Andy Bell – Torsten In Queereteria : Redux

Since 10 April at Above The Stag in London’s Vauxhall, Erasure frontman Andy Bell has been reprising his role as Torsten, a half-English, half-Norwegian semi-immortal polysexual born way back in 1905.

Entitled Queereteria TV, the third instalment of Barney Ashton-Bullock’s series places Torsten’s recollections inside a nightmarish vision of a post-apocalyptic Britain, where a trio of misfits – Lady Domina Bizarre (Matthew Baldwin), Rupert (veteran actor Peter Straker) and Daniel (Ashton-Bullock) – seek to recreate the halcyon days of the Queereteria sex club they and Torsten frequented before Lady Domina inadvertently caused Armageddon after a fumbled sexual liaison with the monarch.

What emerges instead is a TV station dominated by the very worst, lowest possible common denominator of programming that Britons have no choice but to watch; so much so that ‘detector execution vans’ patrol the streets to ensure strict compliance with the fascistic dictat that the channel’s crude and debased content must be watched. “It’s basically a filthy comedy,” says Andy Bell, however unlikely that might sound.

Unlikely it may sound, but a filthy comedy – perhaps the filthiest your most exuberant imagination could muster – it most certainly is. Queereteria TV is a raucous, ribald excursion of a musical that is most definitely not for the faint hearted or easily offended. It can frequently leave you laughing uproariously or sitting with your mouth agape with shock at the things you’ve seen or heard. And yet through it all is the strangely morbid tale of our hero Torsten, kept sedated in a bell jar for Lady Domina’s amusement, Bell’s embodiment of this sad, broken soul acts as a counterweight to Baldwin’s wonderful portrayal of Domina as the worst imaginable panto dame.

Bell first performed as Torsten in 2014 at Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival. For those used to seeing his performances with synthpop royalty Erasure, Torsten The Bareback Saint may have come as something of a shock. A one-man show written by Ashton-Bullock with music composed and performed by multi-instrumentalist Chris Frost, the show found the wretched Torsten surveying his long life, many lovers and frequent disappointments in the kind of brutally honest, and often hilariously colourful detail that was a world away from Bell’s dayjob operating within the written and unwritten parameters of pop music.

Torsten reappeared in The Beautiful Libertine at Above The Stag in London two years later. Not exactly a sequel in the traditional sense, the second instalment in what Ashton-Bullock describes as “postcards from the hotspots of memory” dug into different moments in the life of the Torsten character, revealing more detail about his life, yet more outlandish and sad episodes, but in anything but a straightforward linear narrative.

Bell settled into the character again for The Beautiful Libertine as if it was a second skin, surely meaning that this third instalment should be a breeze. “To be honest, even though he’s my character, he’s a stranger to me,” he confesses. “I can’t quite put my finger on him really.”

“I don’t think any of us can,” concurs Ashton-Bullock. “For me there’s two ways of looking at drama – there’s the approach where you have a beginning, middle and end and a forced narrative, and where you try and make everything fit that; or you acknowledge that in our lives we don’t really know what the beginning, middle and end are. If you write like that, eventually a life and a story assert themselves. Our own memory of our own lives is incomplete – we remember fragments and have selective memories and all of that. So I think with Torsten being older than any of us, his memories are even more jumbled, and everything is fragmented.”

“He’s 114 years old, even though he looks a lot younger,” adds Bell. “In this new show his bones get brittle, he’s feeling older inside, and his memory’s going a little bit. He’s a bit similar to myself, really!”

Though he’s being sarcastic, if Bell can relate to the character on some level, in part that’s because Torsten was written by Ashton-Bullock specifically with Andy Bell in mind. “I always felt as though I knew Andy, although I hadn’t met him, because I just felt that we were very similar,” he says. “The thing that Andy, Chris Frost and I all have in common is we’re very reclusive introverts, and we often don’t get the chance in life to be the best we can be.”

“We’re wallflower people,” nods Bell in agreement. “We don’t necessarily want to go and join in. It’s not our style. Barney and I have become very good, very close friends because we’re both so similar.”

“People put you in boxes and we get talked over all the time,” continues Ashton-Bullock with a sigh. “But I really think we have an energy between us which is completely understated, and that energy means we can create things that are of value to people. Without taking anything away from Andy’s success in Erasure, I really felt like there was a voice trapped within the style of synthpop – and I’m saying that as a fan. I wanted him to be freed from the regular beat and I wanted his voice to soar. When I heard him on Peter Hammill’s The Fall Of The House Of Usher from 1991, I knew I would want to work with him to do just that.”

The music written by Chris Frost for Ashton-Bullock’s vivid words also serves to free Bell up from those strictures, their distinctively flexible presentations being the outcome of a collision between Frost’s jazz / classical background and Ashton-Bullock’s schooling in the likes of Cabaret Voltaire and Fad Gadget. The net effect of that is music that can occasionally be a bit New Romantic, a bit futurist, deeply theatrical, and more than often a bit uncomfortable.

One way in which Bell can get to grips with the anguish of Torsten’s life is to relate it to his own experiences from his long-term relationship with the late Paul Hickey, whose memoir Sometimes vividly detailed his life with the singer. “We had an open relationship,” recalls Bell. “I mean, I’m quite a romantic, and when Erasure were really, really successful it felt like I did have someone like in every port who I’d see while we were touring the world. I liked to make attachments, but I wasn’t allowed to fall in love. That was Paul’s stipulation, which I realise now was a bit damaging. Torsten is in a similar situation, because he outlives all of his amours and paramours.”

“It’s very similar to how I’ve written drama through the years,” explains Ashton-Bullock, whose Daniel character is a married man that Torsten has an affair with. “If I’ve got somebody’s voice in mind when I’m writing it really helps me. There are lots of similarities between Andy and I – weird things like we both worked in Debenhams when we were young and we both had love affairs in Weston-super-Mare when we were in our late teens. I think that’s why we’re both very, very emotionally committed to the Torsten project and seeing where that story will lead.”

Though it wasn’t necessarily evident to audiences when it opened in Edinburgh, Barney Ashton-Bullock had always conceived that Torsten The Bareback Saint would be the first part of a trilogy. Arriving at the latest instalment, it’s become apparent to everyone involved in the series that there are more stories left to tell. “We’re already thinking, ‘Right, what’s going to be the next thing?’” says Bell. “In the latest show they’ve introduced a younger Torsten played by Tom Mann for these kind of flashback scenes while I’m singing off to the side. It’s like me looking back at a reflection of myself in the show.”

Bell turns 55 during the show’s run. “I’m just waiting to get that time when you get written out because you’re too old,” he laughs. “I can imagine when it gets sent to Netflix or and they suddenly say they’re going to get Ryan Gosling to play Torsten, but I can have a bit part in the background playing a tramp on the street.”

“As long as there’s something to say, and that were all alive and available, I wouldn’t kill him off,” says Ashton-Bullock. ”I do think I know where the character can go next and on his timeline. That said, we’ve got the luxury of time. We’ve all got other jobs. I can wait for inspiration to strike, rather than feeling like I’ve got a deadline approaching. I think there are still things to say and I also feel like we’re living in a world where certain ideas desperately need to be shared. These are very weird times, very estranging at times. Sometime’s it’s a struggle for everyday people to wake up and be happy because the times are so odd.”

Though Ashton-Bullock wrote Torsten specifically for Andy Bell, he’s clear that other things went into his genesis from his own life experiences. “I think we’re all products of the culture that we live in and our interests,” he says. “My influences from a very early age were Harold Pinter, Derek Jarman, Steven Berkoff, and the ability that they had in their writing to pattern the world and to be viscerally honest about things. I really admired that in all of them. Also, being an outsider in a very small seaside town growing up, having my parents split up when I was four, having to fend for myself and all the sort of nightmare scenarios you can dream for yourself in all of that.” All of this manifests itself in Torsten never seeming to find his true place in the world until he found the forgiving environs of the Queereteria club.

If this were a novel, parts of it could be labelled a classic roman à clef, a story inevitably full of Ashton-Bullock’s own life encounters and recollections, only he really admits to never been drawn to books – only poetry. “The language in books wasn’t concise enough for me,” he admits. “It was like I was reading a book to get a kind of hit, but I was just never getting it. I’ve read all my life poetry, right from when I first bought my collected works of W. H. Auden. I was with my grandmother in the Pump Room in Bath when I bought it on a family weekend and she said to me disapprovingly ‘Hmmm, you do know he was a homosexual?’ From early on I just thought that poetry was the most immediate and violent expression of language.”

Transitioning from poetry to the complex, intensely full flow of words that Ashton-Bullock has written for the Torsten series wasn’t remotely a difficult one. “I think the rhythmic thing is something I’m so in tune with,” he says. “The strictures of contemporary poetry are very much that you’re considered a failure if you’re dealing in rhymes, whereas in lyrics we can rhyme sometimes. They don’t have to be full-on rhymes, they can be oblique ones or open verse rhymes or whatever, but I find that very liberating. Lyrics are a way of actually making the poetic sensibility accessible.”

One aspect of Torsten’s character that remains a mystery, even to Andy Bell, is his Norwegian heritage. That again came from Ashton-Bullock’s past. “There was a stage of my life where I definitely felt like I’d been born into the wrong, not body, but into the wrong country,” he reveals. “I remember feeling extremely Norwegian while I was growing up for some reason, even though I have no ancestry in Norway, I’d never been there, or anything. I can’t even describe it. I’m just extremely happy when I’m there. It’s a very strong connection, and so Torsten is a half-Norwegian, half-English character, born of a Norwegian merchant seamen, and a mother that lived in Rotherhithe where the boats from Scandinavia came in, in 1905.”

The songs for the new album, some of which appear in Queereteria TV in either abridged form, in full, as solo pieces for Bell or the entire ensemble, are among the most varied and captivating pieces that Chris Frost and Ashton-Bullock have yet composed together. Recorded in Autumn last year when the last Erasure tour had finished, these songs find Bell fully sloughing off any inhibitions he might have had about once again casting aside his pop credentials for this much more theatrical endeavour. Key to his sensational delivery of these songs is an appreciation of Torsten’s fundamental character. “The thing is not to be scared,” says Bell. “It doesn’t matter where your voice goes, or if it breaks. You kind of try to make everything perfect, but you can’t. You’re dealing with this character, this somewhat broken person, so you can’t do that – you have to let it go where it goes.”

One of the most memorable moments in Queereteria TV is the song ‘We Hadn’t Slept For Twenty Years’, delivered by the whole cast but led by a stunning duet between Torsten and Daniel, the voices of Andy Bell and Barney Ashton-Bullock weaving in and out of one another in tender, perfect harmony. This is the first time that Ashton-Bullock’s character has appeared in the series, though his role was trailed in the mournful song ‘Photos Of Daniel’ from the second part of the series.

The on-stage chemistry between the show’s writer and its central character seems to underline that friendship that’s been built between Bell and Ashton-Bullock, while the flashback dance scenes between Tom Mann’s young Torsten and William Spencer’s young Daniel (also choreographed by Spencer) are among the most evocative moments in the show.

The other highlights come when you are subjected to Baldwin’s Lady Domina haughtily quoting Margaret Thatcher or hilariously attempting to make a traybake using whatever detritus might be lying around as she presents a cookery show at short notice. “Lady Domina is really like a critique of the most awful kind of narcissism that any of us that work on the fringes of showbusiness have to endure, just pushed right to the extreme,” explains Ashton-Bullock. “She was an ex-lover of Torsten, a sort of onetime seaside special star, or a very bad cabaret artist.” There are moments throughout Queereteria TV where Baldwin’s ludicrous portrayal of Domina act as brutal moments of absurd levity around which some of the more austere songs are woven, and those unexpected juxtapositions provide some of the keys to Queereteria TV’s captivating presentation.

Becoming Torsten has undoubtedly had a huge impact on Andy Bell and his own approach to songwriting. He has spoken to me twice before about wanting to move in more of a theatrical direction, and you can trace that interest right back to his portrayal of Montresor in The Fall Of The House Of Usher, through Erasure’s 1992 Phantasmagorical Entertainment tour, that fateful appearance at Edinburgh’s Fringe and finally arriving at the profoundly stirring songs written for Erasure’s 2017 opus ‘World Be Gone’.

On the new album and in his delivery during the show, his performance reveals an artist whose metamorphosis is essentially complete; from the soaring ‘A Hundred Years Plus Today’ that opens the collection of songs, to the austere poetry of ‘Lowland Lowriders’, to the bawdy ‘Cabaret Awayday’ to the nod to Brecht / Weill on ‘If We Want To Drink A Little’ (with Hazel O’Connor) here we find Andy Bell utterly – and willingly – transformed, in no small part thanks to Barney Ashton-Bullock’s inventive lyrics and Chris Frost’s endlessly adaptable playing.

Queereteria TV completes its run at Above The Stag on 28 April at Above The Stag. Tickets are available at abovethestag.com. The album ‘Andy Bell Is Torsten In Queereteria’ is out now on Strike Force Entertainment via Cherry Red. A shorter version of this piece first appeared on the Clash website on 2 April

(c) 2019 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence & Clash

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Andy Bell Is Torsten In Queereteria TV (Clash feature, 2019)

The third instalment of Barney Ashton-Bullock’s Torsten series kicks off at Vauxhall’s Above The Stag theatre on April 10 and finds Erasure’s Andy Bell once again taking on the role of the half-Norwegian, half-English polysexual semi-immortal Torsten.

Amid the maelstrom of press interviews that Bell has undertaken to support Queereteria TV, managed to get some time with Andy and Barney during rehearsals to talk in detail about the latest postcard from the hotspots of the 114-year old Torsten’s memory.

My interview went live on the Clash website earlier today and can be found here. A longer version will appear here on Documentary Evidence during the show’s run.

Queereteria TV runs at Above The Stag from April 10 to April 28. Tickets are available at abovethestag.com. A new album, Andy Bell Is Torsten In Queereteria is released by Strike Force Entertainment on April 12.

(c) 2019 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Clash

Camp Christmas (Channel 4 broadcast, 24 December 1993)

Title from ‘Camp Christmas’.

Twenty years BSG – Before Snow GlobeErasure‘s Andy Bell and Vince Clarke participated in Camp Christmas, an alternative Christmas show broadcast by Channel 4 on Christmas Eve 1993. The broadcast formed part of the British broadcaster’s New York-themed suite of programmes that evening, though what Camp Christmas‘s connection to that was now seems lost forever. (I only even remember that because the ident for Channel 4’s NY Christmas programming theme was to be found at the start of my VHS recording.)

Camp Christmas was hosted by Andy Bell and Melissa Etheridge and saw the pair shacked up in a log cabin amidst a seasonally snow-filled studio set, joined on their Christmas vacation by Julian Clary’s wisecracking wall-mounted reindeer head, director Derek Jarman (who died from an AIDS-related illness early the following year) and footballer John Fashanu. Christmas video messages were included from Martina Navratilova and Ian McKellen, the New York Gay Men’s Chorus delivered a humorous song from the Wollman Rink in Central Park while Lily Savage played the role of the party’s hapless caterer.

East 17 made an unlikely appearance – unlikely because they were more or less the only participants on screen who weren’t gay – and Quentin Crisp delivered a soliloquy based on an alternative version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In a programme filled with strange moments, Simon Callow (currently performing his own one-man Dickens show at London’s Arts Theatre) delivered a bizarre hybrid of Shakespeare and panto which is probably not the highest point in his career as an esteemed thesp.

Vince worked as the ‘musical director’ for the broadcast, aided by Martyn Ware and Phil Legg – essentially the team that worked on the I Say I Say I Say album that would get released the following year. The songs for Camp Christmas were recorded in the same sessions with Ware and Legg.

Andy sang three songs with Etheridge (‘Walking In A Winter Wonderland’, ‘Sleigh Ride’ and a very special rendition of ‘My Favourite Things’ from The Sound Of Music), a lovely solo rendition of ‘Take Me To The Emerald City’ from The Wizard Of Oz and ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’, joined by the assembled studio cast on the final chorus. It’s fair to say that the musical moments are the points where Andy seems at his most comfortable, and Vince’s accompaniment is nothing short of lovely, blending wintery chill with analogue wackiness as only he knows how.

Still from Andy Bell singing ‘Take Me To The Emerald City’.

Music to one side, Camp Christmas manages to work its way from sublimely daft to frankly cringe-worthy. One such audacious moment comes with Pam St. Clements – Pat Butcher from EastEnders – pretending to be a fairy on a Christmas tree, delivering a song I don’t recognise about farting. It’s ludicrous, naturally, but Vince somehow managed to work his magic effortlessly, even on such a ridiculous piece of over-the-top cabaret.

Channel 4 have always had a reputation for adventurous programming, and Camp Christmas was unlike anything else that had been broadcast up to that point. Adventurous as it was for its time, and despite some dodgy moments, Camp Christmas was also pretty funny in the same way as a pantomime can have you rolling about in the aisles. And that’s in spite of some appearances that are every bit as wooden as the shack they’re supposed to be holidaying in.

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My VHS recording of ‘Camp Christmas’, 24 December 1993, complete with neat teenage fountain pen handwriting.

Thanks to Martyn. Several YouTube rips of the broadcast can be found online, as can bootleg recordings of the Andy Bell songs.

First posted 2013; re-posted for the holidays 2018

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

2018 Rewind

Last year’s experience of assembling a simple list of what I considered to be my favourite albums of the year didn’t appeal this time around, so I’ve broken down my 2018 into four categories – concerts, interviews, events and albums. As ever, these are all chosen from personal (and often highly personal) vantage points; it doesn’t mean that other things aren’t better – it’s just that these things appeal to me more.

Concerts

Reed & Caroline, Pianos, NYC, May 2018

Last year I wrote gushingly – and, to some, perhaps offensively – about Reputation by Taylor Swift, and this year we saw Ms Swift twice, once at Wembley and once at the Raymond James stadium in Tampa, FL. Mrs S. cried throughout both concerts (I got emotional too, okay?) and, after Wembley, our impressionable eldest / almost-teenage daughter immediately asserted, via the medium of her WhatsApp status, that Taylor represented someone whose values meant a huge amount to her. I don’t even know how to use emojis, let alone add a WhatsApp status, but I will say this (again) – Taylor Swift writes fucking great songs, is an incredibly important role model for young females, and is a sensational live performer. Feeling the concrete vibrate under your seat high up in an American football stadium as thousands of people register their enthusiasm is pretty hard to beat. Weirdly, I was asked some questions about my unashamed love of Taylor Swift (among other things) for The Electricity Club, which you can enjoy here.

I go to fewer and fewer concerts these days, but GoGo Penguin’s strobe-heavy show at the Royal Albert Hall was incredible, as was Barry Adamson’s confessional / big band performance at the Union Chapel, as was Daniel Blumberg at our local gallery in Milton Keynes, as was Nadine Khouri at Rough Trade East. Having a rare dad-and-daughter night out with our eldest daughter to watch Erasure in Aylesbury was a treat, as was her watching me interview Andy Bell for Clash by the bins at the back of the venue during a fire alarm immediately beforehand; it gives new meaning to the fabled ‘bring your daughters to work’ day. Watching Reed & Caroline’s cosy show at Pianos on New York’s Lower East Side in May was another memorable event in so, so, so many ways. More on Reed & Caroline further down the page.

Interviews

Daniel Blumberg by Angela Beltran

As a writer, you always strive to get an opportunity to tell those stories which deserve to be told but which somehow get overlooked. This year I was fortunate to be able to write some really important stories for Electronic Sound, from the weird circumstances of Ciccone Youth’s ‘Into The Groove(y)’, to the still-unreleased synth-heavy ‘Rubberband’ sessions convened by Miles Davis in the 1980s, to Space’s ‘Magic Fly’, to the DIY recordings of Thomas Leer and Robert Rental.

The piece that I’m most proud of, though, was an interview with Daniel Blumberg for Clash. Blumberg’s Minus was one of the albums that caught my attention the most this year, situated as it is on the crossroads between improvisation and Townes Van Zandt-style balladry. Interviewing Blumberg about his creative impulses in his kitchen / non-kitchen for two hours, watching him drawing in front of me, and having the opportunity to piece together his disparate interests while tearing up every question I’d prepared was a profound experience, and one I will never, ever forget. A few moths later I rewatched an interview with David Bowie on the Dick Cavett show around the time of Young Americans, and some of Daniel’s mannerisms reminded me of that, convincing me yet further that I’ve been privileged to have spent time with an absolute artistic genius. The Blumberg piece for Clash is here.

Events

Andy McCluskey – Sugar Tax Interview CDr

April, 2018, an Irish bar in deepest Greenwich Village: not unlike the three witches at the start of Macbeth, Reed Hays, Vince Clarke and I are scheming intently, over, variously, pints of New York tapwater, Diet Coke and Stella. We are talking about how we might promote the new Reed & Caroline album, Hello Science, which would eventually be released in July of this year.

Other than profound enthusiasm, I can’t say I really brought anything new to the table (other than maybe a round of drinks) but it was a massive privilege to have worked with Vince’s VeryRecords on that record nonetheless. After lots of conversation among us and with Caroline Schutz about the song’s hymn-like qualities, at some point I managed to get permission to share ‘Before’ from the album with the music teacher of my my eldest daughter’s school, culminating in a mesmerising performance by the choir at a very special evening event in June which you can see below.

Another professional privilege was being asked by Mute to host a live Q&A with Barry Adamson at London’s Rough Trade East in early November to support his Memento Mori career-spanning compilation. This is the second such event I’ve hosted for Mute, and I can’t express how much of an honour it is to be offered the chance to support the label I’ve been a fan of for so long in this way, other than to say, humbly, and rather feebly, that I feel incredibly lucky. The Q&A, which I cheekily described as “Memento Mori Jackanory” (to the amusement of myself and one other person), was also a form of redress for an earlier Adamson interview I’d conducted just as he left Mute, representing one of the first Q&As I’d ever done, which I still cringe at today.

This year I interviewed OMD’s Andy McCluskey for the second time. The conversation, focussed exclusively on the album Sugar Tax, will never get written up, and the recording will never be heard beyond three people – myself, my mother and my father. The catalyst was my father’s January diagnosis with Alzheimer’s, and the significance of Sugar Tax was that it was an album he and I would often listen to in the car on Saturdays while he drove around our home town working his own second job. I cherish those memories so much, and am so grateful to Andy for consenting so readily to sharing his own, highly personal recollections of that LP so directly with my family and I.

Alzheimer’s has made 2018 a tough year for our family, but music has often been the salve to the suffering we have all felt since his diagnosis.

Albums

The album I spent most time with in 2018 was O.Y. In Hi-Fi by Optiganally Yours, a duo of Optigan aficionado Pea Hicks and vocalist / multi-instrumentalist Rob Crow. By way of quick summary, the Optigan was a Mattel home organ / pre-sampler keyboard that utilised discs of pre-recorded loops that you could use to make your own songs. I’d have known nothing of this this duo were it not for the enthusiastic recommendations of Reed Hays, who used an Orchestron – a kind of grown-up, professional version of Mattel’s 70s keyboard project – on the aforementioned Hello Science LP.

For O.Y. In Hi-Fi, Hicks dusted down the original master tapes of the sessions that produced the various LP-sized discs of Optigan loops (hence the ‘hi-fi’ reference in the title), meaning – deep breath – that this album samples original material that would end up being used as lo-fi recordings on an early keyboard that sort of used sampling technology as its basis. Honestly, this album contains some of the best songs I’ve heard this year. Well worth investigating, as is a tinker with Hicks’ GarageBand-bashing iOptigan iOS app, just like I made Vince Clarke and Reed Hays do as we regrouped over drinks at that same Irish pub later in the year.

As I’ve said before, so much of album reviewing is, for me, inextricably linked to where I am at that precise point in time, whether mentally or geographically. Reviewing Erasure’s neo-classical collaboration with Echo Collective while sat in a hotel window overlooking Central Park in a reflective and lonely state of mind takes some beating, while listening to First Aid Kit’s Ruins while ‘enjoying’ a freezing cold work trip to Canada also can’t help but leave a mark on you (possibly frostbite).

Daniel Blumberg’s Minus is synonymous, for me, with taking apart and rebuilding our youngest daughter’s wardrobe as we relocated her bedroom in our house, while the fantastic debut Ex-Display Model LP just reminds me of an evening wandering the West End after work, watching while everyone seemed to be having a good time in bars and pubs while I seemed resolutely outside of pretty much everything.

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Documentary Evidence 2016 Top 10 Albums: 4. Reed & Caroline ‘Buchla & Singing’ // Erasure ‘From Moscow To Mars’

I felt a little conflicted about including these two on my list, for reasons which I will attempt somewhat clumsily to explain. I then reasoned that this is my list, I’m kind of really proud of what I’ve done to support both these releases, and so on the list they shall remain. I’ve also linked them together for the purposes of convenience.

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“It might have the look and feel of a futuristic tombstone, but From Moscow To Mars, as its title from the oft-forgotten single ‘Star’ indicates, represents a thirty year journey – a journey that the duo are very firmly still on with a new album in the works and plenty more rocket fuel left in the tanks.” – This Is Not Retro

“What emerges here is a distinct sense of loyalty – from Vince Clarke and Andy Bell to one another, and to the enduring art of writing emotional pop music.” – Electronic Sound

First up, the mammoth and some would definitely argue long overdue Erasure box. This was finally released in December after production delays and I reviewed this – atypically for me – for two places: Electronic Sound and then a slightly more personal piece for This Is Not Retro. I am, and forever will be, a massive Erasure fan first and foremost, so my ability to be objective about From Moscow To Mars is one possible conflict of interest. Personally, I think I pulled it off, but you can judge for yourself. The review for This Is Not Retro can be found here. Back issues of Electronic Sound are over at www.electronicsound.co.uk

The second reason for feeling slightly conflicted came in November when I found myself in Birmingham as a guest of the Erasure fan club at the official launch party for the boxset. I was there nominally as a guest but found myself helping out in a couple of ways – blowing up some very sorry balloons (I apologise to anyone who attended and laughed at those) while listening to Vince Clarke and Andy Bell soundcheck their set (including a new song) and then helping out with three hours of meet and greets. It was a special, and slightly surreal experience.

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Second, Buchla & Singing by Reed & Caroline, a charming album of compositions for the Buchla by Reed Hays with beautiful singing by Caroline Schutz. The album was released on Vince Clarke’s Very Records back in October to universal acclaim. I didn’t get to review this one, but trust me, had I done so I would have called it out as very special indeed.

I wrote the press release for Very Records for this album and enjoyed a very pleasant Skype chat with Hays in order to prepare that. Of all the things I have done this year, getting handed that job and helping support the release of Buchla & Singing – in a way somewhat different from just scribing a review – was right up there as a major career highlight, and I’m eternally grateful for the opportunity.

One of the best tracks on the album is ‘Henry The Worm’. Reed and I spoke about that track at length but I just couldn’t find a way of fitting it into the press release, so here is that little off-cut. I thought it was a nice story. Music sometimes needs to take itself less seriously.

“Around the time my son was born, I wrote a song that’s on the record called ‘Henry The Worm’,” explained Reed. “We named Henry, my son, after a little caterpillar that was crawling around a Mexican restaurant. When we saw the first sonogram I thought he looked like a little caterpillar.”

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Shelter – Ascend (Ministry Of Pop album, 2016)

Shelter are a familiar name to anyone with a passing interest in the solo work of Erasure’s Andy Bell given his collaboration with the duo on 2014’s iPop album, another in a series of extra-curricular projects from the Erasure frontman that have started to emerge in the past few years.

The team of Mark Bebb and Rob Bradley describe Ascend as a more mature offering, and while that might be true in the sense of its slightly more emotional, slowed-up moments, the album is also 100% true to the Shelter sound – namely slick, polished, generally upbeat electronic pop songs that lean heavily toward modern hi-NRG club-friendly structures (see the vaguely ‘Jump’-referencing ‘This Must Be Love’) – but also finds the collaborations that have coloured their previous releases consciously absent.

Judging by the lyrics and phrasing on tracks like the opener ‘Breathless’ or ‘Do You Remember’, Shelter’s time in the company of Andy Bell has evidently rubbed off on them. Mark Bebb’s vocal on these songs has the same thwarted, disappointed, defenceless quality – they’re love songs, for sure, but they seem to be delivered from a unrequited vantage point. Bell has made a career out of that bruised, fragile quality, amplified by Vince Clarke’s sympathetic synth melodies, and what you have here is a decent emulation of that latter-day Erasure style. It’s a formula that Shelter revisit throughout the album, but without ever making them sound like one trick ponies or like they’re just trying to rip off their mates.

Elsewhere, there are moments of rapturous surrender, pitched perfectly for the secret corners of nightclubs; tracks like ‘In The Dark’ might have the rhythm and pace demanded by clubland, but the tone is sullen, dangerous, edgy. Some of the best moments on Ascend happen when Shelter slow things right down and eschew the politics of the dancing for the type of pop music that seemed to wither and die about thirty years ago. ‘Figaro’, for example, is all Latin-inflected rhythms and sun-baked summery heartbreak. The track has that whole ‘La Isla Bonita’ mystery thing down to a fine art, with the juxtaposition of jangly guitars and melodramatic, shimmering melodies more than enough to get a jaded pop music fan like me properly wistful.

It may be a simple product of my general disdain for a pop music landscape which feels duty-bound to use collaborations as the only way to keep things vaguely interesting, but the most compelling moments on Ascend are undoubtedly those that find Shelter operating as a self-contained unit. When they lock the doors to the studio and leave the collaborators outside, Ascend is a smart, well-crafted, confident electronic pop album with plenty of fine songs that suggests a duo finding their own voice.

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Various Artists – Fly : Songs Inspired By The Film ‘Eddie The Eagle’ (Universal album, 2016)

  
I reviewed the soundtrack to the film Eddie The Eagle for This Is Not Retro. Fly features a who’s who of Eighties music, including everyone from Martyn Ware‘s Heaven 17to Paul Young, most of whom have recorded exclusives for the album.

Erasure‘s Andy Bell delivers the title track, while Nik Kershaw’s ‘The Sky’s The Limit’ (from his 2012 album Ei8ht) steals the show as perhaps the best song ever written about following your dreams. Kershaw said he wrote this song to his child to show that you really can be whatever you want, and as a father to two growing little girls, I can’t listen to this song without getting emotional.

My review can be found here

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence