Taking in the reaction from the crowd attending The Faint’s show at the 9:30 Club Saturday night, it’s clear that I’m amidst a pack of longtime fans.
While the band’s video for “Agenda Suicide” was on my playlist at some point way back, I am otherwise rather pathetically uninitiated with their extensive catalog. It’s evident that the band richly deserves the enthusiastic fan base that surrounds me, though. They let it be known that they have been paying attention for the preceding seventeen years.
The energy is high from the opening of their set, “Southern Bells in London Sing” from 2004’s “Wet From Birth.” Visually intense from the outset, the band’s presentation is thankfully not ostentatious. Their look is simple and stylish. No spacesuits or spikes, but not all ironic T-shirts either (some of the hair is too long for synthpop, but hey — it’s a new era.) This attention to understated aesthetics carries into their tasteful onstage lighting effects as well, as neon colored beams cut through the haze from behind the images on the LED projection screens. A reluctance to veer into pretense appears to be a defining quality of the band, and it’s a plus.
The band is on the road promoting “Capsule 1999-2016,” a retrospective of their work over nearly two decades. Hence, most of the songs in tonight’s set are from this compilation. There are some exceptions, such as “Victim Convenience” and “Mental Radio,” which carry the set forward from the opener. “Your Retro Career Has Melted,” which shows up later in the set, is likewise not a part of the collection. Now, as a relatively uninitiated fan (and fandom has been secured at this point), this title gives me an opening to speculate on their influences. My retro soaked musical focus informs my reality in this regard, I have to confess.
Listen to “Capsule 1999-2016” by The Faint on Spotify:
The Faint are described in places as synthpop, although I think ‘hard electro’ is more appropriate. I’m hearing Numan-esque riffs, most notably on their new single “Young & Realistic” (inescapably reminiscent of “Cars” in the best possible fashion). Also bubbling through were hints of Heaven 17, Kim Wilde, Berlin, Elastica, and Ultravox. Vocalist Todd Fink’s style reminds me of John Foxx the most, with an ear towards Pete Shelly and The Normal. I’d probably be more inclined to make comparisons to Depeche Mode, but Fink’s stylistic diversions make that unfair.
The rhythms are different too. Drummer Clark Baeshle does an amazing job melding into the electronic rhythms (I’ve heard too many who haven’t done so as effectively). It strikes me how much their rhythms recall the 70’s glam sound. This was an obvious call for bands back in the 80’s, both punk and synthpop, as David Bowie and the glam sound still cast a long shadow into that decade. It really shouldn’t ever go away. There are definite organic grooves here, and that saves the band from being compared to likes of The Prodigy or Crystal Method.
Dapose (Michael Dappen) alternates between electric guitar and bass, sometimes sounding like both at the same time (the harmonizer-processed bass on “Posed to Death” for example.) Keyboardist Jacob Thiele rounds out the ensemble, trading licks and arpeggios with Fink throughout the set. As it is an area of particular interest for me, I’m noting the emphasis on simple electronic timbres at the core of the electronic instrumentation. Squares and sawtooths, filter sweeps, and very little in the way of the glistening wavetable pads that dominated the electronic sound of the 90’s. This underscores their aversion to pretension while enhancing the rawness of their sound.
Cuts like “Agenda Suicide,” “Evil Voices,” and the exceptional “Damage Control” validate this approach. There’s a notable lack of reliance on sampled sounds as well, the exception being the string parts that accent the opening song, as well as “Desperate Guys” later in the set. Oh, and the vocoded vocals on “The Conductor” are very much appreciated (also tough to pull off live.) Best of all, though, their sonic approach is used to underscore actual SONGS, any of which could stand apart from their production methods.
That they manage to perfect this aggressive sonic brew without taking themselves too seriously is their biggest victory. I have a long history with industrial music fandom (although lately we’ve agreed to start seeing others), and as much as I love the genre, I’m glad to see a new(er) generation of electronically oriented projects escape from that era’s limitations. Bands like The Faint sidestep the genre’s regrettable homogenization while recalling the best of its progenitors (while still finding a place on the setlists of the industrial DJ’s I drink with.)
The 9:30 Club’s sound system never disappoints, and for reproducing the bands bottom heavy basslines, searing leads, and pounding percussion, it made the crowd shake. By the midpoint of the set, the audience was in rabid fist-pumping mode. I would have liked the vocals to cut through the mix more, but with such a dense sound this is understandably challenging. All around, though, real triumph of a show!
Parklife DC contributor Neal Keller is a professional sound engineer at Omega Studios as well as DJ of the long-running ’80s Dance Party at Tropicalia! For more on Neal, visit http://www.80sdanceparty.com.