Monday, December 10, 2012

Butterfly Potion by Foetus

I don't normally talk a lot about industrial music, with the exception of some of the fairly accessible and "poppish" groups, like Front 242--and their futurepop spawn; Apoptygma Berzerk, VNV Nation, Assemblage 23, Covenant, Neuroticfish, etc.  But for a little while there, I boldly ventured into some industrial territory.  One of my earliest conquests in this territory was a Cleopatra Records compilation called Industrial Revolution (retroactively called 1st edition, because it was later re-compiled and re-released with some of the same songs... but not all of them.)  I ended up buying most of what I really liked from this album on its own--some early Sister Machine Gun, KMFDM, etc.  And then I ditched the double-CD because, frankly, much of it was too dissonant and weird for my taste.

But one of the more dissonant and weird songs is one that for some reason I always kinda liked.  Australia's Foetus (also known as Foetus on Your Breath, Foetus Under the Wheels and various other phrases using the word Foetus, all of them potentially kinda offensive) contributed the track "Butterfly Potion" to the compilation.  Frankly, I've been a little frightened about looking up more Foetus material... but at the same time, I do like this song.  This, then, is Industrial Music, when it's raw, ugly, dissonant, disharmonic, and noisy... and yet somehow, strangely compelling nonetheless.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Empire State Human by The Human League

Prior to their break-out success with 1981's Dare, the Human League labored in obscurity in a style that's quite different from their more commercial offerings like "Don't You Want Me."  In fact, early Human League was much colder, and overtly Kraftwerkian in sound, and old Usenet synthpop guru Al Crawford used to compare them pointedly to Gary Numan and John Foxx.

Although Dare was where synthpop focusing on the pop (as opposed to Gary Numan's somewhat novelty-sounding hits earlier) became mainstream huge, in many ways, the earlier Human League is now seen as quite classic, innovative and influential.  The most recognized track from that period is the only single release from their first album.  It was actually first released in 1979 but failed to chart.  On a re-release in 1980, it managed to scrape up to number 62 in the UK.

I've had this track for many years, and think it's quite intriguing in many ways, but honestly I'd also kinda forgotten about it until my recent, belated discovery of Marsheaux.  The Greek girls covered a lot of 80s material, and "Empire State Human" is one of them, which reminded me again of another "classic" synthpop group of the 80s who hadn't quite managed to make it on my blog yet.  I imagine that later I'll add more of their Dare or post-Dare material, but for now, here's kind of the "original" Human League song, "Empire State Human."

Friday, August 31, 2012

New Life by Marsheaux

Given that I'm a big fan of the modern crop of "girl synthpop" bands--folks like Parralox, the Ultrasonics, Emmon, and for that matter, even folks like Little Boots, La Rouge, duets with female vocalists by Martin Solveig or David Guetta, or much of the output of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, you'd think that I would have embraced Marsheaux much earlier.  I'd been vaguely aware of them, as they remixed my favorite Ultrasonics song ("Perfect Girl") as well as one of my favorite Mesh songs ("Crash") but I'd somehow not really investigated them per se.  For some reason, I recently did so, and now I find that I've been missing some great stuff.

I think Marsheaux's best work is there original songs, but curiously, they've covered an awful lot of 80s songs, by artists as diverse as Depeche Mode, OMD, The Lightning Seeds, New Order, The Human League, When in Rome and even Billy Idol.

For today, I'm going to link to their cover of Depeche Mode's "New Life"--it's pretty representative of their style in general.  Andy McClusky (of OMD fame) said that they have a "certain sort of wispy, melancholic charm."  In fact, as I listen to a lot of Marsheaux, I can't help but think that that's the direction I would have loved to see Book of Love mature into--but which they didn't, sadly.  But there are clear and obvious similarities.

Of course, they're not quite as clear in the cover songs, one of which I'm linking to today, but hopefully it's good enough to inspire you to seek out some of their other material.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Still by Cosmicity

Cosmicity is one of the early synthpop "bands" of the post-crash, internet driven phase of the genre, having been around since sometime in the early 90s at least (the first CD, The Vision has an original 1994 release date, and there's apparently unreleased material out there older than that.)  Cosmicity also isn't really a "band" since it's pretty much just one guy, Mark Nicholas.

Cosmicity was also one of the earliest signees to the A Different Drum label, and makes a number of appearances on early compilations and whatnot released by Todd.  This, of course, meant that they have one of the longest pedigrees of post-popular synthpop out there, and that I've been following them almost that long--since the late 1990s, at least.  I've got almost all of the Cosmicity catalog; I picked up Isabella on CD early on, and the re-released double CD of The Vision and The Moment.  Later, when I first had an emusic account, I got The Binary Language of Love, Pure, Renaissance and Escape Pod for Two, as well as a bunch of remixes and whatnot.  More recently, I bought Resynthesized and Ascii Cupcake as well as a couple more remixes as mp3 downloads.  Perhaps fittingly, most of my Cosmicity collection has been picked up as digital downloads.  I recently converted everything I could to mp3, attempting to make a CD-R of mp3s that had the entire collection.  However... it wouldn't all fit.  I managed to leave The Vision and The Moment off, and then only had to cut a single song or two from the rest of the collection, so I did that, and over the last week or so, I listened to the entire Cosmicity catalog (almost) in chronological order.  Then, I started it over again (my car is queued up near the beginning of The Moment again as we speak.  Since I couldn't fit them on the CD-R, I just brought them along in old-fashioned CD format.)

I don't have Syn or Forgive Me My Syns, nor do I have the two CDs or so released under the Mark Nicholas (instead of Cosmicity) name--presumably because they were different in style.  In fact, I had thought he had abandoned the Cosmicity name completely, but recently I just discovered the existance of Ascii Cupcake which was released in 2010; an EP of Cosmicity material.  His output did slow considerably in the last decade, though--although his marriage, becoming a father, and dabbling under a different "brand name" in a different style of music makes it seem much slower than it really is.

An important part of the Cosmicity experience, shown a little in the video below, is the cult of personality that Mark has developed around himself.  All of his songs are quite personal; most even autobiographical, at least somewhat.  And if you read his liner notes, comments on his webpage, and elsewhere, one gets the impression that Mark is really "out there" socially--really sharing almost to the point of TMI.  He even comes across as kinda primadonna or diva-like; but somehow instead of that coming across as unmanly and annoying, he manages to make it somewhat self-deprecating and even charming.  The only exception to this is that there's a fairly strong undercurrent of whininess and petulance about the reaction from fans, his label, and others to Syn and what it represented; both a stylistic departure from the Cosmicity norm, as well as an attempt to be dark, edgy, and cuss a lot.  This apparently didn't go over well, and the musical style has never appealed to me either (I heard some samples of Syn earlier on an earlier iteration of his website (I believe) and The Moment also previews a lot of the sound and approach on some of its material.)  Luckily, he's mostly left that side alone, or at least walled it off away from the Cosmicity name and released it under his own name and as a different brand.

My own interactions, scant as they have been, with Mark, have always been quite pleasant, though.  I sent him a couple of emails when a couple of the tracks from my emusic download of Escape Pod For Two were messed up, but I had cancelled my account with emusic and moved on after getting them (and before they could charge my credit card for another month of membership.)  Although he chided my somewhat for not going to emusic with the problem, he did, in fact, help a brutha out.

Speaking broadly, I'd say my favorite Cosmicity projects are Isabella and Escape Pod For Two.  Getting the two-disc version of Escape Pod is especially desireable, as it features a number of remixes that are really, really good--including the Syrian remix of "Sedgewick", the Raindancer remix of "Departure" and the T.O.Y. remix of "Tinnitus."  Isabella also has some excellent tracks, and some of the remixes are top notch.  Some of them are a bit harder to find, though--the Bongo Club version of "Visionary" and the Red Sweater mix of "Your Beautiful Lie" are hard to find now--although the Extended and David's Groove 100 Mix respectively of each is on Resynthesized.

Pure and Renaissance are a tier slightly lower than those two, full of really good songs and including some of my favorite songs.  Pure also has singles/remixes readily available through Amazon; the DJ Ram remix of "Defeat" is especially recommended.

The Vision and The Moment are considered by Mark himself (it appears) as somewhat crude, unexperienced and primitive, but actually there's a lot of good material on both, especially if you get the 2-disc re-release that has a number of extra tracks and remixes on it.  The Binary Language of Love for whatever reason I could take or leave; it's not actively bad by any means, but none of the material on it really speaks to me.  And Ascii Cupcake is probably too early for me to have any comment on yet--I've only listened to the whole thing through two or three times so far.  So far, though, I think it's really good.

Another curious aside; the Resynthesized remix double CD is a great bargain, even if much of the first half of it is Binary Language material.  Curiously, on Amazon at least, the tracks are kinda messed up.  The first one of the disc-2 material is just a bunch of snaps and crackles, while the second song is actually the first song mislabeled.  In fact, the entire second disc worth of songs is mislabeled and "off" by one.  The good news is that this means you actually have almost all of the tracks, even if you need to go and relabel the tags and filenames.  The bad news is that you're missing one--the Secret Mix of "Awake."  For now, at least, however, you can buy it as an actual CD for only $3 from A Different Drum.  While it's not advertised as such, that's probably a "while supplies last" kind of offer, so get it while you can.  Certainly it's the best way to pick it up.  Although iTunes and CDbaby might not have the same issue that Amazon does; I can't tell from any personal experience.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Russian Radio by Red Flag

Lately I've been reviewing some of my more "obscure" 80s CDs, and by "obscure" I mean merely that they don't belong to one of the early New Wave "supergroups" that put out tons of tracks during the decade and became emblematic of some of the early synthpop sound.  This mostly only excludes Depeche Mode, Erasure, New Order, OMD and the Pet Shop Boys (although I've been listening to some of their stuff too.)  Most of these bands were relatively short-lived, putting out only a few CDs in total--or even only one.  Some of them had some modest success, charting in the US on the Dance charts with a track or two, if not the pop charts.  Most of them also came along near the end of the era.  So, I just finished up with Seven Red Seven, and I'll probably also do a brief revisit of Cause & Effect and Camouflage too, but I'm inevitably led to Red Flag when I get in this mood.

I discovered, while on a retrospective of this blog, that my earlier Red Flag post probably needs to be edited since the video that I embedded has been taken down due to the user's account being terminated.  But I also want to post some other Red Flag material, including the first of their songs to catch my ear, "Russian Radio."

While Red Flag is always insistent that their name comes from a surfer warner symbol (they lived for some time in the San Diego area) their iconography, and the fact that one of their first successful songs was, in fact, called "Russian Radio", and the fact that the Cold War was still a fact of life in 1988, it makes that claim just a little bit hard to believe, and I admit that I'm skeptical that they didn't in fact milk the late-era Soviet iconography for attention in both their name, their song titles, and their image in general.

Anyway, without further ado, "Russian Radio."  This is a long version from their 12", which I won as a door prize at a dance once in 1988 or 1989.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Damned Don't Cry by Visage

Woah!  I almost forgot I had this blog!  After listening to a bunch of more modern synthpop and futurepop type stuff, I stumbled back into the arms of some of my older 80s music recently, though--right now I have in my car Book of Love's Book of Love, Anything Box's Peace, Pet Shop Boys' Actually and Erasure's Wonderland... and I intend to pack those away when I'm done and get a few more; the next Erasure CD (maybe I'll go through most of their 80s and 90s catalog, even, before I quit!), some Real Life, maybe some Alphaville, and maybe some other "junior" synthpop groups, like Seven Red Seven or Cause & Effect.  That's got me thinking historically about synthpop, which reminded me that I had a blog.

From my perspective, at least, synthpop has gone through four distinct (and fairly broad) stages since it's debut in the late 70s--not counting the very earliest years when it was still struggling to find a place.  Certainly by the time The Human League released Dare in 1981, synthpop was mainstream successful (at least in Britain, with a slightly more subdued yet comparable reaction in America.  In some other markets--notably Germany--it was even more mainstream successful.)  Despite that, synthpop remained a somewhat "fringe" element of mainstream music; more influencing it than cranking out hit after hit in it's own right.  In the US, we didn't yet use the label synthpop; I called this stuff New Wave and had to then qualify it as "synthesizer New Wave" to distinguish it from other proto-Alternative groups, like The Church, or The Alarm or REM, or pre-Joshua Tree U2, or whatever--which were also lumped into New Wave.  This first phase--emergence--is characterized by steadily growing popularity and mainstreamization of synthpop type sounds and conventions, as well as a steadily higher peaking chart positions, and gradually more and more bands operating in the arena.  However, it was still dominated by a mere handful of guys who were the "elder statesmen" if you will of synthpop--Depeche Mode, Erasure, Pet Shop Boys, OMD, etc.  Near the end of the Emergence phase, a number of smaller "copy-cat" bands started putting out stuff too, to slightly lesser acclaim, but which had modest commercial success--guys like Anything Box, T-4-2, Cause & Effect, Seven Red Seven, Red Flag, Camouflage, etc.

Following the "synthpop crash" of the early 90s, major labels dropped most of their synthpop bands, with the exception of the very top tier folks--who even then saw a massive down-surge in popularity and sales.  This is the period I call underground--a nascent Internet connected a few distributors like A Different Drum, who managed to gather synthpop from independent labels around the world, as well as release a few items itself as a label.  In this phase, the so-called "elder statesmen" of the past either chugged along or released items that abandoned their synthpop sound.  For a little while, some of the lower tier guys from the past became "elder statesmen" of this phase.  By and large, the scene was very indie, fairly underground, online, and dominated by a handful of labels and their output.  In the US in particular, A Different Drum as a label (not to mention as a store/distribution point) was an important leader, and whatever A Different Drum released was bound to get plenty of attention. 

Some new rising stars from this era include De/Vision, Mesh, Iris, Cosmicity, and more.  Eventually, as the Internet became itself more mainstream, and digital music distribution became more commonplace, synthpop emerged a bit from this underground obscurity and entered two new phases--which kind of overlap with each other.  First, there's increasing diversification and independence of the modern synthpop scene.  As it merges with other electronic genres, producing narrowly defined subgenres like futurepop (which later migrates into an even more synthpop like sound over time), electroclash, and more, a number of bands come to surprising prominence, and they are mostly new bands, unrelated to the earlier phases.  There also comes to be a great proliferation of bands; right now (since this phase is still ongoing) we are really spoiled for choice when it comes to synthpop.  There are tons of new guys to discover, and there's no longer any need to really dig back into 80s back catalogs to find nifty stuff to listen to.

Not that you wouldn't want to anyway for other reasons--but  you don't have to.  The other interesting phase that's also going on right now is the curious mainstream faddishness of overtly retro synthpop.  Artists like Little Boots, La Roux, Owl City, Hurts, The Presets, and even Lady freakin' Gaga are all putting out mainstream hits that are quite clearly synthpop.

Wherever it goes from here, it seems unlikely that another descent into underground obscurity seems eminent.  The mainstream faddishness may indeed prove to be a short-lived fad (or it may not; in many ways, synthpop sensibilities have so thoroughly infused pop music overall that at least one reviewer has claimed that it's already "won" and taken over the world permanently) but the very diverse and thriving not-quite-mainstream scene seems unlikely to go away soon.

But even so, there's a recognition amongst many of these artists that they're building on the groundwork laid in the 80s by synthpop pioneers, and it's not unusual for many of them to do cover versions (sometimes only live, as a tribute to the fans) of 80s synthpop favorites.  Just recently, in fact, I picked up some Mark Oh' and The Flash remakes of some Visage classics (actually, I've had their "Fade to Grey" covers for some time, but I just got "The Damned Don't Cry."  Vocals by Marcus Fellechner of Rename.)  And while it's a really pretty cool cover, the original is still... well, it's the original.  One of my favorite 80s synthpop songs of all time, in fact.  It's haunting, melodic, and danceable; it's got everything you want a good synthpop song to do.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Starsign by Apoptygma Berzerk

Back in this post, I gave a history of sorts of the futurepop movement, and cited a number of artists who operated in that sphere.  I haven't, however, revisted them, which is a shame.  The albums that most got me into the futurepop scene were VNV Nation's Praise the Fallen and Apoptygma Berzerk's Welcome to Earth and The Apocalyptic Manifesto (although that's a compilation of older stuff that sounds a bit more traditional Front 242 style EBM, frankly.)

For today, here's "Starsign" by APB.