Covenant: Leaving Babylon

Nurtured in the darkness of the industrial/goth scene, this Swedish act withers in the sunlight of the synthpop revival, opting instead to remain stubbornly safe in the shadows.


Leaving Babylon

Label: Metropolis
US Release Date: 2013-09-10
Label Website
Artist Website

Ubiquitous on the Billboard charts and ever present on indie blogs, synthpop has enjoyed an extraordinary multi-faceted resurgence in recent years. From new car smell throwbacks like Empire of the Sun and Kisses to the slick modernized subversions by Chvrches and Lady Gaga to the disquietingly normalized ditties of Capital Cities and Maroon 5, you’d have to go out of your way to avoid the new wave of New Wave. Though genre fiends might emit shrill trills at the lumping together of perhaps seemingly disparate artists, the mounting similarities between the likes of AWOLNATION and Tears For Fears or OneRepublic and Duran Duran cannot be ignored in good conscience.

Of course, for many people the very word “synthpop” conjures up flocks of seagulls, human leagues, and soft cells, with all the unfortunate trappings of 1980s culture rife for parody. Doofy haircuts, ridiculously bright outfits, and other such now laughable music video tropes of those days ought to remain as dead as Reaganomics and Rubik’s Cubes. Yet so many of the songs have nonetheless endured, even those as undeniably dated as A-Ha’s “Take on Me,” Dead Or Alive’s “You Spin Me Round", or New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle". Contemporary artists cover these tunes with reverence and glee, '80s Nights thrive in cities large and small, and people pay good money -- for tickets and babysitters -- to see everyone from Erasure to Howard Jones live in concert still.

For some, however, synthpop never went away, even as the mainstream abandoned it for seemingly greener pastures. The underground industrial/goth scene took the subgenre in like a limping wide-eyed stray and gave the dog a home and a bone. Over time new artists like De/Vision, Mesh, and VNV Nation cropped up to carry on the tradition and labels formed to support them. It is here that Covenant emerged, after an early dalliance with more caustic EBM in the mid-1990s. Though the Swedish act never fully divested from the Front 242 fanclub, most of its rough edges were sanded down and smoothed for albums like 2000’s United States of Mind and 2002’s Northern Light. Clubgoers who enjoy stepping out in black latex and leather have surely familiarized themselves already with some portion of the Covenant discography. Their feet certainly remember.

But coming up in a scene as insular as theirs creates a sort of glass ceiling for even the best bands. Though Covenant not infrequently borrowed from subgenre relatives like minimal techno or tech-house, the opportunity to break out has never truly arrived. Largely unheralded outside of the industrial-goth ghetto, the Blade Runner-fixated band enjoys a respectable level of fame and fills international venues that most indie artists couldn’t dream of headlining. Yet even as synthpop spreads like a technicolor nanovirus in the 21st century, there seems little room for torch-carrying, sincere, and yes, schmaltzy stalwarts like Covenant. (After all, we have hardened and beloved veterans like Depeche Mode and the Pet Shop Boys for that.)

Perhaps Covenant has accepted this fate agreeably, since Leaving Babylon -- its first full-length since 2011’s Modern Ruin -- offers scarce entryways for potential new fans. More often than not, the core duo of Eskil Simonsson and Joakim Montelius appear to have gone back to the proverbial well yet again. Pulsating dark dance tracks like “Auto (Circulation)” and “Last Dance” are essentially refurbished models of familiar predecessors “Call The Ships to Port” and “Dead Stars”, respectively. Either set in his ways or otherwise unable to do much else vocally, Simonsson’s exhaustive ennui and calculated cool contrasts with the feigned dramatic disinterest of Hurts and rule-bending outsider elitism of Crystal Castles. His stilted affect jibes just fine with cold machine beats (“Ignorance & Bliss”, “Prime Movers”) but essentially collapses up against anything else, as on the awkward ballad “Not to Be Here” and the semi-organic segue "I Walk Slow", the latter an already crumbling fugue.

It’s not all for naught, of course. Those who’ve stuck by Covenant all these years won’t be disappointed, provided they weren’t unrealistically hoping for anything radically different. Furthermore, the atmospheric dance floor banger “For Our Time” is a well-executed exercise in ascetic restraint. Buoyed by the song’s steady beat and pervasive bassline, Simonsson sings a repetitious pair of verses, both in his icy monotone and then in a comparatively warmer croon. His voice noticeably cracks at one point and it actually makes him uncharacteristically endearing. In the hands of the right remixers, this already solid cut could grow wings. But maybe, after eight albums and nearly 20 years, Covenant has everything it needs down here, down where it belongs.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.