Monday, October 17, 2016

The Best Thing by Electric Youth

Although much of the synthwave genre is instrumental "movie music" type stuff, much of the best of it, of course, has lyrics, and just sounds like synthpop, except with a very overt retro-80s vibe to it.  One of the better of these outfits is Electric Youth, a classic electro duo of the kind made famous by Blancmange, Soft Cell, or given the female vocalist, maybe the better comparison is Yazoo.  They're a young couple from Toronto, and sadly, they claim that their name is not cribbed from the Debbie Gibson album of the same name.

Electric Youth makes stuff that is sometimes labeled "dreamwave"—new wave or synthwave with a nostalgic, ethereal quality to it that makes it sound somewhat dream-like, I suppose.  To be fair, most of the synthwave stuff that I've liked best comes from this "half" of the genre.  This is maybe a bit surprising; I like a lot of hard-style electronic music, and some of the harder synthwave stuff seems like it would be more up my alley than the dreamwave stuff.  And yet... I prefer the dreamwave.  That may be because it's rarer; I rarely found anyone at all that really sounded like Book of Love, and even in the newer synthpop scene, only Marsheaux really consistently delved into that particular mood.  But now I'm finding, of course, that there is much more of it than I knew, although it bears—maybe somewhat arbitrarily—a different genre label.

There's a lot more of this stuff that I'll be exploring in the coming months.  I'm still a newcomer to the synthwave scene, but I'm finding lots to love in it.

Electric Youth have put out a number of works, but only one full album (that gathers a lot of their songs from other sources, sometimes.)  I could probably post most of it as credible and desirable tracks, but of course, only one can make the cut at a time.  Here's "The Best Thing."  But I absolutely encourage you to look for more.  Electric Youth is one to watch, certainly.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Hiroshima Mon Amour by Ultravox!

John Foxx, who was the lead singer, front-man, and main song-writer for Ultravox before he ditched the band, left it in the hands of Midge Ure (who took it to considerable commercial succes) has said of "Hiroshima Mon Amour" on their 1977 album Ha! Ha! Ha!, that it was the first synthpop song in history and that he thought nobody else had done a song like that before.  Of course, Foxx was a strange guy.  A former hippy and mod kid, he decided and declared his intention to live a life without any emotion in the mid-70s.  He wrote that sentiment into the track "I Want to Be A Machine" on Ultravox!'s first album.  A huge fan of J.G. Ballard, and grandiosely imaging himself as the "Marcel Duchamp" of electronic music (at a time when Kraftwerk was about the only game in electronic music town) he is known for being rather influential, even as he was never actually very popular.

I'm a fan, of course, of some of his early Ultravox work and especially his first solo album, Metamatic from very early 1980 (literally just squeeks into the 80s by less than three weeks) and I've talked about both here before.  Ironically some of his imitators (like Gary Numan) who were very upfront about citing the John Foxx era Ultravox as one of their main inspirations, went on to not only precede Metamatic, making it sound almost like a copy-cat (ironically) as well as achieving considerably more mainstream success and attention.  Foxx's declaration might have been a bit self-serving; synthpop certainly evolved out of a collage of experimental electronic music experimentation going on all over the place in the 70s.  Brian Eno, Kraftwerk, Tomita and Giorgio Moroder had been kicking around for years making pop music with minimoogs and other early synthesizers that are not really very distinguishable from synthpop.  OMD ditched their guitars in 1975 (although they didn't release anything early enough to beat Foxx, I suppose.) When exactly did some early pioneering electronic pop music cross some arbitrary line to become synthpop?  I dunno, but according to Foxx, and many in the music press accept this, "Hiroshima Mon Amour" was when this happened.

If so, it's probably a little bit belated of me to actually put this one up.  Sure, it came out before the 80s, but it was the root of the 80s sound in many ways.  It's actually a bit poppier than even stuff that came out later and was more popular—Gary Numan's work in particular (as well as Metamatic and some early Human League, for example) was really cold, distant, and cyper-punk-like.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Sunset by The Midnight

It's curious that as I dig more and more into the synthwave movement (a little belatedly discovered.  Of course.  Then again, it's indie, so that's the point.) I'm feeling a little thoughtful about labels.  The synthwave stuff that is instrumental, down-tempo, and sounds like the backing track for some soundtrack of an 80s movie I get well enough—but there's quite a bit of it that has vocals.  What's the difference between this stuff and synthpop?  Sure vocal synthwave is more overtly nostalgic and 80s-influenced, but it's fair to say that synthpop itself is an 80s genre that hasn't evolved that much since it's birth in the 80s itself (or very late 70s if you want to get technical. It's generally accepted that the label synthpop first applies to the Ultravox song "Hiroshima Mon Amour" from their 1977 album Ha! Ha! Ha! and even more broadly to their entire album Systems of Romance from 1978.)

In any case, it's been quite a while since I opened up "on topic" blog posts to songs that were released since the 80s, as long as there was an obvious evolutionary link to the 80s synthpop that I started blogging about in the first place.  If synthwave doesn't qualify, I have no idea what does; it's arguably much more on topic than most of the stuff I've posted in the last few years as it is, since at least it's very overtly and blatantly retro-80s in style.  The vocal stuff is very hard to distinguish from synthpop; heck, I noticed on FM-84's bandcamp page that they even call themselves synthpop as a label.

The Midnight's "Sunset" is probably my new favorite song, though.  For now.  As they themselves say: "There is a Japanese term: Mono no aware. It means basically, the sad beauty of seeing time pass - the aching awareness of impermanence. These are the days that we will return to one day in the future only in memories."  If that isn't an expression of outright nostalgia on par with Bryan Adams' "Summer of '69" I don't know what is.  And the sound of the song, a dreamy, yearning, almost melancholic nostalgia (combined with the kind of soaring electric guitar solo that hasn't been in vogue since the mid-80s) is just absolutely perfect.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Obsession by Michael Des Barres

Most people are aware of Animotion's big hit (to the extent that they could fairly be called a one-hit wonder) "Obsession" from November of 1984.  What is actually not known by very many is that Animotion were actually covering the song; it was written by Michael Des Barres and Holly Knight and recorded at least a year earlier.  As near as I can tell, the single was only ever a promotional release in the US (so I don't know exactly how you were to get a hold of it as a general consumer) although there was a UK 12" release that appears to be a general release, and it was also on the soundtrack of the big flop of a movie A Night in Heaven starring the guy from The Blue Lagoon as a college aged stripper who has a fling with his professor, who's own marriage is struggling, blah, blah, blah.  The movie was a big flop, hardly made any money, neither critics nor audiences liked it, but it did give us...

Brian Adams' hit song "Heaven"—a full year and a half before it was added to his own mega-hit album Reckless and was re-released as a single.  And, of course, the original version of "Obsession."  Which, when I discovered this, I had to hear immediately, of course.  At first, compared to the much more famous Animotion version, it sounded odd and weird, but it grew on me quickly.

This video below isn't the original version.  Oh, it's the original songwriter and performer, but this is a completely re-recorded version.  Instead of being a duet with Holly Knight—which it was the first time around—it's with Teal Collins Zee, otherwise known from the Austin, TX music scene as part of the country music band Mother Truckers (originally from Marin County CA, apparently.)  Seems like an odd choice, but she does a good job.  I really like this remake by the original artist.

As an aside, there are lots of versions of this song out there.  It's been covered many times, and is clearly an important component of mid-80s pop culture.  For some more overtly synthpopy versions than Michael Des Barres and Holly Knight's original, check out the version by The Azoic, Electric Six or Glitch Factor.  For weird, creepy versions, check out versions by Golden State or Karen O.  And there are even heavy metal versions (Terminatryx) and other pop-rock versions (Just Kait with School Boy Humor) and even a pseudo-chiptunes version of it by Detour Zero.

And, of course, don't miss the Animotion version.  I like the "extended" version (which on my old cassette tape was just the album version) which has a minute and a half or so of guitar solo outro.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

So Electric by Lifelike

Ok, no... this is clearly my favorite synthwave song that I've heard yet (probably closely followed by either "Early Summer" or "Elevator of Love" by Miami Nights 1984... but that gives me something else to post later.)

Lifelike is a French artist (with a German last name) which seems to be particularly common in the synthwave movement.  But this song is just brilliant.  And whoever it was that thought of adding the William Powell dialogue and the Xanadu dance scenes is a genius.  Olivia Newton-John was still pretty hot in 1980, wasn't she?  And holy cow, that's Gene Kelly on roller skates there!

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Under Your Spell by Desire

Thanks in part to the popularity of shows like the Netflix original Stranger Things, a formerly quiet movement in electronic music called "synthwave" is starting to get mainstream attention.  It had also been featured in the soundtrack to 2011's move Drive although that wasn't quite big enough to have come to my attention, at least.  "Under Your Spell" by Desire is from the Drive soundtrack.  Prior to that, Daft Punk's Tron: Legacy soundtrack seems to have foreshadowed the growing importance of the genre.

Synthwave, basically, sounds like 80s music soundtracks.  It's not just like the odd retro-sounding, analog synth-using synthpop band; although a few tracks kind of lean that direction.  Most of the artists operating in this space do not have any vocals, and write instrumentals.  Their official music videos either feature very old-fashioned 80s-looking video game graphics, or pictures of cars that were popular in the 80s like old Lamborghini Countachs or Ferrari Testarossas, or 80s style Trans Ams.  Much of it is kind of downtempo, although certainly not all of it.  It's not as extreme a version of nostalgia-indulgence as the chiptunes genre, where the main instrument is literally the musical chip from an old Sega Genesis or Nintendo NES or something like that, but at the same time, the idea that this is all some kind of "lost" 80s music soundtracks is integral to the genre.

This selection is one of the more stand-out tracks; my exploration of synthwave recently has convinced me that most tracks are not.  Rather, they best serve when linked together and played in the background rather than listened to as if they are really "hit single" capable.  To get a good sense of the genre, search up youtube for synthwave.  Most of your hits will actually be big sets of a bunch of songs put together into a single video—and this is probably the best way to listen to it, actually.  While there's lots to choose from, I got my initial sampling of what the genre meant in particular in the "Best of Synthwave and Retro Electro" in two hour and a half long parts, and "Best of Synthwave - Enjoy the Summer Mix" in three hour and a half long mixes.

But in the meantime, here's "Under Your Spell" by Desire.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Special Feeling by Spektralized

I continue to discover more and more indie (usually European) synthpop and futurepop outfits.  Often, I discover them through remixes; i.e. some outfit remixes a song by someone I know, and then I search the remixer up to find out more of what they've done.  I had a Mental Discipline remix of a De/Vision song that was pretty interesting, so I searched Mental Discipline and found this song.  This is actually another remix, of Norwegian futurepop outfit Spektralized.  Mental Discipline is himself a single guy from Russia who rarely performs his own vocal work, so he "features" a lot of other bands and/or individuals in his work anyway, meaning that it's kind of a spectrum from remix to collaboration to the work of an individual.

Anyway, this is a great song, and it's the best version of it.  The synth line at about 3:05 (and again at the end) is my favorite part.  I was reminded of the KMFDM song "Juke Joint Jezebel" which I first heard on the Mortal Kombat.  What I didn't  realize is that I was hearing the Giorgio Morodor Metropolis Mix.  Well, I did, but I didn't really think about it.  It was many years before I heard the original, and I was surprised at how much I really missed the synthline that runs through the entire Metropolis mix; in the original mix, it's only a very small part of the song at the very end.  Morodor wisely saw that as the most interesting single element that needed to play a much larger role.

I think the same thing about the synthline at 3:05 on this mix, though—if I had the original source files, I'd try to integrate it as a subtle (but not too subtle) subtext throughout most of the entire song.