Twenty-five years ago, the first notable Supergroup in the world of electronic pop was born. Bernard Sumner (New Order/Joy Division) and Johnny Marr (The Smiths) joined forces and christened their new side project, Electronic. It was an absolutely brilliant pairing from the get-go. The unbelievably good guitar chops of Marr, and the brilliant synth-pop know-how that Sumner brought to the table, provided the perfect musical setting for fans of rock-driven synth-pop and witty alternative pop.
Electronic would give us a total of three fantastic albums over the ten-year period spanning 1989 to 1999. Their success and appeal was bolstered by the fact that they were joined along the way by such outstanding collaborators as: Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe of the Pet Shop Boys, Karl Bartos of Kraftwerk, and Carl Palmer, one of the most in-demand drummers in Europe, who has worked with ABC and David Bowie, among others. Electronic were a certified hit with both the fans, and the critics.
I remember how excited I was back in ’89 when I first heard the news on MTV that Sumner, Marr, and Tennant were working together in a new band. I was (and still am) a massive fan of New Order, The Smiths, and the Pet Shop Boys, so naturally, the news of all of them working together was a dream come-true. When ‘Getting Away With It’ debuted in the summer of ’89, it didn’t disappoint in the slightest. And when their eponymous debut album finally dropped in the summer of ’91, I wore out two copies of it on cassette by year’s end. Electronic were the ultimate Supergroup for fanboy Anoraks like me. I couldn’t get enough of ’em!
So what, exactly is a Supergroup?
Well, in the simplest terms, a Supergroup is a music group whose members are comprised of artists who have been successful on their own, or in another music group. Artists who have already made a name for themselves, if you will.
The concept of the Supergroup isn’t exactly modern. Cream, Blind Faith, and Crosby, Stills and Nash were among the first in rock when they formed in the late-1960s. Rock history is filled with Supergroups throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Some were massively successful, others not so much. But for fans of any particular genre, the Supergroup is akin to winning the jackpot in the musical lottery……. if such a lottery truly existed, that is. 😉
Given the somewhat solitary and isolated nature of creating electronic music, such Supergroup collaborations are rare. While it’s not uncommon for well-known electronic musos to pair up for singles or remixes, the instances of getting a full LP’s worth of original material are a bit more scarce. However, these pairings do exist, and they never disappoint.
Perhaps the greatest recent example of an electronic Supergroup is Onetwo, a project featuring Paul Humphreys, of OMD, and Claudia Brücken, of Propaganda. This brilliant duo that gives us two of the brightest minds and gifted songwriters of the genre, coincidentally also ties into the subject of this article.
The genesis of Apt, the latest Supergroup in electronic music, actually begins before the dawning of the new millennium, when one of our heroes began working with Claudia Brücken and Paul Humphreys.
Enter Jon Russell. Hailing from Brighton, UK, Mr. Russell began his musical journey in the late-1980s. With a deeply-rooted passion for Kraftwerk and electronic pop, he began composing his own original music a quarter-century ago in the comfort of his own home. He quickly began to make a name for himself as a talented synthesist and producer, receiving recognition and across-the-board praise from music critics in Melody Maker and Future Music.
Within a short period of time, famed producer, Pascal Gabriel came knocking, and he took Jon under his wing. While working with Pascal Gabriel, Jon learned to refine his craft and hone his skills to a world-class level. During this period, Russell was introduced to the lovely Claudia Brücken. He bounced several ideas and demos around with Miss Brücken, and began setting his sights on electro-pop greatness.
At the turn of the millennium, Jon was fully engaged in working with Brücken, who was also working full-time with Paul Humphreys. The trio began composing and producing fantastic demos which would eventually become part of Onetwo’s debut ep, Item, which dropped in June of 2004. Onetwo were an instant hit, and the ep sold out its first pressing in under a month. For his involvement, Russell was paid the ultimate compliment when Karl Bartos emailed him to tell him that he loved Jon’s programming work.
There is no higher praise in the field of electronic music than a member of Kraftwerk telling you that they admire your work.
Russell began focusing on his own solo project, Jonteknik, in the years that followed. He released a handful of inspiring albums, and then in 2010, fate led him to the doorstep of one Martyn Bailey.
Martyn Bailey fell in love with electronic pop in much the same way I did…… by listening to all the greats of the genre, and being captivated by the sounds of the synthesizer. One of his favourites was A-ha. Bailey developed a vocal style that bears an un-canny resemblance to Morten Harket. It should come as no surprise then, that he began doing A-ha covers with his band, The Channel. Jon Russell also happened to be an A-ha fan, and on a chance visit to his local barber, Russell was told about this magnificent local muso named Martyn Bailey, who (pardon the pun) channelled the spirit of Mr. Harket like no other.
Needless to say, Jon was impressed by what he heard, and he approached Bailey about collaborating on an album of A-ha covers. Bailey accepted Russell’s offer, and in 2010 they released a jaw-dropping album of A-ha gems. The album was called, A Boy’s Adventure Tale: The Songs of A-ha.
This served as my introduction to Martyn Bailey, and I was absolutely gobsmacked at the sound of his voice. The combination of Jon’s synth wizardry and world-class production skills, and Bailey’s near-perfect clone of Harket’s voice, made for one hell of a presentation. I liked it so much, I bought three copies of the album and gave them to my eldest son and one of my sisters as Christmas presents. I secretly began hoping that Jon would work with Martyn again. A few years later, I would get my wish.
In 2013 Martyn Bailey released his first solo album, a glorious pop masterpiece called, Red Sky Supernova. It served as the perfect vehicle to highlight not just Bailey’s angelic voice, but also his equally impressive songwriting skills. I fell in love with it the moment I heard the title track. It’s a lush blend of subtle piano-driven melodies, and tight, yet sparse synth arrangements. Red Sky Supernova evokes the best elements of Bowie, Kate Bush, and yes……. A-ha. Instead of focusing on the technology used to create the music, Bailey’s approach is more organic and focuses on the actual song itself. The result is pure pop heaven! It exceeded every one of my expectations.
Shortly after Bailey released Red Sky Supernova, Russell released his latest Jonteknik album, The Satellites of Substance, and it was announced that both Bailey and Russell would be collaborating on a project called Apt.
It would be a severe understatement for me to say I was a tad excited upon hearing this news. 🙂
The duo finished 2013 working on their debut release, and here we are in the early stage of 2014, celebrating the arrival of this hotly-anticipated release. Does it live up to its expectations? Is it any good? Has it been worth the wait? Does it belong in your music collection? Well, to put in mildly………
The album is called, Energy, Light and Darkness. It’s ten brilliantly-orchestrated tracks that play to the strengths of each member of the duo. It’s the first bona-fide smash of the new year. It showcases Russell’s masterful touch with synths and percussion, and Bailey’s equally impressive songwriting and over-the-top vocal delivery. One can immediately pick out Jonteknik in the mix, as well as Bailey’s own unique artistic signature, but more importantly, Energy, Light and Darkness quickly establishes an identity that belongs exclusively to Apt.
Russell and Bailey have created a sound that is all their own, and that’s where the real beauty of this album lies.
Kicking off with the mellow, yet upbeat ‘At Night I Come Alive’, the album quickly catches the listener’s attention, as Russell lays down a thumping beat and bassline complimented by Bailey singing about how life takes on a whole new meaning when the sun goes down. It’s a perfect synth-pop track, and deftly sets the mood for what follows.
‘Make Contact’ finds Bailey singing about one of the recurring themes that frequently pops up in both his, and Russell’s solo work……. space travel, and the search for intelligent life in the cosmos. Bailey’s falsetto absolutely soars thru the ether on this one. It’s the greatest song A-ha never wrote.
‘Changing Lanes’ provides the ‘energy’ component referred to in the album’s title. It’s a 4/4 thumper clocking in at an energetic bpm that’s perfectly suited for the dancefloor. However, the final third of the song changes gears rather suddenly……. and goes off in a dis-jointed experimental direction. Hence the term ‘Changing Lanes’, perhaps? Regardless of the logic behind the arrangement, it works. And it works well.
The true odd man of the lot is ‘Pendulum’. Starting out with an early-era OMD vibe, it’s a mid-tempo, experimental, quirky number that features a nursery rhyme refrain that will get stuck in your head for ages. Trust me…… you will find yourself saying, “Hickory-dickory…” in your sleep. It’s the hook that just won’t get out of your head. Bailey’s vocal range is well represented on this one as he switches from his trademark falsetto to smooth lower ranges with fluid grace.
‘The A to Z of Numbers’ is 100% Jon Russell. It’s the album’s lone instrumental, that features vocalized computer über-geek tributes to scientists and mathematicians. Elegantly and tastefully done in a way which only Jon Russell can do.
The album closes out with ‘The Night Train’. It’s a perfect up-tempo synth-pop gem that evokes memories of Giorgio Moroder and Kraftwerk. A song about feeling good, it ends the album on a gloriously positive note. If there’s a stand-out single on the album, this is it.
The album strikes the perfect balance between classic synth-pop and good old-fashioned organic pop. This should come as no surprise, as that’s precisely what each member of this stellar duo brings to the table. Russell is the indie superstar of all things electronic, and Bailey is the reigning King of organic electro-pop. They’re both stars in their own right, but together, they’re an unbeatable powerhouse.
I am pleased to award Energy, Light and Darkness the first five-star album rating of 2014. On the merits of it’s songwriting, sound design, production value, and overall delightful listening experience, it’s a certifiable hit. I sincerely hope this is the first of many releases for Apt.
As a fan of both Jonteknik and Martyn Bailey, I can say that this album exceeds all of my lofty expectations. As a fellow muso and record producer, Apt inspires me in the same way as classic OMD, Depeche Mode, and Kraftwerk does.
Apt is 100% electronic to their core, but they’re so full of life. They pull emotion out of the machines with effortless grace. Underneath all the fancy, hi-tech music gear and computer technology breathes a very organic being. They’re the living definition of a Supergroup, and indeed, everything about Apt is super.
Call it the realization of the man-machine, call it what you will.
I call it brilliance.
The Night Train:
Energy, Light and Darkness is available via digital download NOW via iTunes and Amazon.
Energy, Light and Darkness is also available for a limited time on CD format via the Jonteknik online shop:
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Jimm Kjelgaard – February 2014