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.
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.