Darkwave ghosts haunt the aisles…
Emerging from a city with its own legendary musical history, Sheffield duo Promenade Cinema have delivered a debut album that keeps that legacy very much alive. Best known for giving the world the likes of The Human League, Heaven 17 and Cabaret Voltaire, Sheffield has again brought forth another electronic act that manage to stand on their own – and have the tunes to prove it.
Describing their sound as ‘Cinedramatic Synthpop’, Dorian Cramm and Emma Barson have rapidly chalked up critical appraisal for their darkwave delights. As a niche, the darkwave end of the synthpop spectrum has cultivated some classic bands of the past, although there’s always a danger that treading the same ground is going to result in a stale, by-the-numbers synth act. But Living Ghosts is a much subtler beast that shows a band evolving and makes Promenade Cinema’s work a likely candidate for album of the year.
Formerly part of Berlyn Trilogy, Dorian Cramm has since joined forces with Emma Barson to establish in this new venture which serves as a reminder of the talent that the northern electronic scene has to offer. Acts such as She’s Got Claws, Future Perfect, Twist Helix and the aforementioned Berlyn Trilogy all represent a healthy synthpop environment – and one in which Promenade Cinema slot into quite neatly.
Living Ghosts presents a concise collection of the duo’s work, wrapped up in an album that traces a distinct arc over the course of 10 tracks. Interestingly, opening track ‘As The World Stops Revolving’ doesn’t quite blow your socks off. It’s a serviceable slice of synthpop, but not quite on par with the rest of the album’s content. Instead, ‘Spotlight’ is where the album starts showing its true power. It’s a dense, layered composition with a flourish for treating vocals in intriguing layered ways. A pulse-driven composition that’s contrasted with the slightly melancholy piano elements.
The gothic charms of ‘Polaroid Stranger’ keeps things on track. Emma Barson’s vocals have a haunting quality to them and they work in tandem with the song’s spacey rhythms and thumping percussive drive.
But one of Living Ghost’s finest moments is served up in the form of ‘A Chemical Haunting’. The interplay between Cramm and Barson’s vocals provide a nice counterplay against each other, while the lyrics toy with themes of memories and the idea of someone leaving an impression that’s tough to shake (“You’re like a chemical haunting/a ghost inside my veins”). As with the rest of the material on the album, there’s an engaging use of wordplay and rhythms, with phrases such as “Slow motion electrocution” having a surprisingly powerful effect.
The stark tonal moods of ‘Stock Image Model’ calls to mind the German school of synthpop, although to these ears it’s reminiscent of acts such as Twins Natalia – another outfit that crafted interesting compositions from contrasting vocals and wordplay.
There’s a more bombastic approach on ‘Cassette Conversations’, a slow-burning panoramic tune with its own particular power. Elsewhere, ‘The Quiet Silently Wait’ suggests elements of Propaganda in the mix. Its 2-speed electropop elements lending a quirky frisson to the track.
Promenade Cinema opt for some synth noir touches on ‘Softly, The Sinister Hold’, its lyrical compositions calling to mind the cryptic musings of Vile Electrodes as the dreamlike fugue slowly unfolds.
There’s a step into more cinematic styles for ‘Credits’, not only for its allusions to film, but there’s a widescreen element at play here which renders the track like some lost Blade Runner composition. A slow tumbling arpeggio stalks a melancholic landscape (“A cinematic showcase/in photographic embrace”) and its baroque beats recall the ethereal moods of This Mortal Coil at times.
Closing the album out, the self-referencing track ‘Norway’ conjures visions of a storm-lashed ship sailing over turbulent grey seas. Subtle electronic elements bring to mind the classical-leaning synthpop of Ultravox at moments, but the end result is firmly planted in the world of contemporary electropop.
Living Ghosts is, at its heart, both a fine collection of songs , as well as a shrewdly sequenced album. The solid production by Steve Whitfield gives the album a tightly polished veneer, bustling with carefully layered elements whose broad sound is indeed deserving of the tag ‘Cinedramatic Synthpop’.
Living Ghosts is out now.
Promenade Cinema are appearing at Infest this August. Details via https://infestuk.com
Publications that have featured his contributions include Electronic Sound, Metro, Japan Update Weekly, J-Pop Go, Wavegirl and OMD Messages.