Notes From The Keybed – This Month In Synths [January 2015]

So new year new music, something we’re very excited about here at Synth News … especially if it’s of the keyboard-smashing, filter-tweaking, sub-destroying variety, which is exactly what we have in store for you this month!

At the close of last year, we were sent the new single from impossibly young Norwegian synth-pop artist Aurora. ‘Under Stars’ features beautiful stacked vocal harmonies over a sublime electronic backing, and glitchy arpeggios punctuated by thundering drums and soaring strings. Definitely from the more-is-more school of production, the sheer wall of sound is enough to grab your attention! Despite this, it never overwhelms Aurora’s voice, which possesses a calmly affecting tone along the lines of Imogen Heap. Devotees of Ms Heap’s vocal-led electronica will surely lap this up, but the gentle sound palette and abstract lyrics will also appeal to fans of Regina Spektor and Paul Thomas Saunders. Aurora’s previous single ‘Awakening’ has been streamed nearly a million times on Spotify – with new material of this calibre, it won’t be long before she surpasses that impressive total. Certainly one to watch in 2015!

This month’s random ‘synth punk’-tagged Bandcamp find comes from a rowdy bunch of punx with keyboards based in Massachusetts, USA. ‘Cassingle’ by The Pins And Needles is a delicious slice of proto-punk with two synths, a drum kit, and a lot of shouting. Remember when The Horrors were a genuinely alternative band instead of just a glossy shoegaze soundtrack? Well this two-track EP brings back joyous memories of the likes of ‘Jack The Ripper’, had it been recorded in a garage …  straight to tape … with one microphone. It’s messy, offensive on the ears, and made all the better by the fact that two of the band run their own DIY cassette-issuing record label. Wonderful stuff.

Another vital new release is the third EP from the epically named We Shall Meet In The Place Where There Is No Darkness. We’ll get onto their fantastic genre-spanning electronica shortly but firstly, a few words of journalistic integrity … I’ve been good friends with the core protagonists of the band, drummer Ben Cullimore and multi-instrumentalist Michael Wynn, for a few years now, having shared stages a number of times with them across various projects. This led to me contributing some synth parts to their 2012 EP ‘Banzai 711’, following which we did a couple of performances before the reality of having members living in multiple counties (and countries) kicked in. The band now operates as an open collective, with almost as many contributing members as words in their impressively literary moniker! For ‘The Island’ the group have expanded to include new vocalist Flossie T and guitarist Richard Webb, with virtuosic bassist Liam Lee-Hynes completing the personnel alongside the aforementioned Ben and Michael.

Now that’s out of the way and I won’t be subject to a #synthgate witch-hunt, it is fortunate really that the music is utterly brilliant. The sound of this record moves away from the Joy Division goes DFA 1979 of previous work into a New Order of disco-infused new wave, with classic pop songwriting sitting comfortably alongside organic synth textures. Throughout the EP, you can hear the time and effort that has gone into selecting and integrating the electronic sounds –  refreshing in today’s climate, where too many indie bands will call up a generic Logic preset and play some vaguely in-key synthesiser melody in order to satisfy hipster cravings. Instead the synths drift along wistfully in both tuning and timing, giving a much-needed human quality to this usually mechanical genre. Lead single ‘The Boy’ is the standout selection, as gloriously 80’s synths and staccato drum machine fills fight for your attention alongside infectious vocal hooks. The slap bass and disco guitar chops might be a little too funkalicious for some tastes, but in a year where Nile Rodgers’ Chic can be found in the upper echelons of festival line-ups, I wouldn’t bet against this making a comeback! WSM… fit in nicely between this disco revival and modern radio pop’s electronic dominance, supplemented by a refreshingly dark realism recalling the glory days of Depeche Mode. You can download ‘The Island’ now from their Bandcamp.

Amanda Palmer is a keyboard-shredding queen, pounding the hell out of a piano throughout the Dresden Dolls. She’s also an incredible writer, as shown by her book ‘The Art Of Asking’ – anyone involved in music, writing, theatre or any other creative endeavour seriously needs to pick up a copy now. But, best of all, she makes the insanely tasteless Yamaha SHS-10 keytar look cool …

To put things into perspective, this is an instrument that comes with Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’ as a demo song. It has crappy little mini keys that make a child’s fingers look big. And it’s made of bright red plastic, probably with its CE sticker from the 80’s still intact. Yet the fabulous Ms Palmer has been known to crack one of these out with The Grand Theft Orchestra, even making an appearance on her famous Kickstarter campaign video. Just Google Amanda Palmer + keytar and be prepared to have all of your preconceptions shattered. Just goes to show, it’s the player not the instrument that matters and that’s why she is this month’s Keytar Hero (still looks naff on everyone else though).