A pact which links two subjects together in one action, one body, one vision, O+HER is the new Swedish darkwave duo comprising of Tobias Bernstrup and Erica Li Lundqvist.
Tobias Bernstrup is best known for his brand of Italo Noir as exemplified by his most recent album ‘Petrichor’ while Erica Li Lundqvist is a member of enigmatic trio ABU NEIN whose single from last year ‘Black Light’ featured the talents of fellow Swede Henric de la Cour.
O+HER is much less Italo Noir, encaspulating a much more brooding and gothic presence.
Having shared a number of stages, “It started with humble request to collaborate” the pair said, “Rather than just using our typical sound, we decided to try create some completely new. A creative process with both our voices that led to several tracks instead of just one. O+HER (pronounced ‘other’) was born as a shared vision of a dark cinematic sound landscape, beat and sequencer driven songs with inspiration from the late 80s dark wave set in a contemporary context”.
The first single is ‘Brave Bodies Burn’ which presents a tense baritone versus contralto dialectic over a foreboding electronic backdrop; “It a masterpiece!” O+HER confirmed and it comes with a striking music video filmed by photographer and visual artists Bengt Rahm. “The video is a homage to the opening scene of the 80s cult movie ‘The Hunger’ that features Bauhaus, David Bowie and Susan Sarandon among others. Apart from our own performance, we casted some profiles from the Stockholm post-punk / darkwave club scene. It’s dark, it’s sexy and it tells a story – but it’s up to the beholder to analyse its content”
Describing their creative dynamic, they said “Being alone in your creative process or being a bunch of people in a band is quite different from being a duo. We complement each other in the best of ways and the process from thought to product is much faster. We share the same goal but we have different qualities to take us there. O+HER is truly a power duo.”
O+HER have confirmed they will release a series of singles during 2022 to be followed up by a full-length album on vinyl. But in the meantime, ‘Brave Bodies Burn’ is backed with a cover of ‘Virus Meadow’, a 1985 song by cult English post-punk band AND ALSO THE TREES whose first single ‘Shantell’ and self-titled debut album was produced by Lol Tolhurst, then of THE CURE.
As the world steadily emerged from a painful pandemic that put many lives on hold, nostalgia appeared to be the commodity most in demand as the music industry took steps to recover.
No matter which era, anything musically from the past was more desirable that anything that reminded the public of the past 20 or so months. The first escape destination in the summer for many restricted to staying on their own shores were the established retro festivals.
Meanwhile television provided an array of documentaries ranging from chart rundowns of past decades and informative classic song analysis on Channel 5 to Dylan Jones’ look at ‘Music’s Greatest Decade’ on BBC2 and Sky Arts’ ‘Blitzed’ with all the usual suspects such as Boy George, Philip Sallon, Marilyn, Gary Kemp and Rusty Egan.
SPARKS had their own comprehensive if slightly overlong film ‘The SPARKS Brothers’ directed by Edgar Wright, but the Maels’ musical ‘Annette’ starring Adam Driver was a step too far. Meanwhile the acclaimed ‘Sisters With Transistors’ presented the largely untold story of electronic music’s female pioneers.
Meanwhile for 2022, Midge Ure announced an extensive ‘Voices & Visions’ tour to present material from the 1981-82 phase of ULTRAVOX.
Also next year and all being well, GOLDFRAPP will finally get their belated 20th Anniversary tour for their marvellous debut ‘Felt Mountain’ underway while there are rescheduled ‘Greatest Hits’ live presentations for PET SHOP BOYS and SIMPLE MINDS.
Always money for old rope, but also giving audiences who missed them at their pioneering height an opportunity to catch up, ‘best of’ collections were issued by YELLO and TELEX while JAPAN had their 1979 breakthrough album ‘Quiet Life’ given the lavish boxed set treatment. Meanwhile, while many labels were still doing their best to kill off CD, there was the puzzling wide scale return of the compact cassette, a poor quality carrier even at the zenith of its popularity.
“Reissue! Repackage! Repackage! Re-evaluate the songs! Double-pack with a photograph, extra track and a tacky badge!” a disgraced Northern English philosopher once bemoaned.
The boosted market for deluxe boxed sets and the repackaging of classic albums in coloured vinyl meant that the major corporations such as Universal, Sony and Warners hogged the pressing plants, leaving independent artists with lead times of nearly a year for delivery if they were lucky.
But there was new music in 2021. Having achieved the milestone of four decades as a recording act, DURAN DURAN worked with Giorgio Moroder on the appropriately titled ‘Future Past’ while not far behind, BLANCMANGE took a ‘Commercial Break’ and FIAT LUX explored ‘Twisted Culture’. David Cicero made his belated return to music with a mature second album that was about ‘Today’ as Steven Jones & Logan Sky focussed on the monochromatic mood of ‘European Lovers’. Continuing the European theme but towards the former Eastern Bloc, Mark Reeder gave a reminder that he was once declared ‘Subversiv-Dekadent’ and fellow Mancunians UNE became inspired by the ‘Spomenik’ monoliths commissioned by Marshal Tito in the former Yugoslavia.
For those who preferred to immerse themselves in the darker present, Gary Numan presented ‘Intruder’, a poignant concept album produced by Ade Fenton about Mother Earth creating a virus to teach mankind a lesson! Meanwhile ITALOCONNECTION, the project of Italo veterans Fred Ventura and Paolo Gozzetti teamed up with French superstar Etienne Daho to tell the story of ‘Virus X’! The video of the year came from UNIFY SEPARATE whose motivation message to ‘Embrace The Fear’ despite the uncertainty reflected the thoughts of many.
Despite the general appetite for nostalgia, there was some excellent new music released from less established artists with the album of the year coming from Jorja Chalmers and her ‘Midnight Train’ released on Italians Do It Better. The critical acclaim for the UK based Aussie’s second long playing solo offering made up for the disbandment of the label’s biggest act CHROMATICS, as it went into its most prolific release schedule in its history with albums by GLÜME, JOON, DLINA VOLNY and LOVE OBJECT as well as its own self-titled compilation of in-house Madonna covers.
Attracting a lot of attention in 2021 were NATION OF LANGUAGE, who with their catchy blend of angst, melody and motorik beats welcomed synths as family in their evolving sound while also providing the song of the year in ‘This Fractured Mind’, reflecting the anxieties of these strange times. At the other end of the spectrum, DIAMOND FIELD went full pop with an optimistic multi-vocalist collection that captured the spirit of early MTV while BUNNY X looked back on their high school days with ‘Young & In Love’.
Featuring second generation members of NEW ORDER and SECTION 25, SEA FEVER released their eclectic debut ‘Folding Lines’ as fellow Mancunian LONELADY added sequencers and drum machines to her post-punk funk template. But Glasgow’s CHVRCHES disappointed with their fourth long player ‘Screen Violence’ by opting to sound like every other tired hipster band infesting the land.
The most promising artist to breakthrough in 2021 was Hattie Cooke whose application of traditional songwriting nous to self-production and arrangement techniques using comparatively basic tools such as GarageBand found a wider audience via her third album ‘Bliss Land’. In all, it was a strong year for female synth-friendly artists with impressive albums from Karin My, Laura Dre, Alina Valentina, Robin Hatch and Catherine Moan while comparative veterans like Fifi Rong, Alice Hubble, Brigitte Handley and Alison Lewis as ZANIAS maintained their cult popularity.
With ‘The Never Ending’ being billed as the final FM ATTACK album and PERTURBATOR incorrectly paraphrased by Metal Hammer in a controversial “synthwave is dead” declaration, the community got itself in a pickle by simultaneously attacking THE WEEKND for “stealing from synthwave”, yet wanting to ride on the coat tails of Abel Tesfaye, misguidedly sensing an opportunity to snare new fans for their own music projects.
With THE WEEKND’s most recent single ‘Take My Breath’, there was the outcry over the use of a four note arpeggio allegedly sampled from MAKEUP & VANITY SET’s ‘The Last City’. But as one online observer put it, “Wow, an arpeggiated minor chord. Hate to break it to you but you might want to check out what Giorgio Moroder was doing 50 years ago. We’re ALL just rippin’ him off if that’s how you think creativity works”. Another added “If a four note minor key arpeggiated chord can go to court on the basis of copyright law, we are in for a hell of a few years my synthy friends”. It outlined once again that there are some who are still under the impression that music using synths was invented by Ryan Gosling in 2011 for ‘Drive’ soundtrack ??
There were also belated complaints that 2019’s A-HA inspired ‘Blinding Lights’ had a simple melody and needed five writers to realise it… but then, so did UTRAVOX’s ‘Slow Motion’ and DURAN DURAN’s ‘Rio’! Collaboration, whether in bands, with producers or even outsiders has always been a key aspect of the compositional process. If it is THAT simple, do it yourself! As Andy McCluskey of OMD said on ‘Synth Britannia’ in 2009 about the pioneering era when Ryan Gosling was still in nappies: “The number of people who thought that the equipment wrote the song for you: ‘well anybody can do it with the equipment you’ve got!’ “F*** OFF!!”
Over the last two years, THE WEEKND has become the biggest mainstream pop act on the planet, thanks to spectacles such as the impressive gothic theatre of the Super Bowl LV half time showcase while in a special performance on the BRITS, there was a charming presentation of the ERASURE-ish ‘Save Your Tears’ where he played air synth in a moment relatable to many. But everything is ultimately down to catchy songs, regardless of synth usage.
So ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK would like to present a hypothetical case to consider… if someone uses the arpeggio function with a sparkling patch from a Juno 6 synth in a recording, does Cyndi Lauper sue for infringing the copyright of ‘All Through The Night’ or the original songwriter Jules Shear or even the Roland Corporation themselves as they created it? More than one producer has suggested that THE WEEKND’s soundbite came from a hardware preset or more than likely, a software sample pack, of which there are now many.
However, sample culture had hit another new low when Tracklib marketed a package as “A real game-changer for sample based music. Now everyone can afford to clear samples” with rapper and producer Erick Sermon declaring “Yo, this is incredible. They’re trying to put creativity back into music again. By having samples you can actually pay for and afford”.
Err creativity? How about writing your own songs and playing or even programming YOUR OWN instrumentation??!?
One sampling enthusiast even declared “I might go as far as to say you don’t really like dance music if you’ve got a problem with adding a beat to a huge (even instantly recognizable) sample”… well guess what? ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK LOATHES IT!!! ?
In 2021, music promotion became a bit strange with publicists at all levels keen more than ever to have their clients’ press releases just cut ‘n’ pasted onto online platforms, but very reluctant to allow albums to be reviewed in advance in the event of a potential negative prognosis.
While cut ‘n’ paste journalism has been a disease that has always afflicted online media, in a sad sign of the times, one long established international website moved to a “pay to get your press release featured” business model.
The emergence of reaction vloggers was another bizarre development while the “Mention your favourite artist and see if they respond to you” posts on social media only added more wood to the dumbing down bonfire already existing within audience engagement.
It was as if the wider public was no longer interested in more in-depth analysis while many artists turned their publicity into a reliance on others doing “big ups” via Twitter and Facebook. But then, if artists are being successfully crowdfunded with subscriptions via Patreon, Kickstarter, Bandcamp and the like, do they need a media intermediary any longer as they are dealing direct with their fanbases?
However, it wasn’t all bad in the media with ‘Electronically Yours With Martyn Ware’ providing insightful artist interviews and the largely entertaining ‘Beyond Synth’ podcast celebrating its 300th show. Due to their own music commitments, Steven Wilson and Tim Bowness were less prolific with their discussion show ‘The Album Years’ but it was still refreshing for commentators to be able to say that a record was sh*t when it actually was, rather than conform to the modern day adage that all music is good but not always to the listener’s taste! And while various programmes came and went, other such as ‘Operating//Generating’, ‘KZL Live’ and ‘Absynth’ came to prominence.
Post-pandemic, interesting if uncertain times are ahead within the music industry. But as live performance returns, while the mainstream is likely to hit the crowd walking, will there be enough cost effective venues to host independent artists? Things have been tough but for some, but things might be about to get even tougher.
However, music was what got many through the last 18 months and as times are still uncertain, music in its live variant will help to get everyone through the next year and a half and beyond.
Following up 2018’s ‘Technophobic’ album, Tobias Bernstrup presents his long awaited sixth long player ‘Petrichor’ on the German independent label Nadanna Records.
A collection of intelligent political and historical observations set to music, the striking Swedish performance artist refines his “Italo Noir” template across eleven tracks, blurring the lines between electronic disco, synthpop, goth and post-punk.
The opening track ‘Maledicta’ provides a moody but melodic instrumental overture to set the scene.
But the superb club-friendly ‘Private Eye’ takes a look at the surveillance society in the spirit of TRANS-X with a throbbing starkness to hammer home the sinister voyeur narrative. Interestingly, an equally danceable if less frantic cousin ‘Stranger’ talks of a “stranger on the screen”, “disposable love” and a “devil in disguise”. It outlines how in the modern world, people care more about internet influencers and conspiracy theorists than family and friends, but Bernstrup himself is actually referring to online dating.
Like OMD, Tobias Bernstrup has regularly highlighted the darker aspects of technological innovation and ‘Challenger’ is thematically reminiscent ‘Enola Gay’ in presenting a tragedy in the form of a pop song with a clever dual meaning; it even uses a processed recording of Ronald Reagan’s “touch the face of God” address to the nation after the disaster for its ending. Meanwhile rather hauntingly and actually lyrically inspired by the very topic covered in ‘Enola Gay’, Bernstrup quotes J Robert Oppenheimer on ‘I Am Become’.
The start of the second half is crashingly punctuated by ‘Loderunner’, a strident instrumental statement with occasional vocoder phrasing.
The rhythmic dash of ‘Heartbeat’ is superb, chugging in triplets and orchestra stabs for a full Hi-NRG effect; a cover version of the Los Angeles rockers RED7 number from Michael Mann’s cult movie ‘Manhunter’, Bernstrup’s beautifully pulsating treatment offers a big improvement on the original. However, although ‘Staring’ does the full Italo with brassy synths stabbing away, it paradoxically captures the spectre of solitude to encapsulate the Noirish ethos of Bernstrup.
Continuing this theme, the steadfast ‘Petrichor’ title song utilises the pitched up choir samples as its tool of expression while ‘Into Oblivion’ is more swirly Eurodance while on the same lyrical gist. The Jan Hammer-inspired ‘Only One’ closes and reinforces Bernstrup’s outsider status as a purveyor of “Italo Noir”; melodic yet vocally more in common with Goth and EBM, it makes the Swede quite unique.
A worthy and enjoyable follow-up to ‘Technophobic’ using the vintage digital rhythms of the Oberheim DMX and LinnDrum as its heart alongside Korg PolySix basslines and Roland JX-8P pads, ‘Petrichor’ is as Bernstrup himself puts it, “a Film Noir in cold blue and pink light that you can dance to”.
‘Petrichor’ is released by Nadanna Records on 20th August 2021 in CD with 7 bonus tracks and 18 track digital editions, limited black or transparent magenta vinyl LP with lyric inner sleeve, A3 poster + numbered postcard available in October
Gothenburg-born Tobias Bernstrup is a performance and visual artist with five officially released albums to his name, as well as numerous video installations, collaborative exhibitions, interactive works and gaming projects.
Following up 2018’s ‘Technophobic’ long player, his sixth album ‘Petrichor’ refines his Italo Noir template with intelligent political and historical observations like “a Film Noir in cold blue and pink light that you can dance to”.
With his striking stage persona, Bernstrup is an intriguing androgynous figure who speaks for the outsider, raising questions about society’s representation of identity in his gender-crossing live performances and visual presentation.
With the imminent release of ‘Petrichor’, Tobias Bernstrup spoke to ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK about the making of the new album, collaborations, his artistic ethos and continuing motivations.
What was the genesis of your Italo Noir sound?
I grew up listening to Punk, Metal and Postpunk but always loved Italo Disco. When I started making electronic music after years of being a drummer, I knew that I wanted to make Italo inspired music with a darker more melancholic sound. I also wanted to create a darker image to this sound when designing performance costumes and sleeve art.
How would you describe the concept of your new album ‘Petrichor’ which means “a pleasant smell that frequently accompanies the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather”?
The initial idea for the sleeve photo was to include raindrops or rain atmosphere. During the research, I came across reading about the Petrichor phenomenon.
I had several cinematic images in my head; the end scene of ‘Bladerunner’ or an episode of ‘Miami Vice’ when Sonny Crockett walks alone on a rainy street. I love how the rain enhances scents, colors and creates reflections.
The first single ‘Private Eye’ appears to be about the surveillance society?
The inspiration to the lyrics came from a Bitcoin Scam email that circulated. The emails say they hacked into your computer and recorded you visiting adult websites. They threaten to distribute the video to your friends and family within hours, unless you pay into their Bitcoin account.
Sweden has been at the forefront of cashless payment, but how do you feel that you can’t even buy bread or fruit without someone watching you? Does that make you ‘Technophobic’?
No, but I am aware. It is a new world order, if you don’t own a smartphone or have internet connection, you will be excluded from the society. It is so obvious when you see beggars asking for money and everyone replies I don’t have cash…
How do you look back on the ‘Technophobic’ album, the title song was particularly good?
The album had a quite coherent synthpop vibe throughout but a more cold, synthetic, metallic and modern sound than previous productions. On ‘Petrichor’, I wanted a warmer sound so I decided to mainly use old-school drum sounds like the Oberheim DMX, LinnDrum and typical 80s synthesizers.
Do you have any preferences for your electronic template, do you like hardware synths and drum machines or have you entered the world of software?
I work in between analog and digital tools. When it comes to playing and recording the physical touch of a hardware synth is superior. I often use Korg PolySix for basslines and Roland JX-8P for pads. When it comes to software instruments, mixing and plugins I always go for analog circuit emulation.
The music industry has changed a lot even since ‘Technophobic’, have you reconsidered your strategies as an artist about making albums and promotion?
I had a more open process when putting together the album. It started releasing a bunch of singles during the process to see where they landed.
That helped me writing and finalizing the remaining tracks.
In your opinion, is the album as a format still relevant in music consumption?
Yes I believe so, even though many people rather listen to single tracks and playlists. Listening to an album is like reading a book. If you have the patience to do this, it can be very rewarding. There has been a revival in making shorter albums again with 8-10 tracks. This is a good thing. it fits better with the pleasant vinyl LP format. And it’s difficult to make long albums with 14-18 and keep up the quality and interest. There are some exceptions. THE CURE’s double LP ‘Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me’ is still such a great album without a dull moment. It has variety without being eclectic.
Looking back, aspects of 2015’s ‘Romanticism’ album explored some different directions compared to your earlier albums and more recent singles, particularly with the ballad ‘Dorian Gray’, the Latin moods of ‘Laterna Magica’ and the classic Eurodance of ‘Revolution’?
The song writing and recording process was very different during ‘Romanticism’. I worked during a focused period of 2 months in a studio with a very open and experimental mind set. At that time, it was important for my development to try something new.
The recent compilation ‘Trannies At Night’ gathered your earlier work before 2012, how do you see your development as an artist and do you have any favourite songs or memories from that period?
In the beginning there was more simplicity, but less production. Sometimes there was a more powerful and directness to it.
As I got more production skills, I have to make more effort in order to find that simplicity which makes a great song. Limiting your toolbox and arsenal of instruments is a good way of doing this.
What was the inspiration behind your most recent single ‘Only One’?
It a typical Bernstrup track, It started with that Jan Hammer-like bassline and the lead sound melody and those marimba sounds that I just love. It reminds me of Ken Laszlo’s ‘Tonight’ – one of my all-time favourite songs. Lyrics came naturally when just playing with words and vocal melody.
You sing of a “stranger on the screen”, “disposable love” and a “devil in disguise” on ‘Stranger’, it’s strange that in this modern world, some people care more about influencers online who they’ve never met rather than those near them like family and friends?
Interesting thought. Well, the lyrics could describe someone being disconnected from reality. The initial idea was to write from the perspective of someone having an addiction to online dating in a dangerous self-destructive and abusive way.
Is ‘Challenger’ referring to the 1986 space shuttle tragedy?
Yes, I remembered that day as a teenager. During the production of the new album, I watched a couple of rocket launches. Technology and space exploration has always interested me. The Challenger disaster was a very tragic one as there had been warnings from engineers about the dangers of launching posed by the low temperatures of that January morning.
There is a more instrumental template on ‘Loderunner’ rather than using full lyrics?
The original idea for this track dates back to 2002 or 2004. I wrote an instrumental track for one of my art exhibitions that was an interactive video game piece. The musical theme itself was inspired by the musical score for the 1998 video game ‘Unreal’ composed by Alexander Brandon & Michiel van den Bos. The title refers to a C64 computer game.
You have quoted J Robert Oppenheimer on ‘I Am Become’?
Yes, the words are slightly rearranged but from a TV interview were Oppenheimer recalls the reactions after watching the Trinity nuclear bomb test. The dangers and dark sides of technological inventions is a theme that I often return to. With every new invention a new catastrophe is invented.
Which songs are your own highlights from ‘Petrichor’?
‘Only One’ has the perfect Bernstrup sound and has the perfect walking tempo when listing in headphones. ‘Petrichor’ delivers a very nice atmosphere and I love that Fairlight CMI flute sound. ‘Loderunner’ has that energetic drive and mood you can find in a great video game.
It’s interesting that as a performance artist, you haven’t produced many videos recently to accompany your own songs, is there any particular reason?
At the moment music videos are not that important to me anymore. But that can change of course.
How do you balance between your art exhibits and your music?
They often go hand in hand. During the work with exhibitions I often stick to a theme that leaks into my music writing process as ideas for song lyrics or visuals.
You have collaborated in the past with SARALUNDEN and TRANS-X while APOPTYGMA BERZERK, COVENANT and ITALOCONNECTION have done remixes, are there any more interesting partnerships happening?
I wrote lyrics and did vocals for a track on the new ITALOCONNECTION LP ‘Midnight Confessions Vol1’.
It’s a song called ‘Rainbow Warrior’ that brings up LGBT rights and environmental activism mentioning historical dates of events – the sinking of the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior in 1985 and the Stonewall riots in 1969.
In 2017 on ‘Utopia’, you asked “where are you now?”, so what are your hopes and fears for the future?
After the Covid outbreak, we have hopefully learned that nothing should be taken for granted, that “we are so fragile”.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its sincerest thanks to Tobias Bernstrup
Special thanks to Marc Schaffer at Nadanna Records
‘Petrichor’ is released by Nadanna Records on 20th August 2021 in CD with 7 bonus tracks and 18 track digital editions, limited black or transparent magenta vinyl LP with lyric inner sleeve, A3 poster + numbered postcard available in October
Despite the worldwide pandemic crisis, the music industry did its best and soldiered on.
Many artists who had scheduled releases in 2020 went through with them, but other artists used the lockdown situation as creative tension and were particularly productive while stuck at home, to compensate for being unable to perform live shows.
Electronic music has always had an emotional link in particular with isolation and solitary working, so the advances in computerised recording technology meant that a number of musicians could function as before.
Worthy mentions for 2020 include AaRON, ASSEMBLAGE 23, DESIRE, DISCOVERY ZONE, FIAT LUX, JOHN FOXX & THE MATHS, GEISTE, NEW ORDER, NEW SPELL, PAGE, WITCH OF THE VALE, ZIMBRU and 808 DOT POP, while one of the most popular synthpop songs of the year was ‘Blinding Lights’ by THE WEEKND which actually slipped out almost under the radar at the back end of 2019.
A special acknowledgement also goes to ‘Future Shock’ by Marc Collin featuring Clara Luciani which came from his independently produced film ‘Le Choc Du Futur’, but only became more widely known when the fictional story of an aspiring female synth musician set in 1978 was released internationally on DVD this year.
But at the end of the day, only 30 songs could be selected as a snapshot of the calendar year. So here are ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK’s songs of 2020, presented as usual alphabetically by act with a restriction of one song per artist moniker.
TOBIAS BERNSTRUP Private Eye
Tobias Bernstrup is an electronic musician and performance artist from Gothenburg who combines sci-fi, performance art and gothic noir for a striking persona that has been exhibited at art galleries in Sweden. The club-friendly Italo flavoured ‘Private Eye’ looked at the surveillance society with hints of TRANS-X who Bernstrup collaborated with on a new version of his song ‘Videodrome’ in 2018. Already a veteran of several albums, a follow-up to his last long player ‘Technophobic’ is in the works.
Available on the digital single ‘Private Eye’ via Tonight Records
The ninth full length BLANCMANGE long player of new material since their return in 2011 with ‘Blanc Burn’, Neil Arthur’s dark ‘Mindset’ is only reflecting what many are thinking in these strange times. Thus strange pop music is just the tonic and the highlight of this collection was the marvellous KRAFTWERK meets FAITHLESS concoction of the mutant electronic disco of ‘Diagram’. In his sharp Northern lilt, our hero repeating himself like a preacher on how “I want transparency” only adds to the sinister dance.
Available on the album ‘Mindset’ is released by Blanc Check
From ‘Children of Nature’, the excellent first album by Mark Reeder and Alanas Chosnau, ‘Heavy Rainfall’ was a song seemingly having an environmental reference but actually reflecting on the world’s increasingly disturbing political climate. Like a grooving NEW ORDER disco number with Reeder’s rhythm guitar syncopating off an exquisite range of electronic patterns while some spacey magic flies within the exquisite soundscape. Chosnau solemnly announces the storm warning, yet his message to hang on remains positive as light is seen at the end of the tunnel.
‘Luna Landings’, the second solo offering from Gary Daly was the next best thing to a CHINA CRISIS instrumental album but then it sort of was, comprising of various demos and sketches that Daly originally recorded on his TEAC and Tascam Portastudios between 1981 to 1987. A highly enjoyable record that channelled a laid back demeanour to aid relaxation and escape, despite the age of the recordings, the air and hiss from the incumbent machinery added an endearingly earthy quality to proceedings. One of the highlights ‘80s Electro 2’ did exactly as the title suggested.
Hygiene strips are now common place as reminders of social distancing, so a gesture of solidarity with fellow humans, DUBSTAR presented this poignant song at the height of the 2020 UK lockdown. Working with Stephen Hague and DUBSTAR who co-produced their hits ‘Not So Manic Now’ and ‘Stars’, the writing and recording was completed remotely. There was a forlorn presence in Sarah Blackwood’s vocal but also the subtle lifting air of PET SHOP BOYS to offer some hope in the haze of melancholy.
With her long-awaited debut album ‘Mirores’, ANI GLASS had the honour of being shortlisted for Welsh Music Prize. An observational electronic travelogue based around the idea of movement and progress in her hometown of Cardiff, one of the highlights was the Euro-disco of ‘Ynys Araul’. Rich in traditional melody with a lovely high vocal register while offering a pop sensibility and a wonderful triplet bassline, it was given a subtle remix by her one-time mentor Andy McCluskey who she had worked with as a Mk2 member of GENIE QUEEN.
From the Italians Do It Better stable, home to CHROMATICS and DESIRE, the mysterious but glamourous GLÜME offered this lovely eerie ‘Twin Peaks’ styled cover of ‘Come Softly To Me’. More chilling and metronomic than the almost acapella song written and made famous by THE FLEETWOODS in 1958, the original vocal hook was transferred to synth. Her version captured the innocence of forgotten yesterdays in the pursuit of today with its hypnotic arrangement and her lush but tragic Marilyn Monroe meets Julee Cruise delivery.
HILTIPOP might be a new name in electronic pop but the man behind it is something of a veteran. Magnus Johansson’s best known project internationally has been ALISON, but he began working on solo material and launched HILTIPOP with a triumphant early afternoon slot at Electronic Summer 2015. It would be 2018 before his first release ‘The Pattern’. Johansson’s sombre darker-tinged pop style fused is evident on ‘Time’, with a sample of SIMPLE MINDS ‘Theme For Great Cities’ thrown into a dynamic squelch fest.
Available on the digital EP ‘The Man’ via Hoyt Burton Records
After an excellent self-titled debut album, INTERNATIONAL TEACHERS OF POP brought more of their danceable synthy togetherness to home discos with ‘Pop Gossip’. With a sardonic twist and perhaps referring to the soap opera that is the status of HRH Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle, the brilliantly uptempo album closer ‘The Tower’ amusingly imagines Queen Elizabeth II telling her Beefeaters to “Take them to The Tower, it’s a beautiful day, take them away!” like a future scene from series 8 of ‘The Crown’!
Unwittingly reflecting the pandemic crisis, KID MOXIE composed the soundtrack to a film ‘Not To Be Unpleasant, But We Need to Have a Serious Talk’. The plot centred around a womanizer who finds out he is a carrier of a sexually transmitted virus, lethal only to women! She said of ‘Big In Japan’: “It didn’t feel right to necessarily use drums because I did want to take a departure from the ALPHAVILLE original. There was already a strong rhythm element with the synth bass and it takes it to a different place by having a woman sing it.”
Exploring the innocence of ‘Teenage Bliss’, the most recent singular offering from KITE was co-produced by Benjamin John Power, best known as Scared Bones artist BLANCK MASS. The dynamic uptempo combination was wonderfully hymn-like, with Stenemo telling his congregation that “Teenage bliss, there ain’t no consequences in your life and you don’t know what tragedy is” before the bittersweet revelation that “In the end, no-one wins!” as “life is not like your first kiss…”
Recalling melodic 21st Century dance-friendly acts like San Francisco’s ANDAIN, LASTLINGS are a Japanese Australian sibling duo comprising of Amy and Josh Dowdle whose debut album title ‘First Contact’ was a reference to the thrill and despair of notable life milestones like first love and first heartbreak. Capturing the anxiety of growing up and the unknown of adult independence, the ethereal electronic drama of ‘Held Under’ was one of its highlights, using subtle house influences while maximising a hauntingly treated layers of female voice.
LINEA ASPERA released their self-titled debut album in 2012. A collection of dark but danceable electronic pop, before any new listeners had an opportunity to discover and savour them, the duo had already disbanded in 2013. The duo reunited in 2019 and on the superb ‘Event Horizon’, the cutting synthesized hooks, disco drum box rhythms and supreme vocals confirmed how LINEA ASPERA have become such a highly rated and beloved duo and why their magnificent melodic melancholy had been so missed over the past few years.
In a typically NIGHT CLUB twist, the duo found their perfect co-conspirator in former SKINNY PUPPY member Dave “Rave” Ogilvie who mixed Carly Rae Jepsen’s 2011 worldwide smash hit ‘Call Me Maybe’. ‘Die In The Disco’ set the ‘Die Die Lullaby’ album off with a slice of throbbing HI-NRG disco, donning its hat to Giorgio Moroder and Bobby Orlando before asking to “take me to a place I can dance” and an unsettling ghostly pitch-shifted voice exclaims that ”This is my party and I will die if I want to…”
Much has changed for NINA. First the German songstress made some life changes and moved back to Berlin just as the world went into lockdown. ‘Runaway’ from this year’s ‘Synthian’ album declared she “searching for a way out”. So it was only natural that any new material would be influenced by the uncertainty and sombre realities of what was happening around her. The self-explanatory ‘Where It Ends’ made something of a sombre statement with the introspective tones of DE/VISION in building towards a steadfast gothic schwing and penetrating synth solo.
Available on the digital EP ‘Control’ via Lakeshore Records
A ghostly light seen by travellers at night that refers to ignis fatuus or “foolish fire”, the astute intelligence of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe saw Medieval folk mythology referenced for ‘Will-O-The-Wisp, a fabulous PET SHOP BOYS dance tune with catchy hooks and a dry monologue. From the third of a trilogy of long players produced by Stuart Price and recorded in Berlin’s renowned Hansa Studios, the duo’s fourteen album ‘Hotspot’ maintained the duo’s position as exemplary English songsmiths.
Available on the album ‘Hotspot’ via x2 Recordings
PISTON DAMP are a new electronic pop duo based in Norway comprising of Jonas Groth and Truls Sønsterud. ‘Something In Me’ is what APOPTYGMA BERZERK or AESTHETIC PERFECTION would sound like if they were in full synthpop mode. Catchy, bubbly, melodic and rhythmic with an emotively spirited vocal, when Jonas Groth hits falsetto, it provides a most gloriously optimistic lift that is reminiscent of APOP’s more immediate work, perhaps unsurprisingly given that he is part of their live line-up in support of his brother Stephan.
Recording a collaborative album with Austria’s POWERNERD, the joyous result ‘Megawave’ was Canadian synth starlet Dean Jean Phoenix’s most sonically consistent body of work yet, reflecting her powerhouse stage persona in recorded form fully for the first time. A fun and dynamic collection, the album’s highlight ‘Fight These Robots’ was a classic funky Sci-Fi number with a dose of girly cheekiness and a reflection of a childhood watching ‘Transformers’ cartoons.
Available on the album ‘Megawave’ via Outland Recordings
Having described themselves as “Slacker synth-wave refuseniks”, POLYCHROME and their brand of filmic dreamwave as showcased on their self-titled 2018 debut album found favour with TV producers and advertising agencies around the world, particularly ‘Final Kiss’. Continuing the kissing theme, their recorded return Starts With A Kiss’ featured an unexpected but fitting guitar solo from Bjorn Agren of RAZORLIGHT but made extra special by the dreamy voice of Vicky Harrison who said “we’d finished with a kiss, so now wanted to start with one”.
For Bristol-based Finlay Shakespeare, his interest in synths came from his parents’ record collection, with music from the likes of KRAFTWERK, THE HUMAN LEAGUE and JAPAN. His second album ‘Solemnities’ was a more focussed progression from his debut ‘Domestic Economy’, making the most of a crystal clear modular synth sound coupled to his claustrophobic anxious vocals. The superb ‘Occupation’ was a metronomic squelch fest about social injustice with our hero conducting a raucous avant noise experiment in song with penetrating noise percussion and icy string machines.
With her arty but catchy electronic pop, Emilie Simon studied at the Sorbonne and her only release primarily English release was ‘The Big Machine’ in 2009. Using Martian invaders as a metaphor to the world pandemic, she felt the need to express her feelings on the ‘Mars on Earth 2020’ EP. The best track from it was the powerful ‘Cette Ombre (This Shadow)’ on which she summised “Planet Earth is under attack. Faced with an unknown invader, humanity is experiencing an unprecedented shift. What will remain of it?”
Now adding a “THE” to prefix their name, SMASHING PUMPKINS surprised many with a splendid synth friendly single entitled ‘Cyr’. With hooks very reminiscent of ‘Enjoy The Silence’, Billy Corgan & Co went synthpop with much of the track being of an electronic bent, particularly the synthetic bass. Not only that but ‘Cyr’ was also quite catchy in an almost DURAN DURAN vein! It was magnificent surprise that only highlighted the hopelessness of the more recent material from DEPECHE MODE.
Available on the album ‘Cyr’ via Sumerian Records / Warner Music Group
If there was a song that captures the claustrophobic solitude of lockdown isolation, then it was the appropriately titled ‘Small World’ by SNS SENSATION, the new musical vehicle of Sebastian Muravchik, best known as the charismatic front man of HEARTBREAK. A song about self-isolation during the pandemic crisis, ‘Small World’ was a throbbing electronic number with icy rhythms, marrying the elegance of minimal synth with the melodic presence of Italo disco, reminiscent of VISAGE’s ‘I’m Still Searching’ and PET SHOP BOYS ‘Miserabilsm’.
Less than three years after ‘Hippopotamus’, SPARKS offered ‘A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip’. As idiosyncratic as ever, if there was a key track, then it was the glorious ‘One For The Ages’; with a narrative about craving artistic longevity, the lines “As I write my tome every single night, my eyes show the strain of computer light but I’m pressing on” captured the lot of the creative mind. Already very synthy, the Mael Brothers probably could have made it even synthier!
ZACHERY ALLAN STARKEY featuring BERNARD SUMNER Force
With two albums ‘DIY’ and ‘Hard Power’ already under his belt, since opening for NEW ORDER on the ‘Music Complete’ tour in 2016, Zachery Allan Starkey has been working hard on observational concept album ‘Fear City’. ‘Force’ was a powerful collaboration with Bernard Sumner featuring his signature Italo-influenced sequencing style. Starkey’s impassioned authentic vocals were a rallying call to the people with the daunting prospect of Donald Trump being re-elected on the horizon. Thankfully, the message on jointly produced track was heeded.
ULTRAFLEX are a new Norwegian Icelandic duo based in Berlin who describe themselves as “The new teen sensation” with an interest in Soviet disco, athleisure and weirdo boogie. However, Kari Jahnsen and Katrín Helga Andrésdóttir are perhaps better known by their solo monikers FARAO and SPECIAL-K respectively. ‘Olympic Sweat’ was uplifting disco lento with an organic heart, a pretty tune with an expansive sweeping resonance that was reminiscent of SIN COS TAN, PET SHOP BOYS and NEW ORDER, but with a feminine twist.
If there was a musical duo who visually symbolise the dystopian paranoia of the world pandemic crisis, then it is UNIFY SEPARATE, formally known as US. ‘Solitude & I’ was a natural progression of the material on ‘First Contact’ with Andrew Montgomery not letting up with his Jeff Buckley inspired vocal delivery, reflecting the isolation and uncertain future many are currently feeling as “There’s nobody out there, no-one but you and I”. Anthemic, uplifting and optimistic, it was a message to all about never giving up on your dreams.
Capturing a dystopian outlook on life with an appealing electronic sensibility, ‘Black Kiss’ was the best VANDAL MOON album yet. With a sound seeded from post-punk, goth and new wave, they are shaped as much by their use of drum machines and synthesizers as much as guitars and the inevitable deep baritone vocals. The superb electro-gothic aesthetics of ‘Suicidal City Girl’ recalled the enthralling tension of THE DANSE SOCIETY and a highlight of a record with many highlights.
On ‘Forever’, Greek dark synth songstress Marva Von Theo channelled the frantic tone of ‘River In Me’, the Anders Trentemøller’s collaboration with Jenny Vee of SAVAGES, into a great atmospheric art pop statement on redemption and eternity. A track from her upcoming second album ‘Afterglow’, with determined vocals and punchy beats, ‘Forever’ demonstrated, along with its singular follow-up ‘Ruins’, a significant artistic progression since her promising but unfulfilled debut long player ‘Dream Within A Dream’.
Available on the digital single ‘Forever’ via Marva Von Theo
Melodic synth trio WHITE DOOR released their only album ‘Windows’ in 1983 but despite BBC Radio1 airplay, were unable to gain wider traction. WHITE DOOR gained cult status and one young fan was Swedish synthesist Johan Baeckström who joined the band for their return. Acknowledging the theme of ’Get Carter’ but with a more brassy flair, ’Resurrection’ surprised with a bouncy Moroder-inspired stomp while Mac Austin managed to sound like a cross between Morten Harket and Chris De Burgh around some beautifully symphonic synth.