Sunday, 25 March 2018

Synth-pop / Techno / Electronic / Dance / Ambient

Just starting out. This needs a whole bunch of work....mostly just notes on bands that need exploring. Initially I was just going to look at synthpop, but have since broadened the range to various forms of electronic music, and intend to go way back to bands such as United States of America and Beaver & Krause.... I've now gone back to 1939, to the start of electric guitars......

There is a technical distinction between "electronic music" and music created using electric instruments, and I shall bear that in mind as I explore the use of electricity in music. 


Origins of electronic music

Andy Kirk - "Floyd's Guitar Blues" (1939)    Electric guitar solo by Floyd Smith, widely regarded as the first significant electric guitar work on record. 

B.B. King – Singin' The Blues   Debut album of an  early and influential electric guitar player who influenced  such as Clapton, Beck, and Page. The electric guitar work is clearly not simply amplified guitar, but utilises the electronic nature of the instrument with screeches and wails. 

Raymond Scott   Soothing Sounds For Baby   (1964) A three volume set of ambient electronic music aimed at lulling babies to sleep. Fairly simplistic, but note-worthy for early use of electronics, and early example of ambient approach to music.  

The United States of America – United States of America  (1968) Early electronic music 

White Noise - An Electric Storm  (1969) An experimental, exploratory electronic noise/music group comprised of members of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (Dr Who) and an American classical musician with an interest in electronics. The album is edgy, psychedelic pop, incomplete, mostly unsuccessful, but totally fascinating, and while commercially unsuccessful has consistently provoked interest.  

The Seventies

Popol Vuh -  Affenstunde  (1970) Electronic ambient music. 

Can  – Future Days  (1973)   Ambient ideas in Krautrock. 

Brian Eno Discreet Music (1975)    Ambient music takes form here. 

Kraftwerk   1970 to present
Band: electronics, electronic drum (not strictly a synth-pop band, but widely considered the main influence on the genre - they provided the template, the sound, the image, and the instruments)
Hit singles: "Autobahn" (1974) to "The Model" (1981)   Top album:   Autobahn  (1974)

1976 David Bowie – Low 

Synthpop (Eighties electronic music)

Synth-pop (written in various ways - synth-pop, synthpop, and techno-pop) was a music movement mainly of the Eighties, though spilling over into the late Seventies and early Nineties, that is identified by the focus on electronic keyboards or synthesisers, and usually electronic drum machines. Music is traditionally created by sound vibrations occasioned by the direct application of the human body - the hands, feet, or breath - on deliberately designed musical instruments. During the Sixties some bands experimented with creating music by other means - by using non-musical instruments or sounds, or using electronically created sounds.  By the Seventies these experiments had developed such that bands were looking at new sound structures arising from the use of electronically created sounds.  By the time of the Eighties synth-pop bands the experimentations had been done, and the bands were using established electronic instruments, and using already established sounds and structures, such that synth-pop bands were no longer experimental, but mainstream. Synth-pop was the established and conventional music of the Eighties, and even long established mainstream artists and bands utilised some aspects of it in their own music.

The style of music tended toward repetition, and to sonic textures, something that would be explored by traditional guitar based bands and lead to shoe-gazing and dream-pop, though on the whole reflected what else was happening musically - so synth-pop could be mainstream pop, sophisti-pop,  indie-pop, or goth rock, but using synthesisers. Some bands drifted in their use of synthesisers so could fall into one or more genres. 

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark   1979 to 1996; Reformed 2006
Band: 2  keyboards, bass, drums
Hit singles: "Enola Gay" (1980) to "Forever" (1986)  Top album:  Architecture And Morality (1981)

The Human League   1978 to present
Band: keyboards, drum machine
Hit singles: "Don't You Want Me" (1981) to "Tell Me When" ( 1995)    Top album: Dare (1980)

Depeche Mode   1980 to present
Hit singles:  "New Life" (1981) to "Precious" (2004)    Top album:  Violator (1990)
Band: 3 keyboards, drum machine

Pet Shop Boys 1981 to present
Duo: keyboards, drum machine
Hit singles "West End Girls" (1981) to "I'm With Stupid" (2006)  Top album: Actually (1987)

New Order  1980 - 1993; Reformed 1998
Hit singles "Blue Monday" (1983) to "True Faith" (1987)

1985  Scritti Politti – Cupid & Psyche 85     

1990  Depeche Mode – Violator (RS) This is the Mode's big breakthrough album.  The best track is "Personal Jesus", but it's quite weak compared to Johnny Cash's cover.  Hmmm. Regardless of American heavy metal acts like Marilyn Manson digging the band, this remains Eighties synth-pop at a time when Nirvana and The Stone Roses were emerging. They are a dreary band out of time, but clinging on fiercely.  The band, and this album, frequently figure number one on best synth-pop lists. 

Techno (Nineties electronic music)

Aphex Twin 1992 to present
Individual (
Richard David James), keyboards  Ambient techno
Singles: "Come to Daddy" (1997) and "Windowlicker" (1999)  
Top album (debut):  Selected Ambient Works 85-92  (1992)

The Prodigy – Fat of the Land (C4)  The launch of big beat. Techno. 

The Chemical Brothers – Dig Your Own Hole   Part of what is termed the Big Beat genre of techno music which was hugely popular in the rave scene of the 90s. The Prodigy,  FatBoy Slim, and The Orb, were part of the same scene. Seen by some electronica critics as too simplistic, bombastic, and repetitive, it was nevertheless highly popular, and spread beyond the hip-trance scene into the real world.  I'm not convinced that we need to have examples from both The Chemical Brothers and The Prodigy, given the obvious and simplistic nature of the music, and that the two bands sound very similar (FatBoy Slim is more inventive and interesting). The Prodigy's Fat of The Land is enough for this.
David Holmes – Let’s Get Killed   (1997) 

808 State – 90  Techno / Acid House   Similar to New Order, KLF, The Shamen and The Wolfgang Press. I don't think we need albums from all of these acts to represent Acid House which was a mostly Chicago minor musical trend that was delivered via 12 inch singles at raves and nightclubs rather than listened to in extended form at home. There are, though, some interesting cross-overs. Hmmmm.  

Fatboy Slim - You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby

Leftfield  Leftism  (1994)  Electronic (house) music, regarded by some as the best house music album, a style of music usually released in single track format. Applauded as being quite varied, incorporating a variety of (related) music styles, such as reggae (dub) and ambient (trance).  It's quite patchy,  and the music styles it covers are heard better elsewhere. So the Portishead-type trip hop bits are done better by Portishead, etc. The album caught attention at the time, but it's not an enduring album, so is already starting to fade from attention. 

Underworld – Dubnobasswithmyheadman  (1994) Underworld was an Eighties synthpop band who split up after two indifferent and unsuccessful albums. Two of the members, Hyde and Smith, teamed up with DJ Darren Emerson in the early Ninties to create fluid dance and techno based music which would incorporate whatever musical ideas took their fancy, with meaningless lyrics they used merely as sound, and which could be swapped from one track to another as just another competent in the finished sound. What they created was something original, though they are best known for two albums, Dubnobass, the debut album of Underworld Mark II, and the better known follow up, Second Toughest. Their later albums are attractive and interesting enough, but not on the same level as Dub and Second

Underworld – Second Toughest in the Infants   (1996) 

Air – Moon Safari (1998)  Smooth-jazz electronica. A bit limited and boring. The best track is the modest hit single "Sexy Boy". 

Daft Punk 



Paul Oakenfold

Carl Cox 


The Orb 


William Orbit – Strange Cargo: III  This guy later worked with Beth Orton and Madonna developing the folktronic sound with both of them. And there are elements of that in this otherwise electronica album. Interesting stuff. 

XX Madonna – Ray of Light (RS) (Q)   See William Orbit Strange Cargo: III  (1993)  

Air – Moon Safari (C4)  (1998)    Smooth-jazz electronica 

The Naughties 

The Avalanches - Since I Left You     In the same style as  PM Dawn.


?? Mylo – Destroy Rock & Roll  Quite likeable and quirky electronic soundscapes, but doesn't advance on what Beaver & Krause were doing, nor it is as interesting or melodiously structured - it's a little simplistic in places, like DJ music.

Best bands and albums

Ranker - Top Techno bands
Rolling Stone - Top 30 EDM (Electronic Dance Music) Albums
Top Ten - 10 Greatest Electronic Artists
MixMag - 50 Most Influential Dance Music Albums

Q Magazine Top 10 Dance Songs

1. Orbital – Belfast
2. Frankie Knuckles – Baby Wants To Ride
3. Junior Jack – Da Hype
4. Ltj Bukem – Horizons
5. Azzido De Bass – Dooms Delight
6. X-Press 2 – Lazy
7. New Order – Crystals
8. Funk D’void – Diabla
9. Sasha – Xpander
10. Chemical Brothers – Setting Sun

Q Magazine Top 10 Electronica

1. Kraftwerk – The Model
2. Suicide – Cheree
3. William Orbit – Adagio For Strings
4. David Bowie – Warszawa
5. Four Tet – Glue Of The World
6. Moby – Porcelain
7. Brian Eno – Deep Blue Day
8. Cluster – Sowiesoso (So Not So So)
9. Massive Attack – Inertia Creeps
10. Aphex Twin – Window Licker

Music Styles & Genres

1143  March 2019 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments welcome