“How we lost reality…”
It’s often tricky to navigate through the many grassroots synth outfits emerging in recent times. But on occasion, some bands just seem to grab your attention by serving up sharply crafted songs or by having some unusual approach to how their music is presented. Or sometimes even both.
Enter AXLS, an electronic trio hailing from Newcastle Upon Tyne who formed in 2018. The outfit have emerged from the same background that gave us the stunning Twist Helix, although in terms of style the two bands couldn’t be more diverse. Consisting of Victoria Ownsett (vocals), Chris Simmons (synths) and Conrad McQueen (bass), AXLS have crafted a sound that bounces between bombastic pop and a lighter, ethereal vibe.
Meanwhile, their debut release First Contact plumps for a concept album approach, which is certainly an intriguingly different direction than a lot of their contemporaries. The concept album has, traditionally, been the purview of prog outfits for several decades (TEC recommends Dave Greenslade’s 1979 opus The Pentateuch of the Cosmogony, if that thing floats your boat) but also has an appeal to modern artists, such as Grimes who has cited latest release Miss Anthropocene as a climate changed-inspired concept album.
Weaving a science fiction narrative to an electronic album seems like a bold strategy (see also Vogon Poetry, who have made it an essential part of their DNA), although AXLS seem to be drawing inspiration from the best with hints of John Carpenter popping up here and there.
The themes of First Contact delve into the story of Earth’s first encounter with an extraterrestrial race. “The newcomers enslave humanity with their addictive, immersive virtual reality” suggest AXLS, “Only Alias, a young girl, has the power to resist and lead the fight back.” The concept seems to have been inspired by a continuing reliance on our own virtual worlds and an addiction to social media in general.
On that basis, you have a little social commentary and a sci-fi narrative into the bargain. But the whole thing stands or falls on the quality of the music itself, where many an ambitious undertaking can fall somewhat short of its lofty goals. Fortunately, the combined talents of AXLS have produced a slickly produced album of sharp synth-pop tunes that makes First Contact one of the most impressive electronic albums of 2020’s first quarter.
AXLS cite influences from classic electronic acts such as Kraftwerk and The Human League, as well as throwing a nod towards contemporary acts like Chvrches. But their music certainly has more of a lean-in to the modern era than keeping it retro (that said, there’s a touch of synthwave at work on the track ‘Battle Song’). Keen ears will also detect a hint of Canadian duo Electric Youth lurking in the polished synth tones of the album, but with perhaps a harder and more immediate sound at work.
First Contact certainly boats some fine moments, including the celestial pop of ‘Alone’. Here, Ownsett’s ethereal vocals drift through a very grounded foundation of Conrad McQueen’s brooding bass lines and Chris Simmons’ synth melodies.
There’s a tighter percussive groove threaded through the sturdy ‘Snowblind’, which shows off some big cinematic synth licks. “I can see a better world for you and me” offers Ownsett against a descending electronic riff.
Meanwhile, ‘Integration’ steps the groove up a notch; a dreamy swirl of beats and haunting vocal refrains. Hidden away in that pop appeal is a more sinister turn in the narrative as humanity succumbs to a virtual reality prison. That disturbing turn of events is reflected in one of the album’s finest moments, the wistful ‘Heaven’ which sounds like a merging of Electric Youth alongside some New Order-esque bass. It’s a euphoric reverie, which hints at the dangers of addiction buoyed by lyrical refrains such as “When they said come onboard I was sceptical/If only I knew what was in store” which makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
The second half of the album gives us the crunchy synth melodies of ‘ICBM’ balanced with some quick-fire vocal delivery from Ownsett. There’s an insistent rhythm at work here that gets your feet moving, which matches the narrative mood of rebellion and striking back. That particular vibe is carried over for the advent of the story’s hero on ‘Alias’, which presents a sharply conceived slice of euphoric synth-pop brimming with attitude.
The overall result is a solid collection of tunes which, for a first album outing, is quite impressive. AXLS are hardly stopping there, however, with plans for some “dark, poppy singles” in the near future. The band are also exploring video game frontiers with First Contact: The Game, a forthcoming free-to-play game which takes inspiration from the classic retro era of video games.
First Contact is out now.
AXLS perform with Parralox and Northern Kind at Factory Manchester Friday 6th March 2020. More details: https://www.facebook.com/events/422647311745758/