The way you feel about the current influx of ‘80s synth-pop sounds into the indie enclave likely depends on the way you felt about the music back then, assuming you were around. If you think the righteous fire of punk rock guitar was watered down and/or forever doused by effete electronic noodling, you probably curse the day rakish indie rock types stumbled on the Moog mother lode. If you feel a New Wave of warm nostalgia when you hear Human League on your local “we play what we want (or at least that’s what the company tells us to say)” radio station, you’re probably glad a new generation of bands is enthusiastically experimenting with keyboards like giddy 14-year-olds discovering heavy petting. If it’s all relatively new to you, then maybe you’re somewhat torn about accepting the synth-tastic nature of it all. Me, I’m in touch with my inner Alphaville. I’ve always loved synth-pop, allowing for the fact that the really good stuff is heavily outnumbered by the crap (but isn’t that the case for just about any genre?)
So it’s mostly fun to hear a group like Architecture in Helsinki. They may not be Finnish, but they have spent years building musical structures from ‘80s pop blueprints. Hailing from the suburbs of Melbourne in decidedly non-Fin Australia, the five-piece has cut the ribbon on their fourth full-length album, “Moment Bends,” and it’s a more sophisticated and streamlined step in construction of their musical identity, with New Wave moving even more to the forefront and indie taking its place in the back seat (and judging from some photos on their website, there’s some kind of a Lindsey Buckingham fixation, though his type of dark romanticism seems in short supply).
The first single, “Contact High,” opens with a syncopated electronic sound reminiscent of Depeche Mode. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then DM should be very flattered by what AIH is doing. A Prince-like falsetto from vocalist Cameron Byrd chimes in, offering a fresh spin on the synth recipe. The tune floats along on a percolating rhythm, with generous strains of ABC, OMD, Thompson Twins and other ‘80s synth-pop outfits (in fact, Byrd even looks a bit like Twins frontman Tom Bailey, but with a less sculptured hairdo). It’s an extremely catchy bit of decadent fluff.
Like any band worth its digital salt, Architecture in Helsinki is big on visuals and “Contact High” is accompanied by a video with a modern, sleek, Hi-Def feel. Set in an apartment that looks like it was furnished at an IKEA white sale, the clips focuses on an apparently uptight but androgynous-looking businessman – really more like a jeans model who scored an Armani gig. Mr. Good Cheekbones is slowly seduced by arms and legs that ooze forth from chairs, walls and floors to massage and probe him, with plenty of billowing dry ice for atmosphere. Meanwhile, the band members gaze down from a wall hanging, looking like a group of disheveled hospital orderlies moonlighting as members of the Talking Heads (with one mountain man beard, of course, ‘cause this is 2011 after all).
Other tracks on “Moment Bends” follow similar musical paths, but the work of co-lead vocalist Kellie Sutherland offers a nice counterpoint to Byrd. “W.O.W.” opens with a simple spiraling keyboard line and offers the kind of swoony synth-ballad dreamscape that made many a new romantic’s heart go a-flutter. Sutherland’s vocals lack the kind of soulful grit supplied by such synth-pop sirens as Annie Lennox or Alison Moyet. She’s in the more ethereal and girlishly angelic camp a la Kylie Minogue or Sarah Cracknell of St. Etienne. On the rolling “That Beep,” Sutherland’s singing angles toward Kim Wilde tough-girl territory but only partially compensate for a too-cute chorus and somewhat by-the-book construction. The song’s video is a colorfully offbeat attempt to transport Blue Man Group imagery to a Roman after-hours gathering with mixed results. “Escapee” churns forward via funky guitar jangle and pumping keyboards balanced with exuberant synthesizer washes.
Overall, it’s bouncy, quirky, fast food pop that wears its influences and (sometimes superficial) emotions on its sleeve and never strays far from matters of the flesh. If some 21st century John Hughes is looking to remake “Pretty in Pink,” I think we’ve found the right band for the soundtrack.
As for why such a Scandinavian-sounding name for an Aussie group, bassist Sam Perry once explained, “To us, the name means having to answer many questions and inquiries about the name, which is entirely understandable.” Thanks for the insight. We could just blame it on global warming and leave it at that. Still, in the wake of Architecture in Helsinki, one has to wonder what the ‘80s revival will bring us next: Social Studies in Stockholm? Antiquing in Oslo? Osama Bin Laden Asleep in Copenhagen? It’s a heavy burden to bear, even with padded shoulders.
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