It seems that every band or musical artist these days comes replete with a wealth of side-projects. Consider Daniel Lopatin, a.k.a. Oneohtrix Point Never, a.k.a. one half of Games, a.k.a. one half of Ford & Lopatin, a.k.a. one half of Infinity Window. Cheap recording technology and synthetic software means that gigging, jobbing band members can distract themselves between albums or shows by laying down some drum machine beats and synth lines without having to leave their bedroom. Synth-based music’s return to prominence, which is surely owed to the ease by which it can be made, means that such fleeting or permanent dalliances by artists away from their “main” projects are proliferating, often with surprising results. I for one did not expect to see noise icon Dominic Furnow ever fitting in with a band like Cold Cave. Yet there he stands, laying down hook-laden keyboard motifs quite removed from the crunch of his output as Prurient.
Equally surprising perhaps, is Tunnels, the side project of Jackie-O-Motherfucker and Eternal Tapestry’s guitarist Nick Bindeman. Those two bands are heavy, earthy and psychedelic, close to the likes of Hawkwind and Ash Ra Tempel in their use of synths, rather than to post-Kraftwerk pop. And yet, here is Bindeman laying on the drum machines and Moogs while engaging in a Gary Numan-esque vocal sneer.
The thing is — sometimes it’s better if the doodles we do in our spare time don’t make it into the public domain. The Blackout is too slight, in both content and duration (only 29 minutes long). Where Bindeman has been deservedly praised is that, rather than go the way of most of the current posse of synth lovers and reference the blandest of ‘80s pop, he rather tastefully plunders the earlier and darker recesses of the 1978-80 period, when synths were loud and messy and everything was clad in the dark, paranoid tones of authors like J.G. Ballard and William S. Burroughs.
I’ve already mentioned Gary Numan, and the menacing synth swirls and muted drum machine patter of opener “Crystal Arms” could have been lifted straight off the former chart-topper’s most elegant and challenging album, Dance (with a little bit of Replicas thrown in for good measure), while the robotic vocals are pure Kraftwerkian future fantasy. Bindeman is recalling an era when alternative and mainstream artists, especially in Britain, were imagining a dystopian future of cold machinery and disconnected relationships. From the driving percussion on “Volt 1979,” which immediately brings to mind early Cabaret Voltaire, to the elegant, Flock of Seagulls-styled guitar line of “Red Road,” via “Deux”’s loping bass that’s straight out of New Order, Bindeman appears to be channelling every disenfranchised, moody British act of the pre-MTV era. I think I’ve even detected the influence of obscure acts like The Royal Family & The Poor and The Sound in there. All good reference points, and it certainly proves that the erstwhile Eternal Tapestry guitarist is a man of taste when it comes to synth-pop, a far cry from many of his contemporaries.
There’s a point, however, when homage becomes pastiche, and where an album does not equal the sum of its creator’s influences. The Blackout is such an album. All the bands I mentioned above, even A Flock of Seagulls, did stuff like this over 30 years ago, and, most importantly, they did it better. (More recently, I should mention Martial Canterel and Automelodi, who both evoke the minimal synth period without sounding purely derivative.) Few tracks on The Blackout linger in the mind (most are too short), and once again, you simply get the feeling Bindeman threw these tracks down on Garageband one night and then subsequently thought it would be a good idea to share them with the world.