Less than three years after ‘Hippopotamus’ which had been their first album in eight years, not including their long player in partnership with FRANZ FERDINAND in 2015 as FFS, comes ‘A Steady,Drip, Drip, Drip’.
As ‘Hippopotamus’ suggested, it was zoo time again for SPARKS and their poperatic adventure continues on album number twenty five.
Although self-producing and engineering, Russell and Ron Mael are joined by a supporting cast of Stevie Nistor (drums), Evan Weiss (guitar), Eli Pearl (guitar) and Patrick Kelly (bass).
With SPARKS as idiosyncratic as ever, if ‘A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip’ has a key track, then it’s 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” capture the lot of the creative mind. It’s quite synthy but could have been even synthier!
But the album begins with ‘All That’ and a round of acoustic guitars. Concluding that privilege seems to trump working hard and having ethics, it poignantly ends with the conclusion that “Someday we’d do useful things, we’d rise above, be kings and queens but knew cheap chairs would always be our thrones”. Meanwhile, the amusing rock infused ‘I’m Toast’ captures the realisation of being found guilty and facing the consequences, “Now I have a sneaking hunch that…. I’m toast, there’s something burning”
A classic SPARKS voice collage dominates ‘Lawnmower’ and although “The neighbors look in awe at my lawnmower”, the title appears to be a metaphor for midlife crisis status symbol hoarding. But as Russell sings “My girlfriend is from Andover, she puts up with my lawnmower”, this must be one of the first tunes since ‘Snelsmore Wood’ by NEW MODEL ARMY to name drop that Hampshire town from which THE TROGGS emerged.
‘Sainthood Is Not In Your Future’ strums its way to attack those celebrities who consider themselves legends with an order to “Collect your things, just leave Rover, Sainthood Is Not In Your Future”. ‘Pacific Standard Time’ takes grainy synthetic strings and latterly applies a metronomic backdrop, but the baroque synth classical of ‘Stravinsky’s Only Hit’ is a light hearted reflection of serious artistes.
With “Stravinsky’s only hit, he toned it down a bit, he didn’t write the words, that was my job, a chorus and a verse, he seemed to be adverse…”, this could even be autobiographical or about any collaborative relationship, although at various times in SPARKS career, the Mael brothers kept returning like a phoenix from the flames with yet another hit!
Potentially a GIPSY KINGS flavoured romp, ‘Left Out In The Cold’ contains the rhyming couplet “Uniqlo is my employer hired by a Tokyo lawyer” but despite the liveliness, the inherent chill gives it more of an Eastern European crossover.
Paradoxically an anthemic song about modesty, ‘Self-Effacing’ is classic ‘Kimono My House’ era SPARKS although it lacks Ron Mael’s distinctive RMI Electra-piano; but in this grand art rock drama piece, a transistorised organ makes up for it as Russell exclaims “It’s not a choice, I’m less a Rolls Royce and more mini-van, you do understand?”
The eccentric showtune ‘Onomata Pia’ uses a play on the word “Onomatopoeia” that means to phonetically imitate to create, while on ‘iPhone’, a delightfully angry Russell confronts a modern scurge and asks someone to “Put your f*cking iPhone down and listen to me!”
The jazz infused ‘The Existential Threat’ amusingly looks at paranoia as there’s “nowhere to escape to and nobody there to hear as I now scream in fear, scream in fear” before ‘Nothing Travels Faster Than The Speed Of Light’ provides commentary on fake news declaring “What they’re telling you is clearly wrong” with a buzzy synth fest at the end that should have gone on for much longer.
Returning to the lyrical gist of their 1975 hit ‘Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth’, the closing plea of ‘Please Don’t F*ck Up My World’ takes on the battle for the environment and rams home the message.
With the Maels using a children’s choir to deliver a rallying cry to world governments, they ask “Can’t you see what you’re doing?” as “Rivers, mountains, and seas, no one knows what they’re there for, still it’s easy to see that they’re things to be cared for”.
With so many topics covered, ‘A Steady, Drip, Drip, Drip’ is like a musical state of the nation address by SPARKS. As with its predecessor ‘Hippopotamus’, the album doesn’t disappoint in the song titles or lyrical department.
Where SPARKS perhaps could be braver about is not being too worried about occasionally revisiting their past, as several songs wouldn’t have sounded of place in the style of their imperial Muff Winwood or Giorgio Moroder produced eras.
The Mael brothers have been releasing music for nearly fifty years so no-one would begrudge them doing that, but they remain as enjoyably oddball as ever for their legions of loyal fans.
‘A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip’ is released by BMG in digital formats on 15th May 2020, physical CD, and double vinyl LP editions out on 3rd July 2020
SPARKS 2021 UK + European live dates include:
Manchester Albert Hall (20th May), Glasgow Barrowland Ballroom (21st May), London, Roundhouse (23rd May), Dublin Vicar Street (25th May), Belfast Limelight Club (26th May), Bexhill De La Warr Pavillion (28th May), Berlin Metropol (30th May), Amsterdam Paradiso (31st May), Barcelona Primavera (3rd June), Brussels Ancienne Belgique (6th June), Casino de Paris (7th June), Copenhagen Dr Koncerthuset (9th June), Oslo Rockefeller Music Hall (10th June), Stockholm Annexet (12th June)
‘Hippopotamus’ is the 24th album from SPARKS and their first in 8 years, not including their long player in partnership with FRANZ FERDINAND in 2015.
That superb FFS album saw the apprentice meeting the sorcerer and proved that collaborations DO work, reinvigorating the creativity and stature of both acts.
And now, Russell and Ron Mael are back waxing lyrical about amphibious mammals, flat pack furniture and presidential widows, assisted by sidemen Dean Menta on guitars and Steven Nistor on drums.
Recorded in Los Angeles, ‘Hippopotamus’ features a whopping 15 tracks ranging from the orchestrated rock eccentricity of ‘What The Hell Is It This Time?’, inspired by what Ron says is “an often uttered phrase when people listen to a new SPARKS song”, to the neo-voice collage of ‘Bummer’. Meanwhile, the album doesn’t disappoint in the song titles department with ‘So Tell Me Mrs. Lincoln Aside From That How Was The Play?’ and ‘Missionary Position’ among the album’s tracklisting.
The staccato madness of the ‘Hippopotamus’ title track where “a hippy is driving” alongside “a woman with an abacus” who “looks Chinese” gives an idea of the quirky eccentricity on the record, while the perky ‘I Wish You Were Fun’ could be yet another tune directed at their long-time Mancunian pal who recently was honoured with a biopic entitled ‘England Is Mine’.
The Mael brothers don’t sit still and certainly make their audience work with the full-on bonkers variant of SPARKS on display during ‘Giddy Giddy’ with mechanised electro beats and stabbing synths providing an album highlight, while ‘Unaware’ sees Russell adopting an unfamiliar cocooned vocal style.
The ELO aping ‘Scandinavian Design’ takes IKEA references and sweetens them with a beautiful piano passage, while ‘Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)’ sees SPARKS ploughing forward with no regrets as others “live fast and die young”. Continuing the Gallic theme, ‘When You’re A French Director’ featuring Leos Carax of ‘Les Amants Du Pont-Neuf’ fame is a wonderful slice of oddball Chanson drama that is a far better realised idea than ‘Tsui Hark’ from ‘Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins’.
But the best is saved until last, with the frantic electronically assisted storm of ‘The Amazing Mr Repeat’ possibly being the best tune on ‘Hippopotamus’ before the cinematic, harpsichord laden closer ‘Life With The Macbeths’.
Wonderfully poperatic, noted soprano Rebecca Sjöwall with her gold vocal ecstacy is a perfect companion to Russell Mael’s falsetto as Shakespeare’s Scottish play is cleverly used as a metaphor for America’s First Family.
Now into the fifth decade of their career and with their sense of humour intact, SPARKS show no signs of waning in their zest for idiosyncratic adventure in a period which has seen some of the bands that they helped inspire literally going backwards 😉
As the ‘Hippopotamus’ title suggests, it is zoo time again for SPARKS.
‘Hippopotamus’ is released by BMG in CD, double vinyl LP and digital formats
SPARKS 2017 live dates include:
Prague Lucerna Music Bar (11th September), Berlin Columbia Theatre (12th September), Den Haag Paard van Troje (14th September), Luxembourg Den Atelier(15th September), Brussels Ancienne Belgique (16th September), Norwich Waterfront (18th September), Newcastle The Boilershop (19th September), Edinburgh Queens Hall (20th September), Manchester O2 Ritz (22nd September), Nottingham Rock City (23rd September), Birmingham O2 Institute 1 (24th September), Bristol 02 Academy (26th September), London O2 Shepherds Bush Empire (27th September – 28th September)
The user manual for the Roland System 100 semi-modular synthesizer profoundly stated “there are no illegal connections…”
And in modern electronic music, that is still the case with the accomplished artists of today very much connected to the synth pioneers of yesteryear like KRAFTWERK, OMD, ULTRAVOX, JAPAN, DEPECHE MODE and THE HUMAN LEAGUE.
Belgian duo METROLAND would not exist without the tradition established at Klingklang, while EAST INDIA YOUTH’s interest in BRIAN ENO and Motorik beats curated a sound that has enabled parallels to be drawn with the artful template of the similarly influenced Paul Humphreys and Andy McCluskey.
And although SUSANNE SUNDFØR was already an established singer / songwriter in her homeland of Norway, attention was not fully drawn on her new synth based direction until she performed a sympathetic cover of ‘Ice Machine’ with RÖYKSOPP in late 2012.
Even the exquisite lo-fi Welsh language electronica of GWENNO can be traced to Sheffield, thanks to the songstress’ previous pop excursions which involved working on an album with the late Martin Rushent.
As JEAN-MICHEL JARRE said: “Electronic music has a family, a legacy and a future…” so to deny the glorious heritage of electronic music when assessing new acts would be futile.
“Huge thanks to ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK” said avid reader Hugh David, “A victory for well-written, artfully conveyed content curation once again… you knew exactly what to say to sell me on one artist or another. That rare ability of a reviewer to pinpoint the precise comparisons that enable me to decide to seek something out based on my own tastes is something lacking in so many other outlets; love that you’ve got that in spades”
Another reader David Sims added: “ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK is a great way of discovering artists you might not otherwise be aware of. A bit like when a friend used to come round your house clutching an LP or C90 saying ‘I really love this, have a listen’, introducing you to new music that makes your neck hairs stand up in ovation”
2014 was a comparatively lean 12 months, but this year found many veterans returning to the fold. NEW ORDER released ‘Music Complete’, a much discussed comeback that was not only the Mancunians’ first album for Mute, but also without estranged bassist Peter Hook.
MARC ALMOND released ‘The Velvet Trail’, his first pop album for many years while ANDY BELL embarked on further solo adventures in support of ‘Torsten The Bareback Saint’.
Another legend GIORGIO MORODER made his statement of intent with ‘74 Is The New 24’ and released ‘Déjà Vu’, a disco pop record featuring the likes of SIA, BRITNEY SPEARS, FOXES and KYLIE MINOGUE.
Meanwhile, his artier counterpart ZEUS B HELD gave us some ‘Logic of Coincidence’ and WOLFGANG FLÜR made his solo debut with ‘Eloquence’, his first length album project since 1997.
Liverpool duo CHINA CRISIS delivered ‘Autumn In The Neighbourhood’, their first original material since 1994’s ‘Warped By Success’ while HOWARD JONES showed he could still innovate at 60 years of age when he launched ‘Engage’, “a highly interactive live experience designed to immerse audiences in an audio / visual feast”. A-HA came back after disbanding in 2010 with ‘Cast In Steel’ and DURAN DURAN recruited an all-star cast that included Nile Rodgers, John Frusciante, Kiesza and Lindsay Lohan for the rather disappointing EDM blow-out ‘Paper Gods’.
BLANCMANGE’s ‘Semi Detached’ was Neil Arthur’s first without long-time partner Stephen Luscombe and he even found time to release a wonderful instrumental collection entitled ‘Nil By Mouth’. Indeed, there were quite a few instrumental opuses in 2015, with GHOST HARMONIC’s wonderful ‘Codex’ featuring JOHN FOXX and the electronic pioneer’s own glorious ‘London Overgrown’. TUXEDOMOON joined forces with CULT WITH NO NAME for ‘Blue Velvet Revisited’ while not wishing to be left out, DEPECHE MODE’s Martin Gore released the tutorial for his new Eurorack modular system as the simply titled ‘MG’.
2015 saw the 25th anniversary of DEPECHE MODE’s ‘Violator’ and to ignore its significance, as some DM fan related platforms did, would have been incredibly short sighted. However, there was none of that from premier DM tribute band SPEAK & SPELL who played their biggest UK gig yet with a splendid boutique showcase of that landmark album at London’s Islington Academy.
CAMOUFLAGE, a band who started off very much under the influence of the Basildon boys, issued the mature statement of ‘Greyscale’ while continuing the DEPECHE MODE album theme, Athens based synth maidens MARSHEAUX gave a worthy of re-assessment of ‘A Broken Frame’ and procured a number of interesting arrangements for some under rated songs. DIE KRUPPS got more metal than machine on their fifth opus ‘V – Metal Machine Music’.
CHVRCHES continued their quest for world domination with something that LITTLE BOOTS, LA ROUX, LADYHAWKE and HURTS never managed… a decent second album. But PURITY RING, the Canadian act whose template CHVRCHES borrowed, must have looked over with a touch of envy at the Glaswegian’s success so responded with ‘Another Eternity’.
HANNAH PEEL released an interim mini-album ‘Rebox 2’ which blended centuries of music technology while VILE ELECTRODES came up with the gorgeous ‘Captive In Symmetry’, possibly one of the songs of 2015. EURASIANEYES heeded all the guidance available to them to produce their most accomplished song yet in ‘Call Your God’ and ANALOG ANGEL went on a well-received tour supporting Swedish veterans COVENANT with a message to listeners of ‘Don’t Forget To Love’.
“So, what’s so special about Sweden then?” someone once rather cluelessly asked TEC. Well, it is the modern hub of inventive, electronic pop. KARIN PARK offered her profanity laden fifth album ‘Apocalypse Pop’.
Still in Sweden, DAYBEHAVIOR went all female PET SHOP BOYS with the Italo flavoured ‘Cambiare’ and MACHINISTA followed up their debut ‘Xenoglossy’ with ‘Garmonbozia’. while there was also the unexpected return of alternative synthpopsters ASHBURY HEIGHTS.
But best of all were the mighty KITE; their ‘VI’ EP was a masterclass in epic, majestic electronic pop. In the rest of Europe, there was an influx of darker female fronted acts such as Hungary’s BLACK NAIL CABARET, Italy’s ELECTROGENIC, Greece’s SARAH P. and Germany’s NINA; the latter’s ‘My Mistake’ even ended up on a Mercedes TV advert. The male contingent did their bit too with Slovenia’s TORUL unleashing their second offering ‘The Measure’ while the prolific Finnish duo SIN COS TAN took things a little bit easier in their fourth year with just an EP ‘Smile, Tomorrow Will Be Worse’, having already released three albums since 2012.
Oslo based studio legend John Fryer returned with two new projects, SILVER GHOST SHIMMER and MURICIDAE featuring vocalists Pinky Turzo and Louise Fraser respectively. Both reminded listeners of his work with COCTEAU TWINS and THIS MORTAL COIL, but with an Americanised twist. The Icelandic domiciled Denver singer / songwriter JOHN GRANT added some funkier vibes to his continuing electronic direction while IAMX moved from Berlin to Los Angeles, and did no harm to his art with the brooding ‘Metanoia’ album.
On the brighter side of North America, PRIEST’s self-titled debut long player became reality following their dreamy ‘Samurai’ EP, while HYPERBUBBLE made available their wacky award winning soundtrack to the short film ‘Dee Dee Rocks The Galaxy’ and joyous 2014 London show. And GRIMES caught the music biz on the hop when she released a new album ‘Art Angels’, having scrapped an album’s worth of material in 2014.
Literally decades of synth heritage were eminently obliterated in five soul destroying minutes… was this really what the Electronic Revolution was fought for? This is cultural history and it needs to be protected.
Although the year had flashes of brilliance, it was generally less impressive overall for fledgling electronic artists, with a number forgetting that all important factor of a good tune! Eddie Bengtsson of SISTA MANNEN PÅ JORDEN remarked last year that synthpop was becoming a dying art.
And in 2015, synthpop’s credibility was further tarnished with lazy use of the term by the mainstream press for acts like YEARS & YEARS; one could argue that TAYLOR SWIFT and her ‘1989’ opus is possibly more synthpop than YEARS & YEARS have ever been! In a market where EDM appears to be king and clubbers are happy to witness DJs miming their two hour sets, there is clearly something wrong.
Things were not helped by certain media outlets insisting that dance music was the only way; it was as if electronic music had somehow managed to jump from KRAFTWERK to Detroit techno with nothing happening in between.
And then, there were those who had never particularly enjoyed music from that key Synth Britannia period, who were trying to dictate how modern electronic music was being presented and pretending it had popped out of thin air!
Some bands were not doing themselves any favours either, showing little empathetic connection to the history of electronic music in their deluded optimism that they were crafting something completely new!
As JEAN-MICHEL JARRE amusingly quipped to Sound-On-Sound magazine: “Lots of people in America think that electronic music started with AVICII and it’s not exactly the truth…”
The lack of accuracy in a number of publications over the last 18 months was also shocking, particularly within magazines and online media that continued to employ writers with a history of not knowing their tape recorders from their drum machines. This simply proved the old adage that just because someone is employed as a professional writer, it doesn’t actually mean they are a good writer!
The domestic live scene had its challenges too with slow ticket sales and a number of events cancelled.
But even when some true legends in electronic music were booked, ticket sales could not be guaranteed and efficient promotion was needed to maximise potential.
Some observers were bemoaning a lack of support for the scene, but if line-ups are not particularly appealing, then audiences cannot be expected to invest time and money to attend.
A number of organisational infrastructures also lacked credibility; if a promoter doesn’t have at least some idea if they’re going to sell fifty tickets or five thousand, then they really shouldn’t be in the business!
The inherent knowledge and sense of understanding in both differed immensely to some British promoters. This perhaps could explain why electronic pop has generally flourished more in territories across the North Sea.
Electronic pop needs to continue to develop, but quality control must be maintained to ensure the genre is not publically misrepresented. SOFT CELL once sang about ‘Monoculture’ while KID MOXIE declared how everyone was just content with ‘Medium Pleasure’.
If all that’s heard is the best of a bad bunch, then younger listeners (and therefore potential future synth oriented musicians) will not be inspired. That is why it is important that CHVRCHES and EAST INDIA YOUTH consolidate their positions as modern electronic pop’s representatives in the mainstream.
It is not good practice to support mediocre music just because it happens to be electronic.
The finest examples need to be set so as to show what can be achieved; now if that means possibly referencing back to the golden age of synthpop, then so be it.
Only then will the synth baton be able to taken up by a new generation who can then truly reinvigorate it.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK Contributor Listings 2015
Best Album: EAST INDIA YOUTH Culture Of Volume
Best Song: NEW ORDER Restless
Best Gig: EAST INDIA YOUTH + HANNAH PEEL at London Village Underground
Best Video: BATTLE TAPES Valkyrie
Most Promising New Act: BATTLE TAPES
Best Album: IAMX Metanoia
Best Song: KITE Up For Life
Best Gig: NODE at The Royal College of Music
Best Video: IAMX Oh Cruel Darkness Embrace Me
Most Promising New Act: KITE
Best Album: EAST INDIA YOUTH Culture Of Volume
Best Song: KITE Count The Days
Best Gig: ASSEMBLAGE 23 at SOS#2 Festival
Best Video: VILE ELECTRODES Captive In Symmetry
Most Promising New Act: RODNEY CROMWELL
MONIKA IZABELA GOSS
Best Album: SILVER GHOST SHIMMER Soft Landing
Best Song: IAMX Happiness
Best Gig: IAMX at London Koko
Best Video: TORUL The Balance
Most Promising New Act: SYNTHDECADE
Best Album: LAU NAU Hem Någonstans
Best Song: ME THE TIGER As We Really Are
Best Gig: SISTA MANNEN PÅ JORDEN at A Secret Wish
Best Video: JUNO Same To Me
Most Promising New Act: REIN
CHI MING LAI
Best Album: SUSANNE SUNDFØR Ten Love Songs
Best Song: KITE Up For Life
Best Gig: FFS at The Troxy
Best Video: VILE ELECTRODES Captive In Symmetry
Most Promising New Act: RODNEY CROMWELL
Best Album: EAST INDIA YOUTH Culture Of Volume
Best Song: NEW ORDER Plastic
Best Gig: EAST INDIA YOUTH + HANNAH PEEL at London Village Underground
Best Video: VILE ELECTRODES Captive In Symmetry
Most Promising New Act: KITE
In a far more productive year than 2014, many electronic music veterans returned to the fold in 2015 with their first new albums for many years.
There were plenty of releases from independent acts too, with Nordic Europe being a particularly strong territory once again.
45 quality songs made the shortlist and were eventually whittled down to 30. So mention must be made of ALICE IN VIDEOLAND, ANALOG ANGEL, BEBORN BETON, BECKY BECKY, CAMOUFLAGE, CLUB 8, ELECTROGENIC, EURASIANEYES, ME THE TIGER, HANNAH PEEL and SIN COS TAN who all released recordings in 2015 that would have easily made the listing in less competitive years such as 2012 and 2014. Even DURAN DURAN’s disappointing ‘Paper Gods’ yielded one decent track in ‘Face For Today’, but one swallow doesn’t make a summer.
So the decision has been made; with a restriction of one song per artist moniker, this alphabetical list comprises tracks released in physical formats, or digitally as purchasable or free downloads during the calendar year. Here are ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK’s 30 SONGS OF 2015…
A-HA She’s Humming A Tune
Having played what appeared to be their farewell concert at the Oslo Spektrum in December 2010, A-HA reunited in a relaxed manner that recalled their days as a fledgling band. On ‘She’s Humming A Tune’, there were hints of 1986’s ‘Scoundrel Days’ in a lower key with sweeping synths, bottle neck six string and live drums moulding the chilling soundscape with that exquisite Nordic allure. ‘Cast In Steel’ was the antithesis of the misguided EDM blow-out that DURAN DURAN attempted on ‘Paper Gods’
Available on the album ‘Cast In Steel’ via Universal Music
Feeling gloomy? Then take heed of the advice from BLACK NAIL CABARET and “Don’t be sad! Don’t be whiney!” – this brooding slice of Gothtronica was the lead single from the Hungarian duo’s second album ‘Harry Me, Marry Me, Bury Me’. Laden with a delicious synth bassline like DEPECHE MODE reimagined for a Weimar Cabaret set piece and topped with eerie string machine, ‘Satisfaction’ was the duo’s best individual offering to date. The pair also made a worthy impression opening for CAMOUFLAGE.
Available on the album ‘Harry Me, Marry Me, Bury Me’ via Basic Unit Productions
From Neil Arthur’s first BLANCMANGE album without long time bandmate Stephen Luscombe, ‘Useless’ was a brilliant hybrid of BRIAN ENO circa ‘Here Come The Warm Jets’ with LCD SOUNDSYSTEM. “It’s about anyone who thinks they might be useless” said Arthur, “This song is about that whole idea that we’re all flawed and you’re ‘useless as you are’… there are just times when you think ‘f*cking hell, I couldn’t organise a p*ss up in a brewery’ or that whole thing about confidence”.
Available on the album ‘Semi Detached’ via Cherry Red Records
Although launch single ‘Shine’ indicated it was business as usual, as hinted at with the title, CAMOUFLAGE’s long awaited long player ‘Greyscale’ was their most mature artistic statement yet. The mellow and warm ‘Count On Me’ saw Marcus Meyn duet with Peter Heppner of WOLFSHEIM fame. The lush blend of vocals and atmospherics showcased two of Germany’s most highly regarded electronic acts at their best.
CHVRCHES stuck to the synthpop template of their debut and delivered what LITTLE BOOTS, LA ROUX, and LADYHAWKE and HURTS all failed to do… a decent second album! The propulsive four-to-the-floor action of ‘Clearest Blue’ shows how far CHVRCHES developed. Although not unlike an amalgam of ‘Gun’ and ‘Science / Visions’, ‘Clearest Blue’ is even more accomplished, wonderfully held in a state of tension before WHACK, there’s a dynamic surprise that recalls the classic overtures of Vince Clarke.
Available on the album ‘Every Open Eye’ via Virgin Records
RODNEY CROMWELL is Adam Cresswell, formally of ARTHUR & MARTHA. ‘Black Dog’ recalled the pulsing post-punk miserablism of SECTION 25 and was embellished some Hooky styled bass. Cresswell said: “It’s all broadly linked to experiences in my life over the last ten years; themes of love, loss, depression, redemption”. As with NEW ORDER’s ‘Temptation’, despite the inherent melancholy, there was light at the end of the tunnel that made ‘Black Dog’ a most joyous listening experience.
Available on the album ‘Age Of Anxiety’ via Happy Robots
Utilising her Italian heritage, DAYBEHAVIOR’s lead singer Paulinda Crescentini gave a suitably alluring performance on ‘Cambiare’, the B-side of the Swedish trio’s single ‘Change’. Remixed to poptastic effect, the joyous yet melancholic tune took the best elements of Italo disco with an expression of sorrow and happiness that recalled imperial phase PET SHOP BOYS. With a catchy chorus and seductive topline, Linguaphone language lessons were never this much fun…
An offshoot of Swedish EBM veterans SPETSNAZ, DESTIN FRAGILE are a very different animal with hints of CAMOUFLAGE and DEPECHE MODE in their sound. ‘Run Away’ opened their ‘Halfway To Nowhere’ opus, an album which some observers have hailed as one of the best of 2015. Featuring a fine vocal from Pontus Stålberg resembling MESH’s Mark Hockings, this is what modern synthpop should be like; pop music with synths and melody as well as dynamic synth solos.
Available on the album ‘Halfway To Nowhere’ via Dark Dimensions
EAST INDIA YOUTH’s debut ‘Total Strife’ pointed towards William Doyle’s potential to pen sublime pop, and with the follow-up ‘Culture Of Volume’, this was more than realised. But the album’s centrepiece was ‘Carousel’. Imagine the start of OMD’s ‘Stanlow’ reworked during BRIAN ENO’s sessions for ‘Apollo: Soundtracks & Atmospheres’. With no percussive elements and over six minutes in length, Doyle gave a dramatic vocal performance resonating in beautifully crystalline melancholy.
Available on the album ‘Culture of Volume’ via XL Recordings
Berlin-based EMIKA is one of the dark horses of the UK electronic scene. A combination of her classical training, Czech heritage and use of modern technology has made for a provoking, brooding sound that has attained critical acclaim over the last few years. From her third album, helpfully named ‘Drei’, ‘My Heart Bleeds Melody’ was its highlight, a concoction of intricate pulsing layers and solemn detachment that provided a captivating listening experience.
FFS proved collaborations do work. A total triumph, ‘P*ss Off’ was possibly the album’s most outstanding number. With the vibrancy of ‘Kimono My House’ and ‘Propaganda’ era SPARKS, there were plenty of jaunty ivories and camp vocal theatrics in the vein of classics like ‘Something For The Girl With Everything’ and ‘BC’. “It’s inexplicable” they all growled as the multi-track phrase of “HARMONISE” kicked in! A total joy, ‘P*ss Off’ was the ultimate two fingered art school pop anthem.
One of the highlights in Herr Flür’s DJ sets has been The Ninjaneer Mix of ‘Cover Girl’, a swirling synthpop track that the former KRAFTWERK percussionist has described as ‘The Model MkII’. He said: “Her story goes on and unfortunately shows her going downhill. She had bad experiences with drugs, alcohol and other things so had to dance in night clubs for earning money at least. A true story, a bad life… that’s sometimes the way how super models are knitting their career”
Available on the album ‘Eloquence’ via Cherry Red Records
JOHN GRANT’s adventure into a solemn electronic template on ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ not only won him a BRIT Award nomination too. Meanwhile his collaboration with HERCULES & LOVE AFFAIR showed he understood the disco as well. ‘Disappointing’ combined the two approaches and added some funk for an enjoyable Bowie meets YAZOO styled workout. In a song full of surprises, not only was there the presence of slap bass, but there was the dulcet tones of EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL’s Tracey Thorn too.
Available on the album ‘Grey Tickles, Black Pressure’ via Bella Union
GWENNO’s Welsh and Cornish heritage has allowed her to develop a unique brand of lo-fi electronica. Her full-length Welsh language debut ‘Y Dydd Olaf’ came out on Peski Records in October 2014. Now reissued in 2015 by Heavenly Recordings, GWENNO has deservedly gained an increased profile for her music. With beautiful, traditionally derived melodies placed in a spacey yesterday’s tomorrow setting, the spacey ‘Calon Peiriant’ was one of the more immediate delights on offer from a wonderful album.
Available on the album ‘Y Dydd Olaf’ via Heavenly Recordings
Depression despite apparent material success has been an ongoing lyrical theme for Chris Corner as IAMX. And with ‘Happiness’, his craving for a mind to be free of bad news, negative influences and jealousy was countered with his line of “Everywhere hypocrisy!” as pulsing arpeggios kicked in for the final third’s gentle but drama laden climax. Highly poignant in the current economic and political climate, Corner’s move from Berlin to Los Angeles certainly did his music no harm.
Available on the album ‘Metanoia’ via Caroline International
JEAN-MICHEL JARRE & VINCE CLARKE Automatic Parts 1 + 2
The French synth maestro’s first album for since ‘Teo & Tea’ in 2007 was an opus entitled ‘Electronica 1 – The Time Machine’ featuring collaborations with TANGERINE DREAM, JOHN CARPENTER, LITTLE BOOTS, MASSIVE ATTACK among many. But the two part ‘Automatic’ with VINCE CLARKE was the highlight, taking in the best of the tune based elements of both artists while not letting one party dominate. VCJMJ was certainly a more artistically realised proposition than the polarising techno of VCMG!
Available on the album ‘Electronica 1: The Time Machine’ via Columbia Records
“Whether I release it in 2013 or 2016, it’s still going to sound like 1985!” said KID KASIO main man Nathan Cooper. A man whose is plainly honest about where his influences lie, his love of classic synthpop permeates throughout his work. Now imagine if DEPECHE MODE was fronted by Nik Kershaw instead of Dave Gahan? With ‘Full Moon Blue’, that musical fantasy became fully realised with a clever interpolation of ‘Two Minute Warning’, one of Alan Wilder’s songwriting contributions from ‘Construction Time Again’.
Despite having been around since 2008, Swedish synth duo KITE have tended to be overlooked internationally. But Nicklas Stenemo and Christian Berg’s wonderfully exuberant array of sounds and rugged, majestic vocals deserve a much larger audience. Issuing only EPs and never albums, KITE’s most recent release ‘VI’ opened with the magnificent progressive electronic epic ‘Up For Life’. The passionate and sublime first half mutated into a beautifully surreal journey of VANGELIS-like proportions for the second.
The syncopated electro disco feel of ‘The Bombs’, one of the highlights from MACHINISTA’s second album came almost by accident. Instrumentalist Richard Flow remembered: “Actually the first version of ‘The Bombs’ had a completely different rhythm in the drums. I actually did get stuck with this song and I wasn’t happy at all about the music. Once I did change the bass drum to a simple 4/4, I was back on track again. Most of the sounds from the original version I did keep, so perhaps a simple 4/4 bass drum mixed with the sounds for this original rhythm created this ‘disco’ feel…”
Available on the album ‘Garmonbozia’ via Analogue Trash Records
A worthy of re-assessment of DEPECHE MODE ‘A Broken Frame’ has been long overdue and MARSHEAUX have certainly given a number of its songs some interesting arrangements. Their version of ‘Monument’ borrowed its bassline from latter day DM B-side ‘Painkiller’. Combined with some wispily resigned vocals, it provided a tense soundtrack that could be seen as metaphoric commentary on the economic situation in Greece. It’s not often that cover versions are better than the originals, but this is one of them.
Available on the album ‘A Broken Frame’ via Undo Records
METROLAND’s second album ‘Triadic Ballet’ was a triumphant electronic celebration of the Bauhaus, art movement led by Walter Gropius. Gropius theorized about uniting art and technology and on the B-side of its launch single ‘Zeppelin’, METROLAND worked towards the 21st Century interpretation of that goal. Now imagine if GARY NUMAN had actually joined KRAFTWERK in 1979? Then the brilliantly uptempo ‘(We Need) Machines Without Romance’ would have surely been the result.
Studio legend John Fryer has been busy and the project that perhaps harks closest to THIS MORTAL COIL is MURICIDAE. Featuring the exquisite vocals of Louise Fraser, she and Fryer apparently “met on the beach searching for mermaids”… the sea is very much the visual theme for their music, with Fryer cultivating “sonic sculptures to musically embody the exquisite Muricidae Shell itself”. The tranquil beauty of ‘Away’ captures a shimmering soundscape that compliments Fraser’s plaintive lament.
Available on the EP ‘Tales From A Silent Ocean’ via Muricidae Music
After the guitar dominated proceedings of the last few NEW ORDER albums, Bernard Sumner promised a return to electronic music for the Mancunians’ first album of new material without estranged founder member and bassist Peter Hook. That was certainly delivered on with ‘Plastic’, a full-on throbbing seven minute electro number mixed by Richard X with blippy echoes of ‘Mr Disco’. Dealing with the issue of superficiality, it declares “this love is poison, but it’s like gold”… yes, beware of anything plastic and artificial!
Available on the album ‘Music Complete’ via Mute Artists
In 2015, the Norge domiciled Swedish songstress’ KARIN PARK finally released her fifth album, the profanity laden fifth ‘Apocalypse Pop’. While less harsh in sound to some of the other tracks on the long player, ‘Stick To The Lie’ was no less angry. The most overtly synthpop track on the collection, this accessible yet emotive song was one of the highlights on a collection that affirmed KARIN PARK’s place in modern electronic pop.
Available on the album ‘Apocalypse Pop’ via State Of The Eye
With CHVRCHES having borrowed PURITY RING’s electro template and pushed it into the mainstream, the direction taken on the Edmonton duo’s sophomore album ‘Another Eternity’ was going to be watched with interest. Certainly it was more focussed than its predecessor ‘Shrines’. Still utilising glitch techniques, booming bass drops and Corin Roddick’s rattling drum machine programming, the album’s best song ‘Begin Again’ made the most of Megan James’ sweet and dreamy voice.
Available on the album ‘Another Eternity’ via 4AD Records
Sweden’s SISTA MANNEN PÅ JORDEN (translated as “The Last Man on Earth”) are led by Eddie Bengtsson, best known for his work with S.P.O.C.K and PAGE. The themes of space travel and Sci-Fi are regular lyrical gists and while all of SMPJ’s songs are voiced i Svenska, Bengtsson opened up his Vince Clarke influenced synthpop to the English language in 2015 with the ‘Translate’ EP. Brilliantly produced, ‘All The City Lights’ (a version of his 2014 single ‘Stadens Alla Ljus’) was its highly enjoyable opening gambit.
SUSANNE SUNDFØR and her acclaimed ‘Ten Love Songs’ album developed on the electronic focus of its predecessor ‘The Silicone Veil’. With an eerie, droning intro with echoes of THE WALKERS BROTHERS’ ‘The Electrician’, ‘Delirious’ thundered with some fierce electronics bolstered by dynamic orchestrations like THE KNIFE meeting DEPECHE MODE. It captured love as a reluctant battle of the emotions while our heroine announced with emotive resignation “I’m not the one holding the gun”.
Available on the album ‘Ten Love Songs’ via Sonnet Sound
TRAIN TO SPAIN’s developing brand of uptempo, energetic pop utilises classic synthesizer sounds in the vein of Vince Clarke coupled to a metronomic rhythm structure akin to the 1985 ‘Philip Oakey & Giorgio Moroder’ album. Coming over like LANA DEL REY fronting YAZOO, Wigeborg’s cooingly vulnerable vocals on ‘Passion’ let rip over a suitably complimentary electronic backbone from Rasmusson, while a superb remix by MACHINISTA added some beefy gothic disco goodness.
Available on the download single ‘Keep On Running’ via Sub Culture Records
Manchester based Ross Tregenza is an experienced hand having co-written ‘Diaries Of A Madman’ with Dave Formula and Steve Strange when he was a member of VISAGE II in 2007. He surprised electronic music audiences with a Spartan cover of ‘The Partisan’, a song made famous by LEONARD COHEN. While many may despair at the very mention of the droll Canadian, his work has strong parallels with many Gothic veined musical forms, especially with this harrowing tale of fighting for La Résistance.
Originally from the EP ‘Stolen Thunder’, alternate version available on the album ‘Into The Void’ via Tregenza Music
On VILE ELECTRODES’ mesmerising ‘Captive in Symmetry’, “Filmic” is indeed a very apt description with the booming synth bass motif possessing echoes of the ‘Twin Peaks’ theme tune ‘Falling’. As beautiful sequences, eerie strings and Anais Neon’s hauntingly alluring vocals take hold, it all comes over like a dreamboat collaboration between JULEE CRUISE and OMD that could easily be considered for use in the proposed revamp of the surreal North American drama.
Available on the EP ‘Captive In Symmetry’ via Vile Electrodes
To say that FFS’ performance at The Troxy in London was something of a blinder would be an understatement.
On the one hand, there was FRANZ FERDINAND, the Glasgow based art rockers, playing together with an impeccable tightness and vitality that reminded people of the freshness they brought to a 2004 music scene that was dominated by dreary bedwetters like COLDPLAY, SNOW PATROL and KEANE.
On the other were SPARKS, the veteran sibling duo comprising of Russell and Ron Mael who, with a career spanning over 45 years, have had many career ups and downs including being teenybopper pin-ups and disco champions. However tonight, their trajectory is again upwards and Russell Mael in particular had the vigour of a man who was much younger than his 66 years!
There is no doubt that the six piece’s self-titled collaborative album is one of the best of 2015. It has reinvigorated both acts and proved that age is no barrier to making great music. In the packed venue that clearly forgot to switch its air conditioning on, Russell Mael and Alex Kapranos displayed a wonderful, endearing camaraderie.
Kapranos in particular was smiling and thoroughly enjoying himself, relaxed in the knowledge that the pressure of fronting the band was now shared with his falsetto ranging spiritual godfather.
Meanwhile the younger Mael was relishing working with a partner who was slightly more animated than his motionless brother.
But the senior Mael did have his lively moments too.
Although maintaining his usual stern persona behind his keyboard throughout most of the show (save the amusing odd towel wipe of his armpits), for the powerful percussive climax of ‘The Number One Song In Heaven’, he loosened his tie, took centre stage and tap danced to huge roars of approval. Nicely segued into a synth boosted reboot of ‘Michael’, this song pairing provided a wonderful mid-show highlight.
Opening with the self-explanatory ‘Johnny Delusional’, the well-paced set was drawn largely from the ‘FFS’ long player. But there were a number of favourites from the SPARKS and FRANZ FERDINAND back catalogues too. While ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us’ and ‘Do You Want To?’ were the staple crowd pleasers, there was also the welcome additions of ‘Achoo’ (the SPARKS song which FRANZ FERDINAND attempted at their first ever rehearsal) and ‘Walk Away’, while ‘Take Me Out’ predictably had the whole crowd bouncing.
Nick McCarthy took to the mike for his deadpan turn on ‘The Things I Won’t Get’, but rumour has it that Kapranos already owns most of the items on the FRANZ FERDINAND guitarist’s shopping list, hence the absence of his vocal! McCarthy even indulged in a spot of crowd surfing later on during proceedings.
The eccentric march of ‘The Power Couple’ had the audience swinging in all manner of loopy motions, but it was the FFS album’s rousing closing track that stole the show.
As the chant of “P*SS OFF!” rang in unison around The Troxy, the crowd punched the air in a gesture of defiant solidarity. Despite the inclusion of a fair number of hits, it was the positive reception for the FFS material that was the show’s biggest revelation and the key indicator of the album’s quality.
‘Police Encounters’ showed how FFS are a sum greater than its parts, while ‘Collaborations Don’t Work’ was a marvellous example of quirky songwriting that came over like seven song snippets cut ‘n’ pasted together for one enjoyable art school musical.
They returned to encore with a funky rendition of ‘When Do I Get To Sing My Way’.
Seamlessy welded to the catchy ‘Call Girl’, it concluded an unforgettably fabulous evening that left the multi-generational audience sweaty but grinning as they headed home.
The fact is, FFS won’t be able to go on forever, so miss them at your peril…
The album ‘FFS’ is released by Domino Records in CD, deluxe CD, red vinyl double LP and download formats
FFS UK dates include: Edinburgh Festival Theatre (24th August), Manchester Albert Hall (25th August), Glasgow Barrowland (26th August)