I’ve always thought of Ladytron as rainy-day music. Not as in, you stay inside and curl up on your sofa with a blanket, a novel, and a warm cup of tea. More like, it’s raining but you’re out in the city at midnight anyway, and you drop some molly on the train before forgetting your umbrella and getting separated from your friends, and there are a lot of lights and loud sounds, and it’s basically a one of those movie scenes where the protagonist walks deliberately through a nightclub, in some kind of daze, unaffected by the throbbing beat and whirling dancers all around.
That’s from their first record, 604, and it quickly made clear what Ladytron’s sound was all about. Heavy electronic melody and bass lines; an overly synthesized “drum” track; slow-to-mid-speed tempos; and alto-range, robotic, almost somnolent female vocals. AllMusic describes them thusly:
Mixing synth pop, shoegaze, and indie pop into a sound all their own …
Wikipedia puts it slightly differently:
Their sound blends electropop with new wave and shoegazing elements.
Whatever, music writers. The album cover says it all.
(We wear black clothing like Kraftwerk. We use electronics. We named our band after its influences—ladies and Tron.)
There are two kinds of tracks on 604. There are the poppy, disco-inflected, upbeat ones, like “Playgirl,” “The Way that I Found You,” “Discotraxx,” and “Ladybird.” And then there are the even slower, space-jam ones. That’s where “Mu-Tron” (above) fits. No lyrics, no dance beat. Just a groove, if by groove you mean a computer.
Ladytron got together in Liverpool in 1999. They are, in fact, named after the Roxy Music song “Ladytron.” The first two members were Daniel Hunt and Reuben Wu, and—surprise! They were both producers and DJs. Who isn’t? They later met Helen Marnie, a Scottish musician who had just finished her bachelor’s degree in pop music. Yes, that is a real degree . She joined the band, as did Mira Aroyo, a Bulgarian transplant who was studying for a Ph.D. in genetics at Oxford. In order to not be sexist, I am also noting that Wu has a master’s in industrial design, and Hunt’s education is not listed on Wikipedia.
This well-educated, international quartet of synth-loving musicians released 604 in early 2001 on indie electronic label Emperor Norton Records, then put out their follow-up, Light & Magic, at the end of 2002. Marnie and Aroyo sang, Hunt and Wu produced, and everyone played synths. I wish there was more to say about their personalities, but I don’t know anything about them as humans.
That appears to be part of their schtick. The songs that do have lyrics are allusive but generic, offering little insight into the people behind them. The lyrics from “Flicking Your Switch,” for instance, weave strings of numbers into the song’s tale of distrust, like a one-sided computer argument. Meanwhile, Aroyo and Marnie’s vocals are washed through a dozen compressors, coming out like breathy proto-Siri algorithms (possibly in Bulgarian) while Wu and Hunt stand wordlessly at their synths.
Light and Magic is such a tight follow-up to 604 that the two could almost comprise a double album. That changes with 2005’s Witching Hour. The band’s third album introduces elements that generally make music more … listenable? Things like dynamic contrast and verse-chorus lyrical construction. On their first two records, Ladytron’s songs stayed at the same level of energy throughout. The synths got turned on and the words came out in a machine-code stream. But now they’ve decided to make their songs sound like songs. I’m fairly certain “Destroy Everything You Touch” is their best-known track.
Veteran trip-hop producer James Abbiss joined them in the booth for this album, which moved the band toward a more industrial rock sound. They even brought some guitars into the mix, as on “Sugar,” which could easily have been a Nine Inch Nails track if its lyrics were a little more devastating.
2008’s Velocifero, their fourth studio album, continued in this new direction. Nine Inch Nails (aha!) guitarist Alessandro Cortini co-produced, as did DJ/remixer Vicarious Bliss. The record is interested in exploring the interplay between heavy and airy, dark and light, cold and warm, where previous albums were all tilted toward one side of those spectra. “There’s a ghost in me,” the ladies sing on “Ghosts,” “Who wants to say I’m sorry/Doesn’t mean I’m sorry.”
“Predict the Day” gives us Ladytron’s trademark repetitive lyrics, changing one or two words at a time (maybe to see if we’re paying attention?) and bubblegum Wendy Carlos synthwork. But it owes more to electronic dance music production techniques and DJ culture than their previous work. The band plays with layering the tracks up and down, and they even put a drop in there, right where it should be. I almost suspect they made this song as their own remix, rather than waiting for someone else to remix it instead.
Writing these Artist Spotlights has been extremely enjoyable and fulfilling, but also challenging. I have a new appreciation for people who write about music. For me, the difficulty lies in finding with the right words to describe disparate experiences without saying the same things over and over again. It also makes sense to interrogate those descriptions. For instance, when I say that Ladytron’s fifth album, Gravity the Seducer (2011), has a more atmospheric sound than its predecessors, what does that even mean?
I think when I say “atmospheric,” I mean some combination of the following properties: a wide-open sound, which comes from the production; lighter sonic textures, as opposed to heavier sounds; shimmery effects like static, waves, cymbals, or a synth version of some of all of those; and smooth, sustained vocals.
I only really know the basic basics of music production, so in order to get more fully into the band’s evolution in that area, I went to a website that will do a spectral analysis of any sound clip you upload, and then made screencaps from the first verse of two Ladytron songs: “Playgirl,” off their first album, and “Altitude Blues,” off their last.
You can see from the graphs that most of the volume in “Playgirl” is clustered around the lower end of the auditory spectrum, while in “Altitude Blues,” the sound is more spread out. This may be why Ladytron’s earlier works remind me of rain and sound a little muddled: the layers of each track were all clumped in the same aural range, and they overlapped each other a lot. Or, it may mean nothing, as I could be interpreting these graphs all wrong. YMMV(?).
Ladytron has done nothing as a band in the last five years. (Helen Marnie did release a solo album in 2013.) This is strange, not only because they’d been consistent in their prior output, but also because of the revival of heavy synth music over the last few years. The mostly retro, ’80s-inspired synthwave movement has taken off, and its adherents and imitators are now mainstays on soundtracks for “it” movies and TV shows, from Drive to It Follows straight through to Stranger Things.
While Ladytron’s music is substantially different from, say, Dan Terminus or Electric Youth, you’d think they could still hop on that wave, much like the Mighty Mighty Bosstones rode No Doubt and Sublime’s coattails in the late ’90s, despite preceding both bands in the ska-punk scene. And maybe they will—the last update on Ladytron’s website said they’d soon return from their five-year hiatus with an unnamed project. In the meantime, stay synthy, my friends.