Music Reviews

Parade Ground: Cut Up

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Synth Pop / Electro Pop / Synth-Electronica
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Dec 02 2016
Artist: Parade Ground
Title: Cut Up
Format: CD + Download
Label: Other Voices Records
Belgian duo Parade Ground released a serious of singles in the 1980’s, followed by the “Cut Up” LP & CD in 1988. Then they disappeared off the scene for almost twenty years, before reforming and getting moderately prolific on the albums front from 2007 onwards. Other Voices Records has dug up the original 1988 LP and is re-issuing it as a download and a limited-edition CD.

So while Other Voices and plenty of other labels are putting out synthwave material that desperately wants to sound like it was made in the 80’s, this is an authentic 80’s work- and a really strong one at that. Some of the production has understandably dated somewhat- it probably wasn’t cutting edge even in ‘88- but it’s still a great listen.

It’s synth music with a dark edge, but it’s certainly not inaccessible. “Modern Hunting” has guitar elements that are a little bit New Order. Some of the grooves have hints of OMD. Vocally there’s a bit of a Julian Cope sound in there, yet on “Such Is The Bow” things go quite Marc Almond-y. There are contemporary comparisons aplenty. It has one foot in the cold dark geekiness of electronics, but the other foot in the sound of early 80’s indie rock as well.

It’s maybe clear that “Cut Up” didn’t trouble the pop charts too much in ‘88 thanks to a slight shortage of the catchy pop hook choruses that were required to compete for radioplay.

At 9 tracks and 36 minutes it’s a short and sweet collection of forgotten synthpop that’s definitely worth revisiting.

Plus, copies of the ‘88 CD sell for high sums online, and as a limited edition, the 2016 CD might turn out to be a good investment too!

M-Fast: Videoband

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Synth Pop / Electro Pop / Synth-Electronica
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Dec 01 2016
Artist: M-Fast
Title: Videoband
Format: Tape
Label: Other Voices Records
Recorded between 2011 and 2013 but released (digitally and on limited edition cassette) in 2016, “Videoband” revisits the sonics of the 8-bit computer era, but mostly opens it up into a broader, more lavish production space.

The instrumental melodies are bold, catchy and strong. There are hints of early Human League and Depeche Mode. The intro suggests that it will open up into broad workspaces like Tangerine Dream or Jean-Michel Jarre, but for the most part it remains tight, and restrained. It’s the sound of analogue tech and bedroom computer enthusiasts, not the sound of epic sci-fi.

“Arcade Bastards” is a highlight, a euphoric chord sequence and driving lo-fi beats that could easily have soundtracked a racing game from 1988. There are points at which the deliberate adherence to thirty-year-old technology does make the overall sound feel a little constrained and muddy, and you wonder whether a little bit of modern EQ and mastering might have made it sound better, but it’s certainly not weak.

Other highlights included the slightly French electrofunk-tinged “Disco Turbulence” and the bright poppiness of “Fox Hunting”.

It’s an hour-long hybrid (or 50 minutes if you discount the two cassette-only bonus tracks), halfway between a ‘normal’ album and a remix album, with remixes from other artists shuffled in amongst the originals. Sonically, you don’t really notice the difference- the transition is seamless. The Werdes rework of “Arcade Bastards” acts more like an extended reprise than a remix. Without reading the tracklist you would assume just a single artist was at the helm throughout, and over the course of an hour, it perhaps falls just a little short in the variety stakes.

When it comes to 1980’s vibes there’s a fine line between faithful tribute and cheesy pastiche, and at times “Videoband” jumps, briefly, over that line. But it’s having a lot of fun doing it, and the result is a solid bit of authentic-sounding retrowave.

Empire State Human: Christmas Long Gone

 Posted by Maurizio Pustianaz (@)   Synth Pop / Electro Pop / Synth-Electronica
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Nov 27 2016
Artist: Empire State Human
Title: Christmas Long Gone
Format: MCD (Mini CD)
Label: Banoffeesound
Rated: *****
With the 2014 release of the album "The Dark", I thought that Empire State Human finished their adventure. Aidan Casserly after that album kept himself busy releasing tons of great music under different monikers like Glass Dancer, Ferrochrome, KuBo or his own name, to name a few. With "Christmas Long Gone", Empire State Human are back with four "new" songs plus a fifth one available only on the CD version. It's not clear to me if Lar is still a band member or if now Aidan is taking care of everything but I can say that the new EP has the same quality of the previous releases. The opening "Christmas Long Gone" is a new version of a track they gave for free some years ago and this version is melancholic but also powerful: the wobbling bass empower the structure while the rarefied atmosphere we find on some moments, help the creation of a melancholic aurea that works as counterpart. The other four songs are instrumentals that sound like an hybrid from the old synthpop E.S.H. songs and the tense ambient soundtracks that Aidan wrote during the last few years. This effect is more evident on the mid tempo "Fathoms" and on the spacey quasi ambient "Solar Trips". This is the nineteenth of Banoffeesound, a label that begun to release music only the last year but that have already got the attention of synthpop music lovers.

The Thought Criminals: Dirty Electro

 Posted by Steve Mecca   Synth Pop / Electro Pop / Synth-Electronica
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Nov 20 2016
Artist: The Thought Criminals (@)
Title: Dirty Electro
Format: CD EP
Label: WTII Records (@)
Rated: *****
Not to be confused with the Aussie punk band from the late 70's, early 80's by the same name, these Thought Criminals are a London, UK-based electropop band formed in 2005 with Kirlian Blue (synths, backing vocals), Rocky Goode (vocals, lyrics) and Danny Fades (bass). 'Dirty Electro' is their 5th release since 2007 counting an album and three
maxi-singles. This is a band with plenty of attitude, as evidenced by titles of previous songs such as "Cyberslut," "Date Rape Lovers," "Pappa's Got a Brand New Gun," "My Baby's a Suicide Bomber," etc. I wouldn't say that their style has changed much over the last decade, but the 'Dirty Electro' 5-track EP does find the band a bit more focused, and perhaps more serious. Being produced by veterans Tony Messenger and Rob Henry likely helped as well.

Beginning with the guaranteed club hit and title track, The Thought Criminals conjure early 80's style electropop in the vein of Soft Cell, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, New Order, Gary Numan, OMD, etc. Killer hook, and a slowed-down instrumental break make this a potent track indeed. Some might argue the slowed-down instrumental break kills the dance momentum, but I disagree; it's what make the song really stand out. While "Dirty Electro" is upfront and in your face, "Watching You" sounds a little distant, as if it was recorded down the hall. A song about the paranoia of surveillance (and London is one of the most surveilled cities on earth), nobody's gotten as much mileage out of the words "watching me, watching you" since the Thompson Twins. Still, it delivers. The somewhat spare "Depression" offers plenty of clever lyrics ("Low grade depression, look at my expression, I'm three of the nicest people that you'll ever meet...") and still kills it for the
dancefloor. The big surprise though is "Into the Lebanon," a messy instrumental track that just may be the most creative thing on the EP; a cornucopia of wiggy analog synth sounds cooked up by Mr. Blue reminiscent of the earliest Human League. Final track "Eat Me on the
Dance Floor" makes good use of Rocky's cheekiness in the vocal and lyric department, even though it's a definite B-sider. So if you like your electropop with a bit of attitude you will undoubtedly like this EP

Spray: Living in Neon - An Introduction to Spray, Vol. 1

 Posted by Steve Mecca   Synth Pop / Electro Pop / Synth-Electronica
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Nov 07 2016
Artist: Spray (@)
Title: Living in Neon - An Introduction to Spray, Vol. 1
Format: 2 x CD (double CD)
Label: Banoffeesound (@)
Rated: *****
For those of you that have never heard, nor heard of Spray, 'Living in Neon - An Introduction to Spray, Vol. 1' will prove a godsend. As a remedial tutorial, Spray is a Brit synthpop band consisting of bro-sis duo Ricardo Autobahn (synths, programming, production) and Jenny McLaren (vocals), active since 2001. (Prior to that, Ricardo and Jenny were with the Cuban Boys...maybe you caught the Hamster Dance, aka "Cognoscenti Vs Intelligentsia" on YouTube ?) 'Living in Neon' was their 2002 debut album, and here it is in all its glory, and then some. Since the release of that, Spray has done two more albums (one of which I reviewed not too long ago) plus a bunch of singles and EPs. Now for you Spray fans, you may be saying, well, I already have 'Living in Neon', why should I buy it again? Well dude (and dudette), because there is an extra CD in this package containing remixes, and previously unreleased and non-album tracks, and most of these are pretty neat. This is coming from a reviewer who usually LOATHES remixes. So obviously, this review is going to be more about the 2nd CD than the main CD, which has probably already been reviewed to death elsewhere by people more glib, insightful and snarky than me. However, I DO have a few observations, as I haven't actually heard the whole album previously.

First, it's rare that a band has such stellar professional production on a debut album, and kudos to Spray for that. Even the non-A list tracks are given a big huge sound. The B-siders such as "I Kill With My Car" and "She's a Brainiac" are songs that other synthpoppers would be lucky to come close to. Spray's sound on 'Living in Neon' is uber-commercially viable, but unlike other guilty pleasure and slightly underground acts, you will find yourself rooting for their unbridled success. Everything on 'Living in Neon' is bright, happy and poppy, but there's a big tongue-in-cheek element here. It's sort of like crossing Julie Brown with Abba; you're not really sure... So yeah, 'Living in Neon' is a killer album, and this version dispenses with the bonus track remixes of "Child of the 80s," "I Am Gothic," and "Spaced," and adds "Whizz for Atoms," "The Story of My Life is an FX Showreel," "Don't You Know Who I Am?," "Don't Go" (cover of the Yaz song), ""Mean Green Mother from Outer Space," and "Living in Xenon". While a few of these songs have appeared before elsewhere, none of them surpass the best material on 'Living in Neon,' but they're good fun and quite enjoyable all the same. 19 tracks makes this one CD a very worthy item all by itself.

Now for CD 2. It opens with the Alternative Main Titles version of "Living in Neon". Reminds me a bit of The Birthday Massacre's "Happy Birthday" sans guitars and gone orchestral. Occupant's Occumix of "I Am Gothic" is a stripped down synth-forward version of the mega-hit. Vocals are a lot clearer in this version. Thumbs up! Alternate version of "I Keep Missing the Love Boat" is beat-heavy and clubby. "We Are the Martians" was a demo for the Smashed mashed potato martians (whatever that is), a fun, but not essential track in Spray's oeuvre. Raindancer's remix of "I Am Gothic" is typical of club remixes; put it in a new groove, extend it and leave just enough of the original to know what song it is. Strictly for club DJs. "The Debonaire Spy Theme' is a previously unreleased instrumental that's kind of nice. "We Read It On the Internet" (It Must Be True) is another previously unreleased track, rejected from the original 'Living in Neon' album. Manic and amusing, it will take a few listenings to absorb it all. "Singing for England" was previously released as a single and is bonafide hit material. "Theme from the Manchester 2001 Film Festival" is a cool, heavy instrumental, but a little filler-esque. The Synomatik mix of "I Am Gothic" is novelty nonsense with pitched-shifted vocals and other effluvia. "Playing with the Big Boys" is another previously unreleased 'Living in Neon' reject. Don't know why it was rejected as it's actually very good. "Steppin' Up (Steppin' In)" is just club fodder rubbish. "Child of the 80s 2008" was taken from the compilation album 'Macabre Park' and doesn't sound radically different from the original to me. The 12" version of the feminist anthem "Leave It to the Girls, Boys" extends the song by a few minutes and mixes in some chauvinistic dialogue to prove its point. The manically paced "Tim Eames (The DJ of Your Dreams)" is a bit of a Brit spoof on the BCB radio dj, but of course, I have no idea who he is, except maybe the wanker Spray make him out to be. "We Are Gothic" is yet another version of "I Am Gothic," anthemic in its plurality, I can visualize a big production dance number in a graveyard for the chorus; maybe film it at Whitby 2017. There's also an unlisted (hidden) track, a tougher, compact version of "I Keep Missing the Loveboat" that has a vocal that sounds a lot more like Alison Moyet than Jenny McClaren. Liked that one more than the original.

All in all, this is an incredible "bang for the buck" even if that buck is going to set you back 10GBP ($12.50 or so, U.S.) so I highly recommend you get yourself a copy. For some, this may be all the Spray you ever need, but for many, the expanded 'Living In Neon' will open the door to becoming a diehard Spray fan.

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