R.I.P. Steve Strange of Visage

3 03 2015

Steve Stranve IXFor those of you who don’t know, the ‘Fade to Grey’ song that all of you know was by Visage. Bonus points to those of you who can match Steve Strange with the image in the banner above.

Steve Strange was the lead singer of Visage. He was like Boy George in an alternate synthpop post-punk universe (wait, early ’80s London?) plus cocaine. He was part of the New Romantic scene, a movement which spanned from the late ’70s to the early ’80s and encapsulated an art form in various media which included androgynous dress and makeup, new electronic sounds in music, and an obsession with Vivienne Westwood’s casual ‘pirate’ look, which we can see if we simply YouTube Dead Or Alive singing ‘Misty Circles’ live.

It was that era that introduced elegantly-executed androgyny to the masses. Though short-lived (at least in the underground), it influenced the course of the ’80s by challenging people’s thoughts about gender roles, and what men and women should be. Was Annie Lennox a man, or a woman? I mean, do we seriously think this is weird nowadays? She had short hair and wore a fucking suit. Can’t a woman do that?? That’s exactly the point behind artists like the New Romantics. You, the viewer, are appalled by the fact that a short-haired ginger woman can wear a suit while dancing around in a field of cows, but you stare on in bovine wonder.

Everything weird and upturned is good.

I am sharing these videos (above and below) because:

A) Steve Strange, the tortured but talented lead singer of Visage, recently died of heart failure in hospital in Egypt (I will never accept this–it can’t be),

B) ‘She’s Electric’ is perhaps one of the greatest synthpop/dance anthems ever composed (how sublimely pulsing and ethereal?),

C) I am a big, fat, slutty whore for New Romantic music​, and

D) I just bought the CD single for ‘She’s Electric’ online! SO can’t wait to hear all the mixes. I’m especially excited about the extended mix. (Usually I like the original mix better than any of the shitty club mixes, so an extended mix of the original is like a diamond in my vagina.)

R.I.P. Steve Strange. Who cares about all your coke benders at the Blitz Club? You were a genius songwriter and performer. And you left us with what might be Visage’s best album. You left us with fashions which confuse people, makeup which makes a straight man blanch, artistic ideas which make the queerest heart quiver, and a renewed purpose behind showy spectacles like RuPaul’s Drag Race. If anybody went out in style, it was vous.





Erasure’s Violet Flame

18 09 2014

Erasure - Violet Flame (Photo Shoot)K, synthpop whores! It’s Erasure time again. For a lot of people, the release of a new album by a veteran band means, ‘Oh, fuck! All three remaining members of the Beatles are getting back together again to record…a re-recording of a 1994 compilation of…their number-one hits from, um, the 1960s, which is the only decade they made music!’ So, basically, nothing new.

Erasure are not like that. They consistently release a new album once every two to three years, often with delicious re-releases interspersed with new, original material, and re-inventing their style of synthpop with the latest producers. Most bands that originated in the ’80s can’t boast that, even if some rapper is using a synthesiser riff from their main hit in their latest song.

Erasure’s new album is a masterwork of electronic dance pop. And I say this as a hardcore fan who has criticised the band in the past for producing work which could be judged as marginal because it relied too much on trends in acoustic folk rock (which I deplore). This is entirely different:

My least-favourite album (Loveboat) was highly synthesised, well-written, well-thought-out, and expertly executed. So I am speaking in relative terms.

The band’s two previous albums, Light At The End Of The World and Tomorrow’s World (minus the Christmas album released last year) were very good and had very coherent, well-written dance anthems, but if we are talking about coherent, well-written dance anthems, The Violet Flame blows them out of the water. It is absolutely majestic in its scope. The lead singer, Andy Bell, boasts an incredibly fluid and nimble voice, synthesiser wizard Vince Clarke creates the most beautifully subtle, lush synthesiser arrangements, Andy Bell Erasureand producer Richard X polishes it off with his own HI-NRG take. The result is the perfect melodic dance-pop album.

Let’s talk about songs. ‘Under The Waves’ immediately stands out as an infectious bubblegum tune. It is the catchiest song I have heard in years. ‘Oh-oooh-oh-oooh-oh’, goes the chorus, on and on, against a thick, up-and-down italo-disco bassline. Also notable is the tune ‘Sacred’, which celebrates the extent to which love will realise itself. The most infectious and important of these transcendent dance songs, though, is the sinister and roiling ‘Paradise’. It is all about throwing away everything anybody thought about you and following your passion. It is about being true to yourself. And it’s a dance anthem! To me, this is perfection.

The Violet Flame is perhaps the best dance album I have ever heard. I hate most club mixes—they sound boring and monotonous to me. This album offers dance music that satisfies several important criteria: lyricism, melody, danceability, content. It is lyrical, melodic, danceable, and offers remotely intelligible insight into modern-day relationships and social issues. Erasure have outdone themselves with this album.

 

 

 

 





Three Intimate Yet Groovy Dance Tunes

31 07 2014

A lot of people describe dance music as ‘soulless’. I completely disagree. I think this is an idea concocted by people who are more familiar with rave music from the late ’90s than the legacy of funk, soul, disco, techno, and synthpop which has informed pop music since the mid-’70s. Dance music is just popular music with a danceable beat, melody, catchy hook, and lyrics important enough that you keep singing them inside your head.

Some dance songs prove superior to others because they have lyrics which reveal the intimate reflections of their writers. At the same time, the musical accompaniment, whether guitar, synthesiser, or drum, holds up the background and forces people to move. In this situation, dance and emotion are the same. The inner person becomes dance.

The most emotional and soulful dance song, for me, is ‘Hideaway’, by the British synthpop band Erasure. They manage to create a luxurious texture of sounds and melody while conveying a very important message:

Obviously, the song is about coming out as gay. This was actually revolutionary for its time—the song is from the Circus album, which was released in 1987—and singer Andy Bell is one of the first lead singers of a major pop group to come out as gay. I actually personally commend him for writing this song, because it is so important. And yet it is fun, catchy, and danceable! Who’d have thought??

The next song is by somebody everybody knows, but I don’t want to ruin the experience by mentioning the artist’s name, so I will just say that I find it infectious, groovy, and emotionally revealing:

Everybody constantly criticises Madonna, but this song proves two things: her stature as the queen of inventive dance-pop and her ability to reflect on her youth. It is actually really interesting to groove to a song that reveals the inner feelings of Madonna. It is fun, catchy, sing-song, and danceable, but it also reveals her torn memories about her mother (who died when she was only five years old) and her father, who didn’t offer everything she sought. And so she fought for what she has today.

There is one more song I want to add to the list of songs I categorise as intimately danceable. You might think it unusual, but if you know my ear, you’ll know what I mean. It is ‘Sara’, by Fleetwood Mac:

I’m not exactly sure what she’s saying, but the cool, quavering voice of Stevie Nicks has always haunted me. The song makes me want to sway to and fro and coo and echo everything Stevie is saying, as though it flutters within me. And at the same time, it is not a slow song. It is upbeat. It is a song that makes you want to move while feeling what she says.

I don’t care whether it’s Madonna, Erasure, or Fleetwood Mac. A good dance groove with a good melody and good lyrics makes the best song. It shouldn’t matter whether it’s a huge name or not–the point is that dance music can conjure up unexpected emotions. Dance music can be surprisingly soul-satisfying.

 

 

 

 





OMD (Late to the Game, as Usual)

10 10 2013

Orchestral Manoeuvres In The DarkYes, I already know that Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD) are the seminal synthpop band of the late ’70s and early ’80s. The question is: how the fuck did I miss the fact that they reformed in 2005 and released albums in 2010 and 2013? I attribute it to marketing. Marketing, commerce, pop culture trends, avarice, blah blah blah.

Happily, OMD entertained my tardiness by travelling back in time to the very distant past–2010–to release their first album in something like fifteen years–History of Modern. And it is amazing. And then they released another album a couple years later in 2013–English Electric, which is equally amazing.

Hold my breasts, Jesus. Is this for real?

Yes. It is, and OMD’s new material gives veteran synthpop duo Erasure a run for their money–and I am a hardcore Erasure fan.

Consider the extended version of ‘History of Modern (Part I)’:

But it doesn’t end there. OMD’s synthpop genius carries on to their song ‘Sister Marie Says’:

Perhaps their most poignantly beautiful song since their reunion is ‘Stay With Me’, from their 2013 album English Electronic:

Actually, come to think of it, I think ‘Helen of Troy’, from the same album, might be even more stunning:

This last track reminds me of a lot of material being produced by newer bands like College, FM Attack, and Parallels. Just look up those last three bands to see what I mean.

Honestly, I am impressed by OMD. They have made an amazing comeback. They didn’t try to kowtow to current electronic dance trends–otherwise they would have ended up sounding like Lady Gaga–rather, they wrote intelligent material which incorporates modern technology to create delicious, melodic pop anthems. That is what I love about synthpop bands. They evolve.





Cartman Looks Like Steve Strange!

16 07 2013

I’m sure you remember my post on Visage. Well, Steve Strange looks uncannily like Eric Cartman from Episode 3, Season 6 of South Park.

Cartman:

Cartman South Park My Hot Body II

Steve Strange:

Steve Strange IV

Is it just me, or is Cartman channelling early 1980s New Romantic gender-scepticism?





Austra

18 01 2012

I think I may have discovered my new favourite band. That is hard for me to say, since Erasure have occupied the most prominent setting in my crown of musical gems since 1995. That may soon change. Their competitor is Austra, a synthpop/darkwave/indie electronica band from Toronto who just released their debut album, Feel It Break, last year. (Yes, I know, as usual I am late to the game.) However I am not yet ready to give the number one position to Austra, simply because Erasure have produced fourteen studio albums, and I have only heard one by Austra, but if they keep up the amazing work, they very well could earn that place. Besides, a tie between the two bands isn’t entirely out of the question.

OK, so you want to know what the hype is all about, don’t you? It’s about their coherent, well-developed style, their professional-sounding technical wizardry, their eerily fun dance sensibility, lead singer Katie Stelmanis’s chillingly pure, cold voice, their artistically spooky themes, their rich harmonies, their otherworldly melodies. All of these in combination produce a lush, full, satisfying sonic experience. Listening to their debut album, Feel It Break, one imagines opening up a book of occult lore and exploring the hidden mysteries within. I would liken them to a cross between Florence and the Machine, Siouxsie Sioux and the Banshees, and Karin Dreijer of The Knife and Fever Ray. But at least as creepy as Karin Dreijer. Finally, an album that sounds weirdly Scandinavian without getting mired in slow, dissonant, undanceable experimentalism. It’s musically exploratory, thematically fascinating, and fun to dance to.

Check out the video for their single Spellwork, taken from the debut album. In my opinion is encapsulates the overall deliciously spooky theme of the work:

This song gives me goosebumps. One thing that stands out is the strong verse-chorus structure characteristic of pop songs—but it’s all done in such a beautifully strange and ethereal way that it doesn’t sound commercial or formulaic. Stelmanis’s eerily quavering vocals are spot-on, the melody soars like some dark-winged bird over bare tree branches, and those rich harmonies complete the vocal arrangements. And those layers upon layers of tinkling synthesisers just sweep you away into a glittering fairy world of yore. I can’t get enough of the cryptic occult references, either. Lots of Youtube commenters have said that the video is “weird”, but it’s supposed to be. The song is about pagan rituals (or so I think), so obviously the video reflects that. It’s so enticing because it’s so arcane.

Then there is the light, bright, beautiful synthpop gem Lose It. This is probably as pure, pretty, and pristine as synthpop can get, and Austra have distilled the essence of the genre in this song, and yet we haven’t quite heard synthpop done in such a fresh, clever way before. At least I don’t think so. Just have a listen:

Isn’t that just delightful? It makes me pee my pants. And it makes me pregnant. With twins. The most remarkable thing about this song, I think, is the perfect harmony between Stelmanis and the background singers in the chorus. Together, they create this plaintive, crystal-clear, birdlike song of hope and sorrow. It almost sounds like Enya in a strange way, but a cool, synthpoppy Enya. Delish.

OK, on to our last video. Showing their ability to master a range of synthpop sub-genres, Austra reveal their goth goth side in this video for their single Beat and the Pulse, and boy is it sexy. Be forewarned: I don’t do censorship, so this video is not safe for work! (That means it’s NSFW):

So what did ya think?? In my opinion, This is the difference between pornography and erotica. The models are portrayed in a seductive, tasteful manner, and they exude a mysterious power. It’s not crass and exploitative; it’s subtle and stylish. Besides, listen to the pulsating bassline that suddenly creeps into your ears when the beat kicks in. And, again, that rich texture of harmonies fills out the song and sends chills down one’s spine. This is dark, sinister synthpop at its finest.

Speaking of weird Scandinavian-sounding dance music, compare Austra to Karin Dreijer when Dreijer accepted the award for best dance artist on behalf of her band Fever Ray at this Swedish music awards ceremony:

Kooky! And fabulous. Now that we’ve established that both Austra and Fever Ray are cool, creative bands with a statement to make, it’s time to ask the question: which one is weirder? All that matters is that they are weird, and there’s a rhyme and reason to it, even if the typical Beyonce-glamoured American can’t see past his milquetoast Top 40 music collection. Consider this Youtube commenter’s post about the above Fever Ray video: “Its unfortunate most people cannot understand the statement of the absurdity of award shows, come up, make a stupid speech and say thank you within 20 seconds and walk off stage for the next commercial, absolutely meaningless. If viewers can only see the surface level and think ‘Man that lady is weird, whats with the face?’, they need to start digging deeper past the surface [sic]”. So true. So, so true. I cannot improve upon that observation, except to say that the average American isn’t into the musical creativity of artists like Fever Ray and Austra, because they’re only exposed to the commercially successful acts.

Anyway, I haven’t written about a cool band in a while, so when I discovered Austra I just knew I had to say something about them and spread the word. I entreat you to do the same. Spread the word. As you would your seed. No, just kidding. Sort of. I can’t wait to hear their next album! I’m thinking of writing about new releases by a few other bands who make me want to diddle myself, like Glass Candy and Chromatics, so keep visiting this blog. (Oh, and I’m posting another instalment of the fabulous lady-comic Julie Gentron and the Lady League very soon, so look for that too.) So go out and buy Austra’s debut album Feel It Break—make sure it’s the deluxe version—and support one of Canada’s most talented and interesting musical products of recent times. (The album was released by Domino or Paper Bag—can’t remember which—and it’s on iTunes, of course.)





Tomorrow’s World

9 10 2011

I have been waiting for this day for four years, yet somehow it feels like just another release date. I guess I’m showing my age. Erasure have released Tomorrow’s World, named after the British 1980s science documentary series. And I have to say, with the help of Frankmusik, the album is awash in smooth, modern dance sensibility. Well, two-thirds of it, at least. The other third is a little bit more anchored in the soul-gospel balladry which places focus on lead singer Andy Bell’s distinctly bold voice. But, then, his voice soars in the dance tunes, too. The strength of the album is in how Andy’s voice–which sounds particularly strong and stable–glides atop the chic dance grooves.

Consider the track “I Lose Myself”, with its hard, deliberate rhythm and rich, unabashed vocals:

If you ask me, it sounds like a well-polished, modern twist on early New Order. But it hasn’t really been done before; it’s a new kind of fierce dance-pop. (By the way, New Order’s lead singer, Bernard Sumner, is releasing an electronic album soon.)

Now consider the more vulnerable sound of “Be With You”, characterized by an irresistibly loping beat and Andy’s longing, soaring voice:

This is the way ballads should sound: originally conceived to be slow, but re-interpreted as a dance track to inject a throbbing energy which only elevates the soulful vocals.

Then there is “A Whole Lotta Love Run Riot”, the ultimate cynical commentary on the vapidity of British club culture in the 2010s:

This song is like “I Lose Myself” in its intense, driving rhythm, but it is a little bit ironic how it criticizes the banality of modern British dance music while co-opting that same style and creating a much more lush, melodic, tightly-structured, tuneful sound–which is the way dance music should sound anyway.

Finally, we arrive at my favourite track, “Fill Us With Fire”. I like this track in particular because of my spiritual bent. (I believe in something greater than myself, but ultimately what matters is how we treat one another. Indeed, for me, that is the purpose of spirituality.) It is a rumination on the woes of humankind and a plea for rationality and self-reflection. At the same time, it doesn’t sound too didactic. It is truly a treat for the ears and the mind:

Something about this song evokes climbing a ladder. As I listen to the verse, then the bridge, and then, finally, the chorus, it feels as if I am ascending into a higher place. It is one of Erasure’s most divinely contemplative compositions, in my opinion. It is just sublime.

So that is the sound of Erasure circa 2011. The production was done by Frankmusik , a highly talented and emerging electronic dance artist. And we know the name-brand sound ofVince Clarke, a skilled and timeless “tone-smith” who creates the instrumental soundscape of Erasure, not to mention his bandmate Andy Bell, a prominent songwriter and vocalist. I cannot describe to you the amazing talent produced by Mute, which includes artists like Moby and Goldfrapp. Their skils combined, these individuals should make you shit tears of joy. Honestly.