PISTON DAMP are the new electronic pop duo based in Norway compromising of Jonas Groth and Truls Sønsterud.
Classically trained, Sønsterud became known for remixing under the alias of TRÖLL. Meanwhile Groth has been making music mostly with his old brother Stephan and his band APOPTYGMA BERZERK but with PISTON DAMP, he emerges from that shadow to front his own music. Having performed lead vocals on ‘Nearest’, an ethereal electronic ballad both in concert and on the most recent APOPTYGMA BERZERK EP ‘Nein Danke!’, it is a task he is more than ready for.
PISTON DAMP formed in 2000, but has remained as a hobby project until now. The duo’s first single ‘Something In Me’ perhaps unsurprisingly was reminiscent of the more immediate side of APOPTYGMA BERZERK. Catchy, melodic and rhythmic with an emotively spirited vocal, when Jonas Groth hits falsetto, it provides a most glorious lift.
Entitled ‘Making The World Great Again’, the album begins with the spy drama collage ‘ШУМ’ but a more formally start come with the rousing four-to-the-floor synthpop of ‘Hearts On Fire’ which recalls Swedish combo THE MOBILE HOMES and their ‘Feeling Better’ but with a heavier rhythmic stance.
As the second PISTON DAMP single, the anthemic ‘Runaway’ was given the remix treatment from MESH and DIE KRUPPS; here it punches its way into the psyche with a hypnotic bassline that just stops short of a squelch, while ‘Depth Of Your Eyes’ takes a diversion into an orchestrated 6/8 in the manner of DEPECHE MODE’s ‘One Caress’.
An instrumental interlude ‘Factor Out’ features commentary on spiritual connection which is more than fitting when it segues into the two minute ‘Never Thought It Would End’…
With its hymn-like topline over a gentle sequenced passage, ‘Never Thought It Would End’ comes over like U2’s ‘I Still Have Found What I’m Looking For’ arranged in the style of DEPECHE MODE’s ‘Waiting For The Night’. Continuing with the spirit of Basildon, while the ‘Making The World Great Again’ title song dons its hat off to ‘Black Celebration’, it almost immediately locks into something much pacier and anthemic with a fabulous array of synth sounds and a rousing optimistic chorus of voices that announce “we won’t make the same mistakes as them!”.
‘Don’t’ is the closest PISTON DAMP get to EBM with a thrusting triplet as chiming melodies and soaring vocals glide over a cinematic setting that sets it apart from the Bundeswehr crowd, particularly with an angelic vocal return from COMPUTORGIRL who released an EP back in 2002 that was co-produced by Jonas and Stephan Groth.
‘Loose Ends’ offers what A-HA might have sounded like had they adopted the more baroque industrial pop elements of APOPTYGMA BERZERK, which is not as crazy as it sounds because APOP remixed ‘Lifelines’ for a promo release in 2002.
Primarily instrumental with sporadic percussion, ‘Sacred Secret’ makes use of layered choir refrains while a lonely piano adds poignancy, but shaped by sombre strings, ‘Testimony’ could be a Nordic PET SHOP BOYS with its octave disco bass although the guitar line from DM’s ‘Precious’ finds a way to morph it into a homage to CAMOUFLAGE…
‘Another Pain’ acts as the closer and sees a spacey arpeggio allows Jonas Groth to express some heartfelt frustration and when his multi-tracked vocal ab-libs join in, it starts to sounds like THE BEATLES, especially with the trumpet line…
For anyone who loves the sort of tuneful melancholic European synth that emerged after ALPHAVILLE, A-HA and CAMOUFLAGE as well as the more immediate aspects of APOPTYGMA BERZERK, the self-produced ‘Making The World Great Again’ is an ideal collection to return everyone to a mindset that while reflective, is hopeful that everything is going to be alright.
Jonas Groth and Truls Sønsterud are PISTON DAMP and the Norwegian duo are hoping to be ‘Making The World Great Again’ with their soon-to be released debut album.
Groth has been making music mostly with his old brother Stephan and his band APOPTYGMA BERZERK and on their most recent EP release ‘Nein Danke’, contributed lead vocals to the electronic ballad ‘Nearest’. Meanwhile the classically trained Sønsterud is known for remixes under the TRÖLL moniker.
The first PISTON DAMP single ‘Something In Me’ was a classic synthpop statement while the other 12 tracks on ‘Making The World Great Again’ vary from interlude soundscapes to EBM while dropping in hints of DEPECHE MODE, A-HA and THE BEATLES in between.
PISTON DAMP spoke collectively to ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK about their genesis of their debut album and why it has taken them 20 years to arrive at this point.
‘Making The World Great Again’ is a rousing album, it has to be said!
Wow! Thank you so very much. We’ve put a lot of time and energy into making it a positive / celebrative album. Not like party-party, but an album with a clear message as to how we see the world and the people in it.
The ‘Making The World Great Again’ title song pays homage to ‘Black Celebration’ in the intro and optimistically declares “we won’t make the same mistakes as them”, was it important for you to make this kind of statement?
This is the last song to be written for the album – actually after the title was already on the table.
The line “we won’t make the same mistakes as them” refers to “them” as being those who came before us.
When Jonas started writing the song, it was with a clear intention to make it a follow-up to the song ‘Hearts On Fire’. Both are meant as fight songs or speeches to a lost generation, if you will. The Internet has made us, as a species, feel lonelier and more disconnected from each other. We don’t necessarily need to get rid of the Internet, but we need to make people understand that there is more to life than what it seems like at the moment.
The relatively new phenomenon Social Media is trying to substitute real relationships, and this is what Jonas is talking about in these lyrics – Starting a movement that shows people how important it actually is to be social and that the reason why love (as a concept) has become a cliché, is that it actually works and that more people probably should be spending time on trying to give and receive love, rather than distancing oneself behind a screen. ‘Black Celebration’ and the following three DM-albums are indeed inspirations for most of the songs on this album, both lyrically and musically.
You formed in 2000 so why has it taken so long to release music? Are any songs from those formative years on the album?
We formed as a fun project, working out of Jonas’s brother Stephan’s studio whenever he wasn’t there. He had an Apple computer and loads of synthesizers, especially the Waldorf Q and XTk were exciting ones to experiment with.
Jonas wrote a lot of songs for this project, and at least 7 exist in demo form from that period. In 2001, Jonas became a father and life just and several other music projects happened to both of us for the next 15 years. The last five years, we have tried to get together and re-record some of the songs on several occasions, but something always came up.
In the spring of 2020, Truls called Jonas and basically told him that since it still hadn’t happened, he wanted to get it out of his system and just ban the entire project for good. This sparked something in Jonas, and he wrote ‘Something In Me’ (or rather the Danish version ‘Noget I Mig’) that same evening. Upon hearing this they decided to give it one last try, and here we are! Hehehe…
The album tracks:
1 ШУМ (new)
2 Hearts On Fire (reworked from Jonas’ 2014 demo)
3 Runaway (Original PD track from 2000)
4 Something In Me (new)
5 Depth Of Your Eyes (Original PD track from 2000)
6 Factor Out (new)
7 Never Thought It Would End (reworked from Jonas’ 2010 demo)
8 Making The World Great Again (new)
9 Don’t (reworked from Jonas’ 2012 demo)
10 Loose Ends (Original PD track from 2000)
11 Sacred Secret (reworked from Jonas’ 2016 demo)
12 Testimony (Original PD track from 2000)
13 Another Pain (reworked from Jonas’ 1994 demo)
The first single ‘Something In Me’ announced that PISTON DAMP was very much a synthpop act, which artists had been inspirations in developing this sound?
For Jonas, it’s DEPECHE MODE (83 – 98), ERASURE (86 – 97), OMD, APOPTYGMA BERZERK, DURAN DURAN and ELEGANT MACHINERY, while for Truls, it’s PET SHOP BOYS, ERASURE, APOPTYGMA BERZERK and A-HA.
‘Hearts On Fire’ recalls Swedish combo THE MOBILE HOMES, does that formative period of Nordic new wave pop which also includes bands like LUSTANS LAKEJER and PAGE deserve more recognition outside of Scandinavia?
Absolutely. Sweden in particular has had an enormous and impressive electronic scene that we Norwegians have loved since it started. When Jonas has toured with APOPTYGMA BERZERK, he has often been confronted with band names like ELEGANT MACHINERY, SISTA MANNEN PÅ JORDEN and COVENANT, even in places like South America and Israel. So maybe it has more to do with exposure rather than recognition…?
Did you use vintage synthesizers to achieve your aims or are you software based?
Truls has built quite a large synth studio, and we use hardware almost exclusively when we record our music. Some synthesizers are used in almost every song, and some are more randomly used, like if we’re looking for a particular sound. Roland Juno-106 is a classic, and of course we use that. For strings, we prefer Roland RS-505. It has some massive, powerful strings, but they can also be tender and soft.
For bass, we use a wide variety of synths, for example Roland SH-101 and Minimoog Voyager. We also use modular stuff, drones and a lot of pedals, like the Moogerfoogers. The sonic possibilities both in vintage and new synths are endless in the creative process. The experimentation with hardware is important both for creating the sound and for inspiration to develop and expand the sonic and musical landscape. Among the rarer stuff is, for example, the Elektron SidStation and it is made with the original C-64 sound chips. This is the main synth on the theme and ARPs on ‘Another Pain’.
The anthemic ‘Runaway’ had the remix treatment from MESH and DIE KRUPPS when released as a pre-album bundle, how do you feel when you let others adapt your work?
Oh, we love it. The interpretations are always really exciting to hear. And listening to the four remixes of that song back-to-back is still great (MESH, DIE KRUPPS and SUBSTAAT plus the Extended version). Getting talents we admire to reinterpret our basic ideas is an amazing way to get inspiration for moving on to whatever comes next. This is also a cool thing about the ‘Something In Me’ single where (apart from the A-side), the TECHNOMANCER remix is the version mostly played on Spotify. On YouTube, this version is by far our most played track.
The energetic ‘Don’t’ is the closest PISTON DAMP get to EBM and sees an old friend COMPUTORGIRL return for a cameo vocal, how was this reunion?
It was great fun. Especially since ‘Don’t’ originally was intended as a band song much inspired by THE CURE’s ‘A Foolish Arrangement’, and we only picked it up because we needed a B-side for the ‘Loose Ends’ single.
The track listing for the album was more or less finished, so we wanted a separate track as B-side. The middle part was instrumental, and we considered several solutions for this part including a spoken German poem, noises and effects, and other stuff.
One night Jonas was listening to one of his favourite albums – ‘Forever’ by CRANES – and the voice of Alison Shaw reminded him of Benedicte who is COMPUTORGIRL, whom he immediately wrote the vocal part for. Jonas did the vocal pre-production of the COMPUTORGIRL EP in 2002. Luckily, she was excited to do it, and the vocals were recorded the very next day. The song title was made up just as a word to save the song as when it was written. The word never came up in the lyrics, and therefore it became obvious that COMPUTORGIRL’s lines should all begin with that word. Eventually the song was nearly considered to be the A-side of the single, and ultimately it was given a place on the album too.
With its 6/8 signature and orchestrations, ‘Depth Of Your Eyes’ is quite different from the other tracks on ‘Making The World Great Again’?
Indeed, but it is actually the song that has changed the least since its 2000 demo form. This is the way it was intended to sound. The only difference is that the strings have now been played rather than being programmed. Tarjei Nysted and Kaja Pettersen play the exact notes that Jonas programmed 20 years earlier. The inspiration from the 86 – 93 DEPECHE MODE period is obvious here. We allowed ourselves to do stuff that wasn’t necessarily “genre correct”, simply because we wanted to do it, much like DM did when they brought in guitars, live drums etc.
‘Never Thought It Would End’ is almost hymn-like and comes over like U2’s ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ mashed-up with DEPECHE MODE’s ‘Waiting For The Night’?
It’s hard to define ‘Never Thought It Would End’ without commenting on ‘Factor Out’ which leads into ‘Never Thought It Would End’. ‘Factor Out’ was made as an intro, but quickly proved to have a life of its own. Truls kept expanding it both time wise and sound wise, which made the transition into ‘Never Thought It Would End’ much more exciting. They can both be viewed as separate tracks, but also as part 1 and 2 of the same song.
Jonas’s love of harmony vocals became a powerful tool here, and we wanted the song to have a lot of air in the mix (hence the panning of the vocals which vary throughout the song). The demo of the track was recorded with acoustic guitar on a laptop while the rest of the house was asleep, which makes it a very quiet and emotionally sore sounding demo. We tried to keep that vibe going in the electronic PD version.
‘Testimony’ borrows the guitar line from DM’s ‘Precious’ and sort of morphs into CAMOUFLAGE, how did this song come together?
‘Testimony’ was the only song we actually made a proper release-worthy version of 20 years ago. Due to Jonas working as a Label Manager Assistant at Hard:Drive (partly owned by Stephan), at the same location as where Sebastian Komor from ICON OF COIL had his studio.
Seb produced the track for us and gave us a clearer direction for the song. Most of his additions were very 2000/2001, and have thus been subtracted from the new version again. But the guitar part is the same now as then, and DM’s ‘Precious’ is from 2005, so who knows – maybe the borrowed it from us? Hahaha… Somewhere on the Internet you will probably still be able to find the ‘ICON OF COIL mix’ of ‘Testimony’.
The album closer ‘Another Pain’ appears to reveal THE BEATLES as an influence which perhaps is an unusual template for electronic pop?
Being one of the first songs Jonas ever completed (1994), it is very much a Beatles influenced song. THE BEATLES have always been a huge thing for Jonas (when asked about his top three favourite bands he usually replies: “THE CURE, DEPECHE MODE and KENT, but that’s just because THE BEATLES is a given and I don’t need to use up a place for them”. The sound collage at the end of ‘Another Pain’ is inspired by the latter years of THE BEATLES, but also by PINK FLOYD, which is a huge deal for Truls.
We share a love of the same kinds of music, but rarely the same bands. The album version of ‘Another Pain’ was the first one to be made, and the ‘Blue Hearts Version’ which was used as a B-side for ‘Something In Me’ was made from this version. If you listen closely, you can hear an element of each of the other album tracks in this outro.
Which are your own favourites on ‘Making The World Great Again’ and why?
For Jonas, this changes all the time. At the moment it is ‘Don’t’, but his favourite one to record was ‘Making The World Great Again’.
This changes for Truls as well. Right now he would say ‘Testimony’, but he had a plan very early in the making of this album, that it was going to be musically arranged and produced so that each song should set the mood for the song after, and as well be a contrast to the foregoing song. And that makes it hard to pick a specific song out of the context. The songs make each other good, and the combination of them makes them even better than when they stand alone.
What are your future plans, if you have been able to make any?
Well first of all, we’re planning a virtual release party for the album on June 5th where you can hear all the songs from the album 5 days before the release, and we’ll perform 3 songs live, do some interviews, giveaways, competitions etc. So, we’re quite looking forward to that, as it will give us an early indication of what people think of the album.
We have already started on the next single, and we are planning what to do for the next album. There are still some really strong songs left from the original demos, and we want to use some of them for a follow-up album as soon as possible. We’d love to play live shows, and we have a few gigs already being planned, so we’re just hoping for the world to open up so we can help make it great again!
We’re both very keen on getting on stage to try our songs out on a live audience as soon as time permits, so both festivals, club-gigs and support gigs for other acts are what we’re planning and looking for, to be honest. Safe to say, PISTON DAMP is hard at work, and there will be more coming from us in all shapes, sizes, and forms in the months ahead!
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its sincerest thanks to PISTON DAMP
Special thanks to Per Aksel Lungreen at Sub Culture Records
“It’s such a strange day, in such a lonely way” sang NEW ORDER on ‘Truth’ in 1981.
The coronavirus crisis of 2020 put the entire live music industry into limbo as concerts were postponed and tours rescheduled.
The situation was affecting everyone with several musicians like Bernard Sumner, Andy McCluskey, John Taylor and Sarah Nixey publicly stating that they had contracted the virus. Even when all pupils returned to schools in the Autumn, there was a ban on indoor singing in English classrooms. It was an indication that out of all professional fields, the arts was going suffer the most.
To make up for the absence of live shows, online streamed events become popular. Two of the best live online gigs were by Swedish veterans LUSTANS LAKEJER from the KB in Malmö and Sinomatic techno-rockers STOLEN with Lockdown Live From Chengdu. Not strictly a lockdown show but available for all to view on SVT was a magnificent live presentation of KITE at the Royal Opera House in Stockholm recorded in late 2019 combining synthesizers, orchestra and choir, proving again why Nicklas Stenemo and Christian Berg are the best electronic duo in Europe.
Concluding his ‘Songs: From the Lemon Tree’ series, Bon Harris of NITZER EBB presented a wonderful set of four electonic cover versions including songs made famous by Joan Armatrading, Connie Francis and Diana Ross. Meanwhile among independent musicians, Dubliner CIRCUIT3 led the way with an innovative multi-camera effected approach to his home studio presentation and Karin My performed al fresco in a forest near Gothenburg.
Taking the initiative, ERASURE did a delightful virtual album launch party for their new album ‘The Neon’ on Facebook with Vince Clarke in New York and Andy Bell in London, talking about everything from shopping to classic synthpop tunes.
Other streamed forms of entertainment came via podcasts and among the best was ‘The Album Years’ presented by Steven Wilson and Tim Bowness. Their knowledgeable and forthright views on selected years in music were both informative and amusing. It was interesting to note that at the end of the 1976 episode, the pair nominated ‘Oxygène’ by Jean-Michel Jarre as the most important album of that year while for 1979, it was ‘The Pleasure Principle’ by Gary Numan.
Many artists who had scheduled releases in 2020 went through with them, although in some cases, there were the inevitable delays to physical product. But a few notable acts couldn’t help but abuse the situation, notably a certain combo from Basildon.
There were already “quality control issues” with the lavish ‘MODE’ 18 CD boxed set, but there was uproar even among the most hardcore Devotees with the ‘Spirits In The Forest’ release. The cardboard packaging was reported to be flimsy and prone to dents, while there was continuity errors galore as Dave Gahan rather cluelessly and selfishly wore different coloured outfits over the two nights in Berlin that the live footage was filmed under the direction of Anton Corbijn.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, there was an Anton Corbijn official illustrated history of DEPECHE MODE entitled ‘DM AC’ in the form of a coffee table photo book published by Taschen which retailed at €750; even though it was signed by Messrs Gahan, Gore and Fletcher, the price tag was a mightily steep. The increasingly ironic words of “The grabbing hands grab all they can…” from ‘Everything Counts’ were not lost on people, who are people, after all!
But Andy Fletcher did provide the most amusing and spot-on quote of the year; during DEPECHE MODE’s acceptance speech into that dinosaur institution The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, when Dave Gahan remarked to his bandmates that “I dunno what the hell I would have been doing if I didn’t find music to be quite honest…”, the banana eating handclapper dryly retorted “YOU’D HAVE BEEN STILL STEALING CARS DAVE!”
There were lots of great albums released in 2020 and Berlin appeared to be at the creative centre of them.
There was ‘LP II’ from LINEA ASPERA who made a welcome return after eight years in hiatus and the playful debut by ULTRAFLEX, a collaborative offering from Berlin-based Nordic artists SPECIAL-K and FARAO which was “an ode to exercise, loaded with sex metaphors badly disguised as sports descriptions” .
The DDR born Jennifer Touch told her story with ‘Behind The Wall’ and resident New Yorker DISCOVERY ZONE was on ‘Remote Control’, while Lithuania’s top pop singer Alanas Chosnau made ‘Children of Nature’, his first album in English with Mark Reeder, who himself has lived in the former walled city since 1978; their collected experiences from both sides of the Iron Curtain made for a great record with the political statement of ‘Heavy Rainfall’ being one of the best songs of 2020.
Synth-builder and artist Finlay Shakespeare presented the superb angst ridden long player ‘Solemnities’ with its opener ‘Occupation’ tackling the social injustice of unemployment. A most frightening future was captured in musical form by New York-resident Zachery Allan Starkey who saw his home become a ‘Fear City’, while WRANGLER got themselves into ‘A Situation’.
SPARKS discussed ‘The Existential Threat’ and ‘One For The Ages’ while pleading ‘Please Don’t F*ck Up My World’ on their eclectic 25th album ‘A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip’, just as NIGHT CLUB reflected what many were thinking on ‘Die Die Lullaby’ with ‘Miss Negativity’ looking to ‘Die In The Disco’ while riding the ‘Misery Go Round’.
ASSEMBLAGE 23 chose to ‘Mourn’ with one of its highlights ‘Confession’ illustrating what DEPECHE MODE could still be capable of, if they could still be bothered.
But it was not all doom and gloom musically in 2020. With the title ‘Pop Gossip’, INTERNATIONAL TEACHERS OF POP did not need to do much explaining about the ethos of their second album and drum ‘n’ synth girl GEORGIA was happily ‘Seeking Thrills’.
Veterans returned and 34 years after their debut ‘Windows’, WHITE DOOR teamed up with the comparative youngster Johan Baeckström for ‘The Great Awakening’, while CODE made a surprise return with their second album ‘Ghost Ship’ after an absence 25 years.
‘The Secret Lives’ of German duo Zeus B Held and Mani Neumeier illustrated that septuagenarians just want to have fun. Along with Gina Kikoine, Zeus B Held was also awarded with Der Holger Czukay Preis für Popmusik der Stadt Köln in recognition of their pioneering work as GINA X PERFORMANCE whose ‘No GDM’ was a staple at The Blitz Club in Rusty Egan’s DJ sets.
Incidentally, Rusty Egan announced that Zaine Griff would be joining him with Numan cohorts Chris Payne and David Brooks in a live presentation of VISAGE material, although the announced dates were postponed, pending rescheduling for 2021.
Swiss trailblazers YELLO were on ‘Point’ and continuing their occasional creative collaboration with Chinese songstress Fifi Rong, while one time YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA collaborator Hideki Matsutake returned as LOGIC SYSTEM and released a new long player ‘Technasma’, his project’s first for 18 years.
It was four decades since John Foxx’s ‘Metamatic’ and Gary Numan’s ‘Telekon’, with the man born Gary Webb publishing ‘(R)evolution’, a new autobiography to supersede 1997’s ‘Praying To The Aliens’. Meanwhile, the former Dennis Leigh teamed up with former ULTRAVOX guitarist Robin Simon plus his regular Maths collaborators Benge and Hannah Peel for the blistering art rock statement of ‘Howl’ as well as finally issuing his book of short stories ‘The Quiet Man’.
Back in 1980, it was not unusual for bands to release two albums in a calendar year as OMD did with their self-titled debut and ‘Organisation’, or JAPAN did with ‘Quiet Life’ and ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’.
It appeared to be a tradition that BLANCMANGE were adopting as Neil Arthur delivered the acclaimed ‘Mindset’ and an enjoyable outtakes collection ‘Waiting Room (Volume 1)’.
PET SHOP BOYS and CERRONE proved they still liked to dance to disco because they don’t like rock, but the year’s biggest surprise came with THE SMASHING PUMPKINS whose single ‘Cyr’ crossed the templates of classic DEPECHE MODE with DURAN DURAN.
Interestingly, Gary Daly of CHINA CRISIS and Michael Rother of NEU! used sketches recorded many moons ago to inspire their 2020 solo creations, proving that if something is a good idea, it will still make sense years later. Veteran Tonmeister Gareth Jones released his debut solo album ‘ELECTROGENETIC’ having first come to prominence as the studio engineer on ‘Metamatic’ back in 1980, but Jah Wobble was as prolific as ever, issuing his ninth album in four years, as well as a run of download singles over lockdown.
ANI GLASS had her debut long player ‘Mirores’ shortlisted for Welsh Music Prize and OMD remixed her song ‘Ynys Araul’ along the way, while SARAH P. was ‘Plotting Revolutions’. NINA and a returning ANNIE vied to be the Queen Of Synthwave with their respective albums ‘Synthian’ and ‘Dark Hearts’, although Canadian synth songstress DANA JEAN PHOENIX presented her most complete and consistent body of work yet in ‘Megawave’, a joint album with POWERNERD.
RADIO WOLF & PARALLELS contributed to the soundtrack of the film ‘Proximity’ released on Lakeshore Records and from the same label, KID MOXIE made her first contribution to the movie world with the score to ‘Not To Be Unpleasant, But We Need To Have A Serious Talk’ that also featured a stark cover of ALPHAVILLE’s ‘Big In Japan’. Meanwhile gothwavers VANDAL MOON made their most electronic album yet in ‘Black Kiss’ and POLYCHROME got in on the kissing act too with their new single ‘Starts With A Kiss’.
It would be fair to say in recent times that the most interesting and best realised electronic pop has come from outside of the UK; the likes of TWICE A MAN explored the darker side of life, although TRAIN TO SPAIN used the dancefloor as their mode of expression, 808 DOT POP developed on the robopop of parent band METROLAND and ZIMBRU preferred disco art pop.
In Scandinavia, there was the welcome return of UNIFY SEPARATE (formally US) and HILTIPOP aka Magnus Johansson of ALISON who finally released some music in his own right; once he started, he didn’t stop with 9 releases and counting in 2020! APOPTYGMA BERZERK released ‘Nein Danke!’, their self-proclaimed return to “New Wave Synthpop” and out of that set-up sprang the very promising PISTON DAMP.
Within the PAGE camp, Eddie Bengtsson continued his Numan fixation on the ‘Under Mitt Skinn’ EP although his musical partner Marina Schiptjenko teamed up with LUSTANS LAKEJER bassist Julian Brandt to ride the Synth Riviera for a delightful second helping of their electro crooner concept cheekily titled ‘For Beautiful People Only’.
Over in Germany, U96 teamed up Wolfgang Flür while RENARD, the solo vehicle of Markus Reinhardt from WOLFSHEIM teamed with Marian Gold of ALPHAVILLE and Sarah Blackwood of DUBSTAR. DUBSTAR themselves released a striking corona crisis statement entitled ‘Hygiene Strip’ which saw reconfigured duo reunited with producer Stephen Hague. Meanwhile another poignant song on the topic ‘Small World’ came from SNS SENSATION, the new project by Sebastian Muravchik of HEARTBREAK. In lockdown, TINY MAGNETIC PETS recorded an entire album which they called ‘Blue Wave’.
Of course, 2020 was not full of joy, even without the pandemic, as the music world sadly lost Florian Schneider, Gabi Delgado-Lopez, Chris Huggett, Andrew Weatherall, Matthew Seligman, Dave Greenfield, Rupert Hine, Tom Wolgers, Harold Budd and Ennio Morricone.
An introspective tone was reflected the music of female fronted acts such as and ZANIAS, PURITY RING, WE ARE REPLICA, KALEIDA, LASTLINGS, NEW SPELL, WITCH OF THE VALE, REIN, BLACK NAIL CABARET, GLÜME, GEISTE THE FRIXION, FEMMEPOP and SCINTII. However, countering this, the optimism of RIDER, ROXI DRIVE and NEW RO presented a much brighter, hopeful take on life and the future.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK celebrated 10 years as a platform and affirming the site’s intuition about synth talent in anticipation of them achieving greater things, SOFTWAVE opened for OMD on the Scandinavia leg of their ‘Souvenir’ tour. The Danish duo became the sixth act which the site had written about to have become part of a tradition that has included VILLA NAH, MIRRORS, VILE ELECTRODES, METROLAND and TINY MAGNETIC PETS.
On a more cheerful note, S.P.O.C.K beamed down to Slimelight in London before lockdown for their first British live performance in 17 years. Meanwhile on the same night, LAU NAU and VILE ELECTRODES did modular sets at Cecil Sharp House, the spiritual home of English traditional music.
At that event, ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK took delight in curating a DJ set comprising of John Cage’s 4’33” in variations by DEPECHE MODE, GOLDFRAPP, ERASURE, NEW ORDER and THE NORMAL from Mute’s Stumm433 boxed set. This defiant act of silence even caused a curious Jonathan Barnbrook to raise an eyebrow, this from the man who designed the artwork with the white square on David Bowie’s ‘The Next Day’ 😉
The final live event that ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK attended before the March lockdown was an informative lecture at Queen Mary University in London presented by noted cultural scholar Dr Uwe Schütte, in support of his book ‘KRAFTWERK Future Music From Germany’.
Also attending was Rusty Egan who held court at the reception afterwards by having a debate with another musician about the state of UK synth music. He then loudly beckoned ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK over and mentioned how the site was only interested acts that scored “9 out of 10” before admitting that a number of acts he supported only scored “6 out of 10”, with his reasoning being that if acts aren’t supported, then there will be no synth acts existing at all. After a decade in existence, ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK remains proud that it is still extremely selective.
In 2020, the notion of reviews being needed to achieve a promotional profile underwent an existential crisis among media platforms. With streaming now being the main method of music consumption, why would anyone want to read a blog for an opinion about an album when they can just hit ‘play’ and hear the thing for themselves on Spotify, Amazon, Tidal or Bandcamp?
The sound of classic synthpop does live on happily in today’s mainstream via singles by THE WEEKND, DUA LIPA and even STEPS! In that respect, the trailblazing kings and queens of Synth Britannia from four decades ago did their job rather well.
From SUGABABES mashing-up ‘Are Friends Electric?’ for ‘Freak Like Me’ in 2002 to ‘Blinding Lights’ borrowing a bit of A-HA in 2020, the sound of synth is still strong.
It is up to any potential successors to live up to that high standard of Synth Britannia, which was as much down to the quality of the songwriting, as much as it was to do with the sound of the synthesizer. It is a fact that many overlook and if aspiring musicians could pay more attention to the song, instead of making the synthesizer the excuse for the song, then classic electronic pop music may still be around for a little longer and continue to evolve.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK Contributor Listings of 2020
PISTON DAMP are the new electronic pop duo based in Norway compromising of Jonas Groth and Truls Sønsterud.
The classically trained keyboardist / songwriter / arranger Truls Sønsterud has been playing piano since he was a child while singer/songwriter/producer Jonas Groth has been making music for more than 20 years’ experience mostly connected to his older brother Stephan and his band APOPTYGMA BERZERK.
Also connected to acts such as industrial rockers MAGENTA who he helped out on their 2009 album ‘Art & Accidents’, Jonas Groth has slowly been moving towards the front in the last few years and sang lead vocals on ‘Nearest’, an ethereal electronic ballad from the most recent APOPTYGMA BERZERK EP ‘Nein Danke!’.
The debut PISTON DAMP single ‘Something In Me’ was written and recorded with Stephan Groth serving as pre-production supervisor, so perhaps unsurprisingly, it is reminiscent of the more immediate side of APOPTYGMA BERZERK
But ‘Something In Me’ is what APOPTYGMA BERZERK or AESTHETIC PERFECTION would sound like if they were in full synthpop mode. Catchy, bubbly, melodic and rhythmic with an emotively spirited vocal, when Jonas Groth hits falsetto, it provides a most gloriously optimistic lift. Meanwhile, its twin ‘Noget I Mig’ is ‘Something In Me’ sung in Danish and this element adds an extra air of mystery to non-native speakers and reveals the song’s likely Nordic folk influence more explicitly.
The B-side of this debut single is a ‘Blue Heart’ version of ‘Another Pain’ and affirms just as ‘Shout’ did for DEPECHE MODE’s similarly folk influenced ‘New Life’, that PISTON DAMP are likely to have quality first album in the can. Much sparser than ‘Something In Me’, the spacey arpeggio on this version of ‘Another Pain’ allows Jonas Groth to soar, expressing some heartfelt frustration that the love of his life hasn’t even noticed him. And when his multi-tracked vocal ab-libs join in, it starts to sounds like FREIHEIT or ELO or THE BEATLES, depending on your way of thinking!
Both ‘Something In Me’ and ‘Noget I Mig’ come in a number of remixes from the likes of PEGBOARD NERDS, TECHNOMANCER, KLEINMELKER and THE ANIX, although classic synth fans will be most interested in the Extended 12” Remix that comes in the nine-track bundle.
It is the right moment for Jonas Groth to emerge from the shadow of his older brother and PISTON DAMP is a fine vehicle in which take that journey.
There is nothing like the other side of life. As a companion to its favourite 25 Classic Synth B-sides, ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK presents a listing looking at the 21st Century equivalent.
B-sides often take on a cult following, provoking discussions among fans about why they might have missed inclusion on the parent album.
On why artists occasionally overlook a track when it is clearly good enough, Richard Silverthorn of MESH said “Sometimes you can’t see the wood for the trees”.
Then there are the occasional abstract studio experiments which often fail but occasionally work and the occasional cover versions which don’t always find favour with some listeners but are infinitely more preferable over pointless remixes of the A-side!
But how is a modern B-side been defined? There is a wider definition now due to digital and streaming formats, so they can include flipsides of vinyl, bonus tracks on CD singles and non-album tracks released as part of a download single or EP bundle. Despite all this, the term “B-side”, like “album” and “video”, still remains.
So for the purposes of this listing as before with the 25 Classic Synth B-sides, B-sides featured on the original issue of a full length album, or subsequently included on a new one are NOT included. However, those added as bonus tracks on later reissues, deluxe editions or compilations are permitted. Rules are good, rules help control the fun! ?
So with a restriction of one track per artist moniker, presented in date and then alphabetical order within, these are ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK’s 25 Synth B-Sides Of The 21st Century…
LADYTRON Oops Oh My (2003)
LADYTRON surprised their audiences during live shows in support of the ‘Light & Magic’ album by closing with a feisty synthpunk cover of TWEET’s ‘Oops Oh My’. Co-written by Missy Elliot, the Timbaland produced original with a DEVO sample had been a hip-hop favourite but the aggressive Riot Grrrl styled take on this risqué song about self-love with lyrics like “There goes my skirt, droppin at my feet” added a rockier edge to their sound.
Available on the LADYTRON single ‘Evil’ via Telstar Records
“This was written in response to the Iraq War” said Sarah Blackwood aka Client B, “I remember endless discussions with Toast Hawaii boss Fletch about whether it was the right decision and with heavy hearts, watching endless shelling and firefighting, from the 24 hour news coverage on far flung European hotel TVs. It was the first time I had felt that disconnection and frustration with my home country, the ‘not in my name’ ringing loudly in my ears. Bit late to the party but that’s the story of my life.”
Available on the CLIENT single ‘Here & Now’ via Toast Hawaii / Mute Records
The eloquence and surreal atmospheres of the first GOLDFRAPP album ‘Felt Mountain’ may have taken a back seat on its follow-up ‘Black Cherry’ but the experimentation continued on the B-sides of the album’s singles. ‘White Soft Rope’ combined the unsettling imagery of bondage with a chorus sung a school choir, but ‘Gone To Earth’ was even more otherworldly. The reverberating bassline combined with swirling synths and dreamy glides while Alison’s alternate cosmic language startled with a spacey hypnotism.
Nathan Cooper who was in THE MODERN said: “The inspiration came from ROXY MUSIC’s ‘In Every Dream Home A Heartache’ which was about a blow up doll, we took that a step further and Model# 426 is about some kind of sex droid!! ‘Model #426’ was always the song that would get the audience talking because singer Emma would open a trunk on stage and lead a gimp out on a collar into the bemused looking audience!! I think it was actually that stunt that got us signed to Universal!”.
Interpolating KC & THE SUNSHINE BAND’s ‘That’s The Way (I Like It), the self-produced ‘Party Song’ was naturally a throbbing disco driven affair outshone the horrendous Diane Warren penned ballad ‘Numb’ which comprised the main act. Lyrically inspired by the classic Joan Collins and Leonard Rossiter fronted Campari adverts that, it began life as a dance cover of NIRVANA’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ suggested by Elton John and intended as a single for a new PET SHOP BOYS ‘Greatest Hits’!!
Originally the B-side of ‘Numb’, now available on the PET SHOP BOYS album ‘Format’ via EMI Music
‘Japanese Kiss’ was from the debut release on Happy Robots from Alice Hubley and Adam Cresswell. “This was the first track I wrote for ARTHUR & MARTHA” he recalled, “mostly recorded in the bedsit I’d moved into after splitting up with my girlfriend. I was absorbed in self-pity, comforting myself with Japanese-horror movies and the company of my ARP Quartet, Moog Rogue and the DR-55. Living my best life!”; 11 years later as Rodney Cromwell, Cresswell did a NEW ORDER inspired ‘KW1’ remix.
Available on the ARTHUR & MARTHA single ‘Autovia’ via Happy Robots
Basing its title on the well-known NEW ORDER tune, as with a number of the B-sides listed here, ‘Bizarre Love Duo’ outshone the main act ‘Ghost’. It all began with a pitch shifted groan sample repeated with hypnotic effect over some squelchy backing. But during the second half, the track built itself to a fabulous but abstract electrodisco number with a marvellously catchy refrain. While not quite a song and not quite an experiment, ‘Bizarre Love Duo’ was enjoyable tune in the MARSHEAUX canon.
Originally the B-side of ‘Ghost’, now available on the MARSHEAUX album ‘E-Bay Queen Is Dead’ via Undo Records
A cover of a cover, namely SHOCK’s take on THE GLITTER BAND’s 1974 Top5 hit; playing the role of the Latin lothario in response to the Annie song ‘Anthonio’, Sebastian Muravchik of HEARTBREAK and now SNS SENSATION remembered: “Richard X produced this version of ‘Angel Face’ as a side B in his single ‘Annie’. I sang both sides, which kind of shows two sides of Anthonio’s personality in a way. It was a fantastic experience – Richard is a great guy and über pro, so really a win-win.”
Available on the ANTHONIO single ‘Annie’ via Pleasure Masters
“Positive and negative can only attract” sang Victoria Hesketh on the bouncy ‘Catch 22’, a lesser known LITTLE BOOTS track which initially only appeared on the 7 inch single of ‘Earthquake’ in the UK. Gloriously synthpoppy, in hindsight along with other songs that did not make it onto the final tracklisting of her debut album ‘Hands’, it highlighted a possible direction that could have been taken, but which was ultimately watered down for wider acceptance after she was named BBC Sound Of 2009.
Originally the B-side of the single ‘Earthquake’, now available on the LITTLE BOOTS deluxe album ‘Hands’ via On Repeat Records
Continuing a great tradition among the synthpop acts of the past, VILLA NAH had ‘Benny’s Burning’ and ‘Daylight’ as part of their B-side armoury as well as the brilliant debut album ‘Origin’. Highlighting the inherent talent of Juho Paolosmaa and Tomi Hyyppä, ‘Benny’s Burning’ was a smoother and more atmospheric side of VILLA NAH compared with the uptempo technopop impressions of its A-side ‘Rainmaker’. The Helsinki duo later opened for OMD during the UK leg of 2010’s ‘History Of Modern’ tour.
Available on the VILLA NAH single ‘Rainmaker’ via Keys Of Life
Produced by Vince Clarke, ‘Never Let You Down’ was free of the many autotune treatments that Frankmusik had applied when helming the disappointing ‘Tomorrow’s World’ album in his attempts to make ERASURE sound more modern and contemporary. As a result, that heartfelt soul often associated with Andy Bell made its presence felt over a glorious galloping synthpop tune in the classic ERASURE vein, especially during the middle eight section in Spanish.
In their short career, MIRRORS left not only a great album in ‘Lights & Offerings’ but a body of wonderful B-sides too. Any number of them are worthy of mention but the nod goes to ‘Fall By Another Name’ as it was accessible enough to have been an A-side. Not as dense as MIRRORS’ usual pop noir hence its likely relegation to flipside, the bright pulsing melodies and James New’s Dave Gahan impression made this sound rather like a quality outtake from DEPECHE MODE’s ‘Speak & Spell’.
While the A-side was a faithful cover version of Peter Schilling’s anthemic ‘Major Tom’, ‘Dead Air Einz’ was a self-composed song by APOPTYGMA BERZERK mainman Stephan Groth that was eagerly welcomed at the time, thanks to it being his first original new track for four years. Utilising distorted radio broadcasts in its backdrop, it also featured some Korg MS20 from Jon Erik Martinsen and was something of a grower with its steadfast drum machine shuffle.
Available on the APOPTYGMA BERZERK single ‘Major Tom’ via Pitch Black Drive Productions
Making their initial impression with the mighty ‘Lies’ in 2012, Glasgow trio CHVRCHES actually became the mainstream saviours of synthpop that LITTLE BOOTS and LA ROUX had promised but ultimately failed to deliver on. ‘Now Is Not The Time’ was a fantastic midtempo tune with a great chorus that like ‘The Mother We Share’ sounded like Taylor Swift gone electro. However, it got relegated to B-side status despite being superior to several songs on their debut long player ‘The Bones Of What You Believe’.
Available on the CHVRCHES single ‘Recover’ via Virgin Records
In a pattern similar to the ‘Sounds Of The Universe’ boxed set only track ‘Oh Well’, the best song from ‘Delta Machine’ sessions was left out of the main act. ‘All That’s Mine’ featured a tightly sequenced backbone, electronically derived rhythms and a gloomy Eurocentric austere, all the perfect ingredients for a classic DM tune! While it was no doubt rejected for not fitting into the faux blues aspirations of modern DEPECHE MODE, it made up for the dreary notions of the A-side ‘Heaven’ which were more like hell…
Originally the B-side of the single ‘Heaven’, now available on the DEPECHE MODE deluxe album ‘Delta Machine’ via Columbia Records
OMD’s twelfth album ‘English Electric’ was notable for combining conceptual art pieces alongside supreme electronic pop in a manner reminiscent of their fourth long player ‘Dazzle Ships’ and KRAFTWERK’s ‘Radio-Activity’. Although four of these concepts made it onto the final running order of the album, one that didn’t was ‘Time Burns’, a intriguing sound collage comprising of clock movements, chimes and digital watch alarms over rumbles of sub-bass and profound computer generated speech.
Originally the B-side of the single ‘The Future Will Be Silent’, now available on the OMD EP ‘Night Café’ via BMG
A stomping electro disco number produced by Mark Reeder and Micha Adam, Elizabeth Morphew’s cooing Bush-like howls and breathy euphoria are a total delight to the ears while the mighty cavernous sound provided the heat! However, ‘United’ has ended up as the B-side. Reeder said ”I saw a piece posted on ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK about QUEEN OF HEARTS and I was curious. I really liked Elizabeth’s voice from the moment I heard the first couple of tracks.”
Originally the B-side of ‘Secret’, now available on the QUEEN OF HEARTS deluxe album ‘Cocoon’ via Night Moves
With an alluringly haunting vocal from Anais Neon, the eerily stark ‘Little Death Capsule’ saw VILE ELECTRODES tell the story of early space travel when these primitive craft were sent out of the earth’s atmosphere effectively sitting on inter-continental ballistic missiles, with burning up also a possibility on return. With pulsing instrumentation from Martin Swan, it featured the sort of sterling analogue treatments that would make KRAFTWERK and YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA proud.
A touching tribute to Messrs Clarke, Gore, Hütter and Schneider with hints of YAZOO’s ‘In My Room’, Johan Baeckström said of ‘Synth Is Not Dead’: “I guess I just wanted to reflect on the fact that there still IS a synthpop scene with some really great bands, both old and new. In another way, the song is sort of my ‘thank you’ to some of the artists that inspired me for several decades – some of them are mentioned in the lyrics, but far from all of course”.
Available on the JOHAN BAECKSTRÖM single ‘Come With Me via Progress Productions
METROLAND (We Need) Machines Without Romance (2015)
METROLAND’s second album ‘Triadic Ballet’ was a triumphant electronic celebration of the Bauhaus, art movement led by Walter Gropius. Gropius theorized about uniting art and technology and on the B-side of its launch single ‘Zeppelin’, METROLAND worked towards the 21st Century interpretation of that goal. Now imagine if Gary Numan had actually joined KRAFTWERK in 1979? Then the brilliantly uptempo ‘(We Need) Machines Without Romance’ would have surely been the result.
Originally the B-side of ‘Zeppelin’, now available on the METROLAND boxed set ’12×12′ via Alfa Matrix
Of the superbly rousing ‘Paper Thin’, Richard Silverthorn of MESH recalled: “Mark Hockings presented me with a demo at the time we were writing material for ‘Looking Skyward’. On first listen, I wasn’t too sure about the track as I thought it didn’t really fit with the overall feeling of the album so it kind of got shelved. The record company asked ‘what about the B-side?’ so Mark suggested ‘Paper Thin’ again. The bassline, drums and many other lines were changed and the new version came to life.”
After SCARLET SOHO, James Knights busied himself with a new Britalo inspired solo project. With hints of NEW ORDER’s ‘Subculture’ and found on KNIGHT$ debut EP ‘What’s Your Poison?’, he said “’So Cold’ is the second or third song I wrote as KNIGHT$. It’s a little darker than my other material, and the only song I’ve recorded using a marxophone (a fretless zither which I borrowed from my friend Alun Davies). It didn’t make it onto my debut album, but it’s still a song the audience enjoy, as do I.”
PSYCHE co-founder Darrin Huss said of ‘Truth Or Consequence’: “It started out under the title ‘Life On Trial’ and was about the Bradley Manning (now Chelsea) situation. It’s about the NSA surveillance, whistleblowers, etc. It’s also about the confusion between what is Truth, and what are the consequences of telling it, living it? Do we have safety in numbers? etc. It’s all in the lyrics. It’s a very PSYCHE song with even a nod to ‘The Brain Collapses’ with our use of that song’s drum machine the Oberheim DMX.”
That Marc Almond and Dave Ball reunited for a farewell gig and new material was a pleasant surprise. The frustration and anger expressed in ‘Guilty (Cos I Say You Are)’ with the lines “I can denounce you just because I can, I didn’t have the life I wanted, I didn’t do the things I dreamed” saw SOFT CELL continue where they left of in 2003. With dark resonances like ‘The Omen’ gone disco, its eerie gothique countered the celebratory electro-soul of A-side ‘Northern Lights’
INTERNATIONAL TEACHERS OF POP Another Brick In The Wall – Remoaner mix (2019)
Inheriting the mantle of THE HUMAN LEAGUE in the modern synthpop stakes, INTERNATIONAL TEACHERS OF POP impressed with their self-titled debut album. With the single release of ‘The Ballad Of Remedy Wilson’ was a timely Remoaner mix of PINK FLOYD’s ‘Another Brick In The Wall’ sung in German that made a bold musical and political statement. Headteacher Adrian Flanagan said: “I hope that statement is ‘I hate PINK FLOYD but love KRAFTWERK’ and / or – ‘I hate you but love the EU’”.