Review: Maison Vague – Synthpop’s Alive

At first we really weren’t sure what to make of this peculiar project, the brainchild of US-born/Germany-based Clark Stiefel. It seemed like a gimmick, a bit of a laugh, a de facto response to the clever “Synthpop is Dead” YouTube meme. The video for the title track was funny, odd, and completely un-self conscious in it’s stereotypical electro geek finery. It was cute and that seemed to be that.

But hold on…this is, as it turns out, a whole hell of a lot more. This is something almost subversively brilliant in it’s nakedly retro throwback vibe. Stiefel has created in a backhanded way, one of the most intriguing electronic albums in recent memory.There have been a number of bands in recent years – stand up Mirrors, Marsheaux, Northern Kind, Future/Perfect – that have excelled by drawing on old-school synthpop influences in a brazen, “yeah, it’s plinky synths, what’re you lookin at?!” confidence that has breathed new life into the genre by, ironically pulling from the past. But Maison Vague makes these bands and many more just like them look like cutting edge techno wizards. Synthpop’s Alive doesn’t just sound inspired by the golden age of electronic music, this album could have actually been released during that era. If you had told us this album was actually recorded in 1982 we wouldn’t have batted an eye. Stiefel has captured not just the sound, but an aura, right down to the cheesy-dated lyrics, the lo-fi production, the robotic Numan-esque vocal delivery. There are tracks from this album that sound like they could have easily been lifted from Silicon Teens’ 1979 masterpiece Music for Parties. One can almost hear the vinyl creaks and pops as it spins on the imaginary old-fashioned turntable on which Softsynth first listened to Numan or Soft Cell.

At first this felt a little grating. Despite our fondness-bordering-on-obsession for the sound of that era, an entire album of new material masquerading as a record of that vintage felt a little tiresome after a full listen, but damn if it didn’t infect the Softsynth playlist. These songs stuck and while there is a disposable quality to them (as befits the era it calls back to), before long we couldn’t get enough of them. It began to feel like a giddy, back-in-time experience that was utterly pleasant. And then once the novelty of the sound wore off we began to discover how clever the album stands on its own. The layered sounds of “Living on ice Cream” with a sinister string synth that sounds like old OMD; the clever, surprisingly dark lyrics in “Buried in Sandstone” which, we swear could have found a home on The Pleasure Principle back in the day – it’s more Numan than Numan ever was; the silly, poppy “Pixelated Lover” that brings modern lyrical themes to a track that sounds like every song we heard on top 40 radio in 1983; to the enduring title track that’s still weird as all hell lyrically and thematically but provides the thesis for this entire project, the very raison d’être for this album and does so brilliantly – brilliantly – with track that shows off Steifel’s virtuoso electronic chops.

It’s a terrific, blast of an album that constantly surprises and while it’s difficult to see what the second act is here (Maison Vague brings back the pipe-banging industrial feel of old Nitzer Ebb?), we’ve found a damn special album that makes us remember the heart of why we love this genre of music so much.

Watch: Synthpop’s Alive

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2 Responses to “Review: Maison Vague – Synthpop’s Alive”

  1. This is a great fun album, full of hooks and human….synthpop really is alive 🙂

  2. So far I’ve played Synthpop’s Alive numerous times while DJing and No Show once so far. I plan on playing many more tracks from this album in the future – it slips in along side 80s synth seamlessly to the point people almost recognise it and are gob smacked when you tell them its something new.

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