From the Ashes: Page Tend the Flame of Synth Britannia

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The first cold, robotic phase of electronic music did not last long.

Initiated by Ultravox! and distilled by Gary Numan, the use of synthesisers as cybernetic extensions of alienated musicians lasted for only a few short years before the instruments were defrosted and humanised. John Foxx retreated to The Garden, in search of a more organic style, leaving Numan to discover hair bleach and funk.

This turn from deadpan, po-faced sequencer patterns lasted through the 80s, and it is only with the benefit of distance that the moody but energetic qualities of the Moog filter have come to be fully appreciated. The time is right for the growl and hum of the machines to return, but sadly both Foxx and Numan are on different paths now.

It falls, then, to Page to recapture the classic atmosphere of the Pleasure Principle and Metamatic days. In doing that, the Swedish duo of Eddie Bengtsson and Marina Schiptjenko have managed to avoid the trap of emotionless, distancing imagery – and to fuse the American oscillators with their European pop sensibilities. The result is some of the best material coming from the north in many years.

Aska/Under mitt skinn [EN: Ashes/Under My Skin] topped our year-end charts with ease. The album collected two EPs into a single slab of vinyl, although each side was also available on CD with additional tracks and remixes. It says something about how prolific the poptronica pioneers have been that they also released a German-language maxi-single–“Blutest Du?” [EN: “Are You Bleeding?”]–on CD at the same time as the EPs were spreading their influence. The Swedish sales charts were, as a result, dominated by an act that began forty years ago and is carrying the baton dropped by the Synth Britannia set.

The Aska side opens with “Stefanplatz,” a stoic, monumental instrumental in a vein similar to Ultravox’s “Astradyne.” Page’s Eddie Bengtsson has a reputation for excellent instrumentals, alongside his catchy poptronica singles (see “Droids” and “Space-Elevator” by Sista mannen på jorden, for confirmation), and this opener is an excellent example of his style.

“Aska” is exactly what one seeks from Page. The sound design might be transported from 1979, but the melody and harmonies are classic Swedish poptronica. Bruce Gilbert once called Daniel Miller the best one-fingered composer he had ever met, but time and again Bengtsson has shown that he has as good a claim to the title.

The layers at work in “En kamera ser” [EN: “A Camera Sees”] function together like the parts of an engine, but with enough organic touches that you can still feel the wind in your hair.

The synths are let off their leashes for “Hög som jag” [EN: “As High as Me”]. Bengstsson has always had an interest in using them to replace guitars, and they soar on this track before fading into a style that calls to mind Billy Currie’s strings.

“Bara tryck på play” [EN: “Just Press Play”] is closer to Tubeway Army’s new wave dynamic. Bengtsson reaches for the jerky simplicity of “Are Friends Electric?” as the scaffolding for a song that pricks you like a badge pinned to your double-breasted shirt.

“Jag var så nara” [EN: “I Was So Close”] returns to the strings of Billy Currie for its opening, while keeping up the bouncy pop feel that Page are known for. It’s a set closer if ever there was one.

On the flip side, the songs of Under mitt skinn have lost none of their deft touch since we reviewed the EP. Indeed, the entire album is infused with the click, click, drone of the Synth Britannia period, marrying the pulse of synthetic rhythms to energetic, uplifting melodies. The British pioneers worried that man would lose in the artistic struggle with machine, but on this evidence the balance could be struck best on the dancefloor.

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