Alien Skin - 'European Electronic Cinema'

Independent Spotlight is a continuing series on Stewart’s blog. The series revolves around independent artists and bands sending their music to Brett to review. No band is promised a positive review, and all music is reviewed honestly in an effort to better independent music.

In this evening’s edition of the Independent Spotlight we shine our gaze on Alien Skin, the moniker of the notably successful musician and songwriter, George Pappas. Prior to his solo work, Pappas was the keyboardist and co-songwriter for the Australian outfit Real Life. Their 1983 smash hit, ‘Send Me An Angel,’ is still a staple of radio playlists worldwide. In recent years, however, Pappas has embarked on a new sonic journey, and it’s a very fascinating one, too.

As Alien Skin, Pappas composes what he calls “songs and synthesizers” with “noir atmosphere, monochrome dreams, and experimental detours.” Surprisingly, his self-description is rather apt. His latest studio album, an effort entitled ‘European Electronic Cinema,’ is very much all of those peculiarities. It’s highly atmospheric, mysteriously eclectic, and highly experimental. Due out September 2, I have early access to the collection to review. Is it worth grabbing when it drops? For a certain audience, absolutely.

The introduction of the album, ‘June Is The Coldest Time,’ is an eclectic entity. It jam packs synthesizers and obscure lyricism together in a surprisingly elegant package. There aren’t just elements of electronic music at play. There’s a tinge of pop sensibility, a tiny bit of dance influence, and most certainly an avant garde appeal. ‘Terror Ist,’ for example, incorporates much heavier, thicker beats to explore a dance-esque soundscape.

As a vocalist, Pappas is quite suitable for these sort of tunes. He softly croons through each track with a bizarre, but enjoyable sense of oddity to his performance. If I was to draw comparisons, I’d argue Pappas’ Alien Skin is akin to perhaps the later, more contemporary work of John Cale. (Or even Laurie Anderson, Bryan Ferry, or the more recent ‘D.A.R.K’ band that includes members of The Cranberries and The Smiths.)

Speaking of Laurie Anderson, last year she went on a short tour that showcased one of her more recent projects as a multimedia show with a sublime display of lights and projections. One can’t help but feel that a similar approach would prove beneficial for Alien Skin as well. ‘I Love Art Deco,’ like many of these tracks, outlines fascinating aural and visual displays in one’s mind. The music is surreal; I’d be compelled to see how Pappas could approach it live.

As an industry veteran, I think Pappas has a fairly good hand on what to put on a record and what to omit. Typically indie albums of this length struggle in this regard - there are too many songs and not enough ideas to justify them. ‘European Electronic Cinema,’ however, doesn’t have that quality - or lack thereof. When one comes across tunes like ‘All Tomorrow’s Cares,’ they’re sucked into the experience that Pappas is crafting and it never drags.

There’s diversity within the collection as well - an important element that plays into its success as a broader creation. ‘Platinum Good Looks’ explores some sparse, but immensely effective synthesizer stylings that are a bit different than its predecessors. ‘Prettiest Flower’ then twists in another direction, offering one of the more compelling vocal performances on the record. It’s worth mentioning that Alien Skin’s new album comes out at the perfect time, because the band S U R V I V E has catapulted this musical style into the mainstream with their highly successful score to the Netflix series ‘Stranger Things.’ ‘European Electronic Cinema’ would likely appeal to the same audience that was floored by S U R V I V E this year.

‘Sterile in Blue’ is one of the finest tracks on the album. The composition is absolutely extraordinary. It’s captivating in every way, and Pappas’ sly poetic imagery supplements the sonic experience so heavily. I absolutely love Alien Skin’s production style. Despite having such depth in its productions, ‘European Electronic Cinema’ feels so accessible. ‘I Still Think of You,’ for example, is a haunting track that employs these ghostly, ethereal reverberations. It’s really an experience to enjoy.

‘The Emporer’s Tram Girl’ is an intriguing jaunt - a cinematic one that even employs some vocal samples. It’s likely the most avant garde track on the collection; Alien Skin pushes a boundary here to rather good effect. It’s somewhat eclipsed by ‘My Polaroid Friend (Thin White Duke),’ though. The finale, which seems to be a tribute to David Bowie, is superb. In fact, one might assess that ‘European Electronic Cinema’ toys with electronic compositions similarly to Bowie’s swansong, ‘Blackstar.’

This album is one of the best in its indie genre. ‘European Electronic Cinema’ is very much worth having on your radar at the beginning of September if this sub-genre of electronic and experimental music appeals to you. Right now, it’s being marketed as the final Alien Skin album. If that is indeed the case, it’s a fantastic send-off. One can only hope that Pappas moves onto exciting new pastures, though, if it is indeed his final album under the moniker. He still clearly has something to offer creatively.