Music Reviews

Empire State Human: Christmas Long Gone

 Posted by Maurizio Pustianaz (@)   Synth Pop / Electro Pop / Synth-Electronica
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Dec 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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Dec 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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Dec 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.

Torn Hawk: Union and Return

 Posted by Vito Camarretta (@)   Synth Pop / Electro Pop / Synth-Electronica
Ambient / Electronica / Ethereal / Dub / Soundscapes / Abstract
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Dec 05 2016
Artist: Torn Hawk
Title: Union and Return
Format: LP
Label: Mexican Summer (@)
Rated: *****
"Union and Return" could be considered a personal and somehow joyful way of revamping the Romantic concept of "Sturm und Drang" by Berlin-based audio-visual artist Torn Hawk, if you acknowledge that the primary sources for inspiration for this album were the paintings of two Romantic landscapists like Caspar David Friedrich - I'm pretty sure many people saw his "Wanderer above the Sea of Fog" by leafing through some art history book during school age or as a cover artwork for some reissue of Nietzsche's writing - and Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Prussian city planner, architect and painter who poured his awesome architecture both in likewise remarkable paintings and all over former Prussia. In order to render their aesthetics and above all their poetics, Torn veered towards an impressive interbreeding of simple electronic textures and tidy sounds in between the symphonic majesty of Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schultze, new age-oriented chillwave and frequent raids into sonorities that could remind the dadaism of some child plays, the so-called epic ambient, soundtracks of video games related to the branch of dungeons and dragons and even new wave and synth pop stuff (if you check tracks like "Thornfield", "With My Back to the Tower" or "Our Knives", you will probably notice some echoes of sonorities that got largely used by Depeche Mode, The Chameleons or even The Cure). In the list of possible similarities I'd also include (maybe for some medieval nuances and the use of military snares in some tracks) some stuff by In The Nursery as well. The titles of the eleven tracks on this album are obviously references to Schinkel and Friedrich - for instance, "Feeling is Law" is a reference to a key quotation to understand Friedrich's poetics (he wrote in Thoughts on Art that "the artist’s feeling is his law. Genuine feeling can never be contrary to nature; it is always in harmony with her. But another person’s feelings should never be imposed on us as law. Spiritual affinity leads to similarity in work, but such affinity is something entirely different from mimicry. Whatever people may say of Y’s paintings and how they often resemble Z’s, yet they proceed from Y and are his sole property.") and the whole sonic environment he rendered by means of elegant and sometimes old-fashioned (some sounds seem to be taken from old MIDI presets...) intertwining of electronic patterns, gentle orchestration, smeared pads and layers of electric guitars evoke the vibrant visions of both painters as well as their strong connection with one of the golden age of German culture. If I have to indicate some glitches of Hawk's output, I will point to the limited palette of sounds as well as the already mentioned antique-like nuance, even if some of the most recognizable sonic "antiquities" are ingredients that highlight its charm.

Arctic Sunrise: When Traces End

 Posted by Steve Mecca   Synth Pop / Electro Pop / Synth-Electronica
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Oct 23 2016
Artist: Arctic Sunrise
Title: When Traces End
Format: CD
Label: Echozone (@)
Rated: *****
Sophomore album for the German duo of Torseten Verlinden (vocals) and Steve Baltes (electronics) who are Arctic Sunrise, following on the heels of last year's 'A Smarter Enemy'. While I liked that album well enough, 'When Traces End' is really a better effort, as experience can be a powerful motivator. What I like most about this album is its vibe; a hard to describe quality, but metaphorically, it squeezes the juice out of the darker aspects of 80's electropop distilling it down to a fine concentrate, then embellishes it with a modern millennial sensibility. Songs are moody and introspective, but not pointlessly angst-ridden as some of the gothier projects of the aforementioned bygone decade. The first couple of tracks have a Cure-ish sound to them musically. I really like the beat and descending staccato eighth-note synth line of second track, "Tell the Truth". The semi-cynical lyrics referring to people who lie to make themselves look good really resonated with me. The ambiguous "Mine Forever" might initially sound like an eulogistic love song to a deceased lover, but delve a little deeper and you can envision a psychopathic murder ballad. The guys create a great wistful atmosphere on "Let It Rain" and a kind of sinister one on "Over Me". Uptempo title track "When Traces End" may not have a dynamic hook, but it has plenty else going for it, vocally, lyrically and instrumentally. The warranted cynicism of "A Lifetime to Disagree" speaks volumes to the plight of so many who have to tow the corporate/party line just to survive, and the (futile) future of someday - "When I am older - a lifetime to disagree - I will be bolder...". "The End of Things" succinctly chronicles a resolute break-up, but in the downtempo "Your Eyes" it appears there is some melancholia for the loss. I would have liked a snappier, less brooding and more positive end to the album, but perhaps that would have been out of character. As is though, there is plenty to enjoy here, and I think the more it's played, the more it will grow on you. I said it before, and I say it again, this is thinking man's synthpop, devoid of the cliched silliness you often find in the genre, and we all could use some good music worth sinking your ears (and $$) into.

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