March 25, 2017 | Los Angeles, CA | UNION
Written by Nicholas Diak | Photography by Michele Brittany
L.A.’s UNION club on Pico Blvd was once again transformed into the mythical tech-noir night club as three acts heavily associated with the synthwave scene took the stage and resurrected all things 80s and horror-themed. This was the third event coordinated by Floorplan Productions (the second was the GosT/Perturbator show documented by HH here), and the headlining act was foundational synthwave artist Carpenter Brut, with local acts Vogel and Dance with the Dead as openers.
As with the GosT/Perturbator concert, admittance into the UNION was immaculately ran. Folks queued outside, getting wristbands and ID-checks before guaranteed entry when the doors opened, attendees flowed in seamlessly. Upstairs in the neon-lit loft bar area, all three bands had tables set up to sell their merchandise. Dance with the Dead did not have any music for sale, only t-shirts and stickers. Vogel had both CDs and cassette versions of his Hologram EP which also came with digital download codes. Carpenter Brut was stocked with a plethora of t-shirts including a tour design, the Trilogy 3CD digipak and even autographed drum pads.
All three acts performed in the upstairs disco area, and all equipment was present on stage and ready to go. Since everything was set up, the amount of time that elapsed between each performance was kept at a minimum, which was extremely welcomed. However, this did have one negative side effect for opening act Vogel, who was set up on stage-right: due to the gear of Dance with the Dead and Carpenter Brut already taking up real estate, Vogel was obscured to the stage-left audience.
Vogel is the one-man project of Robert Vogel, a Los Angeles-based synthwave project. He took the stage at 9:40 and played until 10:20, performing the entirety of his catalog. Though a shorter set, it was certainly an energetic one, with Vogel inviting the audience to clap along with his songs, stating his appreciation and generally being engaged with the audience. Vogel’s particular brand of synthwave was less soundtrack/videogame sounding and more along the lines of electronic-avant-garde with a hint of haute culture and cyberpunk. Rhythmic and catchy, but also sans vocals.
Though Vogel was obfuscated by onstage equipment, his projected art and videos were not. A frequent element of live electronic artists, the projected screen compliments performers by either playing their own music videos in tandem with their songs, providing complimentary narrative, or by having abstract images to underscore some of the more emotive elements of a performance. Vogel made use of repeating and looping images that looked to be a mixture of 90s cyberpunk and 80s haute culture with a splash of new age sentiments: Helmut Newton-esque women with emphasis on their lips, vector graphics, solar systems, Greco-Roman statues, VCR static effects, and the Vogel logo (along with an abundance of triangles and Vs). Vogel explains the repeating usage of triangular shapes in his video work as being “Obsessed with geometry, and I do think my attraction to triangles and pyramids is partially from the V in my name, but mostly from the mathematics around triangles (tetrahedron, etc.) and their visual appeal and significance overall.” A man of mixed talents, Vogel also created these visual elements of the show himself: “Video production, design, 3D are all professional ‘hobbies’ of mine, and I love making videos to go with my music.”
Synthwave has a strong emphasis on horror elements, as is evidenced by the other two bands that Vogel shared the stage with, but Vogel stands out in his sound and imagery by eschewing horror-centric themes. For Vogel, “I think my music is maybe less genre-laser-focused than a lot of stuff in this realm. I started writing retro-inspired music around 2009, and have always drawn from a larger pool of influences without sticking to the confines of what synthwave/outrun ‘should’ be, if that makes sense. Some of the tracks on Hologram are pretty old at this point (I wrote ‘Night City’ in 2011) but they still hold up, and I think that’s because I do draw on those wider influences that don’t expire as fast as some genres-of-the-moment. When this retro-wave stuff began forming in the late 2000s, the strong horror/action-movie element wasn’t a part of it yet. A lot of it was psychedelic, very cyberpunk, much of it was quite a bit slow (i.e. early Com Truise). It had more in common with vaporwave and electro house than Miami Vice. I’m definitely influenced by a lot of 1980s stuff like OMNI magazine, early computer tech, the ’80s Art Deco revival (interiors/patterns/sculpture). A lot of what I’m preparing for my next EP has the familiar sound with some new elements. In general I’d say that I never want to get formulaic, I’ll always incorporate elements from other styles and inspirations into my work.”
Reflecting on his performance and what he wanted to accomplish, Vogel mentioned, “I’ve played a number of shows the past year, but this was the first one that was squarely in the perfect genre/lineup/setting/audience so I was pumped. It was such an amazing audience. My primary goal was to just give people a good show, entertain them, and make them dance! And hopefully convey a little bit of that bigger concept [not being confined to the outrun mold].”
While Dance with the Dead and Carpenter Brut would bring the horror and grindhouse elements to the night’s activities, it could easily be said that Vogel brought the high-class element, and was the perfect opening act.
01.) Night City
04.) Different Skin
05.) Hologram II
Dance with the Dead
After an extremely short intermission while the onstage gear was adjusted, Dance with the Dead took the stage at 10:30 with Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna” heralding their arrival. The duo, made up of Justin Pointer and Tony Kim, are local to the area by way of Irvine. Dance with the Dead is not a synthwave band per se, however their subject matter of 70s and 80s horror and heavy usage of electronic music combined with their metal-licks have made them fans of the genre. Their metal elements were akin to the “Nintendocore” genre of videogame music, recalling a more beefed-up Minibosses or Metroid Metal sound. It’s this particular guitar usage which certainly makes Dance with the Dead stand out. Justin Pointer (one of the founding members), comments in regards to their horror elements and string addition, “I definitely think that our sound with the guitar usage sets us apart from a lot of other groups in the same genre. As far as our imagery, we just like to create things in our head and see what kind of ideas and designs we can come up with. We just love horror and sci-fi, so we try to portray that in our art.”
Throughout the night, Pointer and Kim were definitely the most energetic and animated of the three bands. Each song was a different configuration: perhaps both musicians would be on guitar, perhaps both would be on electronics, perhaps one was on guitar while the other on electronics, and so on. Both Pointer and Kim went to great lengths to engage with the audience, taking photos of the crowd, giving them handshakes and high-fives, and encouraging folks to clap to their songs, particularly to their version of Queen’s “We Will Rock You”.
One element that Dance with the Dead didn’t have that Vogel and Carpenter Brut did was a screen projection of videos and art. Per Pointe, “We would love to use visuals and a whole lot of other stage theatrics, but right now we’re still trying to figure things out for a great live show. We do a lot of shows that are fly outs so we need to keep the equipment to a minimum for travel purposes.” The lack of video projection was in no way a determent to Dance with the Dead’s performance, as their high energy engagement, and ever-shifting play styles added the necessary theatrics. Dance with the Dead played a meaty set until 11:20, and really got the audience even more pumped for the final act. For Pointer, “We just wanted to make sure we put on a great show for everyone!” and they certainly did. After their performance, the stage began to clear for Carpenter Brut, and at this time and for the rest of the evening, both Pointer, Kim and even Vogel could be found back in the loft area, engaging with fans, signing artifacts and being quite gregarious and approachable with everyone.
Dance with the Dead Set List:
00.) O Fortuna (Carl Orff)
01.) Get out
02.) Eyes of Madness
05.) The man who made a monster
07.) Screams and Whispers
09.) We Will Rock You Remix (Queen)
11.) Watching you
12.) Master of Puppets Remix (Metallica)
After a quick setup and sound check, Carpenter Brut took the stage at 11:40. By this time, the disco area was packed to capacity – there would be no room for dancing, only standing in place and rocking out, or making one’s way to the loft or circle bar to enjoy the concert from a distance while having a drink. Carpenter Brut’s studio incarnation is fundamentally different than Carpenter Brut live – in that rather than performing solo, there is the addition of a guitarist and drummer. This ensures that every live performance is unique.
The band opened with “Escape from Midwitch Valley” which naturally has a nice, slow build-up, as if reading the opening sequence for a horror-themed video game. The video projections were back out for Carpenter Brut’s set, and the visuals were all grindhouse related, heavily tinted via orange filters to give them an aged, gritty look. The stage lights were also tuned to emphasize reds and whites. Watching Carpenter Brut is almost like watching silent films back in their day: a black and white movie being played with live accompanying music – usually a pianist, but sometimes in bigger venues there would be an orchestra. For Carpenter Brut, each one of their videos seemed like a mini-movie, or perhaps more specifically, a faux-grindhouse trailer like those that came into common currency after Robert Rodriguez’s/Quentin Taratino’s Grindhouse double feature (Planet Terror and Death Proof). Instead of an orchestral pit providing the soundtrack, there was a three-piece horror-synth outfit providing lurid beats. The effect was quite brilliant as the audience’s attention was constantly being challenged: watch the videos, watch the band and dance, or try to do both.
In regards to Carpenter Brut’s videos, they are also different from their music videos posted online. Their iconic video for “Turbo Killer” is NOT the same one that is being played during their live performance for example, giving audience members a surprise. Their ending song, a cover of Michael Sambello’s song “Maniac” reaches back to the 80s segment of synthwave music, with images of palm trees, old block cellular phones, guns, and Baphomet, no doubt drawing upon the video game Hotline Miami 2, which Carpenter Brut contributed to the soundtrack. Seeing a guitar/synthwave driven remake of an early 80s new wave/dance song with Satanic imagery added to it is probably the most unique, if not bizarre and amazing covers out there.
Carpenter Brut played almost the entirety of their Trilogy set, along with songs released on other sources and compilations, giving a long and captivating performance late into the night.
Carpenter Brut Setlist
01.) Escape from Midwitch Valley
02.) Division Ruine
03.) Roller Mobster
04.) Meet Matt Stryker
05.) Wake Up the President
06.) Chew Bubblegum and Kick Ass
07.) Turbo Killer
08.) Paradise Warfare
09.) Run, Sally, Run!
10.) Looking for Tracy Tzu
11.) Anarchy Road
12.) The Good Old Call
13.) Disco Zombi Italia
14.) SexKiller on the Loose
15.) Le Perv
16.) Hang’Em All