All day electropop…
One of the fixed points on the gig-going calendar is, of course, the Synthetic City Electronic Music Festival. It’s multi-line-up of bands and artists from both the UK and abroad has offered an opportunity for established acts and new, emerging ones to be showcased at London’s Water Rats venue.
The 2019 event was once again masterminded by Johnny Normal, an electronic music artist in his own right and also a well-known radio host (and also leading his new musical project The Rude Awakening).
With nine acts taking their turn to grace the stage, the event offered London audiences an opportunity to catch some bands that they may not have been able to see otherwise. This included Newcastle’s euphoric pop outfit Twist Helix and the dark electro band Heliophile from The Netherlands.
At the same time, Synthetic City saw a return of Tenedle who had previously guested at the 2018 event. Plus, the aforementioned The Rude Awakening featuring Bridget Gray performed tracks from their debut album Kaleidoscope.
Kicking the event off, The Distant Minds are a new electronic music duo consisting of the cryptically named Alan B on music duties and Darren B on vocal duties. There’s a big, bold sound to the duo’s work with a few nods to the classic synth-pop era (one track has a distinct ‘Fade To Gray’ flavour to it).
Alan B offers up some witty commentary while on keyboard duties while Darren B delivers vocals that often have a strong, confident whack to them. “I’ve forgotten what the next track is!” suggests Alan with a grin before launching into ‘Strangers In The Same Hell’, a weighty Mode-esque outing with an airy vocal component. Meanwhile, ‘Sink Or Swim’ shows some tight EDM grooves and the duo even chuck in a thumping cover of ‘West End Girls’ for good measure.
Closing the set, The Distant Minds serve up ‘Until The Lights Go Out’, a spacey dance composition with some effective vocal melodies. The tune also comes with an impromptu support from Bridget Gray in the audience adding in some spirited countdown gestures on her fingers for the “5,4,3,2,1” part of the chorus.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of their performance was the unassuming presence of Cye Thomas, whose unearthly vocals are one of Monochrome Beach’s highlights. With a disarming reserved quality pre-performance, Thomas really steps into the part once he hits the stage.
The frenetic tones of ‘Humanise’ provides a suitably bold opener with Dean Clarke standing front and centre whacking electronic percussion with some force. Meanwhile, Thomas prowls the stage with wiry energy.
The sleazy ‘Peep Show’ and the airy beauty of ‘Broken Machines’ excel while evocative Super 8 footage spools out scenes of lost childhoods behind the pair. Later, there’s a more bass pop quality on ‘Love & Science’, culled from their earlier Concrete Pop album (which originally featured a vocal turn from Paul Humphries on record).
The crunchy quality of ‘Something New’ is also a fine moment, while Brutalist Architecture in the Sun also use their appearance to trial new experimental tracks, such as the clipped beats of ‘Goodbye’.
Originally hailing from Italy, songwriter, producer, performer and writer, Dimitri Niccolai now lives and works in Holland under the guise of Tenedle. He previously performed at Synthetic City back in 2018 and returns today to showcase material from his album Traumsender (see The Electricity Club’s review previously).
The soft rhythms of ‘Revival’ gets things started in fine style while Dimi does his best to get the audience involved. ‘Stranger In My Own Tongue’ certainly helps, its layered melodies given a new dynamic in a live setting. The song’s themes of isolation, reflection and routines seem less hard when measured against the song’s breezy pop flourishes.
Meanwhile, ‘Sentenced To Death’ takes on a more spacy, electronic quality. Niccolai cradles the mic stand delivering a heartfelt vocal. The curious lyrics muse on climate change and the fleetness of life (“For all we create and destroy/We are sentenced to death”).
Elsewhere, ‘Sparkle’, has a bubbling relentless synth rhythm with some fine melodic breaks.
“This is a present to myself” announces Niccolai as he launches into a fairly robust cover version of ‘Personal Jesus’ as a closer.
In 2018, Newcastle’s Twist Helix released the phenomenal album Ouseburn, a collection of songs that explored the loss of community and urban renewal. Their brand of euphoric synth-pop translates effectively in a live environment as attendees at Synthetic City witnessed.
Led by Bea Garcia, Twist Helix showcased a selection of tracks from the Ouseburn album augmented by James Walker’s muscular drumming and Matthew Barron’s urgent bass. In fact, outside of the songs, it’s bass player Barron who has his own dramas when an urgent call goes out for gaffer tape to hold his guitar strap on (another crisis averted by the sterling work of Bridget Gray).
Twist Helix’s set is a powerful showcase which includes an epic ‘Newcastle’, the shimmering tones of ‘Little Buildings’ and the euphoric title track ‘Ouseburn’.
The insistent pop of ‘Ove Arup’ serves up one of the finest moments from the Ouseburn album. Meanwhile, as the performance continues, Walker’s intense drumming involves such a powerful physical force that the sound engineer has to rescue the drum kit from wandering off the stage…
The tumbling percussion of ‘The Artists’ serves up some fine moments itself, with Garcia and Barron duelling it out at one point. While the engaging synth rhythms of ‘Pulse’ demonstrates just how powerful Garcia’s vocals can be.
Previously, the pop duo of Ooberfuse had appeared on The Electricity Club’s radar via the engaging melodies of ‘On My Knees’. Hal St John and Cherrie Anderson craft tunes using a sampling of different styles to suit a variety of moods.
There’s a certain fragile pop appeal to Ooberfuse. Cherrie Anderson’s light, yet powerful, vocals are contrasted by Hal St John’s raw guitar elements. The London-based outfit have described their music as “audio footprints left behind by people impelled towards invisible things”.
As a band, Ooberfuse are also keen to spotlight social justice issues, as evidenced in ’27 Million’, which was written as an observation on the anti-human trafficking movement. Cherrie’s vocals have a light yet powerful push here, while Hal also lends intermittent rap elements. All of this focuses on the song’s message which is essentially “Be a voice”.
Elsewhere, ‘Call my Name’ (which is due for release in the near future) has a ‘Stand By Me’ vibe to it. It’s a breezy pop outing with a sense of charm that’s augmented by some fine harmonic vocals from the duo. ‘Vanish The Night’ offers more of a groove to the duo’s material, while ‘One Reality’ has a strident quality at work.
New single ‘Bitter End’ (which coincidently sees its release the same day as Synthetic City) offers one of the duo’s best moments. A stark electronic rhythm builds into a bittersweet pop tune which revolves around Cherrie’s plaintive vocal (“I will fight you to the bitter end”).
Previously, at the Synthetic City Reloaded event, Gary Starky had graced the stage with Robert Marlow to provide one of the event’s highlights. But outside of his work with Marlow. Gary has also revitalised Subject:2, the musical endeavour that the musician had originally formed with singer Sandra Tully.
An electronic act with a genuine Basildon heritage, Subject: 2 shows a strong influence from that distinctive Vince Clarke era, with nods to the likes of Yazoo and Erasure. There’s certainly an energetic heft to Subject: 2’s material which is keen to put the emphasis on pop. Tracks such as ‘Run Away’ are perfect examples of that pure electropop approach with its bass synth foundations, clean melodic touches and Starky’s bittersweet vocals. Equally, ‘Life’ has a thumping club vibe to it with some crunchy synth flourishes.
Among the energetic pop however is something of a complete change in style and approach. With a strange swampy rhythm to it, it takes a while to catch on that this is actually a version of ‘70s disco outing ‘Feels Like I’m In Love’ (the song that put Scottish legend Kelly Marie on the map). Its slow burning delivery lends a fresh spin to a pop classic, affirming that the best cover versions are always those that make an effort to challenge convention.
Subject:2 also throw a nod to Hi-NRG at times, as on the kinetic ‘Rubber Made’ (which also features a zippy rap segment by Starky). The duo also deliver a new song in their set, “It’s a bit saucy” suggests Tully as they break into ‘Blue Door’, a more funky synth workout.
Throwing out a dedication to Bridget Gray (swiftly becoming every act’s favourite person!) ‘The Day You Cried’ offers an opportunity for Tully to demonstrate how powerful her vocal chops are. It’s a slower outing than much of Subject:2’s setlist, but has a restrained power that’s matched by Tully’s earnest lyrical delivery (“Life throws you a curveball”).
Next up, Swedish combo The Livelong June offer up a grittier selection of songs that touch on influences that include Joy Division, Mesh, Placebo, Editors and The Cure. They weave together synth work with guitar and live drum elements that lend the performance a definite post-punk quality.
Benny Gustavsson makes a striking presence on stage with a raw, primal quality to his vocal delivery. Meanwhile, Marcus Rejnevik takes care of synth duties, putting his classic ARP Odyssey through its paces.
‘(You Put Me In) Robot Mode’, in particular, has a rapid percussive delivery and an attitude-laden vocal care of Gustavsson (“The way you speak, what you demand/It makes me shut my system down”). There’s also room for a robust cover of Pete Shelley’s ‘Homosapien’ thrown in for good measure.
Synthetic City host Johnny Normal also uses the event to showcase his own musical endeavours, which in recent times consists of The Rude Awakening. Designed as a vehicle for Normal to explore songs that deal with themes of relationships, fantasies, emotions and fears, the musical project also combines the vocal talents of the aforementioned Bridget Gray.
With a set that leans heavily on their debut album Kaleidoscope (see TEC review previously), The Rude Awakening kick off their set with the brash tones of ‘Nothing Take Your Pride’.
Clad in their signature all-white outfits, the duo power through a sensual ‘Emerald Dancer’, the clipped beats of ‘Star’ and the OMD-esque ‘FWFA’.
Of course, the set also includes the chugging rhythms of ‘Fuck Puppet’, a brash electropop workout that sticks to its premise as “an unashamedly blunt modern expression of love and lust between two people who explore their emotions and needs and share a fascinating and intimate relationship.”
The set also makes room for more reflective moments, particularly on the charming ‘Butterflies’ – a number that really shows how accomplished Gray is as a vocalist.
Netherlands outfit Heliophile took us by surprise back in 2017 on the strength of their album Permeate (see TEC review). A synth-pop project masterminded by Gijs van Ouwerkerk (who also performs in dark electro outfit Schwarzblut), Heliophile swing to the darker end of the synth-pop spectrum.
For their live outing here (augmented by live team Maarten and Bernard) they draw on Permeate heavily but also pull up tracks from earlier work, such as their 2013 debut EP Nebula.
As part of their set, they drop in the punchy electropop workout of new track ‘Melding Of The Minds’. It’s a perfect example of Heliophile’s talent for tight melodic tunes as well as van Ouwerkerk’s empathic vocal delivery.
‘Fall Over’ is delivered with a particularly wistful power and some engaging lyrics (“This callous heart’s no giveaway/You gotta make me fall over, fall over”).
But it’s the likes of ‘Towers So Tall’ that really show Heliophile at their best. Smart melodies coupled with a driving rhythm matched with some sadly relevant cultural commentary (“Classes divided, society eroding”).
‘Sackcloth Saints’, meanwhile, leans more heavily into the European school of synth (and at times suggests an electropop-heavy interpretation of the Dr Who theme). They also drop in a spirited interpretation of Bowie’s ‘Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)’ to keep things different.
With Heliophile departing the stage, this latest chapter of the Synthetic City story comes to an end. Outside of the acts gracing the stage, DJ Rob Harvey once again filled in between the performances with a sterling selection of cuts both classic and contemporary.
Synthetic City remains as an important part of the electronic music calendar with a history for not only platforming established acts, but also providing an opportunity for newer artists to get exposure.
Johnny Normal and the team have tirelessly pursed this dedication to electronic music, which has resulted in audiences discovering some amazing talents not only from the UK scene, but also from across Europe. For some acts struggling to achieve recognition, this remains a vital and valuable service.
All photos by Marvellous Gig Photography except for Ooberfuse pic by Paul Browne.
Publications that have featured his contributions include Electronic Sound, Metro, Japan Update Weekly, J-Pop Go, Wavegirl and OMD Messages.