23rd Underpass | Real Life (review)

23rd Unerpass 'Real Life' cover artwork

23rd Underpass ‘Real Life’ cover artwork.

Real Life, the debut release of Greek act 23rd Underpass, is likewise the first release from record label Nadanna, a partnership between Marc Schaffer of Anna Logue Records and Nader Moumneh of Electro Aggression Records (EAR). I mention the label pedigree only because listeners familiar with Electro Aggression Records could mistakenly expect either oldschool EBM or dark electro, and this release has nothing whatsoever to do with either of those genres. Rather, this release from 23rd Underpass reflects the mutual love and affection that the label owners have for new wave, Italo disco, synthpop, electropop, minimal synth and other related genres.

In a rather unique marketing ploy, Real Life comes in two completely different versions, one a 2-CD collection of extended versions and remixes and the other a 2-LP collection of shortened and alternate versions. In a sense, the vinyl version could be considered the album “proper” and the 2-CD collection could be considered the “alternate” version. The two versions are similar, but to get the full picture of what the artist and label intended you would really need to purchase both.

In the year 2015 that may be a lot to ask of most consumers, but Nadanna so far seems dedicated to this type of dual-release format. It’s an interesting gamble, one that makes some sense considering the distinct consumer bases that have developed in the record industry. In this case, listeners can either purchase in compact disc format, vinyl format, or both. Both versions are also available in strictly digital format as well, for listeners who are no longer buying physical media. This review covers the 2-CD version of ‘Real Life’ sub-titled ‘Extended Versions & Remixes.’

As you have probably gleaned by now 23rd Underpass is a Greek act whose style bridges the differences between Italo disco and synthpop. All music is composed and produced by Costas Andriopoulos, with lyrics and female vocals provided by Nadia Vassilopoulou. Male vocals, when present, are provided by guest singers, in this case Giannis Dimoulas (September Code), Leonida Skiada (Cinemascope) and Taxiarchis Zolotas.

The album opener “Planet 21” reminds me of the whimsical science fiction of Ray Bradbury, very light on actual science but more of a product of imagination and the human spirit. One of the endearing traits to Bradbury’s writing is that the reader needn’t know anything about actual science; in fact, Bradbury’s work probably reads better the less you know. I get the same feeling from “Planet 21”, where I’m not sure exactly what the song is about except that it has something to do with space. I get a nostalgic feeling, perhaps from the 1950’s-era, full of promise and dreams, before we even knew what to expect and the entire idea of space travel was beyond our wildest imagination. The synths soar blissfully in the background, mirroring a shuttle blast-off.

The remainder of ‘Real Life’ has nothing to do with space or science as far as I’m aware, but the songs are individually rich in human emotion. ‘Real Life’ is an album that covers the poignant moments in life. The album covers universal themes of romance, memories, lust, friendship, sadness, and just enjoying life in the moment, all set to the melancholy strains of Italo disco and the enduring hope of synthpop. Each song offers something different in terms of sound and lyrical content. It’s a varied album from start to finish, raw emotion laid bare on a bed of rich analog synthesizers and relatively simple electronic drum patterns.

Apart from “Planet 21”, other stand-out tracks for me include “Remember”, which has kind of a repetitive, nursery rhyme feel and is one of the few tracks to fully take advantage of Nadia’s heart-breaking and delicate voice.  Another track to prominently feature Nadia is “Everytime”, which in this case has more of a soulful, R&B-type vocal. “Because Of Me” features perhaps the most memorable male vocal performance on the album, from Leonida Skiada. It’s easy to get lost in this hauntingly beautiful tune, but in the end it’s just one of many strong performances.

When you get to the 2nd disc of ‘Real Life’ you realize some of the peculiarities of the format chosen for this release. The 2nd disc features remixes of the songs “Real Life”, “Running” and “The Boy Within”, songs that aren’t featured at all on the 1st disc. The “album versions” of these songs are actually featured instead on the 2-LP version of ‘Real Life’. Therefore, if you only purchase the 2-CD version of ‘Real Life’ you will only hear remixes of those three songs and not the originals. For the casual listener, perhaps it doesn’t make a difference if it’s the original version or a remix by another project, but it is an odd creative decision. In a sense, vinyl aficionados are rewarded with the album versions of all songs, while CD listeners are rewarded with the remixes.

While listening to the 2nd disc of remixes, I’m reminded just how little I know about this type of music. Remixers come from a variety of different genre backgrounds, including Italo disco, synthpop, electropop and minimal synth, but I am unfamiliar with nearly all of them. One name familiar to me is Axodry, whose Ralf Henrich is also a member of legendary New Beat EBM act Robotiko Rejekto. Otherwise, some of the more well-known remixers include Flemming Dalum and Techniques Berlin.

Yet the 2nd disc is chock full of remix talent, and the remixes often introduce new elements and sounds that enhance the original, exactly what you’d expect from any good remix. I feel the spirit of these remixes harkens back to the early days of remixing in the 1980’s, when remixing was a new art form and every remixer really had to struggle to come up with something unique and lasting with the limited technology available at the time. Technology is limitless in today’s world, but I feel there was a conscientious editorial decision to produce a collection of remixes that could just as easily be swapped with tracks from the main album. The result is something exceedingly rare, a remix CD that the listener actually wants to listen to more than once.

I can’t help but feel that I’m listening to something special when I listen to Tony Marinello’s nearly 8-minute minimalist deconstruction of “Running”. Likewise, Danish remixer Flemming Dalum manages to completely transform “Remember”, while keeping the overall structure of the song intact. The remix CD finishes strong with two upbeat and modern-sounding mixes courtesy of Tobias Bernstrup. The remix CD is unique in today’s market in that in each case the original song is immediately recognizable. These are true remixes in the traditional sense of the term, lovingly created by artists in closely-related genres.

My main complaint about this release, if I had to list one, is the bare-bones packaging. The 2-CD collection comes in PocketPac packaging, a square-shaped 4-panel cardboard case with two “sleeves” built into the case itself to hold the CD’s. If you’re comparing to a vinyl release, it’s basically the same except without any paper sleeve for the CD’s. It’s the first time I’ve seen this particular packaging and maybe it’s not a problem, but all the cardboard cases I’ve had in the past have managed to scuff the individual CD over time. So far I have not seen any indication of scuffing, but it’s certainly something that seems plausible.

Additionally, this release could have benefitted from detailed liner notes about 23rd Underpass and the individual remixers on the 2nd disc. This release has enormous crossover appeal, but there’s almost no information included in the booklet itself. Even just brief links to official web pages and Facebook pages would have been useful.

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