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.
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
Part of a new column highlighting creative uses of sampling in electronic context.
Lukid’s Lonely At The Top is an example of the huge potential lying in modern electronic music and it’s never-ending connections, through sampling or otherwise, especially when we avoid cliches. Like a mutating creature, it shifts gradually from ferocious water-splashing rhythms (”This Dog Can Swim”) to techno synths shrouded in fog and shattering like glass (“Southpaw”).
One of it’s more emotive songs, “Bless My Heart” makes a distinctive opening by morphing this Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King hit into something both robotic and soulful, emphasizing the shimmer of the e-piano and adding a number of strange (but subtle) down-pitched voices.
More like this – Bibio’s Green EP, Goldfrapp’s “Clowns“
I love a good electronic+folk mixture, and this is one of those precious examples of where it works in album form. Silver Wilkinson is an ideal spring-time album due to this, recalling fresh morning air, vegetation, grassy fields and other pleasant outdoor imagery very nicely. Bibio decorates the songs with a spacious reverb and emphasizes the most organic possible sounds. Nature FX, grainy sound quality and other details add to the effect. Like a lot of my favorite guitarists, he makes regular use of effects and layering to expand the instrument’s range. Some songs will come close, but it’s far from your usual twangy ‘chill-out guitar’ mush.
Several critics and fans deemed Silver Wilkinson unfocused with the way it shifts in sound at semi-random points. I do agree the flow could be better, but I felt it’s this variety that helps it work as an album. For instance, I like how it begins with these reflective guitar-based pieces, but if every song was like this, it could get stale. His understated knack for synths helps keep it interesting at very least, as in “Business Park” with it’s jagged techno drama or “Look At Orion”’s odd vortex of reverb and sampled voices. At some points he also blends the synths + guitars in a more subtle fashion, like “Dye The Water Green”’s instrumental fade-out.
As much as this album escalates, few songs lack that refreshing springy mood Bibio does best. With “Mirroring All”, I can almost feel that misty outdoor air through mere listening. I could say the same of Bibio’s own favorite “Dye The Water Green”, a haunting melody contrasted with some luxurious guitar shimmers. With the single “Curls” sounding a lot closer to this than his recent ambient/drone work, I have a good feeling about the incoming Ribbons album.
garage punk / punk rock
More like this – Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Fever To Tell + Self-titled EP + Machine EP; X-Ray Spex, Gossip’s “Fire With Fire“
I have a theory that Gossip were the Arkansan equal of Yeah Yeah Yeahs and this EP is the closest they got in sound. There’s the unique and dynamic female singer in Beth Ditto, their later pop era, their indie rock breakthrough phase, and this early, very Fever To Tell EP. This isn’t a negative comparison; I’m convinced we don’t have enough like YYY’s, so I welcome it. After all, it’s been tricky for me to find much else that truly shares Fever To Tell’s special brand of punk chaos, or at least without overdoing the edginess + noise. This made Arkansas Heat both a throwback and a breath of fresh air.
Through the whole EP the guitar and drums make a persistent racket as Beth Ditto yowls and quivers over them with exciting intensity. It’s the opposite of the more stylish approach in later projects like her excellent solo EP but true to her range as a singer, she pulls it off just as well.
Every song except the 10-minute “Take Back The Revolution” is over within 2 minutes, making it a fun and digestible listen. Even better is how they made it so catchy despite this brevity. “Revolution” drags a little too much, of course, but skip it about halfway through and it’s an addictive 14-minute burst of energy. I just wish they put out more like this in their early days.
new age / progressive electronic / ambient
More like this – Vangelis, Azuma, Patrick O’Hearn’s “Rainmaker” + “Between Two Worlds”
An odd recurrence in the 80s-90s that never fails to pique my curiosity is when people you could deem ‘new age artists’ made songs that were unusually dark-sided. Yet at the same time, the synths and production will sound very similar. Is it besides the whole point of the genre, then (sounding peaceful, inducing relaxation) or not? Whatever the intentions may be, albums like this are after my own heart.
You could say Vangelis pioneered this as many of his songs combined the crystal-clear textures of the era with a more cinematic/ambiguous air. That being said, his work is only the surface of this sensation. Patrick O’Hearn of Missing Persons is one of those special few who happened to explore very close territory, with this fan-favorite album Indigo in particular. To be honest, though, I’m tempted to argue this is more consistent than many of Vangelis’ own albums.
The cover’s moody teal-blue was the first hint. Indigo is the most shadowy, murky new age album I’ve come across, one that molds the normally ‘kitschy’ sound of synth-rhodes into haunting dirges (as on ”Coba” and the mournful closer ”Espana”). Songs like “Desire” and “Sacred Heart” alternate between oceanic drifting and thrilling film-score peaks while others (”Upon the Wings of Night”) choose to float by in the murk.
Rhythms are smooth and flowing, forming careful transitions with his tense keyboard patterns (”Sacrifice”). It’s like a cross between Spencer Nilsen’s Ecco The Dolphin music and those sinister incidental cues you hear in Miami Vice. He’s found a fascinating middle-ground here, and it’s something that doesn’t pop up near enough in his other work.
A lot of Indigo’s appeal lies in the insistence to keep lurking around this haunted fantasy world it’s concocted for itself, but a few areas like “Devil’s Lake” can come off a little self-serious for my liking. Other parts can get long-winded or repetitive – I guess this is a given with something this close to ambient music. Still, I think anyone curious about 80s-90s new age and/or who loves Vangelis should be sure to listen to this. It embodies so many of the things I love about the digital synth era, and the level of hypnotic beauty it achieves remains highly convincing.
♥︎ – “Sacrifice”, “Coba”, “Sacred Heart”, “Desire”
Long story short I wound up listening to Bananarama’s 2000s album Drama awhile back out of curiosity. It’s a surprisingly good album seeing how this was long past their chart-topping prime in the 80s. The lyrics are nothing special, being the usual love+partying topics, but overall it makes for very pleasant poppy background music. Plus, a couple of songs sound like Goldfrapp (!!!) so you know I’m there.
Another surprise was that one of my favorites, “Look On The Floor”, interpolates the chorus from the cult Italo-disco single “Hypnotic Tango”. What I love is how they give it more of a mellow warmth as opposed to the more uptempo original. If you love Italo, it’s sure to sound familiar:
Look on the floor
And all is spinning around
Someone told me this was just a dance
Then take a chance and I’ll give you more
Do you really think we have a chance?