The Darker Side of Pop

It's no surprise we in the FEARnet music catacombs tend to keep the focus on the darker shades of the sonic spectrum, 'cause that's basically how we roll. But does that mean that typically less macabre musical genres are just destined to be left out? Maybe. But even if that turns out to be true, we certainly haven't found a category of music yet that doesn't have a spooky side somewhere. You just have to know where to look...

Take Pop, for instance. It's a loose term, sure, but when most people hear it they think catchy, radio-friendly hooks, hit singles and MTV. The idea of an artist in this field specializing in darker sounds, sinister, moody lyrics and themes, or a disturbingly off-kilter stage image probably wouldn't enter the picture. So I took on the challenge of rounding up a trio of pop bands that play by a slightly different set of rules... just how we like it around here.

Canadian power-pop unit The Birthday Massacre crept into the dark recesses of my heart back in 2004 with Violet, introducing me to their refreshing blend of '80s synth twinkles and down-tuned slabs of industrial-era guitar, with perky singer Chibi's girlishly playful vocals perched on top like a candied cherry. Their lyrics were all about dark fairylands, haunted lovers and not-so-innocent children at play, and turned the gloomy ?goth? image on its ear with their get-on-your-feet, danceworthy melodies. There was a raw edge to them, a youthful and sincere imperfection that breathed new life into the usual bland MTV nonsense.

With their 2007 release Walking With Strangers, I sensed something had gone slightly astray. On a few of the more up-tempo tracks, their sound came across as overly polished, with Chibi's vocals too high, pure and clean. Maybe this was their intention all along, but to me it felt over-produced and less unique than I remember. Their familiar sound was still there ? guitars, synths and all ? but the production felt too studio-bound, less instinctive. Still, it was overall a strong collection of songs, with hooks aplenty and the same impishly playful energy.

Comprised mostly of remixes of select tracks from that album, the 9-track EP Looking Glass is basically a light snack between courses, something to entice the fans as the band embarks on their US tour with electro-punkers Mindless Self Indulgence. If Strangers was your cup of tea, then you'll be quite satisfied with this new dish of musical treats.

The title track is identical to the cut from the full album, and understandably it's one of the most single-worthy (although my personal favorite was ?Kill the Lights?)... it's full of big, bouncy down-tuned riffs and a fat bottom-end, plus the usual 80s-style crystal synth lead and sparkling arpeggios. As I mentioned before, Chibi's voice here seems to have lost some of its warm character, hammered through over-production into more typical pop-tart fare, which is a shame really. That warmth is still intact on other album tracks like the sublime ?Movie,? but it's missing from this one.

Remixes of ?Falling Down,? ?Red Stars? and ?Weekend? bring more sequenced electronics and dance beats into the mix, which are surprisingly well-suited to the already dance-friendly vibe of these songs. Among these, the ?Space Lab? mix of ?Red Stars? is the standout ? a Sci-Fi ambiance of filtered, glitchy loops and eerie cosmic effects. The brief but potent ambient instrumental bridge ?Nowhere? takes me back to the mood-evoking passages interspersed through Violet, and the haunting instrumental version of ?Holiday? originally featured on the band's website.

Then there's a new cover of ?I Think We're Alone Now,? which is in my view an unfortunate choice. Although this title was originally recorded by Tommy James and the Shondells back in 1967, most of my generation probably remember cowering in horror as the tune was being cooed by mall-pop teen star Tiffany 20 years later (also playing relentlessly on MTV), and frankly that's all I could think of ? despite their attempt at recapturing the childlike innocence of the band's earlier cover of ?The Neverending Story,? which was actually kind of cute. Not so this time around... I'd always thought of TBM as more than just Hot Topic fashion-plate material, but this song certainly isn't going to help them shake that association.

Despite the inclusion of this track, Looking Glass is a fun entry in the band's catalog, offering some unique variations on their trademark sound, through which their appealing melodies shine through. But seriously, I'd skip right over that last song if I were you.

From here let's head Down Under and pay a visit to City, the new EP from Australia's wildly offbeat electro-dance outfit Snog. This release is built around a track from their 2007 album The Last Days of Rome... a song that, to my ears, seemed the most atypical in their catalog to date. At first I was a bit taken aback, given the years of bitingly satirical, socially provocative and sonically slamming works that came before it: City is... well, pretty.

But then I explored deeper, to find a lot more colors in this artist's palette, including an entire CD of suave chill-out tunes called Beyond the Valley of the Proles, which sounded like Ennio Morricone on goofballs. Maybe I was being too hasty ? Snog's softer side can be almost tearfully beautiful. City is one such effort, and an excellent showcase for the deep, velvety, Lloyd Cole-ish timbre of band mastermind David Thrussell. Who know the creator of songs like ?Planet of S**t? could writer such tender and soulful ballads? Color me stunned.

On this lengthy EP, we get a whopping total of four versions of the title track: the album cut, a slightly shorter radio edit, a bouncy dance mix, and a stripped-down acoustic guitar rendition with slightly different vocals. Of these, I'm still partial to the album version, with its warm string swells synched to mellow vocoder choruses, underpinning Thrussell's moving vocals. Even the dance version is emotionally pure, with its plaintive synth tremolo drifting between sung passages.

But don't think for a second that Snog's ditched their heavy electro roots... the additional tracks on City will shake that idea right out of you. The participation of dubstep virtuoso Monster Zoku Onsomb is case in point. With a vocal delivery that hints at some of The Residents' later work, ?Keep A Truckin'? sounds like an invasion of leering lounge aliens with expensive shoes, and ?Social Disease? works hard to make you understand why its anti-hero is shunned by society ? he sounds like he's trying to grope your ass with his voice.

Rounding out the collection are some less creatively interesting but still entertaining tracks, including two remixes of ?Lost at Sea,? which sound colder and more robotic but are still full of manic energy; ?License? is a more straightforward rock number, full of swaggering attitude, and ?All Hail? is... just weird. As you can probably imagine there's lots of variety here for a mere EP, so there's sure to be something for everyone. Well, Maybe.

To cleanse the palate a bit, let's shift into a kinder, gentler kind of gloom with the serenely tragic Melodyguild ? the offspring of premier dream-pop band Love Spirals Downwards. Back in the days before ?Alternative? was just another convenient industry label, Spirals helped establish the ?dream pop? niche ? along with groups like Cocteau Twins, My Bloody Valentine, Claire Voyant and Black Tape for a Blue Girl ? out of ethereal, introspective music that was truly an alternative to the annoying dance-pop of the early to mid-90s. Founded by Ryan Lum with Suzanne Perry on vocals, the band released six albums to worldwide acclaim before dissolving the original lineup in 2002.

Lum continued to release material under the shortened band name Lovespirals with singer Anji Bee at the mic, while Perry began to plan new material under the Melodyguild moniker, with an assist from former Von Trapps members Matt Gleason, John West and Nicholas Pallos. After a long hiatus, the first fruits of that labor have arrived in the form of their forthcoming 4-track EP Aitu.

Like Perry's past work, these tracks are rich with feeling ? but the primary emotion at work here is one of wistful longing, a remembrance of things past. It's fitting really, because this music takes me back to a fine, brief era in independent music ? when the seemingly at-odds goals of catchy melodies and dark, haunting moods came together within an old-school rock format and created something bigger than the sum of its parts.

The soaring, floating sensation of opener ?Panamint? took me right back to this period with a wistful daydream sensation, but the tone lightens with ?Accomplice,? a more lightweight (though still lyrically melancholy) confection of reverb-heavy fingered acoustic playing from Gleason beneath Perry's cotton-candy voice. ?Flicker? is a lower-tempo ballad featuring some intricate, warm-toned bass work from West. But it's final cut ?Un Parallel? that proves the most compelling of the set, with a twangy acoustic/electric lead awash in phase-heavy swirling atmosphere and a hypnotic lyrical motif, all of which rises and falls in waves of trepidation, finally breaking into a huge and powerful overdriven riff that is both unsettling and hypnotic.

I'd like to think Aitu was just a preliminary taste of the darkly tinged chill-out music that this band is capable of ? but at 22 minutes, it's way too brief, and releases its hold just as I became swept up in its power. I'd like to imagine a full album is on Melodyguild's agenda, and I hope that day comes soon.

Even if we don't spend as much time exploring pop music on these pages as we would, say, music about Harley-riding zombies, don't think we won't come back to this territory when the need arises. Pop isn't necessarily the vast wasteland you've come to expect... you just have to look under a rock or two and see what's wriggling in the darkness below. Lurking under rocks is a favorite pastime of mine, so it's not a problem.

I'll see you there.