Light and Magic – The Music of Ladytron

Now a regular guest blogger with Bear Skin, Damien Shalley submits another piece this time about electro pop group Lady Tron. He introduces himself in his characteristic style:

Damien Shalley owns a Teflon coated polyester tie that is surprisingly silk-like in appearance.  He stays away from open flames whilst wearing it.  He believes that the greatest living Englishman isn’t Stephen Hawking but Lemmy from Motorhead.  He would like someone to explain to him the precise difference between tequila and mescal.  He does not enjoy the taste of parsnip.

If you’re a reader of Bear Skin and would like to submit your own writing, please don’t hesitate to get in touch at jennifer@bearskin.org

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“Light and Magic – the Music of Ladytron”

by Damien Shalley

What does a music fan do to combat the monotonous reality of musical force feeding?  Start exploring the music scene for yourself, that’s what.  “Seek and you shall find.” And perhaps let yourself be guided on your journey by the spectacular sounds emanating from cult electro-pop bands from the UK. Everybody’s favourite electro pop band du jour is the U.K.’s Chvrches (that’s how they spell it – it’s pronounced “Churches” for the uninitiated).  Critics, fans and even casual, non-musical observers seem to love this Glaswegian three-piece and their impossibly catchy tunes.  But Chvrches are standing on the shoulders of giants.  Giants called Ladytron.

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So who or what are Ladytron?  Only the single best electronic pop outfit on earth, that’s who.  In the early 21st century, they were seemingly the lone exponents of stylish electronica in a music scene dominated by grungy guitars and flannel shirts.  Anyone who had ever been aurally seduced by the Eurythmic’s “Love is a Stranger” and then lived to wonder whatever happened to sophisticated electro-pop knew instantly when they heard “Playgirl” that Liverpool’s Ladytron were now carrying that torch. In style, too!

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Ladytron are pioneers of new sonic space.  They fit no precise pop music category but are obviously heavily influenced by classic electronica from the 80’s.  They deliver lush, synthesizer-based compositions with evocative, relatable lyrics.  They also mix new and old technology – the main component of their sound is vintage keyboards.  The two founding members of the group (Daniel Hunt and Reuben Wu) are D.J.’s and producers who also work with other artists, remixing for outfits like Placebo, Soulwax, and the legendary Goldfrapp.  They possess a “warm” sound in a musical sub-genre traditionally associated with coldness, tour with a live drummer and occasionally use modified guitar chords to sound like synths and vice versa. They belong to no specific trend or movement, unless being glamorously uplifting is a trend.

Hunt and Wu met in the 1990’s and recorded a song as studio project in 1999 called “He Took Her to a Movie” utilising guest vocalist Lisa Eriksson.  Positive feedback resulted in Hunt and Wu developing their project further.  Their original concept evolved into a four piece live band incorporating the elegant, Scottish-born Helen Marnie as lead vocalist and the darkly attractive Mira Aroyo, as co-front woman.  They have gone on to release six full-length original albums and a seemingly innumerable collection of remix compilations.  They have a cult following worldwide and have toured extensively, opening for Bjork, Nine Inch Nails and headlining their own shows.  (They played Brisbane’s Tivoli in 2008 and the Hi-Fi in 2009).  They last released a studio album, “Gravity the Seducer”, in 2011 but a new original album is on the way.  They have never been particularly famous and seem quite prepared to approach the business of making music in their own way.  Their emphasis remains on quality sounds, not fame or global domination of the airwaves.

To be fair, Ladytron have achieved a certain level success to date, primarily in the U.K. and Europe, but even there they’re never been “mainstream”.  They have released six original albums – five studio recordings and a haughty live album.  There has also been the mandatory “Best of” album (featuring two new tracks, one quite delicious) and a number of remix albums, some of which are surprisingly innovative.  Lead singer Helen Marnie also released her first solo album “Crystal World” in 2013 to solid reviews.  But they’ve never been a “break-out” smash anywhere, despite consistently delivering quality music.  They’re a synth pop fan’s secret wish, beckoning seductively from the background.

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Early Ladytron was marked by a retro-futuristic flavour.  Their first album “604” (2001) is dominated by tunes that are relatively spare and infused with electronic beats that one might hear emanating from a Casio keyboard.  It’s as if someone opened up a can of pop music circa 1985.  “Commodore Rock” is perhaps the ultimate example of this simple style.  Yet the album also yielded one of the band’s most infectious songs – “Playgirl”.  An almost perfect electro-pop melody with insightful lyrics about the human need to love and be loved, “Playgirl” offered the musical cognoscenti a glimpse of what Ladytron was capable of doing, and more importantly, what they were capable of becoming in the future.

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The band’s next effort, 2002’s “Light and Magic”, offered further musical evolution.  The style is similar to “604” but not as bare, and more emphasis is placed on song writing.  This is synth with substance.  Tracks like “Seventeen” were designed for commercial airplay whilst reinforcing the band’s technical roots. The title track itself is a traditionally structured, solidly commercial and delightfully upbeat composition which expands the Ladytron oeuvre whilst acting as a counter balance to some of the more clinical (yet entrancing) tunes, a prime example being the digital dystopia of “True Mathematics”.

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“Softcore Jukebox” (2003) is a mix album of covers by Ladytron’s Daniel Hunt and Reuben Wu.  Some of their favourite artists and songs are featured.  There are two Ladytron songs included, the single remix of “Blue Jeans” called “Blue Jeans 2.0” (featuring the oblique lyrics “You’ve been trying to protect me, an insect living in your memory”) and a cover version of “Oops Oh My“ by Tweet.  Although not strictly a Ladytron album in itself, “Softcore Jukebox” does give an insight into the musical influences of the founding members of the band.  This release features the inclusion of a vibrant (and unexpected) My Bloody Valentine rock number called “Soon” and the disarmingly funny (and insightful) 80’s track “What’s a Girl to Do?” by Cristina.

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“Witching Hour” (2005) is characterised by richer production and strong, traditionally structured songs delivered with a pristine technological edge.  It is consistently good from start to finish – an “album experience” as old school vinyl fanciers like to say – and yielded the concert favourite “Destroy Everything You Touch” and the utterly infectious “Sugar”.  This is Ladytron’s high water mark – the band defined in shimmering digital glory.  “Fighting in Built Up areas” will set your speakers alight with its complex tonal mix, “Witching Hour” offers a relaxing “soft power” listening experience, “International Dateline” reflects beautifully on the break-up of a relationship and the understated tunefulness of “The Last One Standing” manages to take that subject matter even further without disheartening listeners.  And the ominous yet catchy track “Weekend” will have special resonance for those with a tendency to overdo things a little on a Friday or Saturday night.  This album represents the defining moment for Ladytron as a recording outfit and summarises what the band represent.  “Do yourself a favour ………….”

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2008’s “Velocifero”, whilst not as consistent overall as “Witching Hour”, yielded some of Ladytron’s best- ever material.  “Burning Up”, “Runaway”, “I’m Not Scared”, and “Ghosts” all throb with intensity, melody and heart.  The production on this pacy album is refined yet dramatic.  This is speaker-searing audio perfection, and many of the tunes on the disc have become remix favourites.  “They Gave You a Heart”, “Versus” and even the robotic “Black Cat” and “Deep Blue” are worthwhile listens and the album itself will really put your stereo to the test (and yield most rewarding results).

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Live at the London Astoria is a solid collection of the band’s best singles mixed with deeper album cuts.  The live versions of many of Ladytron’s best-known tracks are infused with new energy here, some of them almost sounding like new compositions.  It’s a rare live album that can sit alongside well-known studio recordings and compliment them with something truly fresh.  This is one such album.

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“Gravity the Seducer” (2011).  Regarded as something of a disappointment in general by fans, this album saw Ladytron experiment with softer, more ambient sounds.  There are a few fantastic tunes here too, just not as many as dedicated followers might have expected.  “Ace of Hz” and “Mirage” are pure Ladytron, and the album does lend itself to multiple listens.  Overall though, this is probably not the best place to start your Ladytron listening experience, and would probably be better suited as the soundtrack to a strange science fiction movie (or spinning on a turntable in someone’s moon palace).  This is perhaps best described as artful electronica.

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In a perfect world, Ladytron would be more famous than Chvrches.  They’d be more famous than Nicki Minaj in fact, and they wouldn’t need her gimmicky videos and controversial album covers. Why?  Because Ladytron are actually good.  The music they create is very much their own -distinctly retro yet undeniably current.  It’s just as worthwhile as any rap superstar’s beat-laden banalities, and Ladytron’s  lyrics are upbeat and intelligent.

Impossibly elegant, delightfully upbeat, deliciously seductive and utterly sublime – that’s Ladytron. So the next time you’ve been bludgeoned into coma town by the stultifying fare that currently clogs commercial radio playlists, say “no” to turgid tunes and “yes” to salvation by synthesizer.

Tell ‘em Ladytron sent ya!

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 LADYTRON

Helen Marnielead vocals, synthesizers

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Mira Aroyovocals, synthesisers

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Reuben Wusynthesizers

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Daniel Huntsynthesizers, guitar, vocals

Ladytron Discography

  • 604 (2001)
  • Light & Magic (2002)
  • Softcore Jukebox (2003)
  • Witching Hour (2005)
  • Velocifero (2008)
  • Live at the London Astoria 16.07.08 (2009)
  • Best of 00–10 in 2011
  • Gravity the Seducer (2011)
  • Remixed and Rare (Various)  (All Ladytron albums have also been released in “Remixed and Rare” versions, and there have been numerous “Extended Play” releases featuring tracks from these compilations and further remixes).

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Helen Marnie Discography

  • Crystal World (2013)  (Features singles “The Hunter” and “Hearts on Fire”)
  • The Wolves [upcoming]

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5 thoughts on “Light and Magic – The Music of Ladytron

  1. Little corrections (you can delete this post after you fix them):

    – Softcore Jukebox is a mix album (or sometimes called a mixtape), not an album of remixes of other bands. The songs from this album are as they originally are, not remixed by Ladytron.

    – “…and the darkly attractive Mira Aroya (previously a fashion model)”. Her name is Mira Aroyo (with a “o” at the end) and she never was a model. You could mention also her PhD studies in genetics at Oxford University, though. You could also mention Helen Marnie’s BA is pop music and Reuben Wu’s studies in industrial design at Sheffield Hallam University.

    – “…and sometimes incorporate samples of guitar chords into their songs, all of which confounds critics”. They actually used real guitars on their albums (also on stage, see especially concerts from Withing Hour and Velocifero eras). It’s just that they modified the sounds a lot in a way that sometimes guitars sound like synths and viceversa.

    – “Crystal World (2013) (Features singles “The Hunter” and “Wolves”)”. “Wolves” is a separate single, from the upcoming album. Crystal World features only two singles: The Hunter and Hearts on Fire.

    – “Early Ladytron was perhaps a little”kitschy””. I was a charming retro-futuristic era for them. I wouldn’t call that kitschy. Also 604 was very well received: http://www.metacritic.com/music/604/ladytron/critic-reviews

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