It now seems an age when NINA first gained wider attention with her third single ‘My Mistake’ appearing in a Mercedes-Benz advert after opening for DE/VISION on their 2014 German tour, with Hugo Boss and Adidas following not long after.
Having released the “more mature and daring” second album ‘Synthian’, much has changed for the German songstress. She made some life changes and moved back to Berlin just as the world went into lockdown. It was if two of the album’s highlights ‘The Calm Before The Storm’ and ‘Runaway’ were strangely prophetic, with the latter stating that she was indeed “searching for a way out”.
The already completed ‘Synthian’ album was more mature and darker in tone to the previous work of NINA, so it was only natural that any new material would be influenced by the uncertainty and sombre realities of what was happening around her. The first fruit of those labours is ‘Control’, possibly NINA’s darkest work yet and utilising samples from Cliff Martinez’s ‘Drive’ score, it is released appropriately on the prestigious Lakeshore Records, home to the music of ‘Drive’, as well ‘Stranger Things’ and recent soundtrack releases by KID MOXIE, RADIO WOLF and PARALLELS.
Working with her usual production team of LAU and OSCILLIAN, opening track ‘This Is Where It Ends’ borrows from ‘After The Chase’ and makes something of a sombre statement; it’s an introspective number with tones of DE/VISION that builds towards a steadfast gothic schwing and a penetrating synth solo. The ‘Control’ title song though is archetypical NINA with a characteristic electronic bassline and synthetic drum fills, while there is saxophone too, reflecting the German songstress’ love of THE MIDNIGHT.
‘Forever’ though continues on resigned air outlined on ‘Where It Ends’ but the solemn air is twisted with an assertive fist punching chorus and a dominant pulsating arpeggio in the middle eight. Meanwhile ‘Tainted Butterflies’ is a sparse heartfelt ballad where NINA emotively bears her soul and it is obvious that her tears are difficult to hold back.
But it was ends on a comparatively upbeat note as ‘Nightfall’ reigns; cut from a not entirely different cloth to songs like ‘Automatic Call’, NINA’s makes an optimistic declaration to move forward and “never look back” with the help of occasional collaborator SUNGLASSES KID.
Although ‘Control’ is undoubtedly a gloomier body of work than NINA has released before, despite her expressions of loss, she is still The Queen Of Synthwave. Her voice is still on top starlet form, so these five songs don’t quite venture into the gothwave territory of VANDAL MOON or the heavier overtures of PERTUBATOR.
Not on this EP but in theme and worthy of a mention is NINA’s cover of KAVINSKY’s ‘Nightcall’ from ‘Drive’ in collaboration with ESSENGER, where our heroine delightfully comes over like Olivia Newton-John gone synthwave. That and ‘Control’ ably showcase the range of dynamic possibilities that NINA has opened herself to within both pop and darker music directions, so it will be very interesting to see where she heads next once she has settled down in her new environment.
“A young NASA JPL scientist is abducted by extra-terrestrials, but when no one believes his story, he becomes obsessed with finding proof, which leads him on a journey of discovery.”
That is the tagline for Sci-Fi thriller ‘Proximity’, the directorial debut of Emmy Award-winning visual effects artist Eric Demeusy, best known for his work on ‘Stranger Things’, ‘Tron Legacy’ and ‘Game Of Thrones’.
The film stars Ryan Masson who was in another Sci-Fi thriller ‘Involution’ and its cast also includes Highdee Kuan, Shaw Jones, Christian Prentice and Don Scribner. While the main orchestral soundtrack is scored by Jermaine Stegall, the songs have been provided by RADIO WOLF and PARALLELS, respectively the musical vehicles of Canadians Oliver Blair and Holly Dodson.
While Dodson has already released three albums as PARALLELS, Blair’s CV has included a stint with British New Wave trio HOTEL MOTEL (Italians Do It better signing Jorja Chalmers was a bandmate), guesting as a guitarist with CLIENT under his KINDLE moniker and playing keyboards with PARALLELS.
The debut RADIO WOLF EP ‘Rock N Roll Forever’ came out in 2017 and featured an illustrious cast of vocalists including Sarah Blackwood, Kelli Ali and HOTEL MOTEL singer Marika Gauci as well as Dodson herself. So developing the creative union between them was only natural.
Commissioned by Demeusy to come up with some sinister otherworldly songs counterpointed by a romantic celestial air for ‘Proximity’, Blair looked to Dodson to be their voice. “We fused celestial sounding electronica with the intimacy of the human voice and organic live guitar, having faith that our music would cohere to the film’s dual sense of otherworldliness and humanity” said Blair.
With both musicians heavily influenced by classic synthpop and new wave, it is perhaps not surprising that the resultant seven songs are being released by Lakeshore Records, home to the ‘Stranger Things’ soundtrack and the recent offering by KID MOXIE for the Greek film ‘Not To Be Unpleasant, But We Need To Have A Serious Talk’.
Opener ‘Break The Silence’ does what it says on the tin and comes over like ELECTRIC YOUTH but with much more bite thanks to its use of Holly Dodson’s more power diva capabilities and Oliver Blair’s guitar; it all stays on the right side of an AOR electronica hybrid if very close to its border.
Meanwhile ‘Pure Lies’ adopts the atmospheres of the ‘Twin Peaks’ theme ‘Falling’ and makes good use of lush vocal samples for its eerie dream-like state while reimagining it being covered by CHVRCHES. Speaking of the Glaswegian trio, ‘Let Me In’ could be Lauren Mayberry, Iain Cook and Martin Doherty with a sense of gothic foreboding rather than their usual Taylor Swift gone electro approach.
“Scored to picture”, the mini-album’s lead single ‘Lost Angel’ tells of a “Dark vision of Paradise” and lyrically captures the spirit of the ‘Proximity’ story while accompanied by some beautifully ringing synthetic chimes doubled with bursts of pitch shifted vocals. Hauntingly compelling, ‘Contact’ is a superbly widescreen ballad and if it wasn’t in a Sci-Fi film, it could so easily have been in chosen for a love scene in a Brat Pack movie from back in the day.
‘Journeys End’ is a rather fine tribute to ‘Space Oddity’ with Dodson sounding particularly angelic while fabulous synth melodies and complimentary live drumming by Nick Dodson enhance what is probably the mini-album’s highlight. Concluding Proximity’, ‘Homecoming’ adds some scratchy funk with a new wave twist to proceedings to provide a sparkly optimistic ending.
More than happy with these seven songs, Eric Demeusy said: “Oliver and Holly were a joy to work with; totally fresh and collaborative in spirit. Their songcraft talents and sophisticated production values created just the right sonic emotion for various sequences of the movie. I’d work with them again in a minute.”
‘Proximity’ will be embraced by the synthwave fraternity thanks to its association with Lakeshore Records, but its pop sensibilities and accompanying narratives will appeal to a wider audience. These are heartfelt songs possessing musicality and atmosphere that will certainly appeal to anyone who has enjoyed the previous releases by PARALLELS or RADIO WOLF.
The plot centres around a womanizer who finds out he is a carrier of a sexually transmitted virus, lethal only to women. But he is also the only hope for a curing vaccine if he can find which one of his ex-girlfriends had the first viral strain!
Released on Lakeshore Records whose digital catalogue includes the prestigious soundtracks for ‘Stranger Things’, ‘The Rise Of The Synths’ and ‘Drive’, while there are numerous ambient and instrumental pieces, ‘Unpleasant’ also includes two notable cover versions.
One of them is ‘Big In Japan’ which was originally recorded by ALPHAVILLE; the new KID MOXIE arrangement sees ‘Stranger Things’ meet ‘The Ipcress File’ within its icy aural aesthetic. Meanwhile, there is also a moody reworking of ‘The Night’, a 1983 Stephen J Lipson produced US hit for THE ANIMALS. Elena Charbila chatted from Los Angeles about her ‘Unpleasant’ experience…
Is ‘Unpleasant’ your first soundtrack venture?
This is the first time a full soundtrack I’ve composed has been released, as opposed to giving tracks to certain shows, films or commercials which I’ve done in the past.
How did it come about?
I was approached by the director who I met in LA and who is also Greek, he had known my stuff and has the same synth sensibilities as me, we gelled on the kind of sonic landscape that we both liked.
When he was ready to shoot the film, he asked me to compose the soundtrack and I also acted in the film as well. It’s a small part but it was a pretty fun thing.
What’s the character that you play and what’s the premise of ‘Not To Be Unpleasant, But We Need To Have A Serious Talk’?
The basic story is that we’re in Greece in the future, it’s a Sci-Fi / dark comedy / drama where there’s a disease which is sexually transmitted that kills women but men carry it! The lead character has to go back into his past to figure out who gave it to him so that he can tell them all that they’re dying… it’s pretty grim but there is definitely some humour injected into it, done in a tasteful way I think. Spoiler alert! I’m the first girl who is going to die in the story.
What was the big difference for you working on ‘Unpleasant’ compared with doing pop songs?
The magical thing that happens with not doing actual songs was the freedom that is offered by non-verbal compositions. It was very liberating not to write lyrics because I didn’t have to write about me and my experiences, but it became about creating a world that these other characters could live in. This meant I wasn’t going to “talk” basically, so it was liberating not to be confined to the structure of a pop song, verse/chorus, having to say something and then match it or rhyme it. It was very rewarding in a different way.
So were you doing what Vangelis does, composing to moving pictures, or writing to a brief?
I’ve done some more soundtrack work since and every film is different. But for this particular one, the director wanted a lot of stuff in advance, even before they shot because he wanted to rehearse with the actors using that music. So the actors and all the elements grew together, so during rehearsals, there was stuff to listen to and play on set. A lot of stuff was also made after the cut, so I was very much involved in the whole process.
‘Bonsai’ perhaps doesn’t stray too much away from the music people know you for as it has your vocal on and your airy sound?
Yes, that’s safe to say but it was such a freeform process. ‘Bonsai’ was the last track I wrote for the whole soundtrack after I had seen the rough cut of the film.
There’s a Japanese character and there’s a lot of Japanese dialogue.
And there’s this bonsai that keeps growing throughout the film, it’s almost like a character in itself. So that was based on the energy which that bonsai was emanating to me.
But the solemn filmic ambience of ‘The Distance Grows Again’ and ‘Interlude’ will surprise?
Yes, those tracks are definitely a departure, if the people listened to these next to my pop songs, they will not believe it’s the same person. I wanted to be something totally different because this project felt totally different. The images and the feelings I was drawing from were different from other stuff that I free-willingly started writing from scratch. This time, I had a “guide” who was somebody else, a film saying “come to us, come this way” and I followed it.
What equipment set-up this you find was the best way of working for you?
I would say half of it is hardware, but I do use a lot of software, I travel a lot so I complete a lot of things that way. It’s like a 50/50 process between hardware and software.
I ended up using quite a bit of Arturia Oberheim Sem V, Moog Grandmother, the Moog Minitaur and Moog Mother.
There are some live guitars here and there like on ‘Bonsai’, I wrote the parts but had a friend play it cause I am sh*t at the guitar! I play bass which feels good for me because it’s not so intricate, I’ve always had a little fear of the guitar and that’s not because I’m a synth person, there was never a calling for me to explore it. Whereas the bass felt much more right, it’s like the spine of a song, it holds the beat and the melody together, and that felt very intriguing.
But there’s no bass on your ‘Unpleasant’ soundtrack?
It was natural not to involve anything rhythmic elements in the soundtrack (apart from on ‘Closer Than Ever’) other than the two cover versions. I feel there has to be a good reason to include a rhythmic element, there has to be a really good reason to include drums or bass in movies.
‘Closer Than Ever’ captures an underlying tension, had any particular composers influenced you?
I was channelling more of the dark wave elements on this one, newer bands like SHE PAST AWAY from Turkey who I like, a little bit of JOY DIVISION and SISTERS OF MERCY, that mix of synths and guitars.
Overall, Vangelis is an influence over anything that I do, John Carpenter too and Clint Mansell who happens to also be a good friend. There’s also the German composer Nils Frahm and Cliff Martinez, all of these people, I’m recycling things from all of them.
Was the release of the ‘Unpleasant’ soundtrack on Lakeshore Records always a given?
No, it wasn’t… it was finished when they heard it through Clint Mansell who loved it. He made the connection, Lakeshore loved it and they said “bring it on”.
There are two takes on ‘Love Poem’, one variation being mostly based around solo piano…
At some point I wondered what it would sound like if I replaced the piano sound with a synth. In my head, it made it have a nostalgic, romantic quality that suited a scene in the film that was very melancholy.
The soundtrack is notable for having two songs on it, one being a cover of ALPHAVILLE’s ‘Big In Japan’, so what was your approach?
The director loved ‘Big In Japan’ so it went into the end credits. Because there was a strong Japanese element in the film, it made sense to use that. It didn’t feel right to necessarily use drums because I did want to take a departure from the ALPHAVILLE original. There was already a strong rhythm element with the synth bass and it takes it to a different place by having a woman sing it.
‘Big In Japan’ comes with a very striking video, what was the narrative behind that?
There’s no full story but I don’t think everything needs a full story, it just needs a feeling and an atmosphere to be enveloped in.
I guess the video is a bit of a commentary on children being forced to grow up too fast, especially in Hollywood.
I’ve always perceived the song as being about fame (although I am aware that it’s not what the original was about).
The other song is also a cover of ‘The Night’ by THE ANIMALS which you perform with Phil Diamond?
It plays during the movie and was one of the director’s requests to cover this particular track. I thought it would be nice to have it as a duet so I asked a friend of mine to sing it with me. It really departs from the original which was much more of an early 80s pop rock hit, so I made it much more ethereal to match the tone of the film.
‘Slow Escape’ is a glorious mix of piano and synth pulses…
I was listening to a lot modern classical music so just blending the synthetic arpeggio sounds with natural sounds like the piano creates a very multi-layered experience in my mind. By definition, a synth can be a cold sound which is not human, but then there’s piano which is more warm and human, so by blending them, you get an interesting “sonic sandwich”!
Photo by Ghost Of Oz
How have you found working on ‘Unpleasant’ as an experience and for your musical development?
Contrary to its title, it’s been a very pleasant experience for me because it’s opened up a whole new chapter in my music career! I wasn’t sure I had it or could do it, I wasn’t sure I could take on a whole soundtrack by myself. Now I want more. So I’m working on more soundtracks and I hope to keep doing it.
What’s next for you, will you go back to songs?
I have an EP out in Spring 2020 and I’ve also been working on music for a video game amongst other things.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its warmest thanks to KID MOXIE
‘Big In Japan’ is released by Lakeshore Records as a digital single, available now via the usual platforms
“The natural way of the cultural wave: we generally experience that musical and cultural trends shift from an outstanding position within public opinion to near utter rejection, refusal and ridicule, through an ever-shortening period of time. However, if that period of time is extended, to often several decades, we can witness a renovation, a new heightened recognition – the rebirth of the wave. Through today’s global reach, powered by the internet, cultural waves and fascinations can resurface and manifest themselves, with an even much bigger fan impact than the original source.”
And so The Synths rise, to combat the ordinary, to get ahead, to prove that this isn’t a mere revival; it’s a continuation of the trend started a long time ago, a trend which has been bubbling away in the hearts and minds of many, the army of the underground, which is now unleashing its machines to show the world their supremacy.
‘The Rise Of The Synths’ is the definitive documentary about the electronic music of its mainstream heyday, the nostalgia of those years and the memorable atmosphere created by the likes of GIORGIO MORODER, EDGAR FROESE and JOHN CARPENTER.
The project, backed up by hundreds of modern synth music composers, alongside the daddies of electronica, is a journey in time from its origins, through to the most successful time for synth, into its grunge fuelled denial and the big comeback thanks to the newly discovered social media and its important role in propagating of new music.
Anyone can be an artist these days, the day job is one thing – but why not tinkle on your synths and computers in your spare time? And with the digital outlets sprouting up like mushrooms, anyone can have a chance to hear your music. nostalgia lives through, be it with the lovers of vintage games, computers, equipment, or clothing, to those who just can’t forget the musical excitement upon hearing what synthesisers could do.
JOHN CARPENTER loved the fact that “when synthesisers were first introduced into music, (he) could get a big sound with them, (…) like an orchestra.” And that’s why many got inspired into making fresh sounds which would be impossible to achieve otherwise.
The machines never sleep and 2011 saw ‘Drive’, with its magnificent synthy soundtrack, win the festival’s Best Director Award for Nicolas Winding Refn at the Cannes Film Festival. The movement continues with the superb Netflix series ‘Stranger Things’; not only showcasing the life in provincial America in the Reagan-era, but also a deliciously electronic score, full of analogue goodness straight from the onset intro, which is impossible to skip.
‘The Rise of the Synths’ continues that trend, with numerous lovers of analogue and digital from all around the globe, joining forces to stand against the ordinary and to prove that machines rule. They rule big…
Kicking off with the perfect arpeggios by CHROME CANYON on ‘Deckard Returns’, the compilation promises a perfect listening experience from the onset.
GUNSHIP with ‘The Vale Of Shadows’ takes the reigns next, presenting the London trio of Dan Haigh, Alex Westaway and Alex Gingell; the group have had a very successful release under their belt with the 2015 eponymous album.
POWER GLOVE are best known for writing the soundtrack to the retro-futuristic video game ‘Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon’; here, the two Australians plate up ‘Fatal Affair’; a futuristic flick with a twist. ‘Makita’ by GENO LENARDO imagines the machines picking up their weapons and marching against the enemy, all with industrial elements of fear inducing qualities.
Naming his project after the ‘Top Gun’ icon, COM TRUISE aka New Yorker Seth Haley has gathered a substantial following with his “mid-fi synth-wave, slow-motion funk” and here he presents his quirky ‘Idle Withdrawal’.
While DANIEL DAVIS is ‘Lost In Love’ with a melodious pop song, ROBERT PARKER is chasing his ‘Silver Shadow’, and WAVESHAPER are on a ‘Mission To Remember’. If it ever rains for CODE ELEKTRO, it has to be ‘Black Rain’. The drops of arpeggiated downfall descend upon the simple melody, creating an atmosphere of suspense and dread.
But there’s nothing like GERMAN ENGINEERING on ‘The Osbourne Effect’, an experimental Kraftwerkian with the elements of the glorious instrumentals DEPECHE MODE used to provide in the day. The magnificent ‘Triage’ by GIORGIO MORODER, who is joined by RANEY SHOCKNE, passes almost too quickly, before the heavy ‘Night Stalker’ by CARPENTER BRUT appears; the Frenchman wrote music for video games ‘Hotline Miami 2 : Wrong Number’ and ‘The Crew’.
JOHN BERGIN introduces his guitar heavy ‘Crash & Burn’ and calming ‘Fleshman’, both as if taken from a video game. ‘Dead Of Night’ by LA based DANCE WITH THE DEAD could have easily been used in the likes of ‘Footloose’ and is very ‘Eye Of The Tiger’.
LAZERHAWK takes over on ‘A Hero’s Journey’ with filigree synths and cinematic landscapes; Garrett Hays is a founding member of ROSSO CORSA and a very successful electronic producer with a considerable success during the days of MySpace.
OGRE ushers in the era of ‘Rebar (Prologue)’, from Exeter, UK, Robin Ogden is a composer, producer and sound designer. MEGA DRIVE open the ‘Stargate’, a cleverly put together track of sci-fi design, while VOYAG3R closes the album with ‘Appearance Of The Mysterious Traveler’.
Many other artists were involved in the production; music makers from Sweden, Denmark, Spain and Canada joined numerous composers from the US and UK, all to aid the cause and strengthen the position of synth worldwide.
It seems like the trend is catching. The mighty synth has risen and it’s hitting with revenge and its revenge is sweet.