Artificial Pleasure – The Bitter End

First catching my attention at last year’s Great Escape festival, Artificial Pleasure vocalist and guitarist Phil McDonnell’s theatrical in-your-face persona was a dumbfounding mix of Bryan Ferry and Johnny Rotten. Whilst he was fun to watch, he also gave the impression that he could flip at any given time; this made the recipe for a thrilling performance. Luckily, it wasn’t just his presence that made the band great, with all four members coming together to create a marvellous electronic indie-dance fusion full of humid synthetics and pounding riffs.

Almost exactly a year later, the record has captured this style perfectly in what is a cocktail of mesmerising 80s pop influences. However, under the backdrop comes serious lyrical themes of urban anxiety and broken relationships, subsequently giving the London-based band an extra layer of depth.

Furthermore, if you were to delve deeper into the band’s history, their members have had their fair share of heartbreak, which all contributes to give the LP an extra edge. This included a sudden fall from grace for their former band Night Engine. After immediately igniting a wave of media attention, they instantly released a couple of singles and were added to the bill at Reading Festival as well as a tour support slot with The 1975. Then, in one awful week, proposed publishing and recording deals fell through shortly before they were signed and their bassist left the band, leaving them in tatters.

Artificial Pleasure rose from the ashes of this and in came the recruitment of Rich Zbaraski on bass, “They had everything I loved about Talking Heads, but with Bowie soundscape and the angst of the LA punk scene,” he explained.

The Bowie and Talking Heads comparisons are only natural, both sonically and sartorially, but it would be simplistic to listen to The Bitter End and only reference these two artists. There are shades of The Clash and Gang of Four throughout, as well as smatterings of The Beach Boys and Funkadelic. All the while, the four men cling onto an identity that doesn’t fall into pastiche mode.

In terms of production and recording, they’ve been faithful to a DIY approach throughout, which has yielded some avant-garde production techniques that really gives the LP extra personality. For example, they’ve incorporated elements of the original eight-track demos in the final production and put drum machines through guitar amps to create an industrial snare without it sounding too digital. On sinister instrumental ‘Stammheim’, for example, they even borrowed a sample sound of a railing being hit with a bottle in a tunnel.

‘Wound up Tight’ is one of the record highlights and starts off with a muscular bassline and an industrial soundscape that morphs into a banger under the backdrop of dark lyrical themes about being in a constant state of unrest and worry. Whilst recent single ‘On a Saturday Night’ fuses stylish pop with etchings of catchy funk and lightening synths that wouldn’t be out of place on a Roxy Music album.

They even enter krautrock territory for the three-minute intro of album epicentre ‘People Get Everywhere’. Meanwhile, ‘I’ll Make It Worth Your While’ is possibly the band’s most famous track though and showcases everything great about them in a neat three minutes that morphs funky grooves with a seductive rhythmic ambiance.

It caps off an album that showcases an expansive sound which defies categorisation. Whether it’s the angular post-punk guitars, the tight rhythmic grooves or the disco-tinged energy, it all comes together to paradoxically create a sound that is completely fresh.

Paul Hill