Just as the name ‘Covenant’ evokes that Biblical pact of ancient times, so too did the title of the Swedish electro-titans’ 2013 album Leaving Babylon suggest the closure of a thematic circle for a band who’ve been a consistent presence on dark dancefloors since the early nineties. Already masters of twitching, EBM-influenced synth-pop which clanks, burbles, and stomps so effectively that, perhaps, it was time for a surprise, a break from fate was necessary. Whereas Leaving Babylon reliably filled floors by flexing that ample 4/4 sci-fi muscle, The Blinding Dark watches from the side, maybe tapping its foot but otherwise resisting the euphoria of others; the odd one at the club, present but somehow distant.
While Covenant have always confidently worked their way around a melody and powerful chorus, pulsing back-beats were a frequent feature and winding, kaleidoscopic electronica their constant companion. This release is distinct in its minimalism, its icy reserve, and playing with more complex shades of musical light than simply hefting rhythm and chords (however competent) together. Gone are the luminous filigree of previous releases, and in their place are a menacing simplicity, distant wisps of mechanical noise, synthetic wind, and mist-thin synths which hang rather than blare. A choir here, a smoke-like texture there, The Blinding Dark does much with little as its most effective moments are those which give breathing space to the ideas—which, in themselves, are nothing revolutionary or ground-breaking—but in Covenant’s hands, the effect is refreshing. Just as early synth-pop luminaries Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (arguably forefathers of so much that would become futurepop et al) blended postmodern mechanisation with keening, one-finger melodies that evoked a special kind of niche melancholy not even Kraftwerk had achieved, so Simonsson & company resort to a stark palette of airily woven textures and direct musical figures to achieve their brooding goal.
As an interesting centerpiece—perhaps echoing 2013’s ‘I Walk Slow’ which utilised sombre guitar dappled with digital croaks and writhing noise to some interesting (if limited) results—a cover of Lee Hazelwood’s ‘Rider on a White Horse’ is a duet with neofolk vocalist Erica Li Lundqvist (of Down in June fame). Arguably the album’s main aesthetic strength, the guitar arrangement (also in collaboration with Lundqvist) is loose and doom-laden enough to provide ample contrast to the rest of the album’s cool rigidity. The track’s opening, in keeping with the overall stripped-back concept, is pregnant with gloom, making the most of simple stuttered vocal effects which rend phrases of Lundqvist’s into ghostly apparitions which struggle against the fabric of the composition. Elsewhere, textures and electronics creak and haunt the peripheries so effectively as to create an impressive tension between the brightness of the dual-vocal melody. Inevitably, many die-hard Covenant fans may balk at such a swerve, but ultimately it’s the album’s most successful track and a wise move for the group in shrugging off baggage (that it’s a cover imbues it with a sort of special experimental status not afforded to originals). Hazelwood’s original, again Biblical in reference, takes the band’s scriptural concept further by evoking the Book of Revelation, leaping from captivity to end times.
Probably the most conventionally ‘Covenant’ track, ‘Sound Mirrors’, has been bothering dancefloors already this year. It’s a track most closely wedded to the formula of old—4/4 beats and pop-EBM synth—but something is awry: the beat, when it arrives, doesn’t crush and command in the same way the gothic trance of their nineties work would. Again, it harks back to the basement honesty of artier synth-pop, perhaps even that of Simple Minds’ earlier triumphs (New Gold Dream may be a good precursor to this album, incredibly, though sans that album’s funky white-boy oddness). This directness means that while the Swedes have amassed a decent knowledge of dance music theory over the years, enabling their tracks to maximise the impact of rhythmic and melodic elements by harnessing that push-pull, tension-release mechanic which keeps crowds moving, here they just don’t need it. Had ‘Sound Mirrors’ been a more attention-grabbing, dynamic beast, then some of The Blinding Dark’s coherence would be sacrificed, an atmosphere-shattering light being flicked on providing—yes—illumination, but at the price of subtlety.
One obvious strength not wisely held back is the group’s songwriting, which is continuously memorable, effective, and evocative. Highlight ‘I Close My Eyes’, featuring the album’s sprightliest synthline, again confounding their past with a hollowed and brittle rhythm that avoids over-seasoning the dish. Simonsson’s vocals, granted breathing space, draw focus to his neat way with a couplet and fluttering imagery which, taken together, deliver easily the album’s catchiest moment despite perhaps being initially slightly underwhelming. This is a greater trick than simply overloading our senses.
Impressively avoiding clumsy missteps, Covenant also manages to straddle that line between convention and innovation on which we inevitably (however subconsciously) judge new works. Business as usual? No. Is it then a radical reworking of Covenant’s established foundations? No—nor did it need to be. Instead of reaching for the glittery new, a far graver move, they have instead reached wisely back and out in a way which avoids accusations of unimaginative ‘retro-ism’; the landscape and legacy of electronic pop that they have had a huge hand in over the last quarter-century is theirs to explore freely and, on The Blinding Dark, Covenant do so confidently. It may not be the mass conversion hinted at, but for those put off by day-glo synth leads and rhythmic pounding, there may just be something to love in this smouldering, dark-pop gem.
02) I Close My Eyes
03) Morning Star
04) Cold Reading
05) A Rider on a White Horse
07) Dies Irae
08) Sound Mirrors (Fulwell)
10) If I Give My Soul
11) Summon Your Spirit