Control (Unpopular Culture)
~reviewed by Uncle Nemesis
It's astonishing to think that this is Synthetic's third album. They seem to chuck one out roughly every twelve months. Lack of material clearly isn't a problem for this band. Plus, of course, being on their own label means they can do whatever they want, whenever they want, without waiting for other artists on the label-roster to have their turn, or hanging on for the green light from head office. Synthetic *are* head office. Such are the advantages of the DIY approach.
Three albums in, and the band have have pretty much established their style. Synthetic songs typically have a whumping great rhythm, stuttering electronics, odd little keyboard-melodies, and - secret weapon ahoy - about seven layers of full-on overdriven guitar. It's odd that Synthetic are often referred to (and, indeed, think of themselves) as an 'electronic band'. They often have more guitar on one song than many grizzled old rockers would deploy over an entire album.
But Synthetic's *other* secret weapon is their ability to write insanely catchy pop songs, often with a touch of Morrissey-style angst about the lyrics, and this album delivers eleven of the little devils. Eleven musings on life and love and death...and, erm, punk rock. At least, that's what I reckon '25 Years' could be all about: 'Twenty five years since seventy seven/You wake up dead but not in heaven/The papers print the same old lies/The same black smoke pollutes the skies' - well, it's either a pean to punk, or an environmental anthem.
One of the odd quirks of Synthetic albums is that there are usually two tracks which *really* hit the spot: two songs which lift themselves above the general tunestack and proclaim themselves something special (which means that in 2005, when Synthetic get up to their fifth album, they'll have enough material for a killer 'best of' compilation). The first of the Cool Two here is 'The Body Farm', a madcap romp of monster riffs and frantic electronics, with a drum pattern that wallops so hard you'd think the band had trapped John Bonham in a little black box. The drum tracks throughout the album, incidentally, are massive, pummelling things. I assume they're built up from samples of actual drums, because there's a real acoustic feel to the sound. Even the cymbal crashes die away naturally, instead of chopping off short, which is often the obvious giveaway that we're dealing with software, not hardware. Synthetic seem to have hit on the ultimate drum sound, regardless of how it's generated: it's certainly a world away from the traditional ticky-tocky goth-band drum machine, which I still hear far too often in too many bands' music.
The second supercool tune in this set is 'Spooky Kabuki', a wistful little thing...if a song based around such a mad-bastard squall of guitar, and a whomp-thwack, whomp-thwack beat could be described as 'wistful'. It has a lyric in the fine tradition of 'I think my girlfriend's seeing someone else', although this time it's written from what you might call a subcultural perspective: 'Tell me the reason/For turning to treason/You're changing your colours/And bleaching your hair' - all to a melody which builds up the tension in the verse and then lets everything off the leash in the chorus. I think Synthetic just came up with another classic.
But...there always has to be a but. While the production on this album is pretty much top-notch all the way (the drums, as I've hinted, are almost frightening in their leap-out-at-you-ness), for some baffling reason the vocals have been dropped back in the mix, to the point where on some songs they're almost obliterated by the churn and swirl of the music. Tim, Synthetic's singer, sometimes sounds like he's running along behind the band, struggling to keep up, when really he should be leading from the front. Just nudging the vocal fader up a notch or two at the mixing stage would've probably sorted this - and here, perhaps, we discover the disadvantage of the DIY approach. It's easy for bands to become so immersed in their own music that it's difficult to stand back from it, listen with fresh ears, and say, 'Now...does that *really* work?' In the DIY zone, where the bands are also their own record labels, producers, A&R men and managers, I suspect that it's uncommon for anybody outside the bands themselves ever to hear the music before it's pressed up and on release - and that's a high-risk strategy, because sometimes little glitches can get through. Let's make a note to do a remix for that 'best of' compilation!
The website: http://www.syntheticdomain.com
Reviewed by Uncle Nemesis: http://www.nemesis.to