To think I almost overlooked a seriously dark, moody and retro-cool album for no other reason than its deceptively innocent cover art, depicting a vintage computer generating a sound wave form. The sonic predator lurking behind that quaint image is Agent Side Grinder, a Swedish gothic electro-rock unit specializing in analog instruments and a spooky post-punk sensibility. Citing bands like Kraftwerk, Einstürzende Neubaten and early Depeche Mode as their primary influences (I hear Joy Division and Cabaret Voltaire in there too), this team captures the cold, shadowy mood of early '80s gothic rock and synthpop, but adds more tension through deceptively basic song structures that evolve slowly and methodically to create a hypnotic effect, topped off with a menacing lyrical delivery by vocalist Kristoffer Grip.
It's not for all tastes, but if you like your electro dark and brooding with a distinct '80s vibe, this band may steal your soul... well, they nabbed mine pretty damn quick, enticing me to sample their earlier works as well. Hardware is the band's third official full-length release, and its recent North American debut is accompanied by the new bonus album SFTWR, comprised of remixes by over a dozen artists. This double-album finds the band at a creative crossroads, distancing themselves from the harder-edged industrial/EBM vibe of their self-titled 2008 debut and incorporating many of the gothic rock elements of their follow-up release Irish Recording Tape, as well as the more free-form experimentation of Transatlantic Tape Project (a cool collaboration with US musicians) and surprisingly pop-leaning melodies picked up along the way.
Though staying within an '80s-style framework, the tracks on Hardware do manage to cover a wide range of styles: the clicking, thumping beats of the opening cuts "Look Within" (which most clearly spots the influence of Depeche Mode, particularly frontman Dave Gahan) and "Sleeping Fury.” The darkly romantic melodies of "Rip Me” and the roughly passionate "Wolf Hour" (featuring guest vocalist Henric de la Cour on the choruses) demonstrate their skillful handling of simple but effective pop hooks, but their darker shades come through in the moody pulses and chant-like vocals of "Mag 7" and the clanging factory metallics and smoking bass guitar of "Pyre." A distinct late-'80s techno groove drives "Bring It Back," in the mode of bands like Front 242 or Nitzer Ebb, and the warm bass and analog rhythms of "Stranger Stranger" close out the album with a dose of sweet lo-fi minimalism.
SFTWR tosses the old-school base ingredients of those tracks into a blender of modern EDM, industrial and retro-style experimentation, thanks to guest artists like Red Idiot (whose chilling, stripped-down remix of “Wolf Hour” accompanies the video below), /MF/MB and Blackstrap. Among this collection, my faves are a gritty, noise-infused spin on "Look Within” by Du Pacque, the cosmic wall-of-sound instrumental "010-195,” Styx Tiger's strangely beautiful and organic cover of "String Strikes” (from Agent's compilation album Industrial Beauty), and this earth-shaking hypnotic remix of "Life In Advance” (from Irish Recording Tape) by Jacques C:
While Hardware/SFTWR is the band's slickest-sounding material to date and much more accessible to mainstream ears than their more experimental beginnings, it's still an incredibly dark and ominous creation and worth checking out for fans of early era electro-industrial, synth & bass-driven gothic rock and post-punk... and the dark vintage groove would also serve as a worthy soundtrack to a moody, neon-lit '80s thriller; this spooky video for Red Idiot's remix of “Wolf Hour” is case in point.