Electro London 2016: Wolfgang Flür/Promenade Cinema/The Department/Johnny Normal/Circuit 3/Vogon Poetry/Meter Bridge/Shiny Darkness/3D/Neil Francis/Strobegirl

Zigfrid von Underbelly, London - 10 September 2016

"Surpassed last year and a credit to all involved"

I couldn't believe it was a year ago that the first Electro London festival took place. It seemed much more recent. Still vivid in the memory. It was a great day and the organisers said there'd be a follow-up this year. Not only did they live up to their promise but they confirmed the entire line up pretty early with former Kraftwerk member Wolfgang Flür headlining no less.

So the 200 tickets began moving quickly. Most sold out in the run up but the final few were kept back on the door. But the nature of a one-day festival (doors at 2pm, first band 2:30pm and final band on at 11:45 closing at 3am) is that the punters tend to come and go during the day. This meant that despite the relative intimacy of the venue it never felt too packed.

I noticed the biggest crowds for when The Department were due on stage. Since this was directly before Wolfgang Flür, I think it fair to say that many were also ensuring they'd grabbed a decent vantage point for the former Kraftwerk robotnik.

But let's rewind.

Doors were at 2pm, with first band Strobegirl (aka Heather Strobes) on at 2:30 for 30 minutes. I'd heard a couple of Strobegirl tracks before today and her low-key folktronica style appealed. Live she was joined by Darren Badrock (of Illustrial) on synths, leaving Heather to focus on vocals, some percussion and the occasional synth piece. I wasn't expecting a cover version of Chris Isaak's Wicked Game to open the set and today's soundtrack, but it turned out to be a clever choice. Clever because being a recognisable song it immediately grabbed the attention of those unfamiliar with Strobegirl. And clever because the way it had been interpreted sat seemlessly within the rest of their dreampop set. Heather's strong voice well-suited to it too.

Dreamscape (co-written with Badrock) was a standout, with a digital Aboriginal vibe about it. What I liked most about the set was that it never really sped up. I get bored of bands who feel that have to focus on the higher PBM/dancefloor friendly of their repertoire. In the case of Strobegirl, that wasn't an issue since most of her songwriting resides in the mid-to-low BPM zone. With her flowing black dress combined with flower headdress and shoulder-length hair it was obvious that Heather is her own woman, and creating her own sound. A very promising way to begin the proceedings.

Strobegirl setlist: Wicked Game (Chris Issacs cover), Dreamscape, All Gone Wrong, Stars For You, Heaven Today, Alice

[Strobegirl]        [Neil Francis]       [3D]

Photos [L-R]: Strobegirl, Neil Francis, 3D

Next up was one Neil Francis who was introduced as if we all ought to know who he is. At first, I didn't. It was only when he got to his cover version of Erasure's A Little Respect, that the penny dropped. Francis is the guy who grabbed media headlines in December 2014 when he was filmed singing the Erasure song on the London underground having just seen the band live. After his half hour on stage many won't have easily forgotten his name. (This was for all the right reasons!) Accurately, billed as a 'PA' rather than a live performance, this was indeed just Francis singing to a backing track. I'd rarely give much attention to 'karaoke' acts, but this blew me away.

Anyone who has heard Francis will focus on his remarkable voice. And it is very impressive. When he performed Deadener I realised I had heard this song before but hadn't registered it was Francis. Keeping with the karaoke theme, he announced he'd include a few cover versions. And they were well-chosen to fully showcase his excellent voice. Erasure's A Little Respect and Yazoo's Don't Go were indeed choice, if not altogether surprising.

The high point though was a stunning version of the OMD classic Joan of Arc (Maid of Orleans) that finished the set. Not only were the vocals superb (a given by now), but the most impressive feat was how all the original musical elements had been re-recorded. These were structurally faithful to the original recording, by that I mean all the elements were present, but they had been recreated from scratch. The metallic sounding percussion and lead emlody in particular were incredible. Possibly better than the original. I've heard OMD perform the song live several times. Honestly, this was up there as one of the best 'live' versions I've ever heard. Amazing talent – and we were only at 3.50 in the afternoon.

Neil Francis setlist: Ghost, Love Action (Human League cover), Don't Go (Yazoo cover), Connected (Put Your Hands Up), Deadener, A Little Respect (Erasure cover), Joan of Arc (Maid of Orleans) (OMD cover)

3D are a two-piece coming from the Medway towns in Kent, UK. One half of the band is Dean Clarke who is also behind the interesting minimal electronic outfit Brutalist Architecture In The Sun (and who's debut gig I attended a couple of months ago). Here he leaves lead vocal duties to the other member Thomas Kelly – who'd caught my eye earlier with his creative dancing along to Strobegirl and Neil Francis.

Complementing those moves is a sharp, distinctive look. A slim chap, sporting drainpipe trousers, some well-sculpted facial hair, a trilby hat, and some disturbingly piercing eyes, he would have blended in perfectly outside on the streets of hipsterville Hoxton. It was good to see someone on the electronic music scene rocking the dandy look. It made a refershing sartorial change.

Musically, this was equal measures inventive, wacky, and entertaining. Not that this was a total tongue-in-cheek experience, rather that lyrically and presentationally 3D, did their own thing entirely, which was undoubtedly quirky, but this didn't overshadow the quality of the writing.

By the end of the set Kelly had removed his hat, along with his jacket and shirt, revealing a lean torso wrapped in black and yellow striped warning tape. All of this effort was welcome and provided they can broaden their lyrics beyond focusing on the confines of their regional homeland, who know where this project could end up. One of the high points of the day for me (as much for the attitude as the music).

3D setlist: The Next New Thing, High Street, Medwave, City@Night, I Confess, Ugly Nature

[Shiny Darkness]    [Meter Bridge]    [Vogon Poetry]

Photos [L-R]: Shiny Darkness, Meter Bridge, Vogon Poetry

French synthpop band Shiny Darkness have been going a little while now. I first caught them at the BASII festival in 2012. They come from Lille in France but gig fairly often in the UK, but rarely in central London, meaning this was only the second time I'd managed to catch them live after that 2012 gig.

They developed nicely since then and I only recognised one song in today's set from that era – the memorable and still strong Prayer For My Imaginary World. The influence of Depeche Mode seers through the lifeblood of Shiny Darkness and lead vocalist Sebastien Deruwez in particular. He has all the credentials for being a successful front man and does a decent job delivering the songs (with guitar on a couple of numbers) and looking the part too.

Katerina Pantazis adds a welcome female dimension, frequently sharing vocal duties as well as synths, effects and drum pads to the live instrumentation. On the other side of the stage is the quiet one, Olivier Jacques, who delivers most of the live synths and some backing vocals. Season 4 is their latest album, so no surprise that the setlist relied upon that a fair bit.

Finishing their set with the cracking single Mother from their 2013 album New Substance was a wise choice as it is still a stand out. This is a solid piece of pop songwriting artfully utilising a great hookline, made all the more memorable (and interactive) with nostalgic and judicious use of real handclaps.

Shiny Darkness setlist: The Place, Highs and Lows, You Can Travel The World, Prayer For My Imaginary World, Black Swan, Dirty Morning, Another World, Mother

Having travelled all the way from Canada especially to appear at the festival, Meter Bridge earned respect before they'd event taken to the stage. Fortunate then, that having come all that way, that they turned out to be one the highlights of the day. This female/male two-piece worked off a large table that was filled with intriguing looking equipment. Perhaps the most praise I can give Meter Bridge is that they genuinely sound unique to me. I really cannot think of another band that sounds similar to them. (If there is then I'd like to hear them too!).

Richard Kleef formed the band in 2011 and Jill Beaulieu quickly joined, both share musical and vocal duties, which makes for an interesting dynamic live. Even though they were positioned behind their technology table, they were captivating. Their voices complement one another and the music they create is an unusual and original take on modern electronic dance music but heavily tempered (both style and tempo wise) by post-punk and industrial music. The results are unpredictable and all the more fascinating for it. Are they the new underground? Quite possibly.

Meter Bridge setlist: Secret, Sincerely Yours, Filter, Kite, It Was Nothing, Frequent Seas, Beta Test, Nothing New

Swedish three-piece Vogon Poetry were followed by one-man band from Ireland Circuit 3. Taking their name from Douglas Adams' cult novel The Hitchikers' Guide To The Galaxy turned out to be the most interesting thing about Vogon Poetry. If light-hearted melodic synthpop heavily demonstrating its 80s influences does it for you then you'll be fine, but for whatever reason, I wasn't captured.

Likewise for Peter Fitzpatrick aka Circuit 3. I was startled by his dazzling, multicoloured wardrobe – which made for some great photo and video opportunities when combined with his projections. Dressing like a jarring cross between Roger Mellie (The Man Off The Telly) from Viz comic and Max Headroom (as much as I admire those two role models) is a brave look to try and pull off!

Since his current album is entitled Siliconchipsuperstar, I think it safe to assume that Fitzpatrick doesn't take himself too seriously, and the organisers had scheduled him well, following on directly from Vogon Poetry. If you liked them then you'd probably also liked Circuit 3 – and there were a vocal bunch that quite obviously did. Extra credit for playing a decent amount of the synth parts live, given there were only one pair of hands on stage.

[Circuit 3]    [Johnny Normal]    [The Department]

Photos [L-R]: Circuit 3, Johnny Normal, The Department

I'd seen Johnny Normal just a couple of weeks previously at the Infest Festival in Bradford, so wasn't surprised to hear that his set today was the same bar one song, Save Me, featuring Neil Francis who was on earlier, on vocals.

Again showcasing his latest album, a synth-heavy interpretation of Adam and The Ants' Kings of The Wild Frontier; what especially struck me this time around was how adaptable Normal's voice is. Wisely choosing not to do an imitation of Adam Ant on the three covers, he nevertheless gave his voice just the right amount of intonation that meant you recognised it was a homage to Adam Ant.

And the covers are different enough, thus avoiding those that fawningly seek only to imitate the originals and, in doing do, invariably come off as poor imitations. Antmusic in particular is quite a different beast to the original with added BPMs for good measure.

Johnny Normal setlist: Ants Invasion (Ants cover), Remember Me, Alive, Save Me (w/ Neil Francis), The London Sound, Killer In The Home (Ants cover), Miss Razorblade, Don't Blow It, Robot Rock, Antmusic (Ants cover)

Having expanded into a three-piece after former Naked Lunch synth guru Cliff Chapman having relocated, The Department continue to build on their strengths. Rob Green always fronts the band well and his passion for music comes across all the time. Always visibly giving 100% on stage is an asset when your backed by two, low key synth players. And it works really well.

I'm not sure why neither Chapman or his Swedish counterpart Magnus Lindstrom get to play the wonderful hookline melody on Slow Down – I'd love to actually hear that played live – it is one of Green's finest tunes after all. It was clear from the audience reaction that The Department are steadily building a faithful following.

There were a few jokes about the band having expanded to a four-piece, as centre stage, for the first time, was a Revox reel-to-reel tape recorder. A much fetishised piece of equipment in electronic band circles, I've seen several gigs when it is only on stage for image value – not actually contributing anything to the live sound. But here it not only cleverly contained Green's own harmonised backing vocals but drums, bass synth and some arpeggio sequences too. Very nice.

Beyond the existing favourites, fans will have been delighted to have heard the first ever performance of new song Pressure, (with some scattering percussion recalling Depeche Mode's Shout) which nudges the band's style forward nicely, and bodes well for when all three are contributing regularly to the writing. It was discernable that familiar songs in the set are still being tweaked for live performance. It's this kind of attention to detail that helps define their live sound. It was also the first time they'd played live and didn't include their memorable single As If Transformed. An admirable (and well-founded) act of confidence in the rest of their material.

The Department setlist: Don't Give Up, Glass Houses, Not For You, Pressure, Days of Liberty, Slow Down, This Be The Verse, When You're Not There

[Wolfgang Flur]       [Wolfgang Flur]      [Promenade Cinema]

Photos [L-R]: Wolfgang Flür x 2, Promenade Cinema

Former Kraftwerk member Wolfgang Flür's performance split the audience into those who were loving seeing one of their heroes (and, let's face it, a bone fide electronic music legend) in a terrifically intimate setting, and those who were gutted that this was just a DJ set rather than an actual live performance.

Having seen Flür do the same thing in January last year (coincidentally, just a couple of doors down the road also in Hoxton Sqaure) and loving that I was prepared for the same thing here. Which is what I got. Sure, it would have been nice to hear a proper live set, especially since Flür has released some of his finest writing on his most recent album, Eloquence, released last year by Cherry Red. Nevertheless, I was happy enough.

Others though were not. It didn't help that there was some technical issues for Herr Flür. It wasn't clear if it was possible to resolve them, so with pretty much everything coming from his two Apple Macs on stage, this left little for Flür to actually do live. Consequently, there was a more arm waiving and dance moves than before – which only played into the hands of the detractors. Sadly, I couldn't stop for the last band, but already Electro London 2016 had surpassed last year and was a credit to all involved. 

Review: Rob Dyer

As Rob had to catch his last train home, the duty to review Promenade Cinema’s performance fell to myself. I should state that during the day I suffered an attack of gout, and due to this I would have left earlier (I have already seen Wolfgang Flürs 'Music Soldat' set several times) but one of the key reasons for attending was to see Promenade Cinema so I held on. I am so glad I did, I have heard Emma and Dorian’s music before, but to see them to perform live was great. Their voices complement each other beautifully and there electronic sound, is an absolutely spot on mix of electronic “pop” and classically constructed sounds and music.

All the songs were great and I particularly like Words of A Stranger and As the World Stops Revolving. One of the benefits of being the final act was there was an opportunity for a spontaneous encore! 'Somebody's Watching My Poker Face', a medley of Somebody by Rockwell and Poker Face by Lady Gaga – which was both delightful and musical. All I can say, is despite the pain in my foot, I stood up to watch the entire set and wished I could have danced along, but I did purchase their limited edition (hand Dymo’d) EP so maybe I can dance along this weekend - have to say their performance was highlight of show along with The Department’s set.

Promenade Cinema setlist: Norway, The Words Of A Stranger, Leaving Notes, Chemical Haunting, The Quiet Silently Wait, To The Last, Gentleman, As The World Stops Revolving, Somebody's Watching Me (Rockwell cover) 

8/10 for the entire day.

Review: Rob Dyer
Photos: © AIWS
@ www.aiws.lt
Promenade Cinema review + Photo: Mark Smith

See also: Electro London 2015 (Festival)