(Possession Records, out Fri 9 Feb 2018)
Has popular music stopped evolving? It’s a question that’s often asked, and not just by baby boomers who haven’t got over the 60s. The theory runs that the years between the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s and the rise of hip-hop and electro in the late 70s were the gold rush. Genres spawned fast because there was so much tech-enabled territory to explore. Now pop has reached its mature phase. The boom is over and all there is for new acts to do is revisit places we’ve been before and see what’s left. To listen to The Outsider In The Mirrors you’d be tempted to agree.
Soft Riot is the trading name of Glasgow-based Canadian synth artist, Jack Duckworth, and its inescapable how firmly his sound is planted in the synth-pop of the turn of the 80s. It is to Gary Numan and his ilk what Mud and Showaddywaddy were to 50s rock ‘n’ rollers – revivalism that borders on pastiche. That’s not to damn it. It’s just the influences are so direct as to be defining.
Duckworth’s vocals are glum, while the synths are bright and sprightly (although not without a touch of menace). The effect is like Ian Curtis fronting early Human League. In fact, name your electro influence, and you’ll probably find a reminder of them on here. There’s something of OMD about opener The Eyes On The Walls. Waiting For Something Terrible To Happen kicks off at a jittery pace like Nik Kershaw’s Dancing Girls, while He’s Gone Underground shares some DNA with Heaven 17. The Saddest Music In The World is the album’s lighter-waving moment. The bpm come down a little for some slow-burn electronic melancholy New Order wouldn’t be ashamed of. “Come and hear the saddest music in the world / the offer is only one time,” he sings. But a la Tenacious D, this isn’t the saddest music in the world, this is just a tribute.
Faithful though Soft Riot is to the style of those early pioneers, this album lacks some of their instantaneous melody. “Where’s the singles?” would have been the record company cry if this actually dated from the era it emulates. Top of the Pops certainly wouldn’t be calling. Nevertheless, Soft Riot has a date at something called Return to the Batcave Festival in Warsaw in October, which sounds right up this album’s street. There’s a corner of Eastern Europe where it will always be 1981.