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-Michael 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 and COSAQUITOS EN GLOBO 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, COSAQUITOS EN GLOBO, 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.
Despite recently celebrating the 25th anniversary of the release of their debut album ‘Disgraceful’, DUBSTAR are still going strong and releasing songs as vital as ever.
Co-produced by Stephen Hague, ‘Disgraceful’ spawned the hits ‘Not So Manic Now’, ‘Stars’, ‘Anywhere’ and ‘Elevator Song, acting as the unlikely musical bridge between Britpop and Synth Britannia.
Signed to Food Records who also had BLUR, JESUS JONES, THE SUPERNATURALS and SHAMPOO on their books, there were two more albums in ‘Goodbye’ and ‘Make It Better’ before DUBSTAR ended their first tenure. After several false starts, 2018’s 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 and there was still much more to come.
With ‘Hygiene Strip’ and the new single ‘I Can See You Outside’, both co-produced by Stephen Hague, the reconfigured duo of Sarah Blackwood and Chris Wilkie are again exploring the electronic direction of their earlier sound and as a result, recording some of the best work of their career in the face of adversity.
DUBSTAR kindly chatted about their artistic motivation in lockdown, as well as reflecting on the longevity and continued popularity of ‘Disgraceful’.
There was a very positive reaction to ‘Hygiene Strip’, it connected with a lot of people…
Chris: It’s interesting – songwriters have always been able to count on certain universal themes for emotional traction: things like love, loss, anger and ideology are frequently revisited for instance, since it’s assumed that a greater number of people will be able to relate directly.
The pandemic, by its global nature, has affected everybody in some way or another, so unsurprisingly it’s been embraced gratefully by creatives as another vehicle for reaching people where they live. We never would have cynically set out to record a ‘Covid song’, and it really wouldn’t be our style to write about the virus itself, but there was a point during the first lockdown when it felt almost inappropriate to avoid acknowledging it, or to just pretend it wasn’t happening.
So when I found myself mumbling the verse while waiting in a socially-distanced queue outside the Co-op, it seemed okay to just let it come. Especially since I’d been struggling to finish the album due to chronic anxiety, which had been greatly exacerbated by the preceding weeks. There was a feeling that shopping for groceries was a perilous thing to do, and I noticed that I’d started dressing up more for the occasion. It felt necessary to show humanity in an ordinary situation which, at that point anyway, was ‘different’.
Sarah: It’s one of those songs I think, the more you listen to it the more things you hear, production and otherwise… I think it connected on a few levels – firstly, that it’s marking an unusual time with unusual restraints and restrictions, imposed universally. But on a more microcosmic level, it’s an apocalyptic heartbreak song – I think we’ve all bumped into the person we least want to see when we are looking our worst, pandemic notwithstanding.
There’s also some escapism going on musically; the play on words with ‘Hygiene Strip’ / ‘Sunset Strip’ -which makes me think of sunshine and happily-ever-afters, alluded to with key changes, in the style of a big Hollywood musical number, offering the hope we will wake up and find it’s all been a terrible dream and we can go back to normal…
You have often talked about “spine-tingling” moments in the studio, was there a feeling that you had something special when you were recording ‘Hygiene Strip’?
Chris: It was perhaps a bigger deal because so much effort had gone into the structure of ‘Hygiene Strip’, compared with previous songs we’ve done. I think Hague and myself had attempted five different versions of the track with differing modulations before settling on the one which is on the record. In other words, the chords which I had for the choruses and verses remained essentially the same, but the focus was on which key they would be in when they landed each time. We’d done this for several days and probably tested Sarah’s patience, since she’d have to verify how each attempt would sound when it was actually sung.
Next came the finer detail of the arrangement: Stephen sent me a file showing how the piano part in the chorus might work, and I liked it a lot, but worried that there was too much of it all at once. The verses in ‘Hygiene Strip’ are pretty tight and congested with images, reflecting the claustrophobia of the scenario, and I wanted the environment to empty-out when the chorus arrives, so we can float above the street. I told Stephen on the phone that I hoped the listener would feel like oxygen had finally come rushing into the ‘Strip.
About an hour later, he sent a rough mix of the track where you could actually hear the air arriving before the chorus hits. I was so relieved that I actually wept. It’s been a weepy year, let’s face it, but that was the moment when I knew my hopes for ‘Hygiene Strip’ were being realised.
It was fortunate for Haguey that we were producing distantly, since he would have been physically embraced for an uncomfortably long period of time, under conventional circumstances. Then Sarah delivered one of the strongest vocals of her career, and my rapture was complete.
Sarah: I remember Chris sent the demo on a Friday night. I was half way through eating a poppadom and hadn’t even got to the chorus, before I was on the WhatsApp typing frantically about how brilliant I thought it was. It wouldn’t leave my head, and I sang the demo the next morning. I love it when a song gives you that energy rush.
What is it like to have Stephen Hague back in the DUBSTAR camp again?
Chris: It’s been a real blessing. If I had to pre-select someone to be in touch with pretty much every day of this year, I might have picked Stephen anyway, regardless of the album. We became fast friends in the mid-90s, since we have a similar sense of humour and worldview, and he’s an excellent navigator in a crisis.
Also, he was really helpful when I suffered something of a breakdown while making the ‘Goodbye’ album, so he’s a ‘safe’ person for me. I’ve often said that I learned my best habits as a recording musician from Haguey when we were making ‘Disgraceful’, and my bad habits are entirely inherent! It’s been a real privilege to work so closely with him on this record, albeit in different places.
My co-producer role came largely from necessity, since the ‘remote’ nature of the recording required us to share so much more of the process, and in different locations. Sometimes when we work with people whose legacy we admire, there comes a point when you feel like you have the measure of their shtick; the wiring under the boards are exposed, and the spell is broken. By contrast, I’m constantly learning new things from Stephen, and I think artists are happier when they feel that they’re evolving and improving.
Sarah: It feels like no time has passed at all, we just kind of picked up where we left off last time. We know each other’s humour and he feeds me chocolate brownies if I’ve done a good job singing. I realise we do have this kind of synchronicity in the studio: he can give me direction from the shrug of his shoulders or angle of his head, and it will make me change the dynamic of the line or word I’m singing. He’s a master of detail and nuance. Can we really be old enough to have known each other 25 years though!?
You recently celebrated the 25th Anniversary of your debut album ‘Disgraceful’ with acoustic versions of ‘Not So Manic Now’ and THE BEATLES ‘Free As A Bird’?
Chris: It felt appropriate to acknowledge the 25th anniversary of our debut, although the new album had already taken a lot longer than any of us expected, so there was some debate over whether we could afford to take time out of the main schedule. A change is as good as a rest, as the saying goes, so it was fun to have a diversion and create a session which was all about natural, ‘almost-live’ performance.
We realised that it would be John Lennon’s 80th when this was released, and ‘Free As A Bird’ was in the charts when ‘Not So Manic Now’ made the Top 20, so it seemed to enrich the sense of occasion. There was some stiff competition that week, as I remember: Michael Jackson was at number one… Oasis had just released ‘Wonderwall’… Madonna had one out… We really didn’t expect THE BEATLES to show up as well!
Sarah: In the absence of being able to play live, we thought it would be nice to release something that was “as live”. The acoustic Not So Manic Now was done in one take, I think that gives it a certain energy.
‘Free As A Bird’ we did, again, as live. But remotely. I recorded the vocal in my bedroom and Stephen put it all together. I was very nervous doing a song by THE BEATLES. I grew up with them, singing along probably before I could even talk, and I think it was a big deal for Chris too.
How do you look back on ‘Disgraceful’ now?
Chris: On the rare occasions when I hear it these days, I’m transported back to the places where it was made. I was still only 21 when we did ‘Disgraceful’, and recorded most of the guitars for ‘Stars’ and ‘Anywhere’ on my birthday. The title track was the following day, with an awful hangover. I learned a lot about recording guitars on those sessions, which were always very intimate. It was usually just me, Stephen Hague and sometimes Sam Hardaker, the engineer who would go on to form ZERO 7 shortly after.
When we first started doing ‘Stars’ a couple of years earlier, the James Brown ‘Funky Drummer’ break which features in it prominently was already sounding a little hackneyed. By the time of our release in ’95, it had developed a character which was beyond irony. A bit like having a ghost in the room. I worried at the time that an over-reliance on breakbeats might eventually date-stamp the music unfavourably, but I think we got away with it most of the time, given the benefit of context and the other performances.
What kind of memories does it evoke?
When I hear the singles from ‘Disgraceful’ on the radio, I’m always struck by how great Sarah is on them, and that ultimately is why the record was a success, after all. Some of my fondest memories are related to observing the additional personnel – like Andy Duncan doing his percussion sessions, which really made some of the tracks sparkle, and he had good anecdotes. I got a kick out of sitting-in on Phil Spalding’s bass session for ‘Manic’, and Jon Kirby (keyboards) was good company all throughout those sessions, as well as making a significant contribution to some of the arrangements.
Sarah: It was a time of breathless excitement and hope. Having everything I’d ever wanted, happen, freaked me out. I had no idea what I had done to deserve it. I was nervous, wondering if I’d be good enough, wondering if I’d live up to all my expectations and whether it would be everything I’d hoped. I was excited, intimidated, I didn’t dare to hope or enjoy in case it was snatched away creating pain too big to bear. It was that beautiful moment of dreams coming into view, almost within reach, before they collided with reality, lost their sparkle and became just another day.
During that Britpop period, the press liked to pitch the female fronted acts like SAINT ETIENNE, SLEEPER, REPUBLICA, ECHBELLY and PORTISHEAD against each other, was there a real rivalry or were you all pals drinking together in the pub?
Sarah: We certainly didn’t hang out like one big exclusive girl gang. Which was a real shame. I used to spend a bit of time with Saffron from REPUBLICA who is a particularly warm hearted, lovely person and great company.
SAINT ETIENNE came to our gigs sometimes, and I remember one time we had records out the same week, and the press had really tried to manufacture a ‘Sarah vs Sarah’ story.
There was an event, and they were hoping for a confrontation. I was cringing in a corner as Sarah walked in. She walked straight up to me, took my hand and was so lovely. I won’t forget that gesture of solidarity and how she deflated their nonsense with kindness and dignity.
I always hated the Ladette thing, but if you didn’t join in, you were seen as being a bit of a spoilsport. The sad truth was, we would never be taken seriously, or seen as equals no matter how much we drank and gobbed off – despite being encouraged to beat them at their own game and subsequently judged by their shifting standards.
There was an awful lot of female talent around, that I feel was belittled by presenting us as being in some sort of competition with each other, and, even more offensively, the implicit suggestion that we were a sideshow to the ‘main event’. It was institutional, chauvinistic marginalisation. I suffered from being quite laid-back and non-confrontational (I still do!) and I think that, combined with my being female, made some people continually try to put me down and disadvantage me, disregarding me as “just a singer”. That wouldn’t be tolerated now, but it happened back then, and the legacy of it still impacts me today.
I always admired Beth from PORTISHEAD. She was having none of it, and she was portrayed as brittle and vulnerable, but I saw her as strong and powerful because she had the courage to be true to her unique self. I loved ‘Dummy’. It was my soundtrack to us being signed, along with ‘Trouble’ by SHAMPOO, ‘Confide In Me’ by KYLIE, and ‘Linger’ by THE CRANBERRIES.
The new single ‘I Can See You Outside’ is classic DUBSTAR with something of an ironic title?
Chris: It was initially intended in a more existential than literal way, since I imagined the “ride” in the lyric as a metaphor for a way of living, or life itself. Ideally, it should mean various things to different people, though.
It’s always good to leave some room for interpretation, and in more recent days, the title feels more pertinent than when we recorded it. For me, ‘I Can See You Outside’ evokes Christine McVie and Giorgio Moroder liaising unexpectedly in a condemned nightclub.
Sarah: Hahaha yes. Something of a zeitgeisty title for sure. Totally unintentional. I think the current atmosphere has seeped in and unconsciously coloured everything. It was written just as lockdown was lifting and we were released like lambs into a brave new world of unease, confusion, conspiracy and sadness. All set to a disco beat.
How did ‘I Can See You Outside’ come together? Is this another Stephen Hague co-production?
Chris: Stephen gets a writing credit, as well as production one on this track, since I started writing the verses in reaction to something which he’d played. This approach had worked well on ‘Hygiene Strip’ also, since I’d been struggling to initiate the process in the usual way, amid the heightened anxiety of the pandemic. He would send occasional synth riffs, which sounded like beautiful little micro-productions, and it was impossible to avoid reacting with melodies and words.
Once we knew Haguey would be involved in this project, I didn’t really find myself referring to the albums which we made with him in the 90s, but instead revisiting his earlier records, which I’d loved in my teens. It was an opportunity to bottle some of that magic at the source.
So is the new DUBSTAR album progressing in earnest? How has the lockdown inspired or hampered you creatively?
Chris: Dilemmas and experiments which would normally consume an afternoon can take a week, when you’re recording remotely.
On the upside, you have additional time to immerse yourself in it, which I’ve found to be a welcome distraction from extraneous matters this year. Frankly, I shudder to think how badly I might have coped otherwise. It’s been really fortunate personally, and turned out particularly well, considering the adversity. Maybe because of the adversity? The best songs are usually the ones which you’re compelled to write, beyond any practical need to ‘provide content’.
Sarah: It’s certainly made us get our heads around technology. It’s nice to be able to do a vocal and see Chris’ face pop up on the computer screen because I’ve left my zoom open. And we all speak most days. For hours…
It’s been a bit of both. It’s frustrating to not be able to kick ideas around face-to-face and decide things together, so the process has taken longer because the communication has been a pipeline rather than a bubble. But there has been plenty to write about!
With everything going on, what are your hopes and fears for the future?
Chris: I hope this phase in history is eventually reduced to a disturbing memory. My fear is that it will endure.
Sarah: I hope we can find our humanity again, reconnect with kindness and empathy. Currently there is no respect for differences and no value in expertise and we need to restore and reset fast, the future of the planet depends upon it.
As Madonna says; “Love makes the world go round”, let’s cling to that as we find our path to hope.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its warmest thanks to DUBSTAR
As a gesture of solidarity with fellow humans, DUBSTAR present ‘Hygiene Strip’.
“’Hygiene Strip’ was created at the height of the 2020 UK lockdown” said Sarah Blackwood to ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK, “The writing, recording and video had to be done remotely, and it is the first collaboration with Stephen Hague and DUBSTAR to be released since the ’90s.”
Written by Sarah Blackwood, Chris Wilkie and Stephen Hague, the song itself is classic DUBSTAR and characterised by Blackwood’s distinctively forlorn vocal presence. But there is also the subtle lifting air of PET SHOP BOYS looming to offer some hope in the haze of melancholy.
Hygiene strips of course have become common place now to remind the population of social distancing but of course, they could also be metaphorically referring to the removal of personal protective clothing for sterilisation or the role of face coverings, actions that ultimately affect life.
The self-made lyric video is a striking monochromatic affair highlighting the emotional tension and psychological effects of the worldwide lockdown; it concludes with Miss Blackwood starkly masking up…
Stephen Hague produced DUBSTAR’s first two albums ‘Disgraceful’ and ‘Goodbye’ as well as their biggest hit singles ‘Stars’ and ‘Not So Manic Now’. Now domiciled on the South Coast of England, the American became best known for working with OMD, PET SHOP BOYS, NEW ORDER and ERASURE.
While Hague has not worked with DUBSTAR since 1997, he and Sarah Blackwood have remained in contact over the years, so a recording reunion was almost inevitable. The 2018 comeback ‘One’ was produced by Youth but while new DUBSTAR material is being written and recorded, the release schedule has yet to be confirmed.