For a moment, they were side by side at their machines: Ian Richard Devaney, the lithe frontman with his flopsy hair and boxer’s nose, and his main accomplice and partner, synthesizer wave-tamer and whip-cracker Aidan Noell. Noell had spent much of the Nation Of Language set at White Eagle Hall (337 Newark Ave.) pushing her Moog Sub 37 towards its expressive limits, turning dials, coaxing all the glassy textures and fluttering leads out of her synthesizer that she could, and sometimes trusting in her sequencers, standing back and gazing at Devaney with a big, goofy, flirty smile on her face. Now it was his hands on the Moog keys, and hers slid over to a Prophet 6, and they were shoulder to shoulder, twitching to the rhythms of “This Fractured Mind,” leaning into the synthetic riffs, their bodies moving in synchronicity. Then, smiling, her eyes closed, Noell spun away, hands clenched behind her back, lost to the clatter of the drum machines and the ecstasy of synthpop at its purest.
Music like this is often intentionally frosty. The sounds are synthetic, the beats are automatic, the emotional tone is sub-Arctic. But there was nothing impersonal about the show at White Eagle Hall on Friday night, or the relationship between Devaney and Noell, or bassist Alex MacKay, the third member of this tight, propulsive, surprisingly gleeful trio. Instead we were reintroduced to the joy of operation: the machine-station as a place where buttons can be pushed and knobs can be twisted to satisfying effect, and those with their hands on the sliders can experience and share the rewards of productive physical activity. Not for nothing was the most influential of the original post-punk labels called Factory Records; pop music in the late ’70s was, increasingly synthesized, and interaction with machinery was viewed as a way forward.
The theorist Herbert Marcuse once wrote about the eroticization of labor, and the playful, mutually respectful and supportive stage relationship between Devaney and Noell makes that feel like more than just a Marxist pipe dream. Why not turn a crank and work a slider with the object of your affection? During the new wave, plenty of bands flirted with a socialist-futuristic aesthetic, including those who exercise a direct influence on Nation Of Language: Ultravox, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, The Human League. The synthesizer, then as now, was the machine full of good feelings — not pointedly phallic, like the electric guitar, or yoked to the clock like the human-powered drum kit, but an instrument of an egalitarian future, less sweaty, less analog, gender-neutral, computerized, suggestive of work as it could be in a better world.
It wasn’t always this way for Devaney, a Westfield, NJ native who cut his teeth in a typical, albeit very catchy, Strokes-like indie rock band called The Static Jacks (Michael Sue-Poi, the recording bassist, was also a Jack.) Even then, Devaney’s doleful voice, so suggestive of the artfully doomy tone of the new wave, felt like a better match for machine arrangement than it was for a squalling six-string. MacKay as always been adept at Peter Hook-style industrial-strength bass grooves, and at White Eagle Hall, he cut the impassive, near-Germanic figure of the synthpop sideman, striking his strings evenly, a precision instrument, tireless in the service of the songs.
But in order to make the transformation complete, Devaney needed a ringer. He found one in Noell, who is one of the outstanding stage synthesists in modern indie pop. She’s a giddy operator of her heavy machinery, leaning into every digital note-bend and portamento swoop with a combination of supervisory assurance and adolescent delight. Nothing she does feels robotic. While Devaney prowls the middle of the stage, crouching while he sings like a cross between Samuel Herring and a shortstop, she bends her body, lever-like, over the top of her Moog, snaps back, laughs at herself and her bandmates, cajoles the audience, poses, makes herself an eyeful. Her keyboard articulation is impeccable, but it’s also very human. Her rumbling bass patterns and squiggly melodic lines aren’t quantized or tethered to the sequencer. She renders them as a progressive rock player might, but never with the progressive rock player’s desire to show off. When it’s time for the machine to take over, she steps back with a grin, satisfied that she’s its master. Many stage synthesists are adept at getting their signals to change character in real time; Noell goes one better by making all of her modulations mean something. On “In Manhattan,” a moody piece that the band saved for an encore, she turned a difficult trick: she brightened and dulled a pattern of notes generated by an arpeggiator. It felt like the play of light on the glass windows of a skyscraper as the sun sets.
GIFT frontman TJ Freda — who played game guest guitar with Nation Of Language on “Across This Fine Line”— doesn’t have quite the same egalitarian spirit as the members of the headliners. His bandmates exhibit more personality than shoegaze musicians sometimes do, but there’s no doubt that he’s in charge of the show. Though he warns us in song that we may fall down if we look backward, he’s as passionately (and unashamedly) indebted to his ’80s sources as Sue-Poi, Devaney, and Noell are. He’s just imitating a different segment of 120 Minutes, back to the guitar bands after a commercial break. GIFT, which opened the show with a short, punchy, thoroughly effective set, evokes My Bloody Valentine, Swervedriver, and especially early Ride, as Freda’s breathy delivery falls somewhere between Mark Gardener’s meditative purr and Andy Bell’s powdery whisper.
His sung melodies are supported by the high, pretty vocals of Jessica Gurewitz, a multi-instrumentalist whose role in the band is similar to that of Sofia Arreguin, synthesist of fellow psychedelic explorers Wand: she’s there to ice a cake that’s already plenty sweet and feathery with fondant. The group’s supporting set was never less than compelling, but when it peaked, as it did on single “Gumball Garden,” it reached a rare union of psychedelic ferocity and classic rock poise that it usually takes bands years to attain. Momentary Presence, the group’s debut record, presents GIFT as a a dream-pop answer to The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart: a full realization of a throwback sound that transcends any copycat accusations by being so darn good. As with Nation Of Language, it’s a pleasure to hear Freda and GIFT hit all their marks. They’ve done their due diligence, and as it turns out, diligence kinda rocks.