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  • Jack Starr

Blancmange – Private View Review – Synth Legends Return with their Finest Work since the ‘80s

Blancmange have always been something of a conundrum – like a thousand other British synthpop groups in the early 1980s, they appeared from nowhere, had a handful of hits, and vanished into thin air once again. Unlike other bands, however, Blancmange always had an edge – a certain maturity, complexity, humour, and inventiveness that stood them apart.

The duo’s 1982 debut, Happy Families (which has just turned 40), is fondly remembered by many as a new-wave classic, standing alongside Heaven 17’s Penthouse and Pavement, OMD’s Architecture and Morality and Yazoo’s Upstairs at Eric’s as defining records of the early synthpop era. Hits like the Middle-Eastern-inspired ‘Living on the Ceiling’ and the bass-heavy funk track ‘Feel Me’ cemented them as key players on the scene. The follow-up, 1984’s Mange Tout, was also a success – this time, they managed to pull off possibly the greatest ever ABBA cover with their wistful take on ‘The Day Before You Came’.

Their third album, 1985’s Believe You Me, failed to match the chart success of their previous work – rather bizarrely, since the album itself is incredible, with its complex and layered arrangements, and its excellent production by Stewart Levine. Due to dissatisfaction with the music industry, the band parted ways. Singer-songwriter Neil Arthur had a very brief solo career, releasing a single album – 1994’s Suitcase – before retiring into life as a painter-decorator to support his family.

It wasn’t until 2011 when Blancmange unexpectedly returned, reviving their sound after 26 years with the self-produced album Blanc Burn. In 2013 they re-recorded Happy Families as Happy Families Too. Unfortunately, shortly after, founding member Stephen Luscombe retired due to health problems, leaving Arthur as the sole official member. Under the Blancmange name, Arthur has been busy, producing twelve new albums – a mix of instrumental and vocal works, modernising synthpop with elements of rock and electronica.

Private View is the latest of these, marking their sixteenth studio album. Interestingly, for this new album, Blancmange is returning to London Records – their old label from the ‘80s. As you may expect, this means the group are once again returning to more of a conventional vocal pop structure, closer to their original albums than their instrumental space-synth Nil by Mouth records. And as far as new wave revival albums go, this one hits all the right notes.

The opening track, ‘What’s Your Name’, instantly captures exactly what made Blancmange great four decades ago – a blend of guitar and dreamy synth styles, culminating in a heavy, bassy, danceable pop-rock track. Even better is the second track, ‘Some Times These’, which boasts an old-school synth riff that’s right out of their ‘80s heyday – something the band must recognise, as they have released it on a seven-inch single along with their signature ‘Living on the Ceiling’ via Electronic Sound Magazine. The melancholic melody feels almost like a modern update on their classic track ‘Waves’.

‘Reduced Voltage’, another single from the album, moves on from the upbeat energy of ‘Some Times These’ and instead pairs a Kraftwerk-esque robotic rhythm with slow rock guitars. It’s more new-school Blancmange – the synths are sharper, more digital, complementing the minimalist pixel-graphic cover art. In fact, the art style raises an interesting comparison – in the Happy Families era, Blancmange used colourful, cutesy, retro artwork from the 1950s, pulled from posters and placemats found at antique fairs to give the group a unique aesthetic. And now, in the 21st Century, they decorate their records with distorted pixels, reminiscent of 1980s computer graphics – they’re back to ‘retro’ visuals, but for a new era.

In fact, as a whole, the album feels like it’s from an alternate universe – one where the trends and styles of the ‘80s never ended, channelling the sound of a retro-future that never came to be. This one is definitely for fans of the classic synth sound – the keyboard work and layering of sounds is exceptional throughout. In forty years, Neil Arthur has not lost one bit of talent, creativity, or passion. In fact, this may be his finest work in decades. It’s all here – the creativity, the layering, the trademark humour and charm.

The track ‘Here We Go Go’, a brooding and atmospheric synth track, with ruminating vocals from Arthur, has reportedly been in limbo in one form or another since the ‘80s. “I have these ideas in my head but I won't go into a studio until they are settled and I can let go of them,” he explains. “For years I just couldn't figure out what to do with this one so it was a bit of an epiphany moment when I finally found the answer to it.”

Helping Arthur along are returning keyboardist and programmer Benge Edwards, and guitarist David Rhodes – who played on Happy Families in ’82, and has since worked with the likes of Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush. There’s no shortage of talent here, and they all bring something to the table: the crunchy guitars, and the elating synths.

The closing track, ‘Take Me’, is a slow and melancholic ballad, blending piano with guitar and classic dreamy synths. It’s a great way to see the record off, with a sentimental, bittersweet tune, solidifying Private View as an exceptional bookend to forty years of music. It’s a mix of old and new – classic-style melodies with modern instrumentation.

Electropop isn’t dead, and Private View proves it. Far above a simple nostalgia-bait record, it breaks new ground while maintaining what made us love Blancmange in the first place. “Within myself there are no limits,” Arthur explains; “there's a massive palette inside and I will try anything.”

Private View is available on the 30th of September, on vinyl, CD, cassette and all streaming services.

Blancmange will tour the UK from October. They will perform at The Leadmill on the 25th of November, supported by Sheffield legend Stephen Mallinder (Cabaret Voltaire).

Stay tuned for our exclusive interview with Neil Arthur, who tells us about the new album and untold secrets of Happy Families, made public for the first time in 40 years.


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