Concert Review: Superhumanoids at Asheville’s Orange Peel, 20 Sept 2013

Doubtless you’ve heard the old saying, “If you remember the 60s, you weren’t there.” Well, for whatever reason – perhaps because it didn’t host the ascendancy of the baby boom during its decade – nobody says anything similar about the 1980s. I blame it on the fact that in the 60s, there were so many baby boomers that they (okay, we) were the majority in those days, so to some degree boomers got to write the history. By the 80s, the American population was starting to age, and the country was led (after a fashion) by an old, out-of-touch Hollywood actor whose idea of pop culture was Bob Hope and Yakov Smirnoff.

Anyway, plenty of influential pop culture stuff took place in the 80s. Some of it has worn well (though as I write this I’m hard-pressed to think of an example) and some of it – poofy hair, shoulder pads – not so much.

As far as music, “new wave” took hold over punk (which never really had a chance in the marketplace, and commercial success was antithetical to its very concept), and the Age of Synthesizers was upon us. True, synths had been around and in practical use for more than a decade, but the modular Moogs and ARPs were pretty well the domain of fusion acts and/or those with especially impressive chops or forward-looking technological approaches. Edgar Winter, Gary Wright, George Duke, Herbie Hancock, Jan Hammer, Keith Emerson…all artists most closely associated with the 1970s and the relatively bulky synthesizers of that decade.

But by the dawn of the 1980s, technology had developed to the point at which these machines were hacked down to a manageable size. Moreover, they were built using more stable circuitry, meaning that they did fancy things like stay in tune through a whole song. And with the advent of presets, a musician didn’t always have to have fifteen keyboards onstage; s/he could change the settings between numbers.

Some artists took full advantage of these innovations, and crafted music built around the synthetic textures. The best of these did something even more impressive: they introduced emotion and expression into the playing of these cold, unforgiving beasts; the results could be icily distant, melancholy, exciting, foreboding…the full range of human emotion could be expressed through them. If, that is, the artists had the capacity to write and arrange such music. But synths cut both ways: in the hands of lesser talents, the results could be bloodless, robotic. The ascendancy of the dreaded sequencer meant that a performer onstage could pre-program a melody, and when the song started, press a button and walk offstage (trust me: I did this in 1982).

Still, Gary Numan, The Human League, Depeche Mode…all of these and others were successful to varying measure at achieving the goal of bridging the gap between technology and emotion.

Like all trends, the Age of the Synthesizer gave way to other fashions, but as a component of rock and pop, the synthesizer never went away. Sampled sounds meant that now keyboard players could reproduce the sounds of other instruments onstage: now complicated arrangements that were previously studio-only could be played live. Yet as sampling took hold, the more “synthy” sounds fell out of favor; when they were sparingly used, it was often as a cursory nod to the past.

Which – with a few leaps convenient to this narrative – brings us to 2013. Superhumanoids are decidedly not old enough to remember the 80s, except perhaps as youngsters. The Los Angeles based group combines an unabashed fondness for those early-to-mid 80s synth tones with a focus on trance-y, dance-y pop. They combine the best of those two styles into something that’s clearly indebted to the past, yet firmly footed in the present.

Now, finding out much about this trio (plus a live drummer onstage) requires a measure of effort; their web site tells you nothing about them other than offering tour dates, video clips and links to Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud and such. Their Facebook page only tells you their first names. The point, I think, is to let the music do the talking. Onstage Max St. John handles keyboards, Cameron Parkins plays electric guitar, and Sarah Chernoff takes most of the lead vocals plus more synthesizers. Occasional lead vocalist (and frequent harmony vocalist) Parkins cuts an unlikely figure for a band so steeped in 80s synth culture; his close-cropped hair and longish beard give him a look more common to current indie and/or Americana bands. But his Fender Telecaster (with whammy) and arsenal of pedals plant him firmly in rock territory. That said, Parkins’ guitar work is more often given to providing texture – something that the two synth players are simultaneously delivering in spades – rather than laying down blistering lead solos.

The sound coming form the trio-plus drummer (and said drummer adds a lot in the way of moving Superhumanoids away from the cold end of the 80s synth spectrum) feels more like one big electronic organism (so to speak) than a collective of musicians; thanks in part to the dark draperies hiding the keyboards (and the elevated stage) the audience at Asheville’s Orange Peel didn’t see anything along the lines of fleet-fingered keyboard soloing. Combined with Parson’s atmospheric approach, it was near impossible to tell who onstage was making what sound.

And, one suspects, that’s just how Superhumanoids like it. While they performed songs from their debut album Exhibitionists, they didn’t overtly interact with the audience in any over way, beyond a few pleasantries and heartfelt thanks. They were there to play their songs. Chernoff’s clear vocals were slightly lost among the high-volume bass bombs (for which she may or may not have been responsible; see above); listeners unfamiliar with the lyrics of ear candy like “Too Young For Love” would have to be content to enjoy her lead vocal as another textural element along with the even-more-80sish-than-usual 80s synth sounds. Whether or not the crowd was familiar with “So Strange” will remain unknown; what’s clear is that they dug its infectious, upbeat melody as delivered this night.

And the audience – in attendance to see the night’s headliner, the always reliable Mayer Hawthorne – reacted enthusiastically. Asheville audiences have a well-deserved reputation for giving love to opening acts, but the reaction this night went well beyond any polite applause. Should Superhumanoids follow up with another album and a headlining tour, they will likely be well received in Asheville.

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