[5 February 2010]
Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name Of” was exhumed in 2009 in more ways than one. There was the headlining attempt, devised through social networking, to have the song deny Simon Cowell’s X Factor winner the UK Christmas No. 1 spot. There was also that little known electro band that recast the riff-heavy protest song into the languid synth-funky “Lotus”. This latter happening goes part of the way to summing up FM Belfast. The Icelandic group may have an iconoclastic bone about them but mostly they are out to divulge some harmless fun. Even when bulked up with attitude (as when they say: “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me” on “Lotus”), they affect a camp detachment through a mix of cartoonish and robotic vocals. And with a party bag full of ‘80s synthesizer tricks, little suggests they are out to be taken seriously.
But if you’re like me and you think ‘80s Dance-Pop 2.0 has nearly had its day, then FM Belfast’s debut How to Make Friends will sound not just frivolous but tired. To be fair, the album enjoyed its first release in Iceland back in 2008 when listeners were hot on the likes of Hercules and Love Affair and awaiting La Roux. In any case, to say that FM Belfast have built themselves a pigeon hole because they peddle something as voguish as Day-Glo stirrup pants is to miss the point. FM Belfast were always a live band before they were a studio one. The perimeters of the group are, in fact, defined by whoever is available to play at a gig (which can range up to eight). Its principle entertainment value has come off the back of the cheeky camaraderie between lead singers Árni Rúnar Hlöðversson and Lóa Hlín Hjálmtýsdóttir as they bounce around on stage, commanding their mics with all the finesse of a karaoke session. In other words, FM Belfast are around to have fun and to throw damn good parties, rather than be studious at their craft. Should ‘80s dance-pop lose its groove, there is little reason to suggest the band cannot reinvent their taste for amusement in the guise of some other dance genre that comes their way. Chillwave anyone?
Still, even within the preserve of ‘80s dance-pop, How to Make Friends is a disappointment. Memorable tracks come off underwhelming. “Par Avion”, which sounds like the Pastels’ wilful naivety caged in by Vangelis’ forbidding wall of synths; and “Underwear”, which blends Muscles’ anthemic irreverence with Hot Chip’s pulsing techno beats and polyrhythms, are cute and catchy. However, they lack the depth, sophistication, and innovation of fellow ‘80s synth enthusiasts Holy Ghost! and Pony Pony Run Run. Such acts fuse dance-pop with genres of no relation (eg, punk, noise pop, yacht rock), lessening the risk of sounding derivative. By contrast, FM Belfast, with the odd exception, stretches dance-pop to net only its closest cousins – Italodisco, house and techno – and so come off one-dimensional from the get-go. Also, the band sticks largely to a tried-and-tested synth palette of stabbing, squelchy, stringy and sparkly sounds. This “return to the basics” stance may be commendable, but in a field so crowded, sounding on record like a fairly straightforward flashback to synthesized music between 1978 and 1982 isn’t nearly enough to make anyone wild with ecstasy. At least when seen live, FM Belfast acquire the curiosity of being a group of bright young things playing gaily – rather than like stiff geeks – with anachronism.
When FM Belfast plant their tongues in their cheeks, they do so with little consequence or resonance. The thrill of the subversive gimmickry of “Lotus” and the harmless mutiny of “Underwear” fizzle out as quickly as an anodyne joke. Their effete take on Technotronic’s “Pump Up the Jam” is obviously contrarian to the propulsive original but it has the effect of a sudden lull between songs in a DJ set: people stop dancing and head for the bar.
How to Make Friends seems neither to have the galvanic spirit of great dance music nor the lyrical substance to make it a qualifying pop record. It’s time to do something else.