Shelter – Soar (Ministry Of Pop album, 2018)

Shelter, the duo of Mark Bebb and Rob Bradley, have consistently proven themselves capable of producing understated, appealing electronic pop music. Whether on the upward-pointing arcs of their 2016 album Ascend or their celebrated collaboration with Erasure’s Andy Bell on iPop, Bebb and Bradley have a tight handle on how to make music that grabs you, lifts you up, occasionally gives you a firm, emotional shake and generally leaves you feeling just a bit more optimistic than you were before you started listening to it.

Third album Soar builds where Ascend left off with a collection of ten songs variously trading in thudding euphoria, fragile balladry and glossy synth pop. What works so well about the music these electronomads create is the humanising quality that vocalist Bebb brings to Bradley’s electronic templates. A track like ‘Touch’ ripples forth on a rich bed of synths, dark-hued rhythms and mesmerising melodies, but it is Bebb’s singular vocal that wreaks havoc with your emotions, adding a tenderness and delicate edge amid the alien, robotic sounds his voice weaves around.

One of the standout tracks here is ‘Karma’, which opens with a stern, angular bassline reminiscent of Fad Gadget’s ‘Back To Nature’ that is promptly overwhelmed by regimented rhythms and layers of icicle-sharp synth tones. Bebb here is the dramatic, finger-pointing sage, explaining pointedly to the listener that no action is without consequence, a note of empathy the only relief from an otherwise sinister delivery. Opener ‘Electronica’ is a bold, techno-infused paean to the electronic music of the last forty years, the line ‘Microchips and wires made us who we are,’ being just about the most pointed description of why so many of us remain fascinated by this enduring, constantly-evolving music.

It’s the album’s title track and ‘1984’ that steal the show here, though, both being brittle, heartfelt songs wrapped tightly in classic electronic pop blankets, all perfect melodies and propulsive rhythms. On these tracks the Shelter sound is reminiscent of Bright Light Bright Light, carrying the same dizzying ability to spin your emotions around full circle and leaving you uncertain whether you should be upbeat or miserable. (Anyone who’s spent any time with my reviews will recognise that as a songwriting quality that I fall in love with much more than is good for me.)

Soar is currently being crowdfunded and will be released as a two disc album complete with 12” mixes of each track. Head to Crowdfunder to show your support, where you’ll find a range of pledge options, including a special edition of iPop.

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

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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