Like FM ATTACK, as one of the more accomplished figures in synthwave, BETAMAXX explored goth and new wave on his most album ‘Lost In A Dreamworld’.
The musical vehicle of Pittsburgh based Nick Morey, the first BETAMAXX long player ‘Lost Formats’ came out in 2012.
Featuring VANDAL MOON, GLITBITER and MECHA MAIKO, ‘Lost In A Dreamworld’ was anything but and a confident affair boasting a catchy poptronic template with crossover potential. However, the new BETAMAXX record ‘Sarajevo’ is more reflective with no vocals or vocoder.
An instrumental concept album inspired by the Bosnian city that hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics, it was the games that made household names of skaters Katarina Witt, Scott Hamilton, Jane Torvill and Christopher Dean. At time, Sarajevo was part of the former Yugoslavia and had a chequered history as the starting point of the First World War. And eight years later, it found itself at the heart of the Bosnian War which lasted from 1992 to 1995 and saw the city divided in the longest siege in modern history.
Inspired by artists such as BOARDS OF CANADA, Morey has crafted a moody listening experience that takes a time machine back to that winter of 1984. As only the second Olympics held behind the-then Iron Curtain, there was much excitement in the city as Sarajevo celebrated its cultural co-existence with a spectacular opening ceremony. “It pays homage to its people, the athletes that competed, and aesthetics and design of the XIV Winter Olympic Games” said Nick Morey.
The opening drift of ‘Olympic City’ accompanies the poignant chatter of united children while the breezy ‘Winter Games’ provides punchy beats augmented by some quite funky synthbass and bright brassy tones. ‘Alpine’ follows along a similar path but is more AIR-like and sedate as it steadily embarks on a climb. On the decent, ‘Downhill’ is a something of a highlight in its building rhythmic exhilaration laced with the tension of ‘Stranger Things’ and archive TV commentary to celebrate Bill Johnson’s victory as the first American to win gold at an Olympic downhill skiing event.
‘Enchantment’ provides some rich haunting ambience but the stark backdrop of ‘Igman’ with its chilled beats aurally illustrate the brutalist architecture of the hotel designed by Ahmed Džuvić that provides the image to the album’s artwork and post-war now stands abandoned and derelict.
Meanwhile after some cascading arpeggios, the ‘Sarajevo’ title track morphs into a slice of shuffling Balkan dub echoing SABRES OF PARADISE before the ringing calls of ‘Horizon’ sculpt a downtempo journey towards closedown. With beautiful hints of Arvo Pärt’s ‘Spiegel Im Spiegel’, ‘Ceremony’ is a slow waltz embroiled in a moving melancholy with the knowledge that despite the collective optimism from hosting the games, the tragedy of war was to come.
Harking back to an era when the Cold War would often be played out in the Olympics, ‘Sarajevo’ is like a soundtrack to a film yet to be made. With exquisite analogue sound design and an intuitive sense of atmosphere, ‘Sarajevo’ should open out opportunities into the film world for BETAMAXX.
‘Sarajevo’ uses the following synthesizers: Sequential Circuits Prophet 10, Sequential Circuits Prophet 6, Roland Juno-60, Roland Juno-106, Roland SH-2, ARP Odyssey, ASM Hydrasynth, Roland RE-501, Strymon Big Sky
GLITBITER is the musical vehicle of Los Angeles-based musician and vocalist Florence Bullock.
Classically trained with a love of esteemed songwriter Jimmy Webb, she describes her style as “Dreamy synthwave for the dark soul”.
One of her forays into the North American synthwave scene included her contribution to BETAMAXX’s ‘Lost In A Dreamworld’ album on ‘Skyhigh’, with the song’s vibrato treated vocal stabs on the coda being a particular delight. There was also a cameo in the video for another BETAMAXX track ‘Never Sleep Again’ which was fronted by gothwavers VANDAL MOON.
Meanwhile, when PARALLELS celebrated the 10 year anniversary of their debut album ‘Visionaries’ with some specially commissioned remixes, GLITBITER’s sparking rework of the song ‘Vienna’ was the best of the bunch. More recently, she joined DEAD ASTRONAUTS for the recently released ‘Silhouettes’ album with ‘Thorns’ being one of the highlights.
Having issued a promising three track EP ‘Short Stories’ in 2017, GLITBITER has taken the next step with a six song mini-album called ‘Glass & Steel’. This title is an appropriate pointer to its contents and the first thing instantly noticeable is the leap in sonic progression compared with her earlier work.
The melancholic folk-laden opener ‘Out of the Wasteland’ adopts a slow swing template and recalls Scotland’s WITCH OF THE VALE or Sweden’s Karin My but enhanced by speedy arpeggios and prominent synthbass drones. More four-to-the-floor with a driving bass triplet, ‘Turn’ gallops into the sunset with a rich display of vocal prowess.
Featuring a soaring sweeping synth solo that is a total delight, ‘Blade’ reveals an angelic crystalline quality to a more archetypical synthwave template although GLITERBITER puts her own stamp on the form, learning lessons from her association with BETAMAXX.
Much more ringy in tone, ‘Girl In A Storm’ applies an interesting use of stuttering rhythm at its start before embarking on its syncopated journey while swathed in folky overtones.
With a meaty rhythmic construction that doesn’t overbear, ‘Follower’ pulsates wonderfully while also providing space to breathe for the gloriously emotive vocals. ‘Glass & Steel’ ends with ‘Fights & Fears’, a lush set piece that includes bright and bent synth passages to take the listener into another zone.
With all the songs written, produced, performed and primarily mixed by GLITBITER except for ‘Turn’ and ‘Follower’ by Mike Balboa, ‘Glass & Steel’ is an impressive debut long form release that avoids most of the synthwave clichés to showcase GLITBITER as an electronic talent for the future.
Dark without being doomy and eschewing the shoegaze distortion or tune aversion that mars the majority of dreampop, ‘Glass & Steel’ provides an appealing feminine air to the synth form with a few traditional elements for that crucial facet of musicality.
Originally released in November 2019, ‘Vehlinggo Presents: 5 Years’ collected together exclusive tracks from the world of synthwave and electronic pop.
Curated by Aaron Vehling, founder of Vehlinggo, the 17 tracks presented the musical ethos of the Brooklyn-based website, podcast and multimedia platform. Having been issued digitally, ‘Vehlinggo Presents: 5 Years’ is now available on CD with a slight adjustment in running order to reflect Vehling’s vision of an imaginary film soundtrack.
Any good compilation contains promising talents alongside established names and this is certainly the case here.
The reconfigured tracklisting begins in a cool stylish fashion with ANORAAK’s ‘Panarea’, a funky nu-disco instrumental. Retrospective references surface with Canada’s PARALLELS on ‘The Magic Hour’, an exquisite slice of synthesized new wave that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in a classic Brat Pack movie.
Remaining in Canada which has become the creative centrepoint for much of the best modern synth music, Ryan Gosling favourites FM ATTACK offer more of their trademark atmospheric electronic disco on ‘Paradise’.
The mood changes though with the appealing girly Italopop of New Yorkers BUNNY X and their ‘Revolving Doors’.
Now THE MIDNIGHT have become possibly the biggest synthwave crossover act with their sax assisted AOR but their appeal still baffles some observers; ‘Sometimes She Smiles’ does not change things and sounds not unlike busker balladeer PASSENGER but constructed using VSTs.
But with the pacey ‘Rage Of Honor’, proceedings are rocked up by LE MATOS although the backbone is still predominantly electronic. With a track entitled ‘Hi-NRG’, BETAMAXX begins proceedings with a cowbell frenzy but the speedy arpeggios soon join in for a Giorgio Moroder homage complete with digital chimes.
The shiny electro continues with the Sweden’s Johan Agebjörn and ‘Have You Ever Been In Love?’; using robotic vocal treatments like FM ATTACK, because this is a dub version of the track, the featured vocal of Tom Hooker, the voice behind many of the hits for famed Italo star Den Harrow, only comes in phrases which proves to be frustrating; the solution is to track down the original mix of the song from the ‘Videoman’ soundtrack.
MAETHELVIN cuts a solid funk groove on ‘Dance Through The Night’ aided by a LinnDrum derived pattern but maintains a chilly air, while from the Italians Do It Better stable, the previously unreleased Johnny Jewel produced ‘Gold’ by IN MIRRORS builds on some staccato tension.
The throbbing ‘Girl On Video’ from FORGOTTEN ILLUSIONS is loaded with hooks and big synthetic drum fills but while it is passable 4/4 synthwave fare, it is overlong and may have benefitted from being constructed around a 6/8 Schaffel to give it more bite.
A self-confessed “21st Century ’80s” artist DIAMOND FIELD takes the delightful Dana Jean Phoenix into an interesting direction on ‘Freedom Pass’ by producing something that comes over like THE GO-GO’S gone synthpop. It recalls when Jane Wiedlin was working with PET SHOP BOYS producer Stephen Hague after the group first disbanded.
Beginning with some female prose en Français, DEADLY AVENGER‘s ‘Your Phone Is Off The Hook, But You’re Not’ is reminiscent of the quirky French underground from which cult acts such as MATHEMATIQUES MODERNES and RUTH emerged. Meanwhile, the wonderful MECHA MAIKO contributes the arty ‘Selfless’ which stands out with its screechy backdrop before settling into an avant pop concoction that makes hypnotic use of her repeated “It’s alright” phrasing!
‘She Sees A Future’ from Lakeshore Records signing VH x RR perhaps has the most nostalgic references like THE LOVER SPEAKS meeting ANIMOTION, but proceedings are taken down a notch by the filmic vocodered mood piece that is METAVARI’s ‘Be What You See’.
But the best is saved until last with HIGHWAY SUPERSTAR and the gorgeously dreamy ‘Slow Motion’; featuring a fabulous vocal by Zoe Polanski, the end result comes across a bit like ELECTRIC YOUTH.
‘Vehlinggo Presents: 5 Years’ does its job well of showcasing new and established international talent from an American perspective.
Coming from variants of electronic music that have been labelled as synthpop, Italo Disco, synthwave, nu-disco and French disco, what actually matters is whether the music is any good.
Considering this compilation contains largely of previously unreleased material with the baggage that can come with that knowledge, the majority of it is excellent. Listeners will of course have their own favourites, but there really is something for everyone who loves electronic pop with quality and substance.
With a sound seeded from post-punk, goth and new wave, VANDAL MOON are shaped as much by their use of drum machines and synthesizers as much as guitars and the inevitable deep baritone vocals.
Comprising of Blake Voss and Jeremy Einsiedler, the Santa Cruz duo opened their account with the self-released ‘Dreamless’ in 2013.
Their most recent long player ‘Black Kiss’ is their most electronic work yet, although the sound of THE PSYCHEDELIC FURS and THE SISTERS OF MERCY permeates throughout, perhaps not unsurprisingly as the two are linked by John Ashton who was the guitarist for the classic line-up of the former and an early producer of the latter.
In 2018 for the release of the ‘Wild Insane’ album, VANDAL MOON signed to Starfield Music, the record label of Shawn Ward, best known for his work as FM ATTACK. It is perhaps Ward who can be credited for championing VANDAL MOON to the wider synth community. Meanwhile notable collaborations with BETAMAXX and MECHA MAIKO have cemented that association further.
But despite their influences like THE CURE and DEPECHE MODE, Blake Voss and Jeremy Einsiedler have presented their own take on a classic approach with the potential to connect with wider tribes and enclaves. Front man Blake Voss talked about the rise of VANDAL MOON.
Who were the bands that inspired VANDAL MOON?
I was born right around the time THE SEX PISTOLS broke in the UK. So, by the time I was cognisant of what was going on around me, new wave was all over the radio. EURYTHMICS, TEARS FOR FEARS, BLONDIE… those were the bands of my early childhood. At the same time, my Dad’s record collection was filled with everything from Lou Reed to PINK FLOYD. Oddly enough, VANDAL MOON was initially envisioned as a sort of electronic-psychedelic project, and I think my childhood experiences, and imagination turned it into what it is now.
Had the use of synthesizers and drum machines in VANDAL MOON been more out of necessity to keep the creative process as a duo, or had you been like a conventional rock band previously?
Jeremy is my best friend. He and I have been playing music together since the late 90s, in all kinds of different bands. Noise bands, punk bands, acid folk… everything. We both loved the sh*t out of math rock, and all those post-rock bands of the early 2000s that nobody talks about anymore.
Typically, he played the drums and I played guitar and sang. But the synths and drum machines came into play because of our mutual love of the soundtrack to the movie ‘Drive’. That movie really affected us both in a profound way. It did that for many people.
Of course, the original European definition of goth which was doomy but melodic has mutated over the years into this American take which is more like dark metal, any thoughts?
I don’t know much about dark metal, but I love goth music and goth culture. I’m not a goth and I don’t pretend to make strictly goth music, but we have a lot of fans from the subculture. I’ve never met nicer, more thoughtful people. I’m just happy to have been accepted by some of them. And I love them back.
How do you look back on the first three VANDAL MOON albums and how you’ve developed?
We’ve moved in a lot of different directions as a band. THE BEATLES sort of set that precedent for pop music; never doing the same thing for too long. Eventually they became a corporation more than anything, but we all learned the same lessons from them.
Art isn’t about being born fully formed from the head of Zeus or something. It’s a journey and a process. It’s about leaving a beautiful mess behind you and letting the kids sort it all out.
Oh yeah, and being a celebrity sucks. THE BEATLES taught us that as well.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK first heard of VANDAL MOON though collaborations with FM ATTACK and then MECHA MAIKO and BETAMAXX, so how did this synthwave association begin and has it expanded your audience?
I didn’t even know the synthwave community existed until a gentleman by the name of Axel from Neon Vice Magazine reached out to me around 2013. From there it just snowballed. The synthwave kids embraced me as an artist, and that was so heart-warming.
Because of that, I’ve been fortunate enough work with some artists who have forged a place for themselves in the history books. Shawn, Haley and Nick are all legends in their own right. These are people who have created something from nothing. Back when MTV mattered, they would have been featured on ‘120 Minutes’ or something. They deserve to be celebrated. History will not forget them, and neither will I.
You have described ‘Black Kiss’ as your most electronic record yet, had you been looking to evolve in this direction or did the acceptance by the synthwave community accelerate this and give you the confidence to make more of an artistic jump?
When I make a record, I imagine it in very abstract terms. To my imagination, this record wanted to be more angular and dark. A primarily electronic pallet was the best way for me to elaborate on that vision. I’ve written literally hundreds of songs on guitars, so it felt good to write this album on synthesizers. It gives it a different vibe. But who knows, maybe I’ll do something weird like a ‘VANDAL MOON: Unplugged’ album next. Or maybe a synthesizer style punk record. Who knows!
How would describe the creative dynamic within VANDAL MOON?
Much of the time, I’m alone in my studio, just f*cking around until something decent emerges. For every album, I write maybe 50 or 60 songs, and pick the best 10 or whatever. When I die, you can rummage through all my hard drives and release bullsh*t demos to your heart’s content. Jeremy and I get together a lot at his place, and drink vodka until we’re screaming at 2am and creeping the neighbours out. It’s a good way to let off some steam. A lot of songs come out of that process as well.
‘Wicked World’ does that epic gothic thing like FIELDS OF THE NEPHILM, did you know ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK was in the same class at school as The Neph’s drummer Nod but he was into jazz funk then!?! Were there any genres of music you explored before settling where you are now?
I’ve listened to and made all kinds of music. I listen to hip-hop, math rock, Turkish psych music… you name it. I’ve done soundtracks for documentaries where I’m playing a dumbek drum and a melodica and just chanting. I’ll play any instrument. I might play it sh*ttily, but I’ll play it nonetheless. I just love making music. F*ck everything else. I’m determined to succeed at creation. The rest is just happenstance.
‘Hurt’ really plays on making THE SISTERS OF MERCY’s template more synthy, had that been intentional?
I don’t intentionally model any of my songs after particular artists. The bands I liken us to, for PR purposes, are just based upon what people tell me we sound like. The thing I love about this project is that people struggle to pigeonhole us. VANDAL MOON sounds like a lot of different things, but we don’t fit neatly into any one genre. That means we’re doing something unique. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.
The moody gothwave of ‘We Are Electric’ sees you collaborate with FM ATTACK again, Shawn Ward really loves his dark musical side doesn’t he?
Shawn is the warmest, most enthusiastic and supportive person I know. He invited me out to this home in Mazatlan and we made a bunch of songs together for this last album ‘New World’. He’s my friend first and foremost. And yes, he loves dark music.
He understands how to create something dark that touches people’s hearts in a way that is multi-faceted, and not just like “oh me, I’m angry, boo hoo”. That’s because he is a special soul, and talented as hell. We’ll probably make a full-length FM ATTACK // VANDAL MOON album together at some point. It’ll be like THE GLOVE or something.
You’re not afraid to play with post-punk disco templates as ‘Suicidal City Girl’ shows? What had this been influenced by?
I think I was listening to a lot of Sally Dige when I made that song. You can hear it in there. Sally is so talented. I hope I get to work with her one day. She’s a real artist in the lifestyle sense.
Her life is art and art is her life. At least from what I can see. She draws, paints, makes music and film. She’s what we all aspire to. I was supposed to get my ass out to Berlin to do a music video with her, but it never happened.
‘Robot Lover’ is like DEPECHE MODE meeting THE MISSION, how did this track come together?
That’s a lovely compliment, thank you. This is one of those songs that Jeremy and I wrote together at his house. I think I wrote the bass line and Jeremy came up with the chords. Jeremy came up with the idea for me to sing higher during the verse line “we are enslaved for life, our pain is real”. And I think that’s what really pushed the song forward. It’s a very futurist song.
The apocalyptic gothic trance of ‘No Future’ no doubt surprised your fans, but how has the reception been on the whole to ‘Black Kiss’, has anyone said you are “betraying your goth roots”?
To hell with anyone who tells me I’m betraying my roots. The first CD I ever purchased with my own money was LL Cool J’s ‘Mama Said Knock You Out’, just based upon the power of the album art, so what the fuck do they know about my roots? I put ‘No Future’ last on the album because I felt like it was just a really nice closer. It’s aggressive, but in a more EDM kind of way. Of course, it’s not EDM. Nobody knows what it is, and that’s the beauty of it. It’s a really fun song to perform, and it’s very powerful at loud volumes. It’s a song dedicated to dystopia, and also to John Lydon. Thank you for everything, John. We love you.
How have European audiences taken to VANDAL MOON, will some of the directions taken on ‘Black Kiss’ make that more palatable for the future?
We live in interesting times. We have followers from all over the world. We get an extreme amount of support from Brazil and the rest of South America. But in the end, we’re all humans who hurt and laugh and love.
I don’t give too much credence to where our audience is from, but rather I try to embrace their love and acceptance and express gratitude back towards them as individuals. I don’t know if ‘Black Kiss’ will connect more with European audiences, but I believe it will connect with those who listen with open hearts.
The ‘Black Kiss’ album title does rather capture the zeitgeist, any thoughts?
I don’t groom my music to pump people up or bring them down, like Coca-Cola or something. I just follow my instincts and make songs based upon how I’m feeling at that moment. As a result, I think it sort of follows the emotional ups and downs of my human experience, which people can innately relate to.
I don’t want to make any commentary on what this album is or isn’t in terms of emotional content, because I want listeners to create their own experience and connections. The world is f*cked up, but it’s also filled with beauty.
The worldwide lockdown has made it difficult for everyone to make plans, but are there anymore collaborations planned for the future, or live appearances?
I’m working on a remix album with a bunch of insane artists that I won’t name here. But rest assured, it’s packed with talent. All 10 songs from ‘Black Kiss’ will be remixed by 10 different artists. I can’t wait. I also have like 3 different, full on collaborations that are in the works, which I think will surprise people.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its warmest thanks to Blake Voss
Founded in 2012, BETAMAXX is the musical vehicle of Pittsburgh based Nick Morey, a vintage synthesizer enthusiast who released his debut album ‘Lost Formats’ that same year.
Among his armoury are a Roland Juno 106, Roland Juno 60, Minimoog, Korg Poly6, Korg Mono/Poly, Oberheim OBXa and Sequential Prophet 6.
Despite four albums acclaimed by the synthwave community, as seems to be common among its exponents, a retirement of the BETAMAXX name was announced by Morey in 2015. But sure enough, a return came with 2017’s ‘Archaic Science’.
The most recent BETAMAXX album ‘Lost In A Dreamworld’ was a more confident affair, with Morey bringing in wider influences such as goth and new wave, perhaps taking a leaf from Shawn Ward, best known of course as FM ATTACK and now his label boss.
One of those songs is ‘Never Sleep Again’, a collaboration with post-punk Santa Cruz duo VANDAL MOON. Entering darker territories, courtesy of some great Robert Smith-tinged vocals by Blake Voss, ‘Never Sleep Again’ breaks away from the definitions of synthwave by offering a propulsive electronic take on THE CURE, although the Keith Forsey-era of THE PSYCHEDELIC FURS would be another reference, if slightly more distant.
Reflecting its tale of love and disaffection, ‘Never Sleep Again’ comes with a superb video directed by Dan Przygoda and shot by Brad A Kinnan. It’s kind of a tribute to ‘The Lost Boys’ that not surprisingly exudes a sinister air of foreboding while our heroes perform as the house band in a vampire nightclub. Blink and you will miss Holly Dodson of PARALLELS in the audience.
‘Lost In A Dreamworld’ has perhaps been a slow burner outside the confines of synthwave but extends beyond its expectations and is well worthy of investigation. Living up to the album’s title and with an angelic feminine air, the sparking synthpop of ‘Skyhigh’ featuring GLITBITER (who also makes a cameo in the ‘Never Sleep Again’ video) was another appealing facet to ‘Lost In A Dreamworld’, with the song’s vibrato treated vocal stabs on the coda being a particular delight.
One of the other guest vocalists was the delectable MECHA MAIKO whose girly avant pop stylings on ‘No Fun’ added an eclectic twist to proceedings, its bass sequencing looking more towards European electronic acts like VISAGE and SIN COS TAN.
But ‘Lost in a Dreamworld’ isn’t just about its songs; the glitterball energy of ‘Disco Dreamgirl’ is a brilliant instrumental that blips gloriously, while the ringing hypnotic overtures of ‘Vacation’ in collaboration with Swedish producer Robert Parker decorate another great club-friendly instrumental.
Then there was ‘Opaque Fog’ which glistened via its crisp production and fabulously rigid rhythms in a pacier take on Hollywood-era TANGERINE DREAM. And with a churning arpeggio sweetened by actual synth playing, the delightful ‘Stargazer’ did exactly what it said on the tin.
Taking a more open-minded approach, BETAMAXX has an album in ‘Lost in a Dreamworld’ that could appeal to those who might see themselves as synthwave synics. Throw in the inherent Giorgio Moroder vocoder influences on ‘Getaway’ and ‘I’ll Walk You Home’ as well and maturer listeners may have a further point of reference to appeal.