Synth Wave Live Festival: Mechanical Cabaret/NINA/Tiny Magnetic Pets/Neon Lines/SoftWave/Steven Jones & Logan Sky/Nature of Wires/The Department/Brutalist Architecture In The Sun/Sol Flare/Battery Operated Orchestra

Zigfrid von Underbelly of Hoxton, London - 1st April 2017

"A total success from start to finish"

In just one year, Mexican internet radio broadcaster Artefaktor Radio has gone from a local outfit, to being the go-to station for fans of synthwave, electronica, new wave, darkwave, technopop and synthpop, all over the globe. Heading the station's roster of DJs is Rusty Egan of Blitz Club and Visage fame (and who was in the audience). Also in their line-up is Londoner Rob Green whose Synth Wave Show gave today's event its accurate title.

Green (who fronts The Department and also promotes genre gigs in the UK) teamed up with Artefaktor's Renato Moyssen, creating this one-day festival commemorating and celebrating one year since the broadcaster first took to the airwaves. 
Moyssen flew in from Mexico City especially, even bringing a welcome glimpse of summer sun and warmth with him to a London that up until now was refusing to let go of winter.

Many were surprised to see the well-regarded Battery Operated Orchestra (aka BOO) opening today's proceedings - taking to the Zigfrid von Underbelly stage at a decidedly early 2:30pm. Apparently, the band had asked to open the event. Perhaps this was a cunning ploy by them so they could quickly get their set out of the way and enjoy the rest of the 11 bands over a beverage or two ;-) Fortunately, many tickets holders and followers picked up the early appearance, meaning there was a decent-sized and decidedly enthusiastic crowd to get the festival off with a bang.

Today's performance was a polished whirl through their first two albums, including last year's much-praised Radiation. Those in attendance were also privvy to a couple of rare treats. Blacklion had never been performed live before, and Florian (a tribute to you know who, sounding like you know who!) - an old Katsen song that closed the set, was the first time BOO had played it. (Katsen being the now defunct band Black was in previously.)

There's a decidedly Wiemar-Republic-cabaret-meets-Yazoo vibe to BOO's songwriting and presentation. Be that the acute-angled black bob hairstyle of svelt singer Brigitte Rose, through the German expressionist artwork on Radiation, to the brightly-coloured BOO ghost logotype signs on stage, and across Chris Black's slightly subversive synthpop tune delivery. Judging by the number of BOO T-shirts in the audience and the reaction to their set, Battery Operated Orchestra turned out to be the perfect way to get this 13-hour festival underway.

Due to building a new recording studio and putting the finishing touches to their third album, this was BOO's only planned UK show this year. So if you've not yet seen them and they sound like your thing, you need to keep your eyes peeled to catch them next time.

BOO setlist: Radiation, Obelisk, Diamond Feelings, Clown, Blacklion, Fairy Tale, Florian

[Rob Green and Renato Moyssen]    [Battery Operated Orchestra]    [Sol Flare]

Photos [L-R]: Rob Green and Renato Moyssen, Battery Operated Orchestra, Sol Flare

There were five bands in the lineup that I'd never see live before - always an attraction for me. Local Londoners Sol Flare were the first of those. Listening to a few of their tracks online in the run up to today suggested they would be one of the acts not to miss. More than that, they turned out to be one of the highlights of the entire day with an incredibly passionate performance from lead vocalist Jenny Jones.

Usually a three-piece, guitarist Matt Marlow was missing today, so we were down to the familiar singer/synth player two-piece set up with Dom Wood managing the live instrumentation. It's funny how, when the music and the performance blow you away, that things like only having two people on stage and only one of them playing stuff live, pales into insignificance. I was at the foot of the stage for the beginning of their set and stood there transfixed for the half-hour they were playing.

It's been a while since I responded so emotionally to a singer who I'd never seen perform live before, such was the power of Jones' delivery. There was a nervous, slightly awkward energy about her at first, but it didn't take her long to immerse herself in their music and, especially, their lyrics. So emotive was Jones that she was clearly welling up on a couple of numbers - just about managing to hold back the tears. When a singer reacts so honestly to their own work you know you're onto something very special indeed.

Sol Flare were discovery of the day for me and, judging by the comments of people afterwards, many others too.

There's much to admire about Brutalist Architecture In The Sun (not least their name). Since releasing their striking debut album, Concrete Pop, last year, the lineup has firmed up with Cye Thomas now the regular lead vocalist (and live front man) and co-writing with band visionary founder and sometime vocalist Dean Clarke.

You know you're up for something a bit different when Clarke takes to the stage in his already trademark suit, white shirt and tie, cap and blue perspex goggles over his regular glasses. He's also not shy, stepping away from his live equipment during one number to do some semi-serious/semi-tongue-in-cheek fist-shaking dance moves. Or posing, arms rigidly folded, behind Thomas as he sings. Clarke looks simultaneously daft and cool - like a character out of a Douglas Adams novel. Which is the artistic fine line that Clarke likes to tread with BAITS. I applaud his slightly absurdist attitude.

Fans (and slightly perplexed newcomers alike) were served up a half-hour set that comprised almost entirely new material. Only the anthemic Towers had been released/performed live before. All, bar one, were sung by Thomas who has rapidly settled into the lead role. His voice is unmistakable and has plenty of range - making it quite distinctive on this scene. No bad thing in helping BAITS otherwise not exactly commercial sound (hopefully) gain a wider audience.

Brutalist Architecture In The Sun setlist: Hunter/Hunter, Towers, Run and Hide, Alien on the Underground, 2Horses, Vessel, Take Control

[Brutalist Architecture In The Sun]    [The Department]    [Nature of Wires]

Photos [L-R]: Brutalist Architecture In The Sun, The Department, Nature of Wires

The Department were next up and it was immediately obvious that main man Rob Green was not only in a great frame of mind (on the back of being largely responsible for organising today's festival) but that he has really now completely adopted the role of front man (after the original singer unexpectedly left a few years back). This resulted in not only Green's most 'in-the-zone' performance, lacking any of the inhibitions he previously hung on to, having been forced to step up to the leading role, but his strongest vocal performance too. If that wasn't enough, several of the songs had been improved by some fine tuning.

I don't know if this was a result of second synth player (and former Naked Lunch member) Cliff Chapman's place in the band now being more established, or a collective effort including the coolest-looking synth player in the venue on the day: Swede Magnus Lindstrom, or was it Green himself? However we got here, I'm glad we did! This was most immediately obvious on the opener (and strong previous single) Pressure - which has had some beefy bass synth added at the start. It really elevates an already strong song. Nice to hear As If Transformed in the set again as well. It's a total anthem.

The Department setlist: Pressure, Glass Houses, Not For You, Days Of Liberty, Slow Down, Come Inside, As If Transformed, When You're Not There

I have been listening to Nature of Wires a lot lately, but they were one of the acts I'd never caught live before. So was looking forward to their set. Their Cyber Rendezvous album (much better than the title might suggest!) features the distinctive and quite captivating voice of Countess M (aka Maren Northway). Sadly, Northway, who resides in California, wasn't well enough to travel to the UK for the festival which, for me in particular, was a disappointment. Nevertheless, NoW are more than their guest vocalist, so I was curious to see how they'd come across on stage. Their setup looked promising, with plenty of technology being utilised.

Up front was vocalist Andrew Stirling-Brown, who with synth-wizard Gary Watts founded the band back in 1986. Tim Powell-Tuck was recruited in September last year to further enhance the live delivery on drums. As a live setup it worked really well. In a nice touch, the band had Countess M on back track in part on a couple of numbers, meaning that at least we got to hear some of her wonderful voice. But it was also apparent that their songwriting is solid enough that even when it was only Stirling-Brown singing, the quality of their songwriting still came across.

The only downside for me was the loss of many of the subtleties of production found on the Cyber Rendezvous tracks. It's those subtleties that help give it its distinctive atmosphere. They may have been there on the backing but, if they were, they weren't discernable in the audience. The live show more 'bombastic' than I was expecting. Not a problem for someone who loves his heavy and industrial side of things, but me being familiar only with last year's album probably gave me a skewed idea of what I thought their live sound would be. That said, their heavier edge gave the lineup a welcome extra dimension. 

Nature of Wires setlist: We Kill All, Time is Come, The Feast on Famine, Seagull, Cyber Rendezvous, First Light

Steven Jones and Logan Sky are ex-last lineup Visage, having effectively been put together by Steve Strange. I first caught them at a very intimate and alternative Some Bizarre night a year or two ago, organised by the record label founder and 80s alternative scene figure Stevo. They've since signed to Stevo's Some Bizarre label and have a handful of releases under their belts. Live their sound and delviery is enhanced further by the attractive voice and stylish figure of Lauren Marie Thomas whose feminine chords blend well with Jones'. As front man Steve Jones still seems wracked with nerves, but as their set progressed he became less self-conscious meaning his performance relaxed a little from a slightly awkward opening.

The combination of Jones and Sky is an interesting one. From appearances (often deceptive I know) they look like chalk and cheese. The contrast of quiet 'regular' guy at the back playing synths (Sky) whilst the theatrical singer does his showmanship thing up front (and Jones is certainly a showman), is hardly unusual on this scene. And yet, here, the juxtaposition is quite pronounced. Which is part of what makes their paring so interesting. All of which, of course, would be somewhat meaningless if their songwriting wasn't anything special. Whilst I've yet to be completely absorbed by their recorded work, they consistently catch you out by doing something unconventional, subversive almost, whilst seemingly working within a traditional pop song framework. Not shy to the odd cover-version or two, they closed their set with an effective cover of Visage's Damned Don't Cry

Steven Jones and Logan Sky setlist: Maria, Electric Eye, Infinite Hearts, Voltage, Black B-Sides, Polaroids, Damned Don't Cry (Visage cover)

[Steven Jones and Logan Sky]    [SoftWave]      [Neon Lines]

Photos [L-R]: Steve Jones and Logan Sky (feat. Lauren Marie Thomas), SoftWave, Neon Lines

SoftWave were one of a number of bands today featuring impressive female lead vocalists. Catrine Christensen's assured and engaging performance, adding a sheen to the Danish duo's polished European synthpop. With Jerry Olsen providing an adept foil on synths and backing vocals, they added to the general warm feeling and great atmosphere of the whole event, with songs such as Awake But Still Asleep" and On And On And On providing the highpoints of their set.

Softwave setlist: Awake But Still Asleep, Follow You, The Light Behind My Eyes, On And On And On, Take My Hand, Stronger, On And On And On (Jerrys alternate version), 
untitled demo

It was interesting that when French band Neon Lines took to the stage that they looked huge compared with everyone that had gone before (and followed). They only had five members on stage, but that was two more than everyone else so far. I wondered how much of their equipment they'd had to bring over with them. For they had a fair bit and it took some setting up too. Which was partly the cause for the overrunning times for the rest of the evening.

Unfortunately both for the band and the audience, it seemed they had some problems getting the technical setup right. This was apparent immediately on the first couple of numbers where the live drummer was noticably out of time with the backing track several times. They called assistance from the sound engineers but technical issues aside, I concluded that their unquestionably commericial sound was just a too smooth and lacking distinction for my tastes.

Ireland's Tiny Magnetic Pets were on the same stage in 2015 as part of the Electro London Festival - also co-organised by Rob Green. There's something simple, joyfully appealing about much of their classic synth-pop style, so it comes as no surprise that they had a few fans in the audience today cheering them on. I'm not sure if the three members have yet managed to seamlessly blend all their influences into something they can fully call their own style, but the upside is that just as you think you know what to expect from them next, they pull out something like the 10-minute, Krautrock/early OMD influenced Semaphore and stop you in your tracks, transporting you into trippy territory you don't wanna come back from.

The only downside today was lead vocalist Paula suffering with laryngitis. This meant that despite bravely trying to soldier through, her vocal chords gave out midway through their set so they had to cut it short. It was a real shame but finishing on Semaphore at least left us on a really buzzing high. 

Tiny Magnetic Pets setlist: Shortwaves, Everybody Knows, Control Me, Semaphore

[Tiny Magnetic Pets]    [NINA]    [NINA]

Photos [L-R]: Tiny Magnetic Pets, NINA x2

German synthpop singer-songwriter based in London, NINA's slick, well-produced sound was perfect for a festival celebrating Synth Wave. A self-confessed 80s 'retrophiliac' (citing Depeche Mode, The Doors, Queen and INXS as inflluences), NINA got some major-league exposure in 2015 courtesy of Mercedes Benz when they picked up her track My Mistake as the soundtrack to one of their TV/radio campaigns.
Securing the support slot on Erasure's The Violet Flame tour in the US helped further raise her profile across the pond. It was her appearance on the bill here that introduced her to me. So I was coming into this with little knowledge of what to expect beyond something commercial. 

In the studio, NINA is assisted by Laura on drums and backing vocals, and Dylan on guitars. Like Sol Flare earlier though, the guitarist was absent live. NINA sung, played synths, alternated between the two and did both at once, whilst Laura's delivered a vigourous and impassioned performance, smashing her digital drum pads with as much cool-looking style as skillful technique. What instantly caught me off-guard was just how impacting thier live show turned out to be. From the first few bars of We Are The Wild Ones opening their set, NINA's distinctive, cinematic sound was immediately attention-grabbing. There's a touch too of the Berlin electronic scene to NINA that helps set her apart. New song Fight For It got its first ever live performance, My Mistake was included for good measure, and their impacting set finished with a unique slowed-down cover of the Blondie classic Heart of Glass.

Perhaps the most unexpected delight of the day, of all the acs here, NINA's mainstream potential is by far the greatest. But that isn't at the expense of genuine individuality or expression. NINA clevery pulls off a tricky balance between underground cult act and front-cover/advert worthy mass appeal. With several EPs to her name so far, work continues on the imminent debut album. If the mainstream sounds this good then there's hope for popular music yet!

NINA setlist: We Are The Wild Ones, One Of Us, Fight For It, Beyond Memory, It Kills Me, My Mistake, Heart Of Glass (Blondie cover)

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

Photos [L-R]: Mechanical Cabaret x3

Having thoroughly enjoyed Nina's performance, next up were Mechanical Cabaret, it was now very late, but having seen and enjoyed Roi's performance before, I thought I would at least watch the first couple of numbers. In the end, it was a superlative performance, with Roi going into the audience, going face to face with the audience, swinging his mic around on stage, and even taking fan Lorraine Brown on stage with him, much to her and everyone else's joy.

Ironically I was so taken by the show, that I forgot to take many pictures, as I was too busy enjoying the performance. I think this has to be one of the best performances I have ever seen, and the music provided by Steve on synths was also excellent. In the end time ran out.
Unfortunately, due to the overrun on earlier timings, Mechanical Cabaret's set got curtailed by a couple of songs, but for that, I think the encores would have gone on for some time. Nevertheless, the setlist as it stood still gave us the chance to hear four tracks from their latest album Ortonesque (Protect and Survive, Astral Rejection, Guilty In Advance and Living Things). It was a 9/10 for me.

Mechanical Cabaret setlist: Protect and Survive, GBH, Astral Rejection, Kitkat, Guilty in Advance, Living Things, Disbehave

The Synth Wave Festival was a great day. There was a very positive vibe about the while thing, and plenty of quality tunes between the live bands from DJs Rob Harvey and Chi Ming Lai. It was also satisfying seeing how the bands were very supportive of each other. There were lots of other bands (not appearing on the bill) in the audience, meaning it really felt like a major scene event. Artefaktor Radio's Renato Moyssen is a jovial character, seemingly (and rightly) delighted at the while thing, and sporting a smile as wide as his face all day long. A total success from start to finsih. 8/10

Review: Rob Dyer, Softwave review by Cliff Chapman, Mechanical Cabaret review by Mark Smith
Photos: Mark Smith, Mechanical Cabaret photos: Lorraine Brown