It was acceptable in the ’80s, the song says – but if anything, the influence of that decade is more acceptable than ever in contemporary electronic music. Blancmange front man Neil Arthur has joined a long list of the decade’s key electronic forbears, including OMD, John Foxx and Gary Numan, in rediscovering his love of the album format. Like them, his past work has also been upgraded through critical reappraisal.
Arthur’s renovation was marked by three albums under the new incarnation of Blancmange, topped by last year’s Commuter 23 album, but now he is now striking out for pastures new as half of Fader. With him is Benjamin ‘Benge’ Edwards, who has an impressive CV as The Maths, with John Foxx, while operating as a key member of both Gazelle Twin and Wrangler. What he doesn’t know about a synthesizer isn’t really worth knowing, and on Fader’s First Light he provides the subtle but meaningful studio touches too, the light and shade to the imaginative lyric writing.
The two make darkly coloured synth pop that pays homage to ’80s greats – Joy Division, Blancmange themselves and John Foxx – but which also looks to new ways of storytelling. Arthur’s vocals mix the human and the mechanical, and his Lancastrian accent is also allowed through on occasion, giving a more personal element to the discourse.
The advantages and trappings of modern life are examined, often in uncomfortable detail. Check The Power is an inspired piece of work, getting right under the skin as Arthur enquires, innocently, “Is the door locked? Is the power off?” The nagging vocal becomes more insistent, so much so that walking up the road with this on your headphones is a dangerous exercise. “You’d better go back,” insists Arthur, sotto voce…”you’ve gotta go back!”
Guilt, Doubt And Fear is similarly nightmarish, a bad trip that leaves its subject unable to confront even the most familiar sights. Arthur’s voice, now in its lower register, is once again a nagging presence, and the fact the song ends too early only heightens its unresolved fretfulness.
The music stands on much firmer ground with I Prefer Solitude, a paean to the advantages of the single life in the wake of a break up, while the opening 3D Carpets is a pepped-up exploration of a riff from the same family as Spandau Ballet’s To Cut A Long Story Short. In the song Arthur explores time shifting possibilities, putting “put the rings back on the onion”.
First Light moves effortlessly between these mechanized, rhythm-powered tracks and elegiac moments of intimate thought. Into the latter category fall Liverpool Brick, Trip To The Coast and Laundrette, all distinctively English but, in the last case especially, laden with doomed romanticism. The song paints a vivid picture of an encounter in the laundrette “on Nelson Street”, the softly pulsing synth mimicking the turn of the tumble dryer while Arthur describes a scene where “after years of nothing, we finally meet… wishing away the stain on our rags”.
Benge paints some masterful yet slightly hazy scenes, the English suburbs and countryside never far from the mind’s eye. None of the musical gestures are too outlandish, but there is character, intrigue in abundance, not to mention a frisson of peril.
First Light looks set to be the first chapter of a rewarding enterprise, succeeding for similar reasons to John Foxx and the Maths. Neil Arthur’s renaissance is complete – yet the feeling remains this is just the beginning of a richly creative period for him. With Benge he has the perfect partner in crime.