Although we now lazily bracket Blancmange as purveyors of slick synthpop, they were always just a little bit leftfield compared to the mainstream. For every ‘Living On The Ceiling’ there was something much odder, with frontman Neil Arthur – like Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis – having a knowing, erudite manner that suggested, even as he was writing effervescent pop, that he knew his stuff inside out. His songwriting was always highly evocative, laced with oblique mystery and a poetic sensibility, perhaps best exemplified by his impenetrable guest vocal on Fortran 5’s hypnotic ‘Persian Blues’.
Arthur’s unwillingness to sugarcoat his Northernness and Lancashire roots was another contributing factor to what has always made him a compelling vocalist. On his new album as Fader with Benge from John Foxx & The Maths and Stephen Mallinder’s post-Cabaret Voltaire Wrangler project, the track ‘Liverpool Brick’ is part trip down memory lane, part tribute to the city through the most quotidian of elements – the distinctive brick of which its houses were constructed from.
Elsewhere, the urgent and noisy ‘Wonderland’ details nights at Northern Soul discos – right down to the crappy cars of the era and the awful trousers – and, on ‘Guilt, Doubt And Fear’, a coke-head’s innermost paranoid delusions; the wistful ‘Trip To The Coast’ feels like a private recollection that deliberately never breaks free of its highly personal sentiment, while the sparse ballad that closes the album, details a fateful meeting in what once was the most everyday of locations, the humble laundrette.
If the themes here seem varied, so too does the musical accompaniment, which jumps from buzzingly authentic hyperactive 1981-era synth work on ‘3D Carpets’ and the brilliant ‘I Prefer Solitude’ to ephemeral, liquid ambience on the slower songs. Benge flirts here with grittier sound palettes, a nod both to the rush of dance music and the repetitive arpeggios of electronic body music, while at the funkier end it touches on the strangely lysergic, edgy sounds that Cabaret Voltaire were deploying around the time of ‘Micro-Phonies’. Arthur even sounds a lot like Stephen Mallinder on the title track, revealing a brusque and prickly punkiness shrouded in heavy megaphone reverb effects that stops it sounding completely like agit-pop.
Taken all together, it feels as if the choices of Benge’s musical arrangements on ‘First Light’ are dabbling in the same reverent and recollective quality that Arthur is playing with in his lyrics while never once sounding retro. It’s a technique that few can do well, and one that reasserts Neil Arthur’s status as the electronic pop music outsider’s outsider.
3D Carpets / Check The Power / I Prefer Solitude / Way Out / First Light / Wonderland / Liverpool Brick / Guilt, Doubt And Fear / Trip To The Coast / Winter Garden / Laundrette
‘First Light’ is released on June 23rd 2017 and is available to order now from the links below.
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