Music Reviews



Circa Tapes: Love And Venom

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Synth Pop / Electro Pop / Synth-Electronica
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Jul 31 2017
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Artist: Circa Tapes
Title: Love And Venom
Format: Download Only (MP3 + Lossless)
Label: Medical Records
A richly textured concoction of dark synthwave, Adam Killing (of Kill Memory Clash)’s third solo album as “Circa Tapes” is a moody collection of slightly muddy-sounding, sinister-ish dark electropop that’s quite enjoyably indulgent. Sometimes Cabaret Voltaire-style vocals float over the pop of slowly evolving layers of synthetic loops, light drums and moody pads.

There’s no problem locking into some solid synth grooves here, though the songwriting and structuring does sometimes feel a bit languid. Some pieces, like “SLS”, take the synth work in a more techno direction and leave you wondering what a reworking would sound like with thicker, more club-orientated drums and structures. “Carravo” sounds like it’s desperate to break into a slab of deep house.

A handful of interludes, such as “Alucarda” mixing imitation choral sounds with filmic soundbites, have an almost tongue-in-cheek feel to them.

The modern and brighter production touches, particularly on the bass elements, are what make this sound like a 2017 release rather than something truly backwards-facing. It still has a very introspective, almost shy tone, as though “nervous dark synthpop” ought to be the beginning of a new genre.

Vogon Poetry: The Heart Of Gold

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Synth Pop / Electro Pop / Synth-Electronica
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Jul 25 2017
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Artist: Vogon Poetry
Title: The Heart Of Gold
Format: Download Only (MP3 + Lossless)
Label: self-released
While Vogon Poetry owe the name of their band, this single, previous single and forthcoming album “Life The Universe And Everything” entirely to Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy”, sonically their retro synthwave seems to be targeting just a few years later than “Hitchhiker’s” was released, channeling a mid to late-80’s electropop sound with thick drum machine kicks, bright synth arpeggios and simple one-note basslines. A long-note-friendly male vocal croons over the top.

The lyrics are all a tribute to the eponymous spaceship’s first appearance in the “Hitchhiker’s” story as well, making this effectively a piece of indulgent fan-tribute pop. I was half expecting the music video to be populated by people in dressing gowns waving towels alongside people with prosthetic second heads. I wasn’t far off- there’s so cosplay involved, but plenty of (presumably unlicensed) video extracts from the 2005 movie.

The package comprises the original version and three remixes, all of which stay firmly in synthpop territory and never stray far enough from the original to justify their existence. The Peter Bolmehag remix in particular has all the same flavours as the original. Egil Axelsson’s remix ups the pace of the synth patterns with a long drumless intro that sounds like it’s going to break into happy hardcore before settling into something more like U96. Oren Amram’s remix, after a classy intro, settles into a steady and familiar groove with an arrangement of sounds reminiscent of early Erasure at times. A bundle of remixes that dared to try different genres and being less respectful to the original would have been more interesting to hear.

I’m not sure the world needed another piece of “Hitchhiker’s Guide”-related fan pop, but this is a reasonably polished and high quality bit of synthpop that should have a fairly wide appeal even to people too young to get any references to froods or Pan-Galactic Gargle Blasters. Vogon Poetry are not, in this case, the third worst in the universe.

Negative Response: Oblique Angles

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Synth Pop / Electro Pop / Synth-Electronica
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Jul 20 2017
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Artist: Negative Response
Title: Oblique Angles
Format: 12" vinyl + Download
Label: Medical Records
“Oblique Angles” gathers together selected tracks that Negative Response released on cassette between 1981 and 1983. This is lo-fi proto-electro-pop with live bass and slightly Joy Division-esque twang guitar over lightweight drum machine patterns and squelchy, playful, Eno-esque analogue electronic wobbliness. There are vocals, which are sometimes a little weak, both in performance terms and low in the mix.

The almost waltz-like rhythm of opener “A New Beginning” is strangely compulsive. “Citizen Europe” drops in some foreign-language radio broadcasts to good effect. “Calm Before The Storm” is a more conventional and structured bit of early synthpop writing that in a parallel universe could’ve been something from the first Depeche Mode album. “Touch” is in a similar vein but sounds rather laboured, but things end on a high with the longer track “Utopia” that places spaced-out echo-heavy vocals over a busy electro bassline and some thick, organic, loosely out-of-time tom slapping.

The audio tracks have been lifted from cassette and the overall quality is audibly a bit fuzzy despite some valiant mastering. Despite being a compilation, to people new to Negative Response it plays like a 35-minute, 9-track lost early 80’s lo-fi album. It’s not a lost classic, but fans of that early 80’s evolving sound will enjoy it enough to justify it being unearthed.

Xordox: Neospection

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Synth Pop / Electro Pop / Synth-Electronica
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Jul 17 2017
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Artist: Xordox
Title: Neospection
Format: CD & Vinyl
Label: Editions Mego
A man of many aliases, JG Thirlwell’s solo release under the Xordox monicker is a purist bit of instrumental synthwave that frequently sounds like a Jean-Michel Jarre album with the lead melodies removed. At times it’s also close to the stereotype of what background sci-fi game music sounds like. It’s purely synthetic, with warm repetitive analogue basslines stepping along while beepy arpeggios, analogue synth power chords and effects flounce melodramatically on top.

The album is spoilt for choice for opening numbers, with “Diamonds”, “Antidote” and “Alto Velocidad” all sounding like epic opening preludes, hinting at a heavy Pendulum-esque hands-in-the-air section that never arrives.

“Corridor” is notable for having the strong lead hook line that most of the other tracks lack, ending up only a remix away from being a hands-in-the-air trance hit. The quirky warbling synth line of “Deep Shelter” is also one of the stronger moments. The other memorable element is the spoken-word manta on “Destination: Infinity” (“destination… destiny… destination… infinity…”) which is so corny that I have to give it the benefit of the doubt and assume it’s tongue-in-cheek.

While the other tracks all come in roughly around the six minute mark, closing track “Asteroid Belt” is the exception- a nearly fifteen-minute deeper adventure into space and ambience, which starts off boldly start, although by the three minute mark steady bassline patterns begin to emerge and it returns to slightly more business-as-usual, but with an extra degree of measured patience compared to the rest, and an extra willingness to explore unusual tonal changes.

This album walks a well-trodden path, but it does it with a smooth earnestness that makes it an enjoyable listen anyway. Some extra ingredients would need to be added to make it stand out- vocals or samples maybe, or perhaps a slightly grittier edge. As it is, it’s a polished but just slightly forgettable bit of straight-laced synthwave.

BoyKingIslands: Pastels

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Synth Pop / Electro Pop / Synth-Electronica
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Jun 27 2017
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Artist: BoyKingIslands
Title: Pastels
Format: Download Only (MP3 + Lossless)
Label: Youngbloods
I’ll openly admit to being unfamiliar with Boy King Island’s three proper albums, so is this “demos and rarities” collection one of those studio floor sweepings that unearths some amazing gems and works as a successful album in its own right, or is this a collection of leftovers and offcuts whose non-inclusion on their other works was totally justified? The answer is somewhere inbetween the two.

There are some well-rounded whole pieces in here, such as the mellow, faintly Lemon Jelly-ish quirky downtempo of “Finally Home”, or the faintly sultry “Blue In Black”. It’s been neatly segued together so that tracks like “Memory Loop” and “See Through Your Eyes”, less than a minute long each, feel like movements of a longer whole rather than isolated cul-de-sacs. Ideas like “Chords From Snow” could easily have been explored in much greater depth.

There are also some random and abortive musical dead-ends. “A Tear & A Smile” has the feel of a lazy strumming experiment that never really took life, and the guitar demo version of “Echoes” sounds like an indulgent teenager noodling with a new electric guitar effects pedal in his bedroom. The demo versions of tracks like “All Green & White” have that lo-fi, giving-less-than-100% feel that you get when the performer knows it’s only a demo.

At 36 minutes for 18 tracks, the result is a patchwork quilt of ideas, many of them half baked, but thanks to some careful sequencing it holds together well enough to make an interesting and somewhat random listen.


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