‘Two’ is the second album from DUBSTAR since Sarah Blackwood and Chris Wilkie reunited as a duo.
After several false starts, 2018’s six string slanted long player ‘One’ co-produced by Youth was a welcome return for DUBSTAR, but the impression was that Blackwood and Wilkie were just warming up.
Working with Stephen Hague acting as producer and an unofficial third member, DUBSTAR have returned to the electronic driven sound of their debut long player ‘Disgraceful’ and as a result, have recorded some of the best work of their career on ‘Two’.
Hague had co-produced ‘Disgraceful’ which spawned the hits ‘Not So Manic Now’, ‘Stars’, ‘Anywhere’ and ‘Elevator Song’, providing a musical bridge between Britpop and Synth Britannia. Largely recorded in the face of adversity during lockdown in a “pass the parcel” manner, Wilkie confirmed “Dilemmas and experiments which would normally consume an afternoon can take a week, when you’re recording remotely”. The necessary social distancing dictated the instrumentation as he added “We found ourselves naturally gravitating to our electronic side over the pandemic, because it lends itself more practically to remote production. We couldn’t sit around jamming with guitars or experimenting together in real time”.
Opener ‘Token’ immediately points to Hague’s productions for PET SHOP BOYS and ERASURE, a song about leaving behind abusive relationships and minor gestures, a topic that many can relate to. Full of resilience, it is possibly Sarah Blackwood and Chris Wilkie’s most overt synthpop statement yet. The anxious electronic disco of ‘I Can See You Outside’ evokes an unlikely liaison between Christine McVie and Giorgio Moroder in an exhilarating ride “beyond the fault lines”; it all hits the zeitgeist in a brave new world of unease, confusion, conspiracy and sadness.
Continuing with the seismologic analogies, ‘Tectonic Plates’ focusses on friction over a neo-baggy beat, with Wilkie bursting with rhythm guitar reminiscent of DUBSTAR’s former Food labelmates BLUR on their first hit ‘There’s No Other Way’, although the array of catchy synth riffs alongside are irresistible.
Going more downtempo, the moody ‘Lighthouse’ harks back to the days of Britpop with guitar inflections and a rousing chorus while the charming piano focussed ballad ‘Tears’ is supplemented by a virtual string section before a simultaneously sparkling and rugged combination of COCTEAU TWINS and SIMPLE MINDS comes in the middle eight.
Inspired by socially-distanced queuing at the height of the lockdown, ‘Hygiene Strip’ is wonderfully classic DUBSTAR characterised by Blackwood’s forlorn vocal presence but there is also the subtle lifting air of PET SHOP BOYS looming to offer hope a haze of melancholy.
Pacing up to an offbeat, ‘Blood’ again echoes BLUR and a snatch of XTC but is shaped by a more student indie aesthetic, while ‘Social Proof’ strums along as a stern Blackwood announces “I’ll tell you something…”
With Sarah Blackwood hitting some lovely high notes, the bittersweet ‘Kissing To Be Unkind’ reflects on former friends who turn unnecessary nasty while presenting a misleading friendly persona, and all because “Losing the hand has made you hard to please”. Ending with a haunting cover of REM’s ‘Perfect Circle’ and its absorbing piano from Stephen Hague, it goes full circle with the Portland-born producer’s past as he had worked with Michael Stipe & Co on the demo version of ‘Catapult’ in 1982, a song which sat later next to ‘Perfect Circle’ on the Athens GA quartet’s debut album ‘Murmur’.
Satisfying both their Synth Britannia and Britpop rooted fanbase, thanks to the return of Stephen Hague in the producer’s chair and displaying a common musical affinity, DUBSTAR have provided their spiritual follow-up to ‘Disgraceful’ in ‘Two’. The kitchen sink dramas continue with the usual cups of tea, so know these songs and sing them.
It is not long before the new DUBSTAR album is released. Entitled ‘Two’, it will be out on 6th May 2022. But until then, a fabulous new song ‘Token’ has been premiered as an enticing trailer.
Co-produced by Stephen Hague, ‘Token’ sounds like DUBSTAR doing ERASURE, while others have remarked that it sounds like PET SHOP BOYS. Whatever, it is possibly Sarah Blackwood and Chris Wilkie’s most overt synthpop statement yet.
Chris Wilkie said “Most often it’s the song itself which informs the style and sound of a track, but sometimes, once an album is underway, it becomes clearer what is working or what is lacking”. And it was the necessary social distancing due to lockdown that played a part in dictating the instrumentation: “We found ourselves naturally gravitating to our electronic side over the pandemic, because it lends itself more practically to remote production. We couldn’t sit around jamming with guitars or experimenting together in real time, for instance”.
Working from home remotely, “I can program MIDI parts in Tyneside, and if not 100% happy with the way it’s sounding, the program is easily pinged over to Haguey down in Sussex who can use the same program to trigger different gear. It’s a protracted way of working but more versatile than you’d think. After ‘Hygiene’ and ‘Outside’, we were already some of the way down a particular road. Having Hague involved certainly got us thinking about those kind of artists, but there wasn’t a conscious decision to channel them. Some artists just become part of your DNA when you grow up with them.”
Very much a collaborative effort with the Portland-born producer, Wilkie remembered: “Stephen played me a very symphonic piano riff, and I was challenged to write a song which might incorporate it in some way. I wrote the chorus straight away to fit chords which would hopefully accommodate the piano intro at some point, and then the bridge. I only had placeholder lyrics which I wasn’t confident about for the verses, so I asked Sarah and Hague to muck in with those. It felt like writing in reverse. I usually start at the start and keep going”.
But is the ‘Token’ referring to a prize or representation or a minor gesture? “It’s both!!!!” revealed Sarah Blackwood, “I’m singing about how the tormentor can help themselves to the things we shared together; inviting them to take a “tender token”. ‘Tender’ is simultaneously sentimental and weak. And ‘token’ is both a material trophy and a minor gesture. It was only after the whole song was finished that it seemed that the word ‘token’ seemed to be the centre of gravity, hence the title.
“Chris got the idea from Haguey after talking about NEW ORDER” the DUBSTAR singer added, “The word ‘regret’ is incidental and floats-by unnoticed in that song, you would never spend long contemplating it, but the word ‘Regret’ is monolithic and meaningful when isolated as a title. In our song, the word ‘Token’ almost raises psychological alarms as a title, but it’s appearance in the song defuses it, which hopefully encourages people to consider what the word really means to them”.
The video was filmed in Manchester and it was also the first time Blackwood and Wilkie had actually seen each other in person since 2019 – “We couldn’t even hug but we still managed to be over-emotional.” she remembered, “Mancunians are too cool to stare but I did clock bewildered glances as some wondered who the hell we were and why we were filming, especially in the middle of a storm (Barra). The irony was, we had prayed for rain as it can look very cinematic. Classic case of beware of what you wish for…… Dom F, our resident George Lucas, was having to negotiate Market Street backwards to film, Chris and Paul B our helper clearing the way forward for him, whilst loudly and helpfully pointing out people for me to avoid with the very large brolly……”
The weather conditions naturally presented a number of dramas; “I was trying to look serene whilst wrestling the wind vs brolly and avoid a Mary Poppins moment, sing to the camera at double speed (aloud with headphones in, no wonder they were staring ?) and try to not to look cold…” said Blackwood, “All whilst avoiding puddles, uneven paving slabs, frantic Christmas shoppers and the driving blooming rain……marketing man Matt D kept the seats warm in Night and Day where we thawed our toes between takes, looked through the rushes and realised the umbrella was undoubtedly the star of the show. We dried out in my friend Claire’s jazz bar Matt & Phred’s and shared a pizza with Adrian Dunbar from ‘Line of Duty’…… Chris’s mum was so terribly impressed……”
With ‘Hygiene Strip’ and ‘I Can See You Outside’, Sarah Blackwood and Chris Wilkie have been re-exploring the electronic direction of their earlier sound, having celebrated the 25th Anniversary of their debut single ‘Stars’ in 2020.
Both co-produced by Stephen Hague who helmed the first two DUBSTAR albums ‘Disgraceful’ and ‘Goodbye’, ‘Hygiene Strip’ was an apocalyptic heartbreak song reflecting love, loss, anger and ideology while the more uptempo ‘I Can See You Outside’ evoked Christine McVie and Giorgio Moroder liaising unexpectedly in a condemned nightclub.
Taking its title from the slowly but constantly moving pieces of Earth’s crust and uppermost mantle which cause earthquakes when stuck together, ‘Tectonic Plates’ focusses on friction over a neo-baggy beat, but paradoxically sparkles on entry in a seismic shift.
Imagining the paintings of modern surrealist Marc Chagall, Blackwood observes this girl who “Drifted far beyond this world To places unreachably high, sky is just another thing that passed her by”. Wilkie then bursts in with some rhythm guitar reminiscent of DUBSTAR’s former Food labelmates BLUR and their first hit ‘There’s No Other Way’, although an array of catchy synth riffs prove to be irresistible.
Working again with Stephen Hague, a new DUBSTAR album is now close to completion. The necessity to record it remotely has led to the realisation of ideas which would normally consume an afternoon actually take a week.
The creative tension has led to a compulsion to create, with plenty to write about in the face of adversity in that sardonic Northern English way. So it’s all Back To Blackwood as Wilkie brings in his love of XTC and CHIC for the bittersweet kitchen sink poetry of DUBSTAR to remain firmly intact as a kind of pop regression therapy.
“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
Despite the worldwide pandemic crisis, the music industry did its best and soldiered on.
Many artists who had scheduled releases in 2020 went through with them, but other artists used the lockdown situation as creative tension and were particularly productive while stuck at home, to compensate for being unable to perform live shows.
Electronic music has always had an emotional link in particular with isolation and solitary working, so the advances in computerised recording technology meant that a number of musicians could function as before.
Worthy mentions for 2020 include AaRON, ASSEMBLAGE 23, DESIRE, DISCOVERY ZONE, FIAT LUX, JOHN FOXX & THE MATHS, GEISTE, NEW ORDER, NEW SPELL, PAGE, WITCH OF THE VALE, ZIMBRU and 808 DOT POP, while one of the most popular synthpop songs of the year was ‘Blinding Lights’ by THE WEEKND which actually slipped out almost under the radar at the back end of 2019.
A special acknowledgement also goes to ‘Future Shock’ by Marc Collin featuring Clara Luciani which came from his independently produced film ‘Le Choc Du Futur’, but only became more widely known when the fictional story of an aspiring female synth musician set in 1978 was released internationally on DVD this year.
But at the end of the day, only 30 songs could be selected as a snapshot of the calendar year. So here are ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK’s songs of 2020, presented as usual alphabetically by act with a restriction of one song per artist moniker.
TOBIAS BERNSTRUP Private Eye
Tobias Bernstrup is an electronic musician and performance artist from Gothenburg who combines sci-fi, performance art and gothic noir for a striking persona that has been exhibited at art galleries in Sweden. The club-friendly Italo flavoured ‘Private Eye’ looked at the surveillance society with hints of TRANS-X who Bernstrup collaborated with on a new version of his song ‘Videodrome’ in 2018. Already a veteran of several albums, a follow-up to his last long player ‘Technophobic’ is in the works.
Available on the digital single ‘Private Eye’ via Tonight Records
The ninth full length BLANCMANGE long player of new material since their return in 2011 with ‘Blanc Burn’, Neil Arthur’s dark ‘Mindset’ is only reflecting what many are thinking in these strange times. Thus strange pop music is just the tonic and the highlight of this collection was the marvellous KRAFTWERK meets FAITHLESS concoction of the mutant electronic disco of ‘Diagram’. In his sharp Northern lilt, our hero repeating himself like a preacher on how “I want transparency” only adds to the sinister dance.
Available on the album ‘Mindset’ is released by Blanc Check
From ‘Children of Nature’, the excellent first album by Mark Reeder and Alanas Chosnau, ‘Heavy Rainfall’ was a song seemingly having an environmental reference but actually reflecting on the world’s increasingly disturbing political climate. Like a grooving NEW ORDER disco number with Reeder’s rhythm guitar syncopating off an exquisite range of electronic patterns while some spacey magic flies within the exquisite soundscape. Chosnau solemnly announces the storm warning, yet his message to hang on remains positive as light is seen at the end of the tunnel.
‘Luna Landings’, the second solo offering from Gary Daly was the next best thing to a CHINA CRISIS instrumental album but then it sort of was, comprising of various demos and sketches that Daly originally recorded on his TEAC and Tascam Portastudios between 1981 to 1987. A highly enjoyable record that channelled a laid back demeanour to aid relaxation and escape, despite the age of the recordings, the air and hiss from the incumbent machinery added an endearingly earthy quality to proceedings. One of the highlights ‘80s Electro 2’ did exactly as the title suggested.
Hygiene strips are now common place as reminders of social distancing, so a gesture of solidarity with fellow humans, DUBSTAR presented this poignant song at the height of the 2020 UK lockdown. Working with Stephen Hague and DUBSTAR who co-produced their hits ‘Not So Manic Now’ and ‘Stars’, the writing and recording was completed remotely. There was a forlorn presence in Sarah Blackwood’s vocal but also the subtle lifting air of PET SHOP BOYS to offer some hope in the haze of melancholy.
With her long-awaited debut album ‘Mirores’, ANI GLASS had the honour of being shortlisted for Welsh Music Prize. An observational electronic travelogue based around the idea of movement and progress in her hometown of Cardiff, one of the highlights was the Euro-disco of ‘Ynys Araul’. Rich in traditional melody with a lovely high vocal register while offering a pop sensibility and a wonderful triplet bassline, it was given a subtle remix by her one-time mentor Andy McCluskey who she had worked with as a Mk2 member of GENIE QUEEN.
From the Italians Do It Better stable, home to CHROMATICS and DESIRE, the mysterious but glamourous GLÜME offered this lovely eerie ‘Twin Peaks’ styled cover of ‘Come Softly To Me’. More chilling and metronomic than the almost acapella song written and made famous by THE FLEETWOODS in 1958, the original vocal hook was transferred to synth. Her version captured the innocence of forgotten yesterdays in the pursuit of today with its hypnotic arrangement and her lush but tragic Marilyn Monroe meets Julee Cruise delivery.
HILTIPOP might be a new name in electronic pop but the man behind it is something of a veteran. Magnus Johansson’s best known project internationally has been ALISON, but he began working on solo material and launched HILTIPOP with a triumphant early afternoon slot at Electronic Summer 2015. It would be 2018 before his first release ‘The Pattern’. Johansson’s sombre darker-tinged pop style fused is evident on ‘Time’, with a sample of SIMPLE MINDS ‘Theme For Great Cities’ thrown into a dynamic squelch fest.
Available on the digital EP ‘The Man’ via Hoyt Burton Records
After an excellent self-titled debut album, INTERNATIONAL TEACHERS OF POP brought more of their danceable synthy togetherness to home discos with ‘Pop Gossip’. With a sardonic twist and perhaps referring to the soap opera that is the status of HRH Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle, the brilliantly uptempo album closer ‘The Tower’ amusingly imagines Queen Elizabeth II telling her Beefeaters to “Take them to The Tower, it’s a beautiful day, take them away!” like a future scene from series 8 of ‘The Crown’!
Unwittingly reflecting the pandemic crisis, KID MOXIE composed the soundtrack to a film ‘Not To Be Unpleasant, But We Need to Have a Serious Talk’. The plot centred around a womanizer who finds out he is a carrier of a sexually transmitted virus, lethal only to women! She said of ‘Big In Japan’: “It didn’t feel right to necessarily use drums because I did want to take a departure from the ALPHAVILLE original. There was already a strong rhythm element with the synth bass and it takes it to a different place by having a woman sing it.”
Exploring the innocence of ‘Teenage Bliss’, the most recent singular offering from KITE was co-produced by Benjamin John Power, best known as Scared Bones artist BLANCK MASS. The dynamic uptempo combination was wonderfully hymn-like, with Stenemo telling his congregation that “Teenage bliss, there ain’t no consequences in your life and you don’t know what tragedy is” before the bittersweet revelation that “In the end, no-one wins!” as “life is not like your first kiss…”
Recalling melodic 21st Century dance-friendly acts like San Francisco’s ANDAIN, LASTLINGS are a Japanese Australian sibling duo comprising of Amy and Josh Dowdle whose debut album title ‘First Contact’ was a reference to the thrill and despair of notable life milestones like first love and first heartbreak. Capturing the anxiety of growing up and the unknown of adult independence, the ethereal electronic drama of ‘Held Under’ was one of its highlights, using subtle house influences while maximising a hauntingly treated layers of female voice.
LINEA ASPERA released their self-titled debut album in 2012. A collection of dark but danceable electronic pop, before any new listeners had an opportunity to discover and savour them, the duo had already disbanded in 2013. The duo reunited in 2019 and on the superb ‘Event Horizon’, the cutting synthesized hooks, disco drum box rhythms and supreme vocals confirmed how LINEA ASPERA have become such a highly rated and beloved duo and why their magnificent melodic melancholy had been so missed over the past few years.
In a typically NIGHT CLUB twist, the duo found their perfect co-conspirator in former SKINNY PUPPY member Dave “Rave” Ogilvie who mixed Carly Rae Jepsen’s 2011 worldwide smash hit ‘Call Me Maybe’. ‘Die In The Disco’ set the ‘Die Die Lullaby’ album off with a slice of throbbing HI-NRG disco, donning its hat to Giorgio Moroder and Bobby Orlando before asking to “take me to a place I can dance” and an unsettling ghostly pitch-shifted voice exclaims that ”This is my party and I will die if I want to…”
Much has changed for NINA. First the German songstress made some life changes and moved back to Berlin just as the world went into lockdown. ‘Runaway’ from this year’s ‘Synthian’ album declared she “searching for a way out”. So it was only natural that any new material would be influenced by the uncertainty and sombre realities of what was happening around her. The self-explanatory ‘Where It Ends’ made something of a sombre statement with the introspective tones of DE/VISION in building towards a steadfast gothic schwing and penetrating synth solo.
Available on the digital EP ‘Control’ via Lakeshore Records
A ghostly light seen by travellers at night that refers to ignis fatuus or “foolish fire”, the astute intelligence of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe saw Medieval folk mythology referenced for ‘Will-O-The-Wisp, a fabulous PET SHOP BOYS dance tune with catchy hooks and a dry monologue. From the third of a trilogy of long players produced by Stuart Price and recorded in Berlin’s renowned Hansa Studios, the duo’s fourteen album ‘Hotspot’ maintained the duo’s position as exemplary English songsmiths.
Available on the album ‘Hotspot’ via x2 Recordings
PISTON DAMP are a new electronic pop duo based in Norway comprising of Jonas Groth and Truls Sønsterud. ‘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 that is reminiscent of APOP’s more immediate work, perhaps unsurprisingly given that he is part of their live line-up in support of his brother Stephan.
Recording a collaborative album with Austria’s POWERNERD, the joyous result ‘Megawave’ was Canadian synth starlet Dean Jean Phoenix’s most sonically consistent body of work yet, reflecting her powerhouse stage persona in recorded form fully for the first time. A fun and dynamic collection, the album’s highlight ‘Fight These Robots’ was a classic funky Sci-Fi number with a dose of girly cheekiness and a reflection of a childhood watching ‘Transformers’ cartoons.
Available on the album ‘Megawave’ via Outland Recordings
Having described themselves as “Slacker synth-wave refuseniks”, POLYCHROME and their brand of filmic dreamwave as showcased on their self-titled 2018 debut album found favour with TV producers and advertising agencies around the world, particularly ‘Final Kiss’. Continuing the kissing theme, their recorded return Starts With A Kiss’ featured an unexpected but fitting guitar solo from Bjorn Agren of RAZORLIGHT but made extra special by the dreamy voice of Vicky Harrison who said “we’d finished with a kiss, so now wanted to start with one”.
For Bristol-based Finlay Shakespeare, his interest in synths came from his parents’ record collection, with music from the likes of KRAFTWERK, THE HUMAN LEAGUE and JAPAN. His second album ‘Solemnities’ was a more focussed progression from his debut ‘Domestic Economy’, making the most of a crystal clear modular synth sound coupled to his claustrophobic anxious vocals. The superb ‘Occupation’ was a metronomic squelch fest about social injustice with our hero conducting a raucous avant noise experiment in song with penetrating noise percussion and icy string machines.
With her arty but catchy electronic pop, Emilie Simon studied at the Sorbonne and her only release primarily English release was ‘The Big Machine’ in 2009. Using Martian invaders as a metaphor to the world pandemic, she felt the need to express her feelings on the ‘Mars on Earth 2020’ EP. The best track from it was the powerful ‘Cette Ombre (This Shadow)’ on which she summised “Planet Earth is under attack. Faced with an unknown invader, humanity is experiencing an unprecedented shift. What will remain of it?”
Now adding a “THE” to prefix their name, SMASHING PUMPKINS surprised many with a splendid synth friendly single entitled ‘Cyr’. With hooks very reminiscent of ‘Enjoy The Silence’, Billy Corgan & Co went synthpop with much of the track being of an electronic bent, particularly the synthetic bass. Not only that but ‘Cyr’ was also quite catchy in an almost DURAN DURAN vein! It was magnificent surprise that only highlighted the hopelessness of the more recent material from DEPECHE MODE.
Available on the album ‘Cyr’ via Sumerian Records / Warner Music Group
If there was a song that captures the claustrophobic solitude of lockdown isolation, then it was the appropriately titled ‘Small World’ by SNS SENSATION, the new musical vehicle of Sebastian Muravchik, best known as the charismatic front man of HEARTBREAK. A song about self-isolation during the pandemic crisis, ‘Small World’ was a throbbing electronic number with icy rhythms, marrying the elegance of minimal synth with the melodic presence of Italo disco, reminiscent of VISAGE’s ‘I’m Still Searching’ and PET SHOP BOYS ‘Miserabilsm’.
Less than three years after ‘Hippopotamus’, SPARKS offered ‘A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip’. As idiosyncratic as ever, if there was a key track, then it was the glorious ‘One For The Ages’; with a narrative about craving artistic longevity, the lines “As I write my tome every single night, my eyes show the strain of computer light but I’m pressing on” captured the lot of the creative mind. Already very synthy, the Mael Brothers probably could have made it even synthier!
ZACHERY ALLAN STARKEY featuring BERNARD SUMNER Force
With two albums ‘DIY’ and ‘Hard Power’ already under his belt, since opening for NEW ORDER on the ‘Music Complete’ tour in 2016, Zachery Allan Starkey has been working hard on observational concept album ‘Fear City’. ‘Force’ was a powerful collaboration with Bernard Sumner featuring his signature Italo-influenced sequencing style. Starkey’s impassioned authentic vocals were a rallying call to the people with the daunting prospect of Donald Trump being re-elected on the horizon. Thankfully, the message on jointly produced track was heeded.
ULTRAFLEX are a new Norwegian Icelandic duo based in Berlin who describe themselves as “The new teen sensation” with an interest in Soviet disco, athleisure and weirdo boogie. However, Kari Jahnsen and Katrín Helga Andrésdóttir are perhaps better known by their solo monikers FARAO and SPECIAL-K respectively. ‘Olympic Sweat’ was uplifting disco lento with an organic heart, a pretty tune with an expansive sweeping resonance that was reminiscent of SIN COS TAN, PET SHOP BOYS and NEW ORDER, but with a feminine twist.
If there was a musical duo who visually symbolise the dystopian paranoia of the world pandemic crisis, then it is UNIFY SEPARATE, formally known as US. ‘Solitude & I’ was a natural progression of the material on ‘First Contact’ with Andrew Montgomery not letting up with his Jeff Buckley inspired vocal delivery, reflecting the isolation and uncertain future many are currently feeling as “There’s nobody out there, no-one but you and I”. Anthemic, uplifting and optimistic, it was a message to all about never giving up on your dreams.
Capturing a dystopian outlook on life with an appealing electronic sensibility, ‘Black Kiss’ was the best VANDAL MOON album yet. With a sound seeded from post-punk, goth and new wave, they are shaped as much by their use of drum machines and synthesizers as much as guitars and the inevitable deep baritone vocals. The superb electro-gothic aesthetics of ‘Suicidal City Girl’ recalled the enthralling tension of THE DANSE SOCIETY and a highlight of a record with many highlights.
On ‘Forever’, Greek dark synth songstress Marva Von Theo channelled the frantic tone of ‘River In Me’, the Anders Trentemøller’s collaboration with Jenny Vee of SAVAGES, into a great atmospheric art pop statement on redemption and eternity. A track from her upcoming second album ‘Afterglow’, with determined vocals and punchy beats, ‘Forever’ demonstrated, along with its singular follow-up ‘Ruins’, a significant artistic progression since her promising but unfulfilled debut long player ‘Dream Within A Dream’.
Available on the digital single ‘Forever’ via Marva Von Theo
Melodic synth trio WHITE DOOR released their only album ‘Windows’ in 1983 but despite BBC Radio1 airplay, were unable to gain wider traction. WHITE DOOR gained cult status and one young fan was Swedish synthesist Johan Baeckström who joined the band for their return. Acknowledging the theme of ’Get Carter’ but with a more brassy flair, ’Resurrection’ surprised with a bouncy Moroder-inspired stomp while Mac Austin managed to sound like a cross between Morten Harket and Chris De Burgh around some beautifully symphonic synth.