...or electropop, or neo-futurism or whatever you wanna call it. Once again I'm left a little disappointed with a compilation that attempts to represent current trends in electronic pop music. I'm referring to Robopop Volume 1 from Lucky Pierre Records. So what's my problem? I put synthpop on a pedestal, revere it for years as the Great Lost Hope for pop, but when it finally makes a comeback I'm full of doubts. Maybe I care too much.
It just seems that there's a spectacular lack of imagination going on here and far too much emulation rather than innovation. How can so many acts make synthpop sound so damned ordinary? Too much 1983 and not enough 1981? And when groups like Baxendale or Spray incorporate post-'88 elements, it's just yer bog-standard House/Techno grooves that've already been done to death by the mainstream. It's like they're drawing out all the most anemic elements of electronica, but it's the black stuff - the spaces within the grooves - that I always responded to. That's why I really liked that Metro Area album, even when it occasionally veered into Shakatak land. But these Robopoppers tendency to fill their tracks with unnecessary MIDI-gravy just drowns whatever potential they might've had in a pool of over-production.
Macondo's 'Disappointed' is really awful, less interesting than a Pet Shop Boys b-side from 1989 with a doleful indie vocal telling it's tawdry kitchen sink drama and not an ounce of funk in it's bones.
Hearing the overtly Martin Gore-esque vocals on Wave In The Head's 'Progress' makes you realise that the boundary between genre-study and outright pastiche has been well and truly crossed. Several of these tracks, like Canadian Gary Flanagan's "Every Friday Night" sound like a fucking joke. Several groups are from across the pond, and they all sing in English accents which sound as crap as English people trying to sing in bluesy American accents.
Of course, there are some tracks that I actually do like. Jyoti Mishra aka White Town returns from one-hit-wonder oblivion with an interesting tune called "Panoptician" which features possibly the best chorus lyrics I've heard in years: "I Retreat From You" (repeat 7 times). His nicely paranoid world view is backed up by a tight groove that remembers to add a funky bassline. My ass was suitably moved. And I couldn't help but like Vic Twenty's cover of Lynsey De Paul's '70s pop-fluff classic "Suger Me", even if it is a bit clumsy. There's a certain clammy texture to the synths and a clunkiness in the beats that I find quite agreeable.
But generally, this new Conservative Synthpop Orthodoxy is as myopic and irritating as the C86 indie stuff was back in the '80s. Maybe the biggest problem is that, in this day and age, making 'synthesiser' music is as limiting and luddite in it's approach as The Wedding Present were back in 1986. With the sort of technology and sampling power available now, it seems kinda crazy to stick to such a limited palette of sound. There's an interesting, off-the-cuff comment made by Fridge/Four Tet mainman Keiren Hebden in this month's Wire magazine, where he states:"(electronic) music's not about synths and drum machines now, it's about process and editing". Having heard his latest Four Tet album "Rounds", I can see his point. The sound he creates on his computer has very little in the way of pure electronic sound. It's all digitally manipulated samples of 'real' instruments, lifted from countless old Folk albums (which has led to his music being described as 'folktronica'). Coming from a similar angle as Prefuse 23, Hebden mangles familiar acoustic sounds to quite startling effect, such as the shards of cut-up acoustic guitar that start skipping haphazardly across the beat on the track "She Moves She".
There's an 'ocean of sound' out there, and the future belongs to those who can soak it all up and channel it into something radical....and intelligible.
Having said all that, I still worship the original 'first wave' electropop artists and, for the sheer hell of it, here's a few examples of less-celebrated 'classics' that still thrill me....
THOMAS LEER & ROBERT RENTAL - Day Breaks, Night Heals (1979)
Ahhh, the 'Scottish tinge'. These purveyors of fine lo-fi electro angst-pop got together at the behest of Industrial Records to create "The Bridge" album, which is the official post-punk response to Bowie's "Low", being half experimental pop and half ambient soundscape. Interest in Leer is currently escalating, on account of the recent re-issues of his late-80's work with Claudia Brucken as Act. But it's Rental's ghostly vocals, coupled with the utterly Martian rhythm track that makes this the highlight for me.
JOHN FOXX - Touch And Go (1980)
The final track from the ultimate electrofuturist manifesto LP "Metamatic". After all the ice-cold Ballardesque alienation, "Touch & Go" is the big emotional release. Foxx almost breaks into a chuckle at one point. And it's such an irresistible groove...the best bit is the extended instrumental section at the end where he takes the track right down to the bare bones before bringing in those ethereal waves of synth texture. Interestingly, the main melody is exactly the same as that used on "Mr. X", a track on Ultravox's first post-Foxx album Vienna, which was released a few months later. I wonder what the story is there...did anyone get sued?
SILICON TEENS - State Of Shock Part 2 (1980)
Now I know that a lot of people were a little confused by Daniel Miller's decision to make an album of electronically performed hits of the '50s and '60s, but tucked away on side 2 is this little self-penned instrumental that is perhaps the nearest we have to a follow-up to his groundbreaking work as The Normal (along with "Cleanliness and Order", the track he did with Boyd Rice). Very sexy, very groovy and still sounds like the future. What the fuck ever happened to Part 1?! I call on Daniel to release a Silicon Teens rarities collection NOW!!
THE HUMAN LEAGUE - WXJL Tonight (1980)
Final track on the League's "Travelogue" album. There's so many of their tunes I could single out for recommendation, but this one sums up what was great about the Marsh/Oakey/Ware line-up perfectly. It's so clumsy, yet so ingenious. So daft, yet so heart-felt and soulful. And the arrangements are a delight. When the staccato synth arpeggio kicks in mid-way, it's like a wormhole just opened to 1990's euphoric techno.
FAD GADGET - Lady Shave (1981)
One day, I'll make a pilgrimage to Frank Tovey's grave. That's how highly I rate the man. Although I can't agree with the sentiments of the lyrics, 'cause I'm a chauvinist pig who always complains if the wife's legs aren't smooth enough, this is a wicked, intense, muscular slice of dark dance music. The bit near the end where Frank's shriek is shot through echo & distortion is very Suicide - the sort of thing I'm a total sucker for.
LANDSCAPE - Norman Bates (1981)
Okay, they weren't a very good group in general, but this track just fucking slays me. Over a minimal, ominous groove, a treated voice repeats the phrase "My name is Norman Bates, I'm just a normal guy" until another voice shrieks out "Mother! Oh, my God!" which leads into one of the coldest, eeriest synth lead solos of all time. Still gives me the shivers...and they performed it on TOTP!
YAZOO - Bring Your Love Down (Didn't I)
Are Yazoo hip these days? I've no idea. But this Alison Moyet-penned slice of electro blues still rocks the floor here at Gutterbreakz HQ.
CYBOTRON - Alleys Of Your Mind (1981)
Over in Detroit Motor City something was stirring. This first release by the young Juan Atkins and his then partner 3630 pays heavy dues to it's European inspirations, but adds a big dollop of the black stuff to create one of the stiffest funk grooves of all time, displaying the sort of attributes that the current crop of American synthpoppers would do well to observe. No doubt Junior Boys will show them the way....