Blancmange: ‘Commercial Break’ reviewed

❉ Neil Arthur returns, with characteristic bittersweet humour and relatability, writes Ange Chan.

Following the success of Mindset, Neil Arthur’s third collaboration with co-producer Benge, Blancmange are set to release their fourteenth new album, Commercial Break, on 17th September 2021. It’s all about exploring acoustic textures and field recordings within a framework of the synthesizer, producing some new, different, but interesting sounds.

The album was mixed at Arthur’s Memetune Studios in Cornwall and reflects on how the current global pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have impacted and re-shaped our collective perceptions of everyday life.  Neil is open about this being ‘a reflective type of listen’ in which he challenges the assessments of ‘normality’, given the planet’s current unnerving state of flux.

Neil has found a personal creative anchor in the compulsory slower pace of life we have all endured during the pandemic and used this to his advantage, by grasping the opportunity to embrace his creative process. This included recording a random array of sounds which inspired many of the recordings for the album. This includes two electric saws, waves breaking on beach, random people talking, a dishwasher, bird song and the sounds a metal gate makes.

Neil Arthur of Blancmange.
By Piers Allardyce.

Neil explains: ‘It’s about seeing more in less, questioning our values and the trappings of so-called normal life. I think perhaps any idea of normality becomes a convenient smokescreen and suggests a form of acceptance of the status quo. Nothing is normal.  A thing that triggered a lot of ideas for these songs was something I overheard someone say about the current state leaving them unable to be or feel creative. It’s something, I guess like many, I could well have ended up feeling like, but instead, it really focused me. I really needed to have the possibility to be creative, in order to get through.’

It’s an interesting exercise trying to identify these discrete sounds within the album. Some of them are obvious, others, less so. On the first track it’s easy to identify the sound of waves introducing the album to the listener, as the images of Share Out the Light fly across a vast, all-encompassing song where it’s not difficult to be transported to a long, empty bleak beachscape.  Arthur lets his thoughts roam, ending with a call for shared experience and collective hope; ‘we learn from mistakes/share out the light.’

Endless Posts is an introspective track, punching through with deep, screaming synths, strangled vocals and overlaid with a simplistic guitar riff which makes the track sound not unlike The Cure via Depeche Mode via Blancmange.  His internal conversation is ‘I’ve got to find a way through’ and is set within a mysterious world.  The lyrics allude to social media and hovers over everything on the album’s darkest track, and for this reason it’s probably my favourite song on the album.

In contrast, This A State is a lullaby of an electronic pop track which hugs the listener as the singer recounts everyday scenes now strangely familiar to all of us, describing lines of masked people waiting to be passengers on a bus, ‘due any minute’. With characteristic bittersweet humour and relatability, Arthur reveals ‘the memorial lawn needs cutting/so does my hair.

The title-track Commercial Break has a hypnotic synthesiser riff whilst lyrically it flickers between kids TV nostalgia from the 1970s (remember Crackerjack? It’s referenced constantly here!) and modern-day life, as Arthur plays with the double-edged notion of a ‘commercial break’ as a place for marketing spin which can also be interpreted as a brief period for his creativity to kick in.

By complete contrast, after the intensity of the previous track, Dog Walk in a Cloud is a lighter, fresh-aired joy of a track, lyrically painting a surrealistic walk out of town with ‘lunatic dogs, heads full of moons’ as companions on a trek through ‘velveteen green’ fields full of ‘murderous cuds’.  The narrative is full of detail and has the vividness normally associated with a dream-like state.

What happens next is a gentle drift from conventional pop song-writing. From the flowing, ghostly instrumental strum of Empty Street to the atmospheric glide of the final track Looking After Aliens, there’s a low-tech shift of focus built around field recordings, acoustic guitars, and Benge’s atmospheric rain-drop patterns of analogue synths, used to maximum effect.

Strictly Platonic takes the listener on an aural extravaganza where the sound-effects are frequent, to the spoken word narrative of vast open spaces.  In stark contrast, he’s simultaneously describing the mundanity of everyday life; having a bath, doing the washing and endless DIY.  Beauty lies in the richness and intimacy of the descriptions, and this is a place where ‘all the little things’ matter.

Throughout the whole album of diverse tracks there’s a common theme of being outside time and displaced from the normality we were used to prior to global lockdowns and an enforced change in lifestyles.  A place where you can quietly observe on your own terms, taking things in that you’d usually miss and catching up with your own feelings.   It also contains some of Blancmange’s most evocative and thoughtful songs to date via an acoustic experimental journey.  If you liked the previous Arthur/Benge collaborations, are looking for a new synth window to view through, or are a fan of Blancmange’s new and exciting sounds then this album is most definitely for you.

Blancmange: ‘Commercial Break’ is released 17 September 2021 via Blanc Check Records (BCR028LP/BCR028CD). Pre-Order now on ltd edition white and pink vinyl and CD from the Official Store:

 Ange Chan is a Freelance Writer, having produced two novels and six volumes of poetry. A prominent contributor to Me and the Starman (now available by Cult Ink on Amazon) and lifelong lover of music, Ange is also We Are Cult’s Social Media Administrator.

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