Future Past Tense
If you’re part of the Alternative Electronic music community in Canada today, know well that you owe your scene’s existence to pioneers like Tracy Howe and Bill Vorn. Rational Youth were proudly baffling stage managers with their 808 and MS-20 setup in the early ‘80s, and telling the world to dance atop the infamous wall three years before Bowie started inciting riots in East Berlin. Howe’s relentless ambition to reclaim the synthesizer out of the hands of boring scholars and put it at the forefront of the concert stage produced a novel and visionary experience for listeners around the globe.
Performing the poetic “Coboloid Race” on Montreal stages, Howe and Vorn captured a generational sense of anxiety around impending nuclear doom through their trademark blend of minimal synth lines and bleak, terse lyrics. The breakout album Cold War Night Life was brilliant in its self-awareness – it literally earmarked its audience, pointing a finger directly at the jaded ‘80s post-Disco Electronic subculture, and converting acoustic music listeners with masterful Pop beats contrasted by brooding vocals.
Listening to Future Past Tense is like popping open a 1980s time capsule brimming with telltale signs of social unrest. Those youth that danced in dark, smoky clubs to the first machine-produced musical beeps are still among us. They are the ones who spoke with idealism in their visions of the new millennium. They know the price we paid for a brighter future, and they can see what it bought us. Hopefully they’re listening to this album right now because it continues to speak to them and their successors alike along clipped synth waves:
“Go ahead and blame my generation
But now you know the power is in your hands
Cause even here on this side of the border
Maybe there’s a chance that things will change”
Rational Youth has gone through a few permutations, and snowballed influences from every subsequent troupe that accompanied Howe. Yet fundamentally the sound remains unchanged and Future Past Tense is a perfect successor in the lineage of the band’s brilliant simplicity. Synthpop has had scores of icons since its inception, but none rival these progenitors, because few were there, in the heat of the moment when this style blossomed on Canadian and international stages. Rational Youth nailed the formula for this genre 30 years ago, so it should be no surprise that their new release is a stellar addition to the style’s legacy.
The new album sees the addition of Gaenor Howe on vocals, after she toured with the band in 2014 and played a glorious return show in Montreal. Her vocals are the defining distinction in this chapter of Rational Youth history. The gloomy aria in “Here It Comes Again” is mesmerizing, a perfect complement to the buoyant beat and her backup vocals in “This Side of the Border” are filled with a wonderful melancholy. Rational Youth retain a polished chrome retro-futuristic edge that withstood the test of time and is as welcome on today’s stages as in the heyday of Depeche Mode and Kraftwerk.