On 29th September, Blancmange are set to release a new album of 10 songs written and recorded by Neil Arthur and co-produced by Benge (Wrangler/John Foxx & The Maths and Gazelle Twin co-producer). It’s been a fantastically creative period for both of them, releasing their debut album as a new electronic duo – Fader’s First Light – in June 2017 and then the final sessions for Unfurnished Rooms followed immediately in the summer. For the new Blancmange album, all the songs were written by Arthur while Benge added percussion and layers of analogue synth, with the pair then mixing the record together in the latter’s Memetune studios in Cornwall.
Unfurnished Rooms opens with the echoing, playful title track, a search for something that always feels just out of reach and incomplete. Like many tracks on the album there’s a feeling of being lost in a dream – a house where rooms are unfurnished/unfinished, doors lead to private, empty apartments and images flicker. The reality is, as Arthur sings on the opener, ‘no amount of online shopping will cover for the loss.’
Arthur plays the scratchy, almost Cardigans-esq indie guitars on the first song and it’s also his strummed riff that forms the basis for ‘We Are The Chemicals’. An air of mystery and threat hangs over the track, as the ‘chemical spillage on a trading estate in Altrincham’ proves not to be an isolated incident but also occurs ‘in a garden shed 80 miles due south’ and ‘in the boot of a hire car.’ Sparse and atmospheric with a rich vocal from Arthur, it’s a hypnotic song and an early highlight. Vague ‘70s glam rock echoes filter through ‘We Are The Chemicals’ and the same can be said of ‘What’s The Time?’s percussion and riff. Essentially a spoken word piece, it’s both funny and sad – a conversation with a friend in a pub, or with the family on a car journey, for all its humour the track has the melancholy pull of time having passed rather than just something to pass the time. In between those two songs is the airy, groove-led psychedelia of ‘Share It Out’ where feelings are uncorked and Arthur gently sings, ‘I could be your ocean wave.’
‘Wiping The Chair’ re-works a familiar Blancmange theme about friends meeting again after a long absence. As ever Arthur’s lyrics are passionate and lonesome and full of little details – ‘you always wiped your chair before you sat down’. Glam – in fact hints of Ziggy – come back from another age as ‘the subconscious subtitles’ roll over the scene. ‘Anna Dine’ signals a change into Cure-like moodiness but the sense of threat in ‘We Are The Chemicals’ is reprised again without anything really defined. Once again there’s imagery of strange rooms – in fact a ‘bad news room’ – and walking through dreamlike doors into other times and places. It’s a covert track haunted by the sound of dripping taps and echoes low in the mix. The icy atmosphere crystallises on ‘In December’, a slow-mo, almost shoegaze-y lament with another great set of visual lyrics – ‘January don’t piss me off/you’re just June in a mask.’
‘Old Friends’ channels The Beatles and even ELO but with a more aggressive edge which then cuts deeper with ‘Gratitude’, one of the heaviest tracks Blancmange have ever recorded, though you can hear its roots in the twitchy intensity of ‘I Can’t Explain’ from their debut album Happy Families. Long-standing Blancmange collaborator David Rhodes (best known for his work with Scott Walker, Talk Talk, Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush) rips into the song on guitar while Arthur screams ‘a part of me feels I should be grateful . . . why?’ Benge’s Moog Modular forms a NIN-like pattern underneath the rage as the music builds to a climax. And then into ‘Don’t Get Me Wrong’ which features John Grant on piano and backing vocals. At over eight minutes it’s the longest track on the album and pulls together some of the threads on previous songs – images of secret rooms, hints of Aladdin Sane and Ziggy Stardust and friends meeting again. Once again self knowledge is hiding as Arthur sings with dry detachment – ‘you look so well . . . in your online profile.’
It’s a fantastic closing track on a record which explores some solitary, introspective thoughts but always with humour, compassion and, let’s face it, real sonic power. Unfurnished Rooms is full of haunted passion – edgy, pared down and personal. The album follows the release of the first three Blancmange records – Happy Families (1982), Mange Tout (1984) and Believe You Me (1985) – as deluxe 3CD editions this summer. Despite breaking up in 1986, those records weren’t quite the end for Neil and original Blancmange partner Stephen Luscombe as they came back to great acclaim in 2011 with their fourth studio album, Blanc Burn – ‘new sounds and renewed enthusiasm’ (The Guardian).
Semi Detached (darker but still pop-savvy) followed in 2015, the first of several new albums written and recorded by Neil Arthur without the input of Luscombe due to illness. Blancmange’s first ever instrumental album, Nil By Mouth (ambient, new sense of freedom) came out in 2015 and Commuter 23 (minimalist, brutalist, raw with moments of hazy Krautrock) arrived in 2016.
8th March Birmingham Hare and Hounds
22nd March Sheffield 02 Academy
23rd March Manchester Band On The Wall
24th March Liverpool Arts Club