Gary Numan began his recording career in 1978, but the electronic pioneer has been celebrating great victories with his last few releases, satisfying his die-hard fans as well as gathering new younger audiences, partially by introducing his daughters to the mix, alongside cult collaborators like IAMX.
Continuing to crowdfound his endeavours to successfully finance the enterprise and while also giving his followers a tasty insight into his artistic processes, the daddy of synth brings out his latest long player ‘Intruder’.
While its predecessor, ‘Savage’ depicted a deserted post-apocalyptic world, clad in darkness, ‘Intruder’ delves into the planet’s feelings upon the destruction humanity causes. “The planet sees us as its children now grown into callous selfishness, with a total disregard for its well-being” Numan said, “It feels betrayed, hurt and ravaged. Disillusioned and heartbroken it is now fighting back. Essentially, it considers human kind to be a virus attacking the planet. Climate change is the undeniable sign of the Earth saying enough is enough, and finally doing what it needs to do to get rid of us, and explaining why it feels it has to do it.”
With this in mind, Numan introduces a different feel from ‘Splinter’ and ‘Savage’, still produced by Ade Fenton, who aims to deliver “what Gary wants”. The opus also features Elizabeth Bernholz and Gorkem Sen, who remotely worked their magic to enrich the production.
The eponymous single, with a video directed by Chris Corner aka IAMX once more, was the first song Numan shared with the audiences, at first struggling to find the appropriate chorus. The tale of the planet tired of being perpetually misused, rid of its resources and raped tirelessly by human kind, now fighting back is what he presents here. While musically not too dissimilar to his last two releases, the track is melodic and airy, retaining the adequate amount of heavier elements to ground it down, almost emulating the Camel Pose in yoga; being pulled from the heart, still very much attached to the source.
‘I Am Screaming’, alongside the classic Numan-esque sound of the electric piano, welcomes the Turkish musician Gorkem Sen, who brings the ethnic instrument of the Yaybahar into the mix. The use of this unique addition introduces quite an alien element into this electronic ballad, which is also quite poppy at times, wholesomely rounded by his haunting vocals.
Further Eastern influences can be palpable on ‘Saints & Liars’, while the cleverly cut ‘Now & Forever’ snips through the Earth’s funeral march with sparsely placed elements. Although gloomy, there’s hope here, accented with warm female vocal over lustrous synth. The song has double meaning, also being a love offering to his wife, as well as being a requiem for the dying planet.
Elizabeth Bernholz aka GAZELLE TWIN features on ‘The End Of Dragons’ bringing her uniqueness and melancholy. The track, in two versions, is otherworldly, eerily filmic and bursting with melody, possibly the most accomplished on the album.
The opening track ‘Betrayed’ with its off beat rhythm and wistful vocals, meanders in and out of consciousness, while the gritty ‘Is This World Not Enough?’ pumps the energy out into the damaged atmosphere. ‘The Gift’ with a further contribution from Gorkem Sen, retains the Eastern influences, weaving in and out of the gloomy rhythm.
A beautifully executed piano sequence ushers in ‘A Black Sun’, filled with fabulous sounds throughout, just to wrap up gently in a more classical way.
‘The Chosen’, in opposition, is fast paced and filled with pleading messages; Numan attacks again and again, just to progress to ‘And It Breaks Me Again’. This slower paced piece nods to the classic tonality of the electronic master, leading to pushy and driven ‘When You Fall’.
Numan, brilliantly engaging with his audiences, not only through the crowd funding, but his social media too, has proven that even a weathered artist can attract new blood. His honest and down to earth persona, the tight family and friendships with talented collaborators attract many, who will willingly place three red stripes down their faces and let it go viral.
And on top of that, the new album is not too shabby either!
‘Intruder’ is released by BMG in a variety of formats
Gary Numan 2022 UK and Ireland tour dates include:
Cardiff University Great Hall (28th April), Bristol O2 Academy (30th April), Brighton Centre (1st May), Birmingham O2 Institute (2nd May), Bournemouth O2 Academy (5th May), Plymouth Pavilions (6th May), London Wembley SSE Arena (7th May), Edinburgh Corn Exchange (9th May), Glasgow O2 Academy (10th May), Newcastle O2 City Hall (11th May), Leeds O2 Academy (12th May), Northampton Royal & Derngate (14th May), Norwich UEA (15th May), Nottingham Rock City (16th May), Manchester Albert Hall (18th May), Sheffield O2 (20th May), Dublin Olympia (24th May)
Ade Fenton is the producer and techno DJ best known for his work with Gary Numan over the past fifteen years.
As well as the albums ‘Jagged’, ‘Dead Son Rising’, ‘Splinter (Songs From A Broken Mind)’ and ‘Savage (Songs From A Broken World)’, there has also been the collaborative soundtrack to the film ‘From Inside’ and ‘Artificial Perfect’, Fenton’s only full length long player to date on which Numan sang four tracks.
Meanwhile, Ade Fenton has also been working with Gary Numan on re-recordings of the albums ‘Sacrifice’, ‘Exile’ and ‘Pure’ which originally came out between 1994-2000. The new album ‘Intruder’ sees Fenton continue his fruitful relationship with Numan which has also previous included joint DJ sets, one notably at John Foxx’s 2010 Short Circuit event at The Roundhouse in London.
The concept of ‘Intruder’ sees Planet Earth expressing emotions of betrayal and hurt as it is attacked by responding with a virus! The songs previewed so far such as the title song, ‘I Am Screaming’ and ‘Saints & Liars’ have been threatening yet anthemic, capturing that sinister synchronicity of art projecting life!
With the release of ‘Intruder’ imminent, Ade Fenton kindly gave an in-depth interview to ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK about his productions past and present for the veteran electronic pioneer.
How did you come to first work with Gary Numan?
We got to know one another through a mutual friend and after an initial period where he mistook my quietness for arrogance, we started to get along very well. We were at a party at his house and he’d heard some stuff I’d been making for ‘Artificial Perfect’ and really liked it. At the time, he’d had a few production issues with ‘Jagged’ and so, slightly worse for wear, offered me the track ‘Scanner’ to work on. After a couple of weeks I delivered it to him, he loved it and we did another few. Again he really liked what I’d done and that was that. Here we are, 15 years or so later and on our fifth album together. Fairytale stuff really when you consider I grew up with posters of him all over my bedroom wall.
You were sort of working on ‘Jagged’ and your own album ‘Artificial Perfect’ simultaneously, how did you keep focus and was there ever a temptation where you might come up with an idea and think “oh, I’ll keep that for my own record!”?
It might have seemed as though there was an overlap but actually, ‘AP’ was long in the making. I’d been working on ‘AP’ on and off for ages, simultaneously managing a pretty full on DJ schedule, but what really got my juices flowing was a break up with a girl at the time. I look back on ‘AP’ now kinda hiding behind a cushion to be honest. I had little experience in writing actual songs at that point, so I really was learning on the job, but it was something I felt I really needed to do. ‘Jagged’ came a bit later, so no there was never that temptation. Even if there had been temptation, this was my first album working with Gary and I wanted to impress him, so if anything it would have been the other way around.
‘Jagged’ polarises listeners, how do you look back on it now?
Well, it will always hold a special place in my heart actually. It’s the album that really started things off for me and Gary in terms of our partnership, so I’m perhaps a bit biased. I do get why some people find it a tough listen, but it was meant to be exactly that. Gary wanted to make his heaviest record yet, so we absolutely went for it.
Interestingly, ‘Jagged’ was one of the last records that Gary mixed himself, as his ears had started to deteriorate by then, so some of the dense feel of the album is partly down to that.
With that in mind, Gary has decided that he’s going to put out another version of it at some point, which will be mixed by Nathan Boddy and myself. It will be interesting to see how much of a difference it makes working on it again all these years later.
Gary Numan was known to be going through a creative rut with the first version of ‘Splinter’ which had been intended to be a very heavy collection of tracks all running at the same mid-paced tempo, but was this concept ultimately flawed?
Good question. No, it wasn’t flawed as at the time, it was what he’d envisaged. As it panned out, ‘Splinter’ became a very personal album to Gary, telling of his story with depression, so there were obviously musical moments of extreme emotions, from the heavy and intense ‘Here In The Black’ to the despair of ‘Lost’.
So how did the return to the unreleased outtakes that had roots in previous albums and other projects happen to produce ‘Dead Son Rising’ in the interim?
As Gary has stated in his autobiography, at that time he was going through a period of depression and the anti-depressants he was taking had had a big effect on him in terms of creativity and work ethic. By this time, we’d become incredibly close both personally and professionally and so it hurt me to see one of my best mates feeling so sh*t. I’d heard some these outtakes and knew straight away that we could turn them into something very cool.
So, he just let me get on with it and eventually the tracks had developed so much, he finally sat up and took notice. At that point, it was finished pretty quickly as the creativity was back, and he was firing on all cylinders. I look back on that period with a mixture of emotions but actually, by the time the album was done, it felt like we’d created something pretty strong.
In what way do you think making ‘Dead Son Rising’ ultimately helped to clear the decks to focus on ‘Splinter’?
After the initial setbacks, Gary and I wrote and developed the songs for ‘Dead Son Rising’ jointly, so for ‘Splinter’, Gary’s mojo had returned and it was very much a Gary Numan album, with me producing his songs. His depression had, inadvertently, provided a wealth of feelings to inspire ‘Splinter’ and once he started to send me the demos, I felt he was back. Clearly, the difficulties he’d experienced in making ‘DSR’ had proved cathartic and so everything, from the ‘Splinter’ concept to the songs to the imagery, was clear in his head from day one.
‘Splinter’ eventually became an album of varying tempos with ‘Who Are You’ being a quite fast paced surprise. You love techno but it doesn’t really permeate as such into Numan’s music, or does it?
There are perhaps very subtle hints at what I used to make in my techno days, but I’ve never allowed it to become a feature of Gary’s music, that just wouldn’t be right. But, my understanding of that kind of groove certainly helps with tracks like ‘My Name Is Ruin’, ‘The Fall’ and ‘Love Hurt Bleed’ for example. The heavy kicks and basslines in those tracks certainly lean on the power that a four-to-the-floor groove can create.
With the ballad ‘Lost’, how did you manage to persuade Numan to use his voice naturally with a minimum of effects?
Lots of arguments! Well, maybe a couple. In my opinion, and certainly the position I took at the time, was that the story that song tells is exactly why Gary’s vocal should be exposed and almost naked. He’s laying it all on the line, telling us all what happened in his life, so let’s have the vocal upfront and not swathed in reverb and delay. It should sound as though Gary’s in the room with you, two feet away. I love that song, and unusually for me, I can still go back to it now and honestly say I don’t think I’d produce it any differently.
‘My Last Day’ was an appropriately apocalyptic end to ‘Splinter’, a variation on the Polymoog “vox humana” sound dominates the track, but how did you go about reconstructing your interpretation of this texture?
Cor, these are great questions. For starters, that song, as you may know, is about someone Gary knew who was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Imagine knowing your last day on earth is just around the corner. Imagine knowing you won’t get to see your kids grow up.
What would your last day be like and what would you say? These are all almost unbearable questions that some people have to face. So, as a producer how do you create those feelings through music? Gary and I talked a lot about that before we made ‘My Last Day’. I found it incredibly hard to work on that song, not musically or technically, but emotionally, I was a wreck. It’s such a beautiful song, incredibly sad, yet we felt like it should have this enormous and grandiose ending.
Gary had sent me the demo with the Moog style string sound dominating the mix, so for me it was a case of building on that. The sound Gary used was a patch from Spectrasonics Omnisphere and I added my own by creating a patch on my Access Virus Ti, which I used a lot on ‘Splinter’.
The ‘Savage’ album managed to be dark and intense but the more metal elements of previous long players were dialled down this time round, had that been a conscious decision?
Kind of. It wasn’t a pre-meditated decision, but it became obvious after song two or three that this wasn’t going to be that kind of album. I remember that we worked on ‘Bed Of Thorns’ first, of which Gary’s demo had been very Middle Eastern flavoured. I don’t remember which came next, but as the demos flowed in from him, we talked about it and both agreed that this album should be predominantly electronic. The power would come from big synth bass sounds rather than thrashy guitars in the most part. Ironic and frustrating then, that we were disqualified from being number one in Billboard’s Electronic Chart for not being electronic enough. Ridiculous.
When ‘And It All Began With You’ premiered, many listening were held in their tracks, a ballad as good as anything on ‘Telekon’, how did it come together as a recording?
Yeah, it’s another beauty isn’t it. When Gary sent me the demo, it blew me away. The vocal range reminded me of Chris Isaak, so the idea was very much to compliment that by using Steve Harris to create some guitar textures which would tug at the heart strings and we achieved that using the fantastic Eventide H9.
It was then a case of keeping the other elements really subtle, from the gentle and very simple drum groove to the random apreggiated synth pattern. I’m not sure if anyone noticed but I also recorded a thunder storm and ran it through the entire duration of the track. It seemed to add a lovely texture to everything else that was going on.
‘When The World Comes Apart’ managed to combine the classic synth elements of Numan with his more industrial rock sound successfully, is it a battle in the studio to reach this kind of compromise aesthetically?
Technically, it’s not a difficult thing to achieve but the challenge is getting it to sound contemporary. As most fans know, since I started working with Gary, I’ve tried to re-introduce some of the classic Numan sounds, but I’m resolute in making sure it never sounds pastiche. So, vocals at the top of the mix, anthemic string sounds, and synth bass sounds driving the songs. I think we’ve managed to achieve a modern sound, with subtle hints towards Gary’s legacy.
‘Savage’ proved to be Numan’s most successful for years plus there were still great songs like ‘It Will End Here’ left over. Had this been a comparatively straightforward album to make compared with the others, particularly in terms of studio rapport?
‘It Will End Here’ wasn’t left over, it was written specifically for the ‘The Fallen’ EP. It was only straightforward in the sense that we completed it from start to finish in 7 or 8 months, whereas ‘Splinter’ for example, had taken around 18 months. I’m not sure whether that was down to any kind of studio rapport though.
During the making of ‘Splinter’, Gary had moved to LA, so clearly that hindered its progress. With ‘Savage’, we absolutely nailed our working process and it came together quite quickly. Over the years, we’ve obviously developed level of trust for one another, so we generally leave one another to do our thing, then come together at the crucial stages.
So is the new Gary Numan album ‘Intruder’ part of a ‘Broken’ trilogy?
No. Although ‘Intruder’ is another theme based album, it’s definitely the next step rather than an additional piece of that ‘Broken’ jigsaw. ‘Intruder’ has a different feel to it than ‘Splinter’ and ‘Savage’, the use of incredible musicians like Gorkem Sen and Elizabeth Bernholz and a slightly different approach to creating the sound palette, sets it apart from the previous two.
What were your own first synths and what are your studio tools, keyboards and software of choice these days?
Crikey, well my first ever synth was a Korg Poly 800, many, many years ago. These days my studio is a mixture of analogue and digital. My DAW of choice is Logic Pro, and has been since Logic 5 I think, which I run on a Mac Pro. I run a huge selection of software synths and FX, including Spectrasonics Omnisphere and Trilian, the full NI suite of which Reaktor and FORM are my weapons of choice, a big Arturia collection with my go to instruments being the Buchla Easel, SEM V and Pigments, U-he’s Zebra and Zebra HZ, FXpansion’s Strobe and Cypher and for software processing I use Soundtoys, Waves etc. amongst many others.
On the hardware side, I use Arturia’s fantastic PolyBrute and MiniBrute 2S, with a MatrixBrute Noir on order (yippee), Analogue Solutions Leipzig-S and Vostok Deluxe, Access Virus Ti2, Waldorf Blofeld, Elektron Analog Keys and a MFB Urzwerg Pro for step sequencing.
My MIDI controller keyboard is a NI Komplete Kontrol S61 and I also use a Maschine Mk3 for making beats. For processing, I use an Eventide Eclipse and a Sherman Filterbank. Last but certainly not least are my beloved speakers, which are the PMC 228’s.
On ‘I Am Screaming’, the classic Numan elements of electric piano and drum machine shape the intro, but there’s this new element of Turkish musician Gorkem Sen bringing a Yaybahar to the palette. The melodies of Middle Eastern music have been a feature in Numan’s music over the years in viola or software form, but what inspired using an actual traditional ethnic instrument and what were the challenges of recording it?
Gary had spotted a video on YouTube of Gorkem playing the Yaybahar and sent it to me. We were both blown away by the sound this thing was making, so I suggested getting in touch with Gorkem. It took a bit of time to sort out, but eventually Gorkem agreed to do it.
Gorkem recorded the Yaybahar at his place and sent me the stems. It was pretty straightforward and we’re eternally grateful to him for allowing us to feature his unique instrument on the album.
Elizabeth Bernholz aka GAZELLE TWIN features on the ‘Intruder’ album too and she has magnificent haunting vocal range. With everything going on, did she have to be recorded remotely? What challenges does this present to you as a producer?
She did yes. I’ve known Elizabeth for a few years now. She’s a genius and I’m a huge fan of her work and everything she creates, both sonically and visually. She recorded her vocals remotely at her studio pretty late in the day actually. That was because we were still tweaking away at the tracks and we wanted to have a clear idea of what we thought would work for her.
I’d had a chat with her prior to her recording her stuff, so she knew which direction we wanted it to take, but honestly, when she sent the vocals back for ‘The End Of Dragons’, I sat in my studio screaming “f****ccckkkkk!” very loudly. We’d made a fairly grandiose, orchestral sounding intro to the piano version of the song, but when she added her immense vocals to it, I nearly fell off my chair. I can’t thank her enough for the unique layer she’s added to the album and I hope it’s the first of many collaborations with her. Recording remotely wasn’t really a challenge with her, or with any of the other musicians on the album. It’s not like we had a choice, so we just got on with it.
Which track from ‘Intruder’ has been your favourite to work on?
Tough question, so I’m going to have to choose two. ’I Am Screaming’ and ‘The Gift’. I loved the challenge of introducing some of the elements you mentioned in a previous question to this album’s sound.
As a producer, I’m very aware that my priority is to deliver what Gary wants, not what I want.
But, because of the trust I mentioned previously, he allows me to try stuff, some of which sticks and some of which doesn’t. So, using a CR-78 and a modern take on the Roland CP30 piano sound was something I wasn’t sure Gary would go for, but running it through some heavy tape saturation and Soundtoys Decapitator gave it a lovely bite. I think I enjoyed those tracks in particular because there’s a lot of space in the verse sections to be able to experiment with sound design. Also, Gorkem’s contribution to ‘The Gift’ especially, takes it to another level altogether.
What next for you? Will there be a full length follow-up to ‘Artificial Perfect’ and are there any guest vocalists you have in mind?
I really don’t know about that. I have no desire to do a follow up, but I would like to work on some more collaborations. I’ve been working on a score for a boxing documentary called ‘In The Company Of Kings’ recently, that’s pretty much finished now so I think it’ll be a collaboration, then another Gary album.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its grateful thanks to Ade Fenton
Additional thanks to Steve Malins at Random Management
“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
Developing on a childhood fascination with electronic sound, after finishing art school, Ben Edwards set up a music studio in London and began acquiring discarded vintage synthesizers on sale for next to nother to equip it.
Under his nickname of Benge, he released his debut album ‘Electro-Orgoustic Music’ in 1995 on his own Expanding Label.
But in 2011, he became best known for his role as Chief Mathematician and collaborative partner in JOHN FOXX & THE MATHS.
By this time, what had now become Benge’s MemeTune Studios was housing one of the largest collections of working vintage synthesizers in the world and was the location for several interviews filmed for the BBC documentary ‘Synth Britannia’.
Among the equipment were modular systems from Moog, Serge, E-Mu, Formant and Buchla, the ARP 2500 and 2600, digital systems like the Synclavier and Fairlight CMI, drum machines including the Linn LM1, Roland TR808 and CR78 as well as classic polyphonic keyboards such as the Yamaha CS80, Polymoog, Oberheim 4-Voice, ARP Omni and the less celebrated EMS Polysynthi.
As a collaborator, John Foxx said Benge was “Really good – Intelligent, knowledgeable, technically blinding. He does remind me of Conny Plank. Same generosity and ability, same civilized manner – even looks similar.”
Benge left London and relocated MemeTune Studios to Cornwall in 2015, but with artists savouring this more remote setting near some of the most breathtaking coastal scenery in England, he is now busier than ever as his recent production portfolio has shown.
So by way of a Beginner’s Guide to Benge, here are eighteen examples of his work, subject to a limit of one track per artist moniker or combination, presented in yearly and then alphabetical order. As his own blog says “It’s full of stars”!
TENNIS Weakness Together (2001)
Benge’s instrumental duo with Douglas Benford, TENNIS released their second album ‘Europe On Horseback’ just as dub electronica seemed to be all the rage. Scratchy and weirdly hypnotic with hidden hooks at over eight and a half minutes, the metallic percussive notions of ‘Weakness Together’ with its metronomic rhythms and solemn Cold War synths came together for a great highlight. A third long player ‘Furlines’ emerged in 2003 with ‘The Horseback Mixes’ as a bonus.
Noted for his experimental solo albums, Benge’s most acclaimed was 2008’s ‘Twenty Systems’. It was an insightful soundtrack exploring how electronic sound architecture has evolved from using transistors to integrated circuits and from ladder filters to Fourier approximation. With each track crafted from a singular instrument, Brian Eno described it as “A brilliant contribution to the archaeology of electronic music” while it was via this album that Benge came to the attention of John Foxx.
Legend has it that Serafina Steer’s union with Benge occurred when her harp was stolen and he made synths available to fill in for the intended harp parts. One of the more electronic tracks ‘How To Haunt A House Party’ added drum machine and the spacey accompaniment complimented the songstress’ quirky brand of kitchen sink introspection. ‘Change is Good, Change is Good’ got an endorsement from Jarvis Cocker, the PULP front man declaring it one of his favourite albums of the year.
JOHN FOXX & THE MATHS Watching A Building On Fire (2011)
Joining forces with Benge, John Foxx found the perfect creative foil to further his earlier analogue ambitions, only this time combined with a warmth that had not been apparent on ‘Metamatic’ or his work with Louis Gordon. The best track on their debut album ‘Interplay’ was a co-written duet with Mira Aroyo of LADYTRON entitled ‘Watching A Building On Fire’. With its chattering drum machine and accessible Trans- European melodies, it was an obvious spiritual successor to ‘Burning Car’.
Available on the JOHN FOXX & THE MATHS album ‘Interplay’ via Metamatic Records
The first band that the young Ben Edwards ever saw live was OMD, thanks to them opening for Gary Numan in 1979. He presented a suitably harsh remix to suit the harrowing lyrical tone of ‘Dresden’. But Andy McCluskey of OMD said: “‘Dresden’ is a whopping great, unsubtle metaphor… it’s not about the bombing of Dresden in the same way as ‘Enola Gay’ was about the aeroplane that dropped the atom bomb.”
The moniker of Elizabeth Bernholz, the secomd GAZELLE TWIN second album ‘Unflesh’ with additional production and mixing by Benge, allowed the Brighton-based songstress to extract her demons with some artistic violence. One of the highlights ‘Exorcise’ was an impressively aggressive cross between PINK FLOYD’s ‘One The Run’ and KRAFTWERK’s ‘Home Computer’. Its uneasy resonance was aided by Bernholz’s harsh, deadpan commentary.
Available on the GAZELLE TWIN album ‘Unflesh’ via Anti-Ghost Moon Ray
Hannah Peel joined JOHN FOXX & THE MATHS in 2011 and became one of the MemeTune family, eventually taking over the studio space when Benge relocated. At the time her most overtly electronic song yet, she teamed up with Benge for a haunting modern day seasonal hymn. With a suitably poignant message, ‘Find Peace’ was a Christmas song longing for the cold but merry winters of yesteryear under the modern day spectre of global warming, armed conflict and political tension.
Available on the HANNAH PEEL single ‘Find Peace’ via My Own Pleasure
A trio featuring Benge, Stephen Mallinder ex-CABARET VOLTAIRE and of TUNNG’s Phill Winter, the WRANGLER manifesto was to harness “lost technology to make new themes for the modern world”. ‘Lava Land’ saw Mallinder’s voice manipulations ranging from demonic gargoyle to stern drowning robot. The frantic pace was strangely danceable but the twisted mood was distinctly unsettling and dystopian, especially when the screeching steam powered Logan string machine kicked in.
Available on the WRANGLER album ‘LA Spark’ via by Memetune Recordings
GHOST HARMONIC omprisedof John Foxx and Benge alongside violinist Diana Yukawa. ‘Codex’ evolved over the space of a couple of years. Foxx said: “the underlying intention was we all wanted to see what might happen when a classically trained musician engaged with some of the possibilities a modern recording studio can offer…” The result was a startling dynamic between Yukawa’s heavily treated violin and the looming electronics. Closing the album, the title track was a string and synth opus of soothing bliss.
Available on the GHOST HARMONIC ‘Codex’ via Metamatic Records
JOHN FOXX & THE MATHS featuring GARY NUMAN Talk (2016)
‘Talk’ has been used by John Foxx to explore different approaches from a singular idea with other kindred spirits such as Tara Busch and Matthew Dear. ‘Talk (Are You Listening To Me?)’ finally saw Gary Numan working on a track with his long-time hero who he had admired since the ULTRAVOX! days. His take naturally screamed alienation and fully exploited his haunting classic synth overtures, thanks to Benge’s use of a Polymoog and his effective application of its swooping ribbon controller.
While BLANCMANGE’s ‘Unfurnished Rooms’ was the first time Benge and Neil Arthur worked together, their FADER duo project saw the former instigating the music as opposed to working on already written songs. Working on their parts separately, Neil Arthur said “In FADER, Benge will send me the embryonic musical idea and I’m reacting to what he’s given me” ;‘3D Carpets’ captured an independent post-punk intensity, like JOY DIVISION or THE CURE but realised with electronics rather than guitars.
“Benge and I had always wanted to write together, so we took the opportunity to do so here, by expanding on the ‘Zombies 1985’ world.” said Tara Busch of how he became involved in the soundtrack of I SPEAK MACHINE’s short film about greed and self-obsession in Thatcher’s Britain as a businessman drives home, oblivious to a zombie apocalypse going on around him. The brilliant ‘Shame’ was a wonderful hybrid of THROBBING GRISTLE, THE HUMAN LEAGUE and GOLDFRAPP.
LONE TAXIDERMIST is the vehicle of Cumbrian lass Natalie Sharp, a performance artist who believes “Your body is a sensory device”. With Phill Winter of TUNNG and WRANGLER among the collaborators, Benge acted as co-producer and released the album himself. The debut album’s opening song ‘Home’ made Sharp’s avant pop intentions clear with a catchy throbbing outline and a wonderfully wayward vocal style crossing Grace Jones with Ari Up.
Available on the LONE TAXIDERMIST album ‘Trifle’ via MemeTune Recordings
Working with Benge again on what was effectively their third album together, Neil Arthur has undoubtedly found comfort in their partnership. ‘Wanderlust’ was possibly BLANCMANGE’s best body of work in its 21st Century incarnation and from it, ‘In Your Room’ was a great slice of vintage robopop, with a vocoder aesthetic and an assortment of manipulated sounds at a reasonably uptempo pace. “Lyrically it was about being content with something quite simple” added Arthur.
Available on the BLANCMANGE album ‘Wanderlust’ via Blanc Check Records
With eclectic US singer / songwriter John Grant joining forces with the WRANGLER boys Stephen Mallinder, Benge and Phill Winter at MemeTune Studios, CREEP SHOW was something of an electronic meeting of minds. On the resultant album ‘Safe & Sound’, the quartet explored a spacious KRAFTWERK vs Moroder hybrid using dark analogue electronics, gradually revealing some wonderfully warm melodic synth textures to accompany Grant’s passionate lead croon.
Following the artistic success of the CREEP SHOW collaboration, it was only natural that Benge would step up to produce John Grant’s number four solo album ‘Love Is Magic’ to more allow the Icelandic-domiciled American to fully embrace his love of electronic music. Making use of a vintage synth brass line, the mutant crooner disco of ‘He’s Got His Mother’s Hips’ was driven by a delicious synthetic groove while not forgetting to include an uplifting chorus.
Lyrically inspired by the apparent emptiness of contemporary life, when British nu-folk queen Laura Marling teamed up with Mike Lindsay, co-founder of acid-folkies TUNNG and Benge’s one-time partner-in-crime, it called for something out-of-the-box and that came courtesy of Benge’s Moog Modulars. A hypnotic sequencer line provided the backbone to ‘Hand Hold Hero’ for a rather unusual slice of Sci-Fi Country ‘N’ Western that met ‘On the Run’ somewhere on the Virginia plains.
Available on the LUMP album ‘Lump’ via Dead Oceans
It only took 13 years to follow-up their debut record ‘Indicator’, but with the second OBLONG album ‘The Sea At Night’, the trio of Benge, Dave Nice and Sid Stronarch delivered a collection of rustic electro-acoustic organically farmed electronica! With mood and pace, ‘Echolocation’ was a classic synth instrumental with its crystalline textures and charming slightly off-key blips, aurally reflecting the remote moorland location in Cornwall where it was recorded.
“Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness”: Sigmund Freud
Exploring states of mind from madness to creativity, FRAGILE SELF are a minimal electronic duo aiming to create dark pop music to communicate the detachment often felt within the human condition.
Anil Aykan and Jonathan Barnbrook are FRAGILE SELF, thoughtful visual artists with a strong sense of partnership in music through their previous work with personalities as diverse as David Bowie, John Foxx, Hannah Peel and Rihanna.
Like a musical thesis on psychotherapy, the self-titled album is released on the 120th anniversary of the first publication of ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ by Sigmund Freud.
Aykan had an early flirtation with Black Metal with her handling the poetry, she comes over like an existentialist cross between MISS KITTIN and Mira Aroyo of LADYTRON which suits the brooding and ritualistic exploration that is FRAGILE SELF.
Mixed by Erland Cooper and shaped by modular synthesis, Jonathan Barnbrook said ”The thing that interests me most about it is the changing of electronic voltage that affects pitch, timbre and time. It is like you are playing with the building blocks of the universe. The same thing that makes the sound of drum, drives the human heart to beat or fires neutrons in the brain that define consciousness.”
With an incessant mechanical rhythm and stark vocal phrasing, the opener ‘I Loved Alone’ takes on the fierce aura of GAZELLE TWIN and a detached expression of feeling within the language.
Beginning with a recorded quote from Fritz Perls who coined the term ‘Gestalt therapy’, ‘This Is My Existence’ is brutal with Aykan exclaiming “memory is cancer”, Barnbrook’s doomily emulates his hero John Foxx with an eerie synth theme over a minimal structure.
The art funk of ‘Bertha’ is mutantly danceable, the deadpan vocalisation does recall MISS KITTIN but compliments the stark electronic backing, especially when Aykan percussively slips into German to recall the attitude of Berlin punks MALARIA!
The eponymous title track squelches with bass rumbles and electronic chainsaws while ‘Patients’ does possess some unsettling rhythmic fervour in a white noise barrage and talk of “broken histories” before going aggressively militaristic.
The noise attack on ‘Deperson’ is the darkest track on ‘Fragile Self’, swoops and gongs do battle over an industrial backbone in eine eintürzende Wand aus Tönen. The reverberant cerebral concept piece ‘Surrogate’ hints at Wendy Carlos and dark Jean-Michel Jarre; aesthetically schizophrenic, it is also something which also shapes the sinister arpeggio and chant laden ‘Leon’.
A syncussive pulse soundtracks the horror mood of ‘Need For Sanctuary’ with creepy Theremin-like qualities for a slice of vibrato laden avant-wave. ’Journey Taken’ though is a battle of machines in alternate quartet bursts in all frequencies before unsettlingly ending on the doom of church bells affirming Sartre’s view that “Hell is other people”.
The debut offering from FRAGILE SELF is an intense uneasy listen, but it is a well-crafted and yes, impeccably designed art statement. There’s aggression and agitation but it is aurally cathartic and rewarding.
So if the idea of MISS KITTIN collaborating with GAZELLE TWIN in an experimental electronic backdrop appeals, then this record will help highlight how “Out of your vulnerabilities will come your strength”.