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

February… a month of romance for some, regret for others, and raging synth riffage for the rest of us!

This month saw the release of a new single from West Midlands four-piece Shatter Effect. We’ve been keeping an eye on these dance-rockers for the past couple of years following ace tracks such as ‘Rebecca’ (check out the incredible video, indie bands – that’s how it’s done!) and ‘Find What You Love’. Their latest single ‘Make Me Hate You’ continues the trend of dark lyrical content, ice cold keyboard textures, and fuzzed up guitar riffs. A more industrial affair than before, with synth arpeggios straight out of the 80’s, matched with tom-heavy drums and the twin vocal attack of Rebecca and Robin Davies. The single is the first offering from the band’s debut album ‘We Are Warriors’, which will undoubtedly be a banger – we can’t wait!

If there is one unfortunate musical trend we’ve noticed lately it’s that keyboard players seem to be disappearing, only to be replaced by a laptop, audio player, or even (sorry soundmen) a phone. There’s a whole article to be written about this, starting with Black Sabbath hiding their keyboardist under the stage, but as live music gets more polished and accurate to the record, it runs the risk of losing character. Who cares if there are six-part vocal harmonies and a string section on your indie trio’s EP? The live experience is supposed to be different, to be raw, and, above all else, ‘live’. So here’s a heartfelt plea to bin the backing, chuck out the click, and go off the track!

Given the above, it is always a joy when a band bucks this unnerving trend, especially in unexpected circumstances like the one we found ourselves in recently. To set the scene, it’s your standard five-band punk rock / indie night at Cheltenham music’s local hangout The Frog & Fiddle, with the usual mix of local and touring bands. Mary Fields were a last minute addition to the bill, coming all the way from the Netherlands, which immediately peaked interest. So when they cracked out not just a keyboard but also an entire organ (how the hell do you transport that overseas?! – answers on a postcard please) it was clear that this wasn’t going to be your average noise-rock spaz-core band… if there is such a thing. With half the group setting up off-stage amongst the audience, they proceeded to launch from a quick line-check into an a capella version of Whitney’s ‘I Will Always Love You’ before shifting straight into full on Rolo Tomassi / Dillinger Escape Plan-style math-outs! Keyboardist Chris Greevink went from surprisingly proficient jazz piano playing to rolling about screaming in the space of a single song, peppered with some creative effects trickery throughout. Their short but sweaty set surely left everyone watching gobsmacked. Definitely a ‘marmite’ band, as with any noise band, but you owe it to your badass self to check them out if they roll that organ up your way in the future. You can also download their mini album ‘Flawless Victory Over Movement’ from Bandcamp, where you’ll find intricate song structures, strong vocals, and impressive musicianship on display amongst the chaos.

From one bizarre occurrence to another, the Internet was well and truly won for me this month by the appearance of a Vine featuring a headband-wearing busker with a seemingly limited vocabulary and some sweet keyboard dancing skills. Stephen Paul Taylor, or to use his nom-de-artiste SPT, is a 40-year old Canadian musician who entertains / terrorises – depending on your point of view – the streets of Berlin with his one-man keyboard band. The Vine in question is his song ‘Everybody Knows Shit’s Fucked’, a synth-pop protest about how everything is, like, totally screwed maaan. Once you get over the initial hilarity of the chorus it’s a genuinely catchy song, with more interesting lyrics than the Vine gives him credit for, and a cracking keyboard hook! If you’re anything like me, you’ll be wondering which 80’s anthem it was lifted from before realising that it’s entirely his own work and that his album ‘People Tonight’ is full of similarly catchy tunes. It won’t win any prizes for production as the overall aesthetic is charmingly DIY, with the sort of cheesy midi drums you might remember from school music classes (you know, those keyboards with the DJ button… hours of fun). It reminds this listener of not just 80’s pop masters like Eurythmics and Human League, but also the oddness of Talking Heads and an inevitable German dose of Kraftwerk. It might not be everyday listening, but if you like your synth pop to come with a side order of silly and a smattering of expletives, or just fancy something you won’t find elsewhere in your music library, then it is worth heading over to his Bandcamp for a listen. Whilst you’re there you might as well chuck him a quid for the ‘shit fuck’ song at least!

To finish, I want to award SPT with this month’s Keytar Hero title, despite not being able to find a picture online of him with one, you just know he has one in his closet… all together now, ‘everybody knows shit! fuck!’

Notes from the Keybed – This Month in Synths: July 2014

Canadian dance-punkers Death From Above 1979 are back and sounding as vital as ever. It’s been ten years since the duo combined monumental fuzz rock riffs with danceable beats on 2004’s ‘You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine’, but their influence can still be heard in everyone from Bloc Party to DZ Deathrays. One of the biggest influences on my own music making I was beyond excited when the band announced that they would be touring and releasing new music this year. The result is ‘Trainwreck 1979’, taken from upcoming second album ‘The Physical World’, and it’s an absolute belter! Known for his huge bass tone that renders the need for a guitarist useless, it’s easy to forget that Jesse F Keeler also plays a mean synthesiser. His time making electro in MSTKRFT has clearly paid off as the new single is packed full of luscious string pads, twinkling arpeggios and a piano hook that lifts the chorus up. Matched by Sebastien Grainger’s trademark drawl and thundering drums it is clear that the two-piece are back to show the current crop how it’s done. The single is out now and the album is due in September.

A couple of months back we revealed how minds were blown by Emperor Yes at this year’s Great Escape in Brighton. It seems we weren’t the only ones wooed by the electro pop trio’s charms as the band have announced that they are now working with the fantastic Alcopop! Records to release their debut album later this year. First single ‘Paramesse to Tanis’ is a psychedelic tour-de-force of abstract lyrics about pulling mountains across Egypt accompanied by choppy synth chords, Phil Collins aping 80’s drum fills, and quirky sound effects. The vocoder backing vocals that dominated earlier releases have been replaced by floaty indie boy harmonies, but the change is welcomed by this listener at least as, contrary to popular belief, one can have too much robot voice. Definitely one to check out for fans of Friendly Fires and The Flaming Lips.

I want to end this month’s round up (don’t worry keytar fans, check the paragraph below) by introducing some of my favourite synth-based music from the local area. Michael D Wynn is a producer/musician from Worcester, who has been playing a variety of instruments in countless bands but is now focusing on electronic music. He was responsible for one of my favourite releases of this year back in January, combining contemporary pop hooks with analogue beats and Microkorg riffs ‘The Careerist / Pinks’ with Flossie-T on vocals is a must-hear. Check it out on Soundcloud and harass him to make more like this!

Another band from the Worcestershire area who have been making waves in the music scene are Shatter Effect. I first came across this group, who combine noughties indie rock with male/female vocal trades and catchy synth parts, a couple of years back and they’ve been going from strength to strength with each subsequent single release, always complemented with visually stunning videos. The band are currently in the studio recording new material and I’ve been constantly checking their social media for updates, as the results will undoubtedly be excellent.

Finally… Keytar Hero time! Here at TwoBeatsOff we like Boston (as in the city, not the soft rock band… okay, fine, both). it’s the home of hardcore troubadours Defeater as well as ace punk/emo label Run For Cover Records. Well, now we have another reason to love the Massachusetts capital as a Prince-loving anonymous man dressed as a bear has been spotted riffing out on a keytar, busking away whilst, in his own words, ‘killing racism’. Perfect. Keytar Bear, we may be 3000 miles away and we will probably never cross paths. But from behind a laptop in a middle-class haven of the Cotswolds, for services to keytardom and equality, we salute you.