Alien Skin

REVIEWS 1980 Redux

#1SLEEPING BAG STUDIOS -1980 Redux you say?  I could have sworn that over the past 6 months or so we’ve been living in 1984…

Alien Skin returns to the pages here today with a brand-new record, the first since last year’s release of European Electronic Cinema; I say that like it’s been forever…I shouldn’t.  A year certainly isn’t that long to wait between records for any artist or band, let alone a record of the kind of quality and imagination that George Pappas of Alien Skin tends to put out there – so make no mistake, clearly he’s working incredibly hard.  Plus he has an awesome penchant to create music that’s off the beaten path…and I love the guy for it.

I mean…just LOOK at this write-up that you can find on the Alien Skin website regarding the new tunes:  “Besotted with 1970s Berlin-era Bowie, enchanted by pre-Victorian Mary Shelley while contorting & shape shifting into the geometric world of 1980; its arpeggiated synthesizers & melodies as keepsakes.”

You see what I’m saying?  Where else are you gonna find an album described like that?  George doesn’t exactly play like the other kids in the sandbox, know what I mean?  He embraces ‘the bizarre, the strange, the beautiful’ – just as his website also states…and you can certainly hear it in his music.

As promised in the description, the Depeche Mode-era sounds immediately take shape on the opening track “1980 You Were A Boy.”  He’s correct about that statement in the title in case anyone out there is wondering…it was 1980 when I was born a little hairy human lump, but indeed, I was a boy.  Good lord is it GREAT to have George’s music back in the mix was the first thought I had…this guy is a damn genius as far as I’m concerned.  Not only did I love the insanely smooth rhythm & groove of the opening track and all its robotically-voiced samples, but the melody in his own vocals were absolutely spot-freakin’-on in every way I wanted to hear.  You’ll notice the slight musical history that accompanies the vocal-samples and how they mention the synthesizers and drum-machines coming into existence; they’re turned up loud’n’proud in the mix to make sure those points are driven home audibly.  Welcome to 1980 Redux!

I was looking for subtle tie-ins…”I Am Adam” I thought might be a sly reference to the infamous Adam of Adam and the Ants given that he also takes time to reference Syd Barrett later on in the record, but no.  “I Am Adam” is much more of a comment on being the ‘Adam’ of the electronic-synth world…or at least that’s what I was picking up among the glitches, top-notch production and addictive rhythm in the beat.  If you listen to the electro-narrator (Mary Shelley) guiding you through, she mentions Prometheus…of whom I believe would have had to have created Adam?  I’m never entirely sure of this stuff, but I love music like this that makes me think & look things up in Google; from what I’m reading here, it’s either based in Greek mythology or a Ridley Scott film…I’m pretty sure you’ll figure out which one he’s referring to.  It’s a solid cut…the music is insanely complex at its roots, but everything is placed into the rhythm with immaculate care and precision in effort to have it all combine into one seriously clever electro-jam.  My one and only complaint about “I Am Adam” is that he’s used ONE sound that is like, damn near 100% identical to a sound-notification that I receive on my computer for incoming messages in one of the programs I use and he’s had me checking my inbox literally every single time this song has come around – but don’t worry George…you didn’t know that and I’m certainly not holding that against you or taking away any points.  If anything, even though it fooled me every time it came up, I’d still have to admit that the sound fit into the mix & into the song like it belonged there…so no real complaints from me.

Sad Ghost” takes the music into a more sullen, reflective and melancholy sound – and lyrically he’s matched the mood of the music very well with the intentions of the words.  This third song made me realize it’s important to note that while George himself has written about how the album is ‘arpeggiated synthesizers & melodies as keepsakes,’ that it’s all certainly much more than that.  I’m pretty positive that anyone out there making music well-knows that an arpeggio-line can definitely be the fuel for a song and help it damn near write itself from that point forward – but it’s what George tends to the atmosphere in the surrounding elements that make the music have the depth it has on 1980 Redux.  “Sad Ghost” is a perfect example of that…he’s got a tremendous amount of clever electro in the mix, surrounding the song’s main rhythm-lines.  He’s also got a great mind for music and a real grip on the sound he’s looking to create…and as a result of that focus he finds excellent ways to bring his vocals to life with the best textures & tones to match the music.

Now…keep in mind that although Alien Skin is making music with an undeniable beat to it – it’s generally far from what you’d hear on the radio both in the present and back in 1980.  I’d challenge that a shift occurs slightly when you get to “This Fantastic Voyage” and that the accessibility of this particular track could certainly find its way to the airwaves.  An early highlight on 1980 Redux for those that are looking for something with a bit more of a danceable idea or something that you can sing along to; I’m not saying that George played this one straightforward from points A to B, but I am saying that “This Fantastic Voyage” likely stands a great chance of being a hit with those that listen.  Great melody in this music and in his vocal-tones, solid movement in the structure of the song that keeps it compelling…I wouldn’t say call up MTV and necessarily get the video ready, but I think you get what I mean.  There’s a more widespread appeal in an electro-melody like “This Fantastic Voyage” that people will quickly pick up on…that’s what I’m saying.

Just don’t go expecting that moment to last long…because George isn’t making the music he makes in Alien Skin with the radio in mind so much as he is looking to explore a vast amount of otherworldly terrain in music that hasn’t been mined yet.  “I Need Voltage” immediately takes us back into the creative realm where George resides for a more subdued & subtle approach to a unique sound & style.  The synthetic skin he’s wearing here suits him very well…you can hear the poetic nature of the lyrics in the imaginative way he puts his words together – and the added drama you’ll find in the music & performance here give them all the energy needed to really bring them vividly to life in our ears.  His movements on the mic are careful, cautious and precise in the verse; in the chorus, the music expands to give him that extra voltage he needs and he lets out the vocals with added power to match.  What I found really interesting in this particular cut was probably the way he went about the final run-through of that chorus and sank himself right into the swell of the sound…almost as if there’s an added message or metaphor in the mix here that might very well be over my head.  In any event, it was the kind of switch in the approach that was definitely noticeable…a solid shift in the sound that’s subtle but highly effective & allows for a quick reprieve before the story of “The Berlin Trilogy” begins.

The Berlin Trilogy” is another perfect example of where George goes left instead of taking the easy right in one of the largest departures from ‘the norm’ and into his imagination & creativity further than we’ve been so far throughout the album.  Really amazing mix on this tune…frequencies, notes and tones continuously sparkle & hum like electricity throughout the song.  Referencing Bowie subtly in the ideas of the lyrics, telling the tales of the recording of “The Berlin Trilogy” and shedding light perhaps on key elements that drive the album’s concepts within the narration…the story is wonderfully interesting and well-performed.  TONS of character in the vocals here and that makes all the difference in the world in terms of keeping what is definitely one of the record’s more bizarre structures intact.  I think he’s done an exceptional job of keeping what we hear highly interesting to the ears – and while it might not really ever be described as ‘typical’ in any way, it doesn’t need to be to gain the attention it deserves.  There are just as many people out there like myself that seek out something wildly creative & detail-orientated like “The Berlin Trilogy” – we don’t always need to sing along.  Sometimes we just truly want to be entertained by a great story and amazing sound – this song does exactly that.

Although if I’m being completely honest with you George…my dog left the room when “The Berlin Trilogy” began – you’re welcome to take whatever you like from that piece of info, I’m not quite sure what that means myself…she might just need to go outside to be fair to you sir, but I thought I’d pass that little tidbit onto you all the same.  For what it’s worth I’ve only known her for a year…maybe a year and a half and she’s yet to completely prove her taste in music to me or divulge her favorite record.  Seems a little shifty if you ask me.

Back to the music!  “Atoms Dangling Endlessly” was another huge highlight on this album for me.  Beginning with a beautiful electro melody, Alien Skin continues to pull us into this synthetic musical-universe with a multitude of layers that work a subtle magic.  The song’s most electrifying elements MIGHT be perceived as a little grating to some…I honestly don’t know…they sound like heaven to me personally…I love how this cut finds the threshold and then pushes some of these extraordinary textures and sounds right up to maximum effect.  The music itself has stunning clarity, especially in its intro & breakdowns…and once again, George succeeds in the mix terrifically here – he’s up loud in the mix when he needs to be, but also notice how he matches the energy and mood of the music in its quietest moments as well, perfectly matching the atmosphere as a master truly knows how.  I think he’s got great ideas on the mix, but he’s also got really great ideas on the actual sound of the vocals as well with different effects enhancing the melody in incredible & insightful ways.  Lyrically, it threads its hypnotic lines beautifully into the melody and the song itself feels like it provides a blissful moment of calm in between “The Berlin Trilogy” and “Walk On Water” to follow.

Now…again…understand I’d never accuse Alien Skin of trying to be radio-friendly…but if I’m being honest with good ol’ George, I’d have to say that there’s no denying the universal appeal of “Walk On Water” and how strongly this song connects to the core of the soul.  It’s an absolutely exceptional and stand-out moment on this record without a doubt…a real time-stopper and dream inducer that’s completely sweet in its sentiment and massively captivating to listen to.  I don’t know that I’ve ever heard George sound THIS good – and keep in mind, I always enjoy what he brings to the microphone – but this…THIS…is straight-up award-winning.  If I gave out medals, he’d get a gold here – I think he’s nailed every aspect of this song from start to finish and really brought out the best of his melodic and tender side for this tune…and these results absolutely sparkle & shine like the purest of gems.  What I absolutely loved about “Walk On Water” was that the music is always present, but really, it’s all supporting the amazing vocal-melody he’s come up with here, which ultimately carries the majority of the sound we hear.  That means it’s all on George’s shoulders here to make this one work – and it’s with the very instrument inside of him that he really makes the most of every moment on “Walk On Water.”  Even though I loved it, even though it’s assembled, played and structured perfectly, the electro-music on this cut becomes a distant second to how incredible George sounds singing this song.

In A Film” takes the music into a more intense dimension of Alien Skin’s sound…amping up the energy and creativity to create a song that’s really unlike any other on 1980 Redux.  George is so wonderfully gifted when it comes to composition, quality and sound – and I think on a track like “In A Film” you just can’t ignore those facts.  You combine that with the startling amount of imagination that would be required to come up with something like this and you get the idea…this is what unique sounds like.  You’ll notice that apart from a quick Depeche Mode reference at the beginning, there’s not a lot of ‘sounds like’ comparisons here in this review…and that’s because Alien Skin is really doing its own thing.  “In A Film” is a highlight example of this…it’s part soundtrack, part spoken-word, part dream-sequence…maybe even arguably part nightmare as well…there’s an amazing amount of thickness to the song’s atmosphere & sound and overall, “In A Film” presents one of the most vividly cohesive concepts on the entire album.  While it might sound extremely ‘new’ with its blend of old-school styles – it’s also an insightfully focus concept, theme and idea.  George executes it all at an extremely high-level and completely gets the feelings, mood & atmosphere in this song across boldly to us as listeners as a result.

And talk about concepts I can get behind – “The Playground Of Syd Barrett” is definitely one of them!  How that hasn’t become an entire theme-park before it became a song, I’ll never know.  Sign me up for this though…I dig this very, very much…I’ve always been a sincere Barrett fan and this is a really cool, tributary song that echoes the colors of his beautiful mind in insightfully poetic ways.  The lyrics of this song are among some of the strongest and most cohesive on the record…which oddly works…I suppose he could have gone either way when it came time to write those.  You could mimic the insanity and brilliance by having disjointed ideas and imagery…or you could thread in sly & subtle references to Syd from a more distant perspective.  “The Playground Of Syd Barrett” definitely speaks of him favorably, and no doubt the inclusion of a direct reference to the artist like this is also a hint of what an influence he’s been on the mind and music of Alien Skin.  It’s bright, it’s playful, it’s focused where it needs to be – I think the performance put in by George on the music and the way his vocals bounce off of it worked really well.  Syd was a playful personality and a colorful spark in our world – this song honors that.

Dark Star” immediately sounds like an album finale.  With a gradually enveloping sound, yet still an intimate sound…there’s a lot about this last song on 1980 Redux that seems to feel like it is even more personal than the songs before it.  Of course, with the Bowie-threads & influence that run deep throughout this record, this could certainly be a nod to the final album David put out, Blackstar.  It’s hard to say 100% for certain…the lyrics could definitely apply…but us writer-types also have a tendency to change those meanings to suit our own narratives.  I’m reasonably confident that this comparison, the desolate atmosphere and the empty feeling you get here at the end exists for a reason…a musical mourning of sorts, assuming my assumptions are correct.  Regardless of what the true story behind the lyrics may/may-not be – George has done a great job of scaling back the sound but not the intensity; “Dark Star” is one of the heavier tunes on the record in terms of its atmosphere…you can completely feel this final song stick to your bones and cling to your soul…I found it to be an incredibly intense and memorable moment on this album that made for an extraordinary lasting impression and ending. Read original Sleeping Bag Studios review here

number 2JAMSPHERE There aren’t many synth-pop bands that I deem buyable today. I could probably count them all on my left hand. And if I only included the bands that actually played authentic 80’s analogue-driven synth-pop, I’d probably be left counting my stiff middle finger.  Sure digital and sampling can mimic just about any sound today…if you know what to mimic of course! Our current generation of electronic heroes can knock up the most devastating beats, create massive drops, and stirring buildups, so synth-pop might seem like the simplest form of electronica to them. Technically that is. Because musically we’re talking two different worlds. 80’s synth music is much more than just a type of sound, it possessed an aura, an atmosphere, creating moods that were as palpable as they were intangible.

George Pappas, aka Alien Skin, and long-time keyboardist and co-songwriter with chart topping Australian band Real Life, who had a multi-million selling ’80s smash with the track, Send Me An Angel, knows all about the analog synth period. He’s lived them, and played them, having made the transition to electronic music in the early 80’s, influenced by the Gore/Wilder version Depeche Mode. Alien Skin has just released his brand new album ‘1980 REDUX’, which recaptures the glorious sounds of real vintage analog synths and rhythm boxes. And along with those sounds come the authentic auras, atmospheres and moods, of a period that spawned innovation.

For the making of this album, Alien Skin was initially inspired by David Bowie’s trilogy work during his artistically adventurous Berlin period. And subsequently the UK movement which sprang up around about that time.80’s revival is nothing new to the music scene in recent years, its array of synthesizer pop makes for an unbelievably catchy listen, and a great blast to the past.

But Alien Skin takes his synth-pop to a different set of limits, as he is not looking to create a revival or appear as a retro hipster. It’s not just flattery, or merely a homage meant to evoke the sounds of the past. He is simply following his heart, and after one listen the true beauty of what he can create is breathtaking.

‘1980 REDUX’ is just as brilliant in its conceptual execution as it is in its painstakingly detailed production work. Each and every song points to a specific event, memory, artist or song from that era, which stuck in Alien Skin’s mind. Essential tracks: “1980 You Were A boy”, “This Fantastic Voyage”, “The Berlin Trilogy”, “Walk on Water”, “The Playground of Syd Barrett” and “Dark Star”.

Every song here hits close to home, to the record’s goal of celebrating the past by creating music that resonates so perfectly in the present. Few people could so totally recreate the sounds of a legendary era and come out with something that sounds so profoundly fresh as ‘1980 REDUX’. In its execution, the record is flawless, an essential distillation of the sounds of nostalgia, melancholy and happiness all mixed up into a sparkling, vibrating melange.

In its spirit, it’s incredibly heartening, the musical equivalent of inspiring people to think back on their past, their childhood, and moments enjoyed together. It’s hopeful and heartbreaking all at once. You don’t have to have lived through the ‘80s to appreciate Alien Skin’s focus – you just have to have lived a little.

If for some obscure reason you know little of this artist, fear not. Careening through nostalgic synths and thick melodies, ‘1980 REDUX’ is not reminiscent of the 80’s in a cheesy manner. On the contrary, the album’s return to the past is overflowing with such heartfelt emotion and passion, that it thoroughly works.

Alien Skin understands that the synthesizer is not just about undifferentiated ambient washes of impressionistic sound but can also deliver guitar-like power and dramatic chord changes. And there’s a sensitivity on display behind the android cool that makes this music far more than the sum of its parts. Couple that with an excellent rhythm section, great keyboard textures, and first-rate arrangements, and you have an album that never seems to wear out its welcome.
Read original Jamsphere review here

#3THE INDEPENDENT SPOTLIGHT The Independent Spotlight is a continuing series on Stewart’s blog. The series revolves around independent artists and bands sending their music to Brett to review. No band is promised a positive review, and all music is reviewed honestly in an effort to better independent music.

In this morning’s edition of the Independent Spotlight, we dive deep into the fascinatingly beautiful sonic world of Alien Skin, the moniker of George Pappas. Pappas, who came to fame in the 1980s with the Australian band Real Life, now spends his days crafting synth-heavy music inspired by the likes of Kraftwerk and David Bowie. His last album, ‘European Electronic Cinema,’ was a hit here on the Spotlight, and thus, we’re back to dig into his newest creation: ‘1980 Redux.’

‘1980 Redux,’ as described by Alien Skin, is “besotted with 1970s Berlin-era Bowie, enchanted by pre-Victorian Mary Shelley, while contorting and shape shifting into the geometric world of 1980.” Pappas’ immense desire to capture and preserve the kind of music that inspired him early in his career is admirable, especially since he digs his heels deep into the experimental nature of that 80s synth-rock period.

The opening to the album, ‘1980 You Were a Boy,’ feels similar to the tracks on its predecessor, ‘European Electronic Cinema.’ Pappas’ soft, surreal crooning vocals are back, and they’re back with a familiar soundscape of bouncing, eccentric synthesizers and samples. ‘1980 You Were a Boy’ is lyrically sparse, moving its focus toward creating an enveloping, danceable atmosphere. An automated female voice is introduced as a piece of the instrumentation, too, a mainstay of the album moving forward.

That automated voice is actually incorporated much heavier on the more complex ‘I Am Adam,’ a track that seeps with Laurie Anderson influence - a parallel I drew last time I delved into Alien Skin’s music. “I am Adam of your labors,” Pappas sings in allusion to Mary Shelley’s original ‘Frankenstein.’ (The Frankenstein Monster argues in the novel that he should be treated as a biblical son of sorts rather than a fallen angel.) It’s a rather beautiful, if not somewhat inherently saddening piece from the perspective of the Monster.

The mood stays somber, too, with ‘Sad Ghost’ following, a tune that takes a look at the endless afterlife of a young girl from the Victorian era killed by her master. The track is spine-tingling with a heavy, quick-paced synthesizer beat that paints a sonic picture of impending dread and misfortune. It’s a mesmerizing sound, one that seems to capture the lonely life the “sad ghost” now lives.

The unique synthesizers on ‘This Fantastic Voyage’ sound like a culmination of bright synths, an organ, and perhaps, bagpipes. That’s arguably the beauty of Pappas as a composer: yes, everything is synthesized, but the palette he paints with is surprisingly versatile. ‘This Fantastic Voyage’ is uplifting, scoring the beginning of an adventure. ‘I Need Voltage,’ however, follows with a dark, eerie composition that thrives on its peculiar nature.

Much like the trilogy and artist that inspired it, ‘The Berlin Trilogy’ is highly experimental in nature, perhaps even more so than anything else on ‘1980 Redux.’ With the snappy percussion and hap-hazard piano and brass-esque sessions, Pappas’ vocal delivery sounds more like spoken poetry in beat form that singing. The track tells the story of three “artisans” working in the studio in Berlin, alluding heavily to those pasty, white figures being David Bowie, Brian Eno, and Tony Visconti. It’s one of Alien Skin’s most memorable songs, perfectly capturing the ethereal, unworldly nature of the Berlin Trilogy and its creation.

Atoms Dangling Endlessly’ is another high point for the record, proving that Alien Skin’s most long-form musings prove to be capable of being completely enthralling. The world that ‘Atoms Dangling Endlessly’ creates is stunning, slowly growing and building around the listener as Pappas’ synthesizers continually expand. On tracks like ‘Atoms Dangling Endlessly,’ Pappas’ Eno inspiration is abundantly obvious.

Unexpectedly, a ballad enters the fray, too, with ‘Walk on Water’ highlighting Alien Skin’s most accessible piece of music on ‘1980 Redux.’ One may not necessarily go down the street humming ‘1980 You Were a Boy’ or ‘The Berlin Trilogy,’ but you will be doing that with ‘Walk on Water.’ It’s one of the most emotional moments of the record, noticeably avoiding too much cliche and finding the perfect amount of authenticity within its stargazing sound.

Avant garde inspiration flows through ‘In a Film,’ making it a less accessible jaunt than its predecessor, but no less rewarding. In fact, the final three tracks are similar in this regard. ‘The Playground of Syd Barrett,’ like its inspiration, is a weird, off-kilter journey through surreal lyricism and ‘Dark Star’ has a dark, celestial feel that evokes the final scenes of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ more than anything.

‘1980 Redux’ is a departure from Alien Skin’s last record, perhaps, in the sense that the songs are more cohesive than they’ve ever been. Pappas has perfected his sound, and it shows. The amount of creativity and experimentation Pappas infuses in that sound is frankly, incredible, and it makes his records a must-listen for fans of 1970s and 80s synthesizer music. It’s inspired, somewhat nostalgic music that still has a very valid place in the contemporary independent music scene. ‘1980 Redux’ is a remarkably good LP in the scope of Alien Skin’s impressive catalog.
Read the original Independent Spotlight review here

#4STEREO STICK MAN - Alien Skin’s brand new album is a fairly big step in a new direction when compared to his previous releases of recent years. The concept itself suggests a particular or specific thread, but only when you press play does the full scope of the audio approach come through.

1980 You Were a Boy is the opener. The sound is crisp and vibrant, much more distinct, rhythmic and shapely than its somewhat more dreamy predecessors. The sampled vocal speaking about the year and the synthesizers brings about a touch of cinematic prowess, and the minimal use of vocals or lyricism elsewhere further marks the individuality of this project.

I Am Adam keeps the sharpness and flavour equally bright and bold, this sense of rhythm is superb, the music has a certain weight to it; the hypnotic movement of EDM and it’s infectious energy is alive and well. In addition, the beauty that is Alien Skin’s provocative lyricism provides the intrigue, the uncommon angle, and though it’s much more minimal for this project, it fits well in this state – the audio experience is fascinating in itself. Sad Ghosthowever, brings the full throttle verse-to-chorus storytelling back to remind you of the poetic artistry that so often goes hand in hand with the artist’s electronic exploration of music.

Then you get to This Fantastic VoyageThe title of this song represents its content brilliantly. The music comes through as an epic, intricate journey through sound, the range between which varies intensely from the way down low bass notes, the thick and weighty beat, right up to the dreamlike snippets of higher pitched, synths or keys gently lighting up in the distance. As the piece progresses, the energy multiplies, and the experience begins to feel like the beginning of an unforgettable trip.

I Need Voltageis a haunting and unpredictable song, this is in both the detail featured in the soundscape and the sudden evolution expressed in the songwriting. The hook comes out of nowhere, the music seems to implode, the mood changes, almost as if the energy has run out or life is slipping away and panic is setting in. Straight afterwards, the hyperactive, industrialised rhythm of The Berlin Trilogy comes through, and this track comes with some greatly welcomed spoken word from the leading artist; setting the scene, exploring the story, carrying you considerately along as the tale and the history and the imagery unfolds. There’s a notable nod in David Bowie’s direction, among other references that further feed into the album’s underlying concept.

Atoms Dangling Endlessly brings a wonderfully smooth and rhythmic aura. Alien Skin has really allowed his creativity to wander to the farthest extremes, many of these moments arrive as brand new sounds, untraceable and interesting. The latter half of the song is quite beautiful, the vocal melody and the synth riff walking hand in hand towards the outer edges of the audio world. Walk On Water follows, fusing a fast-paced yet distant drum line with a watery wash of electronically driven notes. The lyrics here are stunning, and the hook is incredibly beautiful and hugely captivating, not to mention immediately memorable after just a single listen.

The intensity returns for In A Filmthe distorted backdrop implies a house or alternative EDM track, the surrounding musicality and melody however seem much more delicate in contrast. The Playground of Syd Barrett toys with a similar string of sounds. The instrumentation that immediately follows the hook is blissful here, the essence of the music falls like rain as these synths and notes meet and connect and dance together.

And finally, the supremely atmospheric and gripping Dark Star provides the ultimate few moments of audio. There’s no beat at first, and you notice this – the pace has been fairly heavy throughout the collection, in comparison to the artist’s previous projects at least. This final song offers a reflective expression of ideas, by means of a simple wash of sounds, soon expanding into a down-tempo, retro EDM piece, which surrounds and satisfies in the way that any dream-like or soothing trip-hop track might.

Read original Stereo Stickman review here