The Otherly Opus by Joy Electric (Review)

Ronnie Martin’s antediluvian history concept record takes even the most familiar of Biblical tales and puts a newly poignant spin on them.
The Otherly Opus, Joy Electric

The term “synth-pop” has always been used to describe Joy Electric’s music. While the term is certainly correct technically — indeed, Ronnie Martin has often taken great pride in his music’s synthetic nature — it feels rather, well, lacking. I mean, anyone with an Erasure fixation and access to a synth or two can create synth-pop. What Martin does under the Joy Electric moniker is something else entirely. For starters, how many other artists in the genre craft elaborate fairy tale mythologies as praise songs for Jesus Christ, sing odes to both the genius of Nikola Tesla and the joy of domestic life, or in the case of The Otherly Opus, create a concept record about antediluvian history?

The Otherly Opus actually consists of two parts. The first five tracks make up The Otherly Opus, and they’ll be fondly looked upon by those who are fans of Joy Electric circa We Are the Music Makers and Old Wives Tales. These tracks have an old school feel to them, with Martin pining away for magical eras, phantoms, Harry Houdini, fairy tale lands, and all of those other things that made us fall in love with his music in the first place — specifically, the themes of nostalgia, magic, and wonder.

Meanwhile, the all-too-familiar sounds of Martin’s array of analog synths — the bleeps and bloops that are unfortunately often brushed off as Nintendo music — duck, dive, coo, giggle, and whisper, the synthetic melodies moving with a grace that comes from decades of perfecting one’s craft. However, Martin is not simply resting on his laurels. While the “all analog” aesthetic is still very much in effect, there are some noticeable changes to the tried and true Joy Electric sound.

Martin’s voice has often taken a backseat to those bloops and bleeps, but it’s much more prevalent here than on previous albums, with some songs containing over 50 vocal tracks. Which gives the album an urgency and presence that is sometimes disconcerting and even disturbing. This is most obvious on the album’s latter half, titled The Memory of Alpha, a loosely-conceived concept piece about the period of history between the fall of Mankind and the Great Flood. Tracks such as “The Memory of Alpha” and “Red Will Dye These Snows Of Silver” are almost alarming, what with the forwardness of Martin’s vocals, which are layered and arrayed in a manner usually reserved for his synthetic noises.

While not as obviously Christian as previous works such as Christiansongs, Martin’s belief and even delight in the stories of the Bible are still obvious enough. The songs in The Memory of Alpha all deal with the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, and the resulting aftermath — “The Memory of Alpha” expands upon Adam’s eating the forbidden fruit, “Red Will Dye These Snows Of Silver” is a retelling of Cain and Abel, and “A Glass To Count All The Hours” ends the album with a lament for paradise lost.

While Martin’s lyrics are still flowery as ever, that doesn’t hide the fact that he’s quite capable of using such imagery to take even the most familiar of Biblical tales and put a newly poignant spin on them.

On “The Memory of Alpha,” Martin sings as the soon-to-fall Adam: “I thought I heard you speaking/Trembling as you inch towards my embrace/What is it that you’re holding/You replied, before the innocence had left my eyes.” Meanwhile, “Red Will Dye These Snows Of Silver” sings of Cain’s legacy (“Famous by the mark inflicted on your life/The generations find new use for your crime” before closing with a particularly chilling image (“On green hills an angel/Guards a bleak reminder/For all time”).

Ronnie Martin’s music has often been ridiculed by both those within and without Christendom, due to his fey vocals and lyrics, the seemingly silly and frivolous nature of his music, and the oh-so-earnest Christianity expressed in his lyrics. Meanwhile, Martin has simply continued to plow ahead, devoting himself to his own unique aesthetic with an almost monastic devotion. The results of this are albums such as The Otherly Opus, albums for which a term such as “synth-pop” only barely describes the skill, delights, and even wisdom that they contain.