Michael Oakley first came to wider prominence with his debut mini-album release ‘California’ in 2017 which the explored sun-kissed climes of its title like a musical driving travelogue.
Embraced by the synthwave community, for his debut album proper ‘Introspect’, he changed course slightly utilised the more Yamaha DX and Fairlight derived sounds to capture the spirit of polished pop producers such as Trevor Horn and Stephen Hague.
But for his 2021 long playing release ‘Odyssey’, ENIGMA, ACE OF BASE, HADDAWAY, THE BELOVED and MOBY became the new points of reference. The first single ‘Is There Anybody Out There?’ was inspired by Scottish dance act THE TIME FREQUENCY and even mixed by their Jon Campbell, but the new single ‘Babylon’ takes a more exotic laid back approach.
With a kiss like a rose, the video sees classic peroxide beauty Scarlot Fields in an appropriately vintage setting with a chess set, valve TV and the inevitable phone among the props. Meanwhile for the alternate scenes featuring our bearded tattooed hero, he had a specific brief for director Brad A Kinnan: “I told Brad that I wanted my scenes to have a similar look and feel to the DURAN DURAN ‘Come Undone’ video”. That 1993 track from Le Bon & Co clearly makes its presence felt musically on ‘Babylon’ too.
Contributing some soulful diva backing vocals on ‘Babylon’ is Dana Jean Phoenix and Haley Stewart aka MECHA MAIKO while THE MIDNIGHT’s sax player Jesse Molloy adds his talents to the tropical backdrop. Oakley himself has described the song co-written with Ollie Wride as sounding as “if Robert Palmer did a track with ENIGMA!” with the synth solo using the flute and Taj Mahal presets from a Roland JV1080 module.
“It’s about meeting my wife” added the now Canadian-based Glaswegian, “In biblical terms, Babylon was the first civilisation next to heaven, this is the closest to heaven you can get, it feels like Babylon being in this relationship”.
Following the acclaim for his accomplished and acclaimed third album ‘Infinity Mirror’, Ryan A James returns as MAN WITHOUT COUNTRY with his latest long form release ‘Bloods, Side A’.
MAN WITHOUT COUNTRY has been held in such high regard that Ryan A James has worked with notable artists such as RÖYKSOPP and IONNALEE. Having become a father, James’ perspective has changed and while shoegaze may have been an element to MAN WITHOUT COUNTRY in the past, the synthwave overtures of acts across the Atlantic like COM TRUISE, FM ATTACK and BETAMAXX have caught his attention.
But also having released a cover of Phil Collins’ ‘Another Day In Paradise’ in 2020, the MTV era of decades past has also figured. From ‘Infinity Mirror’, the song ‘Beta Blocker’ was a sign of his future musical direction, featuring a meaty programmed electronic bassline of the type adopted by PROPAGANDA and FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD.
Beginning with ’Pilot’ and accompanied by subtle stuttering beats, this is a short delightful instrumental that showcases the influence of both FM ATTACK and BETAMAXX. But the excellent ’Savannah’ springs a total surprise with a dreamier take on the sort of rhythmic new wave pop that adorned many a John Hughes or Jerry Bruckheimer movie montage and at times, it sounds as though it might morph into a track by expat Scot popwave exponent Michael Oakley.
Drawing from COM TRUISE, the moodier ’Gardener In A War’ features a great self-deprecating line about how “I’ll wash the petri dish for you”. Although it is more typically MAN WITHOUT COUNTRY in its introspective outlook and presentation, as its intensity is enhanced by a hypnotic cacophony of electronics, there are also unexpected Shakuhachi samples and programmed bass patterns with shades of Howard Jones.
Short but sweet, despite being less than a minute and a quarter, ’Our Silences’ gives room for a fabulous freeform synth solo before ’Ultra-Nightmare’ closes the A Side and sees the return of the Shakuhachi while the driving pulse journeys onto an expansive synthwave adventure with a sinister manipulated voice creeping back and forth to provoke a sense of unease.
With guitar seemingly absent, ‘Bloods, Side A’ acts as a fine pointer as to how MAN WITHOUT COUNTRY has evolved. While the sound remains melodic and reflective, Ryan A James has headed West and is now even more electronic than before; ‘Side B’ is now eagerly awaited to complete the set.
Two years in the making, ‘Odyssey’ is the second album from Michael Oakley.
His first album proper ‘Introspect’ mined the Toronto based Glaswegian’s love of NEW ORDER and PET SHOP BOYS, particularly their Italo disco-inspired classics while he also threw in the DX and Fairlight derived sounds of that danceable pop era in homage to producer Trevor Horn.
All of the songs on ‘Odyssey’ bar the title instrumental have been co-written with Ollie Wride and having worked together on the Englishman’s own debut long player ‘Thanks In Advance’, the fruitful partnership has made a natural progression with artists such as ENIGMA, ACE OF BASE, THE TIME FREQUENCY, THE BELOVED and MOBY being reference points in a move away from the popwave nature of Michael Oakley’s sun-kissed debut release ‘California’.
The opening statement of the ‘Odyssey’ title track presents some ‘Blade Runner’ atmospheres in a sad but triumphant homage to ‘Rachel’s Song’ while meeting PINK FLOYD along the way. The rousing ‘Wake Up’ is a bit Steve Winwood with strummed acoustics used in a textural way for a TEARS FOR FEARS ‘Songs From The Big Chair’ vibe, indicating that classic MTV is still very much in Oakley’s mind. The saying goes that you can take the boy out of Glasgow but you can never take Glasgow out of the boy but more of that later!
THE TIME FREQUENCY inspired energetic pop of ‘Is There Anybody Out There?’ is relatable to now but actually harks back to Oakley’s rebellious youth in Glasgow. Our hero gets lost in vices and a rabbit hole of bad behaviour while seeking that inter-personal connection, but it all goes too far! A cry for help to a dance beat and maybe Oakley’s very own ‘True Faith’, Hayley Stewart aka Mecha Maiko gives the song a beautifully eerie ghostly feeling with her backing vocals
‘Babylon’ offers more strums while a sax comes courtesy of Jesse Molloy, best known for his work with THE MIDNIGHT. Like Robert Palmer meeting ENIGMA, it is a joyous shuffling number from Oakley about meeting his wife and alongside all the tropical bird sounds is a fantastic solo which is all synth.
The hopeful ‘Real Life’ also takes the tropical route with exotic percussion acting as the backbone while there is further sax sweetening and a joyous chorus of female voices which sounds as though everyone has had the time of their life 😉
The pint-sized Canadian powerhouse of Dana Jean Phoenix makes her presence felt on ‘Glasgow Song’, a big ballad duet which also has bagpipes and a rhythm sample from TEARS FOR FEARS. Reflecting on Oakley’s love / hate relationship with the city he grew up in, but ultimately concluding that home is always where the heart is, it is loud and proud.
The driving octave pulse of ‘Queen of Hearts’ offers some uptempo punch using that classic Linn Drum sound with Hayley Stewart making a more prominent harmony turn, but is that Ollie Wride who can be heard belting one out there too? Of course it is!!
However, the closer ‘When Stars Collide’ will polarise and reveals Oakley’s love of TAKE THAT. As far as songwriting goes, there is no embarrassment in taking a leaf out of Gary Barlow and Oakley has never been afraid of enthusing over what some might consider “guilty pleasures”.
Perhaps as a reaction to the stagnation and elitism found in some quarters of the synthwave community, Michael Oakley has focused on the songs rather than the any particular style for ‘Odyssey’.
A varied album, it will surprise those who embraced ‘California’ and ‘Introspect’ but the shift will more than likely open his talents as a writer and producer for much wider recognition.
Canadian based Scottish singer / producer Michael Oakley first came to wider prominence with his debut mini-album release ‘California’ in 2017.
Like many of his fellow countrymen, he looked towards America and ‘California’ did as the title suggested, embraced a sun-kissed Trans-Atlantic vibe conjuring images of open-topped sports cars with his melodic synth-flavoured pop.
Embraced by the synthwave community, for his debut album proper ‘Introspect’, he signed to NewRetroWave Records in 2019. Utilising more Yamaha DX and Fairlight derived sounds to capture the spirit of producers such as Trevor Horn and Stephen Hague, one of the ‘Introspect’ highlights was the mighty Italo statement of ‘Left Behind’. The album also saw Oakley work with established artists such as Ollie Wride and Dana Jean Phoenix, with the associations continuing on his new soon-to-be-released album ‘Odyssey’.
Michael Oakley chatted about the making of the ‘Odyssey’ album with ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK while playing a round of Vintage Synth Trumps.
And the first card is the Roland Jupiter 8, have you ever played one?
I haven’t played a Jupiter 8 but when I was a kid, there used to be a chain of music shops in the UK called Sound Control.
One day I was in, they happened to have a Jupiter 6 which I always felt was the nicer of the two sound-wise.
I’ve got a few Jupiter 8 plug-ins, I’ve got the Arturia one and the Roland Cloud VST which I’ve used on this album, although I like the sound of the Juno more.
You basically get two type of synthesizer; there’s the Japanese ones like Yamaha, Korg and Roland which have a very coloured, synthetically warm kind of sound and then American ones which I probably prefer because they have more of an idiosyncratic quality like those from Oberheim, Dave Smith, Sequential Circuits. I like the unstable ghostliness of those, they were a favourite of Ulrich Schnauss, that’s how he gets his sound. If I want warm character types of sounds, I would go for the Japanese synthesizers.
With your new album ‘Odyssey’, what would you say was your approach this time round compared with ‘Introspect’?
When I started ‘California’, I just wanted to make the kind of music that I liked, it was a very open modus operandi. Whereas ‘Introspect’, I had this thing about not repeating the same steps that I’d taken, I never like to do that. So I made ‘Introspect’ a tribute to the more synthpop sounding stuff I liked as a kid such as NEW ORDER and PET SHOP BOYS or Italo disco. But also, the synthwave sound was already starting to become very plagiarised with copycat acts and I didn’t want to be part of that. It felt like the right time because I’d just signed a deal with NewRetroWave. So I wanted to do something special as the label was paying for things, there was more hands on the wheel and ultimately more pressure.
So fast forward to ‘Odyssey’, I sat with this for a little while and I decided I wanted to move into more 90s territory. I think there’s three type of people who listen to synthwave, there’s 80s aficionados who might be more middle of the road with it, then there’s metal fans who like the darkwavey guitar-based stuff and then other camp which I come from is the trance fans who like 90s dance music.
Synthwave uses a lot of dance production techniques, that’s what makes it sound modern. I was inspired by GEORGE MICHAEL, ENIGMA, ACE OF BASE, HADDAWAY, THE BELOVED and MOBY’s ‘Play’ album, all that type of stuff! It’s weird, you have these potential things but you end up looking back and think “it’s not really like HADDAWAY is it?”*laughs*
So it’s been written over 2 years, the longest I’ve taken to write an album and I only wanted to do it when I felt like it. So it’s a Tapas menu of different things and they don’t sound like each other.
I hate it when an album has two songs which sound the same, that bores me. I liked to be presented as a listener of an album with different tempos, styles, moods and themes, it feels like you’re on a journey.
You’re co-writing with Ollie Wride?
All of the songs on this album with the exception of the intro track are co-written with Ollie Wride. We started to work with each other on ‘Introspect’ and I was working on his album ‘Thanks in Advance’, we just have a great partnership when we write together.
For me, Ollie is the best songwriter within the scene and if you get the opportunity to work with someone like that, you step back a little bit and take counsel from them in the process, I trust him.
We talk a lot; on ‘Glasgow Song’, I was on a Skype call with him telling him what the song was about, my life in Glasgow while I was growing up and sent him over ideas, a whole monologue, like a letter about it all.
I sent some lyrics that I had and he worked with that to carve it into something really magical. I do write lyrics and I did on ‘California’ but I don’t necessarily feel I enjoy writing lyrics. I had it planted in my head who I wanted to work with on this album, writing with Ollie was my priority. He’s my brother, we’re great friends now as a result of all of this.
When you work with somebody else in that co-writing situation, it stops you from being self-indulgent. It’s easy for me to write about my life but you can end up with a very myopic “ME-ME-ME” view and you write in a way that isn’t open for others to make it their own experience. The songs I don’t really relate to are the ones which have been written in a way that are from a very selfish viewpoint. The songs which are a little bit more ambiguously open-ended, they’re the ones where I see myself in the song.
Oh the next card, and it’s an ARP Odyssey…
I’ve never played an ARP Odyssey but recently, I downloaded Daniel Miller’s sample pack full of drum sounds for Ableton created on his ARP 2600 which was previously owned by Elton John! I’m looking ahead to what I want to do next, and I’m conceiving all of the drums being made on analogue synthesizers so I’m collecting sounds for that.
Vince Clarke also did a sample pack, he is the king for that, especially on the ‘Chorus’ album and the ‘Abba-esque’ EP, those type of drums which don’t sound drum machiney!
What sort of an album would you have made in 1981?
I would probably be somewhere between PINK FLOYD and VISAGE!! I would definitely have done something a bit like Jean-Michael and THE HUMAN LEAGUE with the direction they were going in from ‘Travelogue’ to ‘Dare’.
You make a statement with the ‘Odyssey’ title track that something different is coming with that ‘Rachel’s Song’ homage meeting PINK FLOYD acoustic guitar!
Yeah, you’re probably right… I did a similar vibe on ‘Introspect’ with an intro track as a way of saying “here’s the album… it’s sad but triumphant”. There’s definitely a ‘Blade Runner’ thing going on and later in the track, there’s a Vangelis CS80 brassy thing, I love a lot of his mid-80s stuff like ‘The Mask’ and there’s one that he did called ‘City’ which is all Korg M1, it’s amazing!
‘Is There Anybody Out There?’ is an uptempo dance number but reflected on your youth in Glasgow, like a cry for help?
Absolutely, it’s about the lack of connection and looking for it, the way you get lost in vices in order to look for that connection. For me specifically, that story is in the 90s, I was in my mid-teens and got myself into drug culture, it was a big thing where I came from and with the older boys who I hung about with, you went down that rabbit hole of smoking weed and taking ecstasy, that song is about getting into that. At the end of the song, it’s then a cry for help to get me out of this because I’d taken it too far.
It’s interesting because I had done a version of that track and sent it to a good friend of mine, Jon Campbell from THE TIME FRQUENCY who had a string of Top10 hits. He said “this mix sounds great but it’s too much like me! Gimme a week, I’m gonna do you a mix, I don’t normally do this but I love the song”. So he sent me a mix and it captures a certain magic, so that’s the one I use for album… he quipped “my mix sounds like you!” *laughs*
‘Is There Anybody Out There?’ is very relatable to now…
Yeah, it’s got many layers and relatable to people at home, not being able to socialise or connect, that genuine experience.
Having Hayley Stewart aka Mecha Maiko on backing vocals gives the song an eerie feeling to too?
Yes, I had a call with her and Dana Jean Phoenix to be part of the album as I wanted a very female centric backing harmony sound to it like PET SHOP BOYS have on their early album ‘Please’. I always feel that contrast of a male lead vocal with female backing vocals adds a certain flavour. NEW ORDER did it on ‘World’ as well, it’s more poignant, it makes more of an impact on records, especially with guys like Neil Tennant or Neil Tennant who are not the greatest singers. So Hayley brings that ghostly ethereal sound which is why I used her on ‘Is There Anybody Out There?’.
I didn’t ask Dana to be on that track because she sounds better on stuff like ‘Babylon’ and ‘Glasgow Song’ because she has the more diva soulful voice, in your face whereas Hayley is more textural so she’s more prominent on ‘Queen Of Hearts’. They are both just incredible singers.
The video for ‘Is There Anybody Out There?’ has bits that are like ‘Addicted To Love’ for the synthwave generation, is that one girl or twins?
Haha, that’s the magic of television! We filmed that at Neon Demon studios in Toronto, the girl we hired Murphy, and we said to her ‘Addicted To Love’ as a reference and also MGMT ‘Little Dark Age. So we had a split screen with two Murphy’s who were different, one with a keytar and one with a keyboard plus there are some other scenes. She was fantastic, it was filmed over an 8 hour day and she spent most of the time getting done in make-up by Amy Harper, and she was a one-take wonder! Cool, next!
Our next card is a Korg 800DV…
Out of all the Korg synthesizers, the one I liked most was the M1. I know it’s not analogue per-se, but it was a great workstation. They were still selling that synth 10 years on because it was so good, it was the first that was famous for the presets. You had the classic M1 piano that was on all those house records like BLACK BOX ‘Ride On Time’ and “Universe” was the other one, a gorgeous choir patch with fluttery things in the background. I’ve used a lot of M1 sounds on the new album.
I used to own a Wavestation which was really nice too… Korg have done some nice stuff, I see Behringer have released their reimagined version of the PolySix; the PolySix is that classic synthwave based sound you hear on all those records that everyone is chugging out, it’s like “let’s get a TR707 and a PolySix bass and away we go!”*laughs*
There’s ‘Glasgow Song’, a big ballad duet with Dana Jean Phoenix that also has bagpipes and a TEARS FOR FEARS rhythm sample from ‘Shout’?
I definitely took a nod to TEARS FOR FEARS for that 100%, all of those sounds are Fairlight samples… I tracked them down and recreated it. When you listen to ‘Shout’, it’s in B flat but that actual sounds are pitched wrong! I know it works in the track but I pitch-shifted those agogô sounds to B flat and be in tune with the track, it was just an interesting realisation! I went for that same effect, even right down to the panning.
Are the bagpipes real?
Yes, I reached out to a genuine Scottish piper, Lorne MacDougall and told him I didn’t want it too crazy so that it didn’t sound like a tourist walking in Edinburgh! What you hear is what he played, he layered that up with 14 different takes and I mixed it all in to sound like a bagpipe band. I must say, that was the only decision where it could go either way, it was either going work or be really sh*t!
It’s an obnoxious instrument and very on the nose, in your face, loud and proud. Was definitely a hard one to tame. I did have some issues in the production to make it fit in the track, but I managed to find the right balance with military drums and guitar supporting. I’m glad I persevered because it packs an emotional punch which really hits the message about how home is where the heart is, no matter what you think of where you come from. You have a love / hate relationship with the place but home is always where the heart is.
‘Queen of Hearts’ offers some more uptempo fare and uses what sounds like a classic Linn Drum Computer?
Those drum sounds are from a company called F9 Audio, it’s this guy James Wiltshire of FREEMASONS who makes incredible sample packs, it was from one called Grid Trilogy. They worked so well, they have a retro sound but they’re dancey as well. The problem with a lot of retro sounds is they don’t have the low end that you want when you do dance music, the kick doesn’t have the punch which you need in a club. These drums were cutting but had the right low end.
So you were after a meatier version of the Linn sound?
Oh yeah, the pack was done so that the drums could be dropped into Ableton as the hits were done individually and you can see the processing he’s done on it, I didn’t have to do anything to them myself as he had made them sound so good. It was probably the only time when I’ve been using drum samples that I didn’t really need to do anything apart from EQ the group to tame the highs, but they were perfect.
Another card, the Octave Kitten…the same company made the Voyetra which NEW ORDER and EURYTHMICS used…
I like the Voyetra, and I know one of the presets was used on ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’, the little “dit-dit, dah-dah, dit-dit” that sounds like a banjo! I have the plug-in version and I only bought it because I know Ulrich Schnauss uses it. I did nearly buy a Behringer Cat, but I bought their Pro-1 which I eventually sold to get a Deep Mind 12.
The Behringer Deep Mind 12 is their version of a Juno 106 but I think it’s better, it sounds like one but offers way more options for the unison mode for one of the oscillators in the effects section, just some of the routing options as well.
It’s been called a “Juno 106 on steroids” and even though I haven’t used it much yet, I’m gonna keep it for my live show and I will find a use for it. I mostly stay in the box when I’m recording, 95% of the time. The only synthesizers that I use for recording are an Ensoniq VFX, a MR rack and a TS10, nothing sounds like the Ensoniq range, they are the most gorgeous sounds, out this world bell tones and really ethereal pads.
‘Wake Up’ is a bit Steve Winwood? Had it been more intention to have more guitar on the album, like strummed acoustics?
I definitely wanted more acoustic guitar and electric but used in a textural way, not in a heavy blazing way. It adds a certain contrast to the synths. There’s a lot of guitar on ‘Wake Up’, that’s John Kunkel, while Derek Elliotson (who I record my vocals with) played acoustic guitar. It gave it more of a TEARS FOR FEARS ‘Songs From The Big Chair’ vibe, I just go with whatever works.
Was it a reaction to what’s going on in synthwave?
I love the synthwave scene, they’re been very amazing to me and adopted me where everywhere else, the door was closed. I’m very grateful for them rolling out the red carpet for me but my criticism of the scene comes from me wanting to protect it. It’s wonderful because of the original songs, that’s the thing and they’re dressed up in retro clothing.
But unfortunately like when a band like OASIS came along, for every OASIS there’s a CAST or a SUPERGRASS,. So for every act like THE MIDNIGHT, there’s a truckload of people who are just copying that sound and it doesn’t add anything new. It frustrating because it’s hurting the scene and the good music in not being listened to in favour of the spam posting of all this other stuff which are literally low-bar entry productions. It’s like when someone listens to TIMECOP1983 or THE MIDNIGHT, and they do the equivalent of drawing a stick man trying to be a Van Gogh, that is just sh*t! *laughs*
I would always encourage musicians to carve their own identity and never follow trends, because if there is a large contingent of people copying other people’s sounds, that in one way is good because you will stand out when you come out with something new.. whether or not that will be appreciated is another completely different matter. I think some of my choices have definitely been reactionary to the scene and I’ve avoided clichés, I never use the same presets twice in my music, I’m very careful about that.
‘Babylon’ features more strums and sax, what’s doing the solo?
The sax is Jesse Molloy who plays on THE MIDNIGHT’s records, but there’s a lot more tropical sounds on ‘Babylon’ like if Robert Palmer did a track with ENIGMA! *laughs*
The solo is all synths, I actually dug into the Roland JV1080 for that, especially the flute and Taj Mahal presets, to picture being in The Hanging Gardens Of Babylon. It’s about meeting my wife, there’s a lot of songs about her on the album. In biblical terms, Babylon was the first civilisation next to heaven, this is the closest to heaven you can get, it feels like Babylon being in this relationship.
The music is very mysterious and even the intro was a nod to the start of FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD ‘Welcome To the Pleasure Dome’, all these bird sounds and being in paradise. *laughs*
The final card and it’s a Prophet 5!
Yes, I would love to own one but for now, I’ll just have to make to with Arturia! There are some Prophet sounds on ‘Babylon’, it has that gorgeous pad sound. It was what I was saying that you can hear the difference between a Prophet 5 pad sound and a Jupiter 8, you hear that creamy, unstable oscillation like ‘In The Air Tonight’ by Phil Collins or Peter Gabriel ‘Mercy Street’, the records are endless… oh the Prophet is the ultimate pad sound 🙂
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its sincerest thanks to Michael Oakley
2019 was a year of 40th Anniversaries, celebrating the synth becoming the sound of pop when ‘Are Friends Electric?’ reached No1 in the UK chart in 1979.
While GARY NUMAN opted for ‘(R)evolution’ and two of his former sidemen RRussell Bell and Chris Payne ventured solo for the first time, OMD offered a 7 disc ‘Souvenir’ featuring a whole album of quality unreleased material to accompany a concert tour to celebrate four decades in the business. That was contrary to DEPECHE MODE who merely plonked 14 albums into a boxed set in a move where the ‘Everything Counts’ lyric “the grabbing hands grab all they can” became more and more ironic… MIDGE URE partied like it was 1980 with the music of VISAGE and ULTRAVOX, while SIMPLE MINDS announced an arena tour for 2020 so that their audience could show Jim Kerr their hands again.
HEAVEN 17 announced some special showcases of the early material of THE HUMAN LEAGUE and got a particularly warm reception opening on tour for SQUEEZE as a trailer ahead of their own ‘Greatest Hits’ jaunt next year.
Celebrating 20 years in music, there was the welcome return of LADYTRON with a self-titled comeback album, while Swedish evergreens LUSTANS LAKEJER performed the ‘Åkersberga’ album for its 20th Anniversary and similarly GOLDFRAPP announced a series of shows in honour of their magnificent cinematic debut ‘Felt Mountain’.
Cult favourites FIAT LUX made their intimate live comeback in a church in Bradford and released their debut album ‘Saved Symmetry’ 37 years after their first single ‘Feels Like Winter Again’.
As a result, their fans were also treated to ‘Ark Of Embers’, the long player that Polydor Records shelved in 1985 when the band were on the cusp of a breakthrough but ended with a commercial breakdown.
Modern prog exponents Tim Bowness and Steven Wilson got back together as NO-MAN for their dual suite electronic concept record ‘Love You To Bits’, but an even more ambitious undertaking came from UNDERWORLD with their boxed set ‘Drift Series 1’.
After a short hiatus, the mighty KITE sold-out three gigs at Stockholm Slaktkyrkan and ended the year performing at an opera house, while GIORGIO MORODER embarked on his first ever concert tour where his songs were the stars.
Despite the fall of The Berlin Wall 30 years ago, there were more evident swipes to the right than there had been for a long time, with the concept of Brexit Electro becoming a rather unpleasant reality. So in these more sinister times, the need for classic uplifting electronic pop was higher than ever.
To that end, three superb debut albums fitted the bill. While KNIGHT$ offered quality Britalo on ‘Dollars & Cents’, the suave presence of OLLIE WRIDE took a more MTV friendly direction with ‘Thanks In Advance’.
But for those wanting something more home produced, the eccentric Northern electronic pop of the brilliantly named INTERNATIONAL TEACHERS OF POP continued the artistic lineage of THE HUMAN LEAGUE.
QUIETER THAN SPIDERS finally released their wonderful debut album ‘Signs Of Life’ which was naturally more understated and Denmark had some worthy synthpop representation with SOFTWAVE producing an enjoyably catchy debut long player in ‘Game On’.
On the shadier side of electronic pop, BOY HARSHER achieved a wider breakthrough with their impressive ‘Careful’ long player but as a result, the duo acquired a contemporary hipster element to their fanbase who seemed to lack manners and self-awareness as they romped around gigs without a care for anyone around them. But with tongues-in-cheeks, SPRAY continued to amuse with their witty prankelectro on ‘Failure Is Inevitable’.
Photo by Johnny Jewel
Italians Do It Better kept things in house as CHROMATICS unexpectedly unleashed their first album for six years in ‘Closer To Grey’ and embarked on a world tour. Main support was DESIRE and accompanied on keyboards by HEAVEN singer Aja, the pair took things literally during their cover version of ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’ with a girl-on-girl kiss in front of head honcho Johnny Jewel.
Other ITIB acts on the tour dependent on territory included DOUBLE MIXTE, IN MIRRORS and KRAKÓW LOVES ADANA. But the best work to appear from the stable came from JORJA CHALMERS who became ‘Human Again’.
Touring in Europe with OMD and MIDGE URE, TINY MAGNETIC PETS unleashed two EPs ‘The Politburo Disko’ and ‘Girl In A White Dress’ as fellow Dubliner CIRCUIT3 got political and discussed ‘The Price Of Nothing & The Value Of Everything’.
The King of Glum Rock LLOYD COLE surprised all with an electronic pop album called ‘Guesswork’ just as PET SHOP BOYS set an ‘Agenda’. HOWARD JONES released his most synthy work for years in ‘Transform’ and while CHINA CRISIS acted as his well-received support on the UK leg of his 35th Anniversary tour, their front man GARY DALY ventured solo with ‘Gone From Here’.
Sweden continued to produce quality electronic pop with enjoyable releases from the likes of MACHINISTA, PAGE, COVENANT, OBSESSION OF TIME and LIZETTE LIZETTE. One of the most interesting acts to emerge from the region was US featuring the now Stockholm-domiciled Andrew Montgomery from GENEVA and Leo Josefsson of LOWE, with the catalyst of this unlikely union coming from a shared love of the late country legend Glen Campbell. Meanwhile, veteran trio DAYBEHAVIOR made the best album of their career ‘Based On A True Story’.
However, Canada again gave the Swedes a good run for their money as ELECTRIC YOUTH and FM ATTACK released new material while with more of a post-punk slant, ACTORS impressed audiences who preferred a post-post-punk edge alongside their synths.
DANA JEAN PHOENIX though showed herself to be one of the best solo synth performers on the live circuit, but artistically the best of the lot was MECHA MAIKO who had two major releases ‘Okiya’ and ‘Let’s!’.
Despite making some good music in 2019 with their ‘Destroyer’ two-parter, the “too cool for school” demeanour of TR/ST might have impressed hipsters, but left a lot to be desired. A diva-ish attitude of entitlement was also noticed by ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK to be disappointingly prevalent in several fledgling acts.
However, several of the sub-genre’s artists needed to rethink their live presentations which notably underwhelmed with their static motions and lack of engagement.
While promoters such as Outland developed on their solid foundations, others attempted to get too big too soon like the musical equivalent of a penis extension, leaving fans disappointed and artists unpaid. Attempting to turnover more than 10 acts during in a day with a quarter of an hour changeover has always been an odious task at best, but to try 15?!? One hopes the headliners were well paid despite having to go on at midnight when most of their supporters went home so as not to miss the last train…
Now at times, it was as if a major collective midlife crisis had hit independent electronic music in the UK during 2019. It was not unlike how “born again bikers” have become a major road safety risk, thanks to 40somethings who only managed Cycling Proficiency in Junior School suddenly jumping onto 500cc Honda CMX500 Rebel motorcycles, thinking they were Valentino Rossi.
Something similar was occurring in music as a variety of posturing delusional synth owners indulged in a remix frenzy and visions of grandeur, forgetting that ability and talent were paramount. This attitude led to a number of poorly attended events where attendees were able to be counted on one hand, thanks to clueless fans of said combos unwisely panning their video footage around the venue.
Playing at 3:15pm in an empty venue is NOT performing at a ‘major’ electronic festival… “I’ll be more selective with the gigs I agree to in the UK” one of these acts haplessly bemoaned, “I’ve played to too many empty rooms!” – well, could that have been because they are not very good?
Bands who had blown their chance by not showing willingness to open for name acts during holiday periods, while making unwise comments on their national TV debut about their lack of interest in registering for PRS, said they were going to split a year in advance, but not before releasing an EP and playing a farewell show in an attempt to finally get validation for their art. Was this a shining example of Schrodinger’s Band?
Of course, the worst culprits were those who had an internet radio show or put on gigs themselves so that they could actually perform, because otherwise external promotors were only interested in them opening at 6.15pm after a ticket deal buy on for a five band bill. Humility wouldn’t have gone amiss in all these cases.
It’s a funny old world, but as ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK comes up to concluding its tenth year as an influential platform that has written extensively about not one or two or three or four BUT five acts prior to them being selected to open on tour for OMD, luckily the gulf between good and bad music is more distinct than ever. It will be interesting to see if the high standard of electronic pop will be maintained or whether the influx of poor quality artists will contaminate the bloodline.
So ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK ends the decade with a complimentary comment by a punter after attending two of its live events: “You don’t put on sh*t do you…”
May the supreme talent rise and shine… you know who you are 😉
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK Contributor Listings of 2019