Notes from the Keybed – This Month In Synths [April 2015]

Crystal Castles, everyone’s favourite experimental noise-wave band, are back! Well, sort of anyway. Last year singer Alice Glass announced her departure from the duo followed by a rather public fall-out with songwriter/producer Ethan Kath. At the time it was claimed that the group would carry on as a solo project from Kath, the first results of which have recently been uploaded to SoundCloud.

New song ‘Frail’ has the classic Crystal Castles sound of lo-fi synths cascading over waves of pounding electronic drums, topped off the sort of pumping sidechain compression that would make Daft Punk cringe. Vocals are provided by a singer identified only as ‘Edith’ who, whether intentional or not, does a near identical impression of Glass with the band’s indecipherable lyrics and screechy outbursts intact as ever. It is unclear whether ‘Edith’ is a permanent singer, or if Kath will have guests on different tracks, or stick with it as a solo project only. Regardless of what happens a new album will be most welcome and if we get an Alice Glass solo record too (pleeeeaasse) then no one can complain!

Nothing quite brightens up a dreary Monday morning than an email promising Swedish ‘outspoken feminist pop/electro’, which is exactly what landed in my inbox at the start of April. Tikkle Me deal in glorious harmonies and lovingly crafted synthesiser-based pop songs, much in the vein of Eisley, Imogen Heap or fellow Scandinavian electro popper Robyn. New album What Is Real is a joy to listen to, with a perfect balance of upbeat electro productions such as ‘Six Senses Screaming’ and gentler vocal-led songs ‘Niagara’ and ‘Under The Bridge’ (no, not THAT ‘Under The Bridge’!). A lot of time and effort has clearly gone into the recording process as the seemingly contradictory elements of chiptune synths, classical strings, processed drum beats, and layered near-operatic vocals fit perfectly together. Lyrically, the album is mostly based on feminist themes of empowerment and independence, yet it is never overwhelming or pretentious. A few lyrics are somewhat lost in translation such as on ‘Time To Act’ where ‘deep in the jungle they play hardcore’, raising a smile at the mental image of lions shredding some HXC! But I never fail to be depressed at my own country’s laziness that everyone needs to sing in English to be commercially recognised, and the overall message is an important one that will no doubt resonate with anyone who has felt under-appreciated or segregated, regardless of their location or gender. My personal highlight of the record ‘Rebels’ features the sort of huge half-time chorus that Ellie Goulding has been plying her trade with in recent times, but with lyrics about being a strong leader unafraid of people’s expectations and preconceptions. ‘What Is Real’ is available now through the Gaphals record label and comes highly recommended for fans of intelligent and beautifully crafted pop music.

Here at TwoBeatsOff, I pretty much get free reign to write what I like (ta editor) as long as it is vaguely on topic and introduces people to rad new music but I did have to grapple with my conscience over this next one because my absolute favourite song of the month is as far from cool and underground as it gets. Carly Rae Jepsen… no come back, honest it’s a cracker… dropped a new tune this month called ‘All That’ produced by former Test Icicle and Lightspeed Champion mainman Dev Hynes along with songwriter Ariel Rechtshaid. Predictably enough, it sounds nothing like ‘Circle. Square. Triangle’ or ‘Call Me Maybe’ but is actually a slow burning slice of 80s balladry, complete with twinkling arpeggios and guilt-free slap bass. With an irresistible R&B chorus building alongside clipped guitar, big reverbed drums and dramatic piano chords, it is equal parts catchy pop song and hipster-friendly pastiche and all the better for it. Not available to download in the UK currently – if anyone knows otherwise tweet us – ‘All That’ will appear on Jepsen’s third album E-Mo-Tion, whilst Hynes’ Blood Orange project has just released a new remix bundle of single ‘Uncle Ace’ – check out the Kindness remix for more Prince inspired 80’s goodness.

I’ve been fairly slow on the uptake of new radio darlings PVRIS, who have been plugging away at their brand of synth-infused modern rock anthems since 2012. This month the band released a new video for ‘White Noise’, one of the highlights of their debut album of the same name. Boasting luscious keyboards, heavy as hell drums, and an incredibly strong vocal from frontwoman Lyndsey Gunnulfsen it is set to dominate the summer. PVRIS are appearing at Slam Dunk Festival and Reading and Leeds, as well as gig dates across the US and Europe. Don’t miss them!

Close your eyes and picture the coolest band in the world, what would they be like? How about a Swedish garage rock band with post-punk guitar riffs, fuzzy bass, and a Debbie Harry lookalike who sings in French whilst rocking the keytar? Well that’s exactly what CIKATRI$ are, and new record The Texas EP, released to support their appearance at SXSW, is packed with indie rock hooks and keyboard/guitar showdowns. It’s terrific stuff and reason enough to make Aurélie our this month’s Keytar Hero! …and that’s before we get onto her stylophone and theremin playing as well as their merch options of tote bags and temporary tattoos, which are all kinds of awesome. Check out all four CIKATRI$ EPs on Bandcamp now before they outgrow the underground.

Notes from the Keybed – This Month In Synths [November/December 2014]

Merry Synthmas, y’all!

It’s the countdown to Christmas and you’ll all be writing your lists for the big man in red, I’m sure. Stuck for ideas? Well, aside from Moog branded mugs and Roland 808 socks, there are some fantastic records on the horizon to fill a hole in your stocking or plug your own holes whilst the family murders another rendition of Deck The Halls…

Kicking off December comes a (sort of) brand new EP from personal favourites, Issues! I say only sort of brand new as it primarily consists of stripped-back versions of the biggest tunes from their self-titled album, as well as a couple of oldies such as the fantastic ‘Hooligans’. The RnB-core boys were responsible for one of my records of the year, combining ripping synths with pop hooks and metulz chugs. Whilst Diamond Dreams is set to be a more sedate affair, there are still plenty of jazzy keyboards, chilled electronic beats and, of course, those songs that won us all over at the start of the year.

Speaking of records of the year, topping my list alongside Issues would be Heartsrevolution’s electro punk odyssey Ride Or Die, Death From Above 1979’s long-awaited return on The Physical World, the quite frankly mental debut from Emperor Yes on An Island Called Earth, and Get Cape Wear Cape Fly’s delightful swan song London Royal. All of these would make perfect presents for synth-hungry music fans.

Next year is already shaping up to be a good one for music, with a new album from synth pop pioneers Ok Go! Lead single ‘I Won’t Let You Down’ packs in some tasty disco strings alongside the quartet’s penchant for catchy choruses and retro guitar and synth sounds. In typical Ok Go style, there is also an utterly bizarre video that is well worth watching. Expect single wheeled scooter dancing, a troupe of Japanese girls twirling umbrellas, and some unbelievable choreography. Standard ‘band playing in a room’ videos have never been their modus operandi but this one goes even further with a HTML5-based interactive version… as long as you’re using Chrome. Hungry Ghosts is available on download sites here in the UK from February but you can get it now if you’re over in the US.

Another early contender for 2015’s record of the year will certainly be the new offering from rave-rock crossover kings Enter Shikari. Singles from The Mindsweep are already suggesting a continuation of 2012’s monumental album A Flash Flood Of Colour, with the radio-friendly chorus in ‘The Last Garrison’ sitting alongside the bass-heavy tribal rhythms of ‘Anaesthetist’ and ambient intro into surprise hardcore beatdown on ‘Never Let Go Of The Microscope’! It’s set to be another mix of intelligent songwriting and boundary-breaking soundscapes from the genre-hopping foursome.

We said a lot of goodbyes to some established synth bands in 2014, it was clearly the year that new rave finally gave up the ghost (sob). Klaxons returned with their pleasant, if a bit bland, third album before playing a final run of shows, grindie kids Hadouken went on indefinite hiatus, and even hip-hop heroes Dan Le Sac vs Scroobius Pip went their separate ways following a triumphant farewell tour. In addition, we lost noisy electro duo Crystal Castles, with frontwoman Alice Glass departing with the tantalising promise of a solo career for her and a separate continuation from producer Ethan Kath.

With so many great acts throwing in the towel it seemed a perfect time to salute a much missed Keytar Hero, Pete Cafarella from Shy Child. Technically, the synth and drums duo are still a going concern, but having not heard anything from them since 2010, any hopes of a new album have fast dwindled. However at the height of electro indie, Shy Child stood proudly aside from their competitors fronted by the keytar-totting Cafarella’s dancey riffs and New York drawl. Although he hung up the keytar in 2010 to concentrate on being a ‘serious band’ with regular horizontal ‘boards he remains a true hero of the instrument and an influence to shy nerdy synthesists across the globe. Stand up and step out y’all!