As many take their first steps into the outside world, with the prospect of interacting with others again, anxieties that have developed over the past 15 months will no doubt linger for a while…
But for Scottish Swedish duo UNIFY SEPARATE, formally known as US, it is time to ‘Embrace The Fear’.
Vocalist Andrew Montgomery said: “The basic idea for ‘Embrace the Fear’ actually dates to a little while before the pandemic, but I must have had my Mystic Meg hat on when I came up with the lyrics because it seems to resonate with what we have been through!”
While the theme is relatable to lockdown, ‘Embrace The Fear’ touches on the more general existential crises that afflict many as they navigate a life crossroads. “It’s about that general feeling of seeming to be a bit trapped by life / circumstances and wanting to break out of that – something that we have all been feeling for the past year and a bit, for sure” continued Montgomery, “Musically, Leo is channelling a bit of NEW ORDER and DAFT PUNK here, especially with the very driving live bass. It suits the intensity of the song, I think.”
But despite the air of unease and the grittier disposition, as with most of UNIFY SEPARATE’s output, there is light at the end of the tunnel; “If it can provide a bit of hope and inspiration for people as we tread warily back into the normal world, then that’s humbling, and so much the better”.
Acting as the perfect symbolism for ‘Embrace The Fear’ is a fairground… after all, where else entertains and terrifies people in equal measures! “We really got lucky with the video!” remembered the one-time front man of indie band GENEVA, “The cinematographer, Tobias Andersson, is a great friend of ours and has collaborated on the video for ‘Dying on the Vine’. His fiancée works at the famous Gröna Lund funfair in Stockholm, and it just seemed like too good an opportunity not to ask politely, especially seeing as the park was not yet open and only actually opened up on June 1st.”
With the 140 year old theme park acting as the backdrop, the scene was set: “At the time of filming, it still had that eerie dystopian future emptiness that really suits the sentiments behind the track. Our mate Rasmus Lindgren was the perfect guy for the lead role, and we’re really happy with how it turned out.”
And as Lindgren embraces finds freedom in thrills and dance despite his nervousness, Andrew Montgomery and Leo Josefsson clear up after him while donned in their protective overalls. A soaring song that at times touches on MUSE’s ‘Uprising’ (or ‘White Wedding’ by Billy Idol depending on your age!) and makes the most out of Montgomery’s emotive falsetto, ‘Embrace The Fear’ offers cautious optimism within a wholly fitting audio visual statement.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its warmest thanks to UNIFY SEPARATE
“It’s such a strange day, in such a lonely way” sang NEW ORDER on ‘Truth’ in 1981.
The coronavirus crisis of 2020 put the entire live music industry into limbo as concerts were postponed and tours rescheduled.
The situation was affecting everyone with several musicians like Bernard Sumner, Andy McCluskey, John Taylor and Sarah Nixey publicly stating that they had contracted the virus. Even when all pupils returned to schools in the Autumn, there was a ban on indoor singing in English classrooms. It was an indication that out of all professional fields, the arts was going suffer the most.
To make up for the absence of live shows, online streamed events become popular. Two of the best live online gigs were by Swedish veterans LUSTANS LAKEJER from the KB in Malmö and Sinomatic techno-rockers STOLEN with Lockdown Live From Chengdu. Not strictly a lockdown show but available for all to view on SVT was a magnificent live presentation of KITE at the Royal Opera House in Stockholm recorded in late 2019 combining synthesizers, orchestra and choir, proving again why Nicklas Stenemo and Christian Berg are the best electronic duo in Europe.
Concluding his ‘Songs: From the Lemon Tree’ series, Bon Harris of NITZER EBB presented a wonderful set of four electonic cover versions including songs made famous by Joan Armatrading, Connie Francis and Diana Ross. Meanwhile among independent musicians, Dubliner CIRCUIT3 led the way with an innovative multi-camera effected approach to his home studio presentation and Karin My performed al fresco in a forest near Gothenburg.
Taking the initiative, ERASURE did a delightful virtual album launch party for their new album ‘The Neon’ on Facebook with Vince Clarke in New York and Andy Bell in London, talking about everything from shopping to classic synthpop tunes.
Other streamed forms of entertainment came via podcasts and among the best was ‘The Album Years’ presented by Steven Wilson and Tim Bowness. Their knowledgeable and forthright views on selected years in music were both informative and amusing. It was interesting to note that at the end of the 1976 episode, the pair nominated ‘Oxygène’ by Jean-Michael Jarre as the most important album of that year while for 1979, it was ‘The Pleasure Principle’ by Gary Numan.
Many artists who had scheduled releases in 2020 went through with them, although in some cases, there were the inevitable delays to physical product. But a few notable acts couldn’t help but abuse the situation, notably a certain combo from Basildon.
There were already “quality control issues” with the lavish ‘MODE’ 18 CD boxed set, but there was uproar even among the most hardcore Devotees with the ‘Spirits In The Forest’ release. The cardboard packaging was reported to be flimsy and prone to dents, while there was continuity errors galore as Dave Gahan rather cluelessly and selfishly wore different coloured outfits over the two nights in Berlin that the live footage was filmed under the direction of Anton Corbijn.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, there was an Anton Corbijn official illustrated history of DEPECHE MODE entitled ‘DM AC’ in the form of a coffee table photo book published by Taschen which retailed at €750; even though it was signed by Messrs Gahan, Gore and Fletcher, the price tag was a mightily steep. The increasingly ironic words of “The grabbing hands grab all they can…” from ‘Everything Counts’ were not lost on people, who are people, after all!
But Andy Fletcher did provide the most amusing and spot-on quote of the year; during DEPECHE MODE’s acceptance speech into that dinosaur institution The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, when Dave Gahan remarked to his bandmates that “I dunno what the hell I would have been doing if I didn’t find music to be quite honest…”, the banana eating handclapper dryly retorted “YOU’D HAVE BEEN STILL STEALING CARS DAVE!”
There were lots of great albums released in 2020 and Berlin appeared to be at the creative centre of them.
There was ‘LP II’ from LINEA ASPERA who made a welcome return after eight years in hiatus and the playful debut by ULTRAFLEX, a collaborative offering from Berlin-based Nordic artists SPECIAL-K and FARAO which was “an ode to exercise, loaded with sex metaphors badly disguised as sports descriptions” .
The DDR born Jennifer Touch told her story with ‘Behind The Wall’ and resident New Yorker DISCOVERY ZONE was on ‘Remote Control’, while Lithuania’s top pop singer Alanas Chosnau made ‘Children of Nature’, his first album in English with Mark Reeder, who himself has lived in the former walled city since 1978; their collected experiences from both sides of the Iron Curtain made for a great record with the political statement of ‘Heavy Rainfall’ being one of the best songs of 2020.
Synth-builder and artist Finlay Shakespeare presented the superb angst ridden long player ‘Solemnities’ with its opener ‘Occupation’ tackling the social injustice of unemployment. A most frightening future was captured in musical form by New York-resident Zachery Allan Starkey who saw his home become a ‘Fear City’, while WRANGLER got themselves into ‘A Situation’.
SPARKS discussed ‘The Existential Threat’ and ‘One For The Ages’ while pleading ‘Please Don’t F*ck Up My World’ on their eclectic 25th album ‘A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip’, just as NIGHT CLUB reflected what many were thinking on ‘Die Die Lullaby’ with ‘Miss Negativity’ looking to ‘Die In The Disco’ while riding the ‘Misery Go Round’.
ASSEMBLAGE 23 chose to ‘Mourn’ with one of its highlights ‘Confession’ illustrating what DEPECHE MODE could still be capable of, if they could still be bothered.
But it was not all doom and gloom musically in 2020. With the title ‘Pop Gossip’, INTERNATIONAL TEACHERS OF POP did not need to do much explaining about the ethos of their second album and drum ‘n’ synth girl GEORGIA was happily ‘Seeking Thrills’.
Veterans returned and 34 years after their debut ‘Windows’, WHITE DOOR teamed up with the comparative youngster Johan Baeckström for ‘The Great Awakening’, while CODE made a surprise return with their second album ‘Ghost Ship’ after an absence 25 years.
‘The Secret Lives’ of German duo Zeus B Held and Mani Neumeier illustrated that septuagenarians just want to have fun. Along with Gina Kikoine, Zeus B Held was also awarded with Der Holger Czukay Preis für Popmusik der Stadt Köln in recognition of their pioneering work as GINA X PERFORMANCE whose ‘No GDM’ was a staple at The Blitz Club in Rusty Egan’s DJ sets.
Incidentally, Rusty Egan announced that Zaine Griff would be joining him with Numan cohorts Chris Payne and David Brooks in a live presentation of VISAGE material, although the announced dates were postponed, pending rescheduling for 2021.
Swiss trailblazers YELLO were on ‘Point’ and continuing their occasional creative collaboration with Chinese songstress Fifi Rong, while one time YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA collaborator Hideki Matsutake returned as LOGIC SYSTEM and released a new long player ‘Technasma’, his project’s first for 18 years.
It was four decades since John Foxx’s ‘Metamatic’ and Gary Numan’s ‘Telekon’, with the man born Gary Webb publishing ‘(R)evolution’, a new autobiography to supersede 1997’s ‘Praying To The Aliens’. Meanwhile, the former Dennis Leigh teamed up with former ULTRAVOX guitarist Robin Simon plus his regular Maths collaborators Benge and Hannah Peel for the blistering art rock statement of ‘Howl’ as well as finally issuing his book of short stories ‘The Quiet Man’.
Back in 1980, it was not unusual for bands to release two albums in a calendar year as OMD did with their self-titled debut and ‘Organisation’, or JAPAN did with ‘Quiet Life’ and ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’.
It appeared to be a tradition that BLANCMANGE were adopting as Neil Arthur delivered the acclaimed ‘Mindset’ and an enjoyable outtakes collection ‘Waiting Room (Volume 1)’.
PET SHOP BOYS and CERRONE proved they still liked to dance to disco because they don’t like rock, but the year’s biggest surprise came with THE SMASHING PUMPKINS whose single ‘Cyr’ crossed the templates of classic DEPECHE MODE with DURAN DURAN.
Interestingly, Gary Daly of CHINA CRISIS and Michael Rother of NEU! used sketches recorded many moons ago to inspire their 2020 solo creations, proving that if something is a good idea, it will still make sense years later. Veteran Tonmeister Gareth Jones released his debut solo album ‘ELECTROGENETIC’ having first come to prominence as the studio engineer on ‘Metamatic’ back in 1980, but Jah Wobble was as prolific as ever, issuing his ninth album in four years, as well as a run of download singles over lockdown.
ANI GLASS had her debut long player ‘Mirores’ shortlisted for Welsh Music Prize and OMD remixed her song ‘Ynys Araul’ along the way, while SARAH P. was ‘Plotting Revolutions’. NINA and a returning ANNIE vied to be the Queen Of Synthwave with their respective albums ‘Synthian’ and ‘Dark Hearts’, although Canadian synth songstress DANA JEAN PHOENIX presented her most complete and consistent body of work yet in ‘Megawave’, a joint album with POWERNERD.
RADIO WOLF & PARALLELS contributed to the soundtrack of the film ‘Proximity’ released on Lakeshore Records and from the same label, KID MOXIE made her first contribution to the movie world with the score to ‘Not To Be Unpleasant, But We Need To Have A Serious Talk’ that also featured a stark cover of ALPHAVILLE’s ‘Big In Japan’. Meanwhile gothwavers VANDAL MOON made their most electronic album yet in ‘Black Kiss’ and POLYCHROME got in on the kissing act too with their new single ‘Starts With A Kiss’.
It would be fair to say in recent times that the most interesting and best realised electronic pop has come from outside of the UK; the likes of TWICE A MAN and COSAQUITOS EN GLOBO explored the darker side of life, although TRAIN TO SPAIN used the dancefloor as their mode of expression, 808 DOT POP developed on the robopop of parent band METROLAND and ZIMBRU preferred disco art pop.
In Scandinavia, there was the welcome return of UNIFY SEPARATE (formally US) and HILTIPOP aka Magnus Johansson of ALISON who finally released some music in his own right; once he started, he didn’t stop with 9 releases and counting in 2020! APOPTYGMA BERZERK released ‘Nein Danke!’, their self-proclaimed return to “New Wave Synthpop” and out of that set-up sprang the very promising PISTON DAMP.
Within the PAGE camp, Eddie Bengtsson continued his Numan fixation on the ‘Under Mitt Skinn’ EP although his musical partner Marina Schiptjenko teamed up with LUSTANS LAKEJER bassist Julian Brandt to ride the Synth Riviera for a delightful second helping of their electro crooner concept cheekily titled ‘For Beautiful People Only’.
Over in Germany, U96 teamed up Wolfgang Flür while RENARD, the solo vehicle of Markus Reinhardt from WOLFSHEIM teamed with Marian Gold of ALPHAVILLE and Sarah Blackwood of DUBSTAR. DUBSTAR themselves released a striking corona crisis statement entitled ‘Hygiene Strip’ which saw reconfigured duo reunited with producer Stephen Hague. Meanwhile another poignant song on the topic ‘Small World’ came from SNS SENSATION, the new project by Sebastian Muravchik of HEARTBREAK. In lockdown, TINY MAGNETIC PETS recorded an entire album which they called ‘Blue Wave’.
Of course, 2020 was not full of joy, even without the pandemic, as the music world sadly lost Florian Schneider, Gabi Delgado-Lopez, Chris Huggett, Andrew Weatherall, Matthew Seligman, Dave Greenfield, Rupert Hine, Tom Wolgers, Harold Budd and Ennio Morricone.
An introspective tone was reflected the music of female fronted acts such as and ZANIAS, PURITY RING, WE ARE REPLICA, KALEIDA, LASTLINGS, NEW SPELL, WITCH OF THE VALE, REIN, BLACK NAIL CABARET, GLÜME, GEISTE THE FRIXION, FEMMEPOP and SCINTII. However, countering this, the optimism of RIDER, ROXI DRIVE and NEW RO presented a much brighter, hopeful take on life and the future.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK celebrated 10 years as a platform and affirming the site’s intuition about synth talent in anticipation of them achieving greater things, SOFTWAVE opened for OMD on the Scandinavia leg of their ‘Souvenir’ tour. The Danish duo became the sixth act which the site had written about to have become part of a tradition that has included VILLA NAH, MIRRORS, VILE ELECTRODES, METROLAND and TINY MAGNETIC PETS.
On a more cheerful note, S.P.O.C.K beamed down to Slimelight in London before lockdown for their first British live performance in 17 years. Meanwhile on the same night, LAU NAU and VILE ELECTRODES did modular sets at Cecil Sharp House, the spiritual home of English traditional music.
At that event, ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK took delight in curating a DJ set comprising of John Cage’s 4’33” in variations by DEPECHE MODE, GOLDFRAPP, ERASURE, NEW ORDER and THE NORMAL from Mute’s Stumm433 boxed set. This defiant act of silence even caused a curious Jonathan Barnbrook to raise an eyebrow, this from the man who designed the artwork with the white square on David Bowie’s ‘The Next Day’ 😉
The final live event that ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK attended before the March lockdown was an informative lecture at Queen Mary University in London presented by noted cultural scholar Dr Uwe Schütte, in support of his book ‘KRAFTWERK Future Music From Germany’.
Also attending was Rusty Egan who held court at the reception afterwards by having a debate with another musician about the state of UK synth music. He then loudly beckoned ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK over and mentioned how the site was only interested acts that scored “9 out of 10” before admitting that a number of acts he supported only scored “6 out of 10”, with his reasoning being that if acts aren’t supported, then there will be no synth acts existing at all. After a decade in existence, ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK remains proud that it is still extremely selective.
In 2020, the notion of reviews being needed to achieve a promotional profile underwent an existential crisis among media platforms. With streaming now being the main method of music consumption, why would anyone want to read a blog for an opinion about an album when they can just hit ‘play’ and hear the thing for themselves on Spotify, Amazon, Tidal or Bandcamp?
The sound of classic synthpop does live on happily in today’s mainstream via singles by THE WEEKND, DUA LIPA and even STEPS! In that respect, the trailblazing kings and queens of Synth Britannia from four decades ago did their job rather well.
From SUGABABES mashing-up ‘Are Friends Electric?’ for ‘Freak Like Me’ in 2002 to ‘Blinding Lights’ borrowing a bit of A-HA in 2020, the sound of synth is still strong.
It is up to any potential successors to live up to that high standard of Synth Britannia, which was as much down to the quality of the songwriting, as much as it was to do with the sound of the synthesizer. It is a fact that many overlook and if aspiring musicians could pay more attention to the song, instead of making the synthesizer the excuse for the song, then classic electronic pop music may still be around for a little longer and continue to evolve.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK Contributor Listings of 2020
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, COSAQUITOS EN GLOBO, 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.
“You and me v tomorrow, living off joy and sorrow and the dreaming in our eyes, we keep our dreams alive…”
If there was a musical duo who visually symbolise the dystopian paranoia of the world pandemic crisis, then it is the protective boiler suit donning UNIFY SEPARATE.
Formally known as US, the Scottish Swedish pairing of Andrew Montgomery from GENEVA and Leo Josefsson of LOWE impressed with their 2019 debut album ‘First Contact’ which successfully combined the soaring vocal aspects of Britpop with the melodic melancholy of Nordic synth.
UNIFY SEPARATE have released their first single of 2020, the magnificently striking statement of ‘Solitude & I’. Like DEPECHE MODE meeting MUSE before building with some mighty synth arpeggios, it morphs from a drum ‘n’ bass lilt into a blistering mutant attack.
The tense self-directed video filmed by Tobias Andersson looks like it could be a scene from ‘The Crazies’ or ‘Chernobyl’. It sees our heroes on decontamination duty, driving their Gothically modified Toyota Celica called Angelica to a desolate forest quarry. Resigned to the disaster that has occurred, it all acts as poignant symbolism that the world is running out of time…
From the new album is due out in mid-2021, ‘Solitude & I’ is a natural progression of the Stockholm-based duo’s material on ‘First Contact’ with 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 is UNIFY SEPARATE’s in-your-face manifesto on never giving up on your dreams.
What happens when you cross anthemic Scottish indie with cinematic Swedish synth? You get US…
US are the unlikely union of Andrew Montgomery from GENEVA and Leo Josefsson of LOWE. Their impressive debut album ‘First Contact’ is a rousing collection of eleven epic songs, each exuding a unique Celtic Scandinavian air with Montgomery taking centre stage with his magnificent three octave vocal set to Josefsson’s spacey electronic soundscapes.
An album of two halves with guitars and drums also occasionally making their presence felt, ‘First Contact’ is a well-crafted debut record, expressing broken dreams and midlife sorrows with a sublime cinematic quality. Meanwhile with their live presentation, the striking visual spectacle puts the duo up there with KITE in terms of ambition.
While GENEVA recently reformed and LOWE have been on hiatus, for Montgomery and Josefsson, US is presently their main creative outlet. The pair chatted about their ‘First Contact’, producing “The soundtrack to the movie of your life” and much more.
The two of you have had not insubstantial profiles in your previous bands GENEVA and LOWE which produced very different types of music from each other, but how did US all come together?
Andrew: It’s indirectly the fault of the late, great Glen Campbell (RIP). Both of us were at a barbecue held by a mutual friend in the Stockholm suburbs in May 2015, just a few months after I moved to Stockholm. We were all making merry and I got up to sing along to ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’ (as you do). Leo heard me sing and afterwards asked if I wanted to try writing a song with him. He said something like “I think my sound and your voice would work well together”, and it proved to be true, as we wrote our first song in just a couple of hours just a few weeks later. The song is called ‘Everything Is Leading Up To This’ and it’s included as a bonus track on the Bandcamp album page.
When you were discussing directions, were each of you pleasantly surprised by some of each other’s tastes where you found a commonality?
Andrew: I was surprised that Leo wasn’t an aficionado of Glen Campbell 😉
Actually, even if Leo was coming from a ‘synthpop’ background and me from indie-guitar band origins, what we both had in common right away was a love of drama and packing as much emotion as possible into the structure of a pop song, and that works whether it happens to be guitar-based or synth-based. And I don’t recall that we discussed a huge amount of influences at first. It was more just getting into Leo’s studio and start writing.
It had to be epic, it had to be filmic and the finer details just arrived organically. Though it’s fair to say that I probably badger Leo more about possible influences / ideas that I hear; I’m quite mercurial in that respect, as I constantly churn my way through mini-musical obsessions.
One week ambient electronic, the next week melodic techno, the week after that Tibetan nose flute orchestras…
I’m certainly roving far from my indie background these days, and have been mainly listening to electronic music for most of the past decade.
Leo: Andrew constantly tries to persuade me to introduce nose flutes when we write new songs, but to date I’ve been able to resist.
Some artists like to impose restrictions to aid their creativity, are there any “no-nos” in US?
Leo: Perhaps you mean “no-nose”? Apart from that I would find it most improbable that we would end up writing “schlager festival tracks”, but I wouldn’t rule anything out at this point.
Andrew: I think it’s more about what we should be, rather than not be, and that’s original, heartfelt, filmic and engaging.
Do you have defined roles with regards songwriting and production or does it overlap?
Andrew: It does overlap, simply because we are open to each other’s ideas. And also because Leo in particular can play the instruments, produce, come up with lyrics and sing, so he has an ear for melody that has come in handy.
For example, in the chorus of ‘Technicolor’, which for a while was a little bit stuck with the melody / lyrics that now occur in the middle eight (the bit about “now and then I’ve found…” etc).
Leo came up with this defiant “I see the world…” chorus that is a perfect counterpoint to my rather agonised verses, a sort of ‘fukitall’ vibe that is almost saying to the subject of the song “your loss” after the initial “whys?” of the verses.
I do tend to write most of the lyrics and most of the melodies though, as I’m into doing that and work hard on it. I also suggest little tweaks here and there to songs that Leo then (patiently) translates into something more concrete and makes the change. One example was the change to a four-to-the-floor beat for ‘The Stars That Arc Across the Sky’. We’d been wrestling with the arrangement of that one for some time, and once that clicked, Leo was able to work his magic.
What about differences in the Scottish and Swedish ways of thinking? Have there been any amusing moments while writing and recording?
Leo: I’m kind of a “flatliner”, meaning I can control my temper. Sometimes, Andrew cannot. I just laugh at him, and buy him some candy and everything will be ok within minutes. Sometimes when we’re out clubbing, Andrew is confronted by Swedish drunk manners and responds rather robustly (which I’m not used to), that can be very entertaining and frightening at times. 🙂
At the same time I must give him credit, because most Swedes don’t react even if someone has been very rude to them.
Andrew: I think Leo does very well to: 1) Decipher my accent when I lapse into Glaswegian-dialect English and 2) Follow my rather idiosyncratic Swedish (we probably spend about 65-70 per cent of the time talking in Swedish).
‘Till The Dying of the Light’ has that glorious Nordic Noir quality, how did that come together as your first single?
Andrew: Thanks. Glad you like it! We’re proud of that one too. I think (and Leo can correct me if I’m wrong), there was a keyboard improvisation that I came up with the verses to. I have a picture in my mind’s eye of US writing the chorus and me coming up with the melody… it was spur-of-the-moment as it often is. But I seem to recall me Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ being an image at the back of my head, crossed with relationship travails. I have to credit Leo alone for the Nordic Noir production – he did a great job, and maybe there was a little ‘Blade Runner’ creeping in there too?
Leo: I think this was my first intention to take US into the “synth domain” after a few months of experimenting with different sounds and genres. I instantly felt that the song needed that suit, and it was instantly clear that it would work out perfectly.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK described ‘Voyager’ as being like “MUSE at Gatecrasher”, but what did you have in mind when you were recording it?
Leo: I think you’re on point there, even though I was more diving into the world of Jean-Michel Jarre and spent a few days getting the arpeggios right. Turned out to be worthwhile if I may say so. The song went through many different stages before ending up the way you can hear now… there’s another version called ‘To The End Of The World’ that is more live band-based and is a result of an early idea I had for the track that I just couldn’t leave unfinished.
Andrew: I LOVE that description! Thank you! I just recall Leo being really happy with this brilliant synth arpeggio he had come up with and me asking for a bit of time to go away and do it justice in terms of melody and lyrics. It just felt very spacey and, as with a lot of Leo’s musical ideas, it had a visual aspect that made me think of Voyager (or its ‘Star Trek’ equivalent V’ger) and deep-space travel. Then there’s the sentiment of thinking that the past is behind you but something coming back to remind you of those darker times. The impulse to travel to the end of the word to avoid it is strong, I can tell you…
‘The Stars That Arc Across the Sky’ and ‘In Denial’ are quite guitar driven anthems which are perhaps not that far off U2, was that intentional?
Andrew: Leo had been talking about getting more guitar into some of the songs, and it seemed to really work with both of those. I see where you’re coming from with U2, though I must admit that I hear late 70s / early 80s ROXY MUSIC in the former’s guitar arrangements and PULP in the latter.
Leo: Throughout the work with ‘First Contact’ (although it wasn’t until 2018 that we decided to make an album), I had this stubborn idea that our first musical period would be totally electronic. But working with a few of the songs, live drums, guitars and electric bass (no, not nose flute) kept raising their heads and I had to surrender and open up to a bigger sound palette.
NEW ORDER have separate electronic and guitar-based tracks, so are you thinking US can fit into this multi-faceted template?
Andrew: We are both fans of NEW ORDER and I think that’s a good idea you have there!
Leo: Again, you’re on point. NEW ORDER has been a great influence and I hope we can do the idea of guitars and electronics justice.
‘Mute’ is particularly poignant, was it inspired by real events?
Andrew: It’s actually a cover of a 90s-era song by STAKKA BO, so we had no lyrical inspiration there. Leo knows Johan Renck, one half of STAKKA BO and now an acclaimed director whose work includes the last two Bowie videos (‘Blackstar’ and ‘Lazarus’), and the MUST WATCH ‘Chernobyl’, which after having seen four of the five episodes is the greatest series I’ve ever seen.
‘Technicolor’ is quite unusual compared with the other tracks on ‘First Contact’ with its Schaffel backbone?
Leo: Originally I experimented with mixing Schaffel parts with straight quantised parts which was very interesting at first, but the song felt a bit more interesting and progressive keeping it “schaffeling” all the way through and that’s how it ended up.
There is a surreal blues tone to ‘The Healer’?
Andrew: Wow, you are very descriptive! I really like your insights, Chi. It felt like it was a sort of downbeat blues-based song when we first came up with it. We left it to the side for a bit but came back to it because it had something that Leo felt he could develop further. The lyrics are a bit stream-of-consciousness, but that often hints at a deeper truth, though in this case I’m not sure I care to explore that further…
Is the visual aspect important to US with the videos and the ‘Close Encounters Of The Third Kind’ scientist imagery?
Leo: I think we’re both into sci-fi movies and futuristic aesthetics and it felt like a natural way to place US into that world. We try to write timeless music and we hope people keep discovering it for many years to come.
You’ve have gone out live, what has the reaction been and what sort of people are US appealing to from the audiences you’ve met?
Andrew: There are fans of both of our bands, people who like electronic music, people we know and people who like to investigate new music.
Leo: The live part is very important to US, and I think we have been a very positive and unexpected pleasure for people that have had no idea about our music beforehand.
So what are the current statuses of GENEVA and LOWE? Is US a long-term project?
Andrew: GENEVA has actually reformed, and we’ll be playing four dates at the StarShaped Festival at the end of August and into September. That’s a wee bit of a nostalgia fest, but it’s actually opening the way for GENEVA to do some writing and we’ll see where it goes, which is great. But I live in Stockholm and my life is here, so it’ll have to fit around that. And can I just say if Leo ever decided to park US, I would be devastated! I’ve been waiting to make music like this all my life, and Leo is the perfect creative foil for me as well as a good friend. I hope we can do a lot more live work to promote this album (limited funds and day jobs currently intervene), and then work on more US music.
Leo: LOWE has never officially split up, you could say it’s on a long-term vacation. It would be great to pick it up some day, even though US is the priority right now.
How do look back on your times with the bands you made your names in?
Andrew: Time tints the glasses a bit, gives them a bit of rosy nostalgia. I’m really proud of GENEVA, and your first band is always really special. That’s why it’s great to be doing something with that project again. But it wasn’t always easy with record company politics, commercial expectations and the pressures of trying to make it work under a very harsh spotlight. Overall it was an amazing but also challenging experience for me, I must say. And I’m grateful for the musical path it set me on, that continues to this day with US.
Leo: Since we started LOWE in 2003, we have been touring all over the world and I’m very thankful (and full of nostalgia) to the fact that I’ve seen places I would never see otherwise. It’s been great to get to know other cultures and music scenes, especially in Eastern Europe where I’ve made many good friends.
Overall, how has the response to ‘First Contact’ been, was it what you hoped for?
Andrew: We’re really happy to have released the album after four years of development. That reviewers like you guys at ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK like it makes US even happier! There have been some lovely reviews and good feedback, and I think it’ll prove to be a grower, word-of-mouth thing. Please just spread the word, as it’s difficult to reach as many people as we’d like without the backing of a full-time organisation or promotion. We’ll continue to promote it in the months ahead.
What’s next for you both, either as US or with other projects?
Andrew: I mentioned the GENEVA project. US plans to play live more after the summer, and see where we can go next with this hugely enjoyable musical adventure.
Leo: I’m personally high on the US-vibe right now and have already ideas for new tracks. I have no doubt this is just the beginning.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its sincerest thanks to US