A-HA, OMD & TOM BAILEY Live

The opening night of a-ha’s 31-date Electric Summer tour yielded plenty of surprises, as Barry Page discovered…

The home of Kent County Cricket Club, the Spitfire ground has been doubling up as a music venue since Elton John brought his Red Piano tour to the beautiful, historic city of Canterbury in June 2006. Twelve years later, three acts synonymous with pop music’s greatest decade – the 1980s – played to a largely enthusiastic crowd on a balmy spring day.

Since his return to the pop music fray in 2014, following a lengthy absence, 62-year old Tom Bailey has become something of a permanent fixture on the festival circuit, delighting fans and nostalgia-hungry crowds with a selection of hits culled from the back catalogue of his former band, the Thompson Twins. A warm-up concert at SUB89 in Reading in August 2014 – which this writer was lucky enough to be present at – marked the start of a journey that will culminate with the release of his first ever solo album, Science Fiction, next month. “It’s exciting,” he says, “because rediscovering the ability to play live and write pop music has been part of a personal transformation. I started off full of fear and all sorts of ‘oh no I can’t do that, and I can’t do that’. But, little by little, I’ve rediscovered that it’s okay. It’s fun and it’s really interesting.”

Boasting outstanding cuts such as ‘Ship Of Fools’, ‘If You Need Someone’ and 2016’s comeback single, ‘Come So Far’, Science Fiction is a fine album that fans of his former band will undoubtedly be pleased with. Also included on the PledgeMusic-funded new album is a track titled, somewhat prophetically, ‘Bring Back Yesterday’, a title that seems to perfectly encapsulate the nostalgic mood of the Kent crowd who, rightly or wrongly, expect to hear the hits. As Bailey told The Guide in 2016, “You’re known for your best work so it would be foolish for me to walk out to a crowd and say, ‘Here are ten songs I wrote last week’. You have to earn permission for that.”

During their mid-80s heyday, which included a memorable performance at Live Aid with Madonna on backing vocals, the Thompson Twins racked up a slew of hit singles. Sadly, the lowly 45-minute slot ensures that Bailey and his fabulous all-female band – which includes Emily Dolan Davies, a former member of The Darkness – can’t play them all. But the allocation is lengthy enough to remind the crowd that the Thompson Twins produced some truly classic pop singles in their pomp, including ‘Hold Me Now’, ‘Doctor! Doctor!’, ‘You Take Me Up’ and their first Top 10 hit, ‘Love On Your Side’, which still raises a smile with its clever interpolation of 1982’s ‘In The Name Of Love’. The arrangements are largely true to the studio recordings, but US hit ‘King For A Day’ is presented in a slightly slower, bossa nova style; replete with lyrical tweaks (“Diamond rings/ And all that bling”). The visuals feature a combination of graphics and lyrics, and the band also daringly throw in the Latin America-inspired current single, ‘What Kind Of World’, which includes some infectious Cuban vocal samples. The band endure some software problems which results in some occasionally off-key vocals, but overall it’s a very enjoyable set that is well received by the sun-baked crowd.

Equally adept on both the festival circuit and indoor venues are synth-pop pioneers Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, who had actually once supported the Thompson Twins on a lengthy US jaunt – The Tour Of Future Days – in late 1985/early 1986.

Since the band’s official reformation in 2005, OMD have enjoyed something of a career renaissance; rivalled only by that of Gary Numan’s. As the social media reaction will later attest, the band win a plethora of new admirers after an outstanding 70-minute, hits-packed set.

“Tonight, Matthew, we’re gonna be a Blues Brothers tribute band,” declares singer and bassist Andy McCluskey, before launching into their first Top 10 hit, ‘Enola Gay’. By the time of the band’s arrival on stage – which is still facing the glare of a powerful early evening sun – the throng has significantly swelled, and the well-rehearsed band feed off the energy and enthusiasm of the audience. Some early sound problems are eradicated once a fresh microphone has been installed for set perennial ‘Tesla Girls’, but a confident and jovial McCluskey is undeterred as he cajoles the crowd into pogoing along to ‘History Of Modern (Part One)’, a highly energetic live favourite that’s essentially about the end of mankind (“Everyone you love/ Everyone you hate/ All will be erased and replaced”).

Whilst it’s a sprightly McCluskey who largely provides OMD’s focal point, keyboardist Paul Humphreys is also afforded a turn in the spotlight as he arrives centre stage for a run-through of the band’s final UK hit of the 1980s, ‘(Forever) Live And Die’.

“I don’t think I’ve ever played at a cricket pitch before… with or without pads,” announces McCluskey, before launching into ‘If You Leave’, the huge US hit that formed part of the soundtrack for the classic Pretty In Pink movie. It’s become something of a divisive song amongst OMD’s fans since its release in 1986, but there’s no denying the quality of 58-year old McCluskey’s vocal and Martin Cooper’s saxophone solo on this mid-set number. Such is the band’s proficiency, one concert-goer flippantly suggests that the band are miming!

A longstanding part of OMD’s live set over the years has been what McCluskey has termed the ‘pastoral section’, frontloaded with a triple header of Top 5 hits from 1981’s classic album, Architecture And Morality, which still remains the pinnacle of their career. On the Humphreys-sung ‘Souvenir’, McCluskey takes a now-customary wander around the stage as he picks out the simple bass notes, while ‘Joan Of Arc’ and ‘Maid Of Orleans’ showcase the considerable talents of drummer Stuart Kershaw, an often overlooked figure in the history of OMD, despite having co-written some fabulous songs over the years. Since stepping into the breach following the unfortunate departure of original drummer, Malcolm Holmes, Kershaw has added a fresh dynamic and, with his powerful drumming, has become an integral part of the band’s live set-up.

‘Talking Loud And Clear’, which Duran Duran’s John Taylor once described as having a ‘nursery rhyme’ feel, gives McCluskey something of a breather after a typically frenetic workout during the climax of ‘Maid Of Orleans’. There’s a slightly clumsy end to the track and a few quizzical looks between members, but no-one seems to notice. “We must be doing something right,” announces McCluskey. “There’s no queue at the Prosecco tent!”

When the band’s original line-up disbanded at the end of the 80s, McCluskey embarked on a solo journey; utilizing the OMD moniker, but with mixed results. The excellent Universal album proved to be that particular era’s swansong, but it produced one bona fide classic single in ‘Walking On The Milky Way’, which the Canterbury crowd are treated to. In concert the band haven’t quite been able to replicate the magic of the studio recording and the lack of the Hannah Clive backing vocal sample further exposes its frailties, but it’s well received by a crowd who are clearly receptive to the song’s nostalgic tones.

Whilst the set leans heavily on the hits, the band indulge the crowd with the title track of last year’s critically-acclaimed 13th studio album, The Punishment Of Luxury. Whilst some of the lyrics are questionable (“Can I have my cheque please, Sir?”), the track boasts a memorable Kraftwerkian melody, and the “hey! hey! hey!”s provide another opportunity for the audience to interact.

There’s a return to the hits with the Caribbean-flavoured ‘Locomotion’ and a double-header of singles from 1991’s Sugar Tax album, ‘Pandora’s Box’ and ‘Sailing On The Seven Seas’, while the band’s oldest song, ‘Electricity’, rounds the set off in style.

It’s now almost 40 years since Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark formed – something the band will commemorate with some special shows in the autumn – and this rapturously received set certainly consolidated their reputation as one of the finest live acts around at the moment.

“It’s a huge privilege to be able to go out and play in front of enthusiastic audiences 30 years down the line – not a lot of artists get that opportunity” – Magne Furuholmen


It’s been almost four months since a-ha completed their MTV Unplugged tour at the O2 arena. The process of reimagining key songs from their vast back catalogue has clearly reenergised the Norwegian trio, and much of the new set list on the opening night of the Electric Summer tour expands on this approach. “You have to reinvent things,” Pål Waaktaar recently told The Yorkshire Post. “It has to feel fresh, so even the ones we always play, you try to give them a different spin or really bring it back to the way it was at the core.” Certainly, it would be so easy for the band at this stage in their career to run through perfunctory versions of their hits, but they deserve credit for continuing to challenge themselves musically. Sections of the Canterbury crowd are not so receptive to some of the new arrangements, and the band are understandably rusty after a four-month break away from the live stage, but it’s nevertheless a fine set, with some intriguing twists and turns.

By the time the band appear at 8:30, the temperature has noticeably dipped. Featuring the same line-up as the MTV Unplugged tour – sans multi-instrumentalist Lars Horntveth – the band launch into ‘Cry Wolf’. Morten Harket endures some problems with his in-ear monitors, a sight that his audiences are well used to witnessing. “It’s about trying to hear what I’m doing myself,” he once told the Norwegian journalist, Jan Omdahl. “And because I use the voice over such a large spectrum – not only high and low – but also in intonation and levels of sensitivity, it demands a lot. It’s a shitty job for the soundman to work with me.”

Whilst the set leans heavily on the band’s singles, deep cuts such as ‘The Weight Of The Wind’ get a much welcome airing, as does Magne Furuholmen’s ‘This Is Our Home’, a beautiful new song which was debuted during last summer’s shows in Giske.

Other tracks that haven’t been played for several years include ‘The Blood That Moves The Body’ and ‘Minor Earth Major Sky’, which boasts a more electronic foundation than its studio counterpart. But perhaps the biggest surprise of the set is the inclusion of ‘Train Of Thought’. Not the version of the band’s third Top 10 hit that most people are used to, but an arrangement that’s closer to the original demo recorded at John Ratcliff’s Rendezvous studio circa 1983; replete with alternative lyrics and a distinctive guitar riff that was later used on ‘Cold River’ (see 1990’s East Of The Sun, West Of The Moon).

Elsewhere, ‘Manhattan Skyline’ is presented in a more stripped-back arrangement and boasts a more ambient introduction. Towards the end of the song, as Harket gazes admiringly at Waaktaar’s guitar playing – which is excellent throughout – he misses his vocal cue; a sign perhaps of some opening show nerves.

Set mainstay, ‘Stay On These Roads’, features a lovely cello solo and some fabulous organ flourishes, while ‘I’ve Been Losing You’ includes a sneaky snatch of The Doors’ ‘Riders On The Storm’ in the song’s dramatic climax.

The crowd are a little subdued throughout, and there are some audible moans and groans about Harket’s apparent failure to interact with the crowd in the same way as OMD’s loquacious singer had done in the previous set – it’s a criticism that has followed him around for years. “I’ve never been uncomfortable being a frontman,” he told The Guardian in 2016. “I’ve always known that to be my position, but I’m not a showman. I’m not an entertainer, I’m an engager.” Furuholmen remains the band’s onstage spokesman, and he manages to rouse the crowd for a finale that includes the band’s only UK No.1 hit, ‘The Sun Always Shines On T.V.’, and James Bond theme, ‘The Living Daylights’.

Since its inception in a Manglerud nursery school basement in 1981, transatlantic hit ‘Take On Me’ has seen many changes, culminating in a beautiful ballad arrangement premiered last year. This time round, the band return to the version most people are familiar with, but with some funkier guitar elements. It’s the final number of the evening and, despite some of the criticisms – with one disgruntled fan even claiming that they have lost the plot – the band have delivered once again.


Tom Bailey set list: Love On Your Side / What Kind Of World / You Take Me Up / King For A Day / Lies / Lay Your Hands On Me / Doctor! Doctor! / Hold Me Now

OMD set list: Enola Gay / Messages / Tesla Girls / History Of Modern (Part One) / (Forever) Live And Die / If You Leave / Souvenir / Joan Of Arc / Maid Of Orleans (The Waltz Joan Of Arc) / Talking Loud And Clear / Walking On The Milky Way / The Punishment Of Luxury / Locomotion / Pandora’s Box / Sailing On The Seven Seas / Electricity

a-ha set list: Cry Wolf / The Blood That Moves The Body / Minor Earth Major Sky / Lifelines / The Weight Of The Wind / Crying In The Rain / Foot Of The Mountain / Analogue (All I Want) / Train Of Thought / Stay On These Roads / This Is Our Home / Manhattan Skyline / Hunting High And Low / I’ve Been Losing You / The Sun Always Shines On T.V. / Scoundrel Days / The Living Daylights / Take On Me


All photographs by Barry Page

Special thanks to Sara Page


www.a-ha.com
www.facebook.com/officialaha
twitter.com/aha_com

www.omd.uk.com
www.facebook.com/omdofficial
twitter.com/OfficialOMD

www.thompsontwinstombailey.com
www.facebook.com/ThompsonTwinsTomBailey
twitter.com/TomBaileyTour


MARCONI UNION Live In London

Ethereal electronica..

Ambient outfit Marconi Union are probably best known for their soothing composition ‘Weightless’, a piece whose genesis arrived after consultation with a sound therapist. The finished work was considered “the most relaxing tune ever” (to the point where people were advised not to listen to it while driving!).

The 3-piece electronic band have been in operation since 2003’s Under Wires and Searchlights album, which marked their debut. Since then, Jamie Crossley, Duncan Meadows and Richard Talbot have steadily built up a profile for textured, instrumental music.

The announcement that Marconi Union were performing possibly their only concert this year generated enough interest for a sold out event. The fact that the band had also invited Digitonal and Fire_Sign along as support just added the icing to this particular cake. Selecting St Pancras Old Church as the venue of choice also gave the event a suitably dignified backdrop.

Digitonal opened the evening’s musical delights with an impressive performance. Andrew Dobson has been ploughing his own particular brand of electronic music since the 1990s. There’s a serene beauty to much of Digitonal’s cinematic electronica, which takes on fresh qualities for live performances as witnessed at the 22rpm event earlier in the year (see TEC review).

As at 22rpm, Andrew is joined on stage by Dom Graveson to combine widescreen visuals with relaxing ambient elements that tonight revolve around a circular motif. Throughout the set, titles appear on the screen to give each piece a suitable theme.

Things start slowly with a low ambience broken only by sporadic bursts of electronic chatter (actually sampled computer noises from the film Alien). A slow tracking shot of a brightly lit forest appears as an indistinct ghostly vocal drifts back and forth. A profound message states: ‘A Very Easy Place To Disappear’ before segueing into a static seascape shot accompanied by a melancholic tone and soft clarinet elements.

As the soundtrack itself slowly evolves, so too do the visual projections, mesmerising the audience with starscapes and planets. A hymnal organ beats a steady refrain as dub-like effects drop in and out. Striking images of spacecraft fill the screen as the music takes on an evocative quality. There’s a sense of isolation delivered through a series of blighted landscape shots with subtle choral elements accompanying the music.

The space theme continues with a simple title: ‘Into The Infinite’ accompanied by an extreme camera zoom out to a galaxy-wide perspective. There’s a more bass-heavy foundation for the music at this point, peppered by odd electronic percussive effects. This also includes live clarinet work that lends a welcome organic element to the piece.

Fire_Sign first cropped up on TEC’s radar back in 2017 With their song ‘Sweet Oblivion’. The London-based duo of Chris Stickland and Sarah Glayzer draw from a rich well of influences that includes Zero 7, Dusty Springfield, Massive Attack and Björk.

Labelling their music as “Doomtronica”, the result is a very lush, warm approach to electronic music. Tonight, there’s an intriguing mix of dub beats and bluesy vocals set against abstract visual projections.

As with Digitonal’s set, some of Fire_Sign’s set appears to segue from one track to the next. In one instance, Sarah opts for a brief cover version of ‘Wicked Game’, which comes across as if rendered by This Mortal Coil.

Elsewhere, slow industrial beats battle against subtle isolated synth melodies for a new song ‘Shadows’ which sees its live debut tonight. “Cross my heart and hope to live” offers Sarah in a soulful vocal delivery.

While the other acts tonight opt for an instrumental approach, the inclusion of Fire_Sign’s vocal dynamics gives the evening a nice contrast to the more ambient outfits.

With a brief break between acts, its then time for Marconi Union themselves to take to the stage. Their set selects compositions from across the lengthy history of the outfit, including from their debut Under Wires and Searchlights album.

‘Weightless (Part 5)’ offers a shimmering soundscape that adds on a throbbing bass foundation. Meanwhile, ghostly electronic elements dart back and forth.

There’s touches of Brian Eno on later pieces which also incorporate dub effects and warm synth elements in places. Meanwhile, oddly evocative projections which appear to be culled from some lost film library run in tandem with the immersive music.

On ‘Abandoned/In Silence’, the outfit are joined by Digitonal to lend some clarinet talents to the piece. Here, a sober piano melody meets warmer synths.

A repetitive slightly isolated beat accompanies ‘Flying (In Crimson Skies)’ augmented by primal beats. Later, there’s more spacey beats and rhythms with whispery vocals.

The final track, ‘Sleeper’, has a more fragmented quality to it with slightly incoherent vocal elements. A steady rhythm is added to the composition building up to a busy layered composition with staccato percussion.

In the darkened confines of St Pancras Old Church, the music seems to have a natural home. For those enthusiasts of the more ambient side of electronica, this evening provided a perfect showcase of some of the talents the scene has to offer.


www.marconiunion.com
www.digitonal.com
http://firesign.co.uk/


DEFSynth Presents: The New Wave of Waveform

Insurrectionary Neo Futurist Adventures…

The live event circuit has been boosted of late by the regular DEFSynth events. Hosted by the larger than life character of Derek Anthony Williams, the DEFSynth nights are launched under the tagline of “The New Wave of Waveform” and make an effort to combine an eclectic combination of bands and artists as a solid foundation for an electronic music evening.

There’s a rawness to the DEFSynth nights that mark them out from many of the other multi-artist events that pepper the electronic music calendar. You’re never quite sure what any night is going to bring, but the selection is always intriguing (and certainly never dull). Tonight the intimate environs of Whitechapel’s Urban Bar are also graced by many figures from the UK’s grassroots electronic music scene. Consequently, the evening offers up a mingling of talents that includes the likes of LegPuppy, Dicepeople, Shelter and Autorotation among others. Tonight they’re taking a break from the stage themselves, but offer up an enthusiastic audience for the DEFSynth acts to follow.

Punkdisco have graced the stage for DEFSynth events in times past, where Leah’s on-stage presence has radiated a nonchalant, laid-back style. Boasting punk-tinged tunes with an attitude, the boy/girl duo offer up the squelchy delights of ‘I Can Dance’ and the frenetic rhythms of ‘All The Things’ as part of their set.


There’s a heavier impact for the tunes that accompany 3D on stage. Consisting of the charismatic Thomas Kelly on vocals and the accomplished synth skills of Dean Clarke (Brutalist Architecture in the Sun, Bluetown Electronica), 3D waste little time in getting the audience in the mood.

Kelly commands the stage through a strident presence and manages to spice up proceedings by ejecting the mic stand across the floor! Stripping off to reveal a hazard-taped body somehow adds to the unpredictable ambience.

Tonight sees the debut of new 3D song (and new single) ‘Alien Expression’. Here, a bass-heavy number is given some contrast with intermittent bright synth riffs. But there’s a percussive strength to much of 3D’s catalogue of tunes, including the menacing tones of ‘I Wanna Riot’. The outcome is that 3D manage to leave an indelible impression on the DEFSynth audience.

Meanwhile, the dancepop delights of Sheffield’s own Voi Vang are framed by her expressive and energetic on-stage choreography. The in-your-face rhythms of ‘Cards’ and ‘Streets Of Gold’ are balanced up with the more wistful tones of ‘Mirror’.

It’s clear that solo star Voi Vang and her self-styled “Experimental Aphotic Pop” have made an impression in recent months (including a legendary live outing at Silicon Dreams last year) and suggests a bright future for this emerging talent.

The evening’s host, Derek Anthony Williams himself, takes to the stage as part of Jan Doyle Band (serving as the in-house band for the DEFSynth events). Unsurprisingly, Williams cuts a striking figure on stage with his punk hair and facepaint, while Michael Stokes fires up the synths. Jan Doyle Band manage to combine a number of distinct influences, from synthpop through to goth and industrial, while Williams recognises no boundary between stage and audience as he cuts shapes to the tunes. The result is as much performance art as it is music performance and, again, the crowd are fully engaged in this electronic theatre.

Joining Jan Doyle Band at the halfway point is the accomplished guitar licks of Valkyrie (who also performs guitar duties for the likes of Lene Lovitch among others). It’s a powerful combination that presents a dynamic set – one that tails out with the unusual (yet effective) cover choice of Toyah’s ‘I Want To Be Free’.

As well as live music, the night is rounded off with some shrewd DJ tunes (including the likes of TR/ST, Lady Gaga, Grimes and Poppy) that keeps things moving – and which also coincides with Voi Vang’s birthday. It provides a suitable ending to a fine Saturday night’s entertainment. At the same time, tonight serves as a demonstration that the DEFSynth events offer up a music calendar fixture that doesn’t disappoint.


DEFSynth return on 4th May with Meganoke (UK debut) along with Cult With No Name, Cyberwaste and Jan Doyle Band. More details: https://www.facebook.com/events/2173549989546143/

https://www.facebook.com/DEFSynth/
https://www.facebook.com/punkdiscoUK/
https://www.facebook.com/voivang13/
https://www.facebook.com/3Dbeats/
https://www.facebook.com/jandoyleband/

All photos by Paul Browne.


Echoes of Electronica Event at The Flapper, Birmingham

An evening that’s Fast-paced, fun, celebratory, emotional… and everything in-between

Walking through the heart of Birmingham’s vibrant Canal network – there’s a biting chill now present in the early evening air, yet our welcome at one of the city’s most iconic venues – The Flapper – couldn’t have been warmer. Tonight, the venue plays host to the Echoes of Electronica event, featuring Def Neon, Johnny Normal (of Synthetic Sunday radio show fame), topped off nicely with headliners, and Birmingham’s very own, Among the Echoes (ATE) whom are all set and ready to induct new followers into their very own granite-edged blend of electro-synth rock.

Back Through Time

While tonight’s proposed soundtrack delivers heavily laden journeys that merge into the darker edges of the earth, it also brings with it a different kind of weight. It comes in the form of what will be a heavy heart for many – attributed only to the limited life-span of the pub and the current plans to replace it with a modern 66-flat apartment building.

On entering The Flapper, one cannot help but embrace an almost living, breathing, treasure trove of memories. Such historical significance had long manifested the heart and soul of what we have come to identify as the dynamic live music scene, that Birmingham in particular, has always been noted for.

It’s implied that the venue itself was born in 1968 and that it became a hub for live music some 25 years ago. The bar area is adorned with posters of music icons from eons gone by. Combine such ambience with the gritty live room located downstairs, and you start to feel the warmth in the textures of that grainy mental picture. The Flapper is where many a band first rested their foot atop a stage monitor and hailed dedicated music fans to follow their progress up and through the ranks. They were made here, cutting their teeth, honing their skills while making a huge contribution to what has made Birmingham so relevant today – you only have to delve back through musical history in order to see how The Flapper, and other similar venues – some long since closed – made that possible. Music did indeed breed more music; the scene thrived, and stories set alongside their soundtracks that provoked poignant feelings in many, were woven through time. However, the threads became weaker with the loss of more and more venues.

There’s a brief high note in that Among the Echoes (ATE) will film their video for their latest single ‘The Fear Inside,’ right here tonight, yet the real fear inside is the disintegration of our cultured identity expressed through organic, live music, at intimate venues such as The Flapper.

Birmingham’s contribution to the music scene is not genre specific, however; Sir Simon Rattle, one of the most prolific British conductors of his generation, worked with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) for 18 years – a partnership that placed Birmingham firmly on the orchestral map.

Living in the Moment

Def Neon are just finishing up their set when we arrive; a loud warm-up call to the crowd prior to Johnny Normal, who brings home a beat-driven, dance-paced electro set, including his noteworthy ‘Alive’ track, that dutifully reminds us of the fragility of life itself. It’s immediately obvious that the support acts have the approval of tonight’s audience, which is always good to see.

In no time at all though, it’s enter Among the Echoes, with their energetic synthesized gothic storm of an opener that is ‘Freak,’ off 2014’s Fracture album. It’s enough to raise temperature levels – just a touch – and get the crowd moving. It’s incredibly catchy and coupled with some of the most densely moody synth sounds. There’s lashings of light and dark in this track and the good news is, its urgency doesn’t fail to come across in the live environment – it all starts here.

It’s been a good while since I was first introduced to the music of Among the Echoes and the gig tonight makes for easy recollection of that initial fizz of excitement that registered on my radar upon first hearing their material. Tonight, their on-stage presence is as vibrant as any in-cloud lightening discharges splintering across a night sky, and what is also true of the set tonight, is that it represents a good cross-section of ATE’s identity, but in the raw form often associated with the live environment, offering plenty of intimation for what lies ahead. And hereon in follows the alternative progressive ‘This is a Love Song!’ complete with spikey-styled guitar work and a strong template of space-defying beats; an audio setting that evokes an eerie surrealist vision. Then there’s ‘Hate,’ featuring an all too common blunt reality in its lyrics – add to that the undisguised angst in the music. By now, the audience are edging ever closer to the small stage, keen for more. And more they get. ATE hit out with prominent album classics; ‘Fracture’ delivers an upbeat synthetic wash that’s dreamily expressive – a suitably dark track with plenty of opaque undertones – all mirrored in Ian’s vocal. The filmic synthesized and dramatized ‘Breathe’ features later.

The live synth sounds continue to create essential emphasis towards the hair-raising atmospherics that fuel their signature sound; it’s steeped in anxiety, there’s plenty of sentiment, while alternate guitar tuning delivers that overall intensity and depth to the music. In fact, their overall sound wouldn’t be out of place on a Gary Numan record and all things considered, it’s no surprise then that ATE, by popular request, offer up such an authentic rendition of Numan’s ‘Pure.’

‘The Fear Inside’ brings us to ATE’s very latest offering and it features twice this evening, significant in that the video to accompany this recently released single is being filmed. Consequently, Ian encourages the audience to look to be having themselves some fun – and in this instance, nothing’s too much trouble. ‘The Fear Inside’ is a notable record, made up of suitably heavy riffage, swathes of eerie shadows, plenty of subtle embellishments from the keyboards, plus the kind of electro beat that means no one is standing still for long. The reprise is a grand finale, of sorts, until the next time that is.

Among the Echoes have definitely established their own model for a personified and uncompromising blend of synth rock. The intertextual elements of their songs work evocatively with arrangements that portray plenty of suspense, the result being a unique blend of dark gothic-inspired danceable anthems. And it’s easy to hear the influences as cited by keyboard player, Steve Turrell (see our interview). What’s also refreshing, is to witness that fun element – one that’s not lost on ATE – they don’t take themselves too seriously. When Ian’s not bantering with the crowd, or getting horrified at the thought of the band’s very own take on Depeche Mode’s ‘Personal Jesus’ – which, incidentally, goes down very well and is closely followed up with the Human League’s ‘Being Boiled’ – he’s kindly requesting the audience sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Mesh’s Richard Broadhead, who got up on stage, happy to accept his cake and well, if you can have your cake and eat it then why the hell not?

Among the Echoes definitely possess a supreme entertainment factor and the live environment of course, is nothing new to them, given they’ve played support to the likes of Toyah, The Birthday Massacre and Cruxshadows, to name but a few.

Tonight, it’s been both immense fun and a pleasure; we’ve bathed in synthesized ambience and swooned over Wayne Page’s guitar sound; there’s a real friendly vibe in the venue, so much so, we don’t feel like we’re gate-crashing a private house party, and not least, we’ve become part of the legendary Flapper’s history – if not only briefly – but sadly, it’s not without the downsides that surround the controversy over the future of the venue itself.


All Things Echoes

Prior to the Echoes of Electronica event, Among the Echoes took time out to chat to The Electricity Club and reveal a little more about their darker selves.

Ian Wall (IW) – Steve Turrell (ST) – Wayne Page (WP).

TEC: Can you give us some background about how the band was formed and what your ultimate vision was at that time?

IW: The band formed in 2012 as a project to enable a few friends to write songs together and maybe demo a couple of tracks. Fairly quickly we had a number of completed tracks so agreed that we should consider playing a couple of gigs together to see what reaction we would get. Well the ATE beast was soon unleashed and world domination seemed the next logical step.

As a collective we didn’t have an ultimate vision – rather a passion for writing and recording the music we enjoyed ourselves and a hope that it would connect with others.

ST: As Ian says, we got together to write songs. Personally, I’d been looking for someone who could sing and write lyrics to the musical ideas that were buzzing around my head at that time and it just seemed to click.

TEC: ATE were born in Birmingham. There’s a lot of notable music history in Birmingham – from the days of the Rum Runner Club to Duran Duran and beyond. How do you feel about sharing a home with some of Birmingham’s notable history?

IW: Birmingham has a fantastic rich history, music being just one part of it. We have really enjoyed adding to that history by playing some of the great music venues around the city. We are thrilled that friends of the band from around the UK and Europe have travelled to our gigs and enjoyed this wonderful City of ours. Obviously, we have enjoyed taking ATE on the road around the UK too and are hopeful the invites to play across Europe come really soon – we are waiting by the phone!

TEC: You’ve recently released a new single ‘The Fear Inside’; can fans expect a new album in the near future? Can you tell us more about your plans?

IW: Well we have written lots of new material since we released the Fracture album and yes, we would really love to release another album. Personally, I think an album should be enjoyed and promoted for (at the very least) two years, even longer if it’s good enough! Are we overdue an album? Absolutely yes! However, it’s a costly process and we need to be sure that there is enough interest in releasing an album and that we are not just satisfying our own egos. If the demand is there, then yes, we will record an album.

TEC: How has your musical journey evolved so far? Is there an ultimate direction for the band?

IW: As I said previously – very fluid and to keep enjoying what we do. We have never wanted to fit into one set genre or try to please everyone, how boring would that be? The band would really like to play live across Europe and if we get to achieve that then we’ll be very happy. We’ve had the privilege to share the stage with some amazing bands over the last few years and made some wonderful memories. If the next year brings an album, more dates across the UK and some invites further afield.. We’ll be a happy band!

TEC: Out of the ATE catalogue, do the band have any personal favourites? And if so for what reasons?

IW: With most bands it is usually the new material that is your current favourite and in that respect we are generally the same. To be honest, I look back at some set lists from past gigs and can’t believe there are songs I thought we’d always play that don’t even get played at rehearsals. I wrote the lyrics to ‘Freak’ in about 20 mins and I have always been proud of them. For me, ‘Breathe’ is probably the track that just feels so natural and I enjoy performing it live.

ST: I love playing ‘Freak’, and lyrically, I think it’s Ian’s best. I’m afraid I get bored quite quickly and I’m quick in moving onto the next idea or tinkering with our older songs, much to the band’s annoyance! There are a couple of songs that are quite personal to me that I still love but rarely listen to. ‘Heart of a Machine’ was a song for my wife and ‘Flowers and Plastic Butterflies’, which is one of our very early songs, will always mean a lot to me.

WP: For me it would be our latest track ‘The Fear Inside.’ I just love that Celtic vibe (private band joke).

TEC: Can you give us some detail about the creation of your synth sounds – what you try to achieve with synths and what specialist equipment you use and/or prefer? It would be interesting to get a technical aspect on this element of your music.

IW: I’m interested to read what Steve answers!

WP: What Ian said!

ST: In the studio, I use Cubase to record. All the instruments are software, I love Omnisphere. It has some great sounds. Drums and percussion are usually Addictive Drums and Izotope iDrum. I also use Alchemy and a few Native Instruments synths.

I start with a basic drum beat and build the song from there. Obviously, I have an idea for a melody to start with and I just see where the mood takes me. I love to ‘layer’ sounds to try and achieve a big sound. With ATE, I’ve learnt to write from a more ‘Pop’ angle, even though we do still sound quite ‘dark’.

Live I use Roland FA06 and Gaia. The FA06 has the function to play the backing tracks and has great piano and choir sounds. The Gaia is just a great synth!

TEC: Do you have any big influences – both modern day and also historical? Your music is quite industrial sounding at times – any interest in krautrock at all?

IW: I just have a very eclectic taste in music. I must admit a lot of what we have written in the band evolves from sounds and bands that have influenced Steve. I just look for a platform to deliver the words that spin around in my head. I call Steve the “accidental genius” for having created so many great tunes for me to write to. Obviously I know it’s not accidental, however we must manage his ego!

ST: I love most music, but I guess my main influence is Gary Numan. Music that has a ‘dark’ edge will always be at the forefront. My ‘go to’ playlist will have Numan, The Cure, Sisters of Mercy, John Foxx, NIN to name but a few. Recent bands I’ve loved are Mr Kitty, Empathy Test, Celldweller, Hearts of Black Science & IAMX.

TEC: How do you think the use of synths has evolved over the decades?

ST: Wow, tough question. You can hear synths everywhere now. Bands that have historically been ‘anti’ synth use them all the time. The technology has advanced so quickly. You can write and record everything from your bedroom nowadays. Whole orchestral pieces can be written using software.

TEC: Sometimes during gigs you play with a live drummer but not always. Many fans think the live drum aspect adds a heavier edge to the music. Do you have a preference?

IW: I love playing with a live drummer. Unfortunately, the best drummer we have had in the band is our current guitarist – how did that happen? Fusing the electronics with live drums can sound immense, however if you don’t get it right it sounds .… erm, not so immense. Currently we play without a live drummer, however who knows what tomorrow will bring.

WP: With our music style, I don’t think a live drummer is really necessary. Our last couple of singles have been recorded with programmed drums, so our live performance is an honest reflection of them. I’ve seen Depeche Mode twice now and in my opinion, there was only one track that benefitted from having a live drummer.

TEC: What is the fundamental driver behind your songs and your lyrics – how does the writing process work for you? Do you have any significant influences?

IW: Influences can and should come from all directions. I absolutely love writing lyrics and I passionately believe that there should be a narrative in a song, especially if I am writing and singing it. Every day I see, hear, feel and live many emotions that I can put into a small story and deliver it through a song. To see a crowd singing my words back to me is priceless and something I hope I get to experience on many more occasions!

ST: Writing music is cathartic for me. At the end of a stressful day I can go to my tiny studio and create the music that I love. It’s not always good music, but I can just disappear into a world of sounds. That sounds a bit pretentious, but it’s the only way I can describe it. I create music that makes me excited. There’s nothing quite like coming up with a melody that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end.

WP: Is that synth porn Steve? And does Cybill Shepard still play her part in your mucky moments?

TEC: Some common debates include Analog v Digital. Vinyl v MP3. What’s your views/preference?

IW: While it’s being debated, it’s not being listened to. Just enjoy it all!

ST: Ditto what Ian has said. I listen to both MP3 and vinyl. Recording music, I will always favour digital. It makes the process so much easier.

WP: Analogue is an expensive way to record and requires a very skilled studio engineer/technician. Many music fans do not understand the variable methods for recording – it’s about their appreciation of the sound of the track and probably rightly so. I definitely prefer records to high definition sound, and believe a recording should be about the blending of sounds rather than being able to hear each individual component.

TEC: Tonight’s gig at the Flapper in Birmingham has something of an emotional attachment for the band – can you tell us why this venue is so important to you?

IW: We played our second ever gig at The Flapper and this show will be the tenth time we have played here. Far too many small venues are closing down and I shall shed a tear when we lose this venue to the developers this coming June. Whatever the politics behind the decisions to close venues, if we don’t support live music and the venues that give bands the stage on which to play their new music, then we can have no complaint when they are all gone.

It’s such a small cost to see bands play at these small venues, however the rewards to the bands, the venues, music lovers and the music scene is absolutely priceless.

TEC: What do you think the long-term impact on local music will be due to the loss of this venue – including bands such as ATE?

IW: Take all music that has shaped your life and imagine it never happened. All memories and emotions attached to it are all gone! All those bands started their careers playing at venues like The Flapper. ATE may not follow the path of some of those acts that have influenced us all, yet we have been very fortunate to share the music we write with so many amazing people, and made many new friends, heard some brilliant bands play live and hopefully influenced a few more people to follow their passion for music.

WP: I’ve been playing gigs at The Flapper for over 20 years (I know I don’t look old enough). Nothing replaced The Old Railway so The Flapper was the only venue of its kind left. It has been instrumental for supporting up and coming bands, but has also catered for generations of rock fans. It’s incredibly frustrating that more flats and apartments are being built instead of an investment supporting the Birmingham music scene, aka “The Home of Metal”.

TEC: What has been the biggest challenge for the band so far?

IW: Answering these questions! Seriously, probably far too many challenges to be honest. Whatever level you play at there are always people who work against you for their own gain. That said, you get out what you put in and we’ve had some great fun over the last few years. Would we like to achieve more? Yes. Would we still like to share our music to a bigger audience? Absolutely Yes!

ST: Trying to stop Ian talking so much!

TEC: What can fans expect at your gigs? What has been the best gig for you so far and why? Any unusual experiences while being part of a band?

IW: Expect us to give you a great performance. To absolutely love the privilege of standing on the stage. Turn up, have fun and stay for a drink with us after!

I think my best gig would be the first time we supported The Birthday Massacre in Birmingham in 2015. I just felt that the crowd totally engaged with us. Although we were there as one of the support bands, they totally embraced us, and I literally floated off the stage that night. I’m not sure about unusual, however there have been many surreal moments and I’ll be sure to mention them all when I write my book!

ST: For me, the tour with The Birthday Massacre was a blast. Especially the Birmingham gig. The tour had its challenges but was so much fun.


Words, interview and live photos by Jus Forrest.
The Electricity Club would like to thank Among the Echoes and Carol Canfer.

Among The Echoes play the London Cav Club, 18th May and support Jean Genie at Wolverhampton’s Robin 2 on the 21st July, with more gigs to be announced shortly. The single ‘The Fear Inside’ is out now.

http://amongtheechoes.co.uk/
https://www.facebook.com/amongechoes/
https://twitter.com/amongechoes


SYNTHETIC CITY LONDON 2018

Electronic music magnificence descends on London…

As ever, the Synthetic City music festival keeps things ambitious with an all-day event boasting 11 acts. The 2018 affair offered up a range of styles and approaches, while also throwing a nod to the more diverse ends of the electronic music world. Once again, host and promoter Johnny Normal has managed to pull together a live bill that promised some heavy hitters, but also threw some wild cards into the mix.

Despite some teething problems with the timing of the performances, there was a palpable air of anticipation in the pub end of The Water Rats (the venue of choice once again for the event). Conversations between a variety of musicians, promoters, bloggers and assorted figures managed to touch on some intriguing topics over the course of the evening. Whether or not acts should employ an element of performance art into proceedings proved to be one of the most engaging debates (the general consensus being “Yes”, although as it was mostly members of anarchic outfit LegPuppy arguing the case, it was a foregone conclusion!).

As ever, the reliable Mr Rob Harvey (Synth City) slotted in some perfect DJ setlists around the stage performances. In fact, over the course of a very long day he seemed to offer up a concise history of electronic music for the gathering crowd.

Kicking things off on stage, Tenedle offered up a solid performance which merged a Eurocentric taste of electropop with subtle guitar elements. Keen to get an atmosphere going, Dimitri Niccolai (aka Tenedle) encourages some audience participation through clapping. Niccolai’s vocals deliver a laid-back warmth across a foundation of busy electronic elements. It’s an approach which lends songs such as ‘Stranger In My Own Tongue’ and ‘Sentenced To Death’ (from Tenedle’s polished album Traumsender) an easy appeal.

Tenedle’s performance is also given an additional attraction with the addition of guest singer (and radio presenter) Bridget Gray, whose own vocal talents give songs such as ‘Sparkle’ a particular impact.

The combined talents of Erik Stein and Jon Boux come together under the banner of Cult With No Name. Although on stage they present a lounge quality to their performance – with Boux effortlessly tickling the ivories and Stein presenting a stoic confidence on stage – there’s a potent energy to tunes such as ‘Wasted’.

Subtle synths slide in and out of ‘Swept Away’, a tune with perhaps a timely political note in its lyrics (“Inside this rain-soaked mess/lies the president elect”). A buzzier collage of electronics comes with ‘Everything Lasts An Age’ (“for people celebrating their 18th birthday today”), a pulsing collage of electronic effects through which Stein’s vocals soar. Meanwhile, there’s a slow-burning power to ‘When I Was A Girl’ with its layers of synths and choral effects.

Straddling the gap between the UK and Denmark, Ian Harling and Martin Nyrup form the nucleus of electronic outfit Perpacity. The duo have attracted acclaim for their recorded output in times past, including their 2016 album Arise, and have their eye on a forthcoming new studio album The Order Of Now on the horizon. On stage, Perpacity offer up some serviceable synthpop, including the sturdy power of new single ‘Rule The Day’.

By now, there’s a busy, thriving crowd filling the venue. The merchandise stall is doing brisk business and artists still waiting to grace the stage are discussing plans and ideas for the future. A few funny stories come out of the various conversations, including a drama with a can of Pringles concerning Derek Anthony Williams (Defsynth, Jan Doyle Band) and an intriguing suggestion for YouTube called The Glowstick Challenge which is probably best left in the bar of The Water Rats…

Meanwhile, on stage, things take a heavier direction with the strident tones of La Lune Noire. There’s a thumping presence to the duo’s live show, with Sven Vogelezang’s muscular percussion and Victor Verzijl’s dynamic vocal delivery offering a trip into darkwave territory.

The Circuit Symphony brought a dazzling laser show with them for their stage performance. Joined by Ladywolfe onstage, there’s some nice nods to Jean-Michel Jarre in the mix which delivered tunes care of some E-mu Emax strings, LinnDrum and PolySix elements. ‘Warrior’ in particular had a potency to its clean lines, while the effective laser light show gave the stage an amazing backdrop.

Later, the duo of Palais Ideal deliver a raw energy to proceedings with a little gothic flavouring whipped up in their gritty post-punk tunes.

Johnny Normal, taking time out as host for the evening, also takes a turn on the stage. A particularly powerful ‘Miss Razorblade’ is one of his set’s highlights, along with a robust cover of OMD classic ‘Enola Gay’. One of tonight’s performers (in the form of Mr Strange) also joins Johnny on stage for a strapping live performance of ‘Let Nothing Take Your Pride’.

For his own stage show, Mr Strange provides it loud and heavy. There’s a sleazy electro-rock delivery for tunes such as ‘Disco Bitch’ and a song inspired by the late great Pete Burns (“I want to do it like Pete Burns/My gender you can’t discern”).

Berlyn Trilogy can always be relied upon to present a solid live show and tonight is no exception. An effectively bassy ‘Tokyo Rooftops’ wins over the crowd very early, followed by a languid ‘Rain’. Things go darker for the emphatic tones of ‘The Drone’, with James and Simon alternating vocal duties. Faye, meanwhile, has switched out her trusty bass to take on keyboard duties.

A dynamic rendition of ‘Synthetic Love’ also features in the setlist, but the trio also have a treat for the Synthetic City audience with the unveiling of new song ‘Simone Nicole’. A siren-like intro opens up the new outing, which also employs a lighter melodic touch against repetitive brass sounds. The contrast between lighter and darker elements suggests an evolution of Berlyn Trilogy’s sound and is a nice touch to their live show. Meanwhile, the trio close the set out with another new number ‘Domus Aurea’ which has a more classic Berlyn Trilogy feel to it with its sombre lyrics (“building my empire/on poison and desire”).

Once LegPuppy take to the stage, it’s a fair bet that something surprising or disturbing (or possibly both) will happen. Tonight’s performance features an ensemble cast (including stellar singer Voi Vang) who just about manage to fit on stage. The announcement that their ranks would also include a new dancer had people peering to discern her in the line-up, but in fact the new ‘dancer’ was stage-left in rollers and night dress ironing LegPuppy merchandise (because why not).

‘Paranoid’ elicits a neurotic theme through its dance-beat rhythms. Elsewhere, ‘Selfie Stick’ maintains its brooding, sinister menace as part of LegPuppy’s consistent live numbers. To drive the point home, LegPuppy’s Darren proceeds to smash an actual selfie stick on stage, which results in some worried looks in the audience.

Meanwhile, tracks such as ‘Running Through A Field Of Wheat’ take on a spacey vibe. The combination of LegPuppy’s Claire and Voi Vang on vocals for some tunes provides the electropunk outfit with an effective harmonising quality that’s tough to beat.

Closing out this year’s Synthetic City event is the darkpop trio of Dicepeople, who can always be relied upon to deliver a heavy yet engaging live performance. Taking position stage centre, Zmora Monika bobs back and forth in a striking outfit that’s given a final flourish by a pair of wings arcing out from her back. Meanwhile, fellow members Matt and Rafael earnestly focus on their work stations either side.

The stage is almost total darkness with only the strobe-like lights lighting up the audience in time to the darkwave rhythms. In particular, a robust version of ‘Control’ is delivered with an effectively powerful vocal from Zmora. It seems like a perfect way to close out another successful electronic festival.

As TEC has said previously, Synthetic City represents an important element of the electronic music calendar that help to promote interest and growth in the grassroots scene. In a period in which there are so many new artists often struggling to find a platform for their music, Johnny Normal and his dedicated team are providing a valuable service.


http://www.johnnynormal.net/SYNTHETIC-CITY.html

http://dicepeople.com
https://berlyntrilogy.bandcamp.com/
http://legpuppy.net/
https://www.cultwithnoname.com/
http://www.perpacity.com/
http://www.palaisideal.net/
http://www.la-lune-noire.com/
https://soundcloud.com/mr-strange-official
https://www.facebook.com/thecircuitsymphony/
www.johnnynormal.net


EMPATHY TEST Live In London

The truth can be so tragic and beautiful…

It’s been quite the year for London-based electronic outfit Empathy Test. Their successful PledgeMusic campaign saw the band reach over 600% of their target – an effort that also resulted in the production of not just one, but two debut albums. It’s a result that’s certainly buoyed up the spirits of Empathy Test’s core duo of Isaac Howlett and Adam Relf, who set the date for a launch party for both albums.

Losing Touch and Safe From Harm (see TEC review previously) demonstrated that Empathy Test have a talent for polished electropop, but the announcement that they were going to perform every song from both albums seemed like an ambitious undertaking.

Their venue of choice was Zigfrid von Underbelly, an independent venue nestled in London’s Hoxton Square. Setting the mood for the evening, the tunes wafting over the PA pre-gig drew from the Drive soundtrack. With the likes of Electric Youth and Kavinsky lending a mirror of sorts to Empathy Test’s own brooding compositions, it’s an apt choice.

Empathy Test have built up quite a fan following from the Mesh community, a following founded on the band’s previous live outings with the Bristol band. That loyalty was in evidence tonight with a strong turnout of hardcore fans – including Mesh’s own Rich.

Opening act Nina presented some effectively energetic synthwave-flavoured tunes. Her performance was also boosted by fellow musician Laura’s suitably dynamic work on electronic percussion and backing vocals.

Nina’s set provided a pop-fueled atmosphere for the venue, which swiftly reached full capacity. Time for Empathy Test to finally take to the stage and power through their extensive live set. For their live outings, the duo of Isaac Howlett and Adam Relf are also joined by Samuel Winter-Quick on synths and Christina Lopez on drums.

The set kicks off with a surprisingly powerful ‘Kirrilee’, which sets the standard for the evening. On record the songs have an evocative twilight feel at times, but for their live outings, many of them take on a more muscular delivery.

Empathy Test have also carefully crafted their stage presence to give a sense of dynamism and energy. Howlett crouches low in a boxer’s stance to dance during songs at times, suggesting a coiled energy. When the tempo of the songs steps up, he’s fully ready to take up a more striking position at the edge of the stage (and, as we see later, into the audience itself).

The next sequence of songs keeps things moving at a steady pace. ‘Vampire Town’ breathes a bass-heavy moody atmosphere while ‘By My Side’, with its introspective nature, has Howlett casually wandering back and forth to the smoke machine in a bid to give the gig some physical sense of mood. At one point, he realises that he’s overdone the smoke machine as the band are completely obscured in a stage blanketed in fog! And yet, it seems to be the perfect visual metaphor for Empathy Test’s immersive soundscapes. As Howlett emerges from the clouds, it could almost be a purposeful sense of theatre.

“It took us 2 years to release this one” Howlett comments before delivering a heartfelt ‘Siamese’. Its percussive tones given a heavier presence thanks to Chrisy Lopez’s talents on the drums.

By the time that ‘Throwing Stones’ gets performed, the audience are moving as one and with some encouragement from Howlett, the wistful tones of the Losing Touch track turns into a singalong.

It’s also clear that there’s a fine chemistry on stage between the band. Although Adam Relf is happy to focus purely on playing music in his corner, Howlett jokes with synth player Samuel Winter-Quick about not actually singing any backing vocals. It’s a task that drummer Lopez is happy to take on however, something which adds to the fact that there does seem to be a notable contingent of Chrisy fans in the audience.

Meanwhile, ‘Bare My Soul’, whose distinctive icy opening gives way to curiously intriguing vignettes about people’s lives, leads to a powerful delivery on stage. It’s no wonder that TEC’s review pinpointed this particular track as an example of the band’s talent to be “both mythical and melodious”.

The rolling bass of ‘Burroughs & Bukowski’ provides the foundations for a moment of dreampop perfection. There’s a personal element to this song that seems to find its home in the hearts of the audience (which is quite a feat for a song inspired by pair of goldfish!).

Introducing the next song, Howlett jokes with Winter-Quick about how the set is about to step up to a more “dance-orientated” direction. Introducing ‘Sleep’ he adds an amusing dedication that has connections to TEC (but which for discretion, we’ll gloss over here) and, after, asks the crowd if any of them are feeling sleepy. The huge roar that erupts suggests the complete opposite.

Speeding towards the end, there’s a powerful sequence of tunes consisting of ‘Everything Will Work Out’, a euphoric ‘Holding Out’ and an emotional ‘Demons’.

Saving the best until last, an enthusiastic encore brings a truly superb ‘Losing Touch’. Howlett now encouraging the crowd to join in. Wanting to erase the line between audience and band, he gets down into the crowd itself and inspires a hasty circle of fans to join in the singing.

Empathy Test’s musical journey, from early EPs through to their fledgling live performances and finally to the successful launch of their albums reaches a satisfying conclusion of sorts tonight. It’s a moment that seems to have captured lightning with the perfect audience and a flawless stage performance.


Soundcloud.com/EmpathyTest
Facebook.com/EmpathyTest
EmpathyTest.com
https://twitter.com/empathytest

http://www.ninasounduk.com/


OMD + TINY MAGNETIC PETS Live at Guildford

OMD return to Guildford after a lengthy absence

The last time Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark performed in Guildford was in June 1985 at the Civic Hall, prior to the release of their sixth studio album. In fact, this particular stop on the Crush tour was only the third time they had played in the large Surrey town; the first time as support to Gary Numan back in October 1979. The Civic Hall has since been demolished, and replaced on the same site by the impressive G Live venue; the scene of a largely triumphant 11th stop on the band’s 18-date UK tour.

Tiny Magnetic Pets

Support arrives courtesy of three-piece electronic act Tiny Magnetic Pets who deliver an impressive half-hour set that exhibits their array of electronic influences; largely pitched between David Bowie’s experimental late ’70s period and the more melodic inflections of acts such as Kraftwerk. Indeed, the Dublin-based trio have been picking up some very favourable attentions in Germany, with former Kling Klang resident Wolfgang Flür featuring on their second full-length album Deluxe/Debris. But it’s OMD’s Andy McCluskey who can be credited with adding the Irish band to the bill; a further endorsement of the band’s proliferating synth-pop credentials.

The Pets’ 7-track set largely draws from this well-received album, with their attractive singer Paula Gilmer providing the primary focal point; confidently straddling the stage as keyboardist Sean Quinn studiously unravels a broad palette of electronics. Percussionist Eugene Somers, meanwhile, cuts an equally engaging figure; providing some impressively taut rhythms. Gilmer possesses both an engaging personality and an appealingly pure voice, and the relaxed Saturday night crowd respond positively.

Highlights include the captivating ‘We Shine’ (from 2015’s Stalingrad EP) which, pleasingly, sounds like a Yazoo/Visage mash-up. And then there’s the epic set-closer ‘Semaphore’. The band recently told The Irish Times: “We hit the stage like a rock band. People expect politeness, but that isn’t us – you have to rock it out when you go on stage.” The performance of ‘Semaphore’ certainly displays an exciting degree of showmanship, as well as acting as a summary of the band’s multitude of influences; bristling with Die Mensch-Maschine electronics, the foreboding noir of early Human League, and the more abstract leanings of Neu! It’s an enjoyable set and 30 minutes soon pass… as good a sign as any of a decent support act.


Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark

“As a band we still have a lot of energy to tour the world, but for obvious reasons we can’t play everything, so what we choose to play each night is always a constant dilemma” – Paul Humphreys

With such a rich and varied back catalogue to choose from, the dilemma of putting together an OMD set list must get increasingly difficult; particularly in view of the fact that some of their more recent output has being favourably compared with the best of their earlier work. Tonight’s set list features a deft selection of hit singles, deep cuts and newer songs.

By the time OMD’s set is announced with an ephemeral, yet effective, introductory track (a hybrid of two of their latest album’s more abstract pieces, ‘Art Eats Art’ and ‘La Mitrailleuse’), capacity in the standing area has swelled to near-capacity. There’s a relaxed vibe amongst the audience, who can almost sense that something special is going to happen.

Whilst The Punishment Of Luxury doesn’t quite tick all the boxes in the same way that its predecessor English Electric did in 2013, the album has given the band their highest chart placing since 1991’s Sugar Tax, and attracted some of the best reviews of their career. So it’s not a great surprise that the band possess the confidence to kick the set off with two six-minute-plus numbers. Singer Andy McCluskey stands with his back to the audience as the brooding melancholia of ‘Ghost Star’ begins proceedings, slowly building from its La Düsseldorf-meets-‘Stanlow’ foundations. It’s an unusual starting point, but it works. It’s followed by the more uptempo – and playful – ‘Isotype’. Bursting with Kraftwerkian melody, it offers a welcome contrast to the set opener’s more melancholic tones.

McCluskey straps on his bass guitar for a double-header of set staples ‘Messages’ and ‘Tesla Girls’, the latter the source of much amusement – both on and off stage – as keyboardist Paul Humphreys fluffs some of his backing vocals (“He started singing different words at the end!” a bemused McCluskey tells the crowd). The band recover for the 3-chord (C-G-F) tour-de-force that is ‘History Of Modern (Part One)’, and McCluskey invites the crowd to pogo along to a song that’s essentially about the end of the world. One of the highlights from the band’s 2010 comeback album of the same name, it’s no surprise that it’s become something of a regular set fixture in recent years.

‘One More Time’ is another 3-chord affair (G-C-D) that offers the band another opportunity to showcase their new album (thankfully we’re spared the rather gimmicky ‘Robot Man’). On record it’s somewhat stilted and formulaic – like Arcade Fire at their most pedestrian – but it works brilliantly in a live setting, with Humphreys’ glistening synth work particularly impressing.

One of the interesting facets of this tour is the set list vote, which offers fans the opportunity to vote for a song to be played from a choice of three. Tonight we’re offered ‘The New Stone Age’ and ‘She’s Leaving’ from Architecture & Morality and ‘Pandora’s Box’, the band’s last Top Ten hit (in 1991). McCluskey tells us it’s a close vote, with 8 points separating third from first place… but it’s ‘She’s Leaving’ that wins through (by a single vote).

A brace of lead vocals from Humphreys (on ‘(Forever) Live And Die’ and ‘Souvenir’) allows McCluskey some respite before the show’s “pastoral” section, which features both ‘Joan Of Arc’ singles and some excellent drumming from Stuart Kershaw on both tracks. McCluskey may not quite dance like an “electrocuted aardvark” these days, but his seemingly boundless energy is impressive as he cavorts the stage during the finale of ‘Maid Of Orleans’. “Just a little tip for you,” he tells the crowd. “Don’t try that in front of your teenage kids!”

As a contemporary version of ‘Time Zones’ blasts through the sound system, the four members of the band venture front of stage for a special version of the classic b-side ‘Of All The Things We’ve Made’ (later revamped on 1983’s Dazzle Ships), with Kershaw pounding a single drum. For the purists in the audience, who favour the band’s pre-Junk Culture output, it’s a moment to savour.

Somewhat disappointingly, previous album English Electric doesn’t get a look in as the band integrate newer songs into the set. We get the band’s rather bland new single ‘What Have We Done’ (Humphreys’ touching lament about putting his dog to sleep) and, later in the set, there’s the Kraftwerk-fuelled title track, ‘The Punishment Of Luxury’, featuring some slightly clumsy observations about modern consumerism. The crowd love it, though, and gleefully join in with the “hey! hey! hey!”s.

It’s a crowd-pleasing array of hits that close the main set, including the Caribbean-flavoured ‘Locomotion’ (a single that has divided fan opinion over the years). Martin Cooper, always a steady and reliable presence on stage, performs note-perfect saxophone parts on ‘So In Love’, as well as a wonderful keyboard solo on ‘Sailing On The Seven Seas’, the song that kick-started OMD’s ‘solo years’ in the 1990s. The set ends with a rapturously-received ‘Enola Gay’.

The band soon return for a decidedly curious encore. On record, ‘Walking On The Milky Way’ is a wonderfully produced slice of Beatles-flavoured meditation on growing up, but it doesn’t quite work in a live capacity, and the absence of the Hannah Clive vocal sample doesn’t help. But, the run-through of OMD’s last significant hit receives an enthusiastic response as McCluskey stoops to a recumbent position on the stage. “I’m still twenty-four in my head,” he reassures the crowd. “But my knees are telling me I’m fifty-bloody-eight!” Fortunately there’s some respite as McCluskey reverts to bass-playing duties for ‘Secret’ and Humphreys’ fourth lead vocal of the night. And there’s just enough fuel in the tank for a typically energetic version of ‘Electricity’, the band’s “oldest and fastest” song.

I’ve seen OMD perform many times over the years, but rarely have I seen them so relaxed and confident on stage. Whilst the absence of charismatic drummer Mal Holmes – due to health issues – is still felt amongst many fans, in Stuart Kershaw they have a more-than-able deputy who adds a fresh (and powerful) dynamic to the band’s live sound. It’s the sight of a reenergised band enjoying a well-deserved career renaissance, and long may it continue.


OMD set list: Ghost Star / Isotype / Messages / Tesla Girls / History Of Modern (Part One) / One More Time / She’s Leaving / (Forever) Live And Die / Souvenir /Joan Of Arc / Maid Of Orleans (The Waltz Joan Of Arc) / Time Zones/Of All The Things We’ve Made / What Have We Done / So In Love / Locomotion / The Punishment Of Luxury / Sailing On The Seven Seas / Enola Gay / Walking On The Milky Way / Secret / Electricity

Tiny Magnetic Pets set list: All Yesterday’s Tomorrows / Shortwaves / Not Giving In / Never Alone / We Shine / Here Comes The Noise / Semaphore


OMD are currently on a UK and European tour. Dates as follows:

UK
Nov 15 Bexhill – De La Warr Pavillion, Nov 17 Manchester – Acacdemy, Nov 18 York – Barbican, Nov 19 Glasgow – Royal Concert Hall, Nov 21 Birmingham – Symphony Hall, Nov 22 Gateshead – Sage.

EUROPE
Nov 25 Erfut – Traum Hits Festival, Nov 26 Hamburg – Grosse Freoheit, Nov 28 Berlin – Huxleys, Nov 29 Leipzig – Haus Auenesse, Nov 30 Munich – Tonhalle, Dec 02 Offenback – Stadhalle, Dec 03 Dusseldorf – Mitsuibishi Electric Hall, Dec 05 Tilburg 013, Dec 06 Antwerp – De Roma, Dec 08 Lausanne – Les Docks.

http://www.omd.uk.com
http://www.omd-messages.co.uk

All photographs, courtesy of Marija Buljeta Photography

www.marijabuljeta.com
www.altvenger.com

Many thanks to Marija Buljeta and Sara Page.


22rpm Electronic Music Festival

A day of esoteric electronic tunes…

Holding an electronic music festival inside a church might seem to be a strange choice of venue, but in practice it certainly lends a distinctive atmosphere to proceedings. The location of St. John’s Church on Bethnal Green continues a tradition of sorts for the team behind 22rpm (Mango + Sweetrice Records and Bit-Phalanx Music) with previous events staged at St Giles Church.

For this year’s showcase, there’s a broad spectrum of artists ranging across many sub-genres, all of which have their own approach to crafting electronic music. It means that while some artists might not ‘float your boat’, there’s always another that manages to capture your attention.

The New England-based musician Derek Piotr has a flair for dramatic sound compositions. Kicking off proceedings in the early part of the afternoon, Piotr delivers pieces that consist of percussive collages, often weaving together crashing electronics and choral effects. Stark acoustic percussion strikes out from the composition, meanwhile colourful abstract projections rotate slowly in the background.

For other pieces, there’s haunting atonal choirs where the low frequency bass tones resonate through your body. Chittering, glitchy beats make up the ingredients of later tracks. The end result is a striking series of musical pieces that manages to wake up the early attendees in the pews.

Elsewhere, the vaults beneath the church have been turned into a space for a ‘silent disco’. Ingeniously, there’s also choices on offer as each set of supplied headphones can switch to a different channel. Those options give attendees the choice of tunes from the likes of bleep.com, Abstract Reflections and EIF (Earth Is Flat). Meanwhile, Howlaround founder Robin The Fog provides the overall background acoustics.

Taking their place on the stage upstairs, Andrew Dobson’s Digitonal, along with Dom Graveson, were unfolding their own ‘acoustic-electric’ performance. There’s a warm, immersive feel to Digitonal’s set, with a few nods to trance in the mix. Their ambient electronica is also given a visual punch by the spacey projections behind them, culled from a series of science fiction films, including the classic 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The acoustic element is handled by a judicious use of clarinet, although Digitonal’s musical palette can comfortably flit between a breezy pastoral feel and more beats-driven numbers. A warm series of melodic arpeggios and soft clarinet accompanies a cover version of Ochre’s ‘Paper Unicorn’ and the set is rounded off with a new number (Apparently titled ‘Orion’) with a nice combination of muscular beats and icy synths.

Some minor initial sound issues aside, Digitonal delivered a melodic set that drew a healthy round of applause from the audience.

B12 originally emerged as an outfit consisting of Mike Golding and Steve Rutter back in the 1990s, noted for their 1993 album Electro-Soma, released on the Warp Records label (currently on track to celebrating their 30th Anniversary).

B12’s performance at 22rpm was divided equally between a selection of tunes by Steve Rutter and also by the introduction of singer Bryonii and dancer Ami. There’s certainly a soulful, sultry component to this collaboration augmented by bass-heavy beats and rhythms. Songs such as ‘Chinese Whispers’ have a dubby, stripped-back approach, while ‘Sympathy’ opts for a more seductive, mesmerising vocal.

Following B12’s set, the talents of Ulrich Schnauss are employed on DJ duties, offering some captivating floaty electronica. It’s a perfect stop-gap before Coppé takes to the stage.

By now, the evening has arrived and the lighting takes on a more intimate mood. It’s a perfect setting for Coppé as she arrives in a fetching outfit complete with puffy shoulders and a pointy-eared hat. Coppé has also come mob-handed for this performance, with a full complement of musicians – as well as regular collaborator Malcolm Chalmers handling the electronic elements.

Mango + Sweetrice, the self-owned label that Coppé runs, is also 22 years old this year and she’s run up an impressive catalogue of work over that time. Milk represents her latest body of work, described as a “hip-hop hybrid jazz album” and featuring collaborations with the likes of Nikakoi, Atom™, Kettel, and Chris Mosdell among others.

Much of her performance tonight takes on a smooth jazz ambience, particularly with the input of David Brown’s breezy trumpet accompaniment. The inclusion of a cover of Klaus Nomi’s ‘The Cold Song’ is also a nice surprise.

Between the vocal elements of some songs, Coppé finds time to enjoy a little boogie, which also offers the audience a chance to appreciate her pop art spacesuit (which is largely obscured for most of the set behind her gear stand). There’s also some intriguing combinations of electronica with the jazz elements, particularly on tracks such as the shimmering ‘Bie Mire Bist Du Schon’ (produced by Atom™ for the Milk album).

Scanner (aka Robin Rimbaud) delivers compositions that paint cinematic soundscapes, often with low tonal moods that lend a sense of bleakness. Drawing mainly from his album The Great Crater , rear projections illustrating stark black and white landscapes help to convey a disconcerting mood. Peppered between this are more expressive pieces that employ a barrage of percussion and machine-gun rhythms (which sees Rimbaud hammering away at the controller like a typist from hell).

Later in his set, there’s a more ambient piece as projections of floating clouds rise on the backdrop. This transforms into a shimmering landscape of sound and later still into a piece dominated by more martial beats. As an artist, Scanner builds impressive edifices of sound that we’re invited to occupy for brief periods of time.

Iranian multi-instrumentalist Ash Koosha offers a setlist of very busy, layered compositions that veer from the euphoric to more rumbling affairs that defy easy niches. While the back projections deliver some strangely unsettling images of an ice cream melting in reverse, Koosha delivers his tunes from a position of shrouded darkness, further giving his performance a cryptic quality.

Following up, Manchester-based Bola offer up an initial set of pieces that sound like they’ve been culled from a lost science fiction film. Hot on the heels of recent album release D.E.G., Bola’s alternates between deep bassy compositions that sound like they’ve been pulled up from the ocean depths and more resonating beats-driven numbers.

Meanwhile, closing act Valgeir Sigurðsson delivers something entirely different from the entire roster of artists so far. The Icelandic musician, in the company of violist Daniel Pioro, presented a set that drew from most recent album release Dissonance.

This merging of classical instrumentation and electronics has been a particular theme for other artists of late, resulting in surprising and impressive works, such as Hannah Peel’s Mary Casio outing. Likewise fellow Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson worked wonders on the sombre tones of Orphee.

Equally, Sigurðsson’s material is threaded with a glacial melancholy that suggests icy landscapes and winter moods. Daniel Pioro’s talent for alternating between haunting, evocative strings and frenetic bursts of urgent fiddling give the performance a particular dynamism.

Dissonance, as a title, suggests a lack of harmony. But there’s something mesmerising about the music Sigurðsson produces which points to its polar opposite.

Ultimately, 22rpm has resulted in an intriguing, often captivating, showcase of electronic music. The ability to also present emerging artists to new audiences is also a bonus – and it also suggests that future events are scheduled to deliver more delights.


http://www.bit-phalanx.com/
http://www.sweetrice.com/

https://derekpiotr.com/
http://www.digitonal.com/
http://www.b12records.com/
http://www.scannerdot.com/
https://ninjatune.net/artist/ash-koosha
https://www.facebook.com/Bolamachine/
http://www.valgeir.net/

The Electricity Club extends its grateful thanks to Léigh at Bit-Phalanx. Photos by Paul Browne.


A-HA – MTV Unplugged – Summer Solstice

Acoustic love from Norway’s finest…

“Suddenly we’re a band again, suddenly we understand why we’re together, and we’re in agreement like never before.” – Morten Harket

“This current process has given us an incredible team spirit and a creative exchange that we haven’t had in many years.” – Magne Furuholmen

“I can’t remember the last time we had such a natural and easy way of working together.” – Paul Waaktaar-Savoy

It was in mid-December 2016 that a-ha officially announced that they would be releasing a new live acoustic album, with a mixture of songs old and new being selected from a series of intimate shows. Throughout their career, the band had performed many of their songs in more pared-down versions in concert (for example, ‘Stay On These Roads’), but until this point had resisted offers to perform an entire set of stripped-down songs. Singer Morten Harket, who has actually appeared on an MTV Unplugged album (performing ‘Wind Of Change with The Scorpions on Live In Athens), was enthused enough to declare: “There is palpable growing excitement about this in the group… I really look forward to it all!”

Whilst such a project had been discussed many times, the announcement was something of a surprise as the band had, ostensibly, moved on to other projects following the conclusion of the Cast In Steel tour. Paul Waaktaar-Savoy had signed a new recording deal with Drabant Music, debuting ‘Beautiful Burnout’ (the first single from World Of Trouble, his upcoming album with Zoe Gnecco) in September 2016. Plans were also in place to release another Savoy album (the long-awaited follow-up to 2007’s Songbook collection). However, the band had already come out of retirement once (following the Ending On A High Note tour in 2010) and, despite the fact that a-ha’s return was a temporary one (Cast In Steel was originally touted as two-year project), fans were well used to expecting the unexpected.

Of course, many of a-ha’s contemporaries – particularly from the 1980s – have dabbled with the acoustic format. Spandau Ballet used their Once More album as a springboard for their 2009 comeback; Erasure re-interpreted many of their well-known songs in acoustic versions on their 2006 album Union Street, while Nik Kershaw utilised the format to great effect on his 2010 album No Frills. In a concert setting, the likes of Midge Ure, China Crisis (see the Acoustically Yours album) and Howard Jones (see Live Acoustic America) have all enjoyed some success by employing a more stripped-back approach. And then there are the rock veterans Status Quo, whose recent Aquostic albums and shows have reinvigorated – and extended – the band’s career.

The subsequent MTV re-branding this year – from a historical viewpoint at least – makes sense. Whilst they never performed an MTV Unplugged set during the programme’s heyday, a-ha’s initial flurry of success in the USA was largely down to the exposure the MTV network gave their iconic video for ‘Take On Me’, eventually propelling it to the top of the Billboard charts (the band also won several awards at the MTV Video Music Awards in September 1986).

The MTV Unplugged shows that came to prominence in the early 1990s featured an array of both established and contemporary acts. Rock and pop luminaries such as Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen and Rod Stewart certainly benefitted from the wider exposure of their back catalogues, racking up some best-selling – and sometimes award-winning – albums along the way. At the height of their popularity in 1993, Nirvana recorded an acoustic set in New York that, arguably, rates as one of their finest albums.

Since 2000, the show’s popularity has tailed off and the number of performances has been somewhat more sporadic, but recent performances by Shawn Mendes – and now a-ha – have given the show a new lease of life.

Whilst the electronic technology of the 1980s characterized much of the band’s early recordings, key tracks such as ‘Hunting High And Low’ hinted at a more acoustic foundation to their songwriting. “We don’t use much technology at all when we write the songs,” confirmed Waaktaar-Savoy recently. “[So] the idea of an entirely acoustic show makes total sense. Playing all these songs now in their acoustic versions is like returning to their origins.” Indeed, the project has represented something of a return to the band’s musical roots, particularly messrs Waaktaar-Savoy and Furuholmen who, as one half of the band Bridges, had released an album (Fakkeltog) in 1980 that owed more to the music of The Doors and the progressive rock scene of the 1970s than the more fashionable punk and new wave music of the day. “We started as a band back before a-ha, writing and recording on acoustic instruments,” Furuholmen told Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbø at last month’s Berlin press conference. “And then, when we moved to England and formed a-ha, we discovered a whole music scene that had moved on to Electronica, and we were a part of that first wave. And we started incorporating that, [and] that kind of defined our sound. But all along, we’ve added acoustic instruments on almost all the songs. So it’s not really something new in that regard.”

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Tapping into the band’s progressive rock past was 37-year old producer and multi-instrumentalist Lars Horntveth, who had already worked with the band on string arrangements for 2015’s Cast In Steel album. A former Spellemannprisen award-winner, Horntveth had gained a good reputation as a producer, helming albums for artists such as Susanne Sundfør (including 2010’s The Brothel). In addition to his work with the Norwegian rock band, The National Bank, Horntveth has recorded several albums with experimental jazz outfit, Jaga Jazzist; with one of them (A Livingroom Hush) receiving some favourable attentions from the BBC in 2002 (“It’s the mix of 21st century texture, intelligent jazz writing and improvisational concision that makes this one of the most enjoyable records of this (or any other) year”).

For the Summer Solstice project, Horntveth assembled a band that included bass player – and fellow Jaga Jazzist member – Even Ormestad, plus Morten Qvenild from The National Bank, musicians that were familiar to a-ha via the recording of Cast In Steel and its subsequent tour (more recently, Ormestad has played on Anneli Drecker’s highly rated new album, Revelation For Personal Use). Elsewhere, drummer Karl Oluf Wennerberg has been involved with a-ha since Foot Of The Mountain, and has also played on Morten Harket’s Out Of My Hands album. Completing the line-up was a string section comprising Madeleine Ossum, Emilie Heldahl Lidsheim and Tove Margrethe Erikstad.

In the end, the choice of producer Horntveth proved to be pivotal, as Harket explained: “Lars is a stubborn guy, he’s a strong character himself. And we really need somebody who has greater balls than brains, who is strong and one-track-minded enough to stand up for what he thinks is right. And he was commissioned by us to attack the songs freely – no directions given by us – because we needed to strip every song. We needed to reset everything, so that we could kind of rediscover the songs… Lars attacked it so that we had something to respond to… and respond we did. We hated what he did, and that was great, because we needed to react; we needed to have something to respond to.” Horntveth’s recollection of the experience mirrored that of Harket’s: “Working with the three of them has been enjoyable and fun, but very frustrating,” he told Aftenposten. “I have been utterly pissed off at times, and so have they. After all, they’re not used to a stubborn bastard like me interfering like this – but it’s been very healthy. Deep down I think they like it, even if they have hated me at times!”

Horntveth spent several months working on prospective arrangements for the show’s concerts but, due to his touring commitments with Jaga Jazzist, the number of shows was whittled down from four to two. Whilst the scheduling problem was rectified reasonably easily, choosing a venue for the brace of shows wasn’t so straightforward. “I wanted to build up a whole TV studio near London, but the band didn’t want that,” the band’s manager Harald Wiik told Aftenposten. “They wanted to go to the Amazon or the Brazilian city of Belém, but that proved to be too difficult. Then Magne figured we could do something ‘Norwegian’, inside a stave church, but that would be too small – although Morten suggested we solved the problem by simply using the mannequins from the ‘Sun Always Shines On TV’ video as our audience!” Eventually the band settled with Giske, a remote island in the Sunnmøre district of Møre og Romsdal in Western Norway. Following some preliminary sessions, the band resumed rehearsals at the island’s state-of-the-art studio, Ocean Sound Recordings (a facility that Scottish band Travis used to record their 2013 album, Where You Stand), while the nearby Øygardshallen venue would provide the setting for the actual shows on the 22nd and 23rd June.

What is initially impressive, following a first run-through of the set, is not only the high level of musicianship, but also some of the adventurous – and often sonically challenging – new arrangements.

Of the two new songs, set opener ‘This Is Our Home’ stands out the most. Penned by Furuholmen, the beautiful piano-driven piece utilizes a simple chord progression, and its “This is our home/ This is where we belong refrain perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the show. Waaktaar-Savoy’s country-tinged ‘Break In The Clouds’ is less immediate, but nevertheless impresses with its blend of harpsichord, pedal steel guitar and strings.

True to the spirit of the original MTV Unplugged shows, the band introduce a number of musical guests; a mixture of influential artists and younger, more contemporary performers. Introduced by Furuholmen as “An American with Swedish genes”, Lissie is a Rock Island-born singer who, in addition to working with the likes of Robbie Williams and Snow Patrol, has released three solo albums to date. No stranger to performing cover versions (check out her version of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Go Your Own Way’), Lissie certainly impresses on a duet of ‘I’ve Been Losing You’. Ingrid Helene Håvik, who trades vocals with Harket on an epic version of ‘The Sun Always Shines On TV’, is a more local talent, based in the nearby town of Ålesund. A regular user of the recording facilities of Ocean Sound Recordings, Håvik has released one album as solo artist, but is better known as a member of the Spellemannprisen award-winning indie rock band Highasakite (their Silent Treatment album reached number one in Norway, and spent an impressive 120 weeks in the charts).

During Ian McCulloch’s introduction, Furuholmen mentions the impact that Echo and the Bunnymen had on the development of a-ha’s sound in the early 1980s (“we modernised our sound because of these guys”), citing the Heaven Up Here album as a key influence. The charismatic singer performs two songs with the band, beginning with ‘Scoundrel Days’; its sombre tones a perfect fit for McCulloch’s mournful voice. Whilst the Bunnymen’s third album Ocean Rain didn’t quite live up to its billing in press advertisements as ‘The Greatest Album Ever Made’, there’s certainly a case for ‘The Killing Moon’ being one of the greatest songs of that decade. The band duly perform the classic track, one of the highlights of the set.

Another influential band during a-ha’s formative years was Yazoo, whose combination of melodic synth-pop and soulful vocals appealed greatly to the fledgling band. Singer Alison Moyet is the final guest of the show and performs a fine version of ‘Summer Moved On’ (in a slightly lower key). The only disappointment is the glaring continuity error, as the song was clearly performed earlier in the day.

Another standout performance is ‘Sox Of The Fox’. Previously known as ‘The Vacant’, the song originally appeared on the rare Bridges album Fakkeltog, and was sung by Waaktaar-Savoy in a style that evoked both Jim Morrison and Scott Walker. Harket tells the 300-strong audience that he’d been ‘pestering’ his bandmates to do the song for over 30 years, and the new version – which faithfully mirrors the original arrangement – provides one of the set’s thrilling moments. Also stemming from the Bridges period is ‘This Alone Is Love’, with part of its lyric being recycled from two Fakkeltog songs. Ingeniously arranged with a jazz-like 11/8 time signature, the rarely-played track features some infectious harpsichord and an effective oboe solo from Horntveth.

Other highlights include the Furuholmen classic ‘Lifelines’, which is rearranged so that the spine-tingling “one chance to get back to the point where everything starts” lyric is pleasingly introduced into the song earlier than its studio counterpart; ‘Over The Treetops’, another rarely played song, includes some lovely harmony vocals and 12-string guitar playing, and then there’s ‘Living A Boy’s Adventure Tale’, which includes a stunning vocal from Harket. It is evident, however, that there are some tracks that work better than others (the versions of ‘Analogue’ and ‘Foot Of The Mountain’ feel a little leaden and plodding), but it’s largely a crowd-pleasing set.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the set is the closing ‘Take On Me’, presented in a fresh, ballad-like style. Furuholmen, who has in the past referred to ‘Take On Me’ as the band’s ‘party song’, discusses his fondness for the new arrangement in the sleeve notes of the excellent ‘Fan Box’ edition of the album: “It went from being an uptempo synthesizer-driven pop song to a much more melancholic, yearning ballad in this slowed down arrangement. It shows with much more clarity how the song, at its core, is not some standalone upbeat track, but belongs squarely inside our catalogue alongside more thoughtful, darker songs like ‘Scoundrel Days’,etc.”

The problem of how the intimacy of the Giske shows will translate to the upcoming arena tour is something that Furuholmen addressed at last month’s Berlin conference: “It’s not really about the number of people – it’s what you make happen in that room, making that moment glow…It will be strange to go from a 300-audience to a 10,000-audience or whatever, but we are used to that format, too. The challenge for us is that we have to make sure we don’t slip into trying to change the musical content out of panic, thinking there’s 10,000 [who] are gonna get bored shitless if we continue this way. We have to stick with the plan.”

As for the possibility of another a-ha studio album, as ever it’s Waaktaar-Savoy who is the most optimistic about the possibility: “When we recorded our last few albums, we were sometimes working pretty isolated from each other. We should do this again – sitting and recording in the same room together for a couple of weeks or months and see what comes out as a result.”


MTV Unplugged – Summer Solstice is out now

www.a-ha.com
www.facebook.com/officialaha
twitter.com/aha_com

Main photo by Just Loomis.


SPARKS Live In London 2017

Iconic pop duo bring their hippo to the house at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire…

Over forty-five years since their formation, the inimitable Sparks continue to delight and surprise fans and critics alike. Fresh from the critical and commercial success of their latest album Hippopotamus, the first of two nights at the iconic London venue – and the penultimate night of Sparks’ UK tour – saw the Mael brothers and their ‘reinforcements’ delivered a rapturously-received 90-minute set.

It was in June 2008 that Sparks last graced the stage of the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, with the band playing their then-upcoming 21st studio album, Exotic Creatures Of The Deep to a packed house. The performance was the culmination of the Sparks Spectacular, in which Ronald and Russell Mael had performed their previous 20 studio albums in full (including their 1971 debut as Halfnelson) during an astonishing 20-night residency at Islington’s Carling Academy, audaciously performing over 250 songs from their stunning back catalogue. That they managed to pull it off was not only testament to the band’s staunch professionalism, but it was also indicative of the brothers’ ability to think outside of the box, almost 40 years into a career that has seen the band transcend numerous musical genres, influencing a wide-ranging number of artists along the way (including New Order, The Smiths, Nirvana, They Might Be Giants and many more).

The same venue provided the setting for one of Sparks’ comeback shows in 1994, something that was acknowledged by Ron Mael towards the end of their latest soiree in the capital. The excellent Gratuitous Sax And Senseless Violins album had put Ronald and Russell Mael back on the map after a period of commercial decline in the previous decade. Indeed, it would be easy to draw parallels with Gary Numan who has recently registered his first top ten album since 1982’s I, Assassin. Numan himself went through his own period of decline in the same decade, before recovering his mojo on 1994’s excellent Sacrifice album. Despite enjoying success in some European territories, Sparks had not enjoyed a hit single in the UK since 1979’s ‘Beat The Clock’, and now they have scored their first top ten album since 1974’s Propaganda.

Since their well-received appearance at the 6 Music Festival in Glasgow in March this year, the live band has included members of Mini Mansions, Queens of the Stone Age and The Last Shadow Puppets. Tyler Parkford, the band’s second keyboardist, was recognizable as the evening’s support act Mister Goodnite, who crooned his way through a bizarre 20-minute, sample-heavy set that provoked virtually no reaction from the incredulous West London crowd. Sadly, Parkford’s self-described “intoxicating expo of under-lit romance, mystery, horror, adventure and much much more” didn’t quite live up to its billing and most people were left scratching their heads as Parkford exited the stage to muted applause.

There was a break of half an hour before a slightly impatient (and space-deprived) sell-out crowd were treated to the sight of Sparks entering the stage, resplendent in eye-catching sailor-like outfits. With the band continuing to add to their impressively vast and diverse back catalogue, putting a set list together must be an increasingly difficult task for the Mael brothers. But what eventually transpired was a tight, 90-minute set that largely drew from more recent albums, particularly their latest opus Hippopotamus. As the 68-year old Russell Mael recently told Exposed magazine, “We take pride in the fact that we don’t rely on the past.”

The wonderfully-titled ‘What The Hell Is It This Time?’ served as an effective set opener, typifying the quality of the band’s new opus with its inventive arrangement and adventurous wordplay (“Our God is great, our God is good, he loves every man/ But there’s a limit to what even he can withstand”). This was followed by the popular double-header of ‘Propaganda’ and ‘At Home, At Work, At Play’, a throwback to the mid-1970s when the band were in the midst of considerable commercial success.

The often-overlooked Exotic Creatures Of The Deep album was represented solely by the excellent ‘Good Morning’, driven by an infectious piano hook, while 1994’s comeback single ‘When Do I Get To Sing “My Way”?’ saw Russell Mael up the energy levels as they tore through one of their landmark songs.

Three tracks from Hippopotamus followed, kicking off with ‘Probably Nothing’, an ephemeral tale of memory loss which slightly upset the show’s momentum. Current single ‘Missionary Position’ has already asserted its place in the firmament of Sparks classics, and was greeted with euphoric applause (“A lot of lovers of the missionary position, I see,” quipped Russell Mael). The quirky title track provided some further lighthearted fun, with its hilarious childlike lyrical couplets featuring paintings by Hieronymus Bosch, Volkswagen Microbuses and, of course, hippos.

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Next up was ‘Sherlock Holmes’, a track that had originally appeared on the Reinhold Mack-produced Angst In My Pants. It was later covered by Mini Mansions on the B-side of their ‘Death Is A Girl’ single in 2014, so its inclusion in the set wasn’t that surprising. This was followed by ‘Dick Around’ (famously banned by the BBC in 2006), and Russell Mael further impressed with his versatile vocals.

On Hippopotamus the band have unveiled a number of bona fide Sparks classics that sit comfortably with the best of their work. Whilst the band could easily have played the album in full, it was the standout tracks that dominated the rest of the set, including ‘Scandinavian Design’ which, on paper at least, sounds like an advertisement for IKEA furniture (“Time and space intertwined/ Elegance, simple lines/ Scandinavian design”), and ‘Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)’ which harks back to their mid-90s period. And then there’s the delightfully whimsical ‘I Wish You Were Fun’. Showcasing the Mael brothers’ more playful and Vaudevillian side, the enthusiastic audience didn’t resist the opportunity to join in with some infectious ‘la-la-la’s, while the band impressed with some tight tempo changes and a beautiful piano coda.

Elsewhere, the classic ballad ‘Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth’ (as covered by Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore and the late Billy MacKenzie) revealed the band’s more sensitive side, replete with some authentic guitar work that recalled the period.

In its Lil’ Beethoven studio version, ‘My Baby’s Taking Me Home’ tests the patience with its repetitive title refrains, but it works surprisingly well in a more energized live version. The track’s more classical leanings contrasted nicely with the classic synth-pop of ‘The Number One Song In Heaven’, which also afforded the largely expressionless Ron Mael the opportunity to leave his ‘Ronald’ keyboard set-up and cut loose with a manic crowd-pleasing dance that belied his 72 years. And there was no let-up as the band launched into their signature song, ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us’, with Russell Mael effortlessly hitting the high notes. This would have been a perfect end to the set but, rather than roll out another classic, the band chose to finish with the more downbeat inflections of ‘Life With The Macbeths’. But the audience didn’t seem to mind, and the band duly returned for an encore of ‘Johnny Delusional’ (from FFS) and ‘Amateur Hour’. “Thanks for making our homecoming so special tonight” declared a seemingly overwhelmed Russell Mael. It was indeed a special evening.


Set list: What The Hell Is It This Time? / Propaganda / At Home, At Work, At Play / Good Morning / When Do I Get To Sing “My Way”? / Probably Nothing / Missionary Position / Hippopotamus / Sherlock Holmes / Dick Around / Scandinavian Design / Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me) / Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth / I Wish You Were Fun / My Baby’s Taking Me Home / The Number One Song In Heaven / This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us / Life With The Macbeths / Johnny Delusional / Amateur Hour


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