Music Reviews

Zea: Agency

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Synth Pop / Electro Pop / Synth-Electronica
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Jun 03 2019
Artist: Zea
Title: Agency
Format: 7"
Label: Subroutine
“Agency” is a sweet-sounding but pointed 7” slab of folksy anti-pop with a political message that spans environmental catastrophe and ex-UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s porcine rumours. Lyrics like “the whole world’s got cancer” and “who should I kill to save this planet?”, sung in English with a fairly heavy Dutch accent, are the unique selling point. There’s a nice rumbling electroacoustic loop pattern that opens it up and runs underneath it, and it’s only this element that really qualifies as ChainDLK territory- everything else is more Billy Bragg or late-era Chumbawamba, no bad thing but not our typical audience expectation.

B-side “My First Friends Were Animals” is quite different. Zea (Arnold de Boer)’s sampler gets a more front-and-centre position over a 100-bpm basic drum machine groove and a novel guitar melody that plinks along somewhere between a sitar and a ukelele. The vocals have been distorted and crushed to the point of being hard to make out. It’s classic B-side territory, in a way, in that it seems to represent an artist experimenting outside their standard comfort zone and willing to mess about, and it works fairly well, though it’s not a classic.

The sharply digital cover art is quite a mis-sell for this half-acoustic, hot-and-cold mix of angry politics and soft acoustic guitar ballads with a politically frustrated message.

Nature of Wires: Reborn

 Posted by Steve Mecca   Synth Pop / Electro Pop / Synth-Electronica
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May 23 2019
Artist: Nature of Wires (@)
Title: Reborn
Format: CD EP
Label: Echozone (@)
Rated: *****
I haven't been this excited about a synthpop band in a long, long time. Maybe you've heard of Nature of Wires, an echo of their beginnings in the early '90s before they faded into obscurity. From the UK (Herefordshire) and originally formed in the 1986 by Gary Watts and Andrew Stirling-Brown, and later joined by Lady B (Sarah Bouchier), they released one now-impossible to find album called 'Modus Operandi' toured a bit, then disappeared. Watts re-emerged in 2015 and teamed up with someone by the name of Countess M. for an album called 'Cyber Rendezvous'(2016). I checked the album out, and it was okay, kind of Gary Numanesque, and the electronically processed vocals of Countess M. sounded more like a guy than a Countess. They weren't particularly strong, but plenty cold and alien. Synthwork was good, but nothing I'd call a hit in the songwriting department. I'd give it a B-. Flash-forward to 2019, Lady B. is back, and so is Andrew Stirling-Brown, and 'Reborn' proves this band is in it for keeps, not just shits and giggles. The opener, "Try" is a killer all the way around, and Lady B.'s vocal recalls the power and glory of Yaz's Alison Moyet. This is EXACTLY what's needed to propel this simple but effective song to the top of the chart. Everything about it screams MEGA-HIT. If it were released in 1983 or so, these folks would be synthpop icons and still collecting royalty checks. Few synthpop songs I’ve heard written in this millennium have this much commercial potential. I’m dead nuts positive that if "Try" were entered in 2019 Eurovision song contest, it would have done way better than Michael Rice's piece of crap that doomed the UK to finish dead last. Not that Nature of Wires is the kind of act that appeals Eurovision's uber-commercial fans and judges, but even they would have had to respect this talent. "Human Nature," the song that follows is almost as good as the opener; the hook isn’t quite as strong, but Lady B's shows a lot of soul in the vocal department. The deeper into this EP, the darker the tracks get, but lose no melodic appeal. "Suffer" is good and does not stray from the formula that has worked so well for the previous tracks. Final track - "Fight" delivers similar quality. All along the way, the synthwork and rhythm by the guys is designed to support, not upstage the vocals, Dark, but not too dark; dance-worthy but not beat-overwhelming; just the right combination of everything. It's almost like this band studied exactly what makes hit material in the synthpop genre, put their own dark spin on it and struck gold. It’s serious, rather than frivolous synthpop, but still serious fun with an emotional kick. This outfit is one to be reckoned with, and I can't wait for the release of their full album 'Modus' this summer.

Analogue-X: Imaginary

 Posted by Steve Mecca   Synth Pop / Electro Pop / Synth-Electronica
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May 09 2019
Artist: Analogue-X (@)
Title: Imaginary
Format: CD + Download
Label: Echozone (@)
Rated: *****
It seems like only yesterday (figuratively speaking) that I was reviewing German-Hungarian electropop band Analogue-X's 'Course of Life' album, and here they are already with a new one- 'Imaginary'. In terms of quality, there's nothing imaginary about 'Imaginary'; the band has significantly upped its game since its last outing. Not that 'Course of Life' was a bad album; it was really pretty good, but 'Imaginary' fulfills the promise of what this band is really capable of. Opening with the fantastical yet semi-low-key "Imaginary World," Analogue-X doesn't show all of its cards in the opening hand. It's a good song with a good hook, good beat and worthy synthtronics but there's an ace up the sleeve, and it's revealed in the killer "Angel of Light" which follows. It's almost as good as Camouflage's "The Great Commandment" (the best song that band ever did) and really kicks ass with its 4-onthe-floor beat and uber-memorable synth hook. Rene Mussbach is a good, but not great vocalist, but here he plays to his strength, which is drawing the listener in and putting an emotional spin on his lyrics rather than powering through them. ALexis Voice's synths work hand-in-glove to support the vocals rather than just show his technical prowess as was often the case on 'Course of Life'. I also noticed that Clarke Gahan is gone, which might have been for the best, if the quality of tracks on 'Imaginary' is any indication. The three tracks that follow are somewhat upbeat and certainly hook-laden, until we get to the romantic ballad, "Facade". It's rare that I hear a synthpop ballad that tears me up on a first listen, but this one did. Susie NLG's subtle backing vocals add a certain depth and sweetness that's a real asset to the performance. The song has a powerful hook too. The band picks up the pace again with "Call Your Name," and something tells me these guys are destined break the "regional" barrier with this album as they raise the bar with great melodic songwriting. It's about this point (8th track) on most albums where the quality tends to flag a bit and the songs coast. There's a modicum of that in "Time of Darkness" but not a big dip. "In My Memory" kicks it back into high gear with catchy synth riffs and a powerful left hook vocal. "Stage of Life" is one of those medium-tempo change-of-pace tracks that may take time to grow on you, and the same could be said for "Dark Moment". "Second Chance" capitalizes on Rene's vocal strengths, albeit with a good beat and synth execution. I expected a little more from final track, "My Guardian Angel" but it turned out not to be the clincher I was hoping for, just a nice melodic ending. Overall though, 'Imaginary' has so much meat on the bone one can't complain of leaving the table hungry. Hungry for more maybe, and we'll see what Analogue-X comes up with in the future, after their fame catches up with their talent.

Kedr Livanskiy: Your Need

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Synth Pop / Electro Pop / Synth-Electronica
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May 03 2019
Artist: Kedr Livanskiy
Title: Your Need
Format: 12" vinyl + CD
Label: 2M Records
After her debut album “Ariadna”, Livanskiy says she felt “trapped by her own image”. The main medication for this issue, she says, was DJ’ing “old school styles of dance music”- ghetto, house, breakbeat and UK garage. So while the experimental, quirky, sonically fairly lightweight synthpop of the first album is still on display, it’s no surprise that it’s now fused with more dancefloor-centric elements.

This is most in evidence on the title track, which is here included in two versions, with the ‘deep mix’ a nice example of old school belearic dreaminess- as is “Sky Kisses”, which will appeal still enjoying the more blissed out tracks on old Beloved albums. “Bounce 2” is a fun throwback to ravier days, with its almost complete lack of bass evoking memories of listening to worn-out or badly recorded mix cassettes, for better or worse.

The alt-pop aesthetic is still very much present however. Every track retains a song structure around three minutes, and tracks like “LED” are sincere and straightforward pop ballads. “Why Love” is an alt-electro-disco highlight, and final track “Ivan Kupala”, with its early 90’s breakbeat, is nicely messy in the best possible way and wraps the album up very nicely indeed.

The ‘ghetto’ element peeks through in certain aspects, such as the rhythms on “City Track” and “Kiska” or the dubby version of “Lugovoy”, but in terms of overall, this remains ‘synthpop doing other rhythms’ rather than anything that would pass as urban music.

It’s a light electro-synthpop release with a lot of character and a personal touch being clearly expressed. It may not be substantial enough for some tastes- either in production depth or due to the brevity of the tracks- but for fairly wistful walking music, this has a lot of merits.
Artist: VV.AA.
Title: Tombstone Trance Vol. 1
Format: Download Only (MP3 + Lossless)
Label: Stabudown Recordings
Stabudown’s compilation album isn’t purely ‘trance’, in any generational use of the word, but a fairly broad collection of almost-entirely-instrumental EDM that spans synthwave, modern electro, synth-industrial, techno and, to a lesser degree, trance in the more early 90’s, less mainroom hands-in-the-air sense. Initially there’s a musical commonality that comes from some heavy and not-just-4/4 percussive elements that provide most of the tracks with a distinct bang, but as the tracks progress, things get more beat-free, introspective and spacious. The result is an earnest pack of tunes that’s so remarkably consistent and planned out that at times you could believe this is an artist album.

TML’s “Goshun” is one of the heavier pieces, thick kicks with stuttering vocal sounds, while CLAWS’s “Scrappy Industrious F.U.” also has the banging attitude but with a production approach that’s so bright it ends up feeling feel-good possibly by accident. Kerridge’s “Death Is Upon Us”, Long Bastard’s “Send” and Bad Tracking’s “Arnos Veil” form a mini-industrial section (the second of those with some vocals, just to mix things up a bit).

Highlights include Koehler’s “Beyond Andromeda”, a deceptively grouping of semi-breakbeat and playful high synth arpeggios that’s strangely infectious. East Side Ancients’ upbeat but coarse-edged dub track “New Happy Fortune” is oddly nostalgic, but in a good way, and it runs nicely into the deeper reverbing delays of Grey People’s “Mourning Etiquette”. This in turn flowers smoothly into the ethereal tones and heartbeats of “Absolute Other” by Organic Dial. The two final tracks, from Vanity Productions and The Rancor Index, complete the descent into downtempo ambience, bordering on drone, and the journey is nicely complete.

It’s a well curated compilation that’s more thoughtful and diverse, and less in-your-face, then the artwork and branding may possibly suggest. Definitely the sound of life at the more interesting side of EDM.

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