Tag Archives: Synth Pop


A Canadian minimal wave retrospective: Rational Youth’s Cold War Night Life (1982)

  Rational Youth’s 1982 full length debut “Cold war night life,” released by the fiercely independent YUL records exactly 34 years ago this month, was Canada’s first purely synth-pop release. The album stands in contrast with the more experimental impulses and synth abstractions of countrymen Ceramic Hello and IKO while also serving as the most accessible and commercially viable release of the genre. “Cold War night life” is Canada’s quintessential synth pop album rubbing shoulders with classic releases by European juggernauts such as Kraftwerk’s “Computer World” (1981), Fad Gadget’s “Under the Flag” (1982), and Human League’s “Dare” (1981). A substantial amount of the album’s 20,000 units were sold in Europe, making it one of the nation’s largest selling independent releases.

Cold war night lifeOriginal 1982 “Cold War Night Life” album artwork

  Despite the band’s Montreal origins, Rational Youth’s European connection remained significant. The band’s formation corresponded with the abrupt changes and experimentation that was taking place in the European new wave subculture at the beginning of the ‘80s. Rational Youth co-founder Tracy Howe’s music career began as the vocalist and drummer of various Montreal punk and new wave acts including The Normals and Heaven Seventeen, who were widely credited as being one of the first punk groups to incorporate synthesizers into their sound. Howe met University of Toronto student and fellow synth enthusiast Bill Vorn in the summer of 1981 and together the pair formed Rational Youth, allegedly taking their name from Canada’s National Youth Orchestra. In contrast to the long-standing tradition of the nations’ premier classical institution, the two were en route to consolidate new generic sounds and conventions in pop music. Vorn and Howe, just like their European peers across the pond, belonged to a generation of musicians who were racing to pawn their electric guitars for synthesizers and drum machines.
Normals_(rational youth)Tracy Howe’s punk group “The Normals” pictured in 1979

  Cold War Night Life is a particularly nuanced album, musically and thematically. Rational Youth’s debut manages to balance dancefloor-ready pop sensibilities with cold war paranoia, caricatured hedonism with existential dilemma. The percussive structure of the record is provided by the iconic Roland TR-808 whose punchy staccato timbre (as would be established by its influence on house and techno) demands movement on the dance floor. Synthetic drum beats provide the framework above which harmonised, arpeggiated synth melodies soar and recede in familiar verse-chorus-verse pop structures on opener “Close to Nature.” The hopeful sincerity of “Just a sound in the night” appears to be a nod to Phil Oakey’s soulful vocals on Human League’s “Open your heart.” The lyrics on this track imagine a planet on the verge of nuclear destruction, wary of fellow humans and the material world; ultimately, the vocalist concedes that he prefers to remain “Close to Nature.” Second track “Beware the Fly” casually name drops Nietzsche in a cautionary limerick on the dangers of being too introspective. Leon Trotsky joins the ranks in another refrain about his Mexican vacation gone wrong, a casualty of being too true to one’s values. The band’s ability to craft songs that vacillate between sincerity and irony comes to the forefront, clearly apparent in the bizarre moralisations of “Beware the Fly.”
Rational_YouthPortraits from the 1983 line up consisting of: Tracy Howe, Kevin Komoda, Denis Duran and Angel Calvo once signed to Capitol records

  Rational Youth retain the hopelessness and lapsed idealism of the Reagan years that is perhaps residual from Howe’s punk background without ever taking themselves seriously. This is particularly apparent on stand out single  “Saturdays in Silesia.” This dance floor favourite illustrates the austere no-man’s land caught between two super powers: an anthem of political hopelessness and hedonist pleasures that references the mortality of all living things, providing a thematic curveball that stands at odds with the song’s raucous dance beat.

YULPromotional image 1982

Lines such as “working in a big hole just to pay the rent man” may ring too close to home to an entire generation of millennials, but should only serve to strengthen your resolve to “put on your cardboard shoes” and let Rational Youth take you “where the music is loud.” As cold war rhetoric rears its ugly head in political discourse, it is no surprise that Rational Youth’s unique brand of sardonic well-crafted synth-pop appears to be as relevant as ever. The recently reactivated YUL records, operated by former the band’s former manager Marc Demouy, reissued their entire discography in 2011 including newer versions of “Cold war night life” singles “Dancing on the Berlin wall” and “City of night.”

Early performance of Saturdays in Silesia

– Danilo Bulatovic

Danilo hosts Computer Sourire, a show about synth-driven music, every Tuesday at 4pm on CJLO 1690AM

Ceramic Hello

A Canadian minimal wave retrospective: Ceramic Hello’s Absence of a Canary (1981)

When the long-defunct Burlington label Mannequin Records pressed their original run of 1000 copies of 1981’s Absence of a Canary, it seemed unlikely that anyone could foresee the legacy of this record three decades later. Elusive minimal synth duo Ceramic Hello, consisting of Roger Humphreys and ex-Spoons keyboardist Brett Wickens, had a short and mysterious run as a band.
Ceramic HelloOriginal album artwork for Ceramic Hello’s “Absence of a Canary” (1981)

Ceramic Hello’s few releases (a single in 1980 and an LP in 1981), both released in limited quantities, and their lack of live performances are all factors that placed an exclamation mark next to the seminal minimal synth LP Absence of a Canary when discovered by electro fetishist and cratediggers, long after the band had dissolved.

The mythology of this album persists domestically and abroad after two comprehensive reissues, one by the German label Vinyl on Demand in 2006, and the other by the Toronto based Suction records in 2012. The longevity of Absence of a Canary, as Matthew Samways of Halifax based minimal wave label Electric Voice can attest to, is owed to its sound being unique to a moment of bold DIY experimentation that struck during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Ceramic Hello seized the sonic potential of newly-available equipment at the time, such as the Roland CR-78 and Korg MS-20. A borrowed TEAC 8-track brought the recording studio into the bedrooms of Wickens and Humphreys in unassuming Burlington, ON. This pastoral suburban setting and lack of resources spoke to the record’s unique minimalism. Absence of a Canary is earnestly influenced by the works of Brian Eno (Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy), Gary Numan, and Kraftwerk.

Climactic NouveauxThe Climactic Nouveaux 7″ is the third release from Burlington’s Mannequin records, which operated in the early 80’s with a staff of one.

However, this simplicity is misleading. Despite the minimalist production, the eclecticism displayed on the album’s 14 tracks makes Ceramic Hello’s strange brand of jagged synth pop hard to digest upon first listen. Just as the title of the album may ominously allude, we the listeners are the canaries in the coalmine exploring novel, and often austere sonic textures, together with Wickens and Humphreys as our guides. Behind slow chugging beats, wailing synths compete with Wickens’ vocals on the opening track The Diesquad. Half of the tracks on the record are instrumental pieces, which range from overtly grotesque synthesized horns on StatiCarnival to the triumphant ebb and flow of Grey Man. Humphreys, presumably influenced by John Foxx and the newly established Mute label, seized the records’ instrumental breaks as a means to inflect the synth tunes with classical influences.

This is particularly heard in the latter half of the record, with the track Trio giving the song a disquieting timelessness that sits at odds with the claustrophobic frigidity on the track previous, Ringing in the Sane. Absence of a Canary never lulls listeners into a passive state, the promise and vulnerability of Footsteps in the fog is abruptly shattered by the next track, sustaining a sense of volatility that persists until the closing Dig that crazy beat. Ceramic Hello’s deranged bedroom synth pop delivers visions of a dystopic future from the confines of suburban Ontario. The synesthetic characteristic of the music is no surprise considering Wickens’ parallel design career, going on to work on LP covers of more commercially successful peers including Joy Division, Peter Gabriel, New Order, and Ultravox.
OMD architectureWickens would go on to design various album covers for Orchestral Manoevres in the Dark including their 1981 LP “Architecture and Morality”

It’s doubtful that Humphreys and Wickens knew that with their original 1000 copy run of Absence of a Canary they would be contributing to a long-term movement for public attention and acclaim 30 years later. I am delighted that Absence of a Canary has been uncovered and hope it will continue to merit the attention it deserves as a pioneering Canadian minimal synth record.

The 9th song off the album, “Footsteps in the Fog”

– Danilo Bulatovic

Danilo hosts Computer Sourire, a show about synth-driven music, every Tuesday at 4pm on CJLO 1690AM

Minimal Wave Logo

Analog dance of the Sincere and Synthetic:

When one talks about music genres today, a discussion of the merits of such categorization schemes is never too far away. The terms that used to guide you through the aisles at your local HMV and informed your consumption of music: terms like pop, rock, metal, and electronic now seem hopelessly vague and clunky. If you’ve ever been asked to describe the sound or genre of an artist to a friend, you are well aware of how insufficient this language may feel in describing something as ephemeral and affective as music.

Minimal Wave LogoLogo for Vasicka’s New York based Minimal Wave labeled devoted to re-releasing lost synth driven music from the late 70’s to early 80’s

Alternatively, you may be overwhelmed by the endless distinctions made by audiophiles in claiming nuance between genres, where the suffixes –wave or –core are endlessly attached in a bid for cultural capital. Considering the slew of short-lived micro-genres of the past decade (witchhouse, seapunk, bubblegum-bass), it is not uncommon that claims to a new genre are often met with eyes rolling and music blogs immediately speculating, “is it here to stay?” Whereas these sub-genres emerged from the forefront of cultural trends, few genres are labeled 40 years after their sound developed with the purpose of reviving the work of artists from a subculture that was never properly singled out from under the broad umbrella of new wave music.
Minimal Wave - Vasicka ImageVasicka showcasing the 2011 Hidden Tapes compilation featuring rare, unreleased minimal wave tracks from around the world ’79-’85

  Veronica Vasicka launched the Minimal Wave record label/web-based restoration project in 2005 for the purpose of re-releasing and re-mastering obscure, dark, and synth-driven music from the late ‘70s to the early ‘80s. Her original website, minimalwave.org, quickly garnered a cult following amongst synth enthusiasts as a platform where obscure recordings, scanned images, translated reviews, and transcribed interviews could be archived. The term “minimal wave” entered the lexicon of synthwave enthusiasts as a sub-genre that shared characteristics with coldwave (the French appendage of post-punk from the late ‘70s) and minimal synth (early, minimally-produced synth music).

Minimal Wave - OhamaCanadian minimal synth pioneer Ohama in his home studio circa ’83

The genre of music characterized by its use of drum machines, simple pre-MIDI synth instrumentation, and “themes of sincere, rather than ironic detachment”. These attributes are packaged with a DIY punk sensibility, often recorded in homes and basement studios. The self-released and limited distribution of these tapes and cassettes is as much a defining feature of the minimal wave aesthetic as its sonic characteristics. Minimal wave places the electronic hardware and sequencers commercially available during the early ‘80s at the foreground of the recording and embraces their novel, synthetic sounds: the mechanical beats and tinny melodies that some today may dismiss as ‘80s kitsch. This overtly synthetic instrumentation combined with themes of sincerity in the lyrics and vocal performances accounts for the genre’s idiosyncratic philosophy on the relationship between man and machine. It is no surprise that the late ‘70s popularity of science fiction and the avant-garde Constructivism and Futurism movements combined to influence the minimal wave’s distinct formula of the sincere and the synthetic.

Minimal Wave - Linear MovementBelgian group Linear Movement’s album artwork for their “On the Screen’ LP

     Seminal synth duo Oppenheimer Analysis were the first to have their 1982 recordings re-mastered and re-issued into a full length LP by Vasicka’s New York-based Minimal Wave Label. Fittingly, Brighton’s Oppenheimer Analysis embodies the distinct minimal wave dynamic of man and machine. Beyond the group’s interrogation of humanity’s precarious relationship with scientific progress, it is interesting to note vocalist Andy Oppenheimer’s relation to father of the atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer. Their 1982 hit song “Devils’ Dancers” proclaims “All the radon daughters / Wonder what they taught us / Making up our status / Doubts are only traitors.”

Oppenheimer Analysis’ 1982 hit song ‘The Devil’s Dancers’

Andy’s stoic delivery is not sufficient to quell the song’s palpable sense of unease over a radioactive future. The tracks’ driving, abruptly arpeggiated synth patterns and mechanical drums punctuate the song’s unmistakable sincerity over the cost of scientific progress. Far from being classically trained, Andy recalls in an interview with Panic Film the duo having been formed at a science fiction convention. This anecdote is a testament to the DIY spirit of the minimal wave subculture of the early ’80s, where the embrace of electronic hardware meant the bracketing of conventional forms of music training, production and distribution.

Minimal WaveGerman bootleg label ‘Flexi-pop’ compiled many CD’s of obscure synth-driven music through the 90s

A lack of conventional music training may, however, be an asset for the musicians crafting minimal wave. The creative fervour where impulse overshadows one’s experience or skill level was essential in minimal wave’s bold exploration of unfamiliar synthetic soundscapes. Vasicka notes “the sounds that are heard [in minimal wave records]…actually resemble the machines used to create them.” Prioritising the electronic hardware as an autonomous instrument was a great departure from the synthesizer’s incorporation into more conventional musical arrangements where the machine was used to mimic familiar sound objects. This was seen in minimal wave’s commercially successful cousin synth pop. Minimal wave, far too dark and gritty to be considered synthpop yet too sincere for its sister genres Industrial/EBM and coldwave, found itself in an elusive category, destined for an obscure existence on bootleg compilation records.
Minimal Wave - Broken English ClubBroken English Club’s 2015 LP “Suburban Hunting” is the latest release from Cititrax

  Since 2005, the Minimal Wave label has evaded all the clichés that stigmatise new sub-genres as fickle trends quickly get exacerbated by the internet hype machine. Minimal Wave also has a sister label, Cititrax, that is oriented towards newer synth-driven music, featuring artists such as Broken English Club, Further Reductions and Toronto’s Kontravoid. The legacy of Minimal Wave is embedded in the eclecticism of the Cititrax catalogue: the diverse membership acknowledges that the distinctions between techno, new wave, and industrial music are as permeable as ever.

– Danilo Bulatovic



MagicPerm Does the Montreal Sessions: January 12th 2016


MagicPerm have been doing a helluva good job on their residency, and if you tuned in this Tuesday you’ll know that this week was no exception. For the uninformed, MagicPerm are a MTL based trio composed of Adam Finley,Sydney Lee, and Rachel Nam who deliver a range of alt/synth pop/dream sounds for all to enjoy. And lucky for us, they’ve agreed to host the Montreal Sessions for the month of January!

This weeks episode comprised of a hilariously deadpan monologue about a pigeons prophecy, some interactive listener games, a wide selection of delightful Canadian music, and the talented Alexia Avina featured in the studio for a live acoustic performance (you can check out her Bandcamp here, it is lovely). What i’m trying to say is that it was a fantastic time and you should defs check out our archives to take a listen to what these guys have been airing!

Don’t forget to tune in next Tuesday from 3-5pm to hear more magic(perm)~~


New Shit and MagicPerm: August 3rd 2015


Do you like magic? Do you like perms? If you answered yes to either or none then tune in today from 3-5pm for a very special episode of New Shit with a live performance and interview with MagicPerm! MagicPerm are a Montreal based synth pop trio, whose brand new album you can listen to on their bandcamp.

We’re super excited to hear what they have in store for us, so listen up for some new music from them and some fresh tunes selected by todays host, Pablo ~~