You gotta admit it's a great story: Manchester duo Richard Woolgar and Glyn Thomas got their big break when a local promoter challenged them to create an hour of original music for his synth-pop club, Homoelectric. Thus was born Alpinestars, yet another in the swiftly multiplying ranks of English electro-synth-downtempo duos. Cranking out atmospheric ditties built around programmed beats and cinematic synths seems to have become something of a national pastime over there.
To their credit, Alpinestars largely abandon the formula of their Bent/Lemon Jelly/Fila Brazilia brethren on their sophomore full-length, White Noise, scrapping the Air-like instrumentals of their debut album B.A.S.I.C. in favor of a more obviously '80s-inspired, synth-pop approach. Featuring lots of detached, Pet Shop Boys-like vocals, drifting, New Orderish melodies, and yes, actual guitars and drums, White Noise is an inconsistent but occasionally brilliant effort to infuse the lushly cinematic qualities of modern electronica with the unabashedly pop sensibilities of those earlier groups. It can't hold a candle to similar recent releases like Goldfrapp's Black Cherry, but it's a big leap forward from B.A.S.I.C. and a welcome addition to the continuing evolution of modern synth-pop toward something a little more engaging than the electro-clash movement's tired posturings.
Woolgar and Thomas seem to be at their most inspired when they're at their most retro: "NuSEX City", with its jangly scratch guitar and disco bassline would be a Blondie-era New Wave track if it weren't for an acid synth line; "Hotel Parallel" mines the same breezy synth-pop vein that put bands like Pet Shop Boys and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark on the map; "Snow Patrol (Part 2)" tops the electro-bombast of "Snow Patrol (Part 1)" by trading it in for a chilly, Roxy Music vibe. It's when the influences get more contemporary that Alpinestars' tinny charms wear out their welcome, as on the aforementioned "Snow Patrol (Part 1)" and "Smash It Up", a perplexingly Oasis-like Brit-pop shoutalong enlivened only by a fat, oscillating keyboard riff that sounds, I swear, like something off an old Emerson, Lake and Palmer epic.
The album's slower numbers tend not to work as well, either, relying too much on corny synth strings and the pleasant but rather colorless vocals of Woolgar and Thomas, who split the singing chores and both have those thin, reedy voices that seem to be endemic to the male half of the British population. One of them (they're not credited individually, so there's no way of knowing who's who) struggles gamely but unconvincingly through some falsetto parts on the hymn-like "Lovecraft", while the other (at least I think it's the other -- they're hard to tell apart) fails to sell the throwaway melody and lyrics of "Crystalnight" ("When we walked in the sun / And we spoke with our eyes / Knowing what was to come / In the season of ice"). And as for the oh-so-delicate acoustic guitar and milquetoast vocals of "New Ice Age" ... well, let's not even go there.
The album's most original track, and arguably its best, is "Burning Up", which in title and tone alike provides the antidote to all the wintry imagery that permeates the rest of White Noise. Over a simple but irresistible guitar hook and a tangle of synths that teasingly blow hot, then cold, then hot again , an unexpectedly confident vocal croons cryptic lyrics ("Vanity and time will rape my soul") with Bowie-like seductiveness. It's reminiscent of the best '80s synth-pop, but there's nothing precious or throwback about it; instead, it sounds like the space-age bachelor pad music of the future, where the twinkling fiberoptic gloss of modern electronica gets injected with a yearning world-weariness that all the high-tech gadgets in the world will never entirely cure us of. That's probably reading way too much into a simple pop song, but you get the idea -- it's a nice juxtaposition, and one that very few bands are doing these days, the only other obvious example being the Postal Service.
Oh, yes -- White Noise also features guest vocals by Placebo's Brian Molko, who lends his wheedling pipes to the churning electro-rock of "Carbon Kid". It's a cool track, but personally I still can't stand the voice of Molko, who sounds like Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant even whinier kid brother. There's also a robotic remix of "Carbon Kid" and, on the enhanced American version of the CD, a rather dull video for the song, to complement a rather dull video for "Snow Patrol". The UK version of the album instead has two additional tracks, "Vital Love Disciple" and "Partisan Song", both of which by all accounts are pretty good. Apparently Astralwerks decided that Americans would rather watch low-res Quicktime videos on their computers than hear more music. And who knows? Maybe we would.