Draws directly from musical history without wallowing too obviously in nostalgia.
When considering the analog synth revival, it’s easy to overlook the atmosphere the best of those bands created. For Modern Mirror, the latest release from Drab Majesty, the atmosphere pulses with an effective fusion of gothic angst and coldwave synths, deep and heavily reverbed vocals and immediately catchy guitar and keyboard riffs, all of which draw directly from musical history without wallowing, too obviously at least, in nostalgia as a gimmick.
The Drab Majesty sound, perfected now by their third album, is most typically a driving synth bass with a straight 4/4 drum beat, the trickery emerging in the hi-hat and percussion programming, the arpeggiated bass lines and, especially, in the reverbed guitars that chime over everything, echoing bands like Lowlife, Cactus World News and, especially, the Chameleons and middle-period Comsat Angels. Songs will have a brief instrumental introduction (a repeated guitar motif or synth arpeggio) before the drums and supporting elements leap in, joined after eight bars or so by vocals. Lyrics are present to support the mood, so there are no narratives, only suggestions of the kinds of feelings that makes songs such as these so perfect for the soundtracks to our lives.
“Oxytocin,” the first single from Modern Mirror serves as an ideal example of this. The lyrics frame the music so that the opening phrase “I’m in love again/ Of this make what you will/ I’m just looking for that thrill, tonight” is as emotionally deep as the song gets. Yet the careful arrangements and crisp production mean that the song is exactly as affecting or significant as a pop song should be. Perhaps, though, what sounds most modern about Drab Majesty is that Deb Demure and bandmate Mona D conjure a pleasing amount of bass out of an aesthetic that recalls the era that bass largely forgot—at least with regards those pop genres that leaned on the synth most heavily.
The use of reverb can lead everything to have a slightly ponderous feel, most obviously audible on “Noise of the Void,” a slower number whose pace suggests “Vienna”-period Ultravox, but whose “guitars over drum machine” arrangements refer to and update the earliest moments of electro-pop and bands like Minny Pops. Throughout Modern Mirror, Demure’s vocals are deep and pleasingly bassy, both authoritative and plaintive, like a slightly poppier Peter Murphy. Occasionally, the slight lyrics throughout the album occasionally lurch into clumsy and hurried rhymes, so that the chorus of “The Other Side” lets us know that “I’m over the act/ I couldn’t tempt you/ I numbed my brain/ As you unclogged the drain/ Now run it.” However those moments where rhyme takes precedence over meaning are easy to forgive because, as Demure sings them, everything sounds so enormously meaningful, washed with reverb and delay, synth flutes and woodwinds and those always-chiming guitars.
Much has been made of Drab Majesty’s visual style, a retro sci-fi, cis gender-disrupting look pulled directly from the cult movie Liquid Sky and late night public access television. But even without that, or any knowledge of the band’s history and interview references to quack UFO religions, Demure and D produce a deeply emotive, goth-inflected coldwave that manages to be emotionally engaging and serious about its musical objectives while never seeking greater significance than what it offers. Modern Mirror matches the fantasies (or memories) one might have of synth-pop and new wave from the ‘80s, and yet it sustains repeated listening while still sounding fresh.