Emerging from the Netherlands, Heliophile is a synthpop project masterminded by Gijs van Ouwerkerk (who also performs in dark electro outfit Schwarzblut). Based in Enschede, Heliophile formed in 2010 and crafted two self-released EPs before more recently signing to the Russian label ScentAir Records.
The band chalked up a selection of live performances, augmented by a live band consisting of Maarten (keys) and Bernard (keys and vocals). These live outings, which included an appearance at the I-Synth III festival, helped Heliophile to build a fanbase.
Now comes their debut album release Permeate, which also marks their first release on the ScentAir label. Heliophile swing to the darker end of the synthpop palette, something that fans of outfits such as De/Vision, Tenek and Diorama will appreciate. As an album, Permeate features accomplished synthpop melodies, but it’s perhaps van Ouwerkerk’s voice that gives Heliophile its distinctive sound. His emphatic delivery lends a more weighty feel to the tunes on Permeate, particularly the album’s leading track ‘Towers So Tall’.
Lyrically, the album covers a lot of ground, with topics such as the demise of the Cathar heresy, the mystery of cosmic dark matter and the echo chamber effect in journalism. So straight away you realise that Heliophile are not your common-or-garden synthpop outfit!
On the track ‘Tranen van de Regen’, van Ouwerkerk also gets to sing in his native language. it’s a song that has an icy charm to it, which also suggests hints of a-ha’s particular melancholic sweep.
Meanwhile, ‘Hungry For the Day’ delivers smooth synthpop whose strength lies in the vocal melodies. There’s a simpler approach to the stripped down melodies of ‘Satellite’ whose cosmic pop incorporates oddly evocative lyrics (“Park our broken satellite/Into graveyard orbit”).
‘Meet the New You’ offers a change of gear with a nod to more beats-driven synthpop. A number which also utilises vocoder for the vocals with great effect. Elsewhere, the album’s title track delivers darkwave delights while ‘This Broken Dance’ has a much subtler approach with a sense of synth-driven reflection.
Permeate offers a mixed bag of ideas, not all of which work, but the ones that do have a certain power. Certainly the likes of ‘Towers So Tall’ and ‘Hungry For The Day’ are standout moments.
The production on Permeate offers a polished and smooth sound, although there’s certainly room to give the material much more punch. But these are all minor quibbles overall for a collection of dark synthpop that will certainly find favour in the broad scope of electronic music circles.
A cinematic expanse from electronic music’s iconic figure…
The release of Gary Numan’s Savage (Songs From A Broken World), is both individual and brave. It’s his 21st studio album – the result of a crowdfunding campaign through Pledge Music, and highest charting since Telekon back in 1980.
This latest body of work transmits a thoughtful concept, centred around the modern-day issues that would seemingly put into question the survival of the planet. With cries for help, coupled with stark, yet honest observations of a futuristic vision; one that goes against the grain and ventures out of the comfort zone, and gives its acknowledgement to some very real threats to survival. Indeed “Politics are screaming…” and thankfully, in this instance, it’s nothing to be turned off by.
Giving due consideration to Splinter (Songs From A Broken Mind), while there are perhaps too many similarities to mention, that’s not to say Savage is a cliché. In essence, it takes things a step beyond, with its political leanings; determined in its quest – creating a clear and unbroken passage into a cinematic expanse of bleak wilderness associated with widespread post-apocalyptic decay. Think compositions that evoke visions of sci-fi-inspired dusty escarpments – and beyond. Yet still, splashes of Numanised synth pop continue to shimmer through and, this time, it’s perfectly blended with an eastern flavour that’s subtle, yet enough to captivate.
The anthem ‘Bed Of Thorns’ draws on some wonderfully haunting female vocal samples, eloquently placed and creating a perfect context of eerie atmospherics. A dawning of post-apocalyptic clouds. A superb progression of elements that blend with the eastern inspired embellishments that thread their way into the fore. A standout track that has the perfect balance of every ingredient we may have come to expect.
‘My Name Is Ruin’ was the first single to emerge from the album. It gives Numan himself something to be especially proud of, given his daughter, Persia, provides the unique backing vocals on the track. The results – an eclectic mix of the angelic-like choral tapestry set against the robust dance-driven beats. Its synthesized melodic lead, in fact, does not flow too far from Splinter’s ‘Love, Hurt, Bleed’. The track is by far one of the most contagious.
Imagine ‘The End of Things’ were the camera – it would sweep in over the landscape providing visual insight. Lyrically, Numan puts this across with the perfect accompaniment; intimating how the future could be. And herein lies the theme – awareness of the ‘green’ issues that so often come into question. There’s interplay between musical setting and lyric; that gentle chime of awareness. It’s a painstakingly lonely track, uncovering layers of truth – the surface scratched bare. ‘And It All Began With You’ follows, and is a gently meandering intro of planetary exploration – its melody so vivid against its backdrop. The journey continues with tuneful layering and a clever integration of eastern flavour that momentarily sounds dissonant before the blend is perfected.
If there’s a charismatic live track on here it has to be ‘When The World Comes Apart’ -unmistakably more stage than desert. Think signature buoyant beats and synth pop splashes. This has the explosions associated with an active volcano – a fast running bed of hot lava.
Sketches of distorted guitars and feedback find their way into ‘What God Intended’, while ‘Pray For The Pain You Serve’ delivers wonderful transfigured climaxes in the music. Initially, ‘Mercy’ is hard-hitting and bullet-like in its introduction, while its continuation possesses an ominous pulse.
What’s immediately striking overall is not only those sounds that are tagged to such a great sense of space, it’s also the obvious stencil for cinematic imagery; the introductory sections of ‘Broken’ would make the grandest prologue. However, while not the opening track, it wraps things up in a tidy fashion – the albums grand finale and closure point – a summary of terror, and associated aftermath.
While Artrocker Magazine described Dead Son Rising as “one of the great dystopian rock albums of all time,” this latest effort sees the weight of goth-metallic guitars reduced in favour of hugely synthesized tapestry – and for fans of old, that’s not a bad thing.
Without covering historic pastures, it’s fair to say that those who are familiar with Numan’s work in recent years will connect upon first listen. Savage is unmistakably modern-day Numan. Not only that, unsurprisingly, it has Ade Fenton DNA stamped all over it. It’s a carefully calibrated mix; a formula that’s based on the sure-fire template previously witnessed on the highly acclaimed Splinter (Songs From A Broken Mind), delivering a flawless production of intrigue; a soundtrack that brings together the atmospheric, the lonely, the eerie and, in places, the added drama of colourful crescendo. In summary, a sub-genre that’s more than suitable.
When The Sound Of Arrows appeared to disappear following the release of their 2011 debut album Voyage, it seemed like one of the brighter hopes for electronic music may have gone forever. Stefan Storm and Oskar Gullstrand had brought an optimistic element to their widescreen pop that immediately stood them apart from their contemporaries.
Voyage’s strength was founded on the Arrows’ sense of wonder wrapped up in a fluid, dreamlike sound. This ‘magicpop’ element gave The Sound Of Arrows their unique appeal with a direction that aimed more for hope than cynicism.
Plans for a swift follow-up album were abandoned with Storm instead focussing his energies on Kids Of The Apocalypse, a side project that drew from many influences, including M83 and Gorillaz. Cultivated as a loosely narrative-driven idea in collaboration with animator Ernest Desumbila, the concept tacked to a much more immediate sound (utilising a hip-hop approach) than the Arrows’ typical dreampop approach.
But The Sound Of Arrows hadn’t quite been boxed away forever. The duo toiled away on music in the intervening years, taking their time to perfect their sound. This wasn’t new as apparently two proto-albums had been conceived and then abandoned before the pair had finalised Voyage (that then-label Geffen sat on the material for a year is another story altogether).
Promoting new album Stay Free, the band stated: “Most of the bands we really rate, they don’t make music on a conveyor belt – it’s more about when they’re ready and when they have something to present. It just took time to get right.” Certainly the duo’s new album Stay Free arrives in a world that’s changed quite significantly since Voyage was released. So just how does The Sound Of Arrows fit into contemporary music in 2017?
‘Beautiful Life’, which was the first glimpse of the new album, suggested that the electronic outfit’s talent for big pop tunes was still present and correct, but there’s also a more organic element with big string arrangements prominent in the mix. “Turn up the music and bring down the rain” suggests the wistful lyrics atop subtle synth rhythms. Meanwhile, the track is given plenty of epic sweeps courtesy of the strings section.
“Bandage every scar, silence all the noise and see the sky is full of stars” offers Storm on Stay Free’s title track. It’s a balmy tune that suggests summer skies and expansive vistas.
The cinematic elements that were such a vital element of Arrows work previously are evident on the likes of ‘Beautiful Life’ and also ‘Don’t Worry’. The latter employing a captivating strings-driven melody as Storm’s evocative vocal weaves in and out of the beats.
As with their 2011 album Voyage, the duo are also happy to bring in collaborators for vocal duties. ‘Wicked Ways’ brings onboard Annie to take the Arrows down trip-hop territory with its combo of beats and strings. Meanwhile, ‘In The Shade Of Your Love’ brings the impressive vocal chops of Niki & The Dove to bear. Here, the track has an hymnal quality through its choral elements and it breathes a tropical, languid atmosphere that invites the listener to swim in it.
There’s panoramic pop on tracks such as ’The Greatest’, while ‘Hold On’ employs sweeping orchestral beats that give it a Massive Attack-style sheen. The album takes a distinctly different direction with ‘Another World’. Here, a more sedate atmosphere is wrapped around a flute melody and tribal drum rhythms.
Elsewhere, the album also opts for slower, more reflective moments, such as ‘Lost In L.A.’ with its sober yearning vocal (“love will come to us/but we must wait”).
Richard X, who did duties on Voyage, is also back lending co-production duties to some tracks. Meanwhile, Elias Kapari and John ‘P*Nut’ Harrison also contribute their talents to Stay Free’s extensive range of material.
Stay Free is a very different affair to Voyage with a much more grounded sound than the magicpop of old – an evolution in The Sound Of Arrows sound that was hinted at in the earlier Kids Of The Apocalypse output. As Storm suggests: “It’s less conceptual than Voyage and a little more about having two feet on the ground, maybe gazing up at the sky rather than floating up into space this time.”
There’s always been a desire for the outfit to develop and grow rather than repeat themselves and Stay Free offers a solid collection of songs that stands proud against a busy modern music scene.
Stay Free is out now on Skies Above label.
The Stay Free album launch party takes place at The Old Bank Vault, 283 Hackney Rd, London E2 8NA on Friday 27th October, 6-10pm
The Stay Free Pop-Up Shop will also run at The Old Bank Vault from 27th to 30th October.
Marking the final single to be released from Empathy Test’s forthcoming album Safe From Harm, ‘Everything Will Work Out’ continues the band’s talents for crafting evocative electropop.
Empathy Test consists of childhood friends, Isaac Howlett and Adam Relf. Formed in 2013, the London-based duo established themselves through a series of EP releases, including 2014’s Losing Touch and Throwing Stones. In 2015 they performed to a 1,000+ audience at the Wave-Gotik-Treffen Festival in Germany. They’ve also performed alongside the likes of Mesh and VNV Nation in times past. Their live outings also see their lineup augmented by Christina Lopez (drums) and Sam Winter-Quick (keyboards).
‘Everything Will Work Out’ follows on from the release of ‘Be My Side’ and ‘Bare My Soul’, two further tracks culled from Empathy Test’s debut album(s).
There’s a plaintive quality to this track with its lush use of synths that breathes a 3am atmosphere. It’s Electric Youth meets The Sound Of Arrows with a polished production that only someone lacking any empathy could fail to appreciate.
Meanwhile, the lyrics deal with love and loss (“Here I go, another romantic on overflow/I locked you out but you won’t go”). Or, as summed up by singer Isaac Howlett: “Lyrically, it’s about hooking up with your ex and then waking up in the morning and realizing you’re not going to get back together, but it’s okay; it’s for the best”.
All this ties into the band’s forthcoming debut albums – Safe From Harm and Losing Touch, due for release on 17th November. Meanwhile the duo have already smashed their intended Pledge goal and will be rounding things off with a launch party at Zigfrid von Underbelly on 25th November.
Interior design tips from classic synthpop outfit…
The last few years have seen something of a return to form for Blancmange. Despite their hefty output of late (Unfurnished Rooms is their fourth album in three years, with Semi Detached and Nil By Mouth both released in 2015, and Commuter 23 in 2016), their prolificacy hasn’t yet affected the quality of their music.
Perhaps the reason for this is because these recent albums are more like continuations of each other rather than something completely new. All seem centred around some sort of dark, dystopian parallel universe where distorted, sporadic synthesisers rule the airwaves and the distinctive voice of Neil Arthur is the sound most familiar to those citizens who still remain on good old Planet Earth.
Unfurnished Rooms is no different. Even the mere title of the album conjures up thoughts of emptiness and isolation, whilst the track of the same name unfurls into a progressive stomp immersed in fantastical imagery (“in search of unfinished works/hung well in barrier-reefed frames”). It is arguably the best track on the album too, shining like a particularly polished jewel out of the deliberate solemnity in a similar way to the yellow writing on the cover standing out against the dark, cold blue of the background.
The rest of the album is also what listeners might expect if they are familiar with any of Blancmange’s recent work. Not a lot of actual singing can be heard, per se; vocals on stand-out tracks like ‘Gratitude’ – an angry reflection on the nature of a difficult relationship – and ‘What’s The Time’- a series of thought-provoking questions spat by Arthur in his sufficiently bitter Northern accent- are more spoken than sung.
That is not to say there is a lack of musicality on the album as a whole, however. What Unfurnished Rooms lacks in vocal melodies is more than made up for in poignant lyric-writing (‘We Are The Chemicals’), edgy synthesisers (‘Anna Dine’) and strangely touching modern commentary (‘Don’t Get Me Wrong’), and yet still manages to retain Blancmange’s typically defiant sound throughout.
Admittedly, it does make for rather a difficult listen at times, as there are frequent spiky moments when it sounds as if Arthur himself is not quite sure of what’s going on. Some songs are, for want of a better phrase, a little cluttered; a few smoother moments or slightly less jolted transitions from one thought to another would not go amiss.
Once the clutter has been sorted through, however, we are left with the group at their simplest, unfurnished best- rawer and more blunt than you might expect.
Unfurnished Rooms is unafraid of the truth and unashamed of telling it, and whilst as an album it isn’t always easy to listen to, it makes for a welcome new chapter in Blancmange’s ongoing story.
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.
This weeks tunes feature the sleazy guitars of PINK DIAMOND REVUE, the brash synths of KNIGHT$ and the glitchy pop of GRETA ISSACS.
THE PINK DIAMOND REVUE – Go Go Girl
One of the surprising turns at the Electro Punk Party event earlier this year was Pink Diamond Revue. Any band that combines schralping guitar, raw drums and electronics – and that’s topped off by a mannequin (in the form of Acid Dol) – is difficult to ignore.
Pink Diamond Revue’s latest release ’Go Go Girl’ features sleazy guitar rhythms, sinister percussive beats and squelching electronics threaded with vocal samples. Imagine a car crash between surf guitar and a ’60s B-movie aesthetic and you’ll get an idea of where this outfit are coming from.
Pink Diamond Revue are also an act to catch live if you get the chance (and they play live often) as their singular shows have an engaging quality that’s both cool and unpredictable. As the song says, “always reckless”.
Formed by James Knights (Scarlet Soho), Knight$ pursue an unashamedly commercial pop approach to their output, as with the euphoric ‘What’s Your Poison’ in times past. They’re also not too shabby on the live scene either.
Footage of some of their live shows features in the video for new release ‘Alligator’, which is all brash pop and synth melodies. Knight$ display a particularly energetic approach to tunes, which is evident from the “snappy” number here.
The full EP also includes mixes from Fred Ventura/Italoconnection and Jake Wiltsire. There’s also a 10″ green vinyl version up for grabs.
Welsh artist Greta Issac pulls together an unlikely combo of instrumentation (including mandolin and double bass) and electronics to present a quirky yet accessible slice of pop. It’s not a million miles from fellow Welsh artist Marina And The Diamonds, which is always a bonus.
’Tied’ has a soaring pop appeal and pulls in lyrics that deal with being stuck in a relationship and trying to break free but, ultimately, ending up where you started. The clipped melodies and fine use of backing vocals are topped off with a clean production style that makes the tune pop. Greta’s electro-acoustic approach is a refreshing alternative to your common-or-garden electropop outings.
“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.”
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.”
Night Of The Living Electrical Appliances is a 12 track album conceived in the Guns’ own studio The Glass Factory, drawing influence from the likes of Cabaret Voltaire, Silicon Teens and Crash Course In Science, as well as early Depeche Mode and The Human League. The enigmatic outfit, which consists of Sissy Space Echo, Warren Betamax, Charles Bronson Burner and Bruce LeeFax, started out with a manifesto of “causing confusion with a mixture of pure synth pop and more experimental electronic sounds”, of which the new album serves up in style.
The new album continues Girl One And The Grease Guns decidedly eclectic approach to writing and recording. Stating that the new material mixes “pure electro-pop with more experimental, darker sounding tracks”, the outfit have delivered an album that boasts pop elements on tracks such as ‘He’s A Replicant’, ‘She’s A Calculator’ and ‘Emergency (Dial 999)’. But their more experimental side is evident on the likes of ‘Telegraph Street’, ‘Mute Your Gums’ and the eerie album closer ‘(She Sits) In The Freezer’.
As with previous releases, there’s a love for ’60s girl groups, combined with a ‘garage punk’ aesthetic which at times sounds like something Joe Meek would have dreamt up. There’s certainly a raw energy to the tracks on Night Of The Living Electrical Appliances that work their magic on the ears.
Songs such as ‘The Voices In The Walls’ weaves in a New Order-esque bass with a motorik beat, over which a breezy melody and vocal float.
There’s a ‘60s bubblegum pop appeal to ‘He’s A Replicant’, as well as a pithy line in lyrics (“the boy next door forgot his dream/the bad girl she’s got plenty”). ‘She’s a Calculator’, meanwhile, offers a more stripped-down composition with its buzzy synth melodies
Stepping into more experimental territory, ‘Telegraph Street’ delivers a harsh, fractured collage of sound which appears to be treading similar ground to their earlier song ‘(Here Come) The Catastrophe Machines’ with layers of distorted electronics. Elsewhere, there’s synthpop goodness on tracks such as ‘Deaden The Glare’ and ‘Emergency (Dial 999)’.
The energetic ‘Some Of It Is Blurred’ is like a contemporary take on Neu! and there’s also a similar German school feel to the melodic charm of ‘Turn It Around Again’ (particularly in the Mellotron-esque chords that wouldn’t be out of place on early OMD).
Closing the album, ‘(She Sits) In The Freezer’ is all brooding tones and reversed melodies, a fitting downbeat end to proceedings.
Night Of The Living Electrical Appliances marks the end of the Girl One And The Grease Guns story as they’ve stated that this will be their one and only album release. Cryptically, they mention on the sleeve notes: “We do not know what we’re going to do next. We haven’t planned that far ahead. We like it that way”. It’s a closing statement that suggests perhaps the door isn’t quite closed forever.
Night Of The Living Electrical Appliances is out on Next Phase: Normal Records and is available via Squirrel Records.
‘If you’ve got more to say, why wouldn’t you say it?’
Paul Waaktaar-Savoy, Berlin, 26 March 2015 (Press Conference to formally announce a-ha’s comeback and the release of a new album, Cast In Steel)
Traditionally, when ‘the quiet one’ from a-ha has had something to say, it has invariably been through his song lyrics.
While the other two members of the Norwegian band have been far more loquacious over the years, Paul Waaktaar-Savoy has done most of his talking through the pages of numerous well-thumbed notebooks.
While some musicians get worn down by playing the media game over time, for Waaktaar-Savoy there was barely a honeymoon period at all during which he was comfortable in that environment.
Take, for example, an interview on UK ‘Breakfast’ show Good Morning Britain in 1986, when interrogator Nick Owen asked ‘Are you OK’ because he ‘Hadn’t heard enough from [Paul]!’
A pattern had been set whereby singer Morten Harket and keyboardist Magne (then going by ‘Mags’) Furuholmen would spar with one another – and the interviewer(s) – while Paul shuffled uncomfortably alongside them.
Then again, when you have a back catalogue of songwriting credits like Waaktaar-Savoy does, do you need to give the public more?
Little appeared to have changed from that interview 31 years ago when a-ha visited Berlin again in September 2017 to promote the release of their MTV Unplugged Acoustic album (Summer Solstice) and subsequent extensive touring schedule.
Author and compatriot Jo Nesbo hosted the press conference and began proceedings by asking Paul: ‘How do you feel about being in the room on a scale from 1 to 10?’.
Paul, unsurprisingly, responded ‘1’, while Morten added, ‘It’s off the scale (for Paul)’.
For anyone still in any doubt, Waaktaar-Savoy doesn’t like doing interviews.
Which makes the publication of a biography – that involved writer Ørjan Nilsson undertaking several lengthy discussions with the musician – even more unlikely.
Yet here, in all its glory, comes Tårer fra en stein (Tears from a stone), published on 6 October, charting Waaktaar-Savoy’s rise to fame and exalted success not just with a-ha but Savoy and other side-projects.
The Electricity Club spoke to Nilsson about his role in what some may consider more like getting ‘blood from a stone’ in persuading Waaktaar-Savoy to open up for this long-awaited tome.
Firstly, is the book ghost-written – in the first person – or more biographical in the third-person?
Nilsson: The book is more biographical. It is based upon long interviews in four different cities (New York, Berlin, Hamburg and Oslo) over two years.
Many people have tried to persuade Paul Waaktaar-Savoy to put his thoughts into print (beyond song lyrics) but few have succeeded. Certainly, nobody has managed to get him to open up at such length – what is your secret?!
We (my publisher and I) contacted him in the fall of 2014 and told him what kind of book I wanted to write. Then we didn’t hear anything for half a year. Then, suddenly, he sent me an e-mail and asked if I could send him my first book, about Kings of Convenience’s iconic debut album (Quiet is the New Loud), and he liked it. Then we met one hot summer’s day in Oslo two years’ ago and discussed how we could try to dig deeper into his mindset around songs and songwriting.
It always helps to be passionate about the subject one writes about: how far does your interest in Paul’s music go, historically?
a-ha’s and Paul’s music played a significant role in my life since I was four years old. When the book was finished my editor wrote to me: ‘Congratulations. This is one of the most important things you’ve done in your life’. And it actually feels like that too. Paul, and a-ha as a trio, are among the few Norwegians that have reached far, far out of this country. Everybody knows the story behind their breakthrough, but I wanted to go into where the songs came from. What literature did Paul read in 1979? What films blow him away? Could his parents’ background say anything about the way he writes songs? What about the Norwegian landscape? I wanted to find out about that, for myself, and write about it so that it hopefully will be read as a cultural-historical document about a man that never spoke much but wrote songs that touched so many people in so many parts of the world.
Is this book something you have wanted to do for a long time?
I’ve had the idea somewhere inside me for 5-6 years, but it became more realistic three years ago.
Many people warn against meeting one’s heroes. Are you glad you did on this occasion?
I thought a little bit about that, of course. But five minutes into our first talk I knew that this was the right thing to do. This IS one of the most important things I have ever done – and will ever do.
Did you go into the interviews with any preconceptions about what Paul would be like? Was he as you expected or were there some surprises?
One surprise; he’s a very funny guy.
It is probably true to say that Paul was hit the hardest when a-ha split in 2010 – the other two were keen to embark on new careers whereas Paul believed there was still more to come from a-ha. Does this come across in the book?
Yes, it does. Paul says in the book that he didn’t want to quit at all back in 2010, and that he wanted more a-ha.
Is it also fair to say that Paul is the most enthusiastic with what is going on now – the ‘MTV Unplugged’ concert and the many live concerts ahead, both acoustic and ‘plugged’?
We haven’t talked about that specifically, we ended our two years of interviews just in the start of the ‘Unplugged’ project.
You have also written about Kings of Convenience, so do you see the struggles that a-ha has had internally over the years as just something that happens in every/most bands?
I don’t want to have an opinion about a-ha’s struggles. Paul talks about it in the book but he also says that Morten and Magne are two of his closest friends.
Initially the book will only be available in Norwegian. Are there plans to translate it into other languages, including English?
There is some interest in other countries, and there will be news out on that in the not too distant future, but I’m afraid not English right now. But I really hope it will happen.
As a-ha lived in and enjoyed great success in England in the ‘80s/early ‘90s (and retain a strong fan-base there to this day), why do you think the English translation is not near the top of the list?
Hmm, do you mean from my perspective or from English publishers? I guess many potential publishers haven’t heard about the book yet but hopefully they will and the book will have a long life.
Is Paul excited about the book?
Yes, that’s my impression. But probably also a little bit worried. This book goes into details about big parts of his life, and goes into the core of what he does – writing songs. I know I would have been kind of nervous (in his position).
And you have recorded a Savoy song (‘Whalebone’) especially for the release of the book with your own band (Willow) – how exciting was that to do and what does Paul think of it?
I have confidence in my writing and wasn’t too afraid about what Paul would think when I sent him the first chapters [of the book] last summer, since he liked the Kings of Convenience book. But the singing – and the Willow cover-version: I was super nervous. But then we got really nice feedback from him; he told me that he loved it and the version almost gave him a Placebo-vibe. Willow is, by the way, a band that broke up 12 years ago, but we thought this was a great opportunity to get back together and do something, because I like the concept of a book-single (a limited edition 7″ vinyl featuring ‘Whalebone’ by Willow and ‘Manhattan Skyline’ by Kings of Convenience was included for those who pre-ordered through bidra.no).
And what more from Waaktaar-Savoy?
When a celebrity has a book out it is common to tour the media circuit hammering home the point.
Will this be the case on this occasion?
Let publisher Christer Falck clear that matter up: ‘Pål will not promote the book,” Falck clarified.
‘As he said: “I have said what is to be said. From now on, I will keep silent.”’
One suspects Paul’s notebooks will continue to vocalise his thoughts for many years to come.