One of the pleasant surprises to land this year was the long-awaited album from 3-piece electronic outfit Quieter Than Spiders. Signs Of Life has been in development for several years since some initial tracks were first unveiled around 2014.
There’s an air of mystery surrounding Quieter Than Spiders in much the same way that Girl One And The Grease Guns hide behind a narrative, allowing their music to speak for them. Quieter Than Spiders are described as a Shanghai-based synth-pop outfit consisting of Leon Zhang, Yifan Zhang and Yao Zhang.
Signs Of Life, meanwhile, arrives care of German label Anna Logue Records, previously responsible for the likes of the excellent Twins Natalia and the (other) Wirral-based synth-pop group The Games (see TEC feature previously).
Although the earlier tracks provided a glimpse of the sound that Quieter Than Spiders offered, this album gives the Shanghai band a broader canvas to work on. Describing their music, Quieter Than Spiders member Yao commented “We like many types of music but we especially like early electronic music. The experimental nature of it and the subtle imperfections often give the music a haunting atmosphere – it somehow sounds both modern and timelessly old at the same time.”
It’s an apt description for the material on Signs Of Life, much of which combines a classic approach to synth-pop composition with an eerily evocative quality. The vocals often have washes of effects laid over them to give a whispery, ghostly feel. Hidden among the tracks of the album are also a few interlude tracks, which the group describe as “brief dream sequences”. These tracks, which have intriguing titles such as ‘Disorientation’, ‘Silent Centre’ and ‘Zara In The Stars’, offer mood moments in several flavours.
The album opens with ‘Arcade Eighty-Five’, an instrumental number with strobing synth effects and a video game aesthetic. ‘No Illusion’, with its simple percussive drive and treated vocals and clipped beats, has a raw electro appeal with some wistful lyrical musings (“Electric sound-waves that pulse through our sleep …and our dreams”). Elsewhere, there’s hints of Kraftwerk lurking on ‘Night Drive’ with some nice synth hooks and some beefy bass underpinning it all.
Meanwhile, ‘The Land Of Lost Content’ offers up one of the album’s best moments. Taking lyrical inspiration from the work of poet AE Houseman, its a haunting electronic reverie (“A distant field I used to know/A place I’ve been but cannot go”) with big slabs of synths that deliver a real emotional punch. It’s a masterpiece of mood and arrangement which keeps things simple, yet smart.
That pastoral theme is also carried over to the composition ‘Fessenden Grove’, with its plaintive piano melodies contrasting with snippets of sampled dialogue.
There’s a more melancholy aspect to ‘Hibakusha’ with its warm synths and dreamlike atmosphere. A minimal percussion allows those sweeping soundscapes to dominate on a composition that dwells on darker themes (Hibakusha is a Japanese term which refers to people affected by bombing and which is generally used to refer to people caught by the 1945 atomic strikes in Hiroshima and Nagasaki). At the same time, there’s that sense of gazing at distant sights with a sense of loss (“I watch the planes outside and they look so far away”).
‘Komarov’ offers up a cosmic instrumental workout while interlude track ‘Brave New World’ has a sweeping feel to it that recalls elements of Jean-Michel Jarre or Vangelis.
The album’s title track, meanwhile, drops back into that sense of vulnerability (“In your half-remembered dreams/Do you ever think of me?”) and regret. That sense of longing is reflected in the melancholic synth work which offers up a vision of beautiful desolation.
Signs Of Life’s closing track (which is another interlude moment) ‘Zara In The Stars’ offers a stately hymnal which provides a moment of fragile beauty. A fitting way to bookend this intriguing collection of songs.
The album was a self-produced affair by Quieter Than Spiders and was mastered in Germany by Stefan Bornhorst (aka The Silicon Scientist). As a result, the production is clean and polished and every track pops off the album with a slick touch.
If you like your synth-pop to be cultivated with a deft hand for melancholia and a flair for heartfelt lyrical musings, then Signs Of Life will likely be a suitable album to investigate.