Someone once told me that all synth-pop music sounded the same. It is a statement that, at the time, I agreed with, as the genre became flooded with new bands and artists trying to become the next Phantogram, CHVRCHES, or Grimes. Over the past couple of years, the genre has witnessed two camps forming in an effort to move the genre forward. On one side are groups who have dialed up the effects and beats to create more more dance-oriented, verging on electronic numbers. The other faction consists of bands who are focused on minimizing the electronics while emphasizing melody and the story being told.
In the case of London-based duo Avec Sans, they have fallen into the latter camp. For Alice Fox and Jack St. James, the decision was a natural one – to create lavish music that matched their thoughtful and personal storytelling. Their approach resulted in them achieving immediate stardom over three years ago when they released the sizzling “Hold On”, which brought comparisons to early Phantogram. Since that first single, they have continued to transform themselves and their sound. This process is reflected in their stunning debut album, Heartbreak Hi.
While the album shares some similarities to contemporary synth-pop artists (there is a particularly strong connection to Ladyhawke), Heartbreak Hi is not only a synth-pop album but it is also a record that is resurrecting ’80s and early ’90s pop music. Like the music of that era, Avec Sans have crafted songs that are beautifully melodic and a touch dramatic to complement their stories of love and heartbreak. Further separating themselves from modern-day synth-pop (and even pop) musicians, they have embraced their experiences as oppose to lashing out on the individuals who broke their hearts and left them.
On “Resonate”, for example, over top St. James’ subtle and warm production work, Fox’s stirring voice recalls a moment will a former partner that will live long in her heart. There is no call for the ex-lover to be similarly victimized, but rather a surprising thank you for the two once shared. “All Of Time” comes closest to being a vengeful song, but the most menacing words Fox can say is that her ex will one day experience what she felt.
There are, of course, songs of longing for the one who has gone away. “Close My Ways” is stunning and whose heartbeat lies in St. James’ deft touches. “Even The Echoes” and “Heartbreak Hi” echo CHVRCHES but with an added ’80s, retrospective flair. The two songs best exhibit the chemistry between Fox and St. James, who together transform romantic ballads into shimmering affairs.
The big anthems are limited, which should be expected on an album that is introspective and retrospective in its foundation. “We Are”, however, is the one song that seeks to exhilarate with deep bass lines, a roaring chorus, and a quickened tempo. The track borders on Phantogram’s mid-career efforts, yet Avec Sans still maintain the lushness heard throughout the album. The song, as such, is euphoric yet captivating, arousing yet breathtaking. The approach complements the song’s optimism and hope. “We are going to make it” repeats Fox on the track, telling us that everything is all right.
The maturity that is heard throughout Heartbreak Hi may be the album’s most surprising element and what separates it from other synth-pop records. Consequently, the album has a soul that others lack. A soul that resides in each and everyone of us. A soul that reminds us to not succumb but to overcome, and Avec Sans have given us an album that is the anthem to our hearts.
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