Synthpop, like so many other genres of popular music, emerged in the UK as a backlash to punk rock in the eighties. Rejecting punk’s stripped-down realism, early synthpop artists strove instead for artificiality, and their primary instrument, the synthesizer, formed the backbone of the decade’s music. Bands such as Duran Duran, Soft Cell and Spandau Ballet enjoyed commercial success in Britain and the States, and synthpop’s influence permeated through musical movements as diverse as New Romanticism, gothic rock and early industrial. The nineties, however, saw the genre decline in popularity in favour of guitar-driven grunge rock more directly inspired by punk. Why is all this relevant? Because synthpop is making a comeback.
Popular music has been based around guitars for the past two decades. But recently, a different sound has splashed into the smooth waters of the mainstream. Truth be told, a synthpop revival has been on the cards for some time. From the largely ignored epiphanies of Crystal Castles and The Postal Service back in the early noughties to the saccharine commercialism of Owl City, plenty of modern bands cite the style as one of their influences, and now, in 2014, synthpop shows every sign of dominating the industry as it did once before. Though plenty of bands – Sound of 2013 nominee CHVRCHES among them – are focusing specifically on synthpop, plenty of rock bands are also splicing it into their sound, with varying degrees of success.
Bombay Bicycle Club, who hail from Crouch End in North London, are one such band. Bombay’s setlist for their gig at the LCR on the 10th March tellingly omitted successes from older albums in favour of new material from synthpop So Long, See You Tomorrow, and while singles ‘It’s Alright Now’ and ‘Feel’ were as well-received here as by critics, one wonders why a band whose first two albums were so grounded in indie and folk rock felt the need for such a radical stylistic swerve.
That’s not to say that Bombay haven’t handled the shift with aplomb, and the same can largely be said about Panic! At The Disco, whose fourth album Too Weird To Live, Too Rare To Die is a rock-synthpop hybrid through and through. Their trippy, synth-laden and obscenely catchy single ‘The Vegas Lights’ for instance, crashes straight through naff and out the other side, achieving guilty pleasure status in much the same way that Fall Out Boy’s ‘My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark’ did, eight months before.
But one of the most delightful aspects of the album is its conscious homage to one of the darkest synthpop albums of the eighties – Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine – which mingled the peppy feel of early Depeche Mode with a nihilism that paved Reznor’s way to becoming an industrial icon. This is never more evident than in the melancholia and relentless beats of ‘Far Too Young To Die’ and ‘Girl That You Love’; it’s obvious that Panic! have done their homework with this album. Though a lot of their material is overly auto-tuned and falls short of real innovation, a band capable of material as original as that of ‘A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out’, and who are only finding their feet within the synthpop genre, promises great things in the future.
Most bands whose singles charted in the UK in the noughties were of a certain formula. Their songs followed in the footsteps of grunge rock, which in turn followed in the footsteps of punk. Guitars, electric or acoustic, were staple of their music and synths did not often feature. So why are these ‘emo-pop’ and ‘pop-punk’ bands turning to a more eighties-inspired sound? Perhaps for the same reason that synthpop evolved in the first place – as a reaction against guitars and against punk.
Maybe this is the dawn of a new era, and by 2020, pop music will be based around synths once more. Who knows? It’ll be interesting to see.