy of Ambient. Acting as a straightforward introduction to the genre, it refers to many artists whose comparatively mainstream works may already be familiar.


KLAUS SCHULZE Timewind (1974)

A one-time member of TANGERINE DREAM and ASH RA TEMPLE, ‘Timewind’ was Schulze’s first solo album to use a sequencer, evolving as a longer variation on his former band’s ‘Phaedra’. Referencing 19th century composer Richard Wagner, Schulze transposed and manipulated the sequences in real time, providing shimmering and kaleidoscopic washes of electronic sound using equipment such as the EMS Synthi A, ARP 2600, ARP Odyssey, Elka string machine and Farfisa organ.

‘Timewind’ is available via Mig Music

https://www.klaus-schulze.com


TANGERINE DREAM Phaedra (1974)

‘Phaedra’ was the breakthrough record for TANGERINE DREAM which saw them using sequencers for the first time. Featuring the classic line-up of Edgar Froese, Peter Baumann and Chris Franke, the hypnotic noodles of EMS VCS3s and Moogs dominated proceedings while Mellotrons sounding like orchestras trapped inside a transistor radio. Organic lines and flute added to trancey impressionism to produce a fine meditative electronic soundtrack.

‘Phaedra’ is available via Virgin Records

http://www.tangerinedream.org/


CLUSTER Sowiesoso (1976)

The late Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius were CLUSTER. Having released their first long player together in 1969, their fourth album ‘Sowiesoso’ was CLUSTER’s first fully realised exploration into ambient electronics. With gentle melodic phrasing and unimposing rhythmical patterns, the title track was a wonderfully hypnotic adventure that welcomed the listener into the soothing world of the longer player’s remaining aural delights.

‘Sowiesoso’ is available via Bureau B

http://www.roedelius.com/


ASHRA New Age Of Earth (1977)

ASH RA TEMPLE’s Manuel Göttsching was looking to visit synthesized climes and explored more progressive voxless territory armed with an Eko Rhythm Computer, ARP Odyssey and what was to become his signature keyboard sound, a Farfisa Synthorchestra. An exponent of the more transient solo guitar style of PINK FLOYD’s David Gilmour, this template was particularly evident on New Age Of Earth’, a beautiful treasure trove of an album.

‘New Age Of Earth’ is available via Virgin Records

http://www.ashra.com/


STEVE HILLAGE Rainbow Dome Musick (1979)

One-time member of GONG, solo artist and an in-house producer at Virgin Records, Steve Hillage had a love of German experimental music and ventured into ambient with long standing partner Miquette Giraudy. Recorded for the Rainbow Dome at the Festival for Mind-Body-Spirit at Olympia, these two lengthy Moog and ARP assisted tracks each had a beautifully spacey quality to induce total relaxation with a colourful sound spectrum.

‘Rainbow Dome Musick’ is available via Virgin Records

https://twitter.com/stevehillage


HAROLD BUDD & BRIAN ENO The Plateaux Of Mirror (1980)

Mostly piano-oriented, its backdrop of shimmering synthesizer and tape loops of voices was conceived in a sound-world that Eno had created via his various instrument treatments. With Budd improvising live, Eno would occasionally add something but his producer tact was to step back if nothing extra was needed. ‘The Plateaux Of Mirror’ was a lovely work with resonating ivories of the acoustic and electric variety. A second collaboration came with ‘The Pearl’ in 1984.

‘The Plateaux Of Mirror’ is available via Virgin / EMI Records

https://www.haroldbudd.com


BRIAN ENO Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks (1983)

Recorded as a soundtrack to a documentary film about the Apollo Missions to the moon, one of the inspirations was to react against the uptempo, manner of space travel presented by most TV programmes and news reels of the day with its fast cuts and speeded up images. Eno wanted to convey the feelings of space travel and weightlessness. Although based around Eno’s Yamaha DX7, the album was quite varied instrumentally, featuring his brother Roger and Daniel Lanois.

‘Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks’ is available via Virgin / EMI Records

http://www.brian-eno.net


ROGER ENO Voices (1985)

The debut album from the younger Eno, ‘Voices’ captured a sustained mood of dreamy soundscapes and aural clusters with its beautiful piano template strongly reminiscent of Harold Budd’s work with brother Brian, who was also involved on this record via various electronic treatments although it was actually Daniel Lanois who produced.

‘Voices’ is available via Virgin / EMI Records

http://www.rogereno.com


DAVID SYLVIAN & HOLGER CZUKAY Plight & Premonition / Flux & Mutability (1988 – 1989)

By 1986, the former JAPAN front man wanted to get away from singing as reflected by the ‘Gone To Earth’ bonus album of instrumentals. Sylvian found a willing conspirator in CAN’s Holger Czukay who had developed several unconventional compositional techniques using devices such as short wave radios and Dictaphones. Through a series of improvisations, the duo came up with two companion long players that conveyed a sinister yet tranquil quality drifting along in complex spirals.

‘Plight & Premonition / Flux & Mutability’ is available via Grönland Records

http://www.davidsylvian.com/

http://www.czukay.de/


HAROLD BUDD The White Arcades (1992)

Unlike the comparatively optimistic air of his work with Eno, Harold Budd’s solo journeys often conveyed a more melancholic density, probably best represented by the haunting immersive atmospheres of ‘The White Arcades’. An elegiac combination of shimmering synthesizers and sporadic piano  provided an austere depth that was both ghostly and otherworldly, it was partly inspired by his admiration of COCTEAU TWINS whom he collaborated with on the 1986 4AD album ‘The Moon & The Melodies’.

‘The White Arcades’ is available via Opal Productions

https://www.facebook.com/music.of.harold.budd/


STEVE JANSEN & RICHARD BARBIERI Other Worlds In A Small Room (1996)

With ‘Other Worlds In A Small Room’, Steve Jansen and Richard Barbieri created an atmospheric collection of electronic instrumentals that they considered “Ambient in the traditional sense”. Alongside the three new pieces, there was an appendix of four suitably complimentary tracks from their 1984 album ‘Worlds In A Small Room’ had originally been commissioned by JVC to accompany a documentary about the Space Shuttle Challenger and its various missions.

‘Other Worlds In A Small Room’ is available via https://jansenbarbieri.bandcamp.com/releases

http://www.stevejansen.com/

http://www.kscopemusic.com/artists/richard-barbieri/


VINCENT CLARKE & MARTYN WARE Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle (2000)

‘Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle’ was composed by Vince Clarke and Martyn Ware as part of an Illustrious art installation at The Roundhouse in a circular, white clothed room where the colours referred to in the titles of the six lengthy pieces were “programmed to cross fade imperceptibly to create an infinite variation of hue”. Using binaural 3D mixing techniques, the sleeve notes recommended it was best heard using headphones while stating “This album is intended to promote profound relaxation”.

‘Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle’ is available via Mute Records

http://www.illustriouscompany.co.uk/


WILLIAM ORBIT Pieces In A Modern Style (2000)

Trance enthusiasts who loved Ferry Corsten’s blinding remix of Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio For Strings’ will have been shocked if they had bought its virtually beatless parent long player. Orbit’s concept of adapting classical works was that he wanted to make a chill-out album that had some good tunes. In that respect, a collection featuring lovely electronic versions of Beethoven’s ‘Triple Concerto’ and John Cage’s ‘In A Landscape’ could not really miss.

‘Pieces In A Modern Style’ is available via WEA Records

http://www.williamorbit.com


ALVA NOTO & RYUICHI SAKAMOTO ‎Vrioon (2002)

Alva Noto is a German experimental artist based in Berlin and ‘Vrioon’ was his first collaborative adventure with YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA trailblazer Ryuichi Sakamoto. A beautiful union of piano, synth shimmers and subtle glitch electronics proved to be an unexpectedly soothing and  meditative experience that was gloriously minimal over six starkly constructed mood pieces.

‘Vrioon’ is available via Raster-Noton ‎

http://www.alvanoto.com/

http://www.sitesakamoto.com/


MOBY Hotel: Ambient (2005)

Originally released as part of the 2CD version of ‘Hotel’ in 2005, Moby couldn’t find his copy and decided on an expanded re-release. Inspired by the nature of hotels, where humans spend often significant portions of their lives but have all traces of their tenancy removed for the next guests, the ambient companion progressively got quieter and quieter. The emotive ‘Homeward Angel’ and the solemn presence of ‘The Come Down’ were worth the purchase price alone.

‘Hotel: Ambient’ is available via Mute Records

http://moby.com


ROBIN GUTHRIE & HAROLD BUDD After the Night Falls / Before The Day Breaks (2007)

Robin Guthrie and Harold Budd first collaborated on ‘The Moon & The Melodies’ album along with the other COCTEAU TWINS. ‘After the Night Falls’ and ‘Before the Day Breaks’ were beautiful experiments in duality but it would be unfair to separate these Siamese twins. Serene, relaxing, abstract and distant, Guthrie ‘s textural guitar and Budd’s signature piano were swathed in drifting synths and treatments that complimented each album’s self-explanatory titles.

‘After The Night Falls’ and ‘Before The Day Breaks’ are available via Darla Records

http://www.robinguthrie.com


JOHN FOXX & HAROLD BUDD Nighthawks / Translucence / Drift Music (2003 – 2011)

A sumptuous trilogy featuring two artists who had both worked with Brian Eno. ‘Nighthawks’ was John Foxx and Harold Budd’s most recent collaboration with the late minimalist composer Ruben Garcia and a soothing tranquil nocturnal work with tinkling ivories melting into the subtle layered soundscape with its Edward Hopper inspired title. Meanwhile, the earlier ‘Translucence’ from 2003 was a close relative and classic Budd, partnered with the more subdued overtures of ‘Drift Music’.

‘Nighthawks’ and ‘Translucence / Drift Music’ are available via Metamatic Records

https://www.facebook.com/johnfoxxmetamatic/


JOHN FOXX London Overgrown (2015)

‘London Overgrown’ was John Foxx’s first wholly solo ambient release since the ‘Cathedral Oceans’ trilogy. With the visual narrative of a derelict London where vines and shrubbery are allowed to grow unhindered throughout the city, the conceptual opus was a glorious ethereal synthesizer soundtrack, smothered in a haze of aural sculptures and blurred soundscapes. With ‘The Beautiful Ghost’, as with William Orbit’s take on ‘Opus 132’ from ‘Pieces In A Modern Style’, this was Beethoven reimagined for the 23rd Century.

‘London Overgrown’ is available via Metamatic Records

http://www.metamatic.com


STEVE JANSEN The Extinct Suite (2017)

“I like the effects of calm and dissonance and subtle change” said Steve Jansen to The Electricity Club. Not a remix album as such, the more ambient and orchestral elements of ‘Tender Extinction’ were segued and reinterpreted with new sections to create a suite of instrumentals presented as one beautiful hour long structured ambient record. A gentle blend of electronic and acoustic instrumentation including piano and woodwinds, ‘The Extinct Suite’ exuded a wonderful quality equal to Eno or Budd.

‘The Extinct Suite’ is available via https://stevejansen.bandcamp.com/album/the-extinct-suite-2

http://www.stevejansen.com/


PAUL STATHAM Asylum (2017)

B-MOVIE guitarist and pop tunesmith Paul Statham began his experimental music account with ‘Ephemeral’ and ‘Installation Music 1’. ‘Asylum’ was a more ambitious proposition and featured in an audio visual installation created with painter Jonathan McCree in South London’s Asylum Chapel. The eight compositions together exuded a cinematic, ethereal quality with some darker auras and an eerie sound worthy of the ambient pioneers Statham was influenced by, especially on the gorgeous closer ‘Ascend’.

‘Asylum’ is available via https://paulstatham.bandcamp.com/album/asylum

http://paulstathammusic.com


Text by Chi Ming Lai
22nd August 2018

Sons Of Pioneers: The Legacy of JAPAN

Photo by Nicola Tyson

Although their recorded output covered just five albums over a four year period, JAPAN are one of the most acclaimed bands from the flaboyant and colourful era which many came to know as New Romantic.

JAPAN’s final two studio albums ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’ and ‘Tin Drum’ are being reissued as Abbey Road Half-Speed mastered 2LP gatefold vinyl editions with two tracks per side, running at 45RPM to maximise audio quality.

Along with the pair’s predecessor ‘Quiet Life’, they formed the Holy Trinity of JAPAN records on which the band’s reputation was based. The fact that Universal Music have considered there is sufficient demand for such product is an indication of the high regard JAPAN are held. In many social media discussions about bands which people wished they had seen live, JAPAN are invariably one of the acts that get mentioned.

Photo by Fin Costello

As far as their legacy is concerned, if JAPAN had not led the way with their arty aspirational poise, DURAN DURAN would not have had a role model to inspire them to their subsequent success; Le Bon & Co even used JAPAN’s regular photographer Fin Costello to capture the cover image used on their self-titled debut album.

Thanks to JAPAN’s flamboyant bassist Mick Karn who sadly passed away in January 2011, the sound of the fretless bass became ubiquitous in the mainstream for a number of years; it was a playing style that top session player Pino Palladino ultimately adopted and made his fortune from.

Meanwhile, enigmatic front man David Sylvian was the ultimate pin-up for that flamboyant period, but later progressed to becoming a highly regarded solo artist with a no-compromise approach in parallel to Scott Walker, proving that there is life after pretty boy pop stardom.

Today, drummer Steve Jansen and keyboardist Richard Barbieri continue to release solo albums of a primarily instrumental nature as well as working on collaborative projects, while guitarist Rob Dean is now an ornithologist specialising in Costa Rican birdlife.

Londoners David Sylvian, Mick Karn, Steve Jansen, Richard Barbieri and Rob Dean began their career as an aggressive funk laden glam rock outfit with a straggly image not dissimilar to NEW YORK DOLLS.

Looked after by future WHAM! manager Simon Napier-Bell, who had been drawn to the band by Sylvian’s androgynous good looks which he described as “a cross between Mick Jagger and Brigitte Bardot”, the debut JAPAN album ‘Adolescent Sex’ was released in April 1978 by Ariola Hansa, the German label that had steered BONEY M to great success.

While the bizarre mix of rock, funk, glam and electronics achieved little impact in Britain, it was a surprise success with teenage girls in the country of Japan, resulting in the band playing to packed houses at big venues like Tokyo’s Bukodan.

With a reggae element also thrown into the mix, a largely more rock ‘n’ roll flavoured second album ‘Obscure Alternatives’ was released in October 1978; although it too was met with ambivalence, it proved to be a pivotal turning point for the band with the haunting closing instrumental ‘The Tenant’ a sign of things to come.

JAPAN’s continued success in Japan exposed the band members to South East Asian culture and its fascination with modern technology. These experiences were reflected in the recording of ‘Life In Tokyo’ produced by Giorgio Moroder in April 1979, which was arranged at the behest of Ariola Hansa who felt JAPAN should attempt to crack the disco market.

Now acknowledged as the bridge between growly funk-rock JAPAN and the more familiar, mannered and artier version of the group recognised by most today, ‘Life In Tokyo’ was a key interim landmark in their career as a recording that all band members were happy with.

With the more mannered textures of ROXY MUSIC now emanating from their psyche, the electronically assisted template showcased on ‘Life In Tokyo’ was refined for their third album ‘Quiet Life’ released in January 1980.

Produced by John Punter who had worked on ROXY MUSIC’s ‘Country Life’ album, JAPAN found a willing conspirator who truly believed in them. JAPAN’s look also changed with stylish suits, heavier make-up and shorter coiffured hair for an effeminate demeanour that was similar to the New Romantics who were now frequenting The Blitz Club.

The opening title track’s resonant heart was a Roland System 700 driven by Barbieri’s snappy eight step Oberheim Mini-sequencer. Complimented by Mick Karn’s distinctively fluid fretless bass,and Sylvian’s lyrical conclusion that the band were outsiders in the environment they were born into, it was a sure-fire hit… but not yet as Ariola Hansa didn’t see fit to release ‘Quiet Life’ as a single in the UK at that point!

Also on ‘Quiet Life’, there was also an understated cover of ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’, understood to be Andy Warhol’s favourite Lou Reed composition alongside more uptempo art rock numbers like ‘Fall In Love With Me’ and ‘Halloween’. But the revelations of the ‘Quiet Life’ album were the tear-jerking epics ‘In Vogue’ and ‘The Other Side Of Life’ orchestrated by Ann O’Dell which premiered a very different aspect to JAPAN, one with an emotional centre.

Meanwhile, the gently mysterious ‘Despair’ quoted from some prose by Erik Satie who also influenced its piano aesthetics. Crooned entirely in French, it no doubt took its lead from ROXY MUSIC’s ‘Song For Europe’. Highly cinematic, it was concluded with a glorious melodic ensemble of strings and choirs from an ARP Solina.

After their shaky start, the change in musical style and the more artful demeanour of ‘Quiet Life’ was pointing JAPAN in the right direction and towards Virgin Records. Again produced by John Punter, ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’ saw Richard Barbieri seriously getting into technology with the ARP Omni, Polymoog, Roland Jupiter 4 and Sequential Prophet 5 among the many synths used on the album along with his own Oberheim OBX, Micromoog and Roland System 700.

While wonderful melancholic songs such as the title track and ‘My New Career’ were a natural progression of the muzak which shaped the ‘Quiet Life’ album, the band were beginning to tire of this gentle wall of sound and aspiring to do something more dynamic. Indeed, the dropping of the more conventional sounding ‘Some Kind Of Fool’ for the more abstract Bowie / Eno influenced electronic mood piece ‘Burning Bridges’ at the last minute was a sign of that dilemma.

In the studio, Sylvian in particular as the band’s songwriter was seeking to take more control, leading to disagreements with individual band members as well as Punter with regards production.

With Sylvian now writing songs on keyboards, this artistically left little manoeuvre for Rob Dean’s guitar.

But despite his willingness to become more textural thanks to some Fripp inspired E-bowed embellishments, Dean was absent from four of the album’s eight tracks; Karn was also missing from two numbers.

In their place came guest musicians such as Ryuichi Sakamoto on the exotic ‘Taking Islands In Africa’ and Bowie violinist Simon House who provided a solo to ‘My New Career’, beginning a pattern of collaboration that Sylvian would continue throughout his solo career.

Sylvian was aiming for a sparser sound and this was achieved with the mournful Satie-esque ‘Nightporter’. Featuring just Sylvian and Barbieri with session musicians Barry Guy on string bass and Andrew Cauthery on oboe, it was one of the album’s key tracks and a pointer of things to come for JAPAN’s leader.

Despite the tensions, when all five band members were featuring, they were firing on cylinders. The terrific ‘Swing’ combined Sylvian’s poetic travelogue with Richard Barbieri’s Oriental synth textures. In addition, Rob Dean made a full contribution with some excellent six string work as the rhythm section of Karn and Jansen maintained an amazing bounce over the Compurhythm driven bossa nova.

Meanwhile on the magnificently jagged ‘Methods Of Dance’, the spine-tingling middle section saw Jansen contributing drums, marimba and percussive keyboard embellishments bookended by a sophisticated arrangement layers of distinct keyboard parts, Karn’s sax, bursts of tense ringing guitar from Dean and the cry of a Japanese girl named Cyo.

Photo by Nicola Tyson

But both of these songs were incredibly long and complex, formed of many distinct sections in a manner akin to progressive rock.

Now while for anyone prepared to stick out these sub-seven minute tracks which formed half of the album, there would be ultimately be satisfaction and enlightenment, it was not going to prove easy to market such lengthy songs as 220 second edits to national and commercial radio.

With Virgin promoting the album as “Music For Adults Only” and perhaps paradoxically with a key front cover for ‘Smash Hits’, it was close but no cigar. Although ‘Gentleman Take Polaroids’ did not as yet yield a hit single, JAPAN were finally selling out concerts on home turf, notably a show at London’s Lyceum to launch the long player. But cracks were already appearing within the quintet, with Rob Dean leaving after a May 1981 tour supporting ‘The Art Of Parties’ single which he had not actually played on.

However, momentum was building and one party that noticed was JAPAN’s former label Ariola Hansa. In August 1981, they cashed-in with the release of ‘Quiet Life’ as a single which reached No17 in the UK singles charts. As a result, a new younger audience was becoming interested in JAPAN, one that was not only seeking something modern and stylish but with a depth of musicality too.

Photo by Steve Jansen

For JAPAN’s fifth album released in November 1981, the band took the influences of the Far East even further with the Chinese flavoured ‘Tin Drum’. The slimmed down band line-up was reflected in the music.

A much more minimal album than any of the band’s previous work, ‘Tin Drum’ had hardly any guitar while the synths used were restricted to an Oberheim OBX, Prophet 5 and occasionally the System 700, with the work split 55:45 between Barbieri and Sylvian.

That Stockhausen derived minimalism with its sense of space was taken to its zenith with ‘Ghosts’ and its iconic chilling metallic intro. Richard Barbieri told The Electricity Club: “Not being a technically gifted player, the keys were of less importance to me than the actual controls. What I tried to do was to make more events happen from one note than playing 200 notes. The prime example to that is the intro to ‘Ghosts’ because it’s just one triggered note on the System 700, but I’d programmed in this evolving series of movements with filters, LFOs and pitch frequency oscillation. I’ve never been able to quite get that sound again, but it caused havoc for the engineer because there were lots of peaks and it was quite difficult to record.”

Exquisitely programmed as opposed to relying on effects, JAPAN were aiming for synth derived acoustic colours constructed using ring modulation as well as parallel tuning in fourths and fifths for sounds that possessed a dead echo. Produced by another Roxy cohort Steve Nye, the arrangements were simpler with repeating patterns, tight hand played sequences and clean rhythmic tones.

But it was no less sophisticated with the assortment of timbres within those parts providing the variation and the air of Brian Eno and David Byrne’s ‘My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts’ looming. The wondrous ‘Still Life In Mobile Homes’ in particular saw East meeting West with Oriental vocal aesthetics and cleverly programmed organic synthesized sounds sitting next to state of the art digital technology such the Linn LM1 Drum Computer, all with the prowess of YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA.

The lyrical themes of ‘Tin Drum’ flirted with Chinese Communism as Eno had done on ‘Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)’. Sylvian appeared to be taking inspiration from the Little Red Book of Chairman Mao, a point highlighted by the pentatonic polyrhythmic single ‘Visions Of China’ and its less frantic but similarly dida enhanced sister song ‘Cantonese Boy’.

With co-writing credits on ‘Visions Of China’ and the traditional sounding instrumental ‘Canton’, Steve Jansen was playing an increasing role as well, but it was clear that his older brother still maintained overall control.

Jansen told The Electricity Club: “That would have been put down to the fact that what I was doing rhythmically played a bigger part than usual in the inspiration and direction of the songs. But in reality I don’t think it was the right way of doing it. I think all JAPAN’s music was methodically arranged by each member and warranted some co-writing credit however small.”

While Mick Karn was becoming slightly more isolated having not played on ‘Ghosts’, he still provided some memorable bass runs and got a co-writing credit for his dominant mantra and harmonics on the percussively brooding seven minute ‘Sons Of Pioneers’.

But on the whole, the songs on ‘Tin Drum’ were shorter and sharper like ‘Talking Drum’, providing a degree of immediacy that had not been present before; the album became the band’s biggest UK success, both commercially and critically.

However, all was not well within the band. Frustrations about publishing and personal differences came to a head with the now well-documented tensions between Sylvian and Karn tearing the band apart as they soldiered on with a British tour.

The individual band members spent 1982 undertaking their own projects while JAPAN was put on hiatus. Despite rumours of a split, JAPAN became chart regulars in 1982, notching up a further six Top 40 singles including a cover of Smokey Robinson’s ‘I Second That Emotion. However, the biggest surprise came when ‘Ghosts’ caught the mood of the moment with a Top 5 hit that April as the British Task Force was heading south towards the Falkland Islands.

An extensive Autumn tour of the UK, Europe and South East Asia was arranged by Napier-Bell to capitalise on their wider profile as he sought to buy time to keep his charges creatively together.

Photo by Fin Costello

Although the majority of the dates were sold out, JAPAN called it a day at the height of their powers with a final performance in Nagoya, Japan on 16th December 1982.

Sylvian and Karn continued with solo careers as well as collaborating with Ryuichi Sakamoto and Midge Ure respectively, while Jansen and Barbieri worked with both of their former bandmates, as well together as THE DOLPHIN BROTHERS who released an album ‘Catch The Fall’ in 1987.

That same year, relations had thawed enough between Sylvian and Karn for them to jointly record two songs ‘Buoy’ and ‘When Love Walks In’ for the bassist’s second solo album ‘Dreams Of Reason Produce Monsters’ which was co-produced by Jansen.

So in 1989, the quartet gathered at Studio Miraval in the south of France for what was considered to be a JAPAN reunion in all but name. But that episode in itself was a whole other story…


‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’ and ‘Tin Drum’ are each released as Abbey Road Half-Speed Mastered gatefold 2LP 45RPM vinyl sets with download key by Virgin Records / Universal Music on 24th August 2018, both albums will also be available in a 180 gram single LP edition playing at the standard 33RPM

http://www.nightporter.co.uk

http://www.davidsylvian.com

https://mickkarn.net

http://www.stevejansen.com

http://www.richardbarbieri.net


Text by Chi Ming Lai
19th July 2018

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