22 February 2009

Albums of the Year 2008, Part Four: The Synthpop Division

My goodness, it’s taking a while to check out the 10 albums (plus five Canadian albums!) that caught my ear, held my attention or generally rocked my socks in 2008! Sorry about that, but there’s actually a heck of a lot of good material out there, as I have discovered while doing some additional research over the past coupla weeks. Some readers brought a few items released in 2008 to my attention, complicating the whole affair (yay!).

This edition is all-synthpop, and we’ll start by mentioning the album that didn’t quite make it into the Top 10 by giving it its own Special Award that I just made up. :)

John Foxx gets our “Remake/Remodel” Award for A New Kind of Man . Twenty-nine years ago, his first solo album Metamatic  practically invented the “cold wave” synth genre and defined a surprisingly rich (non) emotional space for music that many, many artists have built entire careers on. Nearly three decades later, he re-records all the songs from it (including the b-sides!) in a new (barely) live version, not once but twice (he also released a live-in-the-studio souvenir called Live From a Room as Big as a City which mixes the Metamatic material with some other stuff). Then and now, this stuff still sounds brand new and incredible -- Foxx had basically retired from music in the mid-80s until his collaborator Louis Gordon coaxed him to an incredibly prolific comeback in the late 90s -- and A New Kind of Man not only reminds fans that Foxx has still got it, but firmly cements his status as the Tesla of synthpop.

Foxx has spent most of his time back in the sun bringing out new material (even dabbling in new genres) and collaborating with others, but longtime followers and new fans can really appreciate the affection Foxx gives his classics (going all the way back to his days as Ultravox’s original frontman), and I think new listeners are in for a treat as well as a shock when they realise how old -- yet how good -- this stuff is.

But lest you think he’s starting to just retread himself, let me just mention that the flow of new material barely stops. While 2008 saw no full album of new material from Foxx (there are at least two such albums on tap for 2009), via collaborations with others (mostly in single and 12” format) and the occasional new track on the slew of “live” albums that came out in 2008 (a whopping four by my count!), he still managed a full EP’s worth of new songs this past year. The sheer productivity of the man (he’s also still a highly-regarded graphic designer and would-be novelist!) is breathtaking.

Here’s just a little taster of what I’m talking about, one of my favourite Foxx tracks, “No-One Driving” performed live in Sydney Australia last year:

But if futurism has taught us anything, it’s that we should keep looking forward, not back, so if John Foxx represents where synthpop started, where is it now and where is it going?

Last Night
Mute Records

Yeah, you read that right. Moby. While he may have started off as a techno-twit, the man has most definitely grown out of that straitjacket and now solidly represents the best of where synths stand in 2008: part of a wider palate of musical “colours” that freely mix in everything that’s gone before, from bossa nova to house in a free-form lalapa-loop-za stew. Last Night in particular feels panoramic, taking in several decades’ worth of New York City dance trends and almost doing a mash-up, coming up with some solid goods in terms of danceography.

From Georgio Moroder, through disco, house, rave, Manchester and yes, Utah Saints-style techno-sampling, Moby brings it all together with compositions that may not be particularly memorable as songs, but definitely trigger “muscle memories” in the grooves for anyone who spent time in the clubs over the last 35 years. Bits of Last Night sounds like something the Pet Shop Boys would write for Grace Jones -- in terms of dance music, I think that’s the highest possible compliment I could pay it!

Moby’s been a guilty pleasure of mine for several years now -- his team-up with Bowie a few years back seems to have sparked a desire in him to move behind just being a studio wonk into really trying to be the Andy Warhol of dance music. With Last Night, I think he may have reached his “Portrait of Marilyn Monroe” period.

Here’s the very stylish “mock Italian porn” video for one of the many standout tracks, a kind of ABBA-update called “Ooh Yeah”:

Before we take a look at where synthpop is heading, I have to at least mention another huge “statement” on the state of synth technology, one that has no official release -- the mashup man supreme, GirlTalk and “their” latest effort Feed The Animals . A guy named Gregg Gillis is the mind behind the “band” and has released at least four albums I’m aware of, all stunningly brilliant fusions of dance, pop, rock, hip-hop/rap and synthpop, all courtesy of the miracle of digital technology.

In a three-and-a-half minute song, Gillis will blend up to two dozen snatches of previous works, at least some of which are instantly recognisable to anyone regardless of your preferred genre. It’s breathtaking stuff (if far too heavy on the rap/hip-hop for my tastes), but in accordance with its creation, the album is offered as a downloadable file only on a “pay what you want” basis.

The music exists not only as a showoff piece of technology but as a statement about 21st century copyright laws by taking sampling to the extreme, using so many bits and pieces that, like bologna, it becomes an entirely new product.

Here’s an example video (again, not official -- done by a fan), showing off just how many clips come together in this work. It may not be your cup of tea, but stay with it -- I guarantee you’ll be surprised at some of the artists who “cameo” in here:

Cut Copy
In Ghost Colours
Modular Recordings

How about something joyful? Happy in a spring-day-with-a-new-love sense? Sheer unadulterated (synth)pop candy? That seems to be where synth is headed (back) to, and the Australian band Cut Copy are the lead ambassadors. Taking big dollops of New Order and Electronic for their cues, Cut Copy touch on a lot of what’s gone before without making it the main ingredient, instead bringing some much needed synthpop relief to the emo kids to get them moving again.

They’re deliberately repetitive, and not above borrowing synth cliches, but there isn’t a duff song on the album, and there’s not a lot of artists you can say that about (in fact, most of the ones you can say that about are already on this list!) :)

I realise the following can often be a criticism, but in this case it’s kind of nice to have a band where any one song of theirs gives you an instant and reliable snapshot of what they’re about and what the rest of the album will sound like. Here ya go:

Finally in this (epic!) installment we take a side trip to the Great White North for our favourite Canadian synthpop act, and incidentally another representative of where synthpop is heading, which I’ll call “Ultra-Retro.” The group is called Crystal Castles and, just as their name implies, these guys are so synth-for-synth’s-sake I’m half convinced their arsenal consists mainly of Super Nintendos and Gameboys hooked up to mixers.

While bands like Cut Copy keep trying to blend electronics and “warmth” and John Foxx remains (for the most part) firmly locked in the freezer, Crystal Castles take the third way of making music that actually benefits from being made by machines. It derives its affection entirely through our nostalgia for the 8-bit world we left behind in our youth (longtime readers may recall a Kraftwerk Tribute album I reviewed that showcased groups in this genre). For those with a fondness for the “analog synth” and early computer-chip “music” sounds, this is the album for you. Even the human elements are buried in machine makeup.

No comments: