Tag: Maison Vague (Page 1 of 2)

CIRCUIT3 Interview

‘siliconchipsuperstar’ by CIRCUIT3 slipped out quietly in December 2015 but became one of the surprise independent success stories of 2016.

The work of Dubliner Peter Fitzpatrick, it was a musical love letter to the classic era of electronic pop between 1978-1982 and like TUBEWAY ARMY’s debut long player, the blue vinyl edition sold out. Rather than go on a cruise or buy a DeLorean, he spent his royalties on more synths!

Those synths have been put to good use on ‘The Price Of Nothing & The Value Of Everything’, the new album from CIRCUIT3 due out in Spring 2019 on Diode Records.

Acting as a trailer to the album, ‘For Your Own Good’ is arguably the first Irish synthpop hip hop crossover featuring CIRCUIT 3 working with Ricki Rawness, a respected figure on the Irish urban music scene who is not your average MC…

Peter Fitzpatrick took time out to chat about his love of electronic music, his thoughts on the current fashion for Synthwave and stalking the pioneers of Synth Britannia with his Arturia MiniBrute…

It would be fair to say ‘siliconchipsuperstar’ was an unexpected success? Why do you think listeners connected with it?

It exceeded all of my expectations. Originally I just wanted to make an album that echo’d my teen years and love of that 1978-82 era of synthpop and electronic music, put it out on vinyl and create a couple of promo videos. Above all else I wanted to have some fun.

I thought I’d sell a handful of copies and get a few video views. I didn’t expect the vinyl to sell out or for my mailing list to quadruple in size or for the gigs and festivals and offers of collaboration to happen. That’s the quantitative measure of success, but for me the true success was in making the LP and sticking to my vision of what I wanted to do. On that measure alone, it was hugely successful.

Why listeners connected is something I can definitely talk about because I have the messages from them. They loved the genre and sounds I used as it reminded them of those artists that we share a love and fascination for. All art is theft and so is using motifs and sounds, but I’m ok with that. I’m a magpie.

Another recurring message from the listeners was my old school approach to physical product, making promo videos and not taking it too seriously. They really enjoyed holding the album reading the lyrics and possessing something that was theirs alone. Synthpop is not dead!

What had inspired you to do a synthpop album after many years in rock?

After a number of years playing quite happily in rock bands and earning a living as a composer and sound designer, I was caught up in this belief that nobody wanted to hear my electronic music and that there wasn’t an audience for synthpop anyway. I thought people were only listening to ‘crappy-4tothefloor-house-handbag-squelchy-303’ dance music from whatever EDM EBD ABC XYZ genre was flavour of the month. I was so incredibly wrong.

What triggered it all was when I heard that there was a KRAFTWERK tribute show in Dublin and went along to see THE ROBOTS. Supporting was the Dublin artist POLYDROID. I was blown away both by the music that night but also the crowd at the gig. I must have made a dozen new friends in the space of 3 hours. After the gig we were all talking about our favourite artists. This sounds like a stupid movie story but next day I went online and bought a keyboard controller and a softsynth package (Vintage Collection from Arturia). I started writing and in the first 2 weeks wrote ‘Blue Diary’ and ‘New Man’. I was hooked again. I remembered what I loved.

Don’t get me wrong though. I learned a huge amount when I was in rock / pop bands and made some lifelong friends. Brian Downey, THIN LIZZY’s drummer, taught me a lot about how to push and pull the beat live and of course I grilled him about Midge Ure’s time in the band. Brian is a lovely man and one of the most underrated drummers in the world.

In all that time in rock bands I learned how to structure songs and I learned about confidence when onstage – if you don’t look like you’re enjoying yourself on stage, how is the audience going to feel? Playing in those bands paid my way through university and gave me some lifelong friends. I bumped into Brian shortly after ‘siliconchipsuperstar’ came out and he was fascinated by it – kept referring to Midge and Rusty. He thought it was brilliant that Rusty had played ‘Hundred Hands’ on his show after someone had recommended it to Rusty. He knew Rusty from the early 80s and his work with Phil Lynott, Brian’s close friend and bandmate.

‘Hundred Hands’ had some wonderful drum programming…

Thank you – one review referenced Martyn Ware which is a huge compliment. There are three drum machine touchstones for me: the CR78 which John Foxx used on ‘Metamatic’, the Linn on THE HUMAN LEAGUE’s ‘Dare’ and HEAVEN 17’s ‘Penthouse & Pavement’.

I think Martyn is the funkiest lad from Sheffield ever. I have clear memory of programming that track and trying to mix between what a real drummer might do and then add some of those funky little off-beats that Martyn uses with Linn rimshots and claps, plus I used the toms like percussion instruments – something I think he has done in the past.

The not-so-secret sauce is to use some parallel compression on the drum subgroup. Now that you’ve mentioned it, I think the snare on that track is pretty dry which is unusual for me because I love a nice bit of gated reverb on my snares…. call me old fashioned….or Steve Levine…

‘Ghost Machine’ had a terrific icy synth pad, what did you use for that and how did the track come together?

Icy! That’s a lovely word to use about synths. I love icy sounds. That’s the Arturia version of the Solina string machine plus a layered sound from a Roland JP8000 and a touch of Roland Juno 106 underneath. There’s a bit of plate reverb on it too.

That track has a cracking story attached to it. Chatting online with a Facebook friend Brian McCloskey who is originally from Derry in Ireland but is now living in California, I mentioned I was making an album and he mentioned he had tried writing lyrics in the past. I rarely had success with a collaboration where a lyricist sends me their words and I write a song around them. We gave it a try and hit paydirt on the first song.

Brian runs the very wonderful blog hosting old issues of Smash Hits ‘Like Punk Never Happened’ and we have a shared love of synthpop and pop in general. Brian’s blog had garnered him credits on BBC documentaries about ‘Top Of The Pops’ plus after show party invites from Mr Gary Kemp from that there SPANDAU BALLET. He moves in all the right circles does Brian. He also has the best legs in California. Enough of that! *LAUGHS LOUDLY*

Back to the challenge in writing songs using someone else’s lyrics; I think the reason this worked is that I visualized what the promo video was going to look like. In my mind I saw ‘Metropolis’. Sure enough when I made the promo video I used that footage.

Have the two of you written anything else?

Brian and I have another song written and it’s a bit of a synthpop cracker even if I say so myself. It’s titled ‘Future Radio’ and sounds a little like the lovechild of BUGGLES and PET SHOP BOYS. I had hoped to include it on my next album but it doesn’t fit with the other tracks. I have other plans for it and can’t wait to release it. There’s a super little vocoder part in it.

Actually, Chi while I’m here and thinking about vocoders… I’m really p*ssed off with Waldorf. They announced a string machine and vocoder a year ago. It’s exactly what I want for ‘Future Radio’ and would be ideal for playing ‘Ghost Machine’ live. It’s complete Vaporware… hasn’t materialized and I’ve had it on pre-order since early 2018! I wish they wouldn’t tease like that.

I’ll bet they’re holding off because Behringer claim to be making a clone of the classic Roland VP-330. If anyone in Dublin is reading and has a proper vocoder to loan me for a day?

Was the minimal structure of ‘In Your Shoes’ influenced by anyone in particular?

Very much so – well spotted. The song was written the week that Robin Williams died. I remembered the quote attributed to him “You’re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.” and being quite affected by his illness and what must have been a tortured state of mind that he would lead him to take his own life.

The music, arrangement and production was very heavily influenced by my favourite Howard Jones song ‘Law Of The Jungle’. I think that’s one of his finest tracks and it was only a B-side! I got to ask Howard about the song in the context of a Q&A with him at Metropolis Studios in late 2018. I’d been saving that question since 1984. I do play the long game sometimes! *laughs*

My recording is almost entirely Arturia ‘Modular’ softsynth which is an emulation of the Moog modular system. One of Howard’s trademarks is hitting the occasional high note. He has a very good falsetto. Howard’s an artist who is unfairly written out of Synth Britannia and attracts snide comments. What sort of war crime did Howard commit? I’d like to see some of the people who knock him try doing what he did live with an 808, Moog Prodigy and a Jupiter8. They probably wouldn’t know the difference between a tape recorder and a drum machine anyway. I’ve never understood the nasty responses to his work.

Which songs have been your own favourites?

Off the new album ‘The Price Of Nothing & The Value Of Everything’, it’s a pure pop song called ‘I Don’t Want To Fall in Love Again’. It’ll be a single and one of the remixers said it sounded like something off the third YAZOO album that never happened. Possibly that’s the Fairlight samples I used for the rhythm track – almost PET SHOP BOYS I think.

iEUROPEAN did a great remix which I’m delighted with. It’s pure pop and isn’t pretending to be anything else. I’d love to hear this covered by a female vocalist or re-recorded by Geoff Downes and Trevor Horn from BUGGLES.

Now, if you’re talking about the first album ‘siliconchipsuperstar’, I think it’s ‘New Man’ simply because it was the first song recorded for the album and in the live shows it always gets a great response. It opened some doors for me. It’s a track that lets me stomp and play that lead line on as nasty and loud a synth patch as I can put together. On a keytar … doubly so. I love pop so who can resist an opportunity to get the crowd to do the claptrap part? Yes… I borrowed that from ‘Being Boiled’ and I don’t care who knows *laughs*

I know some radio shows have picked up on the ‘New Man’ Numan thing but it’s not about Gary honest! It’s also in C Minor, which as every synthesist knows, is the darkest of all keys.

Talking of YAZOO, how do you look back on your tribute album ‘All I Ever Knew’?

With great fondness. Anyone who knows me will know I’m a huge fan of Vince and Alison. Recording ‘Upstairs At Erics’ was something I’d wanted to do since I first heard the LP in 1982. In truth, ‘All I Ever Knew’ was pure self-indulgence. I made it for me and happened to release it on CD.

I made two decisions before starting on the project. Firstly I decided to stick pretty close to the original sounds and arrangements. Secondly, I decided to bring in some guest vocalists.

The sounds and arrangements decision was the most difficult. With infinite resources and a brave heart, I might well have tried my hand at doing completely new takes on those songs. However, I don’t think that ever really works.

Very few ‘reworkings’ of classics are ever pulled off well. Most are pure crap and don’t get me started on rubbish twee ukulele interpretations of songs I love.

I did however put a couple of little twists and sounds into the recordings but purposefully stayed close to the originals. I’m such a fan that they’re like sacred texts! *laughs*

Working with Emma Barson, Neil Francis and Andy Patchell was really enjoyable. I sent a copy to Vince and he emailed me with some very kind words. The 16 year old me was dumbstruck *laughs*

Then before her show in Dublin I managed to meet Alison and gave her a copy. In return I got a hug. That’s a fair trade I think. Before you ask… no, I have no plans to record ‘You & Me Both’. If I had the chance to do it all again then all I would change is to start it a year earlier and have a go at properly reworking some of the tracks.

The new single is ‘For Your Own Good’, you’ve really gone to town on that with a video and some radical remixes? How would you describe its genesis?

‘For Your Own Good’ is a lesson in embracing collaboration opportunities.

That track was written about 18 months ago and has sat lonely on the digital shelf waiting for me to do something with it. I was mid-recording the YAZOO tribute and had been listening to HEAVEN 17 a lot.

The bassline is Juno 106 and I’m using the Aly James emulation of the Linn LM-1 drum machine. As I looped the bassline, I grabbed a mic and riffed on the notion of privacy, or lack of! I visualized CCTV cameras and Zuckerberg sticking his nose in where it’s not wanted.

Listening to the tracks for the new album, I offered it to a couple of remixers and one of them – a local lad Goldy – created this brilliant remix which has more hip-hop than synthpop. He brought in another Dublin artist Ricki Rawness who added his own spoken word rap to the track. There is no way in a million years that I’d have planned this, never mind known how to put it together.

What I really loved about where Goldy and Ricki took the remix was the words Ricki wrote which took the song into the territory of medication, mental health and the 9-to-5 grind. Arguably we’ve made the first synthpop hip-hop crossover *LAUGHS LOUDLY*

How did the video come about?

We were discussing the track and laughing about how much craic we’d have making a promo video. Well one thing led to another and I found myself with Goldy, Ricki an actress and a cameraman in a video studio in Dublin. We took half a day under Goldy’s direction and made some art. He interpreted the song as me sitting on a virtual bus while the negative sh*t that invades our brains sits alongside these characters invading my personal space.

The remixes really are ‘out there’. Fans of more traditional synthpop will be pleased to hear that there is a synthy extended remix too where you can really hear the Linn and the 106… oh and a remix by Duckworth from ANALOG ON who rendered a ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ type remix. He claims he remixed it on a recent trip to Mars. That’s the kind of friends I have! *laughs*

They’re all on the limited-edition CD single while the original track and Goldy’s remix are on digital platforms.

It has provoked some quite Marmite reactions! From “that’s quite something” to “I turned it off when the rap started” and all points in between. I knew this would happen and while my inner critic said “I told you so”, I remind myself that I’m doing this for me and nobody else. It’s not like I’m U2 and breaking into people’s iPods to force their music on them.

‘The Value Of Everything & The Price Of Nothing’ is the title of the forthcoming album, that’s quite a mouthful, is there a concept at all?

I do like my long-winded album titles don’t I? *laughs*

With so much populism and division undermining our society I want to focus on the value and not the price. It was also a misheard statement on Black Friday which my inner magpie borrowed. There’s a bit of a concept there. If I reflect on the subject matter of the songs the common thread is that they’re all dealing with some aspect of the human condition. Everything from allowing populism to distort your worldview (yes I wrote about Brexit in ‘New Beginning’) to contentment (‘I Don’t Want To Fall In Love Again’) with a stop off at regret (‘Sold My Soul)’ and mental health (‘The Rain’).

I waited until I had a set of songs which all worked together. That was a frustrating wait but one that was worth it I think. Simultaneously I’ve been working on a separate album which is very much a concept album in that it has a storyline – I’ll share more about that another day – and I have Hannah Peel to thank for inspiring me to do it.

Is ‘The Value Of Everything & The Price Of Nothing’ a one-man musical show like ‘siliconchipsuperstar’? Anything you can reveal?

The new album features some backing vocals from my friend Andy Patchell and I’ve got friends contributing remixes. Aside from that, I won’t say more at this stage but there is a very cool artist I’m working with on a mini-album (or is that an EP?) who recently brought in a quite legendary UK electronic music pioneer to further the collaboration. And now we are three.

I had some songs that didn’t fit well with ‘The Value Of Everything & The Price Of Nothing’ and they’re working nicely in this collaboration. My collaborator brings a fresh view on the songs and I have to admit it’s great not having to do all the lifting myself. It’s going to be a hell of a ride in the next 18 months plus I feel another batch of songwriting sessions coming on. Not nearly enough hours in the day to do all of this.

Have you brought any new synths on board? 😉

Chi, you bloody well know I have! How long have you got? *laughs*

One of the reasons I delayed rushing out a new album was to take time to explore some new synths and move out of softsynths. There were a couple of synths I really wanted and managed to find a Sequential Circuits Pro-One as well as a Roland Jupiter 4 in really minty condition. Both had been in storage for years. The Pro-One is like ‘instant Vince Clarke’ when you use a sequencer to manipulate the filter cut-off. Every person who meets it can’t help touching it and talking about ‘Upstairs At Erics’ *laughs*

The Jupiter 4 was an obvious choice and damn I feel sorry now for Vince having read that he carried it to ‘Top Of the Pops’ from the tube. It’s bloody heavy! Seriously it’d damn heavy. I found it in a tiny village on the west coast of Ireland – drove all the way there to get it one Saturday last spring.

What I love about the Jupiter 4 is both the filter and the arpeggiator behaviour. It was Clark Stiefel of MAISON VAGUE who really sold me on the Jupiter 4. Check out some of his videos on YouTube. Set-up a simple patch and let the filter modulate while running the arpeggiator. I could sit there for hours listening to it. Actually… I have… it’s like synthy AMSR *laughs*

The Jupiter 4 features prominently on the song “The Rain’ off the new album. It has this lovely raindrop-like sound but in a melancholic way. Aside from those synths I managed to get my hands on a Moog Sub37 because… well… Moog. It’s got this lovely beefy sound and is possibly my favourite bass synth.

On the drum machine side, I invested in a Dave Smith Instruments Tempest which has challenged me as It’s not a simple machine to operate. I also got a recreation of the Roland CR78 called the Beatbot TT78. It has that lovely metal beat. What I really like about them both is that they force me into processing the sounds when I record them. There’s a couple of tracks where I’vetaken the raw sound out of the Tempest and applied bit crushing or other effects from the Soundtoys plug-ins.

Shortly after releasing ‘siliconchipsuperstar’ I bought the Korg reissue of the ARP Odyssey. Anyone who admires Billy Currie will want one. What’s fascinating about that synth is that it doesn’t follow the so-called traditional left to right layout of oscillators into filter into envelope. It really messed with my head at first and even now when I go back to it I have to think through what I’m doing.

You know what’s the best fun? Putting the Odyssey through a bit of distortion and a delay or reverb, then pretending you’re Billy Currie while playing the filter live. I defy anybody to tell me otherwise *laughs*

It’s the synth version of singing along to with a hairbrush to the new DURAN DURAN single. That’s the thing with the Odyssey. It’s meant to be played on the keyboard with one hand while you ‘play’ the sliders with the other hand. It’s all over the new album especially on the track ‘Sold My Soul’. Big droning beefy wailing sound with lots of echo! What’s not to love?

What’s your favourite synth of all time?

How am I supposed to answer that question? Just one? I’m not having that! *LAUGHS LOUDLY*

My favourite mono synth is the Pro One because it has that Vince sound and is so versatile with all its modulation routings.

My favourite polysynth is the DX7… no just kidding, don’t print that! It’s the Juno 106 because that was my first synth back in 1985. Even now I go back to that synth for simple pads and mad little sequenced ear candy.

How have you managed to blend the mix of analogue and digital while still remaining authentic, do you have any particular stance on this?

Thanks – authentic is a massive compliment. I know this sounds corny but I do try to listen to what I’m doing and put it through the lens of someone producing in the 1970s or 1980s. Dammit, I’m mixing my metaphors again aren’t I? How do you put sounds through a lens? I suppose I could try *laughs*

What I mean is I try to achieve the aesthetic that served my musical heroes so well. Frankly my dear I don’t give a damn whether it’s analogue or digital. I really couldn’t! Having said that there is something gorgeous about analogue when it’s in full flow and executed well.

Let’s take an example: the Linn that was used on ‘Dare’. Should we hate it because it’s got digital in it? I can’t get on with the analogue snobbery. It’s all reduced to 1s and 0s anyway and life is too short.

Electronic pop within the Emerald Isle seems to be in a good state of health at the moment?

It is isn’t it? I’m afraid to list any artists in case I leave someone out. I will call out Hannah Peel though. Oh my god isn’t she brilliant? You recommended Hannah to me so I went to see her prior to my playing a show in London couple of years ago. That was a genius move Chi, I was thinking after seeing Hannah’s show that I was a complete fake *laughs*

So yeah thanks for that, it really set me up for playing my first London show. Hannah is doing exactly what I wish I’d been able to do had things been different in my particular circumstances. I totally admire and envy her in equal measures.

But back to the other artists on this island, I have to say there is some very cool stuff going on and the support CIRCUIT3 has received from other artists here has been really great. What is interesting is the absence of infighting which I’ve seen in other places. No breakaway gigs, festivals, radio shows or weird social media behaviour. The big problems we face here though are outside of our control.

The thing to understand about Ireland is that in almost every home here, there is a musician so the fact that someone makes music isn‘t at all unusual. So it’s really difficult to get people out to gigs aside from a hard core group of fans who I and others are very very grateful to. Music lovers are spoiled over here.

But there‘s still a heavy bias against electronic music in the venues, TV, Radio, print media. So for example there‘s my situation in mid-2016; I was selling vinyl copies of my debut album as fast as I could take them to the post office, I had been invited to play both the Electric Picnic which is arguably the equivalent of Glastonbury over here plus I was getting airplay on Dan Hegarty’s show on RTE as well as iRadio, plus of course multiple internet radio shows and was invited to play on a bill in London alongside some of the best UK artists and Wolfgang Flür, a former member of KRAFTWERK.

So how many column inches did Hot Press, the so-called go-to music and popular culture publication give to CIRCUIT3? They gave the square root of sod-all. Nothing. Not even an album review. I might as well be invisible. Yet the latest beardy fake folk hipster cr*p is flavour of the month. Some Z-list Bobby Dylan wannabe groans out loud and that’s worth writing about? Give me a break. It’s all so beige if you know what I mean?

Nothing has really changed since the 1980s here. There’s some weird fear or ignorance of synthpop here and it all gets lumped into a lazy ‘80s retro’ label.

Well, the electric guitar blues comes from where? Robert Johnson right? That’s the 1930s, so why isn’t electric blues guitar called ‘Retro 1930s music’?

All of the traditional music forms here haven’t changed in hundreds of years, but the ‘new and exciting’ trad artist is anything but. Music is, by and large, all good but I just can’t get my head around the conscious bias against electronic music here and especially synthpop. The tastemakers have no taste.

As a comparative success within independent circles, it must have been interesting to observe some of the comings and goings of other artists and their efforts to get traction? What advice would you give to other artists on this? 😉

Oh where to begin? Well look. In my own head CIRCUIT3 is not a success really. I think there’s a way to go before CIRCUIT3 is a success I suppose. Another album for a starter. A tour would be nice.

My observations? I look at other artists and think to myself “damn they’re nailing it!” and then on the same day there’s some really weird stuff happening on social media. Everything from creating scenes that aren’t actually there, to social media personas that aren’t real. I mean don’t people realise that we’re capable of doing google searches?

For whatever it’s worth, my advice would be to focus on the music, ignore the sideshows, don‘t be an a*sehole and try to remember your own little bubble isn’t the world. Tell you what though, I’ve travelled over to gigs in the UK and met up with people and they’re so friendly and cool. I’ve met some great friends through being an ‘artist’ but I’ve seen some weird sh*t, really weird sh*t and if I’m truthful, some of the behaviour I’ve seen online has been quite bizarre. I can’t see how that benefits anyone’s music career.

As a long-time electronic music enthusiast, what do you make of this Synthwave thing?

Do you really want to know? This is a real bug-bear of mine! *laughs*

I think it’s a bit of old nonsense and that‘s as polite as I can be. It’s nostalgia for a sound that never really existed outside of maybe a couple of episodes of ‘Miami Vice’ and a Michael Shreeve album. I was there in the 1980s and this Synthwave thing simply didn’t exist. It’s a complete fraud! It’s like someone dropped acid and watched some YouTube videos.

It’s a complete fantasy. Whoever made it up deserves a medal. It’s a bit like Britpop label, an excuse for dull uninventive repetitive sh*te to be packaged up and sold to people. A saxophone and a Poly6 bass patch does not a song make. I did try to take a listen to some of this earlier this year and figured I’d try to have a go at making some of that sound. I got bored incredibly quickly… too quick to stick a saxophone on it, you’ll be glad to hear! I was going to put it out as a free download but decided against it, in case I got lumped in with the rest of it.

It was quite amusing when the Synthwave fraternity went into meltdown over the artwork of ‘Simulation Theory’ by MUSE?

I was on holiday at the time and thought it was pretty funny. A community built on a genre that never really existed getting their Filofaxes in a twist over a band that has a track record in pinching stuff from ULTRAVOX *laughs*

Ironic as MUSE have always used synths and borrowed heavily from ULTRAVOX since 2003…

I’m not in a position to throw stones though, Midge Ure will be after me for royalties if I’m not careful! *laughs*

If you’re going to borrow then borrow from the best I say. I think MUSE are great – they’re certainly selling more albums than CIRCUIT3 and playing to huge audiences. I can’t quite get my head around why they’ve spent so much time on Reddit as inspiration for their new album.

There was like a ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude that you couldn’t use ‘glowing’ artwork unless your music comprised of meandering formless electronic instrumentals… discuss! 😉

Oh yeah ‘rules’ and ‘style’ right? I suspect this whole Synthwave thing was invented so that a couple of artists could feel they belong to a ‘scene’ and it just got out of control before someone could say the emperor has no clothes.

But look, it’s a very normal thing wanting to be part of a gang. Teenagers have done it for years. I dunno, I find the whole thing quite strange. I keep going back to the fact that this is unrecognisable to anyone who was a music fan in the 1980s. The glowing graphic is closer to bloody ‘Blockbusters’, gimme an ‘S’ Bob!

You got to meet one of your heroes Howard Jones recently, how was that?

Ah that was brilliant. It was part of the event to celebrate the box sets of ‘Human’s Lib’ and ‘Dream Into Action’ hosted in Metropolis Studios. I had just landed after a flight from Seattle and was silly jet lagged. The Q&A session with the production team of Stephen W Tayler and Rupert Hine was fascinating.

I got to ask as geeky a question as I wished – basically asking them about their respective approaches to their role when trying to preserve the feel of a demo. Too often that’s lost in the process, perhaps less so these days due to digital audio workstations.

As you would expect, Howard’s live set on Freddie Mercury’s piano was great – especially his impressions. The less well-known side of Howard is his sense of humour – he does a great Welsh accent. I got to meet with him and chat a little. He signed my Live Aid program (yes I was there) and chatted about synths.

You have this mission where you get the great and the good to sign your Arturia MiniBrute, who realistically would you like to add their scrawl on it?

Guilty! *laughs*

I have an Arturia MiniBrute SE which has the wood sides and metallic control panel. What happened was I had a chance to meet Vince Clarke before an ERASURE gig in Dublin so figured ‘why not?’ and brought it along.

It has been signed by Vince, the OMD lads, Gary Numan and now Howard Jones. It’s always a talking point with the artists and we get to connect a little over music which is nice. Paul Humphreys from OMD wanted to go have a chat about the other Arturia synths. A travel issue meant I couldn’t bring it to my meet with Thomas Dolby so maybe next time.

If there’s someone I’d very much like to get to sign it, I think it would have to be Daniel Miller.

I think the chances of that happening are pretty slim though and I’ll probably be escorted out soon as I try to show him my Mute logo tattoo *laughs*

Oh and John Foxx… and Martyn Ware… and Eric Radcliffe…

Where would you ultimately like to take CIRCUIT3?

I want to keep getting better at songwriting and making music that people want to listen to. With the new album ‘The Price Of Nothing & The Value Of Everything’, I feel I’m doing that. I’m keeping the flame alive for those sounds and hopefully developing my songwriting along the way. The other album which I’ve been working on at the same time has some songs I’m very proud of and I can feel the development in my writing and production.

One of my dreams would be to tour either as support to another act or to do some shows around UK and Europe on my own or as part of a package tour similar to the ‘Ohm From Ohm’ tour. To be at that level where people are listening to and willing to pay to see you perform live is to me one of the dreams. Maybe the opportunity to work with one of my heroes? Yeah I’d be pleased with that. For now though… I have this new album to mix.


ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its warmest thanks to Peter Fitzpatrick

‘For Your Own Good’ is available as a CD single or download from https://circuit3.bandcamp.com/, along with other releases in the CIRCUIT3 back catalogue

http://www.circuit3.com/

https://www.facebook.com/circuit03/

https://twitter.com/Circuit3Music

https://www.instagram.com/circuit3music/

https://soundcloud.com/circuit3/


Text and Interview by Chi Ming Lai
28th December 2018, updated 29th April 2019

Favourite 30 Albums 2010 to 2014

In the five years since its formation on 15th March 2010, ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK has reviewed over 100 albums and EPs.

During this time, the album has become less of an artistic statement, with the focus of both consumer and media on single songs directly led to the prominence of the extended EP or mini-album in today’s digital marketplace.

It is a halfway house, but at least the creative output of an artist can be showcased by a small body of work. And increasingly, many are combining and reworking several EP releases in order to formulate a full length album. Despite the move towards downloads and streaming, there is still a demand for physical product.

However, ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK has been slightly bemused by the music industry bias towards vinyl, to the neglect of CD. It should be noted that silver digital discs are still the preferred medium for the general consumer, as proven by the million plus sales of TAYLOR SWIFT’s ‘1989’ opus on CD. This was a release which was confined to compact disc and digital download variants with no concessions towards streaming and, initially in the first few months of release, vinyl.

ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK confesses it has no love whatsoever for vinyl in the 21st Century, and is rather irritated by it being turned into an antiquated object of fetish and snobbery which bears little relation to the music on it.

And to think ironically that the world’s record labels tried to kill off vinyl back in 1989 in favour of err… cassette! Yes, the music industry… as forward thinking as ever!! With regards Spotify, ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK actually is not particularly fond of that either…

Even with the subscription model, with so much music available, most of it is not listened to properly, thus devaluing any music that is perhaps worthy of greater recognition. Think of it like the casual music festival goer who just hops between all the acts playing on the many different stages after just two songs… it’s a false economy in reality!

But despite its concerns, ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK still loves a good album in whatever format. It is the content that is most important, not the mode of carriage. So which long players still stand up to scrutiny and can claim to have lasted the course over the last five years? Listed by year then alphabetical order, with a restriction of one album per artist and no recent releases from 2015, here are our 30 favourite albums from the period between 2010 to 2014…


GOLDFRAPP Head First (2010)

Although now disowned by the duo, ‘Head First’ was Alison Goldfrapp finally all relaxed and having fun. Stomping synth tunes like ‘Alive’, ‘Believer’ and ‘Believer’ were fine examples of Ms Goldfrapp taking her Olivia Newton John fixation (which had been apparent on early B-side ‘UK Girls’ with its interpolation of ‘Physical’) to a fully realised musical level. But best of all though on this short and sharp collection were the marvellous ABBA tribute of the ‘Head First’ title track and the ethereal ARP laden Eurodisco of ‘Dreaming’. While the more recent ‘Tales Of Us’ has seen GOLDFRAPP venture into more cinematic orchestrations again, a return to electronic pop is always possible with Ms Goldfrapp’s record of chameleon-like tendencies.

‘Head First’ is available as a CD, LP and download via Mute Records

http://goldfrapp.com/


VILLA NAH Origin (2010)

One of the best electronic albums to have been released in 2010, ‘Origin’ was a fine crystalline balancing act that combined the classic synthpop of days gone by, with the freshness of new technologically fuelled dance music. The songs of the Helsinki based duo Juho Paolosmaa and Tomi Hyyppä ranged from the supreme GARY NUMAN on Prozac of ‘Remains Of Love’ and ‘Ways To Be’, to the Moroder-esque hypnotism of ‘Kiss & Tell’. Then there were the OMD influences on ‘Some Kind Of Dream’ and ‘Envelope’ so it was not entirely surprising the pair were invited to support than band on their 2010 tour. But while VILLA NAH then went into hiatus, Paolosmaa partnered up with ‘Origin’ co-producer Jori Hulkkonen to form SIN COS TAN.

‘Origin’ is available as a CD, LP and download via Keys Of Life Records

https://www.facebook.com/pages/villa-nah/8854069998


AUSTRA Feel It Break (2011)

Austra-feel it breakThe baroque electronic trio of Katie Stelmanis, Maya Postepski and Dorian Wolf successfully broke away from the short lived Witch House sub-genre to yield their own emotionally charged sound. The moodily enigmatic ‘Beat & The Pulse’ and the frankly bonkers ‘Lose It’ had already gained a worthy amount of attention as singles and luckily, AUSTRA’s debut album did not disappoint. The tremendously epic spectre of ‘The Villain’ successfully utilised programmed technology and live drums while the sexual tension of ‘Spellwork’ was like a gothic opera crossing THE KNIFE with DEPECHE MODE that provided their most overtly synthpop offering.

‘Feel It Break’ is available as a CD, LP and download via Domino / Paper Bag Records

http://www.austramusic.com


DURAN DURAN All You Need Is Now (2011)

Since the return of the classic line-up in 2004, DURAN DURAN’s new material had general failed to meet expectations. However, despite losing guitarist Andy Taylor on the way, the Mark Ronson produced ‘All You Need Is Now’ saw DURAN DURAN reclaim their quintessential sound. The superb glitterball rework of ‘Are Friends Electric?’ for the title track signalled their intentions while ‘Girl Panic’ and ‘Runaway Runaway’ captured classic Duran for the 21st Century. The superb sequencer assisted ‘Being Followed’ had a tingling metallic edge that captured the tensions of post 9/11 paranoia while songstress KELIS dreamily counterpointed on the moody, string laden ‘Man Who Stole A Leopard’ which recalled ‘The Chauffeur’. Nick Rhodes claimed the album was “undoubtedly one of the strongest of our career”; and he was right!

‘All You Need Is Now’ is available as a CD and download via Tape Modern

http://www.duranduran.com


JOHN FOXX & THE MATHS Interplay (2011)

john foxx maths_interplay‘Interplay’ was possibly JOHN FOXX’s most complete and accessible body of work since his classic ‘Metamatic’. Together with Chief Mathematician and synth collector extraordinaire BENGE aka THE MATHS, the use of vintage electronics with modern recording techniques captured a mechanised charm while simultaneously adding a correlative warmth. Among the realised examples of this fresh approach were the feisty ‘Catwalk’, the electro-folkisms of ‘Evergreen’ and the eerie ‘The Running Man’. One of the stand-out tracks ‘Watching A Building On Fire’ featured Mira Aroyo of LADYTRON and was perfectly dystopian, while the title track and closer ‘The Good Shadow’ both added a subtle atmospheric quality to proceedings.

‘Interplay’ is available as a CD, LP and download via Metamatic Records

http://blog.johnfoxxandthemaths.com/


MAISON VAGUE Synthpop’s Alive (2011)

MAISON VAGUE’s ‘Synthpop’s Alive’ was one of the surprise albums of 2011 and the creation of Clark Stiefel, a German domiciled American with a love for all things Synth Britannia. A classically trained virtuoso who studied piano and electronic music at a conservatoire, his title track battle cry sounded like the result of an unlikely sexual liaison between DEVO and PLACEBO. Chunky riff laden tracks such as ‘Pixelated Lover’, ‘My Situation’, ‘Living On Ice Cream’ and ‘Give Them Away’ affectionately revived The GARY NUMAN Principle but for some variation, there were the marvellous BETTE MIDLER gone electro of ‘No Show’ and the reggae inflected ‘Tunnel Vision’.

‘Synthpop’s Alive’ is available as a download album via Stiefel Musik

http://www.maisonvague.com


MIRRORS Lights & Offerings (2011)

Brighton pop-noir quartet MIRRORS’ only album ‘Light & Offerings’ was a seamless majestic journey swathed in layers of vintage electronics and modern rhythmical dynamics. It began with superb sonic pulsar of ‘Fear Of Drowning’ with its dramatic overtures of young manhood before continuing with reworked recordings of the band’s excellent first two singles ‘Look At Me’ and ‘Into The Heart’. The sublime ‘Hide & Seek’ was soulful electronic pop while ‘Ways To An End’ proved MIRRORS could cut it on the dancefloor too. Elsewhere, ‘Somewhere Strange’ took the listener on the most euphoric train ride since NEW ORDER’s ‘Temptation’ while the final track ‘Secrets’ was an ambitious ten minute epic in three movements featuring its own ambient parenthesis. MIRRORS were worthy successors to the original Synth Britannia generation, but they sadly fragmented in Autumn 2011 and all momentum was lost before things really could get going.

‘Lights & Offerings’ is available as a CD, 2LP and download via Skint Records

http://mirrorsofficial.bandcamp.com/


GRIMES Visions (2012)

grimes_visionsWith the critically acclaimed ’Visions’, Montreal’s GRIMES aka Claire Boucher explored a hybrid style of electro influenced by K-Pop, New Age and R ‘n’ B. ‘Genesis’ was one of many kookily inventive tunes on the album and like its close cousin ‘Oblivion’, played with Kling Klang derived rhythm section that came over like LYKKE LI fronting KRAFTWERK. Often using pentatonic scaling to show her affinity towards South East Asian culture, GRIMES’ sumptuously infectious approaches made tracks such as ‘Be A Boy’, ‘Colour of Moonlight (Antiochus)’ and ‘Vowels = space and time’ an aurally challenging but rewarding listen. And all this while retaining a quirky sense of humour in her promo videos…

‘Visions’ is available as a CD, LP and download via 4AD Records

http://www.grimesmusic.com


MARSHEAUX E-Bay Queen Is Dead (2012)

While technically a stopgap compilation of rare and unreleased MARSHEAUX tracks, the ‘E-Bay Queen Is Dead’ collection did provide a mostly cohesive listening experience. Including a plethora of non-album tracks such as ‘How Does It Feel?’, ‘Sadly’, ‘Fischerprice’ and the FRONT 242 influenced ‘Bizarre Love Duo’, MARSHEAUX’s charmingly delightful synthpop covers of THE HUMAN LEAGUE’s ‘Empire State Human’, BILLY IDOL’s ‘Eyes Without A Face’ and OMD’s ‘She’s Leaving’ were also largely present and correct. Meanwhile, two uptempo outtakes from the ‘Inhale’ sessions ‘Do You Feel?’ and ‘Inside’ indicated where their fourth album might have headed had MARSHEAUX’s national surroundings been less economically turbulent.

Available as a CD and download via Undo Records

https://www.facebook.com/marsheaux


METROLAND Mind The Gap (2012)

metroland-mind-the-gap-2012Although METROLAND have little in common with GIRLS ALOUD, they are indeed The Sound Of The Underground. While highly influenced by KOMPUTER and KRAFTWERK, the single ‘Enjoying The View’ indicated METROLAND were more textural in their use of synthetic sequences, robotic vocals and vintage drum machines. With tributes to London Underground map designer ‘Harry Beck’, Kling Klang homages such as ‘It’s More Fun To Commute’ and a cover version of IGGY POP’s ‘The Passenger’ that has to be heard to be believed, METROLAND’s soundtrack provided a ride through an electronic landscape designed for the commuter world.

‘Mind The Gap’ is available as a CD, deluxe 2CD and download via Alfa Matrix Records

http://www.metrolandmusic.com/


SIN COS TAN Sin Cos Tan (2012)

Having worked together on the ‘Origin’ album, a side project between VILLA NAH’s Juho Paalosmaa and ace producer Jori Hulkkonen was almost inevitable. Under the moniker of SIN COS TAN, their debut album impressed with a rich filmic quality permeating amongst all the synths and drum machines in a much more mature approach than had been apparent on ‘Origin’. There was plenty of variation too, from the dark, atmospheric space ballad ‘In Binary’ and laid back electro R’n’B of ‘Book Of Love’ to the NEW ORDER styled dream attack of ‘After All’ and the almost Balearic ‘Calendar’. But true to form with Hulkkonen’s intelligent disco manoeuvres, the beat templates were complimentary and never overbearing. And with the sublime “disco you can cry to” closer of ‘Trust’, SIN COS TAN’s place in electronic music has been assured.

‘Sin Cos Tan’ is available as a CD, LP and download via Solina Records

http://sincostan.net/


TRUST TRST (2012)

trust_trstA release that actually slipped under TEC’s radar on initial release, TRUST was the project of Robert Alfons and AUSTRA’s Maya Postepski. Although Postepski left after its release to return to AUSTRA, ‘TRST’ made a slow burning impact as Alfons toured his “Eeyore gone goth” electro template around the world. The filthy ‘Gloryhole’ was a wondrous combination of portamento and dance beats, while ‘Bulbform’ was perfectly doomy disco. There were more immediate moments too like the trancier synthscapes of ‘Sulk’ and the alternate Euro-disco of ‘Dressed In Space’ which came over like a more depressed version of CAMOUFLAGE. In all, ‘TRST’ was one grower of a record.

‘TRST’ is available as a CD, LP and download via Arts & Crafts

http://ttrustt.com/


ULTRAVOX Brilliant (2012)

‘Brilliant’ reminded people why the classic line-up of ULTRAVOX were supreme when firing on all cylinders. It also laid to the rest, the ghost of the dreadful ‘U-Vox’ album in 1986. The title track and ‘Live’ contained all the hallmarks of Billy Currie’s Eurocentric piano and synth embellishments complimented by the motorik power house of Chris Cross and Warren Cann while Midge Ure’s voice now possessed a fragility and honesty that could only come from life experience. Then there was the pounding electronic rock of ‘Satellite’ and  the percolating sequences of ‘Rise’ which saw the return of Currie’s distinctive ARP Odyssey soloing. The whirring Odyssey also appeared on ‘Change’ with beautiful ivory runs over the shuffling schlagzeug. ‘Brilliant’ was proof than while Billy Currie needed Midge Ure, Midge Ure also needed Billy Currie.

‘Brilliant’ is available as a CD, 2LP and download via EMI Records

http://www.ultravox.org.uk


KARL BARTOS Off The Record (2013)

If people can still hold enough regard for a version of KRAFTWERK featuring just Ralf Hütter to crash the websites of the world’s art spaces, then KARL BARTOS should at least be accorded some kind of equal status. After all, Bartos did co-write ‘The Model’, ‘The Robots’, Neon Lights, ‘Numbers’ and ‘Computer Love’. Utilising musical sketches and ideas gathered during his period with KRAFTWERK and his later project ELEKTRIC MUSIC, ‘Off The Record’ was a fully realised recording with Kling Klang at its heart. Indeed, ‘Without A Trace Of Emotion’ saw Bartos conversing with his showroom dummy Herr Karl and confronting his demons. The punchy ‘Rhythmus’ revisited ‘Numbers’ and ‘Computer World 2’ while the wonderful ‘Hausmusik’ had its clanking core driven by the type of mechanised backbeat heard on the ‘Autobahn’ and ‘Radio-Activity’ albums. Even using ideas gathered prior to 1996, KARL BARTOS produced a classic but modern electronic pop album.

‘Off The Record’ is available as a CD, LP and download via Bureau B

http://www.karlbartos.com/


BEF Music Of Quality & Distinction Volume 3 – Dark (2013)

The third instalment to Martyn Ware’s ambitious BEF covers project, amongst its fourteen tracks was some of his most overtly electronic work since he was in THE HUMAN LEAGUE. Kim Wilde’s brilliant opener ‘Every Time I See You Go Wild’ used just a Roland System 100 while the GIORGIO MORODER meets SPACE electro disco of ‘Same Love’ featuring David J Roch was another highlight. Other notable vocalists included ERASURE’s Andy Bell on an eerie take of ‘Breathing’, POLLY SCATTERGOOD’s kooky vocal on ‘The Look Of Love’ and CULTURE CLUB’s Boy George whose interpretation of ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ possessed a previously unheard grouchy edge. But it was a slowed down waltz remake of ASSOCIATES’ ’Party Fears Two’ voiced by HEAVEN 17’s Glenn Gregory that virtually stole the show and brought the hankies out.

‘Music Of Quality & Distinction Volume 3 – Dark’ is available as a CD, deluxe 2CD and download via Wall Of Sound

http://www.heaven17.com/bef/


CHVRCHES The Bones Of What You Believe (2013)

Like it or not, CHVRCHES have managed to attain a mainstream recognition that was denied to MIRRORS, thus furthering the cause of electronic pop worldwide. And in Lauren Mayberry, they have a sweet voice that counterbalances some of the harsher aural aesthetics that come with using Moog and her sisters. This album was full of quality synthpop with excellent songs such as ‘The Mother We Share’, ‘Science / Visions’, ‘Gun’, ‘Lies’ and ‘Recover’. However, an otherwise great debut was spoilt by Martin Doherty’s dreary blokey ramblings on ‘You Caught The Light’ and ‘Under The Tide’… and with the far superior ‘Now Is Not The Time’ sitting on the B-side bench, it is this type of noted Glaswegian bloody mindedness that will be the Achilles’ Heel to this trio achieving further success.

‘The Bones Of What You Believe’ is available as a CD, LP and download via Virgin Records

http://www.chvrch.es/


FEATHERS If All Now Here (2013)

While claims that FEATHERS were the female DEPECHE MODE may have perhaps been overstated, ‘If All Now Here’ was an impressive opening gambit that actually came over more like THE BANGLES fronting Basildon’s finest. Essentially the one woman project of Anastasia Dimou, she successfully combined harmonies, dystopia and deserts for some dreamy electronic soundscapes. ‘Land Of The Innocent’ was a wondrous epic based around the arpeggio of ‘Ice Machine’ while ‘Soft’ borrowed from the single mix of ‘Behind the Wheel’, but added an enlightening pop sensibility. Of course the raunchier, bluesier side of DM revealed itself on ‘Fire In The Night’ and ‘Believe’, but in ‘Dark Matter’, there was a tune with a Latino dancefloor heart, but reimagined by NITZER EBB! Opening for DEPECHE MODE on the winter 2014 leg of the ‘Delta Machine’ tour completed the circle.

‘If All Now Here’ is available as a download via Nyx, CD available via http://feathers.bandcamp.com/album/if-all-now-here

http://www.feathers.fm/


FOTONOVELA A Ton Of Love (2013)

Named after the cult Italo standard, FOTONOVELA’s sophomore album ‘A Ton Of Love’ was conceived as a supreme electronic record featuring vocalists from all stages of classic synthpop, as a homage to the genre. As a sign of their ambition, the first person they approached was OMD’s Andy McCluskey and the sessions went well… so well, that the resultant number ‘Helen Of Troy’ ended up on OMD’s ‘English Electric’ opus instead! With FOTONOVELA’s tracks being coveted by their heroes, it boded well for the remainder of the album. With a cast that included SECTION 25, KID MOXIE and MARSHEAUX, the quality was maintained and several cases, even exceeded. In particular, ‘Our Sorrow’ featuring MIRRORS’ James New captured the essence of classic OMD with a spirited, majestic vocal while ‘Justice’ found DUBSTAR’s Sarah Blackwood in particularly feisty form. The presence of some of the most distinct voices in electronic pop music made ‘A Ton Of Love’ a fine showcase for one of best production teams in Europe.

‘A Ton of Love’ is available as a CD and download via Undo Records

http://www.facebook.com/undofotonovela


MARNIE Crystal World (2013)

With LADYTRON in hiatus, Helen Marnie set out “to create an electronic album with more of a pop element and pristine vocals” for her first solo record. Vocally and musically expansive like an Arctic escapist fantasy, this objective was achieved with ‘Crystal World’ with the classic pop of ABBA and MAMA CASS obviously apparent as well as MARNIE’s love of fellow weegies CHVRCHES. The brilliant launch single ‘The Hunter’ was the vibrant electropop single that LADYTRON never quite got round to releasing while there were other shining jewels like ‘Hearts On Fire’, ‘We Are The Sea’,  ‘High Road’ and ‘Sugarland’. Meanwhile, ‘The Wind Breezes On’ was MARNIE’s own ‘Love Is A Stranger’ while the neo-acappella ‘Laura’ sat as a lush centrepiece to the collection.

‘Crystal World’ is available as a CD, LP and download via Les Disques Crespuscle

http://www.helenmarnie.com


MESH Automation Baby (2013)

MESH’s danceable electro-rock ambitions became fully realised on ‘Automation Baby’. The lead single ‘Born To Lie’ was a brilliantly aggressive slice of Goth glam while in ‘Taken For Granted’, MESH had their own ‘Never Let Me Down Again’. ‘Just Leave Us Alone’ added some trancey dressing to the classic MESH template but it was the atmospheric maturity of the album’s ballads that were the big surprise. The beautiful ‘It’s The Way I Feel’ showed a more sensitive side with hints of ENNIO MORRICONE while ‘Adjust Your Set’ displayed some subtle traits despite its mechanical rhythms. But with the aptly titled ‘You Couldn’t See This Coming’, this orchestrated epic saw Mark Hockings’ passionate angst exposed for all. With the sonic balance bolstered by additional strings to MESH’s bow, ‘Automation Baby’ was undoubtedly the best album of their career to date.

‘Automation Baby’ is available as a CD and download via Dependent Records

http://www.mesh.co.uk/


MOBY Innocents (2013)

MOBY InnocentsOn ‘Innocents’, MOBY’s familiar chord changes and sweeping string synths were all present and correct. But this was an adventurously beautiful work tinged with emotion, sadness and resignation that explored mid-life and mortality. Damien Jurado’s sensitive vocal on ‘Almost Home’ provided a marvellous slice of folktronica while Skylar Grey’s angelic voice on ‘The Last Day’ provided a beautiful innocence over the looping male gospel sample. One of the key moments of the album was ‘The Perfect Life’, an enjoyable duet by MOBY with FLAMING LIPS’ Wayne Coyne that came over bizarrely like GARY NUMAN at a Pentecostal church! With an elegiac tension, MOBY described parts of ‘Innocents’ as “nostalgic futurism”… it was also soothing electronic soul.

‘Innocents’ is available as a CD, deluxe 2CD, 2LP and download via Little Idiot

http://www.moby.com


OMD English Electric (2013)

OMD-English-ElectricIn 2013, Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys finally released the album that many had been wanting since 1984. ‘English Electric’ was a brilliant concept album that encompassed the mantra “what does the future sound like?” The reality of unfulfilled dreams and impending mortality lingered on ‘Metroland’ and ‘Night Café’ while ‘Dresden’, ‘Helen Of Troy’ and ‘Final Song’ used clever metaphors for tales of relationship breakup. However, the magnificent ‘Our System’ did what OMD always did best, with an emotive soundtrack about the universe while ‘Kissing The Machine’, McCluskey’s collaboration with KARL BARTOS from 1993, was given some appropriate Synth-werk. And there was the return of the Paul Humphreys vocal on the very personal ‘Stay With Me’, a melodic ditty that was up there with ‘Souvenir’.

‘English Electric’ is available as a CD, deluxe CD/DVD, LP and download via BMG Music

http://www.omd.uk.com


PET SHOP BOYS Electric (2013)

Laced with House, Italo and Eurotrance references, ‘Electric’ took a few risks with the opening track ‘Axis’ being virtually instrumental, re-imagining Bobby Orlando in the 22nd Century. The brilliantly titled ‘Love Is A Bourgeois Construct’ recalled the pomp of ‘I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind Of Thing’ but then came the hypnotic ‘Fluorescent’. Basically a wonderful dancefloor makeover of ‘Fade To Grey’, waves of synth sirens attacked like a Martian invasion. Meanwhile, ‘Thursday’ re-explored the New York club scene with the distinctive squelch of a TB303 and captured the vibrant excitement of what is now the new Friday. The slightly berserk ‘Shouting In The Evening’ was a slice of “banging” techno before the comparatively conventional ‘Vocal’. With the vivid sentiment “I like the singer, he’s lonely and strange – every track has a vocal…and that makes a change”, it was a befitting conclusion of what this album was about; ‘Electric’ by name and electric by nature.

‘Electric’ is available as a CD, LP and download via X2 Recordings

http://www.petshopboys.co.uk


TWINS NATALIA The Destiny Room (2013)

Anglo-German collective TWINS NATALIA captured a pristine technostalgic journey through a Europe of real life and postcard views on ‘The Destiny Room’. A wonderfully emotive soundtrack of elegance and decadence with a touch of neu romance, the collection’s main act began with the gorgeously arpeggiated ‘Destiny’. Then there was the more frantic HI-NRG romp of ‘I Avoid Strangers’, while the PET SHOP BOYS styled neo-orchestrated statement of ‘Set Love Free’ climaxed like a pomped up ‘Rent’. As an appendix, there was also the superb debut single ‘When We Were Young’ b/w ‘Kleiner Satellit’ which first appeared in 2008. With rich, vibrant soloing from Dave Hewson on a Roland Jupiter 6 throughout, ‘The Destiny Room’ was perfect listening electronic music enthusiasts of a time when people actually played synths and explored the capabilities of their drum machines.

‘The Destiny Room’ is available as a download via iTunes via Anna Logue Records, CD and deluxe box set available at http://annaloguerecords.blogspot.de/p/releases.html

https://www.facebook.com/twinsnatalia


VILE ELECTRODES The future through a lens (2013)

Three years in the making, ‘The future through a lens’ was well worth the wait. While not as immediate as the tracks on the preceding three EPs made available for their German tour supporting OMD, the album itself took a more esoteric, filmic approach. Like ‘Twin Peaks’ meets ORBITAL, ‘Damaged Software’ was an enticing piece of electro while ‘Drowned Cities’ was an enticing entry point following the title track overture. Both the pulsating ‘Proximity’ and the moody ‘Nothing’ grew with further listens. But with the closing ‘Deep Red’, it took all that was great about early OMD, putting ‘Statues’, ‘Stanlow’ and ‘The Romance Of The Telescope’ into a breathtaking seven and a half minute epic. This full length debut impressed enough for VILE ELECTRODES to snap up two Schallwelle awards in Germany for ‘Best International Album’ and ‘Best International Band’ in 2014.

‘The future through a lens’ is available as a download via Vile Electrodes, CD and cassette package available at http://vileelectrodes.bigcartel.com/

http://www.vileelectrodes.co.uk


WESTBAM Götterstrasse (2013)

Techno DJ WESTBAM celebrated 30 years in the music business with an intriguing mature collection of songs under the title of ‘Götterstrasse’. While the theme of the album centred on the joy and euphoria of underground nightlife, the magnificent launch single ‘You Need The Drugs’ voiced brilliantly by THE PSYCHEDLIC FURS’ Richard Butler was not actually a celebration of illicit substance use. It was an album full of surprises like the dramatic ‘Kick It Like A Sensei’ with rapper LIL WAYNE and the tensely militaristic ‘Iron Music’ featuring the distinctive baritone of IGGY POP. Meanwhile, ‘She Wants’ saw the return of NEW ORDER’s Bernard Sumner on a new electronic dance composition and the frantic but serene ‘A Night to Remember’ with THE STRANGLERS’ Hugh Cornwall brought proceedings to a euphoric come down via some piano and Solina strings.

‘Götterstrasse’ is available as a CD and download via Warner Music

http://www.westbam.de/dt/en/


ANALOG ANGEL Trinity (2014)

Analog Angel trinityThe transformation of Glaswegians ANALOG ANGEL has been startling. Moving away from their industrial shackles, they came up with a largely excellent collection of quality synthpop in ‘Trinity’. ‘Drive’ was a haunting drama about domestic violence that was given extra poignancy by a ghostly guest vocal by Tracy J Cox. There was also the frantic ERSAURE on Stella Artois of ‘The Chase’, the rousing schaffel stomp of ‘Round Again’ and the refined CAMOUFLAGE meets VANGELIS atmospheres of ‘Inner Voice’. But the biggest surprise was ‘The Last Time’, a cinematic masterpiece involving an orchestra that cascaded into an epic Pan-European journey across The Steppes. The virtual symphonic strings and gothic choirs gave an indication as to what OMD might have sounded like if Jim Steinman had been producing!

‘Trinity’ is available as a download, CD-R available via http://analog-angel.bandcamp.com/

http://analog-angel.com


IAMAMIWHOAMI Blue (2014)

iamamiwhoami;_BLUEAfter the promise of the ‘Bounty’ and ‘Kin’ collections, ‘Blue’ fully realised the potential of IAMAMIWHOAMI, the slightly bonkers moniker of delightfully odd vocalist Jonna Lee and producer Claes Björklund. Expanding on the audio / visual template of its predecessors, the first impression of ‘Blue’ is that it is more of the same. But like fine wine, this album gets better with age. The windy breeze of glacial Scandinavian beauty immerses itself on tracks like the sub-COCTEAU TWINS ‘Fountain’, the ABBA-like ‘Chasing Kites’ and the closing reverberant mood piece ‘Shadowshow’. But it is the more uptempo danced based numbers like the mutant techno of ‘Ripple’ and the KATE BUSH gone trance of ‘Hunting For Pearls’ that show the most advancement. Jonna Lee’s otherworldly rasp does polarise but once overcome, the sonic rewards can be startling.

‘Blue’ is available as a download via towhomitmayconcern, deluxe CD/book available at http://shop.towhomitmayconcern.cc/collections/releases/products/iamamiwhoami-blue-cd-book

http://www.towhomitmayconcern.cc/


RÖYKSOPP The Inevitable End (2014)

Royksopp-TheInevitable-artRÖYKSOPP’s final album took five years but it ultimately benefitted the outcome. ROBYN returned for a shorter, sharper version of ‘Monument’, but her thunder was stolen by some supreme vocal performances by SUSANNE SUNDFØR and Jamie McDermott from THE IRREPRESSIBLES. ‘Save Me’ and ‘Running to The Sea’ reinforced why the former is the Nordic vocalist of the moment, while the latter’s contributions to ‘You Know I Have To Go’ and ‘I Had This Thing’ showed how modern electronic dance music can be both vibrant and heartfelt. Only the pointless profanity laden ‘Rong’, ironically featuring ROBYN, stopped ‘The Inevitable End’ from achieving perfection.

‘The Inevitable End’is available as a 2CD, 2LP and download via Dog Triumph / Cooking Vinyl

http://royksopp.com/


MIDGE URE Fragile (2014)

MIDGE URE fragileThe ULTRAVOX reunion had a profound effect on the diminutive Mr Ure if nothing else and got him to fully focus on the solo album he’d been working on since 2001. The time that passed was worth it; songs like ‘Become’ recalled his work with VISAGE while the title track revealed that despite the moustache and long raincoat back in the day, he’d always wanted to be in PINK FLOYD. Meanwhile, instrumentals such as ‘of ‘Wire & Wood’ and ‘Bridges’ showed that Ure’s music still has subtlety. But the undoubted highlight of ‘Fragile’ was ‘Dark, Dark Night’, a co-write with MOBY. The song built to an amazing climax with the follically challenged pairing forming a partnership made in heaven. Overall, the album was an impressive musical diary of a man pondering and confronting his post-midlife.

‘Fragile’ is available as a CD, LP and download via Hypertension Music

http://www.midgeure.co.uk/


Text by Chi Ming Lai
12th February 2015

Lost Albums: MAISON VAGUE Synthpop’s Alive

“Living in a dream since 1983”, MAISON VAGUE’s ‘Synthpop’s Alive’ was one of the surprise albums of 2011 and possibly the best wholly independent release of that year.

Paying homage to Synth Britannia and in particular, Gary Numan, it was the work of Clark Stiefel, an Essen domiciled American musician based in a modern day Neudeutsche Schule.

A classically trained virtuoso who studied piano and electronic music at a conservatoire, it was there that where he got to grips with both the Moog and Buchla modular systems that lit his passion.

With the eccentric demeanour of Hungarian 19th Century composer Franz Liszt, Stiefel added some quality musicianship and a wry sense of humour to the quirkily authentic proceedings. ‘Synthpop’s Alive’ was very much an album with air synth potential. The title track with its arching battlecry was initially a reaction to a YouTube video entitled ‘Synthpop Is Dead’. Totally disagreeing with its creator, Clark responded but instead of protesting via the comments section, he composed a song in a classic synthpop style.

Like the result of coitus between DEVO and PLACEBO, the opening Sci-Fi synth salvo and the line “Everyone’s entitled to opinion…you have yours and well, I have mine” was wryly countered with a retort of “And though it seems that our opinions differ… you’ll agree in time!” The blistering solo using an Oberheim OBXa is a total delight: “The OBXa has more of a rock’n’roll tone to it. I like that!” Stiefel told ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK

Another familiar, stirring sound came courtesy of the Arturia Virtual Minimoog and its meaty octave bass drive. “One of the most brilliant pieces of software ever” added Stiefel. That particular VST dominated many of the album’s chunky riff laden tracks such as the immediately enjoyable ‘Pixelated Lover’. The combination of OBXa and Moog colours effectively revived The Gary Numan Principle and on the bouncily brilliant ‘Give Them Away’, ‘Observer’ from ‘The Pleasure Principle’ was developed into a far more complete composition. It also climaxed with a simulated violin solo that recalled ULTRAVOX’s Billy Currie who incidentally played on that same album.

Its more steadfast cousin ‘Buried In Sandstone’ was also decidedly Numan-esque in a ‘Conversation’ style while ‘My Situation’ took its inspiration from THE HUMAN LEAGUE but presented itself with a more symphonic overlay.

Voiced by Stiefel’s snarling mid-Atlantic tone, it was as if PLACEBO had come from industrialised Sheffield.

Slightly punkier, ‘We’re Not Human’ was also cut from a similar cloth. The album however was not all Numanoid pastiche.

Changing the rhythm stance slightly, the superb reggae inflected electro of ‘Tunnel Vision’ featured a terrific chorus high which was punctuated by lovely string layers and some fluid bass guitar. Meanwhile, ‘Colored Glasses’ journeyed into more cerebral depths via some terrific classical interludes in the muse of Beethoven but using multi-tracked Roland Jupiter 4s.

Affirming the multi-dimensional aspirations of the album, the hilarious and appropriately titled ‘No Show’ was a fine example of Bette Midler gone electro or even ‘Bugsy Malone’ with lasers instead of splurge guns… inspired by death of Michael Jackson, its sense of irony was an amusing musical diversion and wholly fitting in the context of MAISON VAGUE.

But to bookend ‘Synthpop’s Alive’, album closer ‘Living On Ice Cream’ returned to the former Gary Webb and looked back at his TUBEWAY ARMY days to ape ‘Replicas’ outtake ‘We Have A Technical’. As icy and surreal as the title, ‘Living On Ice Cream’ was a terrific closer that was both exhilarating and fun. As a whole, ‘Synthpop’s Alive’ combined midlife paranoia with fish-out-of-water eccentricity but a tongue-in-cheek slyness allowed the listener not to take it all too seriously…

The future could be seen though ‘Colored Glasses’ but for the follow-up, there may be some other plans as Stiefel has surmised: “I definitely feel musically I’m heading in a more minimal and transparent direction. This is an extreme example but if you could imagine Leonard Cohen playing synths. When one thinks of singer/songwriters, the first thing that comes to people’s heads is a guitar. You don’t really think of a singer/songwriter with a synth. But if the song is strong enough, then maybe you could just have a minimal accompaniment – perhaps only a Jupiter 4 and TR 606 drum machine? It’s only a dream at this point but this is definitely brewing in the back of my head.”

MAISON VAGUE ‘Synthpop’s Alive’ uses the following synthesizers and drum machines: Oberheim OBXa, Roland Jupiter 4, Roland Promars CompuPhonic (MRS 2), Roland MKS 50, Roland JP8000, Roland XP60, Arturia MinimoogV, Digidesign Xpand, Roland CR8000 CompuRhythm, Roland TR606 Drumatix, Native Instruments Battery and Submersible Kitcore Deluxe.


‘Synthpop’s Alive’ is still available as a download album via Amazon

http://www.maisonvague.com

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Maison-Vague/43000159265


Text by Chi Ming Lai
3rd August 2013

2011 End Of Year Review

The Year Of Capacitors

It was a year which saw classic and new stand side-by-side as comrades in arms for the synthesizer.

In possibly the event of the year, April’s ‘Back To The Phuture ­- Tomorrow Is Today’ at London’s Troxy saw godfathers GARY NUMAN and JOHN FOXX supported by the best new UK synthpop act for many years, MIRRORS.

The Brighton quartet reappeared in the summer over on the South Bank when the Vintage Festival Electronic Phuture Revue gave us a celebration of synthpop cool with performances by ONETWO, RECOIL, THOMAS DOLBY and HEAVEN 17. Speaking of the latter, they premiered ‘The Luxury Gap’ at The Roundhouse in 3D sound no less while their production alter-ego BEF presented ‘Music Of Quality & Distinction Live’.

Meanwhile, Mute Records celebrated their influential legacy with a weekender also at London’s Roundhouse featuring ERASURE, YAZOO and THE ASSEMBLY in the same set, plus acts such as RECOIL, NITZER EBB and LAIBACH.

With an electro documentary weekend before Easter on the Sky Arts TV channel featuring GARY NUMAN, DURAN DURAN, JEAN MICHEL JARRE, NEW ORDER and the late ROBERT MOOG, electronic music’s cultural legacy was being recognised the world over.

Indeed, GARY NUMAN’s Inspiration Award from Mojo magazine finally acknowledged those trailblazing Synth Britannia years. There were complaints by one well-known blog however about wrinkly electropop but without these pioneers who changed music, where would we be today?

As KRAFTWERK’s Ralf Hütter said: “From all over the world comes inspiration. We have been very lucky, because the music we envisioned, the ideas we had of The Man Machine and electro music, have become reality and technology has developed in our direction and electro is everywhere”.

Shouldn’t the imperial phase of Synth Britannia and its earlier Germanic influence therefore be celebrated in the way that senior blues musicians have been revered within the world of rock ‘n’ roll?

Missing from the Mute evening’s proceedings as a collective were DEPECHE MODE who gave the world a U2 cover and a second instalment of their remix collection as part of their year’s work.

One rework that provoked enormous debate was Alan Wilder’s improved rework of 2009’s ‘In Chains’ which added speculation as to whether he would be rejoining the band. Certainly, it would induce some much needed creative tension that has mostly been missing from DEPECHE MODE since the start of the noughties.

But one act truly excelling in the darker side of electronic based music was IAMX who continued to conquer Europe while remaining largely ignored in the UK. Martin Gore could seriously learn from Chris Corner about how to make melodic, accessible music that doesn’t compromise artistically and retains a gritty edge. Meanwhile, Gore rekindled a working relationship with Vince Clarke on a techno project under the banner of VCMG.

Monday 21st March was an interesting day as it saw the release of albums by DURAN DURAN, THE HUMAN LEAGUE and JOHN FOXX. As concert celberity Mr Normall amusingly recalled in his Facebook status “this is 2011, not 1981”!

At least two of those albums were the best and most immediate bodies of work from those artists for many years. The bar has certainly been raised for acts such as ULTRAVOX and VISAGE who both announced forthcoming new albums.

BLANCMANGE made their welcome return with Neil Arthur’s sense of humour as sharp as ever but sadly, he was unable to be joined for the live shows by his bandmate Stephen Luscombe due to illness. One hopes Stephen is making a good recovery.

MIRRORS showed their promise and delivered the superbly seamless long player ‘Lights & Offerings’. While the band themselves admitted it may have been a touch derivative, it was enjoyed by a small but loyal fanbase who embraced their whole intelligent pop noir aesthetic.

However, just as they were about to make a breakthrough, a second high profile tour supporting OMD in Germany was cancelled along with an appearance at Bestival. Then founder member Ally Young announced he was leaving the group. The situation has been likened by some observers to when Vince Clarke left DEPECHE MODE. Of course, the end result of that was both parties mutated into highly successful acts and ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK is hopeful something similar may occur here.

Certainly an excellent new darker tune called ‘Dust’ from the remaining trio indicates MIRRORS are not finished yet!

The similarly smartly attired HURTS continued their domination of Europe and while not as adored in the UK, they still did the business touring wise with sell-out shows at Somerset House and Brixton Academy with KYLIE MINOGUE making a surprise guest appearance at the latter.

Of the ladies, BETH DITTO went superbly electronic with her debut solo EP while CLAUDIA BRÜCKEN went jazz for the soundtrack of ‘LA Noire’, but not before celebrating the electronic part of her career with a fine retrospective Combined and a fantastic show at The Scala which saw a three quarters reunion of PROPAGANDA plus special guests ANDY BELL and HEAVEN 17.

Another acclaimed German chanteuse BILLE RAY MARTIN returned with her new project THE OPIATES and an album ‘Hollywood Under The Knife’ while LADYTRON released a definitive Best Of ’00-10′ and a new album ‘Gravity The Seducer’. The latter was a glorious, lush masterpiece of aural subtlety which was not universally embraced by their fanbase but is likely to become a cult favourite in the future.

Meanwhile, the spectre of FEVER RAYs Karin Drejer-Andersson lurked, both musically and politically, within several darker female fronted combos such as AUSTRA, THE HORN THE HUNT and GAZELLE TWIN.

The brooding unsettlement of this Hauntronica (or witch house as it was sometimes referred) won favour with some while JOHN FOXX named GAZELLE TWIN’s ‘The Entire City’ as his album of the year. However, this fairly uncompromising strain of electro wasn’t for everyone although it was definitely more preferable to dubstep, the trendy new dance form that even the usually club friendly Chris Lowe of PET SHOP BOYS was having trouble embracing!

But Nordic influences weren’t just about tonal gloom and witchery. Greek maidens MARSHEAUX adopted some FEVER RAY styled percussive moods on their only song of the year ‘Can You Stop Me?’ but remained synthpop while American duo NIGHTLIFE borrowed SALLY SHAPIRO’s sweeter template.

Over at The Finland Station, producer JORI HULKKONEN’s PROCESSORY project delivered an 18 track electronic Sci-Fi concept album entitled ‘Change Is Gradual’. TIGER BABY from Denmark returned with the dreamy single ‘Landscapes’ while from Sweden, both THE GIRL & THE ROBOT and EMMON delivered enjoyable new material. There was also the mysteriously kooky IAMAMIWHOAMI but best of all from the region were THE SOUND OF ARROWS with the cinematic crystalline pop of their debut album ‘Voyage’.

At the pure pop end of the spectrum, LADY GAGA plotted her next move into world domination with new album ‘Born This Way’. With religious lyrical imagery were very much in evidence throughout, this was her ‘Like A Prayer’ with a Eurocentric sound being very much the dominant factor in the music. With her ear firmly on the inventive UK music scene, GOLDFRAPP, HURTS and MIRRORS were commissioned to deliver remixes of ‘Judas’.

LITTLE BOOTS returned with a bouncy house number called ‘Shake’ while SUNDAY GIRL had her album delayed again and didn’t appear to know whether she wanted to be a singer or a fashion designer. Her pop thunder has now potentially been stolen by the similar raspy timbres of LANA DEL REY whose pair of remixes by NIKONN became favourites with many electro enthusiasts.

Embracing couture but with her head fully focussed on the music, QUEEN OF HEARTS brought some intelligent sparkle to electropop. With mentions in The Guardian and The Times, her superb EP ‘The Arrival’ realised the potential that was apparent in her earlier girl group days.

Several acts introduced by ELECTRICTYCLUB.CO.UK in 2010 gained prestigious supports slots as a sign of their steady progress. SHH were billed with former BLACK BOX RECORDER vocalist SARAH NIXEY, THE VANITY CLAUSE opened for a solo ANDY BELL performance while Electro Weimar songstress KATJA VON KASSEL did the same at two of ERASURE’s shows in Germany.

VILLA NAH were due to play the biggest gig of their career with DURAN DURAN but Simon Le Bon’s illness, which also caused the postponement of the entire UK tour in May, unfortunately put paid to that.

So it could be said that “Synthpop’s Alive” and this was exemplified by Essen based American act MAISON VAGUE who gave the world probably the best wholly independent release of the year.

Clark Stiefel’s wonderful cross of GARY NUMAN and DEVO was the work of a man brought up in the avant-classical world with hands-on experience of vintage Moog and Buchla modulars.

Using the concept of “living in a dream since 1983”, despite the vintage influences, it was electronic music as imagined by the eccentricity of Oscar Wilde crossed with the thoughtful demeanour of late classical composer Franz Liszt.

Over the year, American based electronic acts were starting to come to the fore with XENO & OAKLANDER, SOFT METALS, TARA BUSCH, HIGH PLACES and THE MYSTIC UNDERGROUND all gaining notable acclaim.

A question that has to be asked though is whether there is too much synth based music at the moment? Interestingly, THOMAS DOLBY and SARAH NIXEY moved away from the electronic world and released new albums that had a more personal, organic quality. Some observers were complaining about “synthpop by numbers” and “Synth Britannia throwbacks”, but as OMD’s Andy McCluskey once said on that very programme, if there was a magic button for a hit single, he’d have pressed it more times than anyone else.

While improvements in technology have made it much easier for the public at large to make music and interesting noises, not everyone has the ability to write proper songs. Not only that but the iPod/notebook generation have been listening to compressed mp3s on tinny speakers for such a long time now that they have no grasp of dynamics.

This has hampered many new acts who have taken to doing everything themselves and as a result, produced some average pieces of work.

There is nothing like a second opinion and creative tension to help a new piece of music along. And it is this willingness to understand the cores of songwriting, production and arrangement that ultimately separates the good from the bad, and ultimately the outstanding from the good.


ELECTRICTYCLUB.CO.UK Contributor Listings of 2011

MIKE COOPER

Best album: MUERAN HUMANOS Mueran Humanos
Best Song: VELVET CONDOM Rouge City
Best Gig: KRAFTWERK at Die Alte Kongresshalle, Munich
Best Video: LADYTRON Mirage
Most Promising New Act: MUERAN HUMANOS


STEVE GRAY

Best album: GARY NUMAN Dead Son Rising
Best Song: TENEK What Do You Want?
Best Gig: Back To The Phuture – Tomorrow Is Today at The Troxy, London
Best Video: DURAN DURAN Girl Panic!
Most Promising New Act: QUEEN OF HEARTS


CHI MING LAI

Best album: MIRRORS Lights & Offerings
Best Song: VILE ELECTRODES My Sanctuary
Best Gig: Back To The Phuture -Tomorrow Is Today at The Troxy, London
Best Video: TIGER BABY Landscapes
Most Promising New Act: QUEEN OF HEARTS


NIX LOWREY

Best Album: SANDWELL DISTRICT Feed Forward
Best Song: JOHN FOXX & THE MATHS Summerland
Best Gig: KRAFTWERK at Die Alte Kongresshalle, Munich
Best Video: LADYTRON Mirage
Most Promising New Act: MUERAN HUMANOS


RICHARD PRICE

Best album: MIRRORS Lights & Offerings
Best Song: JOHN FOXX & THE MATHS Shatterproof
Best Gig: HEAVEN17/BEF Weekender at The Roundhouse
Best Video: QUEEN OF HEARTS Shoot The Bullet
Most Promising New Act: QUEEN OF HEARTS


JOHAN WEJEDAL

Best album: AUSTRA Feel It Break
Best song: MIRRORS Into The Heart (Greek Girls Are Not Easy extended remix)
Best gig: AUSTRA at Stockholm Debaser Medis
Best video: EMMON Ghost Dance
Most promising new act: LOUISE (ex-THERMOSTATIC)


Text by Chi Ming Lai
31st December 2010

Vintage Synth Trumps with MAISON VAGUE

Living In A Dream Since 1983, MAISON VAGUE’s ‘Synthpop’s Alive’ was one of the surprise albums of 2011 and is possibly the best wholly independent release of the year.

It is the creation of Clark Stiefel, a German domiciled American with a passion and love for all things ‘Synth Britannia’.

A classically trained virtuoso who studied piano and electronic music at a conservatoire, his working knowledge of vintage synthesizers and modern technology has affectionately revived The GARY NUMAN Principle.

One of the few active musicians to have handled both the original Moog and Buchla modular synthesizers, he adds musicianship and a wry sense of humour to the quirkily authentic proceedings. The title track with its battlecry of ‘Synthpop’s Alive’! could be the result of an unlikely sexual liaison between DEVO and PLACEBO. Unbelievably catchy, its statement of intent is so profound that if you are a sceptic, you really will become a believer.

Chunky riff laden tracks such as ‘Pixelated Lover’, ‘My Situation’ and ‘Give Them Away’ allow the listener to have fun with their air synths and smile with a wonderful air of irony. Album closer ‘Living On Ice Cream’ apes ‘Replicas’ outtake ‘We Have A Technical’ but if that doesn’t appeal, there’s always the appropriately titled ‘No Show’ which is a fine example of BETTE MIDLER gone electro and the reggae inflected ‘Tunnel Vision’.

Meanwhile, ‘Colored Glasses’ explores more cerebral depths via some terrific classical interludes as befitting Clark Stiefel’s eccentric FRANZ LISZT demeanor. In a genre where pretension can often rear its head in an over grandiose fashion, MAISON VAGUE are a bright light in modern synthpop.

ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK challenged Clark Stiefel to a game of Vintage Synth Trumps over Dim Sum and a few glasses of Altbier on a lovely evening in downtown Düsseldorf…

First card? It’s the Roland Jupiter 4

The Roland Jupiter 4, my favourite synth. But that’s a very difficult thing to say…

What inspired you to get one?

It was an accident. Around 2002, I purchased a TR606 drum machine on eBay and after I made the deal, the guy I was buying it from said he had other things for sale, one of them being a Jupiter 4.

I had never played one before but I knew it from GARY NUMAN as I’m a big fan. There’s lots on the ‘Telekon’ and ‘Dance’ albums.

I was always fascinated by that sound. There’s something so distinct about that sound. Up until then, it was not a synth I pursued. But the Jupiter 4, in a strange way, came to me. So I bought it on instinct and it was like fate. For the last nine years, it’s been a major part of my life.

Which songs have you used it for on the ‘Synthpop’s Alive’album?

It’s used all over but most notably on Colored Glasses. It’s pretty much 90% multi-tracked Jupiter 4. It’s best at making electronic sounds. You can literally feel the electrons. It’s got such a living, vibrant sound. It’s also very good at odd, other worldly sounds. I find it has an almost organic quality to it. On ‘Colored Glasses’, I’m playing it almost like I would a piano, in a Beethovien style, like an acoustic instrument. I plan to experiment more with the arpegiator and the CV trigger-in on the Jupiter 4 on the next album. One of the things I actually like about my Jupiter is that it has no MIDI or CV GATE interface, so basically, I have to play it.

Why do you think the Jupiter 4 isn’t as well renowned as the Jupiter 8?

I think one of the reasons is the styling and aesthetic. I’ve noticed people talking on the internet about the home organ styling of the Jupiter 4. Personally I really like it. I also have a Roland Promars which is like a monophonic version of the Jupiter. The sound is almost identical. They have the same styling: the same coloured buttons and everything. I love it. Very vintage. I guess people weren’t impressed by it at the time and with competition like the Prophet 5 and Oberheim OBXa, it didn’t stand a chance. It had only one programmable oscillator per voice and limited four-voice polyphony. Those would be some of the reasons.

The next card is coincidentally, the Jupiter 8! Have you got one?

No. For one thing, they’re too expensive now. You’d be lucky to find one for $8000. The Jupiter 8 is a legend. When I think of it, I think that’s a synth that I don’t have and probably never will! *laughs*

I’ve played one, though. It’s brilliant. No question about it. But it’s not a synth that I covet.

You know, I don’t think GARY NUMAN ever had one…

There you go, maybe that explains it. I have other synths that I think are very good and I’m happy with them. I just don’t have a relationship with the Jupiter 8. But still, it’s an amazing instrument.

The next card is a Sequential Circuits Prophet 10. Legend has it that GARY NUMAN bought one but never used it. JAPAN’s Richard Barbieri used one live though.

That’s funny about GARY NUMAN because I have this guilt complex; I own a Prophet 10 which I’m very happy to have but the problem is, it’s so incredibly huge! I live in Germany now but I’m originally from the United States where I had quite a big synth collection.

One-by-one, I’ve been bringing them over (it’s much easier that way, especially getting them through customs). The Prophet 10 is the one synth that has not yet made it because the damn thing weighs 70 kilos! I like to joke that the Prophet 10’s flight case is going to be my coffin someday! *laughs*

I bought it in 1996 and have been intending to bring it over to Germany ever since but it’s 2011 and it’s still not here! But I will get it here!!

The Prophet 10 is basically two Prophet 5s on a double keyboard. Now I can see the point that you could get two separate Prophet sounds when you need them but it’s packing it all into a small space. Isn’t it likely to be more unreliable or the sound quality is lower, like an old tape-to-tape cassette machine?

Good question. I would say in theory that’s not true… but in practice, it’s absolutely true which is the reason why I have a Prophet 5! If I need a Prophet sound, I use my Prophet 5. I won’’t give up on the Prophet 10 though because it is such a monster, so legendary.

Is this where your classical thing comes in; that its a bit pompous and slightly over-the-top? *laughs*

I think it is. It’s the Quasimodo, the mad organist in me. You know, I’m a keyboard player: I like to play with both hands so I am happiest when I can use all ten fingers.

And with the Prophet 10 having ten voices all ten fingers can be occupied, just like playing an organ. On the Prophet 5, I’m constantly running out of voices!

You said that the Jupiter 4 was your favourite synth, but some would argue that the Prophet 5 possibly was the greatest polysynth of its time. Would you agree with that?

Absolutely, without question. Even in this era, I still think its a fantastic instrument. I didn’t use it though on ‘Synthpop’s Alive’. The Oberheim OBXa unintentionally stole the show. In some ways they’re very similar instruments, though the Prophet 5 is a lot more capable. Still, they can cover similar ground… but given the sort of ground that need to be covered on the album, the OBXa got the nod.

GARY NUMAN used the OBXa as his main synth on ‘Warriors’

I didn’t know that. That’s good to know. Maybe it was subconscious?

Is the OBXa the one you use for the blistering solo on ‘Synthpop’s Alive’? Is it better for soloing than perhaps the Jupiter 4?

Yes, you can solo on the Jupiter 4. It has a mono mode to engage all four VCOs and it sounds pretty good. But it’s not as aggressive as the OBXa. The OBXa has more of a rock ‘n’ roll tone to it. I like that!

That’s funny because I always heard that the OBXa is a very American instrument and much favoured by rock bands whereas the Rolands and to a lesser extent, the Prophets weren’t. Any explanation for that?

There’s no question that the Roland and the Prophet are more sophisticated, finer instruments.

The OBXa has an earthy, bluesy quality to it. It’s limited compared to a Prophet 5 but its very straightforward.

So you would try to construct atmospheres with the OBXa?

It’s not what I would reach for although it certainly can be done. In fact I recently pushed the limits of my OBXa by hooking up a Moog CP251 Control Processor to it just to try out some weird funky things. I was surprised just how weird and funky I could get it to sound. Still, its simplicity is what I like best. It’s a rocker’s synth.

Let’s draw your next trump card; it’s a Korg PS3300. KARL BARTOS used it as part of his live set-up when he was in KRAFTWERK…

All I can say about Korg is: I like Korg. I respect Korg instruments. But for some reason I own very little of their gear!

Is it because Korg were the ones who cracked the budget synth market in the mid 70s and therefore weren’t seen as musical because synths like the Korg 770 and Micro-Preset were so competitively priced that people didnt see them as real instruments in the same way as when Casio opened up the market later on? Saying that though, the Korg PS3300 is pretty expensive!

I would admit to that about Casio but I wouldn’t say that about Korg because they’ve made some really nice instruments like the Mono/Poly and MS20. I’m not put off by Korg for any reason.

The MS20 in particular is really great. I would love to have one. But somehow Korgs have never really come my way.

Maybe it’s because you’re American, because Korg was very popular with British synthpop artists?

That could be…

Acts like THE HUMAN LEAGUE, THE NORMAL, OMD and SIMPLE MINDS all started with Korg as their first instruments but then again, GARY NUMAN never used Korg! *laughs*

Really? Then there you go! Another unconscious decision, I guess I’m just not a Korg guy *laughs*

Next card; the ARP Odyssey, as used by ULTRAVOX and KRAFTWERK…

I’ve never played an ARP Odyssey but I have played an ARP 2600. I don’t actually own one but it’s still a special instrument to me because it’s one of the first synthesizers I ever worked on. It was one of the synths I used to learn synthesis. In the music conservatory where I studied, in the beginners’ studio, they had an ARP 2600 and a couple of VCS3s. From these you got to move up – we were not allowed at first in the big studio with the Moog Modular and Buchla! The ARP 2600 is a fantastic beginner’s instrument. It was essentially our text book so I have a special fondness for it as I ‘learned the ropes’ so to speak on that synth.

As a classical musician, how did you find originally the concept of sequencing with a piece of music playing all by itself almost like ‘Sparky’s Magic Piano’?

Interesting question. I think there was a certain reservation at first. There was a part of me that wanted to feel this abandonment in sequencing and aleatory music… music that has a life of its own.

But there was also this feeling that sequencers were somehow cheating. I’ve long since gotten over it! *laughs*

Final one…

Ah! The Minimoog! Another classic which unfortunately I don’t have. It’s so legendary. I do have a Moog Little Phatty though. It’s not a Minimoog by any means but it’s satisfied my cravings for the time being. It’s a brilliant instrument because it’s so deceptively simple. It’s actually got a lot of power behind it. Its simplicity is one of its strong points because you can make sounds immediately.

It’s very accessible and it’s a very practical performing instrument. You can just pack up and play it anywhere. You’re not going to freak out about it being on stage. Granted it’s not cheap but it’s also not the most expensive instrument in the world. The Little Phatty is a synth that I could play on stage and not worry about it. If I had a more expensive Moog Voyager, it imagine it would just stay in the studio and never leave.

So was it the Little Phatty that you used for your NUMAN-esque buzzy bass monophonic sounds?

Actually, I bought the Little Phatty after I recorded the album. But I did want a Moog sound for the ‘Synthpop’s Alive’ title track. So I cheated and used the Arturia Virtual Minimoog — one of the most brilliant pieces of software ever. I’m not a huge fan of softsynths and virtual instruments but I’m thankful for the Arturia Virtual Minimoog because I needed that Moog sound and it delivered.

Any plans for MAISON VAGUE to play live?

There’s a chance, yes. The only hold up at the moment is that I haven’t got a band! It’s just me — and I don’t fancy the idea of cloning myself *laughs*

I’m working on it, though. I love to perform. Recording is a very different art from performing. I would like as much to be live as possible. I’m not a big fan of going out on stage with backing tracks or too much pre-sequenced stuff. A little bit is OK… but to substitute a musician by having a backing track, that I don’t really like so much. So I either need to find more players or simplify and re-arrange.

Where do you think you might take MAISON VAGUE in the future?

I definitely feel musically I’m heading in a more minimal and transparent direction. This is an extreme example, but if you could imagine LEONARD COHEN playing synths. When one thinks of singer/songwriters the first thing that comes to people’s heads is a guitar. You don’t really think of a singer/songwriter with a synth. But if the song is strong enough, then maybe you could just have a minimal accompaniment — perhaps only a Jupiter 4 and TR606 drum machine? It’s only a dream at this point but this is definitely brewing in the back of my head.

Favourite electronic artists at the moment?

One act that I’m really happy about is LA ROUX. For one, I’m happy they exist. I first heard about them on an electronic music website where someone had posted a video of LA ROUX in actually what was a negative context. But what they’re doing is precisely what I would like to on stage as well. Watching their performance, it was electronic music, it was synthpop, but you could see what everyone was doing just like in a traditional band. I like electronic music that’s played like a band and not just a lot of knob twiddling. There’s a certain ridiculousness to all that knob twiddling I feel!

Remember that famous performance of GARY NUMAN doing ‘Are ‘Friends’ Electric?’ on ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’ in 1979? What is so striking about that performance is that it’s a band: you know precisely who is playing what and where it’s coming from. And I think that’s something very important in performing electronic music — even more important than people realise because even 20-30 years on, there’s something about electronic music that still puts people off, you know? There’s inherently something unnatural about it. But when you approach performance like a traditional musician, it just comes to life…

So synthpop really is alive?

Synthpop’s Alive!

‘Synthpop’s Alive’ uses the following synthesizers and drum machines: Oberheim OBXa, Roland Jupiter 4, Roland Promars CompuPhonic (MRS 2), Roland MKS 50, Roland JP8000, Roland XP60, Arturia MinimoogV, Digidesign Xpand, Roland CR8000 CompuRhythm, Roland TR606 Drumatix, Native Instruments Battery and Submersible Kitcore Deluxe


ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its thanks to Clark Stiefel

‘Synthpop’s Alive’ is available as a download album

http://www.maisonvague.com

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Maison-Vague/43000159265

http://www.gforcesoftware.com/cards.php

Vintage Synth Trumps is a card game by GForce that features 52 classic synthesizers


Text by Chi Ming Lai
28th December 2011

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