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One of these days, Dan Boeckner will settle down. For now, he’s content to be known as a collaborator, working with some of the best in music – Spencer Krug, Arlen Thompson, and Dante DeCaro as the reunited Wolf Parade; Alexei Perry on Handsome Furs; and together with Spoon frontman Britt Daniels and Sam Brown as the Divine Fits. This time around, he’s teamed up with talented synth-pop artist Devojka, a sensation in California and in Europe, Fits drummer Sam Brown, and Dustin Hawthorne formerly of Hot Hot Heat to form Operators. Unlike his previous bands, however, Boeckner is the principal songwriter and the undisputed frontman, providing him with the freedom to try something a little bit – create a dance-oriented album that would appeal to everyone and not just a select crowd.
It’s not EDM that Boeckner envisioned, but the synth aesthetics of the late ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. As such, no computers were used to create sound, but rather analogue synthesizers drive the music and complemented by guitars, bass, and drums. Operators’ EP1 gave us a taste of what was to come – an album that had an undeniable New Order and krautwerk vibe. Eighteen months later, they have returned with their debut full-length, Blue Wave, which takes the foundation established on EP1 and takes it up another level.
Musically, the album isn’t shifting the music landscape by sharing something new and inventive. Instead, it’s a re-imagination of the music with which many people grew up. In this respect, this is where the genius of Boeckner, Devojka, and Brown shines – taking a classical approach and making it sound fresh and bringing back into the light the greatness of what Joy Division, New Order, Pet Shop Boys, early Depeche Mode, and Devo created three decades ago. It is not ironic, as such, for the album’s lead track to be titled “Rome” to signify the rise of a forgotten empire or that the second song, “Control”, would pay homage to Joy Division’s “She Lost Control” and the 2007 movie of the same name (Control that is) about Ian Curtis. Both tracks drip of the Manchester music scene of the mid- to late-’70s, music that was gritty and edgy yet scintillating and physically stimulating.
Mirroring the evolution of synth-music, “Cold Light”, the album’s anchor and anthem, follows. A track that will have people rocking for weeks, months to come, “Cold Light” is New Order-esque, from the synth build up to the superb, off-the-hook bass line that would make Peter Hook immensely proud (pun intended). It also represents the song that sees Boeckner transform himself, where he sets aside the guitar for an analogue synthesizer, an instrument he has long wanted to master (more in a forthcoming interview with Operators).
On “Mission Creep” and “Blue Wave”, Operators move into more contemporary soundscapes – two songs that verge on reaching cosmic levels before easing back into grittier terrain. The rock approach is further heightened on “Shape of Things”, which comes close to post-punk-pop territory, and “Evil”, the most guitar-driven, rock tune on the album and one that recalls some of Boeckner’s earlier work with Atlas Strategic and Wolf Parade. “Nobody”, likewise, sees Boeckner do what he does best – put together an infectious guitar hook. The song, itself, is funk-infused ballad that feels like 1999 and Purple Rain-era Prince, another musician who quietly took up and perfected the synthesizer (among many instruments).
Blue Wave may seem like a compendium of the history of synth music, but listen closely and Boeckner’s entire musical history can be heard. From Atlas Strategic to Wolf Parade, from Handsome Furs to Divine Fits, each song contains a piece of Boeckner’s past bands. Whether that was intentional or not – to infuse his own stories into that of the broader history of contemporary music – is unknown, but the combination is clever and works splendidly. While the sounds are familiar, Blue Wave is an album that Boeckner, Devojka, Brown, and Hawthorne can unabashedly call their own and one that sees them carving out their own little bit of music history.
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