An ‘80s Synth Pop Time Machine
Did you ever wish that New Order released an album of new material in between 1986’s Brotherhood and 1989’s Technique? Have you ever wished that Depeche Mode made 1981’s Speak & Spell using the same technology they used to create 1987’s Music for the Masses? Do you miss the pop sounds of the Pet Shop Boys back at their chart-topping peak a la “West End Girls”? If the answer to any of these questions is a resounding yes, then you should definitely check out the latest album by Sweden’s the Bell. Their style is a throwback to the ‘80s synth pop movement, and Great Heat is a resoundingly well-crafted album despite the fact that listening to it on first blush will make you think of a host of European New Wave bands from 25 years ago.
However, the songs are pop manufactured to the point of having a veneer-like sheen, which is quite a feat considering that the members of the Bell actually hail from different cities in Sweden and made the album by using the mail. In fact, when I received this album digitally, the songs came mixed up out of order. You know what? It didn’t make a difference. That’s the strength of Great Heat. You could put this record on shuffle mode and still feel that you’ve been witness to the creation of an artistic statement. There is a consistency to this record that works no matter how you play it. In fact, according to the press release, the band almost came to blows over how to sequence the album, which just illustrates that the running order could have gone any number of ways.
The opening shot on Great Heat is a pretty good one. “Whatever Did You Say?” is, simply put, the best song that New Order never wrote, and the bass line even seems like something lifted from Peter Hook’s playbook. It’s a track mired in dancehall rhythms and recalls, to a certain extent, “Bizarre Love Triangle”. This is a song that you can easily lose yourself in, though at almost four and a half minutes in length, with the bulk of the last half being primarily instrumental, it does wear on just a smidge too long. However, it is an outstanding introduction to the sound that the Bell is mired in, and shows the band’s fascination with synthetic pop music. “Holiday”, which follows, nicks the keyboards from the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me”, but transforms it in something a little more dark and sinister, giving it a bit of the death-disco feel of an early industrial music track. (“We Believe” by Ministry comes to mind.) “Holiday” is Gothic club music, driven by a boosh-bash beat that has the same tempo as out-of-control windshield wipers at near full speed.
“Throw Me a Bone” continues the gloomy texture of the previous track; that is, until the big poppy chorus blossoms complete with female background vocals. Singer Mathias Stromberg here comes across like Depeche Mode’s Dave Gaham crossed with the Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant, furthering the backwards-looking lustre of Great Heat. “Today” is a big poppy statement, fuelled by spiralling keyboards that come courtesy of the New Romance movement. “Tell Us You’re Sorry” is another stab at Depeche Mode synth pop out of the Some Great Reward era, and Stromberg sings the track as though he’s wearing a perpetual sneer. The song is programmed and calculated, and comes off all the better for it. Again, the Bell provides a sonic soundscape that wouldn’t be out of place at retro night at your local watering hole.
There are a few curve-balls to be found in the latter half of Great Heat. “The Sound” is a more straight-up ‘80s pop track with a climatic chorus that actually boasts chiming guitars as the main source of instrumentation. It doesn’t have the same epic sweep as some of the other songs to be found here, as it seems a bit more muted during the verses, making it one of the least memorable cuts on the album. However, that’s not to say that it’s not bad. It just seems somehow ordinary compared to some of the other bass and keyboard pounding tunes elsewhere. Meanwhile, “I Can’t Change” has the same cadence of a mid-‘80s Simple Minds song, if only said group were a bit more jittery and angular. It does share that ‘80s pop starburst keyboard sound, and it’s a real rouser with its chanted lyrics.
The real game changer comes with the eighth song, “Dope Makes You”, which features female vocals at the forefront, and the song could pass for “Fireworks”-period Siouxie and the Banshees. The final song, “23 Seconds”, is a little like what you’d get if the Smiths and Goth-period the Cure met on a rainy street corner. The guitar has the same tonal qualities as Johnny Marr’s work, making it somewhat of an aberration among the songs on Great Heat, in that it isn’t a synth-laden track. It does, however, point a way to the future of the Bell’s sound, suggesting that they’re not interested in regurgitating keyboard-driven dancehall tunes. On an interesting note, the song does nicely flow into Belle and Sebastian’s “I Didn’t See It Coming” from last year’s Write About Love, as the two albums sit next to each other in my iTunes library. Weirdly, it illustrates that a lot of styles could easily nestle within the Bell’s rear view mirror, big pop approach to music making.
There must be something in the water in Sweden, as both Peter Bjorn and John and I’m from Barcelona have turned in stunning career-defining records recently. While Great Heat isn’t exactly quite in the same company, it is a very good collection of songs—especially for those who have played out all of their New Order and Depeche Mode records to the point of exhaustion. Sure, this is strictly fashionable music that references the past for the sake of being cool, but it is generally done well, and the band has taken their obvious influences and, on the best of this collection’s songs, gone beyond wearing them on their sleeve. When you listen to Great Heat, you are transported back two and a half decades, to the hippest of British night clubs, and feel a part of something that’s similarly slick and scenesterific. These are electric songs that are all neon and glass, and, if they were a smell, would remind you of a fresh leather jacket.
Great Heat is ultimately chic, and the warmth these songs generate will have you reaching for your mirror shades. There is a great deal worth admiring here; most of all, this group’s amazing ability to effortlessly recreate the sound of an entire era while, at times, giving it a fresh skin. Most importantly, this is an album you will want to move to and give your behind a good shake. In the ringer, that’s the album’s most enduring quality. Great Heat is vibrant, edgy, and just full of big pop statements fuelled by the very best music that graced discos in the mid-1980s. If that’s your cup of tea, you need to go out and give this bell a ring.
// Notes from the Road
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