The new track of my synthwave project, Night Orchid:
I was given this CD as a Yule gift from my girlfriend at the time. If I recall things correctly, which is a thing that can often justly be called into question, it was the same Yule evening that I proposed to her, which would mean Yule 2005. And, just as an aside, the road that this evening was a milestone on, is one we still walk today.
This is where Ordo Rosarius Equilibrio truly blossom in my opinion. Spiritual Front complement the Swedish group nicely, but the day is without a doubt ORE’s. Both present three tracks on their own and two collaborations, and apart from the loop-based outro, there’s not a single weak moment here. Where ORE present decadent and deviant but ultimately rather romantic eroticism, Spiritual Front add a touch of nostalgia of bygone days and no small amount of moral decadence of their own. The charismatic vocals and traditional instrumentation of Italian Spiritual Front really paints vivid images of fascist-era Italy or Spain, and instill a probably misguided (and probably intentionally so) sense of wistful nostalgia of these ‘bygone days of glory’. ORE, on the other hand, are full of love, desire and sadomasochistic sex – but also religion and what could perhaps be called elitistic philosophy (“Confide in me and tell me, why the worthless never die”). It’s a great combination.
Picking out an absolute favourite is deceivingly easy: ORE’s Three Is An Orgy, Four Is Forever is without doubt the culmination of this album. The reason why it’s deceiving is that other than that, Satyriasis is extremely even in its high quality.
For me, personally, this album stands as a high point in the discography of both artists.
B-side collections are most often definitely something for dedicated fans only. B-sides of singles gave the bands a chance to try out different things, experiment and bit and publish tracks rejected from albums. This is true for OMD also, as this 19-track compilation ranging from their earliest days to 1991 proves. Most of the tracks have a decidedly experimental vibe to them, as the band explores territory alien to their albums in terms of experimentation with soundscapes, voyaging into darker atmospheres than on their albums, and in general just writing tracks with a more or less un-OMD’ish feel to them.
For dedicated fans, this is an interesting glimpse into another side of the band, and for collectors, a nifty way of getting a heap of B-sides compiled together on one disc instead of spread around twenty or so singles. For the rest, a compilation of tracks that were excluded from the albums with good reason. Honestly: among the 19 tracks, there’s not a single one that’s really worth more than one listen at most.
Interesting curiosities these tracks may be, but a good album they do not make.
This anthology of the British synthpop groups’ greatest moments is proof of why it’s borderline criminal that they are often but a footnote in the history writing of synthesizer-driven pop and 80’s pop in general, but at the same time also ample evidence of why it’s nonetheless understandable that it is so.
The first three tracks on the CD, Messages, Electricity and Enola Gay, are all some of the best pop music ever written. Upbeat, naïvely melodic songs that are catchy as Hell and with a beat that just makes you want to dance with abandon, kind of like Andy McCluskey at least used to do on stage… dance like nobody’s watching, you know.
And the rest, the remaining 17 tracks: some highlights, true, but the drop in quality is just too big to be ignored. And it’s not just that the rest of the tracks aren’t as good, they aren’t visionary in the same way as the opening trio. The three first songs are bigger than life, the rest are just songs. And as the anthology progresses towards the 90’s, there’s less and less innovation and more and more trite, dime-a-dozen pop. It’s a shame really, because the three first tracks are just as good as Speak & Spell by Depeche Mode, or even better.
The DVD features a comprehensive collection of videos, most of which are utterly crude technically and artistically, but still possess a certain charm of a more innocent and less professional time, when music videos were made with a cheap budget and no fear of trying out even the silliest ideas. Good fun, and bears to be watched more than once.
…just look at him dance away!
By the end of the 80’s, British synthpop pioneers OMD had lost one of their core members, Paul Humphreys, although he did help in writing a couple of tracks for this album. Andy McCluskey carried on under the name, but one can safely say that OMD’s sail was sagging.
Unlike Depeche Mode, who made the 90’s their own by reinventing themselves on their own terms and combining the bleakness of 90’s rock to their 80’s synthpop and thus bringing synthpop screaming and clawing into the new decade, Humphreys’ solo incarnation of OMD was by 1996 basically reduced to sounding like an old dog trying to learn the new tricks of the young pups. It did occasionally learn them, as the highlights of the album prove, but for the most part it just sounds strained and lacking in spirit.
The two opening tracks, Universal and Walking On The Milky Way, together with Too Late form the three worthwhile songs the album has to offer. The rest range between mediocre and pointless. However, of the three good tracks, especially Walking On The Milky Way is a perfect example of how OMD did not go the Depeche Mode way of making it to the 90’s on their own terms; this song clearly steals a lot from the young brit-pop bands of the era. Hardly flattering words to speak of a band who once upon a time where true pioneers of synthesizer-driven pop music.
A single off their Liberator album released the same year, the CD version of the single features two remixes of the title track plus a trivial B-side called Can I Believe You. The track itself is a rather boring synthesizer-driven track that doesn’t really convince one of OMD still being vital in the 90’s, but it’s not bad. The two remixes, which bear little to no resemblance to the original, sound almost too 90’s and are both far too long, especially the first of the two, “Transcendental Mix”, which clocks in at over ten minutes and is therefore at least eight minutes too long. A completely pointless single.
Just for the heck of it, I decided to review every single CD, vinyl and tape in my collection. A long-running project of mine has been to listen through my whole collection in order, format by format, and in conjunction with this I will write reviews of variable length of each item. Just because I can… or think I can. That’s roughly 3000 items and counting to write about, excluding the few albums I’ve already reviewed in the blog.
Starting in the middle of wading through my CD collection, the first album in this daunting task is British synth pop pioneer OMDs’ fifth album, Junk Culture. In contrast to some of their previous efforts, this is a decidedly understated album with the vocals and bass basically carrying most songs, with synthesizers and other instruments being used quite sparsely on most tracks.
After the opening instrumental which has the same name as the album, Junk Culture continues with the two highlights on the album: the oddly catchy and seemingly nonsensical Tesla Girls, of which there is a ludicrous video, and Locomotion. From there, the rest of the album is downhill. The understated and minimalistic nature of the arrangements really detracts from the compositions, rendering virtually the whole album extremely dull and tedious. A dull bassline and the in themselves quite passable vocals of the dynamic duo of McCluskey and Humphreys just aren’t enough.
Despite two rather good tracks, Junk Culture is too dull and flat to be even a mediocre album.
Back when I was a kid, it was an accepted truth for the kind of movies me and my friends loved, that if the critics hated it, it was good. Action movies, y’see. Not held in high regard in the mid-90’s. Considering the mixed-to-negative reviews I’ve read about Lana Del Rey’s amazing album Born To Die, I’m leaning towards this still holding some truth, at least when it comes to pop music.
There are quite a few things about Born To Die that can be criticized, but above everything else it is a very powerful and atmospheric, consistent pop album. Unlike the trite and tiresome mass of soulless, shallow pop music, there is both vision and talent in here as well as good taste. And good songs.
Roughly put, the songs on this album can be divided in two groups: the melancholic, wistful and sad songs on one hand, and the decadently indulgent songs on the other. It’s true that many of the songs repeat the same themes almost to a fault, but on the other hand, Lana Del Rey manages to create a sufficiently new spin on the same theme in most songs to keep things fresh. It is also true that the production on the album is at times rather massive and even suffocating in all its bombast and drama, especially when it remains so for much of the album, but again things remain breathing enough to keep things from going over that fatal edge.
What makes this album float where so many other albums sink, is the seemingly instinctive ability to tap the collective pop culture/reference memory of the 20/30-something generation(s) through the lyrical imagery she uses, and also set iconic and immortalized scenes and pop culture archetypes to song. Many of the songs tap into some movie or TV series, or scene from such, in a way that makes the listener instantly understand the setting of the song, but still keeping things vague enough to make the songs more than mere pale reflections of iconic moment of popular culture from the last five decades. Off To The Races, for example, reeks of the elegance of old James Bond or Audrey Hepburn movies but with an unwholesome, decadent spin of shyster characters and a definite twisted sexual undercurrent; it’s all class, but also corruption and rot under the surface, the sinful pleasure of corruption. On the other hand, opener and title track Born To Die is the ever modern theme of desperate young lovers at the end of a romantic but violent (either literally or figuratively) road movie, gunning for the finish line with failure close on their heels. Sort of like in True Romance, although that movie had a happy ending (of sorts). Everything is saturated by a warm, nostalgic and wistful melancholia, like Lana Del Rey were the narrator of a movie looking back on what might be a tragedy or the love story of the centuryM Lana Del Rey’s delivery leaves the question hanging. The slightly over-saturated, warm colors of the cover of The Paradise Edition match the atmosphere of the music perfectly; it’s all covered in that glow of nostalgia for things we’ve never really experienced but still know intimately.
The lyrical themes circle around, surprise surprise, love and romance most of the time. There are pop culture references aplenty, from James Dean and Mountain Dew to modern bling bling fashion, but below the superficial namedropping the deeper strains show, in my opinion, a deeper understanding of the recurrent themes and emotions that have never gone out of fashion since Jimmy Dean rode off into the sunset (or, one could argue, since Juliet and Romeo lost each other). One of my favorite references is the not-so-subtle nod to the classic ballad Why Do Birds Sing in the song Radio. The delivery betrays a mastery of the art that seems almost casual. The lyrics hide more than a few impressive moments, with the amazing Dark Paradise as the brightest moment. It’s a song of clichés, of oft repeated and regurgitated platitudes… but then, the crushing sorrow of losing a loved one often feels just like that. That’s the genius of it, really; recognizing that sometimes, clichés and platitudes are apt and straight to the point, instead of lofty and high flying but ultimately reality-detached and hollow turns of phrase.
Del Reys’ rich voice, at the same time delicate and powerful, expresses the emotions and atmospheres on the album expertly, and has a tinge of darkness in it that lends her a bit of extra gravity. The instrumentation, which ranges from the orchestral and pompous to very stripped-down and almost understated arrangements, has clear nods to popular music from 40-50 years in the past, but is at the same time highly modern with samples, loops and what I’ve seen called trip-hop and vocal lines that approach rapping.
The album does contain some filler tracks, and as such the album would be better if a few tracks following the fine small-town nostalgia track What Makes Us Girls were excluded. However, Del Rey wraps things up on a good note with Lucky Ones. The second disc of the “Paradise Edition” doesn’t quite hold up to the high standard of the album, but it’s still worth the price of admission.
Undeniably, there is a strong superficial and “fake” aspect to the album, but I can’t believe that is unintentional; to me it seems like Lana Del Rey understands the shallowness of popular culture just as she understands clichés and pop culture stereotypes, and uses the shallowness to the benefit of this album, interspersing the artificiality of modern popular culture with moments that echo of something a bit deeper.
Bottom line: I don’t always fall in love with albums, but when I do, I fall hard. And I fell for this even harder than usual.