As always, a year of deep listenings, full of discoveries, new loves and obsessions, and some disappointments. Leaving aside the big and obvious names like Nick Cave or Chelsea Wolfe, and the amazing debut album of Dublin’s Fontaines DC, probably my favorite of the year, actually on everyone’s lips. Here is, in summary, the records that I listened to most over the year, with the usual involuntary omissions and strictly in no particular order.
- BODY OF LIGHT “Time To Kill” [Dais Records]
Arizona‘s brothers Alex and Andrew Jarson are back after three years, following the excellent “Let Me Go”, with their third and finest album to date, capable of updating and personalizing, without ever falling into the predictable, a classic dark 80s UK synthpop / new wave of the 80s (New Order, Psyche, early Depeche Mode, Soft Cell, Tears For Fears). Catchy, danceable, anthemic and full of intriguing unexpected nuances… I found myself listening to him constantly. Gloriously 80s, yet unmistakable fresh and modern.
- BOY HARSHER “Careful” [Nude Club Records]
Savannah, Georgia-born/Western Massachusetts-based duo Boy Harsher is, among the contemporary bands, the one with the most personal, engaging and visionary sound, fueled by a dark and adrenaline-charged but, at the same time, distressing and claustrophobic, intensified by the suggestively desperate and highly sensual Matthews’ voice, is confirmed to be the leading band of the dark synthwave contemporary scene, continuously enriched with EBM, techno and ambient elements that make it extraordinarily compelling.
- MINUIT MACHINE “Infrarouge” [Synth Religion]
After 3 years of hiatus, the beloved Parisian pair is back with the third LP. If superficially everything seems as we knew, it’s the sparkling, refined production that stands out, emphasizing above all the percussive aspect, while the shining spacey melodic synth riffs of Hélène intensified by the impressive urgency in Amandine‘s vocal tone laced with deep-felt despair and controlled anger, to weave a hypnotically enveloping thread, equally gloomy and sublime, as it is depressed and melancholic, that keeps you nailed from start to finish.
- HOUSEWIVES “Twilight Splendour” [Blank Editions]
In a landscape where the points of reference are obsessively the Cure and Joy Division, bold experimentalists like the London based quintet are welcome. Between dub, kraut, IDM, industrial, and jazz suggestions, the band manipulate, squelch, cut, fragment, reconstruct, distort, drone, skew, scream and rattle the rhythms and melodies without ever losing nexus and sight, and in the end, although lacking that peculiar ‘warmth’ and magic of the pre-internet era, to be absolutely uneasily compelling and incredibly imaginative.
- MILLIKEN CHAMBER “Absence” [Self-Released]
On the same wavelength as Boy Harsher and Minuit Machine, without the unabashed power of the former and the relentless desperation of the latter, Michigan relocated to L.A. duo of Anna Schmidt and Kevin Charnik enthralls with their moody and melancholic darkwave, or better coldwave, able to revive the timeless splendor of UK synthpop of the 80s, simmering of restrained sorrow and catharsis, which burns with a deep and heartfelt noir mystique.
- TWIN TRIBES “Ceremony” [Negative Gain Productions]
“Ceremony” replicates the dazzling debut album in an even more personal and distinctive way, without losing propulsive immediacy and catchiness, with occult and ritualistic inflections in the lyrics, Latino allure, and darker yet sometimes ethereal tones dripping with pain and melancholy, make Texan duo one of the most exciting new breeds of goth bands. The irresistible “Fantasmas” is a future classic in the making.
- SYZYGYX “Fading Bodies” [Cold Transmission Music / Negative Gain Productions]
Similarly to Closed Mouth, a memorable year for Washington, D.C.-based dynamic synth & beats laden ‘rock’n’roll’ duo of Luna Blanc and Josh Clark, with two brilliant albums and a collection of previous material under their belt. The combination of more energetic and powerful driving tracks with others more evocative, without ever losing internal tension, in a dizzying imaginative blend of minimal synth, EBM, electro post-punk, and coldwave, show an increasingly cohesive and organic balance between experimental attitude and pop quality.
- ANTIPOLE “Radial Glare” [Young & Cold Records]
From the instrumental beginnings on YouTube, Antipole, the project led by Norwegian guitarist/bassist Karl Morten Dahl, has come a long way, embellished by the now unmistakable presence of the voices and keyboards of Eirene and Paris Alexander, and in this case also by the frontman of mid-80s band The Snake Corps, Mark Lewis, that with the new album reaches a point of admirable instrumental balance and songwriting maturity, where the distinctive elegant and evocative, mesmeric reverberated guitar leads, intertwined with atmospheric keyboards, spark as never before, replete with introspection, melancholy, and contemplative sadness.
- NAO KATAFUCHI “Stahlgrau” [Castle Records / TONN Recordings / Kernkrach]
Finally, after 4 years, the long-awaited second album of the Japanese minimal synth artist based in West Germany, after a long period of fruitful ‘apprenticeship’ hanging around New York’s Wierd Records’ parties, is a fine reality. Accentuating the dark tones with special vocal guests ( Violet Candide of Mitra Mitra, Tulipán Máté of Carla Under Water, Rinko of Future Eve and Selofan’s Joanna Pavlidou), aptly combines synths, drum machines, and guitars, to create his distinctive, sophisticated and moody sonic world, rippled with wistfulness, romance, and detached irony.
- LOVATARAXX “Hébéphrénie” [Unknown Pleasures Records]
I have to confess that this summer when the duo from Grenoble asked me for the premiere of the video for “Venus Ana” I knew them only vaguely, and never a surprise was more appreciated. The compelling and hypnotic dark coldwave imbued with synthpop and industrial suggestions, forged in a relentless tour activity up and down Europe and the US, through icy and alienating bass lines, dance-inducing drum machines, winding bleak synths, haunting male/female vocals, make for an intriguing and refined, while at the same time modern and minimal debut.
- FRAGRANCE “Now I’m Real” [Synth Religion]
Paris-based musician Matthieu Roche unleashed his debut LP earlier in February, right in the year of the return of Robert Alfons aka TR/ST with even two LPs, artist to who has often been compared, but with the precious help of the usual Hélène de Thoury (Hante) and former TR/ST cohort Canadian synthesist Maya Postepski (Princess Century, Austra), conjured up something sounding utterly fresh and vibrant, pushing his dark and dreamy synthpop to greater heights.
- CLOSED MOUTH “[ONE]” [Cold Transmission Music]
Another project that we have seen grow and continuously improve is the Closed Mouth moniker of the prolific, quite reticent, French DIY musician Yannick Rault, who has absorbed his old coldwave, post-punk and gothic-rock library by syncretizing it in his music, with urgency and spontaneity, in the best possible way, releasing two almost flawless albums, a collection of unreleased songs and outtakes, and last, but not least, last week’s excellent single, all in just one year, if he keeps this up the sky is the limit…
- COLD SHOWERS “Motionless” [Dais Records]
Los Angeles-based Cold Showers return with their most diverse and cohesive, at the same time refined and bold album to date.
The trio’s goth-tinged, synth-laced post-punk, washed out by shoegaze guitar lushness, is never been as much as multi-faceted, rich and intense, imbued with sublime melodic flair.
- DE AMBASSADE “Duistre Kamers” [Knekelhuis]
Imaginative and unpredictable, Dutch electronic analog sound craftsman and ’60s/’70s spaced-out film-scores haunter, Pascal Pinkert (aka Dollkraut) drops the debut full length of his wave project, augmented by the rich and deep basslines of Timothy Francis, built on a couple of sparse singles from a few years ago, offers its own homespun charm through fresh and direct swirls of bleak synth, brooding rhythms, ecstatic textures, Dutch vocalizes, pop inflections, to create a mesmerizing yet minimal heady body of work, walking the lines between wave, electro-post-punk, EBM, that’s both disturbing and captivating.
- SILENT EM “The Absence” [Disko Obscura]
Ably channeling clear 80’s influences, varying from early Belgian New Beat, the most skeletal French cold-wave to the classic dark synth-pop, yet avoiding the danger of sounding retro, the NY-based artist Jean Lorenzo, like Nao Katafuchi another Wierd Records’ nights ‘trainee’, densely pulse with dark-edged brooding vintage synth lines, driving rhythms, heavy bleak basslines, augmented by enthralling melodies and gripping strained emotionally-ridden vocals.
- PINCH POINTS “Moving Parts” (Roolette Records / Six Tonnes De Chair Records / Burger Records)
A punk-informed band could not miss, especially if genuinely Australian, with a minimal, angular and urgent take on post-punk bursting with edgy intensity, vibrant energy and pierced by caustic lyrics. They dub it ‘turbo-punk’ and it’s a smasher! Both band and label are the finest examples of what DIY attitude should be.
- SCARY BLACK “Shadow Dwellers” [Secret Sin Records Ltd]
Louisville, Kentucky based ‘enigmatic’ solo project Scary Black popped up last March with a work in progress demo album, giving immediately glimpses of significant talent, shortly thereafter confirmed by the nine tasty songs of his proper debut album, steeped with his unmistakable dark and haunting, gothic-horror-infused darkwave/post-punk sound. A brand new album has just been dropped, the single is a belter, don’t miss out…
- NNHMN “Shadow in the Dark” [K Dreams Records / Zoharum label]
Highly promising Berlin-based, Warsaw-bred duo Lee and Michal Laudarg aka NNHMN deeply bewitch with two albums, while the debut ‘Velvet Daze’ is obscure, atmospheric and experimental, the song-driven latter is made of an intoxicating darkwave concoction of pulsing edgy rhythmic energy and relentless ethereal yet dramatically dark intensity, haunted by alluring, mysterious, poetic female lamentations. Absolutely an act to follow in the new year.
- KONTRAVOID “Too Deep” [Fleisch Records]
Over time, Berlin-based, Toronto-born Cameron Findlay, under his Kontravoid alias, has developed a unique ability to perfectly combine, as few are able to, evocative melodies of synthpop with the punch and rhythmic tension of EBM, bears witness his sophomore album that hits the mark for array of atmospheres and quality of songwriting, equally insanely engaging and supremely danceable from start to finish.
- SOFT RIOT “When Push Comes To Shove” [Possession Records]
To a superficial listen, it might seem like the usual record harking back to the British synthpop of the 80s (Gary Numan, Fad Gadget, John Foxx), but the intriguing musical world and sound approach of veteran Glasgow-based, Canadian musician and DIY label Possession Records co-founder, JJD, are far more intricate and bold. Sophisticated as it is raw, as heartfelt and catchy, as experimental, with subtle lyrical and sonic references to his previous records (concept of “deja vu”, he calls it), it’s a perfect fit, with its EBM and Italo disco suggestions, for the most discerning dancefloors. You can play it over and over again and never get tired, not an easy task at all for an electro-pop record.