hidden treasure

Metal Mother – Ionika, 2013

electropop / gothic / art pop

More like this – Grimes’ Halfaxa & Visions, Fever Ray’s self-titled, Zola Jesus, Gazelle Twin’s The Entire City, Drab Majesty

I only got to know Metal Mother seeing Pastel Ghost promote her on Twitter. As much as I love PG, I didn’t expect this to floor me given the er, Hot Topic flavor of her other peers. I was wrong. MM ticks countless boxes in my taste, and the same goes for most people who love their moody electronic ‘avant-pop’. I know you’re out there. Ionika knows just what I want from this stuff: an amorphous fog of synths, elaborate vocal layers, thundering rhythms and an ear for adventure. I can’t decide if it takes place in a magical glade or some dark future world. You could call those opposites and I’d agree, but this makes no difference to her!

What gets to me is how MASSIVE Ionika sounds. Let me get this clear: Mother’s production values are amazing. She gets an orchestra’s impact from vocal, synth and computer alone. With each song I’d give up with trying to count the layers as I tend to; I was too busy riding the adrenaline rush. This deserves to soundtrack a movie, not gather dust on Spotify! (It had two ratings total on often thorough Rateyourmusic by the time I listened.)

I had many pleasant callbacks to my other favorites (Fever Ray vocals in “Windexx’d”; early Grimes vibes in “Tactillium”) but it’s gloriously hard to box as a whole. It can fit so many contexts: a goth club (“Doomdome”), a cathedral performance (“Little Ghost”), a forest celebration (“Mind_off”). Tempo and volume flex to Mother’s whim, sometimes within the same song, yet nothing sounds misplaced.

Her vocals have a way of gliding around like a gust of wind. She adapts to both light and dark, from a fairy’s soul-searching mantra (“Prism”) to a creeping siren song (“Iona”). With something as dense as “Tactilium” she could be weaving spells around crumbling mountains. As I hoped, her music matches her name.

For all the wacky witch-house aesthetics, Ionika has a lot more going on than doom and gloom. MM likes to explore, even combine various emotions; something I wish more modern goth music did. It’s closer to a powerful exclamation from a cliff. You’re in touch with your spirit etc. and the waterfalls, releasing something deep inside. It has such a wonderful sense of harmony, freedom.

hidden treasure

Alif – Dakamerap (2004, OutHere Records)

I found this all-female trio by chance back in my hip hop phase (Thanks to this HUGE list of female rappers, sadly inactive now). Outhere says they’re the first of their kind in Dakar’s rap scene. ‘[…] their first cassette Viktim caused a big stir in a country where traditional authorities like parents, religion or age play a big role.Dakamerap is a play on words: Dakar, camera and rap; saying they’re the camera watching their city. This refers to their lyrics’ focus on social issues. According to Afropop, this focus is common in the scene.

‘Musically the album goes full circle, reconnecting hip hop with its roots in Africa. Songs like Dakamerap, Taspe, Joolaa and Bataxal combine traditional sabar rhythms and the music of the griots with a contemporary blend of african hip hop.’ – Outhere

Written about mistreated house servants, “Proces” caught my ear right away with it’s haunting melody. The addition of spacious dialogue makes it especially evocative.

They’re convincing singers too. Behind a boom bap flavor in the drums, Alif have an almost instinctual knack for hooks. This finds it’s way into most songs and yet, they don’t break the rap flow more than twice. One example is “Bataxal”, complete with a Hollywood-ish string sample. Most surprising is “Thiou”, where they ride a poppy mbalax-like groove with a surging synth as if it’s a breeze. I love the balance here.

I wanted to hear more Alif, but no such luck since this is their only album with a wide enough release. On the upside, there are easier ways to dig into Africa’s various hip hop scenes, very much worth a closer look.

hidden treasure · new music

Hello Seahorse! – Disco estimulante, 2020

synth pop / indie electronic / dream pop

More like this – Hello Seahorse!’s Lejos. No tan lejos., Reni Jusis’ “Motyle”, Goldfrapp’s Black Cherry, Rajie’s Espresso

Denise Gutiérrez’s voice makes this band stand out, mixing rich velvet-like lows with powerful falsetto choruses in each song. Their synths come in many colors but the vivid, reflective atmosphere they create is a perfect fit. Synth pop is my closest guess here, but maybe not the kind you expect. This is more of a modern cocktail party in slow-motion with moonlight peeking in from the balcony.

Sadly, synth pop keeps falling victim to cliches these past few years, leading HS to use the same old 808 beats. Beyond that, I think their ears for melody are getting a lot tighter here. This is a great kick-off for the new year’s music if you’re obsessed with synth pop and/or dreamy falsettos like I am.

hidden treasure

Pat Moon – Don’t Hide From The Light, 2016

ethereal wave / dream pop / synth pop

More like this – Molly Nilsson’s “The Lonely” + “Wounds Itch When They Heal”, John Maus’ “Tenebrae”, Grimes’ Halfaxa, Anna Von Hausswolfe, Ioanna Gika

Imagine swimming in a cathedral with those windows. They’re the only light source, so you have these brilliant colors flashing through the dark. You hear a familiar song from the other room that brings up memories you haven’t thought of in years. That’s this album.

Pat Moon shows an excellent understanding of ethereal wave’s potential, and this is her debut. She brings all the romantic soul-searching this genre needs while giving it a promising synth makeover. From the first seconds she submerges her voice in murky pads that perfectly capture the ocean’s depths. The harmonies she builds are so fluid they could melt.

I can detect the confines of a keyboard-based home project, but the sound and scenes are big. She’s walking alone in the moors, she’s drifting along the river. Completing this imagery is a synth-organ echoing hallways and chambers from centuries past. This is the kind of isolated surrealism that gives the best ‘bedroom’ music it’s unique appeal.

I love how she titled this Don’t Hide From The Light. It’s gothic for sure, but more grey than black. This isn’t all-swallowing doom, it’s longing and unleashing emotions with a bit of hope. She writes on the Bandcamp page: ‘thank you kyle for helping me get here and reminding me that I could do this during those times I didn’t think I could’. She’s emerging from her shell and this translates really well to the songs.

See also – “Medieval Spells” from Romantic Era

hidden treasure

Eurythmics – In The Garden (1981)

new wave / art rock / neo-psychedelia / synth pop

RIYL – Annie Lennox, Siouxsie And The Banshees’ Kaleidoscope, early Cocteau Twins, This Mortal Coil, Conny Plank productions

Offbeat, ‘leftfield’ or plain weird early work from soon-to-be chart toppers are a phenomenon that never fails to draw me in. Beyond an already unique path in sound and genre, Eurythmics’ commercial-flop debut was a great example. 1981 had Annie Lennox and David Stewart in an odd spot between their upbeat power pop with Tourists and finding their niche as a minimal synth-pop duo. They had the icy keyboards down by now, but a backing band as well, playing an ambiguous new wave-jangle-neo psych hybrid.

In The Garden is a studio creation first and foremost, but it’s knack for ghostly surrealism isn’t too far from how Goldfrapp recorded their debut in a cottage. Picture Annie as a half-woman half-ghost haunting an old mansion or farmhouse in the English woods, and you have the right idea. She hasn’t sounded so haunted before or since. If the cover is any hint, she tones down her usual powerful belts and soars for chilly falsettos and sinister, abstract poems. They tend to echo off into the music in a way that would do wonders for a 4AD group; now I wish Annie sang in such a band. The lyrics follow suit:
‘I’m never gonna cry again / I’m never gonna die again’
’Dust is collecting / But she doesn’t notice / counting forever / she’s a calculator’
‘Another change of light / The underlying truth / request to pack it in / no solutions’

Combined with the uneasy, resonant wide-open space distinct to a krautrock giant like Conny Plank (“All The Young”), this is an album full of surprises. The result highlights many interesting parallels between krautrock and early new wave.  You’ll hear foresty atmospheric touches, bizarre sound effects, and creeping post-punk twang among other curios Eurythmics left behind within a few years.

For all the weirdness (“Sing-Sing”, filled with samples chattering away and Annie singing in French) and sinister undertones (“Caveman Head” with it’s edgy goth rock tease, the horror-inspired b-side “Le Sinistre”), songs like “Belinda” approach a normal pop-rock sound. Part of me wishes they engaged more with those thrilling goth/experimental hints than these upbeat grooves as a result. Still, you can find some fulfillment for that on the bonus tracks “Le Sinistre”, “4/4 In Leather” and “Take Me To Your Heart”’s live version. As it stands, In The Garden is worthy curiosity for anyone drawn to the oddball early eighties.

hidden treasure

China Crisis – Autumn In The Neighbourhood, 2015

sophisti-pop

RIYL80s China Crisis, Love And Money, Prefab Sprout, Gangway’s Sitting In The Garden

I love fall but I’m not ready for it. For one thing, it feels less fitting to post more of my findings in sophisti, a style screaming ‘cocktail party at the beach’. I meant to do more than my August mix, but that time flew as usual. Thus, a title like Autumn In The Neighbourhood enticed me.

I’m not sure if this is autumnal as much as windy and down-to-earth, but it’s close enough for me. I wish more sophisti had this imagery, I know that much. This being their ‘comeback’ album (2015!), China Crisis perform with more ease and nuance than ever. Decades later, they’ve kept that same elegance that defines sophisti-pop. The subtle keyboards, clean guitars and hints of brass are all here. Add a nostalgic, thoughtful mood and you have a great scene-setter. It’s the kind of British eighties(-styled) pop where you can just feel the busy city and morning breeze. It’s hard to name favorites but this comes from the impressive coherence more than anything else.

♥︎ – “Smile”, “Down Here on Earth”, “Joy And The Spark”, “Tell Tale Signs”

 

hidden treasure

Kobayashi Yamato – Commercial Work 1993-2004 (2014)

easy listening / sequencer & MIDI / synth pop / new age

RIYL – Donkey Kong, Super Mario and other Nintendo 64 music; vaporwave, Eyeliner

This ‘album’ gathers commissions K. Yamato stashed away for years. Only after seeing the new online interest for 90s game music did he share them. Some tracks glean from other media, but everything has a certain 90s-VGM flair here.

The early lower-bit jingles make a brief but fun cherry on top. The rest is a tour in digitized MIDI bursting with color. Mallets, synth pads, slick bass, bells and adorable flutes are on the menu. Versatile as expected, Yamoto shifts from 16-bit Outrun synth-pop to deluxe 90s chill-out. Somehow “Pleasant Specter Lever 6” merges a heaven-sent unicorn lullaby with summery disco.

Yamoto fills these bite-sized songs with sweet, romantic melodies, never letting them ramble. The “Spa Tape” tracks near this but their refreshing synth textures won me over. Spa music needs space to breathe after all.

CW is like playing Kirby for half an hour: a quick, simple pick-me-up with no pretension. Anyone curious about 90s VGM and/or the cuter side of synths should look here. No more Yamoto albums followed, but his Pleasant Specter EP from months before is your next step.

For more great video game music on the obscure side, see my top five