Global electronic acts descend on London for this packed synthpop extravaganza…
Among the many electronic music events of the year, the Synthetic City Electronic Music Festival was certainly one of the more ambitious affairs. Boasting 11 bands and artists from across 8 countries, this all-dayer was determined to craft a memorable event.
Hosted by Johnny Normal, an electronic music artist in his own right and also a well-known radio host, Synthetic City is an outing that managed to combine established artists alongside some newer acts. This style of event, which was also successfully employed by Silicon Dreams earlier in the year, not only showcases bands that are going to draw an audience in, but also introduce people to emerging artists – a vital component for a growing scene.
The first acts to open up the festival were UK musician Paul Humphries and Milan from France. Having just recently released his debut album, this was Humphries’ first live performance which meant some trepidation in stepping on the stage. His material draws from the darker end of the electronic spectrum, but there’s a robust quality to many of his tunes and a confident vocal approach that will appeal to a broader audience.
Conversely, Milan pulls from the European tradition of electronic music. Here, the tunes are more orientated to a dancepop flavour with a delicate vocal that has touches of Pet Shop Boys in the delivery.
Hailing from Ireland, the electronic duo of Eden were surprisingly polished in their stage presentation (the spacey jackets were a nice touch) and on-stage banter. Consisting of Mark Power and Ian Henderson, Eden have some polished tunes, much of which is culled from the duo’s 2016 album Outbound To Wonderland. Songs such as ‘Don’t Wanna Lose You’ and ‘If I Was A Pet Shop Boy’ have both a charm and a synthpop sensibility to them and also an Erasure flavour at times. Power’s driving vocal style and his ease at being on stage were a definite plus.
Eden’s last song is introduced as “About religion, but don’t run out!”. ‘New Age’ is a heavier pop outing that weaves in some scathing (and possibly timely) commentary on the issues surrounding organised spiritual matters.
Next up was an act that had flown in from Germany with a distinctly unique style that’s difficult to adequately describe using mere words. Mr Vast straddles the line between musician and performance artist, but also has an element of unpredictability that made tonight’s appearance entertaining or unsettling depending on which way you jump.
Apparently, Mr Vast had been recommended to Johnny Normal by Gary Le Strange, an artist who’s no stranger to the world of eclectic musical performances himself. “If you think I’m strange” quipped Gary “wait until you see Mr Vast…”. The result is quirky tunes such as ‘Ecstatic Caravan’ and ‘Elemental’ (which features the winning line: “The sangria/made me angrier”). While Mr Vast is gearing up for these songs, there’s a lot of on-stage banter and a metric ton of stage props. This includes an entire wardrobe of ‘interesting’ clothes and a copy of The Guardian which becomes part of what appears to be the recreation of a famous Sinead O’Connor moment as he tears through it.
Starting off with one song, Mr Vast abandons it 2 minutes in. “I’m bored with that now”, he offers, before embarking on a new song. Others present similar challenges (“Fuck me, there’s a lot of lyrics in that track…”). When he does stick it out, songs such as ‘Problems With The Light’ (which opens with a combo of owls hooting and a spoken word segment) deliver a funky workout.
Austria’s The Lunchbox Surrender brought things back on track with a set of solidly electronic tunes. Ava takes care of vocals while Bobo focuses on the synths (which includes that sturdy workhorse the ARP Odyssey). The results are a very muscular brand of synthpop that employ some percussive electronic elements and a bass-heavy delivery. Meanwhile, Ava’s vocals have a mesmerising and at times sultry style that offer a contrast to the bassy synth foundations. At times, it calls to mind the dreampop of outfits like Au Revoir Simone while there’s also some more broody moments that suggest the Nordic melancholia of Sailor & I.
The crunchy electropop of ‘Spaces’ is a particularly fine moment as Ava gets into the zone, slipping into a series of stark dance moves. The next track is “a bit more upbeat” suggests Ava as the duo bust out the dynamic tones of ‘Alive’. It’s a song that has a particular sadness in its lyrics: “Find a soulmate in a lonely crowd/Put it down, put it down”.
Apparently, ‘Alive’ is also the tune that caught the ear of Johnny Normal, who played it on his show a year back – a moment that lead in time to this performance.
Closing things out is new song ‘Traumtanz’, which Ava suggests is the German word for ‘dream dance’. There’s a more dubby approach on this number which has a subtle, burning atmosphere.
Next up is the host himself as Johnny Normal takes to the stage with his own brand of electropop. This kicks off with a quite lively cover of Numan classic ‘I Die: You Die’, while later on ‘Time’ opts for a darker electro approach. The engaging synthpop of ‘Miss Razorblade’ also stands out from the set. Meanwhile, new single ‘Let Nothing Take Your Pride’ also gets an airing – a polished slice of synthpop with synthetic brass stabs.
Taking us into the latter part of the evening is possibly the heaviest dark electro outfit of the night in the form of Deviant UK. They waste little time in waking the audience up with some heavy-duty tunes, which at one point prompts Train To Spain’s Helena in getting up for a boogie.
In fact, it’s the Swedish duo who grace the stage next. Regular UK visitors in recent years, Train To Spain have a robust style of electropop that’s immediate and engaging. Here they kick off with the muscular beats of ‘I Follow You’, with its cascading electronic melodies and shimmering rhythms.
Meanwhile, the bassy beats and perky synth melodies of ‘Work Harder’ offers a paean to the workers in the audience. ‘Blipblop’ is “about after work” suggests Jonas, before delivering a poppy side to the duo’s music. Elsewhere, ‘Passion’ gets things “more romantic” with a crunchy driving rhythm.
‘You Gotta Do It’ is a new song from the duo, taken from Train To Spain’s forthcoming album. It’s a punchy tune over which Helena’s voice floats in and out and with a chorus that’s got a particular force to it. The pair close things out with the warm synthpop of ‘Believe in Love’.
Next up is Birmingham’s synth-rock combo Among The Echoes. Fresh from their Infest appearance, they deliver a set of dark electro tunes, including a muscular cover version of Human League classic ‘Being Boiled’.
Portugal’s Hot Pink Abuse arrive next with their unique musical stylings, an outfit who opt for a full complement of live drums, bass, synth and vocals. The result is a surprisingly beefy set of tunes that’s picked out by some immediate rock-pop bangers.
Of these, ‘Bridge Of Wonder’ is one of the finest moments. It’s a track with a mesmerising feel to it dominated by swirling synths, with some sultry vocals care of lead singer Rebecca Moradalizadeh.
Keeping the crunchy electronic end up, there’s something powerful and captivating about ‘Sometimes’ with its bass-heavy synth melodies and driving rhythms. “Let’s shake a bit now with ‘Mysterious Souls’” offers Rebecca as they launch into an emphatic number that features a very solid vocal delivery and beefy bass lines.
Closing things out, ‘Stranger To Others’ has a very punchy dynamic to it with a solid military percussion and a big, wide sound.
Parralox, of course, need little introduction. The Australian outfit have already been guests at Liverpool’s Silicon Dreams event this year and their Synthetic City appearance marked their final UK performance this year.
Once again, the combo of Johanna Gervin and John von Ahlen deliver a sterling set of powerful electropop to close out for this year’s celebration of electronic music.
The powerpop of ‘Black Jeans’ is a suitable track to kick things off, followed up by the equally captivating ‘Hotter’ with its wry commentary on relationships and the search for perfection (“Think twice we’re all the same in different ways/But sometimes it pays to go your separate ways”).
“Hands up who likes The Alan Parsons Project” offers John before taking over vocal duties for Parralox’s take on the prog rock combo’s ‘Eye In The Sky’. The buzzy delights of ‘Wildlife’ also provides John with another opportunity to exercise his vocal chops.
As ever, ‘Sharper Than A Knife’ with its infectious electropop melodies, is received with relish from the crowd. The duo also drop in their surprising cover version of Radiohead’s ‘Creep’. Here, the sparse melancholia of the original is given a much more muscular push in this electronic rendition (Johanna’s dropping in of a segment from The Hollies’ ‘The Air That I Breathe’ is also a witty comment on the original).
Interspersed between the live sets was a suitable playlist of DJ sets, which included the talents of Rob Harvey (who runs the Synth City radio show). There were some choice tunes played, including possibly the first club appearance of OMD’s ‘The Punishment Of Luxury’ alongside classics from Erasure, Visage, John Foxx, Gary Numan and Ultravox.
Synthetic City 2017 slots in smoothly with a calendar this year of electronic music events that have helped to promote interest and growth in the grassroots scene. At the same time, it offered an opportunity for artists to network and discuss opportunities. But perhaps most of all, it delivered an evening of good electronic entertainment – and one in which Johnny Normal and the organising team should take pride in.
Publications that have featured his contributions include Electronic Sound, Metro, Japan Update Weekly, J-Pop Go, Wavegirl and OMD Messages.