"Concrete Pop" (Album, 2016) !Recommended!
Dean Clarke's Brutalist Architecture In The Sun I discovered online one day. (Turns out he lives only a few miles down the road from me too.) I was suckered in purely by the name. Which, in my book, deserves recognition if only its because not since the late 1970s when Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphries decided to call themselves Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark have I admired the balls of choosing such an overtly provocative and pretentious name.
The reference to OMD isn't purely an issue of nomenclature though, as beyond that imposing slab of a name lies some decidedly old-school inspired, properly electronic music. And I use the phrase 'electronic' advisedly. As this is more like the minimal proto-electronic music created in Sheffield on analogue only synths, back around the same time that, a few miles west in Liverpool, OMD were emulating their Dusseldorfian heroes Kraftwerk.
The sound is somewhere between the minimal synth style (original and revival) and that late 1970s Sheffield sound. Aspects of either the short-lived bands like like Vice Versa, or the formative years of Cabaret Voltaire, early The Human League, can all be heard in Concrete Pop but it's never imitation. It's either inspired by or simply shares a lot of the same aesthetic. Shimmering opener Concrete Pop sounds like something found on The Human League's 1979 Dignity of Labour 12” EP (of four instrumental tracks). Although there are a few lyrics, this (and most of the album) almost sound like instrumental compositions that have had lyrics and vocals added at a later date.
Concrete Pop is a slightly awkward title. I appreciate it's probably a touch ironic, as for me, the 'pop' bit underplays the ambition that's clearly behind a lot of the writing here. Having said that, it's clearly a very deliberate choice and admittedly sets out the pop sensibilities of some of the elements in the songwriting, but those are always (wisely) held back from an overtly commercial sound by the uncompromising electronics that dominate the Brutalist sound. So whilst some may find the name pretentious, I find it entirely appropriate.
So much of the music found on Concrete Pop is, frankly, wonderful in its minimalist simplicity. And I mean simplicity in the most positive sense. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery memorably reminds us: "Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away".
Clarke's vocals occasionally threaten to undermine the compositions, which is frustrating when the music beneath is so bloody great. (The whole album could work almost as well in purely instrumental form.) Clarke's not afraid to have the oscillators on his analogue synths slightly out of tune with each other, which I haven't heard since the early 80s, and I love it. Vocals on the other hand, I don't mind being deadpan but I do like them to be in tune, and once too often they drift just a bit too far.
Fortunately, there are several guest vocalists, including Paul (not the OMD one) Humphries on Love & Science, Meter Bridge's Jill Beaulieu on Saving Face, Cye Thomas on Towers and Do We Ever Know The End? and CountessM (Maren Northway) on Concrete Pop Pt2. All of whom help elevate several tracks. The project would benefit from Clarke conceding most, but definitely not all, of the primary singing duties to those around him*.
Nevertheless, I'm always excited by ambition. I'll readily forgive shortcomings if they are counterbalanced by a vision to achieve something bigger and better than the majority of music that's out there. Given that Brutalist Architecture In The Sun have a vision larger than even their name, you'd be foolish not to immerse yourself in their grandiose and thrilling constructions. There are moments of greatness on Concrete Pop that send the soul soaring. 8/10
Rob Dyer (December 2016)
*Note: Which, since the album was launched in August, has happened, with Cye Thomas joining the band full time as lead vocalist. Result!
The Human League
Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark