What makes for a good live electronic act?

After watching clips of the new Anne Clark live DVD and finding ourselves most impressed with the lineup and the sound she and her band achieve, Softsynth is flashing back to the concert of a lifetime – Depeche Mode, Toronto, 1988, just days before their legendary “101” concert at the Pasadena Rose Bowl. It was a lineup that embodied the best of electronic music, three keyboards, Martin Gore making his first fawn-like tentative journeys to the front of the stage to play guitar before retreating to the comfort of his synth downstage, and a charismatic lead vocalist who carried the energy of the show on his shoulders. Since that time we have seen every variance of live set from myriad electronic bands, some of which work nicely, others bring a degree of shame to the genre. in 2009 what kind of set should we come to expect from the leading electronic bands of the day?

For the more conventional rock band setup, this is a trite and obvious question. You strap on the guitar, the drummer sits down at the kit and you rock it out dude! The standard guitar/bass/drums/vocalist lineup, while inherently dull to this blogger, is the mainstay of a live rock set and there is little question of what the lineup will look like (maybe some question of a keyboard player or horn player being invited to sit in, or for the more prog-rock or enjoyably pretentious, perhaps a small string or brass section, or extra precussion unit, but these are extras to the main deal). But for an electronic band there are many questions that must be queried. Laptops or keyboards? Live percussion or programmed? Guitar or no? Full-on trad-rock lineup or something a little closer to the purity of the electronic set? This is one of those rare posts where we solicit your thoughts. What works for you. What drains the essence of what made the band special in the first place?

Our thoughts: it depends on the band in question. Full disclosure – Softsynth is most fond of performance. We have little interest in watching folks stand behind laptops all by their lonesome, occasionally pushing a button (see And One, Erasure, Venus Hum, Chemical Brothers); while a charismatic lead singer (see Erasure, Venus Hum) can carry a show on their shoulders, it’s nice to see the rest of the band occasionally working up a sweat, or at a minimum, playing a fews keys here and there.

So regardless of the sound or lineup an electronic band captures on record the live setup usually falls into one of the following:

– Singer is the only “live” element. See: laptop bands above. These are bands that play backing tapes lifted from the record usually and the lead and sometimes (though not always!) harmonic vocals actually performed.

– Band does the above but adds a major live percussion element (see Nitzer Ebb, VNV Nation until recently). This kind of band still plays to tapes but have one or more live drummers/percussionists to fill out the sound (listen to the live tracks on VNV Nation’s recent Reformation album and it becomes clear the songs are lifted entirely from the albums from which they came with only live banging and singing present.

– Band employs major performance elements using keyboards to capture the sound of the record while allowing for some improvisation with percussion, and sequences pre-recorded and all other parts performed live. Depeche Mode perfected this style, adding live percussion elements (often extremely creatively), and in 1988, some guitar (over the years adding more and more guitar until it was played on pretty much every song, finally even adding drums in the late 90s {after using them as an occasional novelty a few years earlier}). Technoir, Marsheaux and Client are good examples of this approach in more modern times.

– Band “toughs it up a little” adding more traditional instruments (see Depeche Mode post-1993) but still retaining the inherent sound that made people love them, forming a kind of organic/electronic hybrid.

– Full on divorce from their recorded material – keyboards, sometimes performed, sometimes left out altogether. Drums, guitar, even bass – the single most redundant instrument in an electronic band – are the order of the day in an effort to essentially “sound like everyone else” (needless to say this approach is lost on Softsynth). De/Vision, increasingly MESH, Dragonette and many, many others have chosen this route.  Fischerspooner does their own variant on this with their full performance art presentation,

What do you look for when you check out an electronic band? What lineup best captures what you like best about a given band in the genre and why?


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