Electro London 2015:
Mechanical Cabaret/Sinestar/Johnny Normal/The Department/EmT/Tiny Magnetic Pets/eleKtroFish/Cloak/AkA

Zigfrid von Underbelly, London - 12 September 2015

"Brilliantly executed and several new discoveries made"

Anyone who thinks the underground electronic scene in the UK is in a sorry state of affairs is obviously living in a different universe to me and, it seems, a lot of others too. Not only was the dark side of the force sublimely represented at this year's Infest festival in West Yorkshire over 3 days across the August Bank Holiday weekend, but at the same time as newcomer Electro London got under way, the annual chiptune bake-off that is SuperByte was taking place (again over 3 days) in Manchester.

Conceived and (brilliantly) executed by The Department's Rob Green and Johnny Normal (whose online radio show is a regular for breaking new and unsigned genre acts on the UK scene), Electro London was a welcome addition to the festival circuit. The BAS Festival in Basildon, Essex has well served those with a weakness for synthpop since 2011. Whilst, Derek Anthony Williams' (seriously regional) DEF has been admirably fighting the corner for sounds closer to my heart in Doncaster. Those in their 30s and upwards will know that for decades the bulk of the underground London alternative/electronic festival scene in particular has been almost single-handedly covered by Flag Promotions' Frank Drake.

However, in recent years, Flag has been putting more energy into modest but UK-wide tours taking in a handful of familiar regional/national venues, meaning the London-centric festivals (like Elektrofest, Black Celebration and Gotham) are now all just distant memories. What few festivals have been happening in London (I'm ignoring the more dance/techno/experimental side here), like SOS, have focused more on the rock side of alternative than the electronic. Which, for me, is a shortcoming. What I want is electronic music in all its guises. So, as you can imagine, when a new, one-day festival entitled Electro London was announced my head swivelled.

[AkA photo]    [Cloak photo]    [eleKtroFish photo]

Photos [L-R]: AkA, Cloak, eleKtroFish

Up front, based on the acts familiar to me, this appeared to be focused largely on the synthpop/electropop/dancepop side of the genre. Which, 80s classic bands aside, and a few exceptions in the decades since, has yielded little in the way of either innovation or high quality songwriting for many a year. The internet is awash with blokes in their 40s inspired by the synthpop bands of their teenage years, turning out poorly produced, derivative pop songs on synthesisers, adding absolutely nothing to the genre and, in doing so, actually sullying the heights of purity and lustre to which it once soared.

Therefore, not knowing about half the bands on the bill, I approached this day with some caution tempering my natural enthusiasm. AkA, EmT, Sinestar, The Department and headliners Mechanical Cabaret were all known. Cloak, eleKtroFish, Tiny Magnetics Pets I'd never heard, and co-organiser Johnny Normal I knew mainly by his reputation online as a general scene supporter and his single Miss Razorblade alone. The first two acts, AkA and Cloak both made their live débuts at Electro London.

Travelling from Portugal for today's festival, AkA I was well-versed with and partial to. I came across this quirky, unconventional, pure electronics composer via some collaborations he did with Will Crewsdon's Scant Regard project, and an especially memorable cover of Warm Leatherette - made famous on the UK synth scene in the 80s via Daniel (Mute Records) Miller's as The Normal. Like some of Crewsdon's writing, being essentially instrumental music, AkA's style falls between the two stalls of soundscape/soundtrack work and more short-form, song-based structures.

Yet, even I wasn't prepared for the sheer impact on hearing such quality sounds and beats live. A smartly chosen setlist meant that all of AkA's distinctive qualities shone but at the same time provided a selection of compositions that are about as 'user friendly' to a wider audience as the project allows. It was only one guy with a laptop but the impression it left was massive. With a swathe of releases lined up between now and the end of the year, now is the perfect time to discover AkA. A remarkable start to the day.

AkA setlist: Man War, Take Two, Acid V1, Bi Polar, Play Loud, Warm Leatherette, Clean Your Ears

Immediately, Cloak were a very different proposition. They've been writing and recording for many years, but this was their first gig. Lead vocalist Kevin Prior was clearly nervous, but he needn't have been, as they delivered an accomplished performance. The live three-piece set up of lead vocalist, synth player and guitarist was also a visual contrast to what we'd just seen. A lot of the synth sounds appealled and Prior's voice was strong and distinctive - a major distinguishing asset. Consequently, their half hour set of songs taken from their only album Our Father's Sons held my throughout.

Cloak setlist: Come And Play With Me, Mourn For You, Definition, Hollow, Our Fathers' Son's

[Tiny Magnetic Pets photo]    [EmT photo]    [The Department photo]

Photos [L-R]: Tiny Magnetic Pets, EmT, The Department

EleKtroFish was billed as a 'Special Live PA'. On account that this was singer Patrik Gbratt performing without his former band for the first time so only the vocas were live. So, it was accurately described but would it deliver? Most 'PAs', frankly, don't. The opening track The Void, wasn't convincing. Vocals were off-key at times and it didn't gel - an odd choice for an opening track. Nevertheless, as soon as it kicked in it was clear this act was something original. Everything that followed that first song was better. Highlight was the third songAn angry rant at ignorance over an EBM backing. It began with Gbratt reading from a list of countries that have outlawed anything but hetrosexual partnerships. "This is my way to say fuck you to you" he said before launching into the moody Nad Radugoj. At this point anyone who wasn't paying attention previously, was now. Energy filled the room in response as the dancefloor got busy and the audience soaked up Gbratt's passionate delviery. Single Shaky closed the set on a positive vibe and cemented several new fans. Myself included. Very unusual and very compelling.

eleKtroFish setlist: The Void, Different Planet, Nad Radugoj, Achtung Liebe, Shaky

Hailing from Ireland, three-piece Tiny Magnetic Pets I was curious to hear. Lead vocalist Paula Gilmer is a former BMG Records artist who has appeared on multiple Ministry Of Sound compilations, whilst Sean Quinn was signed to Brian Eno/Roxy Music’s label EG Records. Having listened to thier first (and to date only) album, 2010's Return Of The Tiny Magnetic Pets and liking what I heard (it reminded me a little of a more mainstream, less edgy version of Komputer), then having recently watched the promo video for last year's catchy single We Shine which has the band wearing boxes on their heads - my hopes were pretty high to witness this live. Unfortunately, the boxes were not in evidence, but their first perfomance in the UK won't have gone unnoticed. Another single Control Me featured, mashed up by Rusty (Visage) Egan in a remix with The Human League's Seconds, and Egan was in the audience.

The set comprised mainly songs from the album, the artwork for which (monochrome spacesuited, sunglass-wearing individuals against a red backdrop of rockets flying) suggests something slightly trippy and Krautrocking via a Soviet era space programme. Whilst elements of the genre-pushing classic years of German-based electronica are there in the record, live these were either toned down or, perhaps more likely, their sound has evolved since. It's more accessible, softer maybe, but is tight, polished and professional. I do wonder if I might have liked them more had I see them play live in 2010, but I'll gladly take what they have on offer today.

Tiny Magnetic Pets setlist: Geraniums (Intro), Here Comes The Noise, All Yesterday's Tomorrow, Shortwaves, We Shine, Control Me, Semaphore

EmT's Ema Walter and Tony Blue produce slick, club-friendly dance pop. Something I'm not very partial to, so it didn't naturally appeal. Having said that, a couple of the more vigorous, deep bassline dance tracks (such as What Else Can I Do?) were closer to my tastes and, for me, worked better. Show wise, Tony remained on synths throughout, as the main focus of EmT live is Walter. A passionate lead vocalist, putting a lot of energy into her delivery. Physically very expressive (a lot of hip-swaying and arm waiving going on there!), with a rich voice, her performance was one of the stand-outs of the day.

EmT setlist: Run Away From Me, What Else Can I Do?, Stay, 1,000 Arms, Bedsitter (Soft Cell cover), Why D'ya Do That?, Regret, Let Me Go

[The Department photo]      [Johnny Normal photo]    [Sinestar photo]

Photos [L-R]: The Department, Johnny Normal, Sinestar

Co-organiser of Electro London, Rob Green is the man behind intriguing synth duo The Department, and it was his turn up next. I use the word 'intriguing' as their approach to what they themselves refer to as synthwave or what others might lump in with electropop is definitely different to most of what else is out there in the field.

Their first album Alpha, released earlier this year, whilst still not a fully-developed proposition just yet, contained several gems of musical and lyrical creativity that suggest there's not only mileage in the idea but that some greater rewards will be coming our way. This was something like the fourth time seeing them live and it was, unquestionably, the best performance I've seen them give so far. Front man Green has relaxed into being a more confident and better singer and performer and there's something really satisfying to watch his grow into the lead vocalist role – something he picked up by default rather than design after the original singer left before the band recorded anything. Getting to know their work in more detail now, meant I could pay greater attention to the lyrics. Those penned by Green are worth getting to know. They have something to say and do so from an expressive personal viewpoint.

Contrasting and complementing Green's front man action is Magnus Lindstrom, who effortlessly continues the tradition of resolutely impassive synth players in a long line of resolutely impassive synth players like Ron Mael, Vince Clarke, and Chris Lowe. It's also very satisfying to hear a set comprised largely of mid-tempo repertoire, rather than forcing up the tempo unnecessarily. Closing their set with a cover of The Eurythmic's Sweet Dreams was brave and whilst Green didn't challenge Annie Lennox on the vocal front, the clever arrangement demonstrates yet again why The Department are a fascinating act.

The Department setlist: Take My Hand, Glass Houses, Not For You, Days of Liberty, Slow Down, Come Inside, As If Transformed, Sweet Dreams (Eurythmics cover)

I'd never seen Johnny Normal live before and knew little of his music, so other than knowing his take on the 'electro' genre of the day was one blending with often rocking guitars, I wasn't sure how I would take to his sound. But I did. Not least because of the high standard of musicianship on display and a professional, if not 'too-serious' attitude. But there's solid songwriting too which does, indeed, blend rocking guitars with more introverted synthpop.

The results are surprisingly compelling. With probably the most equipment and instrumentation on stage that we got to see all day, there was plenty of to engage all the senses. The single Miss Razorblade sounds as good live as its recorded counterpart and is the perfect entry point for anyone not already familiar with Johnny Normal.

Johnny Normal setlist: Remember Me, Alive, The London Sound, There's A Girl That Lives In The Sea, Miss Razorblade, Save Me, Don't Blow It, Time, Robot Rock, I Die You Die (Numan cover)

Next up were Sinestar who I caught at the BAS II Festival in 2012, where I was taken more by their competency than their sound, since then they have been steadily gigging and cultivating a decent following. For shorthand purposes I'm going to use the Mesh reference point here, not least because I still think its valid, but it also largely places Sinestar in the electropop spectrum for any newcomers. I've never had much affinity for the Mesh sound and that remains unchanged.

So, whilst I expected Sinestar to do their thing with aplomb, I didn't expect to be especially converted. But there is no denying two things: a) Sinestar have developed out into a rock solid live band that deliver the goods on stage, and b) they have refined their sound into an impressively slick package. I Am The Rain from the band's debut 2012 EP demonstrates everything this band do so well and works brilliantly live. Looking and sounding like one of those uber-rehearsed and professional German synthpop acts, Sinestar stand out on the UK circuit with reason.

Sinestar setlist: Hurricane, Fortunes Faded, Falling, The Same Way, Butterflies, Hope And Prey, I Am The Rain, My Perspective

[Mechanical Cabaret photo]    [Mechanical Cabaret photo]    [Mechanical Cabaret photo]

Photos [L-R]: Mechanical Cabaret

Headliners Mechanical Cabaret came to the stage having belted out a career-best performance a couple of weeks earlier, blowing the minds of a big, appreciative crowd at Infest. They were criminally low on the bill there, so them headling at Electro London was every bit the reward they deserved for their hard-working career so far. Frankly, it was difficult to see how they could top that show, but in their favour here was the intimacy of a terrific venue and an open-minded audience.

The setlist was different to Infest and included a couple of special treats that fans present were delighted they got to hear. Not least a well-judged and emotional cover of Einsturzende Neubauten's Sabrina that has captured a lot of people's attention after the band were invited to perform at the official annual Einsturzende Neubauten party in London in April, and it seems to have garnered the band a good umber of new followers.

Because the quality of the sound system and the venue technical team was about as good as it gets, it's fair to say this was at the very least one of the best-sounding Mechanical Cabaret perfomance I've ever heard. The clarity of Roi's sublimely subversive, incisive and sarcastic lyrics was as good as it gets. Meaning it was easy for newbies to hear just about every syllable, and for long-standing fans like yours truly, to sing (or more accurately holler) along. Mechanical Cabaret are riding a positive and creative wave at present. Work is already under way on their next album, and the band have just announced that they will play their first gig in Japan in November.

Mechanical Cabaret setlist: GBH, Kit Kat, Disbehave, Why So Serious?, Cheap and Nasty, Death of The Porn Queen, Nothing Special, Pretty Fucked Up, I Lost My Friend To A Video Game, See Her Smile (Encore:) Sabrina, Blank Canvas

Although christened Electro London, this inaugural festival was anything but biased to the south of England. Acts came from across the UK: Bristol (Sinestar), Dorset (Cloak), Birmingham (Johnny Normal), London (Mechanical Cabaret + EmT), Ireland (Tiny Magnetic Pets), Sweden (eleKtroFish), Portugal (AkA) with half of The Department coming from London, half from Sweden. An impressively international line-up for a first time event. Moreover, the choice of venue was about as perfect as one could ask for. The Underbelly has one of the best-sounding systems in London, and is a classy and stylish joint. Us electro fans have never been so well pampered. Outside, the sun shone, and there was even a local community fair on Hoxton Square. Inside, several new discoveries were made. The gods truly were smiling down on this one.

If there was any doubt as to whether or not this would be a one-off (I'm not sure even the promoters had decided until the end of today) it has since been confirmed that Electro London will be an annual festival. Roll on 2016! 8/10 

Review: Rob Dyer
Photos: © AIWS