They say fortune favours the brave. If this is true (and I like to think it is) then on the back of their eighth album Covenant are set to be multi-millionaires. What's that cliched saying? "Good things come to those who wait". Well, with Leaving Babylon it seems glorious things come to those who not only wait - but also believe.
It's been a turbulent few years for founder member and driving force Eskil Simonsson recently. The complete non-appearance live in recent years of writing partner Joakim Montelius (after some troubling antics on tour), the departure last year of Daniel Myer and, more recently, the recruitment of two new members - Daniel Jonasson and Andreas Catjar. Hardly the firm foundations upon which to build a monument to stand the test of time. And yet, because Simonsson and Montelius believe in Covenant, that is what they have achieved.
Tobias Green's artwork of stylised polygons stretching into the sky in front of a stormy background (either literally a tower of Babel, or perhaps an expressionist staircase reaching up to Heaven), is an fitting and elegant visual representation of the music and lyrics found within what is probably the band's most rounded album in years. This is mainly electronic blues. It continues Covenant's unique exploration of what is often wrong with the world; and it always begins, and ends, with man. But for all the angst Simonsson expresses at sharing a planet with such challenging cohabitants, there remains that piercing ray of hope that is so distinctively his and Montelius'. And for that reason, many of us other cohabitants admire and love them. A small, momentary recompense, perhaps, for the troubles the world keeps throwing up.
The teaser EP released in June, focusing on the pulsating Last Dance, was a sensible release ahead of the album. But it will have done little to prepare followers for the reflective depth of what is delivered here. Most of the compositions are mid to low-tempo entries into the band's canon. The sounds of harpsichords, pianos, even guitars, nestle harmoniously with the familiar, warm electronics we've come to love from Covenant. Compositions have such wonderfully evocative and poetic titles like I Walk Slow, For Our Time, Thy Kingdom Come and Not To Be Here. Slow ballads, successful experiments, instrumentals, even a cover, and a quality ten-minute unlisted track - this is one almighty return to form for the (once again) all-Swedish band.
Never before have they produced such a collection of poignant reflection. It is however an uneven start (despite of the club-friendly Prime Movers), taking four songs before getting into its stride. There are three stand out tracks which represent what sets Leaving Babylon apart from all preceding Covenant albums. Firstly, I Walk Slow. Penned by new member Andreas Catjar with lyrics by Montelius. What begins with a few minimal guitar chords descends into a cacophonous screaming noise - and back again. Simonsson's lyrical delivery is a masterpiece of casual understatement. Some of his most inventive delivery ever.
Secondly, and the most exhilarating example of the overarching mood of the album, is Ignorance & Bliss. It's almost the perfect Covenant song. Musically it sounds like the soundtrack to an existential journey beyond the stars. Lyrically it is very down to Earth. Montelius' moving words delivered by Simonsson in such a way that not only do you readily accept he believes every last word, but that his very life depends on sharing them. Overwhelmed by the challenges middle age demands, this yearns for a time when life was simpler and thus more manageable... and happier? Effortlessly spanning six-and-a-half minutes, there's a one minute intro, an exquisite middle-section; but it isn't until the the final third, one extended emotionally-wrenching crescendo, that the title is sung: "I am longing for all the things I'll never get. I am longing for all the things I had and lost. I am longing for innocence and simple dreams. I am longing for ignorance and bliss." Its profundity and delivery enough to make a grown man weep.
Thirdly, the cover of Dimbodious' Not To Be Here is inspired. In fact, this is less of a cover version and more of a re-interpretation, as it uses the original sound files recorded, performed and produced by Dimbodius, reworked by Simonsson. It opens with a lone piano, suggesting our narrator's head is in one hand, whilst the other gently taps the ivories. A tumbler of whiskey sitting atop of the piano, as outside the rain falls, creating shimmering rivers on the window panes. Like tears in rain? Absolutely. There are times when it is ok, even therapeutic to embrace the darkness. To wallow for a while. It doesn't have to be solemnly indulgent. It can be beautiful. Leaving Babylon is a beautiful album. 8/10
Rob Dyer (September, 2013)
This teaser EP focusing on the up-tempo Last Dance is the first peek at new Covenant material since Daniel Myer left the band last year. It could be my imagination but the title track feels like it bears the imprint of Myer's influence, particularly in the bass. However, the intro, with the out-of-sync phasing they use to memorable effect so often, has all the hallmarks of classic Covenant and as such this is a solid choice as the basis on which to bring the new writing to the public. There are two remixes, the first, by robot lovers Modulate, ups the BPM, weaves in an almost Morodereqsue hi-NRG styling with additional energetic synth lines that works well. The second (by the band themselves) also nudges the tempo a tad delivering an urgent interpretation that feels like it might shatter at any moment.
Title track aside, there are three other new songs, each written by a different member. The first is the affecting and unhurried I Scan The Surface by Daniel Jonasson (lyrics by Joakim Montelius) - slapping percussive sounds, no drums, bubbling analogue synths, Theremin-like shimmerings and simple spoken words. Montelius penned the simple, looping bleeps of We Go Down, with Simonsson delivering his own Depeche Mode-like religious lyrics. The funereal Slowdance wraps up this six-tracker and sounds remarkably similar to Atomic Ranch on OMD's English Electric album. Again, no drums, written by Andreas Catjar, with poetic lyrics by Montelius. It's a fine example of what I think Covenant do so very well if they choose - the creation of seriously reflective mood-pieces. Also available as a limited red vinyl 7". The appetite for next month's Leaving Babylon album has been suitably whetted. 7/10
Rob Dyer (August, 2013)
"Synergy - Box Set" (Album, Video, Booklet, 2000)
The luxury fanatic's version of the Synergy album packages the live CD into a glossy box along with a nine track live video (interspersed with band interviews) and a 32-page songbook of Covenant lyrics. Even at the time of its release in 2000 it was a slight disappointment that this wasn't to be on DVD format (Apoptygma Berzerk were the first on the scene to do this the next year with another live release: APBL2000). Still, being the first official video release by Covenant, fans were nevertheless delighted to have the chance to watch and not just listen to their Swedish heroes. The visuals are a combination of band performance from a variety of camera angles intermixed with audience footage and the projections specially commissioned from Anna Krych for use on the tour. Image quality throughout is first class - no complaints on that front. The audio though isn't pristine and occasionally, like on Dead Stars, and (a terrific rendition of) Theremin it noticeably distorts.
The live track list is: Intro, Tour de Force, I Am, Helicopter, Dead Stars, Der Leiermann, Theremin, One World, One Sky and Figurehead. Interspersed with the live songs are short interviews with the three band members. These are about as far from the usual rock clichés that one knows to expect from this kind of release. Instead of the usual posturing we've Eskil, Joakim and Clas philosophising about the possibilities for mankind, the merits of living in Sweden (nice mountains and lakes apparently) and a cocktail recipe for the perfect Bloody Mary. The relatively short running time of around 50 minutes is over far too soon, but neither this nor the limitations of the audio should put off most hardcore fans. Now that the band have been producing videos for their singles for the last few years, let's hope it won't be too long before we get a top quality audio live DVD release combined with their entire video output. This released was limited to 4,000 copies. 7/10
Rob Dyer (May 2006)
Sweden: most famous for the pop music group Abba and the furniture store Ikea. But, just in case you didn't already know, you can count Covenant in there too as one of the best things to ever come out of that otherwise unassuming country. Riding high at the time with label Dependent, Covenant embarked upon a project to release a live album plus a live video (see Synergy - Box Set review above). The stand alone live album release Synergy records their brilliant 2000 United States of Mind tour, and with the box set version brought the bands number of releases that year to six!
Recorded at Bochum, Germany in March of that year, the 15 tracks span most of their career. The earliest entry is the great Flux from their second album Sequencer, (the Box Set video goes back to their 1994 debut Dreams of A Cryotank with Theremin). Whilst fans at the time simply couldn't purchase enough Covenant material and this will have pleased most as their first official live album release, there's no denying that the production lacks punch. Many of the songs, despite their original incarnations often utilising gut punching beats, are weakened. On the positive side, the song selection is well made, with the bands low, mid and hi tempo repertoire all represented. The choices are not always obvious either with Wall of Sound and b-side Babel both making an appearance. One particularly nice touch is (after playing One World, One Sky) having the cheers as the band walk off stage at the end of their set continue, unedited, until they return and play their encore of several songs, also unedited. The band were pretty much on top form at the time of the recording, and there's plenty of their characteristic vocal enthusiasm and embellishments alongside their more contemplative between song observations. The CD is also loaded with a Windows screensaver. 6/10
Rob Dyer (May, 2006)
"United States of Mind" (Album, 2000)
This fourth album from Sweden's leading electro-masters was much anticipated. In the short period since the release of their second album, Sequencer, in 1996, Covenant have gone on to become one of the leading names in industrial electronic music, garnering rave write-ups for their explosive live performances, intelligent song writing and non-pretentious personalities. 1998's Europa was a big seller internationally, and Eskil Simonsson, Joakim Montelius and Clas Nachmanson had a high, self-imposed, standard to live up to.
With United States of Mind it seems as if they have the stamina and ability to continue developing their 'future pop' sound and deliver some cracking songs. Unlike Covenant, this is perhaps their most diverse album. At one end of the scale you've got the Ibiza anthems of tour de force and the terrifically simplistic (and totally euphoric) One World One Sky. And at the other there are the thoughtful Humility and Still. But furthest from the likes of One World One Sky is the totally silent You Can Make Your Own Music. Presumably the listener is invited to mentally insert whichever type of track you'd most desire to close the album. This touch (and several of the songs on the album) reflects Covenant's philosophy of using their music to bring people of differing backgrounds together, to contribute to the music scene and to rejoice in the world we have. This is most obvious in the lyrics of One World One Sky which (in their entirety) run to a succinct, but sufficient, two lines: "One world, one sky. We live, we die". Humility gets its message across in a more poetic/romantic mode with lines like: "Turn your gaze towards the moon, even further if you dare. Turn your face towards the sun, and be grateful that it's there." More solemn are the lyrics of Helicopter, which is another classic Covenant grower of a song. The distorted, disembodied vocals deliver a haunting message of the loneliness of being dead.
Reminding us that Blade Runner will always have an important place in their hearts and continues to play a significant role in influencing their songwriting, are Like Tears In Rain (say no more) and the brilliant Still Life whose whale-like sounds echo Vangelis' incidental music in Ridley Scott's film. And Dead Stars provides enough evidence that they can still write perfect EBM with self-referential lyrics like: "We find our songs in fashion magazines" and "We find ourselves in pictures on the net". It's largely impressive stuff undoubtedly, and perhaps the diversity of the album is its only shortcoming, but it is significant. I'm not one to criticise diversity - I'm all for experimentation, but unlike Covenant's last two albums, United States of Mind lacks the cohesion and the clearly-defined concepts that make Europa and Sequencer such great albums. But when you get to this kind of standard this is really just nit-picking. Most electronic bands would do anything to sound this good and it's hard not to give this a DSO Recommended rating, but if I'm not careful, Covenant's entire album output will appear on that illustrious list. 8/10
"tour de force" (Single, 1999)
Four track teaser for the fourth album United States of Mind. Three versions of tour de force and an otherwise unavailable track - it's alright. Taking them in order, tour de force (club version) is a relatively subtle remix of what is already a pretty dancefloor intense song. In fact, if anything, it slightly softens the edges making this something that non-industrial DJs could spin with ease. tour de force (com-pass mix by Daniel Myer of haujobb) takes a deconstructed and muted approach. Certainly closer to haujobb's nintynine album than the EBM of their solutions for a small planet period. There's even a funky guitar sample thrown in there somewhere!
Next up is it's alright a simplistic and repetitive low BPM entry. Only the very low keyboard chords offer any respite or interest. Otherwise this is one of Covenant's least convincing songs to date. The final, eleven-an-a-half minute tour de force (extended dance mix by j. Cosmo) was remixed by a local house DJ and the cliched drum and bass lines don't add anything extra to the original. Where it works best is after the five minute mark and the synths phase into the lead. But this is short-lived and we quickly return the regular house formula. On the whole, this is a disappointing release. The best track is the first one - remixed by Covenant themselves. And the album version is perhaps better still. Even hardcore Covenant fans should think twice before purchasing this. 5/10
"Euro EP" (EP, 1998)
After the success of the Europa album, Covenant decided to release this EP based around the Go Film track. Given that it was one of the prime candidates for a single release this seemed like a wise choice. A lot of effort has been put into this EP. There are seven tracks, three are remixes of Go Film, three are remixes of Tension (also from Europa) and the other track is a new one called Consumer.
Go Film Hard Version kicks things off and, as often seems to happen with Covenant, the title is a little misleading. Whilst this isn't the sort of music you'd play to send a child to sleep, it certainly isn't 'hard' by Covenant's standards. But it is a good mix. Better still is the Soft Version. This sounds like the sort of reworking that the band are famous for doing live; significantly changing the mood of the song, creating something totally new and fresh. Consumer is the third entry and at just over seven minutes it is the second longest track here. Static-fulled percussion and a moody, mellow bass line and haunting keyboards are the mark of this slow-paced piece. Eskil's vocals on the other hand are very high in the mix but his troubled almost frightened voice works despite being so up front. But it does seem to have trouble filling the running time and appears to run out of ideas long before it is over.
Tension Club Version is the same tempo as the album version but also plays around with off-beat timing - a mainstay of Covenant's work. Interesting but not entirely successful are all the additional noises that take the edge off the album cut. The Disco Calculi mix of Go Film is by fellow Swedes James and Eddie Svard (James was also responsible for the cover photos and inside sleeve painting). Clocking in at just under seven-and-a-half minutes, this house-inspired version does well in deconstructing the original beyond all recognition. Unfortunately, it doesn't stand on its own as a track in its own right. House fans might disagree, but the best feature of the brothers Svard's version are the retro synth sounds. More in keeping with its industrial roots is the Disco Calculi take on Tension. Once more the manipulation sounds more like it has started from scratch than sampled anything from the original song. The harder edge here and more inventive use of a new melody line makes this better than their version of Go Film and therefore more welcome. Finally, the title of Tension Old Skool Edit proves that Covenant don't take themselves too seriously; and at only just over one-and-a-half minutes, this is (as the titles suggests) a very 80s-inspired track. We get the opening couple of bars and one verse before it comes to an abrupt end on the first chorus. A diverse collection of tracks then despite them being based upon only three songs. The versions here are all so different from one another that it is more like listening to seven entirely different songs, which has to represent good value. Having said that, it's a shame that a couple of them are below par. Still, a worthwhile addition to anyone's Covenant collection. 7/10
"Europa" (Album, 1998) !Recommended!
Proving that the only thing one should expect from Covenant is the unexpected, Europa takes another leap of logic over all previous material. Largely exchanging the heavy industrial sounds of Sequencer for electronic dance, this is hard-edged techno pop just as it was meant to be. Kraftwerk having seemingly run out of steam, the time was right for the Covenant boys to muscle in on their heroes' territory. That isn't to say this is a pastiche of Kraftwerk, far from it. It simply takes the Kraftwerk idea of producing melodic pop created entirely on electronic machines and brings it entirely up to date, with all the history of drum 'n' bass, techno, trip hop and more, fully considered, distilled, corrupted and pillaged to create an entirely new sound, future pop, ready to take on a new millennium.
This is a slow-burn of an album. It isn't completely immediate although there are some tracks which will undoubtedly grab your attention upon first exposure. Taken in isolation, some of the songs are merely good, but taken as a whole, it is hard to fault the concept. Eskil Simonsson's distinctive voice really finds its niche in Europa, aware of its limitations, Simonsson has developed his character to the point of real distinction. It's here his quirky vocal 'tricks' and stylistic approaches come to maturity. The clever song structures that take the traditional verse, chorus, verse arrangements of pop onto another, altogether more inspiring and surprising level. Few bands can manipulate the listener with 'the build' like Covenant can now, and another of their heroes, Front 242, would be proud of them.
Simonsson also makes great play of his often quirky line of delivery (something most notably shared by Ronan Harris of VNV Nation). This is encapsulated in the opening lines of Go Film: "I find myself inside a church deserted by the priests, as shadows shift from grey to red I notice there's no floor, transparent air suspends my weight as if I had no mass, suddenly the moon comes out from clouded skies", Simonsson happy to deliver his words out of time with the rhythm of the track. Whilst it's true to say that the standard of songwriting on Europa, both musically and lyrically, is less accomplished than on the follow-up United States of Mind, where Europa succeeds over the band's most recent long player is in the 'concept album' approach. Everything here is more homogeneous, yet at the same time, manages to span the rawness of Sequencer (before it) with the more polished songwriting of USoM (that followed). With the track Wall of Sound, Covenant convincingly stake their claim as the new pioneers of techno pop and all enthusiasts of earlier exponents of that sound are advised to invest here. 9/10
"Final Man" (Single, 1998)
This first peak at the much anticipated third album was an exciting insight into a distinctive new direction for the Swedish EBM masters. Two versions of the dance floor friendly Final Man start things off. The first a subtle remix of the album version, less in-you-face than the Europa version. Final Man Club Version is nicely reworked with new percussion and rhythm synth lines and, again, less bombastic than you might expect, especially given its title.
Control is written exclusively by Eskil Simonsson and has an extremely commercial, very nearly trip hop, arrangement. One could almost expect the vocalists of either Portishead or Moloko coming in after a few bars. Instead we have Eskil, speaking/singing very slowly in time with this brushed snare percussion and chiming synth pads. A very unusual and very welcome addition to the Covenant canon. Sample Start on the other hand grabs you by the collar and drags you back into distorted EBM territory. Based around a simple sample loop and mid-BPM drums, this harks back to their Sequencer album and remains instrumental throughout. The two takes on Final Man and the surprise angle of Control make this single well worth buying for Covenant enthusiasts. 7/10
"Sequencer [Beta]" (Album, 1997) !Recommended!
There's a something of a history behind Covenant's second album. Originally released as Sequencer in May 1996, it was quickly re-released shortly afterwards due to a mastering fault with the track Tabula-Rasa. Curiously, the second issue had a different colour sleeve - making the 250 copies of the first release highly collectable. (The Stalker single was then released at the end of 1996 and became a club hit.) The album was finally re-issued in March 1997 as Sequencer [Beta] with one additional track, luminal. Interestingly, luminal was not just tacked onto the end, instead it became the penultimate track. Collectors will undoubtedly want the earlier releases but Sequencer [Beta] definitely wins out in offering value for money. Not just because it has one extra track, but because that extra track is so central to the album as a whole that it is difficult to imagine Sequencer without it.
Sequencer [Beta] delivers just what you hope it would after listening to Dreams of a Cryotank. But it improves upon its predecessor on every conceivable level. Production, song writing, lyrics and performance are all vastly superior. It also represents the pinnacle of Covenant's 'hard' sound with heavy percussion and bass lines throughout, all delivered with staggering amounts of deliberate distortion. The opening moments of track one, Feedback give the listener a startling introduction to the new Covenant sound. Audaciously combining a choir of children with crushing beats and noise, it was immediately clear that this wall of sound was a quantum leap over Dreams of A Cryotank. Tracks like Stalker and Figurehead, whilst remaining live favourites with fans today, display shades of the more simplistic EBM style of Cryotank but both are more accomplished than any of their earlier counterparts, and both are also memorable for introducing Covenant's sing-a-long chorus style that would become such a feature of their later work.
Yet there are trace elements to this second album that seem to have eluded the band ever since and that is a trippy, almost psychedelic touch. Slowmotion, Tabula-Rasa and the hypnotic Flux are the sources of this most unexpected and inspirational addition. By the time Luminal kicks in with its primal beat and unexpected breaks you'll quite possibly find yourself jumping uncontrollably. However, if ever there was a perfectly appropriate adage that applied to Sequencer [Beta] it is 'save the best until last'. The compelling machine music rhythm of Flux is on another wavelength altogether and shows the way to a glorious future horizon for Covenant and all who listen to them. Played as loud as your body can take it, this ten-and-a-half-minute epic's relentless, gyrating sequencer line and pumping bass has an intoxicating effect - grabbing the listener, enveloping them in stimulating noise, before slowing bringing them down to earth again. Sequencer [Beta] is one of those momentous sequence of events captured in one piece of plastic, and one that deservedly put Covenant on the international industrial map. Their ingenious abilities blending power song writing with stirring grandeur that would lead to the band often being mentioned in the same breath as VNV Nation. Moving lyrics (made all the more impressive when one remembers that English is not their first language) and music to die for. It doesn't come much better than this. 9/10
"Dreams of A Cryotank" (Album, 1994)
This first long player from Sweden's biggest EBM industrial band was fairly typical of the genre for the period. Mostly simplistic beats and sequencer loops with a hard edge and some macho sounding samples. But the unconventional touches that went on to quickly set Covenant apart from the mainstream of EBM, are readily apparent. There is a disjointed, staccato style to many of the arrangements, and an unpredictability in arrangements that constantly keeps you on your toes. Subjects covered on Dreams Of A Cryotank are pretty much what you'd expect from a title like that! SF sources including Blade Runner and Dune are apparent and that favourite of industrial music - warfare and the terrible outcome of its impact.
Like many first efforts, influences can be clearly heard at times. The verse on Replicant for example recalls Cabaret Voltaire's output from a decade earlier and Shipwreck sounds like an out-take from Front 242's second album, No Comment itself dating back to 1985. And this is why the album never totally succeeds on it own merits. It is too concerned with the past when it should be looking to the future. But there are several strong links. Hardware Requiem is the first track to point in the direction that Covenant would later pursue with its unpredictable changes and sounds. Of the songs that conform more readily to the verse, chorus, verse structure, Wasteland is the most well-rounded. Whilst Voices and Speed provide the stomp-along floor fillers in a more traditional EBM style.
But by far the most interesting cuts are the apocalyptic Shelter and the epic Cryotank Expansion. Shelter warns us against the horror of atom bombs and pitches loops of explosions against sampled voices naively speaking of "one of the most beautiful sights ever seen by man". Chirping bird song brings it all to a sudden halt before launching into a glorious song that uses a sampled explosion as part of the backing rhythm and overlays an angelic choir and poignant lyrics and voice by Eskil Simonsson to haunting effect. Broken down into four parts, Dawn, Noon, Dusk and Night, Cryotank Expansion this is a twenty five-and-a-half minute (broadly) instrumental that recalls the disturbing soundscapes created by Shinjuku Thief or the background machine noises that fill David Lynch's Eraserhead. There are also echoes of Shelter in its closing moments. A Club Edit of Theremin ends this first album and is perfectly suited to dark industrial dance floors everywhere and is superior to the original that opens the album. Dreams Of A Cryotank remains more than a curiosity thanks to the inherent imagination at work in Covenant and the lyrics already impress with their depth; something the band would become renowned for later on. If you've a taste for raw but intelligent industrial dance than you might still want to check this out. 8/10
Official Covenant website: http://www.covenant.se