Mixtape Primer: Dark Synthpop Sounds Past and Present

By
Share:

If you head over to Matador Records’ website, you’ll find the new Cold Cave album streaming in its entirety. It’s been on high rotation here at Flavorwire, and we’re particularly loving the strong influence it draws from the darker/harsher end of the 1980s synthpop spectrum – darkwave, coldwave, and other genres with names that sound like they were made up by Hipster Runoff but really, truly, actually do exist. These sounds have been creeping back into music over the last couple of years, coinciding with a resurgence in interest in the original genres. Synthpop got a bad name during the late 1980s, but when it began, it was a hugely exciting genre, taking the DIY philosophy of punk and applying it to newly affordable electronic equipment to create dark, raw electronic sounds. Here’s a C60 of some fine examples of this sound, with the old on Side A and the new on Side B.

SIDE ONE: The Old

Suicide – “Ghost Rider” (2:34)

Perhaps the first band to make synthesizers sound scary, Suicide pre-dated the European synthpop scene by several years, and their unhinged, synth-driven punk certainly had an influence on the development of synthpop…

The Normal – “TVOD” (2:55)

… but arguably, the history of synthpop really begins here, with the first of two releases by The Normal, the alter ego of Mute Records founder Daniel Miller. Mute would go on to be a hugely influential label during the ‘80s (and, indeed, continues to be so today), putting out records by Depeche Mode, Yazoo, Erasure, Silicon Teens, Einsturzende Neubaten and many others. The first two releases on Mute, however, were Miller’s own, and they served as a de facto sonic manifesto for his label, marrying abrasive synth tones to DIY production and provocative lyrics. “TVOD” was the first; the second, “Warm Leatherette,” was later covered to great effect by Grace Jones.

Fad Gadget – “Back To Nature” (5:51)

There’s plenty of other stuff that could be chosen from Mute’s back catalog for this mix – if you’re interested in exploring the history of the label, look no further than the exhaustive Mute Audio Documents compilation that came out a few years back – but we’ll plump for the debut single by Frank Tovey, aka Fad Gadget. Tovey sent a demo of this song to Daniel Miller after hearing “TVOD.” It’d be the start of a long working relationship that ended when Tovey died suddenly and tragically of a heart attack in 2002 at the age of only 45.

Kas Product – “So Young But So Cold” (3:00)

A few years back, French label Tigersushi released a killer compilation of coldwave music, the distinctly Gallic take on dark, synth-driven music that flourished in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This track by Kas Product, a duo from Nancy in France’s northeast, was the one that gave the compilation its title, and it’s a fine example of the sound – built on harsh synth sounds, but also possessed of a certain icy charm. The group apparently reunited in 2005. There’s more information about them on their website, if you can make head or tail of it.

DAF – “Der Mussolini” (4:06)

As with France, the German underground also embraced the dark sounds of early synthpop, and there was often some crossover to the English-language scene. Dusseldorf duo Deutsche-Amerikanische Freundschaft (or DAF for short), for instance, released records in the UK on Virgin and Mute. This song is from their 1981 album Alles ist gut , and its lyrics – which translate roughly as “Get up, shake your hips, clap your hands/And dance the Mussolini/Dance the Adolf Hitler/Move your ass, and dance the Jesus Christ” – caused quite a stir on its release.

Cabaret Voltaire – “Sly Doubt” (5:00)

They formed in 1973 and spent several years playing to hostile audiences who weren’t really interested in proto-electronic/industrial experimentation, but eventually the times caught up with Cabaret Voltaire, and by 1978 they’d scored a record deal with Rough Trade and had started releasing albums that’d be hugely influential on the development of synthpop. Perhaps the best of these was 1981’s Red Mecca , which combined a slew of innovative sounds with a lyrical exploration of the nature of messianic Christianity, and from which this song is taken.

Throbbing Gristle – “Walkabout” (3:05)

One of the most consistently interesting bands in music, Throbbing Gristle traversed a huge range of sounds and genres, from laid-back instrumentals like this one to the sort of grinding industrial noise that Einsturzende Neubaten would be proud of. Their labyrinthine discography makes for fascinating exploration – as well as their studio albums, there’s a slew of side projects (like the excellent Chris & Cosey albums by Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti, which got re-released last year), as well as studio outtakes, live albums and bootlegs. (The album from which this particular song is taken, incidentally, was called 20 Jazz Funk Greats , a title that would later be adopted by one of our favorite music blogs.)

New Order – “Blue Monday” (4:30)

Yes, it’s been played to death, but you can never overestimate just how influential this song was. And in any case, for all that New Order certainly took some of the inspiration from the proto-synthpop types we’ve discussed above, those bands were often influenced in turn by Joy Division’s bleak soundscapes, so there was a definite element of things coming full circle with the release of this track, and the fact that it went on to become the biggest-selling 12” of all time.

SIDE TWO: The New

Cold Cave – “The Great Pan is Dead” (4:09)

This is the first single from the upcoming Cold Cave record Cherish the Light Years , and it’s really pretty awesome, full of coruscating guitars and big sawtooth synths. And yes, we know we shouldn’t read the YouTube comments section, but still, it’s sad to hear people calling this “sellout material” and other such shit. It’s a most excellent song that may or may not be more radio-friendly than Wesley Eisold’s previous output, and it deserves to do well. So there.

Zola Jesus – “Poor Animal” (4:28)

As well as being possessed of a pretty astonishing voice, Nika Danilova is also clearly possessed of a lot of love for the darkest end of the synth spectrum, the shadowy zone formerly inhabited by Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus, where synth sounds merge with goth stylings to create what became known in the 1980s as darkwave.

John Maus – “Rights for Gays” (2:38)

Ariel Pink associate and generally fascinating figure John Maus has released a heap of lo-fi synth material since 2006 or so, and apparently also teaches philosophy at the University of Hawaii. Nice work if you can get it, etc.

Esben & The Witch – “Marching Song” (4:00)

Occupying a similarly dark place to Zola Jesus are UK three-piece Esben & the Witch, who’ve been one of the unlikelier success stories of recent years – who’d have thought that a band named after a Norwegian fairy tale with a penchant for goth stylings and videos where they look like they’ve been beaten to a pulp would end up being nominated for a best newcomer award by Q magazine, of all publications? (They didn’t win, obviously. But still.)

Martial Canterel – “Vision” (5:11)

The side project for Sean McBride of Brooklyn duo Xeno & Oaklander, Martial Canterel has released two excellent albums that draw heavily on the sounds of the early 1980s. Indeed, McBride makes it a mark of pride that his music as Martial Canterel is produced only on vintage analog synthesizers, and it certainly shows on this track from the project’s 2009 official debut Refuge Underneath (the song was originally a cassette-only release in 2004, but God only knows where you’d be able to find said cassette now).

Velvet Condom – “Never Ever” (3:51)

Yes, the name sounds suspiciously like one of those satirical bands from The Mighty Boosh, but French duo Velvet Condom are for real, and their music is a definite tribute to the classic Mute sound of the early ‘80s, with enough originality to keep it from being simple pastiche. Their last.fm profile explains their sound as “the cold and safe synthetics of a condom and the glamorous elegance of velvet on the other.” So there you go.

White Ring – “IxC999” (4:23)

Clearly, there’s a darkwave influence on what’s come to be called “witch house” over the last year or so – Salem, in particular, have definite goth elements to their huge, ominous sound. This song marks another place where genre boundaries blur. Brooklyn duo White Ring have been lumped in with other alleged witch house artists like oOoOO and Balam Acab, but really, this song has just as much in common with what, say, Zola Jesus is doing.

//TENSE// – “The Chain” (4:36)

The silly punctuation and capital letters also suggest that Houston trio //TENSE// should be a new Tri Angle band, but in fact, they’re signed to suitably underground tape-centric indie label Desire. Their music falls into a space somewhere on the edge of the dancefloor, and their live set at SXSW this year certainly got people talking. As far as we know, they’ve only released limited edition vinyl and cassettes so far; hopefully a more widespread release is coming soon – and hopefully, it’ll include this cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain.”

Absolute Body Control – “Figures” (4:30)

This Belgian duo released a series of albums in the late 1980s before going their own separate ways. They’re one of the artists who were rediscovered under the auspices of excellent NYC label Minimal Wave Records, a project founded in 2005 by Veronica Vasicka, who also presents a show of the same name on East Village Radio. The renewal of interest in Absolute Body Control led them to reunite in 2008, when they released an album of reworked versions of their music, from which this version of their early track “Figures” is taken. Whether it’s better than the original is open for debate, but the synthesis of past and present provides a fine conclusion to our exploration of this fascinating part of the musical landscape.