Exploring a tough year…
It’s an inescapable fact that 2020 has proved to be a grim year for many reasons, but chiefly because of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet, despite the gruelling impact of Covid both personally and professionally on so many people, many electronic acts still managed to battle on through.
Obviously the live music scene took the biggest toll, but this was also a year in which more new acts emerged, we saw the return of classic acts and also witnessed some rewarding collaborations. Here, TEC looks back on 12 months of electronic music…
2019 had witnessed the welcome return of electropop duo Northern Kind. In January, TEC chatted to Matt Culpin and Sarah Heeley about their return and plans for the future. Along the way, the perennial topic of soft synths versus analogue came up. “We’ve come from being totally digital, our first album was produced only with software synths to now being totally hardware-based” commented Matt, “I’ve always been a fan of hardware; I just didn’t have space or budget when we started out. Honestly, though, I don’t think it makes a difference to the end piece of music.”
Although he passed back in 2016, the music scene still seemed emptier without the presence of David Bowie. 2020 would have marked his 73rd birthday (and also marks the anniversary of his iconic 1977 album Low). To celebrate Bowie’s extensive musical legacy, we decided to explore some of his compositions that have an electronic element worthy of mention in a special feature. This included classics such as ‘Space Oddity’, ‘Ashes To Ashes’ and his intriguing collaboration with Pet Shop Boys on ‘Hallo Spaceboy’.
TEC had looked at the work of electronic musician Jules Straw previously (under her Pinklogik guise). But she started off 2020 as part of a new collaborative effort with Em Baker of Plike as Wire & Wasteland. Their debut release, Return To The Light, was a collection of songs that we said would appeal to those that like tunes that scribble in the borders between electronic music and trip hop.
March saw TEC cast an eye over the new Pet Shop Boys album Hotspot. Writer Jus Forrest described the album as one that had its “own unique blend alongside a narrative that blurs the lines between the personal, the political and the idealistic.”
Baroque synth-pop due Promenade Cinema returned with Exit Guides, the follow-up album to their stunning 2018 Living Ghosts release. TEC’s review declared it: “an impressive dark pop outing, albeit one that deserves more time and attention than other records might demand.”
Newcastle Upon Tyne’s AXLS delivered a storming debut album under the title of First Contact – a concept album that played with themes of alien invasion. As with any record that toys with lofty ambitions, it always stands or falls based on the quality of the material. Fortunately, AXLS produced a slickly produced album of sharp synth-pop tunes that made First Contact one of the most impressive electronic albums of 2020’s first quarter.
Dicepeople also returned with the Destroyed EP, a collection of darkwave moments that we surmised would appeal to people who like some sleazy synth workouts. Later in the year, they also released Edge of Delirium, a compelling piece of work, at times inducing fear and uncertainty and others a mesmerising atmospheric journey. The EP also had a limited release – and then only available to download between certain hours of the day.
In April, we cast an eye over the stylish analogue synth stylings of Maika Loubté with the vinyl release of her album Closer. Our review nailed its appeal: “Musically, the style of the compositions on the album suggests everything from Pixx to Christine & the Queens at times. It also boasts some fine standout moments, including the dynamic ‘Nobara’, the pop appeal of ‘Prisme’ and the groove-laden ‘Snappp’ which suitably demonstrate Maika’s talent for melody and arrangement.”
TEC’s own Barry Page released his first book, the exhaustively researched a-ha – Down To The Tracks, which charted the Norwegian band’s 40-year musical journey. This included the ambitions of pre-a-ha outfit Bridges, through to the desperate attempts by the fledgling a-ha to establish themselves in the UK and the breakthrough that the iconic ‘Take On Me’ delivered.
During a turbulent time for the music industry, Tim Burgess seems an unlikely herald for bringing people together over the love of albums. Better known for his involvement with rock outfit The Charlatans, Burgess has been carving out a career as a solo artist in recent years. His Listening Parties concept, in which artists and fans discussed albums in real time as they played, was staggeringly successful and including acts of the calibre of OMD, Pulp, The Chemical Brothers and also New Order.
Power, Corruption & Lies was New Order’s classic second album following their 1981 post-Joy Division effort Movement and benefited from the Listening Party treatment. As an album, it leant more heavily into electronic instrumentation, particularly with the introduction of the Emulator 1. Stephen Morris was on hand to tell the story: “‘Your Silent Face’ soon evolved into something beautiful and majestic- we were afraid we might getting too serious, a problem easily solved by the ‘Why don’t you piss off’ line. You’d never catch Kraftwerk swearing.” In its early instrumental incarnations, ‘Your Silent Face’ was apparently “More guitary, more Morricone spaghetti western than Kraftwerk”.
Meanwhile, the Covid-19 crisis essentially took out most of the live performance schedule across the board as venues were forced to shut and acts cancelled tours. The impact of the virus also meant the loss of many in the music industry, including Thomas Dolby/Soft Boys/Thompson Twins bass player Matthew Seligman, Liverpool’s Hambi Haralambous (who our sister site Messages produced an obituary for), The Stranglers keyboard player Dave Greenfield and also iconic composer Harold Budd. In TEC’s own obituary for Budd, we noted that there was something particularly tragic over the loss of such a legendary figure within the electronic music community.
The electronic music community also became a darker place in 2020 when Kraftwerk’s Florian Schneider died. In our obituary, TEC concluded: “As one of electronic music’s pioneers, the loss of Florian Schneider is a huge blow that will be keenly felt by those many musicians inspired by the German band. Kraftwerk’s role in the foundation of modern electronic music cannot be understated – and it’s an influence that still resonates today. Kraftwerk’s legacy endures.”
2020 was also the year we sadly said goodbye to Gabi Delgado of DAF, Andrew Weatherall, Genesis P-Orridge, Andy Gill and Simeon Coxe III of Silver Apples.
By the time that May had rolled around, and despite the onset of the pandemic, things were getting busy on the music scene. TEC showcased a few new acts, including Huguenot, Violent Vickie, Revelever, Agency-V and OVVLS.
Agency-V, in particular, was a collaborative outfit born out of the Covid crisis. A 3-piece that featured Marie Williamson, Lloyd Price and Peter Steer who brought all their various musical abilities to bear on new EP No Divide.
We also looked at the debut album Mercurial from cosmic pop princess Elisabeth Elektra, which our review summed up: “If you like your tunes quirky, yet accessible then this release will deliver on all fronts.”
TEC also chatted to Elektra about her work methods, including making the tough decisions on song choices: “It’s a process I struggle with, I currently have 30 songs I’m finishing and working out which belong together isn’t straightforward.”
Empathy Test returned with the impressive Monsters album. In TEC’s review, we suggested that the album “demonstrates a welcome evolution in Empathy Test’s sound – and some stunning tunes as a result.
Electronic pop duo Spray didn’t disappoint in 2020 either. Their Offerings From The Algorithm release including a keen remix of earlier track ‘Chump (For My Love)’ (which featured in its original guise on their 2019 Failure Is Inevitable album) alongside the kinetic pop of ‘Everybody Dances (To Digital Music)’
Austra offered up the more intimate HiRUDiN album. Our review said it was a release that’s “intensely personal and open, yet throws in some curveballs in its arrangements and flair for engaging melodies. It’s proof that Katie Stelmanis is still a powerful songwriter – and that Austra’s ever-evolving musical journey is not over yet.”
American electronic musician Eric C. Powell delivered the instrumental release Mute, a release which we suggested “works best after successive plays; that talent for electronic layers revealing more subtle colours when revisited.”
Jan Doyle Band’s The Body Balanced EP provided a collection of tunes that employed a theatrical edge and also dipped into darker electronic moods, which was essentially embarking on a journey of imagination that will deliver you to a science fiction landscape.
Meanwhile, A Guide To Social Distancing – the latest Leg Puppy album – delivered a “frenetic fever dream journey which somehow seems to encapsulate Leg Puppy’s desire to not merely point at a culture going through its own ‘Chapel Perilous’, but to actively accompany it through the darkness. As with any period of darkness however, there’s always light at the end.”
Not content with focussing purely on Northern Kind, Matt Culpin also delivered a new Dancing With Ruby release with collaborator Charlie Sanderson. Utopia‘s title track seems at first to have a surprisingly harder edge to it. Meanwhile, companion track ‘This Too Shall Pass’ offers a spoken-word piece inspired by the current Covid-19 crisis. “A poignant reflection of how many of us felt at the beginning of lockdown” suggests DWR. Here, Sanderson’s rallying call has been augmented by an electronic ambience added by Culpin (the original version can be viewed here). As a result, lines such as “Open your heart” and “Be kind” carry an emotive power.
2020 also saw the return of The Rude Awakening who presented bouncy pop offering ‘Squeal!’ The vocal delivery offers up a back and forth dialogue, giving a male/female discussion of intimacy about what their partner desires (“Tell me all your darkest dreams and what they mean to you”).
June saw synth-pop duo Subject:2 (aka Gary Starky and Sandra Tully) offer up new album Love Betrayal Deceit, which TEC’s review stated that it “bounces between perky pop and softer, warmer moments which keeps both the ear and the heart engaged.”
The same month served up the stunning A New Frontier via Social Ambitions, which was one of 2020’s best album releases. As our review summed it up: “A New Frontier is a smartly crafted collection of synth-pop that also manages to weave in some indie pop elements, resulting in some striking tunes for the modern era.”
Meanwhile, French duo Supernaive’s debut album had an appeal to those who like more of an RnB element to their electronic music, but ultimately our review summed up Nekomata as an effective lounge pop outing that offers style and polish.
The summer saw a new album release from Polly Scattergood. In This Moment is a delightful collection of songs that invite the listener to slow down and reflect. It presents a stillness of sorts that resonates long after the album has finished.
Classic electropop outfit Erasure brought a much-needed brightness to a gruelling year with the vibrant synth-pop of new album The Neon. “Erasure’s strengths for producing euphoric, hopeful electronic pop arrives as a suitable panacea” said the TEC review, “the album’s neon-fuelled optimism offering a bright spot on the horizon.”
TEC also cast an eye over emerging electronic pop duo Powderpaint. Their eponymously-titled EP featured six tracks that have percolated from the duo’s diverse range of influences, which includes a heavy lean-in to 80s disco and Hi-NRG.
California-based music producer Darwinmcd teamed up with Shelter’s Mark Bebb for ‘Featherlite’, a release in which our review said: “a smoothly crafted composition featuring understated synth hooks and a compelling vocal turn from Bebb. Lines such as “Every act of kindness was led by me/An exhausting inevitability” take on a bittersweet aspect, delivered with an almost ethereal gloss.”
Elsewhere, Vogon Poetry and Electric City Cowboys teamed up to give us the Electric Passion EP. Vogon Poetry’s ‘Passion’, which opens the EP, is an electro-groove gem dedicated to the drive of the powerful titular emotion (“Passion – no way you can fake it”).
Scanner delivered some ambient moments on An Ascent, evidenced by the title track alongside the likes of ‘Stranice’ and ‘Your Eyes Are The Eyes Of The People’. They offer a haven of sorts in which time is suspended and everyday concerns are shunted off to a corner. An Ascent offers a haunting mood that acknowledges the cultural crisis that inspired it, yet never sinks into anything that could be considered bleak or lacking optimism. Ironically, as Rimbaud himself acknowledges, this album would not have existed at all if it were not for the lockdown procedures that led to its creation.
Platronic, a collaboration between German singer/songwriter Kay Burden and Finnish producer Some-E, gave us ‘Pride’ – a warm slice of electropop with heart. Kay Burden’s vocals have a breathy, evocative quality to them, while the piano-led melodies and arrangement have an earthy, solid foundation.
Seasoned veteran John Foxx returned with new John Foxx And The Maths’ release Howl. It was an album that Jus Forrest stated: “portrays a fitting exposition – effortlessly setting the template for a nostalgic re-take on the aforementioned post-punk-styled, angst-driven guitars that often unleash their discordant energies, and all of which are shaped into something spectacularly individual.”
TEC were also impressed with the arrival of Moodbay, an electropop duo based in the North East. There’s an intriguing range of styles nestling in Moodbay’s catalogue of work, which weaves in electronic instrumentation with more organic elements. It serves up a warmer palette of sounds that calls to mind the likes of Purity Ring and Ooberfuse and certainly embraces the ‘moodpop’ that the duo are aiming for.
New outfit Psykelektric also took us by surprise: “Both imaginative and conceptual, dipping into the vibrant while also managing to hit on the dark” suggested Jus Forrest, “and all with true vintage characteristics, rather than just another modern re-creation. You’re encouraged to hark back to whatever decade takes your fancy, blessed in the knowledge that what you’ll find is an authentic impression and an all-encompassing power of synth tones steeped in nostalgia, and not least, a bit of extra voltage controlled noise, that speeds up the gears – just how we like it.”
2020 also marked the 40th Anniversary of the release of the iconic OMD single ‘Enola Gay’. It was also the year that saw the 75th Anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing. Ooberfuse teamed up with Japanese chiptune artist Hibari for a sobering (and thought-provoking) cover version of the song. Meanwhile, we also looked at the creation and legacy of OMD’s original composition.
Fresh from her work with AXLS, Victoria Owsnett also got to stretch her solo talents. ‘Thrones’ offered up slick synth melodies that slid effortlessly underneath Owsnett’s mesmerising vocals, as TEC’s review concluded. “‘Thrones’ is likely to surprise a few people with its subtly engaging melodic draw – and will also reinforce Victoria Owsnett as a talent to be reckoned with in the future.”
Elsewhere, EmT (aka Ema Walter and Tony Blue) gave us the strident pop of ‘Diva’, a composition with engaging melodic hooks which revolves around the powerful “I’m a 24 hour celebrity” line delivered by Ema Walter with a sting. The whole song drips with an amusing venomous commentary, bolstered by some driving synth strings.
Conflagration, the new album from Perpacity, presented shifting soundscapes that lean towards a melancholic, more introspective side of electronic music.
2020 also brought the re-release of Tenek’s second EP, EP2. Originally released on the Toffeetones label back in 2011, it features four signature tracks from their popular back-catalogue. “In terms of creativity, no stone is left unturned. From experimentation with aesthetic synthesizers, to energetic and stylistic beats” was how reviewer Jus Forrest described it.
There was also a welcome return for She’s Got Claws in the form of new album Doppelgänger. TEC’s review suggested it was “bigger and bolder” than previous releases, also showing off some tracks that were produced by OMD’s Andy McCluskey. We concluded: “a stunning album that’s engineered for peak synth-pop perfection”.
Violent Vickie served up the Division album, which was a perfect intro into her synth-riot world. This included the brooding tones of the gothic ‘Serotonin’, which is easily one of Division’s finest moments. The haunting choral effects of the synths here, contrasted with dark electronics and effects-laden dirty guitar deliver a damaged hymnal.
One of the legendary outfits from the US synth-pop scene, Freezepop released the stunning Fantasizer album. A release which our review summed up: “an impressive body of work which, arguably, is Freezepop’s finest album to date. The more mature approach to penning songs seems natural and doesn’t rob the band of their ability to deliver witty lines – or indeed their ability to touch the heart.”
In October, the return of Battery Operated Orchestra saw the electronic duo going big with their fourth studio album release. Yesterday Tomorrow and You boasts songs that dart around themes of escape, memory, disappearing places, ideological subversion and glam rock across 16 tracks of electronic goodness on an album billed as “a survival handbook for the future in four chapters”. This included the playful glam electro-rock of ‘Lady Megawatt’, a wonderfully euphoric workout which invites you to slip your dancing shoes on.
The same month, Groovebox Messiah Sessions from The Stir Fry Pop Star was an album that our review said would find a home “with those that appreciate the more dancier corners of the electronic music scene, particularly of the classic era.”
Electropop outfit Avec Sans released ‘Altitude’ – a bold pop outing that our review said “will definitely warm the heart (and get the feet moving).”
Liotia offered up an intriguing style that marries the ethereal vocals of Abigail Hubbard with the subtle soundscapes and beats of producer/engineer Matthew Smyth. It’s a style that included compositions such as the earthy ‘Blackout’ and the airy mesmerising melodies of ‘So Close’. Meanwhile, ‘Be Here (Always)’ serves as a perfect introduction into the dreampop world of Liotia, offering up an intriguing fusion of electronica and trip hop that will brighten your day.
2020 also saw the 40th Anniversary of Ultravox’s Vienna album. Produced by the legendary German producer Conny Plank (Neu!, Kraftwerk), it reached No.3 in the UK album chart and the top ten in Australia, New Zealand and several European countries. Reviewing the special anniversary release, Jus Forrest concluded: “Evidently, Ultravox were also experimental in utilising the natural characteristics of the recording environment, all of which makes for very natural sounding atmospherics – more realistic rather than artificial or forced. I’ve always said no one else sounds like Ultravox, and this remains true.”
Another welcome return for 2020 was a new album from Annie. Dark Hearts presented a collection of songs combining wistful melancholia with some stylishly crafted melodies. At times evocative and intimate; others, euphoric and inspired, Darks Hearts marks a stunning accomplishment in the Norwegian singer/songwriter’s already impressive catalogue.
Meanwhile, Vogon Poetry kept busy in 2020 by also delivering new studio album Deep Thought. The album showcased the well-crafted effective synth-pop that you would expect from Vogon Poetry, but also tinged with a more mature approach to composition that shows a band moving forward.
Celebrating the 5th anniversary of 2015’s highly acclaimed Smoke and Mirrors album, Tenek opted to release an all-instrumental version of the original record. Pete Steer also came back in his Agency-V role when the collaborative outfit released a remix EP. It’s always fun when you get other people involved in some music projects, which led to remixes from Andy Gray, Nude Sound System, Baba Vanga, Inertia, Psykelektric and Tin Gun.
Having made a big impact with their 2018 album Ouseburn, Newcastle outfit Twist Helix returned with their new studio album Machinery. ‘Louder’ offered a euphoric catharsis of the frustration singer Bea Garcia felt with the music industry.“The ingrained gender imbalance at festivals, the absence of female artists at industry events, and my exasperation at feeling trapped between being either ignored or made voiceless.”
Dealing with themes of exploitation (“Chews you up, spits you out/He’s a vulture”), ‘Vultures’ is a magnificently brash electropop banger that carries its message across its relentless, thumping synth-pop drive. The band also don’t mince words on what that message is: “From our point of view the music industry exists to extract works from creatives whilst divesting them of a sense of their worth and their feeling of agency.”
Brutalist Architecture in the Sun returned with the The Sadness Between Cities, the follow up to 2019’s impressive Monochrome Beach. The album boasted the dynamic rhythms of ‘Goodbye’ with its moody synths and Cye Thomas delivering a powerful angsty narrative. Meanwhile, ‘City Long Gone’ (described as “4AD meets Yazoo” by the band) was one of its finest moments.
One of 2020’s sleeper albums was Fabrefactions, an oddly alluring collection of songs by Bearcraft, a Bristol-based musical collective led by Dicky Moore. It boasted the folktronica of ‘Outside in the Morning Snow’, the straight-up club-orientated electropop banger that was ‘Honey’ and the baroque qualities of ‘Where The Sun Sets’, which sounded like some lost Austra song.
October this year saw B-Movie return with ‘Promenade’, a stylish slice of modern pop that marries an angsty lyric to some sharp guitar and synth work. The Rude Awakening were also on hand to serve up some choice remixes of the track.
Northern Kind released their new EP Düh which featured the timely ‘What’s Going On’, a slice of commentary on the pandemic that offered a restrained dynamism. The EP also included an inspired cover version of The Weeknd’s ‘Blinding Lights’, which retains the euphoric electropop of the original, but given a stylish touch by Sarah Heely’s vocal turn.
The winter months also didn’t see a slow down for emerging acts. SCALA is an electronic pop project via Frankfurt-based producer and songwriter Peter Johansson. Featuring vocals from Chiara Tahnee, the new outfit’s first 5-track EP:01 featured songs that have a distinctly retro feel to them, but which keep the melodies crisp and modern at the same time.
On that note, we bid farewell to 2020, but look forward to 2021 when we can (hopefully) begin to put Covid behind us and get live music back up and running. Stick around with The Electricity Club as we bring you more news, reviews and interviews in the year ahead!
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