Music Reviews

Vogon Poetry: The Heart Of Gold

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Synth Pop / Electro Pop / Synth-Electronica
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Jul 25 2017
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
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
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
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.

VV.AA.: Monika Werkstatt

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Synth Pop / Electro Pop / Synth-Electronica
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Jun 19 2017
Artist: VV.AA.
Title: Monika Werkstatt
Format: CD & Vinyl
Label: Monika Enterprise (@)
Legend of German underground music Gudrun Gut’s ambitious collaborative project takes a core of new and original mellow electronic dreampop material and shares it around among more than a dozen musicians who each spin things off in different directions, before the separate threads are re-woven together into a double LP that is somehow both an original album and a remix album at the same time.

The result is an accessible and gentle group of super-soft pop electronica. “Grow”, with B. Morgenstern, has hints of Goldfrapp at their most plaintive. “Green Rain”, including Gudrun Gut herself, has a slightly more driving electro beat that keeps things moving determinedly forward but also has echoes of 80’s new wave in its vocal refrains. “M.B.T.” is a deep techno number with lovely acid squelches melding into its ambience, the only disappointment of which is when it stops abruptly after three and a half minutes when it sounds like it’s warming up into a ten-minute deep techno classic.

Other sections are darker and less radio-friendly, although all the pieces tend to stay short. “Feuerland”, with Beate Bartel, is a beatless layering of whispers and breathing voices over subtle organ sounds with a ghostly effect. “Desert Fruit” is a sinister dream poem packed with distant bass tones and approaching alienating clicks. Longest piece “Witchcraft”, with Sonae, as a familiar but effective mellow glitched soundscape of sparking electrics and long cold synth chords.

More out-there offerings include the very 90’s-flavoured pop-dub of “Ikarus” with Danielle De Picciotto- a must-listen for fans of early 90’s The Orb. The surprisingly autotune-heavy “Repetition” is more playful, almost bordering on silly, while the squelchy funk sound of “Who’s Afraid Of Justin Biber” [sic] is great fun and very Spotify-friendly, while “Ninjaness” with AGF revels in awkward 8-bit processing.

Across the two LP’s you get 87 minutes of music, but with the single CD you’re shortchanged slightly with only 66 minutes of that, losing out on the fourth LP side that has mostly original non-collaborative material credited to Werkstatt as a whole. CD listeners miss out on some of the shorter and arguably less fully-formed techno pieces, such as the ominous “join us” vocal refrain of “Workshop” with Greie Gut Fraktion, the rumbling subbasses of “Schrei” and harsh electro sounds of “555minimal”. “Invisible” has a hint of Ursula Rucker’s style about it.

While all of the musicians involved under the Monika Werkstatt umbrella are female, that really isn’t important; this is not in any way a politically feminist work. At times it could be described as feminine, but then, so can a lot of gentle electronica with soft strung-out female vocals- without having the concept explained, you definitely wouldn’t listen to it and think “that’s a women-only album”, and that, I assume, is the point.

Overall it’s a big bag of really interesting cutting-edge electronica with a broad menu. It’s a really strong collection and while not every track’s a classic, and while some of the tracks feel underbaked or at the least simply too short, there are enough strong ideas in here to make it absolutely worth checking out.

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