Tag Archives: synth-pop

Loving STRANGELOVE

Depeche Mode are an enduring, genius band that formed in 1979 who still write, record and tour today. Their success in the 80’s and 90’s is legend. More recently, during the last 15 years, their work has become increasingly dark and experimental — still a single here or there, for instance last year’s “Where’s The Revolution” reward the faithful who seek a bit more dance than trance — it all comes off smashingly well in their most continuing concert tours, which sell out to global audiences.

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Many fans of the band continue to follow and patronize the act, yet typically consider their “golden age” to stretch 1981-1997, now 20 years ago. These were triumphant times the band spent on the write/record/tour train, resulting in legendary albums from Speak and Spell(1981) to Ultra(1977). This is when DM could easily be compared to “The Beatles of the 80’s” — really “80s/90s”. As many will already know, the band began with their first album largely hemmed by Vince Clark, who left the year it was released, and was replaced by deft player Alan Wilder, who joined singer David Gahan and third keys-man Andrew Fletcher making the long running foursome. Alan left in 1995 before the last “core period” release Ultra.

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But at the early stage in 1981, with Clarke going away to do Yaz, Martin Gore became principal songwriter and instead of that being a challenge, the band’s output matured by leaps and bounds. The third record Construction Time Again(1983), which found Alan increasingly taking a role as lead player and soundscape creator is a masterwork. This album was a breakthrough in terms of ambition and maturity, though just one successful single, “Everything Counts” emerged. The record as a whole covered territory sonically and lyrically that became the trademark for these hard working musicians. Global popularity built steadily after this from Some Great Rewardto Black Celebration, Music for the Masses, Violator, Songs of Faith and Devotionand on. At the end of two decades, after the new-millennia “backward look” Exciter(2001), the band took increasing sonic risks, releasing 4 additional records and 5 world tours in the last 15 years. These live shows became louder and noisier – much more like rock ‘n roll in many parts, more focused on drums, bass and guitar than on 3 men at their synths – a different and new sound and style for this millennia.

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Enter tribute genius band Strangelove. What these stellar musicians and performers so is lovingly recreate the DM live experience, focusing on their shows from 1981 to 1997 – basically, the version of the band we all grew to love — all synth, maybe a few found objects, no “bass player” and definitely no drummer. Just four guys and three keyboard rigs, and four part harmonies all fronted by one of the most charismatic lead singers born to this world. Each member of Strangelove recreates not just the music but also the persona of their role:

Brent “Counterfeit Martin” (Martin Gore)
Leo “Ultra Dave” (Dave Gahan)
Julian “Oscar Wilder” (Alan Wilder)
James “In The Fletch” (Andrew Fletcher)

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Taken in parts or as a whole, I had multiple moments, regularly, where I felt like I was seeing the actual band live, despite each of these talented musicians infusing the proceedings with some of their own obvious talents. Critically, maybe most importantly, Brent’s vocal interpretation of warble-then-sustain (or vice-versa) Martin Gore is dead on, and Leo’s growling baritone representing Dave Gahan is note perfect, accentuated by moves both dressed and undressed that echo everything great about Dave as one of the world’s greatest front-men. It’s an unbelievable collection of talent which will, for all, preserve the early DM experience while allowing for the original band to continue stretching into experimental territory. And, finally, there is something about a show featuring all synth — pure synth, which bubbles and pops out of high-definition speaker systems in such clear form while we watch and dance.

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I talked to Brent after the show and in follow up discussions:

1) Brent did you specifically agree to focus on 1981-1999 in order to represent the four piece synth led version of the band?

We do represent all eras of the Depeche Mode canon. Depending on the scale and locale of the show we’re performing, we bring in different stage set pieces and costume changes that reflect key points in their evolution. That said, there is a deliberate focus on what are perceived as the halcyon days from ‘86-‘93, as this era represents the sweet-spot where many lifelong fans of Depeche Mode were first introduced to them. Our project also proudly features a 1:1 analog for every member of the classic lineup. The project was very much cast with this in mind.

2) Though Alan did play some drums, very tastefully by the way, on his last tour, for “Songs of Faith and Devotion”, did you make a conscious choice to avoid this?

Our own “Alan” performer, Julian Shah-Tayler (aka: Oskar Wilder) is an adept multi-instrumentalist and is easily up to the task of performing live drums for a segment of our set. That said, we would likely limit that to a live presentation that focused primarily on Songs of Faith and Devotion, and adhere to that visually, as well as in the set list and instrumentation. A native of London, via Leeds; Julian’s from the very popular UK outfit “Whitey”, that had quite a bit of momentum a handful of years ago. For larger shows in US we’ve brought in Terri Nunn/Berlin’s drummer Chris Olivas and he’s a our “fifth member”. An interesting footnote — I’ve produced a couple of original music projects, and brought in Depeche Mode drummer Christian Eigner. He did a fantastic job!

3) How many “Dave’s” have you employed, Leo is fantastic!

I began developing a project as music director and performing in the “Martin Gore” capacity in 2006, in what was an early iteration of what eventually became Strangelove-The Depeche Mode Experience. Since that time I’ve worked with two other vocalists before finding our current singer, Leo Luganskiy (aka: Ultra-Dave). When we first heard him we immediately knew our worldwide search was over. His vocal timbre is uncannily like Gahan’s. He’s the total package, and at just 30 years old, more accurately represents the timeframe we referenced above.

4) When you study Martin’s lyrics, do you pick up bits of humor or even a track you think is overtly happy from this maestro of all things dark and lonely?  (I might say “But Not Tonight”)

Of course we have poured over the lyrics quite a bit, in the course of the thousands of hours involved in recreating their studio work to present it in a live setting. There’s quite a range of emotion on display; and quite an evolution from their early work to the open cynicism in evidence on their latest release, “Spirit”.  A certain line in “But Not Tonight” often elicits chuckles from the audience. Other lyrics gain newfound relevance in our modern times (“People Are People”, “New Dress” immediately come to mind)

5) Are there any songs you omit because they are too challenging to you or to audience for any reason?  (I am thinking lack of singles on my favorite Construction Time Again)

We don’t omit any songs because of performing challenges, but rather, based on what we know the audience response is likely to be. For instance, there are no current plans to work up “Black Day” or Christmas Island” since few would care and others that are familiar would still likely be bored and go grab a pint. An immersive album listening experience is very different from a live presentation and there are matters of set programming flow and energy level to take into account.

6) Playing a few from Speak and Spell, do you see a real difference in the structure when Vince wrote and played as lead?

The chief difference to us was the naivety and spunk the young lads had at that point. Obviously, with Vince as primary writer at that point, the songs have a different feel. We do a few tracks from SAS and they’re still a lot of fun to perform live.

7) Can Londoners expect any surprises that we don’t see in the states?

The biggest surprise, (even though it’s listed on the poster) is that we’re having “Scant Regard” open for us. This is a new project by Will Crewdson, the London-based guitarist/writer/producer best known for his work with the London band Rachel Stamp, Concrete Blonde’s Johnette Napolitano, Flesh for Lulu, Adam Ant, The Selecter and Bow Wow Wow. He may bring a special guest to sit in…

8) What does Depeche Mode think of your project-

We’ve had quite a bit of interaction with several people within the DM camp. I’ve had a few conversations with Martin about our project and he’s very gracious and generous with regard to helping us out. I’ve had a couple of screwdriver-ish conversations with him about particular synths/samplers used on specific songs. Alan Wilder has also provided us with original tour samplesets (the custom-made keyboard sounds they employed in making the records). Their manager Jonathan Kessler politely tolerates us, I think in part, because they understand that we keep fans sated while they’re on their tour/album cycle hiatus. At a recent “Spirit” press conference Dave took the piss out of Martin for spending hours watching OUR performance videos!

Londoners and those close or far by via tube/train – do NOT MISS THIS SHOW.  Diego

Facebook event for London gig.
https://www.facebook.com/events/2001096206818310/

All Photos (C) Animus-Art Photography
Instagram : @animusartphotography
Facebook: @animusartphotography
Thank you, B!!

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Midge Ure Returns

Oh the ravages of time… over the last several years, I’ve been picking up tickets to concerts by bands from the “New Wave” era as they do the rounds, whether they are out on the road again for the sheer joy of playing live, because they are out promoting new work, or just due to the fact that the rock industry has no retirement plan! Midge Ure, formerly of the British new wave band Ultravox, dropped by San Francisco to perform several times over the last 5 years. He returned to kick off 2017 with a two-piece band backup, delivering an assertively played set that highlighted a large number of popular ‘80s Ultravox songs along with a selection of solo work. It’s dubbed the Something From Everything Tour as the songs featured spanned Ure’s long career.

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Many readers will be aware that there were two different frontmen who led Ultravox(!) during their life span. Early on the band was led by founder, singer Dennis Leigh (who took the stage name John Foxx). The early work by the band, while creative and oft compelling was not commercially successful and Foxx left before the dawn of the ‘80s to make a go as a solo artist. Midge Ure took the reigns on guitar and vocals, joining keyboard player Billy Currie with whom he worked in the band Visage. The band released Vienna in 1980, their fortunes grew, and they released four more albums before Ure called it a day and went on to begin his own solo career.

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At last week’s San Francisco show, Ure was in good humor and fine voice, particularly considering how challenging his ‘80s vocal work is. A couple of years ago when I saw him solo at a small bar Ure confided to the audience that he wished he had written more of his popular songs in a lower key or register, so difficult it is to sing many of those high notes as the years go by. The truth of this revelation was obvious at many points during this year’s show, most notably during one of the most beautiful romantic ballads ever written, “Vienna” when Ure reeled back at least 3 feet from the microphone to call out the name of the titular city. Nonetheless, this quality artist puts everything he’s got into the performance, including being his own roadie (!) and the results are impressive. The audience was enthusiastic, dancing as much as older bones allow, laughing at Ure’s cracks and singing along to his melodic compositions.

midgeure_ultravoxhits_72dpiUltravox staples included the triple play “Hymn,” “The Voice,” and “Vienna” followed shortly by additional hits “Dancing With Tears in My Eyes” and “Reap the Wild Wind.” Just about all of the Ultravox songs he played were on what was one of the greatest “best of” albums in the day Ultravox: The Collection. The set began with one that was not – the 1988 top 10 solo tome “Dear God” and it ended with a heartfelt encore that found us all singing along to David Bowie’s “Starman.” One highlight for clubbers of the day the inclusion of “Fade to Grey,” a song Ure co-wrote and produced for Visage in 1980. For anyone who wanted to rekindle the flame this artist lit in the day, or any who came to dance, the show did not disappoint!

p.s. thanks to Amy Lynn for the featured photo!

Erasure Flaming Violet at the Fox

erasure_foxErasure is the synth-pop duo of Vince Clarke (keyboards) and Andy Bell (vocals.) Vince is the founder of three of the most famous all-synth bands of our times – Depeche Mode, Yazoo (Yaz in the states) and Erasure. In the 80’s these bands lured me away from the keyboard driven progressive rock artists I loved in the 70’s and extended my collection immensely. And, being a big fan of lead singers with personality, I found Andy to be a gem of Britain with his tremendous vocal range, charming tones, and energetic stage presence. The duo recently had the chance to showcase their new work “The Violet Flame” in concert at the Fox Theater in Oakland, California on November 1st 2014.

erasure_duoTo really appreciate this music you’ve got to experience it live in concert. Vince is known for his use of pre-MIDI analogue synthesizers and sequencers, and nothing beats the warm sound of these instruments cranked up to massive volumes. In concert he remains fairly stationary, twiddling knobs from behind his machinery looking very serious. The only exception to this I’ve seen was his inclusion in the synchronized runway dance during the “Abba-esque” segment for the Chorus tour. The real treat in concert is singer Andy Bell, who flirts with the audience, dressing in exotic risqué costumes, delivering his soaring vocals with pitch perfect precision. He has been on top of his game every time I’ve seen them, with the highlight being the Chorus tour, nicely documented in the video “The Tank, The Swan, and the Balloon Live,” and including their most elaborate staging outside the “Wild!” and “Cowboy” tours.

erasure_andy2With more than sixteen album releases, Erasure has worked within different sound pallets from synth-pop to trace to pure dance music. For me, their greatest works are I Say I Say I Say (1994) with the boisterous up-tempo single “Run to the Sun” and the self-titled Erasure (1995) with the densely textured track “Fingers and Thumbs.” Vince’s choice of sounds and complex multi-layered keyboard sequencing really hit a high water mark during this period. But the whole catalog is full of gems both musically and lyrically, such as an early track “Hideaway”, the heart breaking but ultimately triumphant ode to coming out:

The boy he was rejected
By the people that he cared for
It’s not what they expected
But he could not keep it secret anymore

erasure_bandOther standouts from the group’s catalog include “Drama” and “Blue Savannah” from Wild! (1989), and “I Love to Hate You” and “Breath of Life” from Chorus (1991). Their releases since the 90’s have all been solid, but their new album, The Violet Flame (2014) is far better than might be expected – all their trademark flourishes are included within a dance heavy mix fronted by Andy’s still pliant voice. So it was with great expectations that we attended the show Saturday night.

erasre_andyWhile not the best tour from this duo, the concert was great. The crowd was largely drawn from San Francisco, and they treat these artists as royalty, particularly Andy, considered an LGBT icon. The atmosphere was charged with excitement from the opening track, “Oh L’Amour” to the encores “Always” and “Sometimes”. The rest of the set list was well chosen, though without any deep cuts or more rarely played songs.  Instead, they highlighted the hits from the past, and four tracks off the latest album, including the dramatic “Sacred.”

erasure_vinceVince played his typical role – mostly standing calmly behind a small tabletop of electronics and laptop – while Andy led the procession all vamp and vigor, backed by their two long-time female vocalists. The staging was a bit sparse – just glossy black flooring and dance club lighting –no props or elaborate costumes for the players. Prior tours have been more elaborately staged, with a bit more going on visually, and that added to the overall experience. But the focus here was the music, with new interesting mixes Vince prepared, and Andy’s performance, which is nothing less than amazing.  Though it’s been 30 years since they started out, he is still a powerful and charismatic stage presence, with soaring vocal range and sassy dance moves still intact.

A very entertaining night from these masters of all things breathy and electronic!