BILLY CURRIE – Balletic Transcend

The iconic musician takes us on a magical journey…

Balletic Transcend is the new studio album from Ultravox’s Billy Currie; the ninth installment from his notable instrumental solo catalogue and a mature work of multifaceted character that has found its way from the depths of the darkest, distant, yet most beautiful Isles. A seasonal storm of graceful vitality, with special emphasis on plenty of woody, traditional flavours, not least emerging from the spicy aroma of his rich violin tones.

Although the contrast is very evident, from lively beat drives, swirling wave formations to spacey trance, the themic essentials are very obvious throughout and go some way to bind this contemporary album of epic fantasy-meets-psychological thriller.

The title track, ‘Balletic Transcend’, flourishes with its beauty, but hauntingly so, given its stunning peaks and split personality. It breaks to an uncanny silence, marking the way to lots of piano decay – very carillons à musique and a perfect passage to the stark, eerie landscape of ‘Springboard Activist’, a subtle piece with earthy violin motifs and sparkly piano.

‘Grandiloquent’ is one of those hugely melodic tracks, not untypical of Ultravox and set against a more up-tempo contemporary sounding beat. The harmonious feel cuts to welcome more decorative aspects – reminiscent of Visage’s ‘Mind of a Toy’ intro. ‘Dip’, one of the key tracks here, is a hint as to what might have appeared had the Rage In Eden album been written today, and under the scrutiny of Conny Plank. The layering and atmospherics are all there, giving dramatic impulse with heavily weighted synths and accompanying piano that morphs with meditative strings of pure Celtic feel – delicate interludes allowing the dark watercolours of the music to build. In complete contrast, ‘Back To The Head’ exhibits a modern dance feel to begin with but its dazzling jump takes it from humble to the racy sensationalist.

‘Jump Spin’ has the listener lost in the depths of a mist-laden forest, with solo violin and viola layers creating an atmospheric ascent towards a twilight afterglow. It’s a very intimate piece that has such clarity of articulation, that you can almost visually witness the manipulation of the strings – a definite showpiece of the album in terms of sound and technique. Along the lines of the likes of ‘Stand Like A Balance’ and ‘Why Do You Hang On Me?’, which demonstrate similar feel and isolation in the moment, but differ in that ‘Jump Spin’ is curiously set inside its own dialect and gains lively excitement from the fast paced beat that takes over at given intervals. If Kurt Cobain had played a violin, he’d have done something bordering on the distorted feast of strings that we hear here, plenty of angst, blending the end of the track – eventually derailing and leaving just the echoes from within a dark tunnel.

Both ‘Unbounded’ – with its most expressive, tearful strings and ‘Pothole Pirouette’ present the attractiveness of styles heard on previous albums such as Still Movement and Stand Up & Walk; very serene and spacious with plenty of rolling soundscapes. A deeply matured, earthy toned viola creates the basic mood for ‘A Feint Idea’, followed by a tide of fast flowing notes on the piano, before the waves finally break and crash with more piano offering the basis of exploration. ‘Etoile’, along with ‘Dip’, is something special. Dark set against light, with intense, soundtrack like, heavy chords, lifted with light washes of swirly synths. Again, very Ultravox styled, with traces of the recent ‘7/8′, ‘Astradyne’ and also ‘Monument’. It’s essentially the perfect closing track; a grand finale that leaves the listener ready to seek out more.

Balletic Transcend in some ways takes a step beyond anything Billy has explored before in the solo context. A magical and pivotal collection of signature sound blends, although if it were a whiskey, it would be a fine single malt that has spent many years maturing in cask, and while it’s very shadowy and edgy in places, with remote and desolate expanse, it can be a bright little guiding journey; one that shall always reference back to the intricate virtuosity of the composer.

Balletic Transcend is available as a download through the usual digital outlets and on CD via Amazon On-Demand

Live Photo by Jus Forrest.

Missing In Action: SCHMOOF

By the turn of the 21st century, synthpop as a genre was on life-support. Pioneering bands like The Human League and Pet Shop Boys were still in action (and releasing some of their finest ever work) but a mass audience was lacking.

The electropop sound had fallen out of fashion and would remain so for almost a decade. Blips could be heard from new bands likes Ladytron, S.P.O.C.K., Solvent and The Postal Service, but compared with the wealth of synthpop artists we have today, things were pretty grim. But amid this dark and gloom, there was a glimmer of light reflecting off the disco balls. One cold, wet night just before Christmas 2004, I drove through to Electrobix in Glasgow to see Freezepop, the Bostonian synthpop band who were almost single-handedly representing the genre and doing it with a “sweet and cold and fruity and plastic-y” vibe.

Gigging alone, the band decided to adopt me for the night and we soon got chatting. “Have you heard Schmoof?” asked lead singer Liz. “We toured with them in England, they’re amazing! You gotta hear them!” I hadn’t heard Schmoof but her enthusiasm for this “funny, sexy, cool synthpop band” piqued my interest and I promised to check them out. So I checked out Schmoof on Myspace and after hearing a couple of songs, I couldn’t stop smiling. What a fantastic sound! What witty lyrics! What a hot looking band!!

Schmoof were synthpop duo Sarah and Lloyd who made music they described as “analogue-Atari-electro-synthpop-with-sexy-girly-vocals”. Having met at music college during the start of the millennium, they released their debut album ‘Bedroom Disco’ on Austrian label Angelika Köhlermann (also home to Innes Smith’s band CNUT) in 2002.

Picking up where the Younger Younger 28’s left off with Sarah acknowledging that “Schmoof songs deal with everyday issues”, ‘Bedroom Disco’ opened with ‘Disco Dancing’, a song that set the template for Schmoof’s happy analogue electropop. Cut through with Frazier Chorus style social satire, it had clever, funny lyrics like “You’re getting ready for a disco evening. You stand before your mirror, put on your suit, splashing your boots”. The technical writer in me got such a kick from ‘Troubleshooting Guide’ with its “Where did I put his manual? Could this be his ‘on’ switch? Shall I twiddle this knob?” quips. ‘Didn’t Pull’ brought back TRIO’s Casio VL Tone bip-bip-bip to accompany a tale of another unsuccessful night trying to get off with someone, while ‘Kinky Spaceman’ was suitably saucy space pop with Sarah cooing …All I want is galactic fun, zap me with your ray gun”

Throughout these songs, Sarah’s delivery was sometimes deadpan, sometimes talky, sometimes like the singer from the Blackadder theme song… but always distinctive and frequently laced with that uniquely British style of innuendo. Closing with ‘Pop Star’ (a biting commentary on manufactured pop music), this was a gem of a lost synthpop album and an amazingly consistent effort for a debut. And of course ‘Bedroom Disco’ featured the original version of Schmoof’s biggest hit ‘Chocolate Boyfriend’.

By 2005, Schmoof had developed into a potent live act, and boy what a show they put on! With both Sarah and Lloyd clad in tight PVC, the high heels, ZX Spectrum projections and “frantic strap-on keyboard duels” (Roland SH-101s, dear nerdists) helped make Schmoof’s live show both utterly unique and, considering the musical style, surprisingly Rock ‘n’ Roll. Retro home computers were an important part of the Schmoof identity, both for the sound (Lloyd sequenced a range of analogue synths using Cubase on an Atari ST) and for the visuals. Every Schmoof song had a ZX Spectrum animation projected behind the band to accompany it, driven live by a 48K Spectrum. It took hours to hand-program each one in BASIC and at gigs, the program would be loaded off a tape by Lloyd which took about 5 minutes. Taking their cue from Pete Shelley’s 1983 album XL1, Schmoof released all the animations as a ZX Spectrum program on track 13 of the CD.

Following ‘Bedroom Disco’ the Schmoof sound began to evolve and mature “We made our sound fuller using more distorted tones, blending electro with a ‘rock’ sound but without us being an actual rock band. Despite using influences from other genres, we found that our vocals and production style was so distinctive that our recordings always sound like Schmoof” said Lloyd. Schmoof’s synthpop take on rock led to covers of BRYAN ADAMS ‘Run To You’ and the GUNS N’ ROSES classic ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine.’ As Sarah told the Metro newspaper in 2006: “We never wanted to be a tedious electro band who stood there looking cool, rapping in a German accent. So it was natural for us to do a cover of such a major track in cock-rock history. When we had parties at our mucky flat in North London, we played the original ‘Sweet Child’. People went mad doing air guitar and headbanging. People think we’re taking the piss out of GUNS N’ ROSES but it’s a tribute”

By 2006 Schmoof were gaining notoriety and momentum, with a slot at the Infest alternative electronic music festival; “Goths like us because we wear PVC and Sarah has black hair!” Lloyd said at the time. There was also a re-recorded version of ‘Chocolate Boyfriend’ to promote, a club night called ‘Warm Electro’ to run, and a good wave of publicity to ride on generated by that Metro article. The ‘Chocolate Boyfriend’ single was released on the band’s own Council Pop Records label “so that we had full control over the art, promotion and schedule of our releases”. It was backed up by a slick video that ended with Sarah taking a bath in chocolate! “I’d been looking forward to it for weeks” remembered Sarah, “but I’m disappointed to say it didn’t live up to my expectations. It was incredibly hot and I felt lightheaded for several hours afterwards. I also stank for days and I got thrush…”

Oh the glamour…

By now, Schmoof’s live set included several guest spots: Nick Cammack would often duet with Sarah on ‘Northern Line’ while MENLO PARK’s Ben Nicholls featured on ‘Hayfever’, a wonderful country and western/electro-pop fusion song about killing an unfaithful farmer with a combine harvester with the immortal lines “He’s been playing the field; his crops better not yield; he is giving me hayfever”.

Five years after the debut, Schmoof’s second and as it turned out, final album was released, again on Council Pop Records. The artwork of The Glamour showed a tiny dressing room with Sarah perched on a flight case applying makeup and Lloyd squeezing himself into a pair of shiny black PVC trousers, bum cheekily peeking out. ‘Rock Wife’ opened the album with its pure, slick synthpop about rock band groupies (“Could you do with a fresh muse? Am I qualified? Hanging in dirty venues, I want to be your rock wife”). ‘Shallow Boy’ was always one of my favourite Schmoof songs and ‘Warm Electro’ was indeed both warm and electro, continuing the theme of music about music. ‘Wallflower’ had a lovely classical baroque riff (take note, Maison Vague fans) and could be seen as the sequel to ‘Didn’t Pull.’ As with the live shows, the closing song was ‘We Are Home’ after a long time travelling the end of the journey is here; back home to Blightly where “mullets are rare” and “breakfast is full and fried”.

The end of 2007 saw the release of Schmoof’s cover of The Human League’s ‘Seconds’ which coincided with their appearance at the now defunct Electronically Yours (EY) website’s first event in Hoxton, London. This gig also saw the live UK debut of Greek synthpopsters Marsheaux and a DJ set from The Electricity Club’s own Paul Boddy (under his EMP moniker). TEC’s Chi Ming Lai was also there, getting perhaps a little too close to the action. Said Chi at the time: “Schmoof were fantastic: Sarah’s sexy minx persona and stage antics with her strap-on made it totally entertaining. I can confirm though I still have a headache from Lloyd bashing his strap-on into me!”

Unfortunately EY’s pre- and post-articles on this event concentrated almost exclusively on Marsheaux who were given a much longer set compared with Schmoof. With a lack of other promotional outlets, it was perhaps an increasing struggle to grow the band. “We felt that we had taken it as far as we could” said Sarah. By 2008, Schmoof were no more. While Lloyd looked to the sea as “living in London was doing my head in”, Sarah continued working with EY behind the scenes, helping plan and organise several live events including the UK debut of Melbourne’s Parralox; there was even discussion of a new synthpop record label with EY and Matt Culpin from Northern Kind. In the end, Sarah withdrew her involvement and it was probably just as well as the Electronically Yours label venture proved to be misguided.

Liz from Freezepop recently recalled her memories of Lloyd and Sarah: “Schmoof put on such a fun show, and are lovely folks as well. They helped us book shows, drove us around, made us delicious sandwiches… I miss them! And their tunes!”. And Schmoof’s legacy? Some Schmoof-iness can be heard in Hyperbubble songs as well as in Maison Vague. And Vile Electrodes certainly have a similar although less animated look. But there’s never been a band quite like Schmoof. Retro and cool several years before retro was cool, Schmoof’s ‘novelty’ appeal could sometimes mask the fantastic song-writing, sincere lyrics, and intricate production.

And I miss them too.

Schmoof’s music can still be purchased via iTunes Sarah is happy to sell CDs direct to fans via

You can also read a brand new interview with the band on The Pansentient League!

To coincide with this article and the new interview, Schmoof have to put the entire The Glamour album up on YouTube with the original ZX Spectrum animations:

Text and Interviews by Jer White
9th November 2013