Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Coming Home by Visitor

I've already discovered another new favorite.  There is such a wealth of material to be discovered, hiding under the relatively obscure label of synthwave, that I could be doing this for a long time.  Right now, this is one of my favorite songs.

Visitor is a band that just popped on my radar recently, and although I got one of their songs after hearing it on a synthwave set-list, it took me listening again to really notice it.  I can't find much about them; they appear to be two guys from London, who've released all of... one maxi-single so far.  Hmm...

Anyway, "Coming Home" is a great song, with several great remixes.  I've chosen to play the Viceroy Remix today instead of the original, just because it's a little bit more electronic than the original.  The FM Attack remix is even moreso.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Don't be Afraid by Anoraak (feat. Sally Shapiro)

I've seen a few artists who describe themselves as "dreamwave."  I don't think that that label has quite enough currency to be recognized widely, but on the other hand, it's fairly obvious what it means—"new wave" music in the US later 80s sense of what otherwise might be called "synthpop" music that has a dreamy tone or mood; sometimes more downtempo (but not necessarily) and much of it has a kind of ethereal wispiness or fragility to it.  Most of the guys I know who use the label come out of the lighter, dreamier side of synthwave (as opposed to the action video game soundtrack darker approach) and a lot of the work of artists like Electric Youth, Timecop1983, Futurecop!, College or Anoraak, etc.

Of course, I already really liked a few songs and artists who don't necessarily come from the synthwave tradition per se, but which also trade in this same vibe.  A lot of the work of Book of Love or Marsheaux certainly fits, for example.

I decided to create a playlist on my phone that I call "Dreamwave" and I've got a first pass at it of about 90+ songs, although it'll probably see some pruning, and then some stuff that I've missed will get added.  I like some of the instrumental music from the synthwave movement, but the pop songs of the synthwave movement are usually my favorites, as you can probably tell by what I've chosen to highlight here so far.  My own Dreamwave playlist doesn't worry too much about pedantic genre purity; I actually think at some point that becomes much more of a bug than a feature.  So, I've got stuff as diverse as Chris and Cosey ("October Love Song"), a bunch of Marsheaux (although I've focused on their "softer" songs; so while the Fotonovela remix of "Breakthrough" is one of my favorite Marsheaux songs, it doesn't really fit, whereas "Destroy Me" is the epitome of what I'm looking for) and a bunch of synthwave.

Speaking of lack of genre purity, I've seen a number of folks who have decided that if a synthwave artist, like Silent Gloves or Lost Years remixes a synthpop song, then it becomes a de facto synthwave song.  Again; I don't really have an opinion on it; since I like synthpop and synthwave, and can't really tell for sure where the line is between them on synthwave that has a vocalist, I don't see any point in trying to arbitrarily draw a line between the two anyway.  Maybe I'll get some of that stuff going here soon as well...

But for today, here's one of my favorite recent discoveries.  I've seen the same song credited differently depending on who's album it appears on, and it appears on albums by both Anoraak and Sally Shapiro (where it's presented as a song by the artist who's album it is, featuring the other artist.)  I don't know which one has precedence, so I'm just going with how I saw it first; an Anoraak song featuring Sally Shapiro.  Anoraak is an odd name, but the guy's a French house musician (as are many of the founders of the synthwave scene) with the real name of Frédéric Rivière.  My first thought on seeing a picture of Sally Shapiro was; "she doesn't look very Jewish" which turned out to be true; she's not.  In fact, nobody knows what her real name is, and it's just a pen name for both her and her partner; they're two Swedish electronic musicians.  (She does look Swedish, on the other hand...)

Lost Years does the remix of this particular version; another Swedish synthwave group, that did some of the music for the Swedish homage to the 80s, Kung Fury (along with also Swedish Mitch Murder.)  Seems like the Swedes are well represented here.

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.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Leave in Silence by Marsheaux

Marsheaux is one of my favorite bands these days, and have been for a couple of years now.  They do have an interesting habit of recording a lot of cover versions of 80s songs.  In fact, they are so into recording cover versions of 80s songs that they actually recorded a cover version of an entire album; Depeche Mode's A Broken Frame.  In fact, they apparently enjoyed this so much, that they covered three versions of it: one that's a "straight" version (UK tracklist, so it doesn't have "Further Extracts From: My Secret Garden") but then they also issued an instrumental version, and an Extended version with all extended remixes, plus the two b-sides that came out during that era by Depeche Mode.  Although the instrumental seems to have been a very rare promo release.

I thought about tagging Depeche Mode in this too, given the nature of this particular cover album, but I thought better of it.  This is Marsheaux's extended version of "Leave in Silence."

Friday, March 18, 2016

Don't Wait by Night Vision

Since discovering Æon Rings while searching for cover versions of "But Not Tonight" I've been very pleasantly surprised with what I've found.  They have one 5-song EP available on Amazon, and they have some tracks that are on Soundcloud that you can download, although it appears that they were using the band name of Night Vision at the time.  On Youtube, the selection is often a bit confused; I discovered today's selection billed as a track by Æon Rings but on their soundcloud page, it's credited to the earlier band name.  The other song "Keep Moving" is also billed as such.

Æon Rings is called a dark wave band in many reviews, but these songs certainly are more "bright and polite" synthpop.  Maybe that's the reason for the two band names; they're meant to be different in style?  Either way, it's the same two guys, and the tracks are great.  You can download all five of the tracks directly from Night Vision's soundcloud, and I especially recommend "Keep Moving" and "Don't Wait."  Heck; "Don't Wait" is my new favorite (for the moment) favorite song; although "Time to Run" from the Æon Rings branded Floods EP is also a contender.

I can't figure out where they've released "But Not Tonight" anywhere; I've only ever seen it as that youtube video I linked to last post.

EDIT:  Found it:  http://synthrecords.bandcamp.com/album/enjoy-the-covers

Apparently you can get that for free too.  I'm looking into the rest of the collection as we speak.  Sadly, nothing seems to be nearly as good as "But Not Tonight" so far.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

But Not Tonight by Æon Rings

The year is 1998 or 1999.  America's ill-advised flirtation with a rejection of the pop music model that had served it well for decades via the grunge, slacker-rock "Seattle sound" was winding down, but a few years of it had ruined the popular music scene.  Having found my preferred style of music was nearly stamped out, I had wandered into a few somewhat similar scenes; I focused on bulking up my back-catalog collection of 80s New Wave synthpop artists, including some that were more European and hadn't been widely disseminated in America, like Ultravox and Visage, for example.  I spent a bit of time exploring Eurodance outfits like C&C Music Factory and The Real McCoy, although I ultimately found that particular genre somewhat shallow and unsatisfying compared to what I really wanted more of.  I wandered a bit into electronic industrial—I'd already discovered Front 242 earlier, and a few others, but I wandered more into Frontline Assembly, and Sister Machine Gun, and Foetus and other more esoteric (and often considerably harder) outfits.  This was a decent time for that, actually, as Nine Inch Nails was making electronic industrial somewhat mainstream with Pretty Hate Machine, but I still didn't prefer this to synthpop.

Luckily for me, around that time I discovered A Different Drum, an indie label, store and email list-serve that catered to the underground market for synthpop very much like the kind that I had grown up with.  In the years since, even indie labels for music have become superfluous, where bands can record in a bedroom instead of a professional recording studio, and can self-release their own music and sell it via Kickstarter or even just stick it up on Amazon and iTunes.  This has led to a major wealth of selection and options, but in 1998 and 1999 the breadth of the genre was more limited.  I recall very specifically asking on the list-serve if anyone had any theories as to why there weren't more female vocalist synthpop acts—and someone responded somewhat flippantly because female singers don't sound enough like David Gahan.

It's impossible, even now, for the genre to step out of the enormous shadow of Depeche Mode.  Even for me, I evaluate synthpop by how good it sounds compared to the "golden years" of DM—by which I mean the early albums of the classic four-man line-up: Some Great Reward, Black Celebration, Music for the Masses, and although I differ from most in starting to see the decline in this one, Violator.  By the end of that run, Depeche Mode wasn't even making synthpop anymore at all, and more recently, it's a stretch to even call it electronic music that they produce, but they did, at one point in the mid and late 80s, quite literally define the genre to such a degree that vocalists had to attempt to sound like David Gahan to be taken seriously.  That was a semi-flippant response, but only semi-flippant, after all.  The album of that period that seems to have garnered the most serious critical acclaim over the years is Black Celebration.  I was quite surprised to learn, many years after I had been listening to it over and over and over again as a teenager and even beyond, that the ultimate track, the crowning achievement, the catharsis at the end of the symphony of despair, "But Not Tonight" was never actually intended to be released on the album at all, and was only done so for the American release at the American label's insistence, and against the wishes of the band itself.  The song was picked to accompany the movie soundtrack of a rather obscure comedy Modern Girls, and because the label thought that that meant it might be a hit, they prioritized including it.  The band itself was annoyed with the song, which they wrote and recorded in very little time, and considered it a throwaway pop song, not worthy of serious consideration (the non-album song that they liked much better, but which didn't really fit with the tone of Black Celebration as it evolved, was "Shake the Disease.")  Because the band never really cared for the song, getting remixes of it was challenging.  I bought an import single of "Stripped" from Germany because it included a remix as a b-side, although it was a simple extended version that added very little other than length to the song, by Robert Margouleff.  In the years since, I've not found anything else, even in the world of bootleg mixes.

That said, the song—in spite of the band's opinion of it—is clearly a classic and popular one.  What I've discovered is that although remixes are very scarce, cover versions are not.  Scott Weiland, vocalist for Stone Temple Pilots, made one of the most distinctive ones, but the one I've found for today is from indie-synthpop duo Æon Rings, from New York.  I've also got a cover version by Paradigm that appeared on the Your World in Our Eyes compilation, I've got a nice one by Jimmy Somerville, and one by Elegant Machinery.  I'm sure my collection of "But Not Tonight" covers is not complete, however.  I believe Color Theory did one as well.  Many of these add very little to the original, but the Æon Rings version is somewhat different; it's considerably more ethereal and dreamy than even the original.  It's a good cover.  One of my favorite right now, actually.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Rainy Day by Riky Maltese

It's been a while since I've played an italo-disco song, which is unfortunate.  The genre was meant to be practically disposable; it's like garage band dance music from the mid-80s that was specifically made to cater to a relatively small regional audience.  Most of the artists were one or two hit wonders who focused on singles rather than albums; many of them only had a song or two recorded at all.

That said, I've always thought disposable pop fun is still fun.  Heck; much of the corpus of pop music and New Wave music of the entire 80s, even in American pop music, is disposable one-hit wonder type stuff, and that's part of its appeal.

Honestly, I'm a little unconvinced that italo-disco is truly a genre of its own, rather than a localized expression of Hi-NRG anyway.  But because italo-disco as a label is fairly well known, I'll continue to use it.  As the mid-80s wound down, Hi-NRG and italo-disco (which by this point wasn't necessarily very Italian anymore; Irish, French, Slovenian, Canadian, and even German artists were producing "italo-disco" near the end.  It didn't so much as die as split and evolve into various other similar genres; Eurodance of the 90s was a direct descendant, and EDM of today has a pedigree in the area as well.

Riky Maltese was a four-hit wonder, I guess you could say, for certain definitions of hit.  "Rainy Day" was late for "pure" italo-disco; it came out in 1987 when the genre was pretty well and good fragmented and run it's course.  It is, however, one of my favorite tracks to come out of the ouevre.  I think that the copy I have on my phone as mp3 I modified slightly in Audacity to increase the tempo.  I few of these songs sound a little slow and laid-back compared to what dance music has become in the years since.  But if I did, it was only by a few percentage points.

Friday, January 29, 2016

+≡ instrumental album teaser by De/Vision

In the Brave New World of the internet, things are very different than they used to be.  De/Vision has apparently fully embraced the kickstarter patron funded model of releasing albums (and then, of course, they continue to sell them once they're released via iTunes and Amazon and stuff like that.)  Because of this, they need to issue a fair number of teasers and other hooks that encourage potential patrons to take the plunge.

For the "song" I'm going to feature today, I'm doing something unusual, then—I'm linking to (well, actually embedding) the soundcloud file which is the instrumental teaser for their new album.  It's not named yet, as near as I can tell, so I'm using the symbols on the cover as the de facto name of the album "plus equivalent".

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Take Me Higher by Minerve

Minerve is, like many of those I follow these days, one of the new German synthpop bands that has a bit of trance, and electro, and classic retro-80s all mixed into their sound.  The original mix of this song, "Take Me Higher" is actually considerably more trance-like than this one is (this "radio mix" is by Warp Acht, which means Rob Dust).  Minerve have a couple of albums out now, and have also released a really nice (although maybe too faithful to be truly "interesting") cover version of the Eurythmics "Here Comes the Rain Again".