1981, Music

Penthouse and Pavement (1981) by Heaven 17

This is on the funkier, more organic side of British synthpop in part because of the instrumentation but also because of the songwriting. As such, it almost feels somewhere on the spectrum between synthpop and post punk, even though the attitude of this band is very much not something you would associate with post punk (at least on a majority of tracks).

Though the music is dominating by synthesizers and sequenced percussion, the album has far more organic instruments than you might expect for a synthpop band of this era. There’s piano, there’s a bass guitar on half the album, there’s guitar, there are real horns (in addition to the fake ones) and tons of backing vocals – and those instruments serve to connect the record to the R&B that has inspired it. Some synthpop (especially in the early ’80s) feels closer to Krautrock than R&B and that is definitely not the case here.

The songs are okay – there are only one or two that really stick with you but for me the issue with synthpop is almost always in the instrumentation not the songwriting. (Often the songwriting can be decent but I get annoyed by the instrumentation.) This album feels like it was made by a band (albeit one without a drummer) and so I find it much easier to enjoy the songs, even though I don’t think they’re a particularly great set. They work well enough.

There’s a stylistic diversity here that I didn’t really expect. I appreciate people who are willing to try different things within in a restrictive genre like this. And there are a few deviations, certainly more than I would expect from former Human League members.

The production is hilariously dated, of course, as most if not all synthpop of the era is. But the enthusiasm of the performances sort of makes up for it – you can forgive them for the terrible drum machine sound given that they all sound like they are having a good time. (Also, I think there are some organic percussion instruments over-dubbed on some tracks, that sometimes help with how bad that drum machine sounds.

Pretty good for what it is.


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