"Alpha" (Album, 2015)
Hard Cell Records
Alpha, the debut album from The Department , is an unconventional and unpredictable blend of 80s electro and new wave with a hint of 90s dance music, all brought together with a serious skill for composing some glorious melodies and hook-lines. Currently a two-piece, Rob Green is from London and is joined on synths by Swedish Terminator lookalike Magnus Lindström.
The stomping As If Transformed was cleverly chosen as the single to launch The Department on an unsuspecting world at the end of last year. Clever move as it stands out stylistically from most of the rest of the album. Its deceptively simple structure and memorable titular choral refrain something not easily forgotten once heard. And yet perhaps not the highlight. You could argue it isn't particularly representative of the rest of the album, but it was no slick marketing trick just to garner attention and then not back that up here on the long player. There's a lot of range to this début beyond the (not unreasonable) synthwave label it comes marketed with.
Original vocalist and front man Christian Bourne left after the band's first two gigs, having penned the lyrics to a handful of songs, leaving creative force Green to take up the duties. So, given that he was never intended to be the lead singer, he acquits himself well. More overdubbed counterpoint harmonies would probably elevate some songs further but, curiously, Green's voice is frequently at its best when he's pushing it beyond its natural comfort zone.
Slow Down is an excellent example of the gradual build style of composition I'm such a sucker for. It's two minutes before the stunning melody kicks in, but once it does you're likely to find yourself almost subliminally repeating again and again inside your head in the wee small hours, initially forgetting where it came from, but recognising that it is a truly accomplished piece of writing. This is strong enough to stand as an instrumental in its own right.
Which takes us back to Green's musical past. During the 90s he had multiple releases on the dance music scene. Knowing that, it should come as no surprise that many of the songs here could work as instrumentals. Indeed, when you stop to think about it, what is surprising is that there aren't any instrumental tracks on here at all. I'd love to hear an instrumental remix version of the entire album. I reckon the underlying material is strong enough to carry it off. Green might also want to pursue film/game soundtrack work where his experience could be the foundation for a lucrative career.
The guitar on Let It Go adds a welcome additional layer to the style, harking back to those glory days of early New Order and 4AD's fledgling roster. It isn't often I'd advocate more guitars, but for The Department it might present some interesting new avenues for expression.
Lyrically, its a diverse journey, down to the fact that lyric writing duties are shared. For the most part Green's are knowingly personal (e.g. the distinctive Glass Houses) whilst offering observational social commentary. Those written by previous singer Bourne are an uncommon combination of the simple and obtuse. Finally, Green's wife Marie contributes the Martin Gore-esque psychodrama for the Black Celebration-era Depeche Mode mood of The Waiting Room.
Some of the material dates back a couple of years to when Green was co-writing with original member Bourne. Thankfully, after Bourne left Green continued. That explains some of the stylistic and lyrical variance across the album, but I hope (indeed expect) having not only overcome the misfortune of losing half the band en-route, but having managed to turn that into a new opportunity for himself, that Green draws on all that experience and work to date to refine this project further.
Alpha already contains several moments of brilliance, and yet I'm convinced the best is still yet to come. 7/10
Rob Dyer (April 2015)
"As If Transformed" (Single, 2014)
Hard Cell Records
This is a real attention grabber. Eschewing the overly familiar chorus, verse, chorus structure of most pop singles, As If Transformed instead applies detailed production to a minimal (and memorable) lyrical refrain, within a musical structure more commonly found in longer form compositions. The Department was started by former dance music artist and DJ Rob Green who, under various guises back in the 90s, sold 10,000s of records to drug-addled ravers, working alongside the likes of scene luminaries Sacha and Pete Tong. Now a two-piece, after Green hooked up with Swedish synthmeister Magnus Lindström, this is the band's début release, with work on an album already well under way.
disarmingly subversive twist on synthpop that darkens the image that
genre label has probably placed in your head to memorable effect. It
may still only be just over the regulation 3:30mins for a 'pop' single,
but the band call it synthwave, and that's a more indicative label of
what comes in this short, sharp package. Suitably mechanised vocals
perfectly reflect the unconventional lyrics and musical style and it's
all over before you know it. We were impressed enough by this
secure the worldwide première last month of the visually striking promo
video that accompanies the single. Seriously, 79p to get this as a
download from iTunes et al, is a no-brainer. Keep an eye on and an ear
out for The Department. They could be massive. 7/10
Rob Dyer (November 2014)