Retro casualties and micro mode
Certain styles of music instantly can be attached to a particular decade: rockabilly in the 1950s, psychedelic in the 1960s and disco in the 1970s. As for the 1980s, perhaps no sound is more specific to that decade than the synth-pop and new-wave sounds of such groups as Depeche Mode and Human League, a sound that went multi-platinum (and mainstream) after the breakthrough success of Duran Duran’s self-titled 1981 album.
Synth-pop, of course, has never really gone away. It’s experiencing something of a revival (although in a more progressive, spacey form) with current electronic-music trends. The musical genealogy of Chachi Jones, Tycho, Park Avenue Music and other local electronic-music acts follow a direct line back to the synth-pop pioneers of the early 1980s. Perhaps one can’t immediately hear Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” in Chachi Jones’ new CD, but the fundamental sonic presence of synth-pop’s innovations—repeated patches of rhythmic, electronic sound—is certainly there.
An interesting situation arises when a band takes the influence of the past whole cloth, removing a particular decade of time as if the intervening years had never occurred. This issue has never been as clearly defined as it was last Wednesday when Casualty Park (www.casualtypark.net) played Harlow’s.
Casualty Park, a duo formed by Martin Birke and Aaron Kinney, clearly is steeped in the music of the 1980s. In fact, even its stage presence is reminiscent of 1980s synth-pop bands, right down to the multiple keyboards, electronic drum pads and step haircuts. Musically, Casualty Park’s most obvious influence is Depeche Mode, both in terms of darker electronic hues and in Birke’s emotive, dark vocals (which, for a contemporary comparison, also remind one of Trent Reznor’s).
The problem here is that Casualty Park’s sound seems so firmly situated in early 1980s synth-pop that it is sometimes difficult to take seriously. In fact, at times, the performance seemed downright campy, as if I was watching a band “doing the 1980s.” To make matters slightly more difficult, the songwriting and performance were limited in tempo, key and feel, meaning that it was difficult to differentiate one song from the next (this also was a characteristic of some of the earlier synth-pop bands, though). On the other hand, Casualty Park is a band much better known in Germany than it is in America (its Harlow’s show was very poorly attended), so perhaps the band simply is doing something more relevant to European trends and audiences than to those found in Sacramento.
Adding to the problems of Casualty Park was the performance of opening act MicroSphere, a trio that included Birke on electronic-percussion pads. MicroSphere embraced similar 1980s synth sounds but did so in a more progressive, instrumental setting. Birke’s performance here was positively breathtaking at times, and the inclusion of Stephen Sullivan’s guitar synthesizer and Daniel Panasenko’s Chapman Stick (http://home.inreach. com/panaudio) made the whole set sound as if Peter Gabriel’s backup band had escaped Real World Studios to tour without its erstwhile leader. Ambient, rhythmic and consistently beautiful, MicroSphere is a band to watch for.