Stormy synth-pop adventures…

After a turbulent period of cancelled gigs, postponements and a lockdown which effectively wiped out the live music scene, tonight’s entertainment came under threat from a different issue. Storm Eunice was busy depositing trampolines and garden furniture across the UK – and also disrupting trains and travel. So, tonight’s instalment of New Cross Dark was looking uncertain.

As it turned out, none of the acts performing tonight had suffered any real strategic problems in getting to the venue in South London. That would have come as a relief to the promoters who had inadvertently spun up this concept in the time of COVID and could do without other dramas getting in the way.

New Cross Dark is billed as “South London’s new home of synthpop, darkwave and post-punk gigs and club nights” presented by Lost Paradise Promotions and New Cross Live. Launching such an initiative in uncertain times is certainly a brave move, but their lineups suggest a shrewdly observed selection of acts that balance new talent with established outfits. Promenade Cinema were returning for tonight’s show having generally been frustrated by the pandemic to tour their last album, 2020’s Exit Guides (and an unfortunate last-minute cancellation of their previous New Cross Dark appearance). Joining them was dark pop duo Black Nail Cabaret and new solo act Bekimachine.

Kicking off tonight’s adventures, solo act Bekimachine put together an intriguing blend of electronics and flute with a dash of video game music influences. Among the songs, ‘Into The Dark’ offered up a punchy quality contrasted by an airy vocal.

‘Colours’, meanwhile, has a buzzy synth feel mixed up with a plaintive piano melody. It’s a slower affair picked out with a spritely flute melody, but still has a charm to it. At the same time, there’s a darker aspect lurking in the lyrics (“I’m underneath the storm in the dark/The time has come to leave this world behind”). Equally, an older composition in the shape of ‘Ionheart’ bounces between more reflective musings and a harder, Soft Cell-style synth approach.

The evening also sees the unveiling of a brand-new song in the form of ‘Ethereal’ taken from her forthcoming debut album. It makes for an interesting mix of beats with a gossamer vocal (“I was lost until I met you”). There’s an off-kilter mood at work here with some brassy low bass synth elements. Bekimachine’s set closes with the spacey electropop of ‘Crescent’ and the general consensus amongst tonight’s audience is favourable.

Meanwhile, between sets Matt Hart does a bang-up job in slotting in suitable tunes. So much so, that people are frequently stopping mid-conversation because “I have to listen to this one…”

Tonight marks Promenade Cinema’s second attempt to perform at New Cross Dark, having previously cancelled due to illness. Emma Barson & Dorian Cramm’s gothic electropop has been steadily building a fanbase, particularly on the back of their stunning 2018 album Living Ghosts (see TEC review previously). Their knack for cinematic soundscapes has certainly made its mark in recent years. Plus, they’ve boosted their appeal through engaging live shows that showcase the songs perfectly, while also giving them a dramatic spin.

Prior to the performance, Emma and Dorian had expressed nerves due to the lengthy gaps between live performances (another casualty of the COVID crisis). The duo couldn’t tour the Exit Guides album (see review) as planned, so they’re also in catchup mode.

Despite the stage nerves, Promenade Cinema deliver when they hit the stage. The sweeping majesty of ‘Arch House’ sounds bold and strong and Dorian is clearly enjoying himself on synth duties, adding in some theatrical flourishes to his performance. Meanwhile, Emma is more measured in her stage presence while her vocals have a real belt to them giving lines like “You can’t dream if you don’t sleep” some serious emotional strength.

“So good to be back in London..” offers Emma during a brief respite between songs on a stage that’s suitably dark, adding a cryptic quality to the performance. ‘Cold Fashion’ comes across as a dynamic slice of synth-pop that features a weighty vocal. Meanwhile, the gothic glory that’s ‘She’s An Art’ sounds bigger and bolder, leading to Dorian rolling up his sleeves to really get stuck in.

Promenade Cinema’s performance also includes some bonus songs in the shape of two new compositions. This includes ‘On Video’, which is a perkier electropop outing than you would expect from the darkpop duo. Meanwhile, ‘Spellbound’ is a stunning number that features some enthralling synth melodies matched by a dramatic vocal delivery from Emma.

Headlining tonight is an outfit that pull from the darker end of the electronic music barometer. Black Nail Cabaret hail from Hungary, an electro-noir duo consisting of Emese Arvai-Illes and Krisztian Arvai who have been active since 2008.

It’s often tough for some acts to master the presentation of their songs in a live environment, but to their credit Black Nail Cabaret throw in a theatrical element to their shows that centres around the subtle yet elaborate outfits of singer Emese Arvai-Illes (while the video projections also enhance the visual aspect of the show). Clad in a figure-hugging black outfit and with her face hidden by a mask, it’s a suitable visual image bolstered by the darker, brooding numbers that the duo serve up.

Certainly, Emese knows how to command a stage – and it doesn’t hurt to have an audience that are thoroughly engaged with the performance. The songs gravitate between expansive, percussive compositions and more angular, at times more metallic approaches to electronic music. Meanwhile, Emese’s vocal talents have a mesmerising draw to them, often with a sinister, disarming quality to them.

One of Black Nail Cabaret’s best numbers of the evening is the rhythmic angst of ‘No Gold’. There’s a thumping, swampy quality to this outing that’s contrasted by the soft yet strident vocal delivery.

Another solid moment is the angsty electropop of ‘Maelstrom’, guided by Emese’s mantra of “I need to simple down my life”. The composition’s peppering of subtle synth effects adding some icing to this cabaret cake.

During the performance, Emese discards the mask and gloves while also pausing to address the audience: “4 years since we were here in London…” (presumably the Synth City performance from 2017). Towards the end, there’s also a strangely evocative number in the shape of ‘Unrequited Love’ taken from the duo’s 2018 album Pseudopop (recently reissued in a remastered form). It’s a perfect combination of buzzing electronica and a dreamlike vocal from Emese.

The audience certainly features a contingent of Black Nail Cabaret fans, so enthusiastic calls for an encore are reciprocated by the duo returning to the stage.

All things considered, with the threats of storms looming over the event, this episode of New Cross Dark served up a sizeable audience with some great acts on stage. Slot them into your calendar for the next instalment.