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Three Songs No Flash

Knack For An Earworm: Ford & Lopatin Live
Charlie Frame , June 13th, 2011 09:48

Ford & Lopatin head to the Shacklewell Arms in East London, where Charlie Frame sees the formerly-known-as-Games duo deliver a fantastic set of electronic pop. Photo thanks to Nickie Divine

A flock of standard-issue plaid shirts and optional leather jackets filters casually around a wooden table in the backroom of a remote Dalston pub. On the other side of the table two scruffy-looking fellas in their early-mid twenties hunch prawn-like over the gulf of equipment separating them from their audience. That one - the stockier guy with the beard - is Daniel Lopatin, who up until recently was best known for his vintage synthwork as Oneohtrixpoint Never. OPN's Returnal LP made the cut on many a 2010 end-of-year list and was hailed as the antidote/answer to the glut of landfill chillwave dominating today's underground. The album's beatless soundscapes can feel perhaps a little dry, a little bit studied on first listen. But this initial reaction belies a wealth of diversity; a playfulness not really witnessed since the days of Aphex Twin's classic Selected Ambient Works Vol II.

Like Aphex, Lopatin is a low-tech enthusiast, pushing vintage synths such as his beloved Juno-60 to the limit in order to create immersive widescreen soundscapes that tickle the senses and plunge the mind into a somnolent trance. It's the subtle trickery and ear for melody that sets OPN apart from other ambient/noise pretenders and again, like Aphex, it's apparent that Lopatin is far too great a creative force to tie himself to just one style.

Louchely propped up against one of the venue's low ceiling archways, swigging from a bottle of lager, stands the elongated figure of Lopatin's foil, Joel Ford. Though having operated for around the same length of time as Lopatin, he's a relative unknown. Ford's erstwhile band Tigercity cite such voguish influences from the so-called 'yacht-rock' era as Duran Duran and Hall & Oates. While clearly dedicated to the cause, they're sadly no match for similar outfits like the Minnesotan supergroup, Gayngs. In practice, Tigercity bear an uncanny resemblance to UK electro-pop also-rans the Wave Machines – not a particularly exciting prospect unfortunately. But in this particular meeting of minds Ford has as much impact on the duo's sound as his ambient-geek counterpart.

A flutter of claps and the odd whoop act as tonight's starting gun, with Lopatin staring so intently at his Macbook he might just fall through the screen. Ford hangs back, a grin of excitement spread across his face as he observes his otherwise engrossed buddy. Tonight is the official UK launch of Ford & Lopatin's debut album Channel Pressure. Following two well-received EPs under the name Games, the two friends hit upon the concept of a young man called Joey Rogers who wishes to escape an oppressive futuristic society through dreams of an imaginary past when musicians would jam funk music on ancient Amiga computers. The concept reveals as much about the duo's characters and tastes as it makes for an interesting focal narrative. It's Ford's retro fixation taken from Lopatin's futuristic vantage point. Conversely, it's Lopatin's introverted techno-universe given a stylish pop twist.

Perhaps most importantly though, it's a rare example of two musical constellations aligning perfectly with each other – a Yang with a Yin, the two cerebral hemispheres working in unison. Rare, because all too often genre fusions wind up bringing the worst of both worlds. Channel Pressure could have been awful: all the cloying parodic elements of this last decade's 80s revival rubbing up against the clinical drudge of so much noodle-wank electronica. Luckily Ford and Lopatin have the artistic vision and technical chops to save themselves from such a fate. The album is buoyant, captivating and most of all FUN. And I don't mean fun in any clandestine or arty way.

This is bouncy, reverential pop with buckets of funk and a sense of humour that transcends mere pastiche. Take the video for 'World Of Regret'. There's a perverse delight in watching the otherwise reticent Lopatin inhaling 3D foodstuffs as they fall from a technicolour sky, Joel Ford pulling giant animated fishbones from his mouth only to be buried under a mound of goodies. This pile-up of treats reflects the album's sonic palette – rich and dense like a triple-layered chocolate cake that somehow leaves you coming back for seconds. And then thirds.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves here. The album won't be released till the Monday following (although an official stream was released online only a day or two before). All our audience has to go on are the preceding EPs by Games and ‘Emergency Room', the lead single from Channel Pressure. But right now Ford & Lopatin don't seem too keen on showcasing the hits. Lopatin's trademark Juno wash sounds more in line with his OPN work tonight as heads nod slowly and arms fold against chests. After a few minutes Joel Ford puts down his beer and gets stuck in over a rolling ambient freestyle. A slow cascade of 808 claps finally kicks in and we're moving - slowly but surely. Needless to say, this is a relatively muted affair for an album launch, but it does showcase yet another side of Ford & Lopatin's repertoire: that of a live electronic jam – perhaps the kind referred to in their conceptual manifesto.

It's clear to see the two are playing off each other; building continuous synth layers while rhythmically bashing the buttons on their Roland samplers. Other than that, it's about as interesting to watch as two blokes and their equipment is going to get. Still, it's refreshing to see live electronica done – well - live as opposed to someone just fiddling with a computer mouse for a whole set. Of course the biggest cheer goes up during a deconstructed instrumental take on 'Emergency Room', one of the few moments offering much more than the most restrained of beats. I even notice people singing the lyrics to the song despite there being no on-stage vocals to speak of. Soon I find the irresistible pull of that track making me want to join in. This is testament to Ford & Lopatin's knack for an earworm - even when they try to hide their pop sensibilities, they can't seem to escape.

Soon even the staunchest of arm-folders are starting to bob their knees, and just as it feels we're getting towards the big dance crescendo to send us home, the music stops abruptly. Lopatin wrenches himself away from his beloved gadgets while Ford gives a cheery wave to the crowd as the duo bounce off stage to chat with fans. The set can't have lasted much more than 30-minutes in total and the audience is visibly nonplussed by this somewhat premature cut-off point. Some shout for more, and others even wonder if this is a technical issue. Tonight turned out to be an amuse-bouche rather than a smorgasbord. But with the eminent success of Channel Pressure, Ford & Lopatin are assured enough time and talent to play umpteen big pop concerts with a full band and backing singers. Those sets are yet to come, but watching these guys perform a simple minimalistic jam still feels like a strangely auspicious occasion.