Ballet School is an indelible entry into the synth pop genre, and are at least taking the approach somewhat differently by using guitars.
Remember the ‘80s? I certainly do. The ‘80s were not a particularly kind decade for me, as you tended to get beat up in school if you didn’t listen to one of the countless hair metal bands of the day. Me? I was into a-ha and Wang Chung. So, enough said. Well, Ballet School, a Berlin-based trio, certainly remembers the ‘80s, just like countless bands crossing my desk these days. The thing is, this band seems to certainly remember the best bits of the ‘80s and incorporate them into its songs. While there are flashes of synth-pop in their sound, the band more take its cues from alternative rock bands of the day that were popular in Europe. Think Cocteau Twins and the Cure, and you’ll be on the right track. According to the label website, the band doesn’t even want you to think of it as a synth band, even though the group uses its share of keyboards. Instead, the band wants to leave the impression that it is primarily a guitar band. Fair enough. Following on the heels of a debut EP issued last year, Ballet School now have a full-length album in the bag, one that features re-recorded and alternate versions of songs from the EP alongside seven brand new tracks. While The Dew Lasts an Hour is actually only about 43 minutes long (ha!), these are songs that leave an afterimage. The tunes are generally wholly alluring in their dream pop wonder, and the album does take its share of bold risks.
The biggest risk might just be the album’s opener, the instrumental "Slow Dream". Featuring keyboards that wash like waves crashing down on the beach, the song is dreamy until a gloomy bass guitar (or a keyboard meant to sound like a bass guitar) comes in, taking the track into Robert Smith territory. Then, a glimmery keyboard line starts up, drawing parallels to Wang Chung. Vocalist Rosie Blair then comes in with wordless birdsong, before everything drops away just to feature those waves crashing on the beach. So, in the space of about two minutes, Ballet School sets the stage for their sound: brightly nocturnal, even if that seems like an oxymoron. Thus, it’s an apt introduction to the album, even if the song isn’t as traditionally structured like the rest of material, which does make it stick out like a thumb throbbing from a hammer blow. Still, things only get astounding from there. "Pale Saint", whose riff does seem a little similar to the live version of the opening bars of Guided By Voices’ "Game of Pricks", cascades triumphantly and transports listeners effortlessly to that simpler decade, when boys who wore jeans beat the snot out of any kid wearing khakis or dress pants. "Ghost" is another triumphant track, one that feels Britain around 1984, if not the sort of song that might be scored in a John Hughes movie. Now, that John Hughes reference is one that has cropped up in my reviews from time to time, so, yes, it’s something of a cliché, which also may render the song as such, but it’s the most apt descriptor I can come up with. It’s just one of those songs where you go, ah, yes, end credits to The Breakfast Club.
"Lux" is another entry into the dream-pop cannon of the past. It’s quite heavenly and divine, with its guitars chiming as though they’ve been made of glass,which make your lines drawn toward Singring, if you must. (That’s an obscure Todd Rundgren / Utopia song reference I’ve just thrown into the pot, in case you’re scratching an itchy spot on your head.) "Heartbeat Overdrive" is, for all of the band’s insistence that they not, an entry into the synth-pop genre, at least at the start. Then that Cure guitar comes in, which renders the direction the band is going in pretty moot. Still, you remember those teen movies of the ‘80s where there’s a party scene? Well, the song would be a soundtrack to that. Had this come out 30 years ago, I’m sure this is the kind of thing you’d be listening to if you were beer ponging at a party. "Cherish", meanwhile, not to be confused with the Madonna song of the same name, is all Los Angeles sunset and driving in a Ferrari. It’s wildly propulsive and addictively catchy. While the album does have its peaks and valleys, too, the most memorable valley comes at the very end with the alternate version of "Crush", which seems oddly familiar, though what it is similar to is something that is out of reach, a thing that exists on the tip of your tongue. Though the song does stop the album on a dime, leaving you to wonder "is that it?", it’s still memorable.
This all said, there’s a soft belly to The Dew Lasts an Hour. By the time you get about halfway through it, the songs seem to easily blend into one another, and it isn’t until you start putting the album on random order that the individuality of the tracks readily emerges. That means that this LP is a bit too much of a good thing. It either needs a restructuring in the sequencing, or it needs something other than a throwback sound to keep things interesting. And, to be sure, there will be those out there who will claim that this has been all done before (and, possibly, better) 30 odd years ago. So take that as you will. Still, this album does have its charms, and is actually quite competent in many regards. For one, it doesn’t entirely cop the sounds of the synth-pop movement of the ‘80s, which is a very good thing considering the glut of bands out there that are doing exactly that, and to a point where it’s starting to become boring. You know, listening to people who weren’t even born during the ‘80s trying to replicate the sounds of that era, which, and I’ve said this before, isn’t exactly an era that is timeless and stands up to close scrutiny. This was an era of cheap keyboards and using those electronics to make pop music, so having to hear people resuscitate that strikes me as odd, considering the advances in technology now at our disposal.
Regardless, Ballet School is an indelible entry into the synth-pop genre, and are at least taking the approach somewhat differently by using guitars. Plus, the band does have the songs, to boot, so there’s that. While the ‘80s might not have been the most memorable decade for music, there’s a part of me that would have enjoyed this if it had come out in the day. Just for saying that, I’m now waiting for the first punch to be thrown, just like I was when a-ha and Wang Chung were all the rage in my Walkman, much to the chagrin of my peers.