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.
March promises a stellar billing for the annual Synth City Festival…
The Synthetic City Electronic Music Festival remains one of the most vital events of the year. Its combination of global acts lends the all-day event an intriguing and broad perspective on the many colours of the synth pop palette.
Hosted by Johnny Normal, an electronic music artist in his own right and also a well-known radio host, Synthetic City is an outing that manages to combine established artists alongside emerging acts. Once again, Synthetic City will be taking place at Water Rats in London on Saturday 24th March.
The 2018 line-up offers a strong list of contenders suggesting a packed day of electropop goodness. DJ duties for the event will be handled by Rob Harvey. Currently presenting a show for Phoenix 98FM, Rob presents the weekly Synth City show Tuesdays from 8pm.
Dicepeople have been putting out their own brand of dark electronic pop since 2013. Consisting of Matt Brock (musician, songwriter and producer) and Rafael Filomeno (visual artist), the outfit have recently taken on board new vocalist Zmora and continue to dazzle audiences with their compelling live performances.
Their 2017 EP Synthetic was a stand-out moment, while the outfit also delivered a stunning cover version of Depeche Mode classic ‘Strangelove’. More recently, their team-up with Moi Saint produced the stunning ‘Shallow Under Skin’.
Staying themselves as “retro-futurist romantics”, Berlyn Trilogy offer up a darker approach to synthpop with some gothic elements weaved throughout their material.
Consisting of James Beswick, Simon Rowe and Faye Williams, Berlyn Trilogy showed their electropop chops on 2014 album A Perfect Stranger which delivered the percussive pop of ‘Synthetic Love’, the rolling moodiness of ‘Departed’ and the epic tones of ‘The Drone’.
Berlyn Trilogy proved one of the highlights at the 2017 Silicon Dreams event in Liverpool and their appearance at Synthetic City is a perfect opportunity to catch the darkpop trio in action.
There’s such a diverse number of ideas and influences in the music of LegPuppy that they’re difficult to pin down to any one niche. Combining dark electronic beats with a raw energy and a punk attitude, the outfit also add in a cheeky element to their lyrics referencing pop culture and social commentary.
The 4-piece outfit, which consists of Darren Laurence, Claire Jones, Pups and Hugo Bamboo, originally came together by accident when someone at a house party asked Darren and Claire if they were in a band.
‘Post-punk electronic balladeers’ Cult With No Name, comprise the East London duo of Erik Stein and Jon Boux. Their first two studio albums Paper Wraps Rock and Careful What You Wish For were met with critical acclaim. Blaine L. Reininger of genre-transcending legends Tuxedomoon collaborated on their second album (on the stunning ‘You Know Me Better Than I Know Myself’).
In 2014, inspired by their track ‘As Below’, German filmmaker Peter Braatz commissioned the band to produce a soundtrack for his documentary Blue Velvet Revisited (Filmed entirely in 1985 on set during the making of David Lynch’s masterpiece). 2017 saw Cult With No Name return to songwriting with the magnificent Heir Of The Dog. Featuring the supporting cast of Tuxedomoon members and the talents of Kelli Ali, it saw the band explore touches of Americana, from disco to gospel to blues. The album includes ‘No News’, one of their most remarkable piano ballads to date, as featured over the closing credits of Blue Velvet Revisited.
In addition to their studio albums, the band have appeared on several compilations and have frequently collaborated with minimal techno artist Doudou Malicious. Erik Stein has also acted in several short films made by electronic music pioneer John Foxx as well as the 2011 short film Sonus, produced by Ridley Scott Associates, and Gustav (2012) which is on permanent display at Bletchley Park. The band collaborated with Kelli Ali, co-writing and performing on two songs for her 2013 solo album, Band Of Angels.
Straddling between the UK and Denmark, Ian Harling and Martin Nyrup form the nucleus of electronic outfit Perpacity. Each has over 20+ years of musical experience, ranging from writing music and live performance to studio work and music production. Their debut album The Sinner Inclination arrived in 2015 and the band have since issued some well-received singles. Their 2016 album Arise also received critical acclaim.
Perpacity released new single ’Rule The Day’ this March ahead of their forthcoming new album release The Order Of Now, due out later in 2018.
Consisting of John Edwards and Richard van Kruysdijk, Palais Ideal draw inspiration from the likes of The Cure, New Order, Joy Division and Sisters Of Mercy. The result is a mix that the outfit suggest offers “fragments of post-punk, new wave and goth”.
Their new album No Signal offers a showcase of their blend of romanticism and stark modernism, including the driving tones of ‘Crossfade/Dissolve’ and a raw cover of classic Iggy Pop number ‘Funtime’.
Mr. Strange is the titular singer/songwriter of a four-piece electro-rock outfit from the Isle Of Wight. From the goth/drum n bass stylings of first album Sounds From The Asylum through to 2015’s uncompromising The Bible Of Electric Pornography, Mr Strange has carved out an intriguing musical path.
Inspired by such eclectic influences as Gary Numan, IAMX, David Bowie, Lady Gaga, Tom Waits and Insane Clown Posse, Mr Strange offers up a truly unique live show.
Oliver Davis and Samantha Adams form The Circuit Symphony, an outfit that draws from a wealth of influences from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. They teamed up with blues guitarist legend Bernie Marsden for the single ‘Christmas 1974’.
The Circuit Symphony have produced/remixed and programmed for artists such as OMD, Howard Jones and Take That and have received credits for work with The Human League, Steve Wilson, Ultravox, Howard Jones and more.
Dimitri Niccolai is a songwriter, producer, performer and writer who operates under the name Tenedle.
Formerly a member of new wave outfit Laughing Silence, Tenedle has since pursued a solo career, clocking up 6 album releases. Although he originally hails from Italy, Tenedle now bases himself in Holland.
More recently, Tenedle has focused on new studio album Traumsender.
Tenedle’s performance at Synthetic City 2018 will also feature the vocal talents of Bridget Gray who will be appearing as a special guest.
Host and performer for Synthetic City 2018, Johnny Normal gravitates between presenting his weekly radio show for Radio Warwickshire (where he’s interviewed the likes of Gary Numan, Martyn Ware and Adam Ant) as well as writing and performing as an electronic musician in his own right.
In the past, Johnny has performed alongside the likes of Adam Ant, Edward Tudor-Pole, Blancmange, Altered Images, Deviant UK, Sigue Sigue Sputnik, Nash The Slash and Wolfgang Flür among others.
His 2017 effort ‘Let Nothing Take Your Pride’ (penned under the banner of The Rude Awakening and featuring Brooke Calder) offered a rallying call for those that have been beaten down.
With rave reviews – and a top five placing – for their latest album The Punishment Of Luxury, a near sell-out UK tour, plus long-overdue recognition for their pioneering synth-pop work, it’s been an incredible turnaround in fortunes for Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, who reformed in 2005.
Back in the summer of 1996, it was a vastly different story, as singer Andy McCluskey prepared to release Universal, his third – and final – solo album under the OMD banner. Both McCluskey and Virgin Records had shifted the bulk of their chips in the direction of the album’s first single ‘Walking On The Milky Way’ but, by the time of its release, OMD were deemed to be past their sell-by date and Radio 1 passed on adding it to their playlist; causing a knock-on effect that would effectively sink its parent album. Shortly afterwards, a depressed McCluskey would slip into the shadows, before officially ending OMD in 1998.
Like the band’s previous album Liberator, it’s an album that has divided fan opinion over the years; whilst its lack of commercial success has somewhat coloured McCluskey’s own opinion of it. But this lyrically focused and well-produced collection has actually aged very well, and stands up against the best of the band’s back catalogue.
In this article we take an in-depth look at the making of OMD’s often overlooked tenth studio album, using archived material and some exclusive new reminiscences from Andy McCluskey and some of the album’s key personnel.
THAT WAS THEN
The critical and commercial failure of the Liberator album meant that, by the spring of 1994, OMD’s Andy McCluskey had reached the third crisis of his music career; following the commercial failure of Dazzle Ships in 1983 and the acrimonious split of the classic 4-piece line-up in 1989.
The beginning of the year had started well with the band bringing the Liberator tour to a close with some well received shows in South Africa, but little did McCluskey know that the show in Pretoria on the 15th January 1994 would be OMD’s last show for over 22 years. In an interview for the Messages magazine in 2002, McCluskey reflected on this show, as well as his decision to end the band: “I didn’t know that Pretoria in South Africa was going to be the last OMD gig. It was like, did The Beatles know that Candlestick Park was going to be their last ever gig? At the time, you’re not planning to stop, but when you do stop that’s it, you bring down the curtain.”
Whilst McCluskey had plans to utilise the services of the members of OMD’s touring band for his next album, Nigel Ipinson, Phil Coxon and Stuart Kershaw drifted into other projects once they’d returned to Liverpool. Kershaw hooked up with bass player – and college friend – Keith Small, while Phil Coxon formed Isha-D with Beverley Reppion (who’d sang backing vocals on OMD’s hit ‘Pandora’s Box’ in 1991). But it was Ipinson who would eventually land the highest profile job, playing keyboards for The Stone Roses in a new line-up that reunited him with his old Rebel MC bandmates Robbie Maddix and Aziz Ibrahim (the trio had previously played on the rapper’s 1991 album Black Meaning Good).
By and large the tour had been a success, but its fortunes contrasted sharply with that of the Liberator album itself – attracting criticism from both fans and journalists, one reviewer described it as a “collection of featherweight pop doodles”. Whilst the success of 1991’s Sugar Tax and its attendant singles had reinvigorated the OMD brand, it’s somewhat rushed successor was unable to replicate its success, with much of the blame laying at the feet of its techno-styled production. McCluskey recently explained to The Electricity Club: “The problem with Liberator was that I invited Phil Coxon to work on the production but wouldn’t relinquish my own programming, so we basically ended up with an album full of songs with two sets of often conflicted programming. Also, whilst Phil programmed I was bored so I played video games instead of keeping an eye on things! It was then too late to steer him in a different direction when he had done a couple of days work on a song.”
By this stage, the musical landscape was changing, and a new breed of guitar-based acts (Blur, Oasis, Suede, Pulp, et al) were spearheading a new movement that would eventually become known as Britpop. Fearing that OMD’s brand of synth-pop was becoming dated, McCluskey made a conscious decision to adapt to the changing climate and freshen up the act’s sound. “It was important for me to abandon some of the electronic stuff,” he confirmed. “Nobody in the mid-1990s really wanted ’80s synth-pop any more, which is essentially how OMD were perceived, whether correctly or not.”
And there was to be a further change as McCluskey decided to shake up his songwriting routine, abandoning his usual rehearsal space at The Ministry in Preston Street, Liverpool. “I’ve worked in the same room now for four and a half years,” he told the Telegraph fanzine that year. “I’ll be living in Dublin – admittedly not far from home, but far enough to break my usual habits.” McCluskey rented a house in Dublin and transferred his mixing desk, computer, speakers and rig to a room in a studio named The Factory.
Whilst work on the new demos was largely done independently, he was occasionally joined by Stuart Kershaw – tracks such as ‘Too Late’ stemmed from these sessions. Kershaw also accompanied McCluskey on a 3-week road trip across the USA; hiring a car in Washington D.C. and clocking up 6,500 miles on an indirect journey to Los Angeles. “We went north to Gettysburg,” McCluskey told The Travel Almanac in 2011. “Then back down all the way to New Orleans, then to NASA and to Tucson, Arizona…it was fantastic. When we got to Las Vegas we’d already done 5,500 miles and the valet guy wanted to take the car away: ‘I’ll get this washed for you, Sir!,’ he said. We asked him not to, of course, as we wanted to take a picture of the dirty car once we had made it to L.A.!”
By mid-1994, ‘The New Dark Age’, ‘Too Late’, ‘Universal’ and ‘That Was Then’ had been demoed, and the band’s information service also reported that the new album would include an updated version of ‘Resist The Sex Act’. This was a track that had been heavily influenced by Lil Louis’ club classic ‘French Kiss’, and originally considered for inclusion on 1991’s Sugar Tax album. “It’s now like a slowed-down house song built around a repeated bass riff which continues for six minutes with ambient choral sections floating in and out,” explained McCluskey. Whilst it was reported that the track would ‘definitely’ be on the album, it was eventually consigned to the archives.
Work on the album ceased as McCluskey convalesced following a collar bone break sustained whilst playing 5-a-side football. OMD’s peripatetic frontman also set off on holiday again; this time journeying with his then 70-year old father, Jimmy. “I flew with him into Tashkent, in Uzbekistan, and spent a couple of days with him there and in Samarkand,” McCluskey told The Travel Almanac. “Then we took a train across the border into China, through China and all the way to Singapore.” McCluskey added: “When I was young, I didn’t see my father that much. He was always working. And when he wasn’t working, he was out wasting his money on greyhound racing. When you become an adult, you reassess your relationship with your parents. This was my opportunity to go away with my father as an adult, one on one, and talk to him about us, about his history, to learn something about him. I’m glad I did it.”
By the end of the year the new album, provisionally titled Universal, was making good progress and Virgin Records were reportedly pleased with the demos that McCluskey had sent them. “I’m increasingly excited about the way this album is progressing,” said McCluskey. “It really is going to sound different.” The singer later told Sound On Sound that he was concerned about “getting a bit laid-back in Ireland”, and he relocated to Los Angeles for several months. After renting a house in Hollywood Hills West and a studio room at J.E. Sound, McCluskey was able to complete the album’s demos, which now included ‘If You’re Still In Love With Me’, ‘The Chosen One’ – not to be confused with ‘Sister Marie Says’ – and ‘Oboe Song’.
But there was one particular song that really excited OMD fans, after it was reported in mid-1995 that McCluskey had been working with his old bandmate Paul Humphreys in Los Angeles. Although Humphreys was committed to both The Listening Pool (who were working on a follow-up to debut album Still Life, provisionally titled Natural) and his Telegraph Records venture, the pair had remained good friends and seized the opportunity to work together again. “We wrote three or four pieces, but this one piece – ‘Very Close To Far Away’ – was by far the most exciting of the ones we’d written,” said an enthused McCluskey. “We specially set out to write a psychedelic pop song – it was quite interesting.”
PRODUCTION AND RECORDING
“The songs were 80 to 90 percent there – it was the last 15 to 20 percent, which is always the best bit, converting the good-sounding demo into the great-sounding finished record.” – Andy McCluskey
With the demos now completed, McCluskey was finally ready to begin recording the new album. Whilst the Sugar Tax and Liberator albums had largely been recorded at his co-owned Pink Museum studio in Liverpool, McCluskey was keen for a further change to his routine, and opted to record Universal at the then EMI-owned Townhouse Studios in London (the Shepherd’s Bush studio had been a popular facility with many high profile artists over the years, including Kate Bush, XTC, Simple Minds, Queen and The Jam). A change of recording environment had certainly paid off in the previous decade as the original OMD line-up sought to put the commercial failure of the Dazzle Ships album behind them. Switching from the confines of their self-built Gramophone Suite studio to Highland Studios in Inverness – and, later, the more exotic climes of Air Studios in Montserrat – the band returned in 1984 with a glossier pop sound and the reward of a successful album, Junk Culture, plus three hit singles.
With a change of studio there also came a change in production team, with McCluskey employing the services of both David Nicholas and Matthew Vaughan to co-produce with him. “When I got back from America, I had everything pretty much demoed,” McCluskey told Sound On Sound, “and having changed the way I wrote the album, I wanted to change the way I was going to record the album; it was quite important for me to find the right people to work with.” ARIA award winner David Nicholas was an experienced producer and recording engineer who had worked on landmark albums by Midnight Oil and INXS (notably 1987’s multi-platinum Kick) in his home country of Australia. Prior to his work on Universal he had also worked on albums by Elton John, Ash and Marcella Detroit, as well as Liverpool-based River City People, who had supported OMD on the second wave of the Sugar Tax tour in 1991.
Also boasting an impressive CV was Matthew Vaughan, an experienced musician and programmer who had featured on albums by Elton John, The Christians and Terence Trent D’Arby. In the early 1990s Vaughan had also co-written tracks and played on two albums by Bassomatic (a project masterminded by William Orbit, who had remixed OMD’s 1988 single ‘Dreaming’ for the 10″ format) and, in 1993, was credited with additional programming on two remixes of Depeche Mode’s ‘I Feel You’ single. His versatile musicianship would be called upon during the making of OMD’s new album, as he added guitar and keyboard parts to several tracks.
Prior to Universal, both Vaughan and Nicholas had completed programming and engineering duties, respectively, on Marcella Detroit’s Jewel album, and they had also commenced work on Pulp’s fifth studio album Different Class (by Christmas 1994, future smash hit ‘Common People’ was already in the can). “They were the right and left-hand men for that record, with [producer] Chris Thomas sitting on the couch doing the crossword and I thought, that’s the way I want to do it!” McCluskey told Sound On Sound. “So I spent three months in The Town House doing the crossword on the couch! It took a bit of the pressure off me, because I could delegate things to them and trust that they would do things I would be happy with – they were very much on my wavelength.” Whilst Nicholas and Vaughan were committed to working on the Sheffield band’s breakthrough opus, they were able to put in some preliminary work on the Universal album, picking two songs – ‘Very Close To Far Away’ and ‘The Chosen One’ – from McCluskey’s demos that they were particularly impressed with.
“I think it was my (and Dave’s) manager Barbara Jeffries who got us introduced to the gig,” Matthew Vaughan told The Electricity Club. “I remember going to the [Virgin] record company offices in Kensal Rise for a meeting, and we got the gig. What I knew of OMD’s catalogue extended not much further than ‘Enola Gay’, ‘Messages’, ‘Joan Of Arc’ and ‘Maid Of Orleans’ at the time, to be honest. I do remember that, between me and David, we thought there wouldn’t be much point in trying to recreate the sound of those records, given that that particular zeitgeist had passed (little did we know it was soon about to rush past us on its return journey). So we opted for live drums and bass and very little use of the old synthesisers that had characterised the OMD sound – this proved critically unpopular at the time as I recall. Andy had quite meticulously constructed demos already that we were keen to keep to the spirit of – the demos were what attracted us to the project really. So we went into a few weeks of pre-production in one of the basement rooms at the Town House studios in Goldhawk Road W14. We tarted up the sounds and some of the parts using various synth modules, and then started recording in the main studios upstairs – I think it was Studio 4 mainly. I remember doing the first track, ‘The Chosen One’ (which was a bit Roy Orbison), in Studio 1 and it going down well with members of staff. You should know that Studio 2 did not exist in the same building – that was the old Ramport Studios in Battersea, formerly owned by The Who. Studio 3 was the legendary ‘drum room’ at Townhouse used to record Phil Collins’ ‘In The Air Tonight’.
“It was the first time Matt and I had teamed up as co-producers,” explained David Nicholas to The Electricity Club. “Before that we had worked together many times for producer Chris Thomas as engineer (me) and programmer (Matt). To be honest, I had not heard any of [OMD’s] music other than singles I had heard on the radio back in the ’80s when they were quite big in Australia. I loved working on the record. Matt, Andy and I made a good team and it was also the first time I/we had attempted to do a tapeless album (which in those days was very new). We decided to work from Andy’s demos which were well advanced and all on Logic [Audio], which Matt was very familiar with. So we decided to just add live drums, bass and strings, and the odd guitar to the files that already existed in Logic using the first generation of digital audio computer hardware. It was very scary as that technology was very new and quite unstable. But we persevered and almost the entire album was done without using any tape. Now it’s the norm, but back then it was almost unheard of… and not without some major crashes and some very late nights! But a great learning curve and an achievement I’m proud of. I have very fond memories of the recording sessions, too. It was a very creative, happy and fulfilling record to work on as we all got on very well, both personally and creatively – which always make the music better, from my experience.”
Vaughan adds: “I remember Andy raising an eyebrow at me and Dave’s consumption of the classic Town House full English breakfast every morning, saying something like: ‘It’s all very well if you’re going out for a day’s worth of honest physical toil, less appropriate if you’re going to sit on your arse all day fiddling with a piano part’. I can’t swear that’s verbatim, but that’s the gist!”
The use of session players – particularly the rhythm section – marks Universal out as a unique album in OMD’s back catalogue. Bassist Phil Spalding was a vastly experienced musician who had worked with artists including Toyah and Mike Oldfield during the 1980s, and he’d also been a member of Original Mirrors, along with Ian Broudie (a former member of the legendary Liverpudlian ensemble Big In Japan who would later form Care with Paul Simpson and, more successfully, The Lightning Seeds). Spalding had played on Original Mirrors’ self-titled debut album, and performed live with the band (notably as support for Roxy Music on their Flesh And Blood tour), before being sacked for reasons he explains on his website: “I was too loud, too opinionated, too arrogant, too paranoid, too high (definitely!), and just too much of a pain in the arse, no matter how good I was!”
In the lead-up to his work on Universal, Spalding had completed a plethora of sessions for acts such as Chris de Burgh, Elton John, Right Said Fred, Jimmy Somerville and Dubstar, and was well acquainted with producers David Nicholas and Matthew Vaughan, having played on Marcella Detroit’s Jewel album. In a very honest account about his contribution to Universal, he told The Electricity Club: “My part in the making of this album – whilst there are a couple of incidents that are quite clear to me – is largely very foggy as I was deeply entrenched in heroin and crack addiction at the time. My friends Dave ‘Chipper’ Nicholas and Matt Vaughan, who were producing the album, had asked me to play bass for them and I ended up doing some backing vocals and playing some guitar – some of which is on ‘Walking On The Milky Way’, but has gone uncredited for some reason.
“I’d got myself into such a muddle as I was, at the same time as this album was recorded, also on tour with Alison Moyet, supporting her greatest hits release [Singles – TEC]. I was trying to do sessions at the Town House, in between coming and going for Alison; which in itself turned out to be a nightmare of scoring loads of drugs, running out of drugs, leaving the tour in way-off parts of the UK to get back and score, going into heavy withdrawals on the road and having to do gigs in that terrible condition. You see, when you’re drug-dependant you can’t take your dealers on the road with you! I really should never have committed to going on tour with Alison but I really didn’t know what I was doing. It would have been much safer to stay at home and do OMD’s album and stay close to my drug source and at least stay ‘well’ whilst recording.
“I remember one incident when I’d played a couple of nights in Glasgow with Alison, which were recorded for her live album [included as part of the 1996 reissue of Singles – TEC]. I was in such a state of panic, having been sick since Dublin a few days before, that I left the Glasgow hotel first thing the morning after the gigs, got a cab to the airport and took a plane to Heathrow. I landed at Heathrow and went straight to Twickenham to score heroin and then went straight to the Town House for an OMD session. That’s how I was living during the recording of Universal – I was completely mad!
“The album itself is, for my part, a miracle. I love this album, particularly the title track… Everything was usually done in a very short space of time, once I’d got the part, feel and sound right. Chipper and Matt were great, too – very supportive, even knowing the state I was in. I wondered why Andy wasn’t playing bass, but didn’t ask too many questions. I think Andy wanted someone who could approach the songs a bit more technically and, for all my faults, I could at least still play great.”
Drummer Chuck Sabo was an American-born musician, who had previously played in an unsuccessful band named Sonny Lucas with then-wife Jeanette Landray (best remembered for her brief stint in The Glove, a side project of The Cure’s Robert Smith). Sabo gained his first big break when he played on British Electric Foundation’s Music Of Quality And Distinction, Volume Two album in 1991. “Very much a soul record,” Sabo told XTC fan site Chalkhills. “He [Heaven 17’s Martyn Ware] gathered up a bunch of artists and did cover songs with them. So, just within that one album, I played with Tina Turner, Chaka Khan, Terence Trent D’Arby, Billy Preston and more… An artist named Tashan also sang on that album, and I later went on to do an album by him [For The Sake Of Love], which Martyn Ware also produced.”
“I met the producers of the OMD Universal LP, Dave Nicholas and Matt Vaughan, when I was recording drums on Marcella Detroit’s LP,” Sabo told The Electricity Club. “Chris Thomas was producing, Dave was engineering and Matt was programming. After that we did The Lion King with Elton John as well. Then Dave and Matt got the production job for Andy’s next OMD LP and called me in to record drums. I was familiar with the OMD hits, but not too familiar with the whole back catalogue. The bass player Phil Spalding and I were working on lots of records together at that time, so we all knew each other very well, and enjoyed working together.”
The bulk of the album was recorded during a 3-month period at the end of 1995, with McCluskey renting an apartment in Chelsea by the River Thames during its making. There would be one further delay, though, as McCluskey explained to The Electricity Club: “I made that album just after James was born in San Diego [in September]. He was almost four weeks early and I had to cancel pre-production in London and fly to the US – I missed his birth by four hours!” He added: “When recording the album I would take the train home every weekend to paint and work on the new house that I had bought for the family to move into when [partner] Toni and James finally came back to the UK. It was exhausting!”
Sixteen songs had been recorded during the Universal sessions but, as the album approached the mixing stage, McCluskey ended up tagging on a pair of self-produced tracks. ‘Too Late’ was one of the first songs I wrote in Ireland,” McCluskey explained to Sound On Sound, “and Chip [David Nicholas] and Matt ganged up on me and said they didn’t want to record that – neither of them happened to get off on that song. Once we finished the album, though, I was adamant that something was missing, and that that track needed to be on too.” The other addition was ‘The Boy From The Chemist Is Here To See You’, which McCluskey wrote in December 1995 and recorded the following month. “I just fancied doing another uptempo one,” explained McCluskey. “Strangely, of all the songs, it’s the one that sounds the most analogue and old-fashioned OMD.”
An early, provisional 13-track listing for Universal also included an experimental track titled ‘GTR 9’ that was built around a sampled guitar riff of Stuart Kershaw’s. “It was pretty good really,” Vaughan recalls. “A bit like ‘Song 2’ by Blur”. This was eventually dropped, while there were some tracks that didn’t make it beyond the demo stage. ‘Sister Maria Gabriel’ had, bizarrely, been rejected by McCluskey for sounding ‘too much like OMD’ as he sought a grander, more organic sound. McCluskey recalled the writing of the song years later in an interview with The Arts Desk: “When I was living in Ireland there was a Polish nun called Sister Marie Gabriel who was taking out full-page adverts in The Times and The Independent – which can’t have been cheap – saying that the Hale Bopp Comet was a harbinger of the end of the world, that we should all be repenting and turning to Jesus, that she’d had revelations and knew what the third revelation of Fatima of Lourdes was, that the Catholic Church had tried to suppress this. I’d written songs about Joan of Arc and this just hooked me.” The track eventually received a well received airing at a fan convention in 2005, and had even been considered for a single release to promote an album of unreleased material. The project was abandoned, but eventually morphed into 2010’s History Of Modern album, which included a revamped version of the track (retitled ‘Sister Marie Says’). Other tracks considered for inclusion on Universal included ‘Yellow Press’ and ‘Thank You’.
One of the first songs McCluskey worked on in his Dublin rehearsal room was Universal’s title track, which represented something of a return to the sound of some of the band’s longer, more epic tracks. “I like the idea of songs like ‘Sealand’ and ‘Stanlow’, where there is an intro, a sung section, and an outro,” he confirmed in 1994. “I feel it’s been missing from the last two albums – the bigger songs with more complex arrangements.” Originally described as “a cross between Architecture & Morality and Pink Floyd”, the track originally sprawled to over nine minutes, but its original five-minute intro was eventually edited down to two minutes – the production team were also presented with the challenge of segueing the song’s stunning industrial-tinged, prog rock intro (in D sharp) into the actual song, which was in McCluskey’s favoured key of C. “You can imagine Rick Wakeman or Keith Emerson playing it in a stadium,” he told Sound On Sound. “I was having fun, basically, and trying to knock down some of my own personally-imposed boundaries with a prog-rock intro.” Lyrically, the track saw McCluskey brazenly airing his atheist views (“When we die there’s no heaven above”), but with a defiant “We all bleed the same blood/ We all need the same love” message that transcended colour and creed.
Walking On The Milky Way
The opening lines of OMD’s first single in three years – “When I was only seventeen/ My head was full of brilliant dreams” – were a good indicator of Universal’s generally autobiographical and reflective lyrics. “[It’s] about growing up,” said McCluskey, “having confidence and energy but, as you get older, the reality of life grinds you down.” Its huge production, meanwhile, showcased a fuller and rockier sound that harked back to albums such as Crush (see ‘The Native Daughters Of The Golden West’). However, whilst there was certainly more of a ‘live’ feel to the recording, with its live drums and vintage keyboard sounds – a million miles away from the busy, techno-stylings of Liberator – McCluskey was still determined to make use of more up-to-date technology. “CD-ROMs are great – you can now get things like a choir of nuns singing block chords, which we used on the middle eight of ‘Walking On The Milky Way’,” he told Sound On Sound. “You’re using real organic sounds, but you’re using technology to access them. I think we struck a really effective balance.” In terms of its melody, it subtly borrowed from the David Bowie-penned ‘All The Young Dudes’ (popularised by Mott The Hoople’ in 1972), a song that Noel Gallagher would later admit to plagiarising for the Oasis hits ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ and, more obviously, ‘Stand By Me’. “He’s still not sued me yet!” the musician joked to Q magazine in 1997.
Aside from his competent keyboard work on tour, Nigel Ipinson had also contributed the impressive glockenspiel arrangement of ‘Sunday Morning’ to Liberator. It was a chance visit to McCluskey’s Hesketh Street studio that resulted in his contribution to the writing of ‘Walking On The Milky Way’, as he recently told The Electricity Club: “After the Liberator tour, I moved house and was living pretty close to the Pink Museum recording studio. I was playing session keyboards on a variety of different albums, and I actually got to do a brief tour with Hot Chocolate. When I returned, I started to think about what I was going to do next, and it was actually on the advice of Errol Brown (the lead singer of Hot Chocolate) that I got heavily involved in songwriting and production. I had a small home studio set up, and I was pretty much doing that every day. One day, I decided to pop in to the Pink Museum and Andy was in there working on the next album and I hung around just catching up on what we had both been up to. The song that is now ‘Walking On The Milky Way’ was on cycle on the software, and we started talking about it. And, if I recall correctly, Andy was working on the verse section. The idea at the time was to develop a section that would link the verse to the chorus. Andy asked me what I would do, and the way that I tend to work means that I like to provide options. So I played a few options that would provide the link and the option he went for is the musical sequence that sits under the lyrics “I don’t believe in destiny/ I don’t believe in love/ I don’t believe that anything will ever be enough”. We then proceeded to work on the bridge, and the process was exactly the same. I looped different options and Andy made the choice of the musical sequence he liked best and what we now hear – I loved the final version; in particular, the sound that was selected for the solo in the bridge.”
“‘Walking On The Milky Way was a very hard song to write,” McCluskey told The Electricity Club. “I had the verse, but just could not get the chorus. I was planning to save the song as it had no chorus, until one day I was driving from my home to the supermarket and totally out of the blue I sang “Man you should have seen us on the way to Venus, walking on the Milky Way”, and realised that it fit the chorus chords! It had come to me when I least expected. I rushed to my rehearsal room and cut a quick guide vocal so I didn’t forget it.”
The recording also featured young singer Hannah Clive on backing vocals. Prior to her work on the track, the daughter of film and TV actor John Clive (who sadly died in 2012), had completed session work for a number of artists whilst still in her teens; including Right Said Fred (1993’s Sex And Travel), Chris de Burgh (1994’s This Way Up) and Ray Charles (1996’s Strong Love Affair). “Hannah Clive was Phil Spalding’s girlfriend and always came with him when he played bass at the studio,” McCluskey told us. “She just piped up one day, ‘I have a crazy idea of the end of ‘Walking On The Milky Way’ – can I try it?’. So we set up a mic and told her to do it. It was the fantastic countermelody vocal at the end of the song – I loved it and kept it!”
The Moon And The Sun
Completing a triumvirate of epic, guitar-based tracks was ‘The Moon And The Sun’, which – both musically and thematically – wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Tears For Fears’ similarly ’60s-flavoured album, The Seeds Of Love. Embroidered with some effective slide guitar and choral sounds, the track saw McCluskey continuing the album’s reflective theme (“It always seemed so easy/ When we watched it while we’re young”), whilst also throwing in some Wildean paraphrasing (“The energy of arrogance/ Is wasted on the young”).
The track was co-written with former Kraftwerk member Karl Bartos, who he’d previously collaborated with on both ‘Kissing The Machine’ and ‘Show Business’ for 1993’s excellent Elektric Music album Esperanto. “I always find it intimidating working with other people, especially ones I don’t know very well,” admitted McCluskey. “I’m not a very competent musician so if I work with people who are really good musicians, it frightens me! I was very nervous working with Karl but everything turned out fine.” The track saw Bartos continuing a guitar-influenced journey that had begun with Electronic’s Raise The Pressure album. Released just weeks prior to Universal, in July 1996, Bartos had contributed six co-written songs – including the memorable singles ‘Forbidden City’ and ‘For You’ – to Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr’s second album. (Two years later, Bartos’ second album under the Elektric Music banner – though confusingly rebranded as Electric Music – saw the German musician continuing his flirtation with ’60s-influenced music).
The Black Sea
There was a change of pace and mood on ‘The Black Sea’, a more introspective – and simpler – piece. One of the first tracks to be written for the album, it was based on an oboe riff that Stuart Kershaw had written, hence its original title of ‘Oboe Song’. “I thought that it sounded like the swell of the sea,” recalled McCluskey. “So that’s where the idea for the aquatic content came from.” Like The Beach Boys’ stunning ”Til I Die’, which saw Brian Wilson using metaphorical phrasing (“I’m a cork on the ocean/ Floating over the raging sea”) to highlight his inner turmoil, McCluskey utilised similar vignettes (“On a ship to nowhere/ On a dark and tranquil sea/ I’m sinking with a cargo”) to convey emotional struggle. Structurally, this was a classic major-minor chord progression, and the track included some effective mellotron sounds to give it something of a late-period Beatles feel.
Very Close To Far Away
McCluskey’s collaboration with Paul Humphreys on ‘Very Close To Far Away’ marked the first time the duo had worked together since the late 1980s. “The idea developed from a sample drum loop,” explained McCluskey. “Paul wrote the bass line and I put in some chords. Then we just started throwing in weird noises and samples to create this ambient texture. At the end of the day I gave the song its title which I had seen as part of a TV advert. I continued to arrange the song after Paul left so that I could sing on it.” McCluskey added: “It’s hard to say what it’s about – just an abstract train of thought about trying to communicate with someone who won’t listen. Even though they’re with you, they’re far away because they don’t understand what you’re trying to say to them.” The psychedelic track’s distinctive backing vocals were provided by renowned session singer Carol Kenyon, whose numerous credits included recordings by Pet Shop Boys, Ultravox, Mike Oldfield, Tears For Fears, Simple Minds, Duran Duran, Pink Floyd and many others. But it’s perhaps her performance on Heaven 17’s biggest hit, ‘Temptation’, that she’s best remembered for. In an interview with The Guardian, Glenn Gregory described her style as “stratospheric”.
The Gospel Of St Jude
Boasting something of an ‘Amazing Grace’ feel to it was ‘The Gospel Of St Jude’ (formerly titled ‘Gospel Song’), which saw McCluskey continuing his fascination with religion, and turning in perhaps the most spiritual track in the OMD catalogue. The track contained a sample of the Richard Allen Singers’ interpretation of Isaac Watts’ 18th century hymn, ‘Early, My God, Without Delay’ (available on the 1994 album Wade In The Water, Volume II: African American Congregational Singing), with McCluskey overlaying it with his own introspective ruminations. “[It’s] about searching but not finding what you’re looking for,” he said. “It’s about the struggle to achieve happiness but no matter what you do and what you change, you can never attain it.” (The song’s title was derived from St Jude, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus, who has often been referred to as the patron saint of lost causes). Like ‘Pulse’ – from 2010’s History Of Modern album – it’s a track that has divided fan opinion over the years; one that the NME described at the time, somewhat cruelly, as “piss awful”.
That Was Then
Utilising a simple four-chord progression (G-F-C-D), ‘That Was Then’ saw McCluskey in soul-searching mood, reflecting on his journey throughout adulthood, with a suitably powerful vocal to match the intensity of the lyrics. “It echoes how your life and attitude towards it change as you grow older,” explained McCluskey. “Just through the pressure of living.” With hindsight we can see portents of the future within the lyrics, as McCluskey bared his soul (“And only memories are left with me/ This shallow history becomes my destiny”). Indeed, during a Q&A at the Pink Museum in 1997 he admitted that the album was almost the epitaph of OMD: “There are a lot of lyrics on the Universal album that are very specifically me talking about the possible end,” he said. “It’s kind of about the end of a journey, if you like. I was really thinking a lot about how long it had been, and the journey I’ve travelled down to get to where I have.”
Once touted as a potential single, ‘Too Late’ dated back to McCluskey’s writing sessions in Dublin, but was added to the album almost at the last minute. “It’s about regretting the end of a relationship,” he explained. “But, no matter how much you regret it, it’s too late to start it again.” Something of an internal monologue, the track fitted in with the album’s generally reflective theme, but its all-too-familiar chord progression (G-Em-C-D) was more synonymous with the rock ‘n’ roll era, and co-producers David Nicholas and Matthew Vaughan were arguably correct in recommending its exclusion.
The Boy From The Chemist Is Here To See You
The final track to be written for Universal, ‘The Boy From The Chemist Is Here To See You’, was inspired by one of McCluskey’s art gallery visits. “It came from seeing a sculpture which shows a Barnardo’s collecting box of a handicapped boy positioned behind a frosted glass door,” he confirmed. “I thought of an inanimate object arriving at someone’s house from outside the chemist shop where he’d been positioned and asking why they hadn’t given him a penny. I carried the image on to apply to all sorts of people you may have upset in your life coming back to get their revenge on you.” Whilst the lyrical theme was somewhat unusual, there was certainly some familiarity in the music itself, as McCluskey reverted to a more synth-pop based sound. Whilst it took its obvious cue from Pulp, who had just enjoyed huge success with the Different Class album and its attendant singles (notably ‘Common People’ and ‘Disco 2000’), a somewhat defensive McCluskey was keen to dismiss the comparison: “I’m returning the compliment, quite frankly,” he told Sound On Sound. “Because as far as I’m concerned, some of Pulp’s stuff sounds like late Pulp playing OMD doing early Roxy Music. So this is late OMD, doing late Pulp, doing early Roxy Music! ‘The Boy From The Chemist Is Here To See You’ – and a lot of Pulp stuff – has that two-chord piano, much the same as Roxy’s ‘Virginia Plain’.” Listening to Pulp cuts such as ‘Babies’ and ‘Inside Susan’, McCluskey certainly had a point, but the song still sounded out of place on Universal.
If You’re Still In Love With Me
The stunning, Beatles-esque ‘If You’re Still In Love With Me’ had originally been written with Paul Humphreys in 1987. “[It] was originally a reggae song,” McCluskey revealed. “It’s essentially about trying to escape from a relationship someone won’t let you out of.” According to the official information service, OMD had recorded a version of the track following the German leg of the Liberator tour in 1993, and presented it to Virgin as a potential single (they declined). During his sojourn to Los Angeles the following year, McCluskey worked on a new string arrangement of the track with Stuart Kershaw, which Anne Dudley eventually scored for a 12-piece string section. Dudley was a classically trained musician – and a founder member of The Art Of Noise – who was renowned for her pop-classical crossover work. The multi-award winner (who was recently presented with an Ivor Novello award for her outstanding contribution to music) had worked on albums such as ABC’s The Lexicon Of Love and orchestrated the intro on Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s huge hit ‘Two Tribes’.
“Andy introduced us to Anne Dudley,” recalled David Nicholas. “As a result of that session, I put her forward to do the orchestral arrangements for the Pulp album Different Class – both sessions were amazing! She then went on to win an Oscar for a film score – the name of which escapes me [The Full Monty – TEC] – but suffice it to say, after the Oscar I could no longer afford her… or even get her on the phone anymore!”
The most abstract and experimental track on Universal was conceived ten minutes prior to leaving the studio one evening. “I got the loop… and I just thought, ‘I’ll put this on tape’,” explained McCluskey in 1997. “And I plugged the mic in and I just sang something… When I came in the next day I thought, ‘this is great’. I actually sat down and tried to work out what it was I might have been singing, phonetically sort of… that’s why the words make no sense at all!” Co-credited to multi-instrumentalist Simon Fung (a member of the duo China Black, who had a big hit with ‘Searching’ in 1994), the track’s use of oriental sounds added a psychedelic dimension to the track.
Closing the album in style was the beautiful ‘Victory Waltz’, a plaintive 3-chord ballad, featuring just piano and choral presets in a simple arrangement. “It’s about the last day of a relationship that’s ending and the thoughts that are running through your head at the time,” said McCluskey. Whilst Universal has often been described as the ‘anti-OMD’ album, tracks such as ‘New Head’ and ‘Victory Waltz’ still managed to showcase the band’s experimental side, as well as their undoubted gift for fusing melody with melancholia.
WALKING ON THE MILKY WAY Single, August 1996
“I thought that was quite a good record, actually” – Paul Humphreys, 2005
The album’s first single had originally been scheduled for release in March 1996 but wasn’t released until August. The video, filmed in July, echoed the song’s lyrics, as McCluskey confirmed: “The images show a combination of performances and surreal landscape. It also has close-ups and character studies of people of different ages to reflect the passage of time”. It was filmed at Canvey Island, near Southend-on-Sea, and directed by Howard Greenhalgh (who had also worked on promos for Pet Shop Boys, a-ha, George Michael, Suede and many others).
‘Walking On The Milky Way’ has the distinction of being the first OMD release not to be released on 7″. As per previous OMD releases (from the Sugar Tax album), there was a pair of CD singles and a cassette single (often referred to as a ‘cassingle’) that featured a brace of non-album tracks. Nestling in neatly with the lead track’s nostalgic sentiments was b-side ‘Mathew Street’. “It parallels the history of The Beatles and OMD on the two sides of the street,” explained McCluskey. “On the left is the Cavern, on the right is Eric’s and The Gramophone Suite.” The recording featured Keith Small (who had co-written ‘Walking On The Milky Way’) on bass and Stuart Kershaw on drums, and was an obvious Beatles pastiche, heavily weighted towards the melody of 1967’s ‘I Am The Walrus’. Whilst, ultimately, it was the music of acts such as Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream and Brian Eno that would influence the aspiring musician during his formative years, McCluskey had grown up listening to The Beatles. “I knew their music because most of the singles in the house were Beatles records,” he recalled in 1987’s Messages biography. “But I was only ten or eleven when they split up – I can just about remember them doing ‘All You Need Is Love’ on Top Of The Pops.” Years later, in July 2008, OMD would perform a version of ‘Across The Universe’ for Beatles Day at the Liverpool Echo.
Second b-side – and former album contender – ‘The New Dark Age’, meanwhile, was a more abstract, experimental piece, and something of a throwback to the band’s imperial phase in the early 1980s. “[It] sounds a bit like the old song ‘Statues’,” confirmed McCluskey in 1994. “For those people who know The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, it’s a cabaret-type song about the end of Western Society – just the song to be played at Milliways!”
Whilst one reviewer described the single as “middle-of-the-road Beatles-flavoured nostalgia pop”, there was very little coverage in the music press about ‘Walking On The Milky Way’. The biggest problem, though, was that the UK’s biggest station, Radio 1 – who in those days could effectively make or break a single – refused to play the song. A change of playlist policy in the mid-1990s had seen the popular station phasing out ‘heritage’ artists; instead favouring the guitar-based music that was heavily in vogue at the time. Earlier in 1996 there had been a well-publicised court action by rock veterans Status Quo, following Radio 1’s decision not to add ‘Fun, Fun, Fun’ – a collaboration with The Beach Boys – to their playlist. The action was virtually laughed off by the station, who described the band as ‘too dull’. “There have been a number of occasions in the past two years where we have not playlisted records in the charts, including Mr Blobby, Michael Barrymore, Michael Ball, Robson & Jerome and Cliff Richard,” a Radio 1 spokeswoman said. “Unlike everyone else, Status Quo don’t seem to have noticed that there have been a few changes at Radio 1…We do not slavishly follow the Top 40.”
Whilst OMD were obvious victims of Radio 1’s new playlist policy, fortunately, local radio stations were more enthused about the song and the band were rewarded with their 12th Top 20 single. “I thought [it] was about as good a song as I could write, ” McCluskey reflected to The Guardian in 2001. “Radio 1 wouldn’t play it, because it wasn’t perceived as trendy by their target audience. Because Radio 1 wouldn’t play it, Woolworths wouldn’t stock it. The upshot of it was that one of the best songs I’d ever written struggled to get to number 17 in the charts.” The song did, however, receive some welcome exposure via Top Of The Pops, and an assortment of players duly mimed to the track – these included a hirsute Stuart Kershaw on drums and Carlo Bowry on keyboards (Nigel Ipinson was unavailable due to his touring commitments with The Stone Roses). The chart that particular week included an eclectic mix of tracks from artists such as Robbie Williams, Eternal, Underworld, Suede and chart-toppers, the Spice Girls (the manufactured girl group that would heavily influence McCluskey in his post-OMD career). But there was one particular act in that chart that stood out, albeit for the wrong reasons. Whilst, in his own words, McCluskey had “sweated blood” to write ‘Walking On The Milky Way’ and re-establish the OMD brand, it probably didn’t help that there was an act named OMC climbing the charts during this period with the song ‘How Bizarre’. And the team behind the popular Now That’s What I Call Music series also thought that it might be funny to place OMC and OMD side-by-side on that summer’s Now 34 compilation! In the end, OMC’s sleeper hit ‘How Bizarre’ peaked at number 5, whilst ‘Walking On The Milky Way’ slipped to number 23 in its second week, soon disappearing from the charts altogether. Not the start McCluskey was looking for as he prepared to release his new album that had been two years in the making…
UNIVERSAL Album, September 1996
“The mood is more ethereal than electronic, favouring strings and choirs to synths and sampled voices. Lyrically, this is a collection of songs about lost youth, doomed love and broken dreams…and yet the music is wonderfully uplifting.” – Q
“Bears all the hallmarks of the classic OMD sound with trademark downbeat lyrics and soaring pop melodies… Probably won’t take the charts by storm but it should prove to be a steady seller.” – Music Week
“Crispy, clear, serenely syrupy, occasionally spiritual, frequently lovelorn, comically old fashioned and extremely expensive-sounding.” – NME
The much-delayed Universal album was finally released in the first week of September 1996; on the same day as Pet Shop Boys’ Bilingual album. The rather uninspiring artwork, featuring computer generated water molecules, was based on a concept by Peter Saville (who had worked on several OMD designs in the previous decade). “Instead of going huge and galactic for Universal, I decided to go microscopic and find something small that has universal implications,” explained McCluskey. “Water is the most important molecule for life.”
Promotional items included a 5-track sampler on CD and cassette (featuring ‘Universal’, ‘Walking On The Milky Way’, ‘New Head’, ‘Too Late’ and ‘The Black Sea’), and a 10-track compilation – unimaginatively titled The Collection – that rounded up hits from both the ’80s and ’90s. The album was released on CD, cassette and vinyl, though there was a very limited number of copies pressed for the latter (today it’s a highly sought-after collector’s item).
Somewhat bizarrely, one of the press advertisements bore the Woolworths logo, and the now-defunct retailer – who had refused to stock the single – used a tag line that declared ‘The new album from OMD is Universal. (So you should all like it.)’. Sadly, whilst the album was well received by both fans and critics, the failure of the single to crack the Top Ten effectively buried the album, and it limped to a first week position of number 24, plummeting to number 52 the following week. Whilst there were some big hitters in the album chart at the time, including Oasis, Suede, Celine Dion and Manic Street Preachers, when your album is being outsold by titles such as Smurfs Go Pop!, you know you’re in trouble! “I think if ‘Walking On The Milky Way’ had been a top 3 hit you would have seen the album sell very well,” lamented McCluskey to Messages magazine in 2002. “I mean, I’ve said before, if Oasis had released ‘Walking On The Milky Way’, it would have sold all over the world… I just think that OMD was out of fashion and nothing I could have done – I could have gone techno, I could have gone hip-hop – nothing I could have done would have actually made Universal sell more.”
UNIVERSAL Single, October 1996
“The title track from the latest OMD album is a big unrestrained anthemic pop song befitting the title…its bright guitar and huge drums make it a potential chart hit.” – Music Week review
Until the release of ‘If You Want It’ in 2010, the title track from Universal would be the last single by OMD to feature original material. Released in a heavily edited version that featured Dublin singer Breda Dunne’s backing vocals in the intro, the single – like ‘Walking On The Milky Way’ – was released on CD (x2) and cassette only.
There were no exclusive tracks to entice potential buyers; just a handful of live tracks culled from a Liberator tour show at the Birmingham NEC. Once again there was a Howard Greenhalgh-directed video, but the song lacked the commercial appeal of its predecessor and it peaked at a lowly number 55.
FINAL SUNSETS FALL The Solo Era Ends
The failure of the ‘Universal’ single to hit the upper echelons of the charts effectively brought the album campaign to a conclusion – an appearance by McCluskey at the end of November on TV show Never Mind The Buzzcocks was largely a futile exercise as there was nothing to promote. A tour – which had largely been dependant on the success of the album – had long since been abandoned. “In Britain at least there has always been a resistance to the band in much of the media,” bemoaned McCluskey at the end of the year. “It seems that finally even the quality of the music was unable to overcome the problems.” McCluskey did consider a tour in 1998 to celebrate 20 years of OMD, and there was even talk of including a brand new song on The OMD Singles (a second retrospective that included hits old and new), but in the end the band – which saw him briefly reunited with Paul Humphreys – limped over the finishing line with an EP of remixes. By this stage, McCluskey was already committed to the idea of writing for other acts. There was something of a false start with the group Honeyhead, but he and Stuart Kershaw eventually found the perfect vehicle for their songwriting with girl group Atomic Kitten. He later told Paul du Noyer, the author of Liverpool – Wondrous Place: From the Cavern to the Capital of Culture: “I was still conceited enough to believe that I could write songs, and that it was just the OMD vehicle that was dated. So I thought, screw it. I’m gonna get someone who will be well-received because they’re young and good-looking. And I’m gonna write songs and prove, if only to myself, that I can still do it, and fuck Radio 1 and all the rest!” McCluskey added: “Atomic Kitten had been my knee-jerk response. I’d felt jilted by the music industry when OMD came to an end, so I went off and found another lover.”
In a frank interview for an OMD fan event magazine in 2005, McCluskey told Paul Browne: “I think I made a mistake. I consciously tried to sound organic, using traditional instruments because I was worrying about sounding too ’80s electro in the mid-90s. And I think the album suffered for it. I think a lot of people like the feeling of the tracks, but I listen to them now and I just think I was thinking in a way that I wish I hadn’t been. I think tracks like ‘The Moon And The Sun’ don’t work; doesn’t do anything for me anymore. I like ‘New Head’. I like some of the other songs. I think ‘Walking On The Milky Way’ is one of the best songs I ever wrote in my life. But there’d be other tracks in there now that just remind me of the difficult time and the confusion, so I cannot dissociate the recording of the songs from the memories which may not be the most positive for me.”
THIS IS NOW
The Town House (where the bulk of Universal was recorded) sadly closed in 2008. The studios, where Elton John recorded one of the UK’s best selling singles (the re-recorded ‘Candle In The Wind’), were eventually converted into luxury houses.
One particular demo from 1994 – titled ‘Green’ – was given a new lease of life by Paul Humphreys, who transformed the McCluskey/Kershaw composition into one of the best tracks on 2010’s History Of Modern. From the same album, comeback single ‘If You Want It’ has more than faint echoes of ‘Walking On The Milky Way’, while more recently, on the band’s latest album, The Punishment Of Luxury, the track ‘Kiss Kiss Kiss Bang Bang Bang’ recycles part of the melody from ‘The Boy From The Chemist Is Here To See You’.
Since their comeback shows in 2007, OMD have regularly included ‘Walking On The Milky Way’ in their hit-packed sets which, up until recently, had included a sample of Hannah Clive’s original backing vocal part. Clive herself retreated from session work in the late ’90s as she focused on becoming a singer-songwriter. In recent years she has been working with Brian Tench, who co-produced OMD’s Junk Culture. She released a critically acclaimed single, ‘Remember To Breathe’, in November 2017, and also manages electro-rock band (I Am) Warface, who are planning to release their debut album Atomic White Gold in the summer.
Nigel Ipinson (now Ipinson-Fleming), the co-writer of ‘Walking On The Milky Way’, played on Stone Roses singer Ian Brown’s debut solo album Unfinished Monkey Business in 1998, also contributing the songs ‘Nah Nah’ and ‘What Happened To Ya (Parts 1 and 2)’. He has continued writing and producing music, though mainly via the gospel community. Aside from running web design service UKChurches, he also presents gospel radio show ‘Soul Food’, and is the Senior Pastor at Bethlehem Church Life Centre in Mid Glamorgan. He is proud of his contribution to Universal: “One of the challenges of a band like OMD is translating the band’s natural sound through the technology of the day, and that is something that the guys have done successfully from decade to decade. I really liked the final sound of the album, and ‘Walking On The Milky Way’ is my favourite for obvious reasons.”
David Nicholas, who co-produced, engineered and mixed a large percentage of the Universal album, returned to his native Australia in 2000. He worked on Delta Goodrem’s successful debut album Innocent Eyes, and a plethora of recordings for other Australian acts; including Drag, whose second album The Way Out gained him his third ARIA award. In recent years he has launched independent record label and publishing company, Rhinoceros; and, in addition to producing, mixing and engineering, has been helping to develop studio hardware. He still looks fondly back on his time making Universal: “I have revisited the record a few time over the years and it always makes me feel good,” he told The Electricity Club. “[It] brings back a flood of nice memories. I’m proud of what we achieved and the songs still resonate with me as much now as they did then. And, as one of my first gigs as a producer, a pretty pleasing result.”
“It’s always difficult to listen to something for a while after you’ve finished working on it, having listened to the same songs over and over again,” recalls the album’s co-producer and musician, Matthew Vaughan. “But I’ve often revisited this record, and I’m very, very proud of it. I remember it as a wonderful time; we all got on like a house on fire as I remember, and I thoroughly enjoyed it and still enjoy listening to the result of our efforts now.” Following the Universal album, Vaughan worked on Marcella Detroit’s Feeler album (1996), as well as Pulp’s This Is Hardcore (1998). He has since contributed to recordings by Monaco, Mike + The Mechanics, Texas, XTC, Delta Goodrem and many others. More recently, as a member of the band Wild Honey, he released a charity single (‘Love All The People’), with proceeds going towards Aleppo.
“Andy was great to work with,” adds drummer Chuck Sabo. “And the Town House in Shepherd’s Bush was a great studio to work in, so the whole LP was very enjoyable to record. I liked the songs, and the vibe of what was going down on to tape. I’m now doing a lot of online drumming, mixing and mastering sessions from my studio, Big Sound; meeting lots of great songwriters from around the world. I’m also writing music for other artists, and sync music for film and TV.” Sabo’s numerous credits include Natalie Imbruglia’s hugely successful debut Left Of The Middle and XTC’s final album, Wasp Star (Apple Venus, Volume 2).
Andy McCluskey was less enamoured with the studio, as he told The Electricity Club. “I really disliked working in the Town House. I never felt comfortable with the atmosphere in there but we couldn’t record in a residential country studio because Matt Vaughan was married with young child and needed to go home at nights and weekends.” He adds: “I had never worked before in the way that I did on Universal. Using session musicians and just sitting at the back on the sofa reading the paper and smoking small cigars (which totally stank the place out) whilst the programmer and production engineer did all the work trying to translate my demos into a new recording. In hindsight it was very alienating. Even though I recognise that Matt and Chipper were doing a great job in their way – and in the way that they knew – I had decided to shake things up and work with others as I was losing my self-confidence.”
Phil Spalding has consolidated his reputation as a highly skilled musician, playing on a huge number of recordings since Universal; including albums by Electronic, Dubstar, Kylie Minogue, Mick Jagger and many others. In addition to his session work, he also teaches and lectures. “After all this time I still listen to Universal in my own time for fun,” he says. “I shudder when I think of what I was putting myself through at the time, but I had to learn the hard way like most addicts. I’ll be forever grateful to Andy, Matt and Chipper for having faith in me and letting me do this album. ‘Walking On The Milky Way’ is still played a lot on the radio, so I’m still getting paid after over 20 years – can’t be bad!”
Suggested alternative tracklisting: Universal / Walking On The Milky Way / The Moon And The Sun / The Black Sea / That Was Then / If You’re Still In Love With Me / Very Close To Far Away / New Head / Victory Waltz
The Electricity Club gives its warmest thanks to Andy McCluskey, Nigel Ipinson-Fleming, David Nicholas, Matthew Vaughan, Chuck Sabo and Phil Spalding for their contributions to this feature
Thanks also to Hannah Clive, Paul Browne, Sara Page and Imogen Bebb.
After a lengthy hiatus, electropop outfit Ladytron have announced details of a new album due to be released later this year.
Formed in Liverpool, Ladytron initially began life as a project between producers/DJs Daniel Hunt and Reuben Wu (which led to the release of debut single ‘He Took Her To A Movie’ in 1999). Scottish student Helen Marnie and Bulgarian student Mira Aroyo joined the fledgling group soon after on vocals and synths.
Ladytron’s 2001 debut album 604 was met with critical acclaim, which was particularly surprising as it arrived during a period when synthpop was on a downturn. Their ability to put out polished, evocative electronic tunes via such singles as ‘Seventeen’, ‘Destroy Everything You Touch’ and ‘Ace Of Hz’ has helped to establish the outfit as one of the most accomplished modern synthpop outfits in recent years.
Following in the footsteps of other artists, the 4-piece band are looking at PledgeMusic to fund their new album venture. The new as-yet-untitled release will be Ladytron’s sixth studio album following on from 2011’s Gravity The Seducer.
The campaign will open with a new single release titled ‘The Animals’, which will also include a remix by iconic electronic musician Vince Clarke. “‘The Animals’ was the first new song we had, and with it we went almost immediately into the studio with Jim Abbiss, who has worked with us previously on Destroy… and the Witching Hour album,” says vocalist Helen Marnie. “He’s the producer who has really understood us the most”.
Ladytron’s members have been pursuing their own projects in recent years, notably Helen Marnie who has been busy crafting her own solo music. Her 2017 album Strange Words And Weird Wars (see TEC review here) was summed up by The Electricity Club as “a solid album of contemporary electropop that listeners will find intelligent, engaging and yet also fun”.
Meanwhile, Daniel Hunt has kept busy composing for screen and also co-produced Lush’s 2016 EP Blind Spot (see review on our sister website Wavegirl here). Mira Aroyo has been working in TV and film while Reuben Wu has flourished as an accomplished photographer.
The new PledgeMusic campaign offers up a wealth of rewards for pledgers, including signed copies of ‘The Animals’ single release, signed copies of the new album, handwritten lyric sheets, a History of Ladytron photo book and new T-shirts and hoodies.
‘The Animals’ is scheduled for release this April. The as-yet-untitled album is scheduled for a release this autumn.
With the sad news that Icelandic musician and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson has recently passed away comes the realisation that the work of this exceptional musician has been silenced forever. The shock of this revelation is also given greater impact by the young age at which he passed.
Born in Reykjavik, Jóhannsson developed an eclectic series of musical influences, including Suicide, The Jesus & Mary Chain, Kraftwerk, Neu! And Tangerine Dream. His interest in combining different genres and approaches saw him later explore the combination of classical arrangments with electronic music.
In the case of Jóhannsson’s first album Englabörn, he employed the use of string instruments processed through digital filters. But it was his 2006 album IBM 1401, A User’s Manual (inspired by his father’s work as an IBM technician) that put the Icelandic composer’s name on the map. Featuring haunting elements of vocal samples, as well as the melodic compositions that his father had produced using the IBM so many years previously, the album is bolstered by some striking string segments.
Jóhannsson subsequently went on to establish himself as film composer, scoring the likes of The Theory Of Everything, Sicario and Arrival. He had also been the orginal choice to score Blade Runner 2049.
Our sister site Wavegirl features an obituary that pays tribute to the passing of Jóhann Jóhannsson – and the loss of future music for many generations: Jóhann Jóhannsson Obituary.
2017 has been an eventful year in the world of electronic music, particularly here in the UK which saw some of the classic acts back in action. But it also saw the emergence of some talented contemporary electronic acts as well. Here’s TEC’s review of the year along with our contributor’s lists of songs and albums that they rated in 2017…
2017 started off in a strange place for The Electricity Club as it found itself in a position to discard the accumulated baggage of many years and give the site a ‘soft reboot’. With an agenda that was focussed purely on music, it was a foundation that provided a sturdy structure for the months ahead.
January saw Austra make a triumphant return with their third studio album Future Politics. Along with lead single ‘Utopia’, the album was a reflection of our times as we entered into a turbulent period in global politics. TEC’s review summed up the album as “…a more intimate and personal approach than previous outings”.
TEC favourites Lola Dutronic also made a welcome return, first with a sequel to their classic ‘Everybody Loves You When You’re Dead’ (now updated to reflect some of the losses music suffered in 2016 such as Lemmy, David Bowie and Prince). We interviewed Lola Dutronic to get some gain some insight into how the globally distant pair produce their music. The duo also managed to bookend the year with a further release when they released the wonderful ‘My Name Is Lola’.
Vitalic came back with the stunning Voyager album. Pascal Arbez’s crunchy flavour of muscular beats and hook-laden melodies was present and correct on his new outing. Tracks such as ‘Waiting For The Stars’ suggested an unabashed nod to Arbez’s favourite ’70s and ’80s songs with a Moroder-esque beat driving this squelchy and engaging electropop wonder. Meanwhile, ‘Sweet Cigarette’ offered up a homage to The Normal’s ‘Warm Leatherette’.
TEC’s Lost Album series delivered some eclectic choices from the vaults for consideration. This included U96’s Replugged, Kon Kan’s Syntonic and Gary Numan’s 1994 album Sacrifice, a release which Barry Page suggested held the keys to the future: “Whilst the album often suffers from its use of some rather unimaginative and repetitive drum loops, the album put Numan firmly back on track.”
Sweden’s Sailor And I, meanwhile, offered up brooding, glacial pop on debut album The Invention Of Loneliness. TEC also spoke to musician Alexander Sjödin, the brains behind the outfit, who summed up his methods thus: “I use music as a kind of meditation. I get into this mood where I turn everything else off and just run as far as I can every time”.
In March, Goldfrapp returned to the fold with new album Silver Eye. While it was a serviceable outing of the glam synth workings that the duo had traded on previously, it was also bereft of many surprises or challenges. A return to Felt Mountain glories seems overdue.
Throughout the year, we were won over by a whole host of emerging electronic acts that caught our attention. This included the “ruptured melodies” of Jupiter-C (a duo championed by the likes of Clint Mansell). The “multi-utility music” of Liverpool’s Lo Five drew our focus to the wonders of the Patterned Air label. Elsewhere, the electro-acoustic sounds of Autorotation provided their own charm while the crunchy qualities of Cotton Wolf also suggested an act worth keeping an eye on.
With the 8th March traditionally being International Women’s Day, we thought it was time to add a twist to it by suggesting an International Women In Electronic Music Day. While the commentary of the likes of Lauren Mayberry (Chvrches) and Claire Boucher (Grimes) had blazed the trail for a level playing field for women, it was still depressing to see tone-deaf blog articles that were essentially ‘Birds With Synths’ being offered up as support.
One of our choices for that esteemed list, Hannah Peel, managed to deliver two albums of note in 2017. The personal journey of Awake But Always Dreaming (inspired by her family’s encounter with dementia) and also the magical world of Mary Casio: Journey To Cassiopeia – an album which our review summed up as “a testament to Hannah Peel’s seemingly endless abilities to craft new and intriguing ideas out of the ether. It’s a cosmic journey that delivers.”
Hopes were high that Basildon’s finest could deliver a solid return to form with their 14th studio album Spirit. But the album divided critics and fans alike on a release which TEC’s review summed up succinctly: “…as impressive as it is lyrically, it’s an often challenging and unsettling listen that doesn’t quite meet up to its billing as “the most energized Depeche Mode album in years.””
Despite the controversy, Depeche Mode still managed to put on their biggest ever UK show, with over 80,000 attendees at London Stadium in June this year.
Elsewhere, another of the old guard was also facing a productive year. Marc Almond released new compilation album Hits And Pieces, which spanned his extensive career from Soft Cell through to his more recent solo work. Although not as comprehensive as 2016’s Trials Of Eyeliner, TEC’s review suggested “…the new compilation offers a more concise selection of music that still manages to cover Almond’s extensive musical career in fine style”.
April saw TEC looking at the dark wave delights of Dicepeople, whose ‘Synthetic’ offered up “brooding gothic synth melodies against a burbling electronic background”. But their cover of Depeche Mode’s ‘Strangelove’ showed the outfit could also deliver muscular electropop that still retained their own unique style. Speaking to Dicepeople’s Matt Brock in an exclusive interview, TEC discovered the band’s strong cinematic touchstone. “Cronenberg’s Videodrome is another huge influence for us with its exploration of very dark themes involving control, voyeurism and the nature of reality as shown via layers of screens (a recurring theme in Dicepeople).”
Marnie released her follow-up to 2013’s Crystal World in the form of Strange Words And Weird Wars. The album demonstrated the Ladytron member’s knack for tunes, which our review summed up as “…a solid album of contemporary electropop that listeners will find intelligent, engaging and yet also fun. Strange Words And Weird Wars is a continuing demonstration on why Marnie is one of electronic music’s most precious assets”.
The emerging generation of electronic artists kept producing new acts of interest throughout 2017. Pixx (who cropped up on our radar after supporting Austra) released The Age Of Anxiety, which our review described as “an album that offers up a combination of smart pop tunes married with thoughtful lyrics”. Hannah Rodgers, the talent behind Pixx, also addressed the surge of nostalgia and retro acts with a philosophical quote: “There are a lot of people who are just trying to recreate things that have already been done, because they’re almost scared of the way modern music sounds, but we do have technology now that allows us to make quite insane-sounding music. And… we are in 2017”.
Kelly Lee Owens was another emerging artist who released her eponymous debut this year. The TEC review summed it up: “At heart an electronic album, the tracks contained within dart between ambient soundscapes and beat-driven compositions”.
AIVIS, a new act that had come to TEC’s attention via The Pansentient League’s Jer White, delivered their debut album Constellate. As with acts such as Lola Dutronic, AIVIS consists of a duo located in separate countries – in this case Aidan from Scotland and Travis based in Ohio. Their use of harmonies and warm synths led us to conclude that “Constellate is a smooth collection of subtle electropop”.
Irish outfit Tiny Magnetic Pets had a good year in which they released a new album and went on to support OMD. The 3-piece unit had made their UK and European live debut back in 2015 championed by Johnny Normal. Now in 2017 they brought new release Deluxe/Debris to bear. TEC’s review gave the album an honest appraisal: “They’ve got the chops to push the envelope, but there are times on this album where, arguably, the band appear happier playing from a safe position. When they introduce their more experimental side, or opt for a more dynamic approach, Tiny Magnetic Pets shine brightest”.
Voi Vang’s powerful voice and dancepop sensibilities made her one of the star turns of 2017. Meanwhile, Twist Helix woke us up with their “dramatic tunes and big, euphoric vocal melodies”. Our Teclist reviews also had good things to say about Elektrisk Gønner, OSHH and Russian outfit Oddity.
Elsewhere, the classic synthpop acts still had a strong showing this year. Erasure released the downbeat World Be Gone, a more reflective album that was heavily influenced by the troubling political climate (a persistent theme for many other releases this year). OMD returned with the follow-up to 2013’s English Electric with The Punishment Of Luxury. The album wore its Kraftwerk influences on its sleeve for a lot of the tracks, while the title number offered a commentary on commercial culture.
German pioneers Kraftwerk brought their 3D experience back to the UK and TEC’s Rob Rumbell offered his thoughts on their Nottingham concert: “…sensory overload… which left you awe-inspired and breathless”.
Blancmange presented a superb compilation of their first three albums titled The Blanc Tapes which we summed up as “the perfect archive for Blancmange’s often-overlooked musical legacy.” Neil Arthur also delivered new studio album Unfurnished Rooms, which prompted an honest critique from TEC’s Imogen Bebb: “whilst as an album it isn’t always easy to listen to, it makes for a welcome new chapter in Blancmange’s ongoing story”.
Howard Jones also went down the compilation route with the comprehensive Best 1983-2017 which the TEC review suggested: “this 3-CD set will have a special appeal not only to loyal Howard Jones fans, but also perhaps a new audience keen to experience the appeal of this pioneering electronic musician”.
While there were bright moments in the year, the music scene also saw tragedy in 2017 with the loss of Can’s Holger Czukay, trance DJ Robert Miles and Roland founder Ikutaro Kakehashi.
Barry Page provided some long-form features which took the focus to Norway’s a-ha, particularly the side projects that the likes of Morten Harket and Paul Waaktaar-Savoy have embarked on.
Speaking of a-ha, although the idea of an acoustic album by an electronic act seemed absurd, it was a concept that the Norwegian outfit embraced for Summer Solstice. The breath-taking arrangements for classics such as ‘Take On Me’ and ‘The Sun Always Shines On TV’ proved that a-ha still had the chops to surprise people.
Meanwhile, Midge Ure’s own orchestral-inspired approach for Ultravox and his solo numbers resulted in the release of Orchestrated later in the year. TEC’s Jus Forrest summed things up: “As an album, Orchestrated is diverse enough to pique interest. It’s contemporary enough to be relevant, and there’s enough classic tracks to reach out to fans”.
The soulful tones of Fifi Rong returned, this time with a bolder electronic sound on ‘The Same Road’. TEC’s review concluded that the new song “…demonstrates that Fifi Rong is capable of adding plenty more colours to her musical palette”.
Kasson Crooker, formerly of Freezepop, also provided some gems throughout 2017. There was the Gishiki album released under his Symbion Project banner – a release that we summed up as “one of the standout electronica releases of the year.” Meanwhile, he launched new outing ELYXR which was designed to be a collaborative project introducing different singers for each subsequent release. This included the warmth of ‘Engine’ as well as the punchier (and lyrically timely!) ‘Godspeed’.
2017 also delivered a diverse selection of electronic music events that showcased a multi-line-up of diverse acts. May saw Synth Club Presents, which included the ever-excellent Vile Electrodes as well as the sultry delights of The Frixion and the energetic pop of Knight$.
Meanwhile, July delivered one of the bigger events of the year with Liverpool’s Silicon Dreams. Combining established artists with newer acts, this year’s event pulled together an all-star schedule featuring Parralox, Avec Sans, Future Perfect, Berlyn Trilogy, Caroline McLavy and Voi Vang. As TEC’s review stated: “The 2017 incarnation of Silicon Dreams serves not only as an evening of entertainment, but also as an example of the importance of grassroots electronic music events. By showcasing both up-and-coming talents alongside more established acts, it’s an event which demonstrates a legacy in action”.
August presented the Electro Punk Party which offered up some of the more alternative acts on the scene. This included Dicepeople, Microchip Junky, Hot Gothic, the dark surf guitar of Pink Diamond Revue and the anarchistic LegPuppy. In fact, LegPuppy demonstrated an impressive schedule of live performances throughout the year as well as releasing songs such as the wry observations of ‘Selfie Stick’ and dance-orientated ‘Running Through A Field Of Wheat’.
The regular Synthetic City event returned, this time at Water Rats in King’s Cross. The evening brought with it some superb performances from the likes of Hot Pink Abuse, Eden, The Lunchbox Surrender, Train To Spain and Parralox (marking their second UK live show this year). The weird and wonderful Mr Vast topped things off and the whole affair was superbly organised by Johnny Normal.
Susanne Sundfør, who released the superb Ten Love Songs album back in 2015, brought a much more challenging release in the form of Music For People In Trouble. The album weaved in acoustic touches, spoken word segments and often unsettling soundscapes. But the epic ‘Mountaineers’, featuring the distinctive voice of John Grant, had an almost physical presence with its hypnotic tones.
The mighty Sparks returned with new album Hippopotamus and delivered a superb live performance in London back in October. The same month, the 22rpm electronic music festival took place. Showcased by record label Bit Phalanx, the event featured the likes of Scanner, Derek Piotr, Digitonal, Coppe and a truly stunning performance from Valgeir Sigurðsson.
The Sound Of Arrows brought out their newest album since 2011’s Voyage. Stay Free offered a much more grounded approach to electropop than the dreamy moods of their previous release, but still managed to deliver some cinematic pop moments. Their pop-up shop to promote the album was also a nice touch!
PledgeMusic has proved to be a vital lifeline for many artists in recent years. It’s a funding option which delivered for everyone from Ultravox to OMD. Gary Numan used the platform to fund his 21st studio album Savage (Songs From A Broken World) which provoked critical praise and which Jus Forrest suggested delivered “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”.
Empathy Test, an electronic duo from London, also chose the PledgeMusic route and achieved such success that they decided to release not just one, but two albums together. The stunning Losing Touch and Safe From Harm revealed a band that could combine mood and melancholy in an impressive collection of songs. TEC’s conclusion that compositions such as ‘Bare My Soul’ demonstrated a band capable of delivery that was both “mythical and melodious”, also showed the heights that contemporary electropop can ascend to.
As the year drew to its conclusion, there were still some gems to pop up on the radar. Canadian sleazy synth specialist TR/ST teased us with ‘Destroyer’, a nocturnal affair that (along with the year’s earlier release ‘Bicep’) paved the way for a new album due in 2018.
Scanner, who had delivered a stunning performance at the 22rpm event, also unleashed The Great Crater, an album of mood and often brooding unease. Our review’s final conclusion was that “The end result is less listening to a body of work and more being immersed into a physical experience”.
As the winter months drew to a close, we took a look at Parralox’s latest release ‘Electric Nights’, which proved to be a euphoric floor-stomper. Meanwhile, Norway served up Take All The Land, the debut solo album by Simen Lyngroth which TEC’s review summed up as a “beautifully well-crafted and intimate album”.
Perhaps one theme that 2017 demonstrated time and time again is that electronic music continues to evolve and thrive, particularly at the grassroots level where emerging acts are less focused on being a pastiche of the bands of 40 years ago. Instead, there’s a fresh and dynamic scene which has seen a genre looking to the future rather than the past.
This doesn’t scribble over the achievements of decades of previous electronic acts. That history and legacy continues to exist, but perhaps the idea that acts don’t need to be beholden to the classic acts is a concept that younger artists are more willing to entertain.
This year saw a wealth of electronic music talent competing for the attention of the public. There was a good balance between classic acts that were still capable of crafting solid tunes – and also contemporary acts often taking electronic music in unusual and interesting directions.
Here are 15 albums that are not presented in any particular order (aside from our top choice), but as a whole were the standout long-players for The Electricity Club in 2017.
Album(s) Of The Year
EMPATHY TEST – Losing Touch/Safe From Harm
The blossoming of grassroots electronic acts in recent years has brought a lot of bright talent to the fore. London-based duo Empathy Test have attracted critical appraisal and also managed to smash their PledgeMusic goals to fund their debut albums.
The choice to release two albums rather than one was a topic that Empathy Test’s Isaac Howlett addressed in an interview with TEC earlier this year: “We… felt that the new material was too different to the old to be on the same album. We didn’t like the idea of a double album so we decided to create the album we should have put out in 2015 (Losing Touch) and the album we wanted to put out now (Safe From Harm), and release them both at once”.
If there’s one thing that emerges from Empathy Test’s material, its the chemistry between Howlett and Adam Relf that allows them to compose songs that sound so polished and captivating. Here, there’s a sense of mood and melancholy that’s as heartfelt as it is unique. Relf has also done a stunning job in not only crafting a smooth, engaging production for the albums, but the sleeve designs show that he’s got some artistic chops into the bargain.
On Losing Touch and Safe From Harm, Empathy Test have delivered not one, but two of the finest albums of the year. Standing as a testament to the heights that contemporary electropop can ascend to, Empathy Test suggests that the genre is in safe hands for the future.
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.
Out of all the electronic music releases in 2017, Hannah Peel’s latest opus has to rank as one of the more intriguing albums to reach the ears of music enthusiasts.
Mary Casio : Journey To Cassiopeia is a concept album of sorts that revolves around Peel’s alter ego of ‘Mary Casio’. Drawing from her influences of electronic pioneers Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire, Peel’s back story for Mary Casio is as an elderly stargazing electronic musician. Her lifelong dream is to leave her mining town home of Barnsley in South Yorkshire and journey into space.
The album presents an aural journey of delights, its unusual approach to combining synths and brass managing to present something both accessible and unique. It’s also a testament to Hannah Peel’s seemingly endless abilities to craft new and intriguing ideas out of the ether. It’s a cosmic journey that delivers.
For the majority of fans and critics choosing not to view Depeche Mode’s latest product through a Vince Clarke/Alan Wilder kaleidoscope, 14th studio album Spirit represented something of a return to form for the veteran synth-rockers. Whilst we weren’t as enthused about Spirit in our original review, there was still plenty to admire about one of the band’s most defining albums of recent years.
First single ‘Where’s The Revolution’ set out the band’s stall, exhibiting some more aggressive – and politically charged – wordplay. Despite its production flaws – ironed out during the Global Spirit shows in the summer – this was a serviceable enough slab of electro-blues. The more ambient ‘The Worst Crime’, meanwhile, spoke of “misinformation” and “misguided leaders” in a less cluttered arrangement. But perhaps the album’s definitive ‘call-to-arms’ statement was represented via the discordant and angry ‘Scum’, featuring some particularly vitriolic swipes from Gore.
Impressive album opener ‘Going Backwards’ had already provided a portent of what was to come, with main songwriter Martin Gore delivering some pretty harrowing lyrical concepts throughout. Gore himself sang the lead on ‘Eternal’, an ephemeral ballad in which the protagonist declares his eternal love in the midst of an apocalyptic horror. Elsewhere, Gahan consolidated his reputation as a more-than-capable songwriter with the Bowie-influenced ‘Cover Me’, while serviceable synth-pop arrived courtesy of ‘No More (This Is The Last Time)’ and ‘So Much Love’.
But, despite its high points, the album suffered from poor production and, disappointingly, featured tracks bordering on filler (see ‘Poison Heart’ and ‘Poorman’).
Many of the releases of 2017 seemed to reflect a troubling period in contemporary culture, particularly with politics providing a turbulent backdrop. Austra were one of those outfits and the release of their album Future Politics offered up some thoughtful insight into troubled times.
Casual Austra fans might be a bit glum that the baroque pop elements that the previous albums held so strong are less evident here. Electronic music enthusiasts will perhaps find Austra adding further colours to the particular musical palette that the Canadian outfit have carefully crafted since 2011’s Feel It Break. Certainly Future Politics offers up a more intimate and personal approach than previous outings, but as an album it still offers up rewards from patient listening.
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.
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.
While the success of her 2015 album Ten Love Songs managed to raise the profile of Norwegian musician Susanne Sundfør, new album Music For People In Trouble took Sundfør back to her singer-songwriter roots. Although the album boasts some fine electronic flourishes, there’s also more nods to jazz and traditional instrumentation.
But the album switches gear for compositions such as ‘The Sound Of War’. Here, it’s the sound of birdsong and rivers that open up a multi-part composition while Sundfør delivers some often grim words (“Leave all that you were/‘Cause you won’t need it where you’re going tonight”). There’s a more mournful quality to ‘No One Believes In Love Anymore’ as the title certainly implies with its thoughts cast on the topic of doomed romance.
‘The Golden Age’ features stunning immersive synth arpeggios and Sundfør’s mesmerising voice (“I wake from a dream/to be in another dream”). But the album’s crowning achievement is clearly the epic ‘Mountaineers’ which starts with the basso profundo voice of John Grant. Here, Grant’s sonorous delivery echoes from the depths. When Sundfør comes in, the song suggests a coming to the light from a great darkness, a sudden revelation and builds to a choral symphony that takes the breath away.
The release of the Crystal World album in 2013 demonstrated that Helen Marnie continued to display a talent for good electronic music, even while Ladytron were on an extended hiatus. Strange Words And Weird Wars features material penned over a 2-year period and showed a marked direction for the pop end of the scale.
The pulsing beats of ‘Alphabet Block’ was a good example – a track that Marnie herself described as “shoe-gaze electropop”. Similarly, ‘Bloom’ invites the listener to throw shapes on the dancefloor. “I’m in trouble again/in a no man’s land we’ll bloom” suggests Marnie on a track that boasts strong vocal melodies. Meanwhile, ‘G.I.R.L.S.’ with its cheerleading chants offers up one of the strongest tracks on the album. Equally, ‘Electric Youth’ invites the listener to reflect on nights of teenage abandon on a track that has a bright, airy quality to it.
The album ends on a high note with the rhythmic wonder that’s ‘Heartbreak Kid’, its bass-heavy arpeggios setting the scene for the emotional punch in the vocal delivery. But it’s the melodic flourishes and arrangement that gives this track the polished pop that’s such a central theme to the album as a whole.
Swedish electronic musician Alexander Sjödin caught everyone’s attention in 2017 under the moniker Sailor & I. Debut album The Invention Of Loneliness bounced between icy pop and beats-driven electronica…
‘Chameleon’ has a subtle power to it that can take a few spins to appreciate. There’s a dark piano melody over which Sjödin’s yearning vocal offers hints of change or transformation. Meanwhile, a gradually-building slab of stark electronics gives the track a dark pop appeal. ‘Fire On the Moon’ utilises a lot of elements to arrive at the big, cinematic sound of the final composition. There’s a warmer feel on ‘Supervisions’ with its use of tribal chants and driving bassy synths.
The Invention Of Loneliness is an album that adopts a range of styles that include both the glacial pop of the likes of ‘Chameleon’, as well as more instrumental compositions such as ‘Supervisions’. There’s also a competent sense of production on this release that gives the material a vital humanity next to the icy thematic tunes.
There’s a robust quality about the electronic tunes contained on this latest release by Vitalic, which appeared to signal a strong start for electronic music in 2017.
Voyager draws from a wealth of influences, including nods to the likes of Giorgio Moroder and Cerrone. Certainly, standout track ‘Waiting For The Stars’ is an unabashed nod to Arbez’s favourite ’70s and ’80s songs. Featuring vocals from David Shaw, there’s a Moroder-esque beat driving this squelchy and engaging electropop wonder.
But Voyager also features an appreciation for classic synthpop too. Written as a tribute to ‘Warm Leatherette’ by The Normal, ‘Sweet Cigarette’ features similarly deadpan lyrics against machine-like rhythms. There’s also a wealth of hooks and melodies all over ‘Use It Or Lose It’. Elsewhere, ‘Nozomi’ takes its inspiration from the Japanese shinkansen trains. As a result, there’s a constant sense of movement at play driven by the relentless rhythms and the oddly off-kilter synths.
Those that are fans of contemporary electropop will not be disappointed by the contents of Voyager – it’s also a demonstration that decent electronic music can cross many boundaries.
The themes on The Age Of Anxiety, not surprisingly, touch on elements of anxiety – a condition that Hannah Rodgers (aka Pixx) endured from a young age. In particular, she suffered from insomnia caused by persistent nightmares. Songs such as the bassy ‘A Big Cloud To Float Upon’ refer back to her being in primary school age 9 and watching the clock slowly count down. Every ‘tick’ represented one step closer to the dreaded time when she’d have to go to sleep.
Meanwhile, ‘Waterslides’ (which is one of the album’s finest moments) was inspired by an odd nightmare of being trapped in a waterpark surrounded by faceless figures. The song itself is structured around plucked melodies steering the listener to the engaging chorus: “Don’t follow me into my dreams you don’t belong here”. But the album boasts many gems, including the seductive charms of ‘Your Delight’ – an immersive dreampop world which entices the listener to be drawn in by its mesmerising melodies.
The Age Of Anxiety is an album that offers up a combination of smart pop tunes married with thoughtful lyrics, which at the same time presents an evolution of electronic music that suggests there’s still horizons to reach for.
It was something of a surprise when a-ha announced plans to release a live acoustic album, having resisted such offers for a number of years. The band had of course performed many of their songs in more pared-down versions during their career, but never on this scale. Further credence was added to the project with its subsequent MTV branding and, in the spirit of the original format, several guest artists were introduced during the shows (notably Ian McCulloch and Alison Moyet). Several locations were touted, but the band settled for Giske, a remote Norwegian island.
The subsequent MTV Unplugged – Summer Solstice album was released in an array of visual and audio formats. The double CD version was a fine document of the two-day event, featuring stripped down versions of classic hits, alongside deep cuts and rarely-played songs. The band also performed two new songs (‘This Is Our Home’ and ‘Break In The Clouds’).
The band was also able to tap into its progressive rock past with a stunning version of ‘Sox Of The Fox’. Aka ‘The Vacant’, the song had originally appeared on the rare album Fakkeltog by Bridges, a Doors-inspired band that included Paul Waaktaar-Savoy and Magne Furuholmen.
Arguably the biggest surprise of the show was the version of ‘Take On Me’, presented in a fresh, ballad-like arrangement. It created a huge online reaction, and the band eventually released a studio version of the track in December.
Whilst some of the arrangements are a little leaden and plodding, it’s a largely crowd-pleasing set, and a fine addition to the band’s impressive catalogue.
Stating that the material on Night Of The Living Electrical Appliances was aiming to be “pure electro-pop with more experimental, darker sounding tracks”, the outfit have delivered an album that certainly 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 ever, the enigmatic outfit’s love for ’60s girl groups, combined with a ‘garage punk’ aesthetic, delivers an album whose raw energy weaves a particular magic on the listener’s ears.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the debut album from Kelly Lee Owens is its fractured nature. At heart an electronic album, the tracks contained within dart between ambient soundscapes and beat-driven compositions. It’s not a million miles away from the the sounds crafted by the likes of Japanese musician Sapphire Slows in its mesmerising electronics.
The gauzy ambience of opening track ‘S.O’ manages to drop the listener into a warm, immersive cocoon. ‘Arthur’ (a tribute to avant-garde composer Arthur Russell) opens with a soundscape of birdsong and nature sounds. Later, it weaves in subliminal beats combined with a breathy, indistinct vocal. Meanwhile, ‘Anxi.’ (featuring Norwegian artist Jenny Hval) is an intriguing dreamlike composition featuring an amalgamation of dreampop, spoken lyrics and glitchy electronica.
Kelly Lee Owens, as an album, drew critical praise from a range of commentators this year. Owens is clearly someone with a voice and with an interest in exploration. Her debut album provides an intriguing foundation, but it’s what comes next that’s going to convince us to continue exploring with her.
Wirral-based electronic musician Neil Grant (aka Lo Five) describes debut release When It’s Time To Let Go as “deep landscape electronics” and “an album of wild spaces and intimate rooms”. It’s an apt description for an album of reflective reveries that both challenges and surprises the listener.
Peppered throughout with evocative chimes that suggest some lost ice cream van song, there’s also a plethora of natural sounds weaved into the mix. Compositions such as ’Sabre Contusion’ have a raw electronic component combined with a fractured production. There’s a more reflective element to ‘Machinations of the World’ with its rainfall effects and soothing tones. While ’Leave You Alone’ offers up haunting qualities with a dub-like approach to synth tunes.
Closing track ‘The Emergence Of Something Familiar’ has a suitable downbeat finality to it with its stark piano and nocturnal atmosphere.
Lo Five presents a sound that’s quite tough to easily categorise. When It’s Time To Let Go throws up plenty of challenging compositions, yet at the same time has the comforting allure of the familiar.
If 2017 proved anything it was that the field of electronic music is a broad one. A lot of songs grabbed our attention across 12 months of intriguing, captivating and often challenging music. While many classic synthpop acts proved that they could still hold their own, the next generation of electronic artists also demonstrated that they could craft unique tunes that didn’t rely on the past.
Here are 25 songs that are not presented in any particular order, but as whole were the standout tunes for The Electricity Club in 2017.
GARY NUMAN – My Name Is Ruin
The release of Gary Numan’s 21st studio album Savage (Songs From A Broken World) marked the synthpop pioneer’s highest charting album since Telekon back in 1980. This latest body of work transmited a thoughtful concept, centred around the modern-day issues that would seemingly put into question the survival of the planet.
‘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 robust dance-driven beats.
VITALIC (ft. David Shaw and The Beat) – Waiting for the Stars
There’s a robust quality about the electronic tunes contained on this latest release by Vitalic, which appeared to signal a strong start for electronic music in 2017.
Vitalic, aka Pascal Arbez, had been operating since the late 1990s as an underground artist, but achieved a larger profile with the release of his debut album OK Cowboy in 2005. New album Voyager draws from a wealth of influences, including nods to the likes of Giorgio Moroder and Cerrone. Certainly, standout track ‘Waiting For The Stars’ is an unabashed nod to Arbez’s favourite ’70s and ’80s songs, which in places is deliberately out of tune. Featuring vocals from David Shaw, there’s a Moroder-esque beat driving this squelchy and engaging electropop wonder.
Many of the releases of 2017 seemed to reflect a troubling period in contemporary culture, particularly with politics providing a turbulent backdrop. Austra were one of those outfits and the release of their album Future Politics offered up some thoughtful insight into troubled times.
The familiar bassy synth tones that Austra’s Katie Stelmanis has crafted as part of the classic Austra sound provided the foundations for ‘Utopia’. This rumination on the “collective depression”, that Stelmanis suggests is a result of city living, has strong hooks and melodies as some smart percussive frills keep the song moving along.
London-based duo Empathy Test took us by surprise this year with each successive song. On ‘Bare My Soul’, the soaring melodies and heartfelt lyrics have a particular power that manages to undo all those tired old tropes about synthpop being cold and unemotional in one song.
The lyrics offer up brief vignettes, each of which manage to elicit the idea of something being both “tragic and beautiful”. At the same time, there’s a subtle building up of layers of electronic elements that culminates in a powerful delivery that’s both mythical and melodious.
One of Canada’s electronic music gems re-emerged earlier this year with a new song and talk of a new album. ‘Bicep’ delivered the trademark sleazy synths and unsettling sounds that made TR/ST (aka Robert Alfons) such a captivating act over the course of 2 previous albums.
‘Destroyer’ shows a departure of sorts here for Alfons, with a much more restrained composition. It’s a more nocturnal affair peppered with reedy intermissions, although Alfons’ grimy vocals are present and correct. The video itself is produced by, and stars, choreographer Ryan Heffington (Sia, Lykke Li, Florence and the Machine, Arcade Fire). It charts a journey through a late night streetscape which is interspersed with oddly unsettling choreography.
Culled from their 2017 album The Punishment Of Luxury, ‘La Mitrailleuse’ takes its inspiration from a painting by the artist CRW Nevinson (regarded as one of the most famous war artists of World War I). Nevinson was deeply affected by what he saw in France during World War I, which had a profound effect on the paintings that he produced at the time. This included the 1915 work La Mitrailleuse, which translates from the French as “the machine gun”.
In the hands of OMD, ‘La Mitrailleuse’ is composed of a mesmerising droning intro which leads to a rhythm track designed to emulate explosions and, in particular, machine-gun fire. Meanwhile, Andy McCluskey intones “Bend your body to the will of the machine”. It’s the perfect companion to Nevinson’s work which sees the style of the soliders rendered in angular shapes, suggesting a merging of man and machine – a theme carried over in the video, which again features the distinctive style of Henning M. Lederer, who previously worked on videos for OMD’s English Electric album.
While the success of her 2015 album Ten Love Songs managed to raise the profile of Norwegian musician Susanne Sundfør, new album Music For People In Trouble took Sundfør back to her singer-songwriter roots. Although the album boasts some fine electronic flourishes, there’s also more nods to jazz and traditional instrumentation.
The album’s crowning achievement is clearly the epic ‘Mountaineers’ which starts with the basso profundo voice of John Grant. Here, Grant’s sonorous delivery echoes from the depths with its lines about “Jumbo jets spiralling down like vultures of the stars”. It’s suggestive of the type of composition that This Mortal Coil were noted for with the emphasis on the voice to provide an compelling hypnotic effect.
When Sundfør comes in, the song suggests a coming to the light from a great darkness, a sudden revelation (“What it means/Now I know”) and builds to a choral symphony that takes the breath away.
Released in March this year, Depeche Mode’s 14th studio album Spirit has proven to be one of the most divisive collections of new songs in their 37-year career. A sonically-challenging (and often unsettling) listen, the album has certainly divided fans; many of whom haven’t gotten over the fact that Alan Wilder left the band 22 years ago. By contrast, most music critics were united in their affection for the new album, praising the band for their aggressive and new approach, and also for Martin Gore’s politically-charged wordplay.
Like ‘Broken’ on Depeche Mode’s previous album Delta Machine, singer Dave Gahan once again provided the album’s best track in ‘Cover Me’, a slow-building, other-worldly electro-ballad with a Bowie-inspired lyric: “It’s about a person who travels to another planet only to find that, much to his dismay, it’s exactly the same as earth” Gahan explained to Rolling Stone magazine. Featuring some sinister electronics and a beautiful coda that recalled ‘Clean’ from 1990’s career peak Violator, this was space-aged synth rock at its finest.
As Lola Dutronic, the Toronto/Düsseldorf electronic duo of Richard Citroen and Stephanie B have carved out an impressive career of engaging pop tunes. They jumped back in earlier in the year with a sequel to one of their best known tunes ‘Everybody Loves You When You’re Dead, but it was their love letter to Berlin later in 2017 that stood out for us.
Continuing the duo’s talents for crafting accessible electronic pop with engaging melodies, ‘My Name Is Lola’ is a track that Richard Citroen describes as “a bit of a departure from our usual ‘Wall Of Sound’ approach, we’ve taken on some of Alle Farben & Robin Schulz’s colours”. It’s a quirky pop tune that’s a lot of fun and includes shout-outs to all of the duo’s favourite Berlin haunts.
Dicepeople, an electronic outfit from London, had a very busy year with several live performances and also a muscular cover version of Depeche Mode’s ‘Strangelove’. The group have an emphasis on strong visuals as part of their live shows and they draw inspiration from the likes of Depeche Mode, John Carpenter, Siouxsie Sioux, Front 242 and all points inbetween.
‘Synthetic’ is pretty much on-point with its brooding gothic synth melodies against a burbling electronic background. Atashi Tada’s vocal lead is tweaked and distorted and lends the whole affair a cyberpunk aesthetic.
Electro punk outfit LegPuppy have a knack for cultural commentary. Take ‘Selfie Stick’, which the 4-piece outfit released earlier this year. There’s a brooding quality to the song; a prowling tonal mood with cynical synths that provides the foundation for a lyrical dragging on Instagram culture (“Instagram that pic/Snapchat me a vid/I’ll show you my dick”). It’s a timely theme in a world where people are measured on the number of followers they have on Twitter or the belief that 17,000 ‘Likes’ can provide a fig-leaf of sorts for an empty, shallow soul.
Or as LegPuppy themselves put it: “Welcome to the Age of Narcissism where our future leaders are more interested in how many likes their stupid selfie gets on social media. Where their heroes and inspirations are Reality TV stars.”
ELYXR (feat Naoko of Princess Problems) – Godspeed
Seattle-based electronic musician/producer Kasson Crooker put together a new project for 2017 which sought to include his particular take on electronic music with a diverse range of singers.
‘Godspeed’ marked one of these releases, with the vocals coming care of Naoko Takamoto (Princess Problems). There’s a raw energy at work on a busy composition that also seems to elicit a sense of unease. Despite this, there’s a kinetic quality to the electronic melodies threaded through the piece. Conceived before Trump’s US victory, ‘Godspeed’ was penned as a reverie on the concerns such a presidency would bring. Lyrics such as “gather up your belongings/’cause he’s coming” pretty much seals the deal.
When Curxes first made their presence known several years back, they brought with them a very different approach to electronic music that presented one of the more captivating acts on the scene. Pulling from a variety of influences, the Curxes unique sound of stark pop ran through songs such as ‘The Constructor’ and ’Creatures’.
Describing themselves as “a decorative set of bones, channeling the ghosts of Discothéques past”, Curxes were a perfect fit for the first Electricity Club event staged in 2011. But it was a journey that also saw them later remixing the likes of Chvrches on the Scottish trio’s 2013 Recover EP.
‘In Your Neighbourhood’ (taken from new album Gilded Cage) shows Roberta Fidora opting for a much more languid style of singing combined with a warm, engaging layer of electronics. Meanwhile, the video is a strange amalgamation of a lost children’s puppet show and a TV repair shop.
‘Beautiful Life’ marked the welcome return of Swedish synthpop outfit The Sound Of Arrows in 2017. It’s a composition that continues the electronic duo’s talent for cinematic pop, 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 dreampop lyrics atop subtle synth rhythms. Meanwhile, the track is given plenty of epic sweeps courtesy of the strings section.
The band later released new album Stay Free, presenting a more grounded take on the classic Sound Of Arrows formula.
Taking her name from a nickname associated with her grandmother, Hannah Rodgers embarked on her musical career as Pixx in 2015. A former Brit School student (where the likes of Adele and Amy Winehouse had their roots), Rodgers signed to the 4AD label at the impossibly young age of 19.
Debut album The Age Of Anxiety, presented a collection of songs that offer up electronic music that’s both accessible, yet also has a sense of quirkiness and charm. ‘I Bow Down’, for instance, starts from simple foundations before building an insistent beat that works its magic. The video, with its strange visuals, also keeps things interesting.
The soulful, beguiling style of Fifi Rong has been winning over both the press and the public for many years via releases such as Next Pursuit and Future Never Comes. It’s an impressive catalogue that also suggested that the London-based musician had carved out her niche and was happy with heading in that particular musical direction.
However, her new release ‘The Same Road’ sees Fifi do a left turn with a tune that’s distinctly more electropop-orientated than previous outings. Here, the lush soundscapes are put to one side for a cleaner, sharper approach to song arrangement. Electronic melodies echo through the song, augmented by Fifi’s familiar mesmerising vocals. At the same time, this is a tune crafted in the form of contemporary electronic music, rather than as a pastiche of ‘80s synthpop, which is always a bonus.
By bringing onboard the mixing talents of Max Dingel, who previously worked with the likes of Goldfrapp (as well as White Lies and Muse), the dynamic qualities of ‘The Same Road’ presents an engaging number that’s likely to surprise long-term Fifi Rong enthusiasts.
With much of the attention this year centred around a-ha’s new acoustic project, Paul Waaktaar-Savoy’s collaborative album with singer Zoe Gnecco, World Of Trouble, passed by almost unnoticed earlier this year. Which was a shame because this was as good as – if not better than – a-ha’s last studio album Cast In Steel. In fact, one such track, ‘Open Face’, almost made it on to a-ha’s 2015 comeback album, but was overlooked in favour of inferior cuts such as ‘Door Ajar’.
Released as a single in April this year ‘Open Face’ is certainly the most electronic track on the New York-based duo’s album, and boasts some fine Kraftwerkian synth work from Kurt Uenela, who has also collaborated with Dave Gahan on some of Depeche Mode’s recent releases (including this year’s Spirit).
THE RUDE AWAKENING (feat Brooke Calder) – Let Nothing Take Your Pride
When he’s not promoting the likes of the Synth City event electronic music event, Johnny Normal also spends time on writing and composing under his own steam.
Under the banner of The Rude Awakening, which sees Johnny bringing onboard the talents of Brooke Calder (Lolly Pop, A*O*A, POP INC), new release ‘Let Nothing Take Your Pride’ offers a reflection of our times in its themes. There’s a defiant tone to the track which deals with anyone who’s come under fire from life: “Struggling with your conscience I try to make you see/but all around your friends surround taking a piece of me”. Revolving around themes of resilience and fighting your corner, the song could be said to be a rallying call for those that have been beaten down.
The track (which also saw its live premiere at September’s Synth City event) draws from the classic synthpop template with an anthemic pop approach peppered with synthetic brass stabs. With some polished backing vocals by long-time friend and collaborator Brooke Calder, ‘Let Nothing Take Your Pride’ presents an electropop tune with some whack.
Johanna Gervin once again demonstrates that she’s one of the finest voices in the world of electropop with her vital vocals on ‘Electric Nights’.
It’s a euphoric floor-stomper crafted in the style that only Parralox can pull off. ‘Electric Nights’ also comes with a suitably dynamic video packed with visual delights. It’s an explosion of primary colours and effects that lends the whole affair a dayglo sheen. The composition actually dates back to 2002, back when Roxy was part of the Parralox line-up (she also co-wrote the song). The tune was submitted to the Australian Independent Music Awards – and apparently won Best Dance song in 2003, but plans to release it seemed to get delayed due to Parralox’s hectic schedule.
BRUCE WOOLLEY & POLLY SCATTERGOOD (with The Radio Science Orchestra) – Video Killed the Radio Star
When it comes to pop tunes, there’s a select few that manage to be immediately recognisable regardless of whatever decade they were recorded in. So the iconic opening bars of The Buggles’ ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ have been so impressed on popular culture that it’s difficult to imagine that there’s anyone unfamiliar with the tune anywhere on the planet.
The song was reimagined earlier this year care of one of the tune’s original composers – Bruce Wooley – in collaboration with dark pop chanteuse Polly Scattergood. The new version (which carries the subtitle of ‘Dark Star’) opts for a radical deconstructed adaptation of the song in conjunction with the Radio Science Orchestra (a project established by Bruce Wooley). As a result, Polly Scattergood’s laconic vocals in tandem with the orchestral arrangement lend the song an intriguingly evocative sound that still manages to lose none of the original composition’s power.
The release of 2013’s Crystal World album demonstrated that Helen Marnie continued to display a talent for good electronic music, even while Ladytron were on an extended hiatus.
Drawing comparisons with the likes of Ladyhawke and Goldfrapp, Marnie’s latest album Strange Words And Weird Wars has opted for a much more electronic palette on this release, which also throws a nod or two to synthwave. ‘G.I.R.L.S’, with its cheerleading chants, offers up one of the strongest tracks on the album. It’s Pop with a capital ‘P’.
There’s an energy to Twist Helix that definitely leaves an impression. Hailing from Newcastle, Twist Helix consists of singer and synth player Bea, bassist Michael and drummer James.
New release ‘Little Buildings’ (taken from forthcoming album Ouseburn) has a solid sound to it which is helped by their willingness to embrace a variety of instrumentation, including guitar and live drums. The result is a robust tune which is topped off with Bea’s powerful vocals.
Simen Lyngroth is a Norwegian singer-songwriter with a distinctively soft and crystalline voice, who is currently enjoying a dual career; as both a member of folk-pop trio Ask and as a solo artist exhibiting more electronic influences.
Awash with snowcapped melancholia, debut solo album Take All The Land is strongly influenced by Radiohead and features a number of fine jazz-infused electro-ballads. Arguably, one of the album’s most immediate and commercial cuts was ‘The Waves’, and it was duly released as a single in October. Deviating from the formula slightly with its use of programmed electronics, this was a standout track from one of this year’s most exciting new releases.
Swedish electronic musician Alexander Sjödin caught everyone’s attention in 2017 under the moniker Sailor & I. Debut album The Invention Of Loneliness bounced between icy pop and beats-driven electronica…
Nestling among the tracks on the album, ‘Chameleon’ has a subtle power to it that can take a few spins to appreciate. There’s a dark piano melody over which Sjödin’s yearning vocal offers hints of change or transformation. Meanwhile, a gradually-building slab of stark electronics gives the track a dark pop appeal.
As one of the artists performing at last summer’s Silicon Dreams event, Voi Vang made an impression as someone to watch.
‘Mirror’ demonstrates her knack for dancepop with an electronic flavour. The track starts out with a plaintive piano melody before transforming into a much more dynamic outing. Bouncing between pop and EDM elements, there’s a captivating use of rhythms and melodies to produce a powerful dance floor filler. It’s also a track that reveals Voi Vang’s impressive vocal range, which has a punchy, direct power that sits in tandem with the driving electronic beats.
Catching up with one of electropop’s rapidly rising outfits…
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).
The band have enjoyed a broad range of coverage from the likes of BBC Introducing, XFM, Clash, PopMatters and Idolator (They were also featured in an article for Metro about bands to check out if you loved the Stranger Things soundtrack). As a result, the electropop outfit have enjoyed a rapid growth in fans interested in their evocative take on electronic music.
Launching a successful PledgeMusic campaign, Empathy Test expanded their original goal of funding their debut album release with a plan to release two albums instead of one. As a result, Safe From Harm and Losing Touch are on track for release on 17th November, alongside a launch party in London towards the end of the month.
Isaac Howlett kindly took time off from Empathy Test’s busy schedule to chat to The Electricity Club about the band’s beginnings, the state of the current electronic music scene and their plans following the launch of their debut albums…
How did the pair of you first get involved in music?
A long time ago now. We were both very creative kids, always drawing comic books, writing stories, building tree houses and recording our own radio shows. Whatever we thought of. Music was the natural progression after we had tried everything else. We taught ourselves to play guitar and started writing music in our teens. Adam began recording compositions on his PlayStation, while I was using a four track mini-disc recorder I bought off a kid from school.
Were there any particular artists at the time that you felt particularly influenced by?
We were listening to bands like Radiohead, Placebo, Pulp, Blur and Oasis – all the Britpop bands that arrived in the ’90s. It seems strange to say it now, but at one point I knew every single word of Oasis’s (What’s The Story) Morning Glory. Those bands made it feel like anyone could write songs and be in a band. I never forgave Noel Gallagher when he said the ‘Sally’ in ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’ wasn’t real though. Suddenly, I realised all his lyrics were nonsense.
Why did you decide to use PledgeMusic to fund this project and what are your thoughts on how Empathy Test have done on it?
“I’d kind of decided a record label was pointless unless they could do something we couldn’t”
We saw bands we know, like Avec Sans and DE/VISION doing it and thought, that’s the way to release an album. I’d kind of decided a record label was pointless unless they could do something we couldn’t. You end up paying for everything yourself anyway – they just give you the money up front, then take a big cut of the profit.
So if you can crowd fund the money, you might as well do it yourself, and keep the profit. It worked out immensely well and the campaign has been more successful than either of us could have imagined. 600% more, in fact.
At what point did you decide to do 2 albums rather than 1?
There was a lot of discussion about what songs would go on the albums and what songs wouldn’t. We also felt that the new material was too different to the old to be on the same album. We didn’t like the idea of a double album so we decided to create the album we should have put out in 2015 (Losing Touch) and the album we wanted to put out now (Safe From Harm), and release them both at once. Adam’s production skills have improved immensely since we started out, so it was also a chance to remaster all the old tracks and give them a proper CD and vinyl LP release.
Were there any odd or unusual reward ideas that you considered for this campaign?
Not really. We’re both really busy, live an hour away from each other and don’t meet up that regularly, so even signed items are a bit of a chore. And to be honest, it’s all about the music at this point. People just wanted an album. We gave them two, and a single. Maybe next time we’ll get more creative. It’s not like we needed to.
You’re including the early EP tracks on the albums. Are you reworking them in any fashion or are you happy with the versions as they are?
They’re mostly just remastered, with subtle changes most people won’t even notice. We were wary of doing “a George Lucas”! Adam extended ‘Where I Find Myself’ because he felt it needed something extra. I asked him to do the same with ‘Last Night On Earth’ because it’s really popular and really short, but he didn’t. I think it was because he doesn’t like it much. He doesn’t really do anything he doesn’t want to.
One of the tracks on the album Safe From Harm is titled ‘Burroughs & Bukowski’. Does literature have a particular influence on the lyrics for some songs?
Yeah, definitely. I devoured books when I was growing up, and studied literature at university, where I did a lot less reading! William S. Burroughs and Charles Bukowski are two of my favourite writers, but they were also the names of two goldfish I had when I was living in Brighton. So there’s a bit of a double entendre there, in the lyrics “I’m on my way back home / Burroughs and Bukowski”. The song is about choosing a different life, being the one who goes home alone, and finding solace in books. There’s also a blatant Shakespeare quote in another new track, ‘Firelight’. “I am a man. More sinned against than sinning” is straight out of King Lear.
How did Christina and Sam become part of the Empathy Test team?
Before the first European tour we did with Mesh in 2016, our first drummer, Casey, decided things were getting too serious and he wasn’t prepared to put in the amount of time the band was starting to demand. Which is fair enough. The thing is, Adam then decided he also couldn’t give up two weeks of his life to focus on just one thing. So we decided to put together a new live band which could operate with or without Adam, to give him the freedom to only do the shows he wants.
Playing live and touring isn’t for everyone. I love it! We put out an advert and met Chrisy, and Jacob, who played keys for us for about six months. Before the second Mesh tour, Jacob decided he wanted to focus on his own music, so we found ourselves having to recruit a new keyboard player very quickly. Sam was recommended by a friend and turned out to be the perfect replacement, although his living in Bristol slightly complicates things.
“It’s always difficult working out how to perform electronic music live, particularly when it’s as intricate and layered as ours”
Did you find the transition to live performances an easy one? Or were there issues in getting the songs into a live setting?
It took us a while to get on stage. It’s always difficult working out how to perform electronic music live, particularly when it’s as intricate and layered as ours. There’s a lot of drones in our tracks; phrases and sounds that come in and loop for long periods of time. To have everything live you’d need a lot of people playing very simple things, over and over. You could trigger them all using Ableton but then it’s like, what’s the point? So a lot of stuff ended up on the laptop. But visually that’s not very exciting.
We added a live drummer to boost the energy and Chrisy’s suggestion to use a hybrid acoustic and electronic kit has made a huge difference. Chrisy’s incredibly talented and proactive, we’re really lucky to have her. She’s also been designing a DMX light show for us, which will make an appearance at our London album launch at Zigfrid von Underbelly on 25th November and on our German headline tour in December.
What are your thoughts on the contemporary electronic music scene and are there any artists that stand out for you?
It seems like most music around at the moment is electronic. There’s so many different genres, all borrowing from each other. The market’s kind of saturated. I’m sure journalists are getting the press release for our albums and thinking, “oh great, another synth band”. It’s got to that point. We’re doing our best to grow beyond genres. You should definitely check out Furniteur and Waterbaby, who have both remixed our latest single, ‘Everything Will Work Out’. Far and away my favourites though, are Papertwin. To me, they’re next level.
What’s next for Empathy Test?
We’re already thinking about album number three. The good thing about Adam being not as into the live side of things is that he stays focused on making new music. It’s very easy to get caught up with the gigging, touring and releasing and forget the creative side of things. I played him a song I’d been working on recently and he messaged me the next day to say it was excellent and that I should finish it. That’s a good sign – last time that happened the result was ‘Seeing Stars’, which quickly became our second most popular track, after ‘Losing Touch’ of course.
We’ve got the London album launch on 25th November, then Electric Dreams Weekender with The Human League on 2nd December, then our headline German tour in December. Chrisy and I are also currently booking us a UK tour for March 2018. Then we’re going to Russia with DE/VISION in April. It’s all happening!
The Electricity Club extends its thanks to Isaac Howlett.
Empathy Test will be holding a launch party with support from Nina at Zigfrid von Underbelly on 25th November (ticket details).
Empathy Test are also performing at the Electric Dreams Weekender (alongside The Human League, A Flock of Seagulls, Howard Jones, Thomas Dolby, Avec Sans and others) on 1st-4th December Details via: https://www.facebook.com/events/513692095639972/
“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.”