So Monarchy, so mysterious. The English “synthpop” duo have courted the enigmatic since they formed in 2009: initially concealing their identities à la Daft Punk, their first live show was projected into space. In 2011 after playing Coachella they spent Christmas with Dita von Teese, who is such a huge fan she appears on two of their tracks and made a video with them. It took Monarchy five years to release their second album Abnocto in March 2015, which was shortly followed by an eclectic collection of electrocuted cover songs including Blur’s “Girls and Boys” and a sombre re-imagining of “Eternal Flame.” Monarchy allegedly split in April 2015, only to reunite less than 6 weeks later. Who are they? What have they been doing for the last 5 years? Little will be revealed, it seems.

If there’s one word to describe Monarchy’s sound, it’s sexy. The masked duo have been labelled electropop or synthpop, but this overlooks the darker, dirtier elements of their music. They are somewhere between the black and the white: rousing, sometimes even euphoric melodies are contrasted by an electronic rawness that is both cold and alluring.

Monarchy open with ‘Dancing in the Corner’, a sultry number punctuated by staccato synth effects and a sombre, heavy bassline. It’s a slow burner, quietly resentful lyrics sung in the style of Neil Tennant leading up to the histrionic crescendo: “They don’t want to see us free/Fuck it we don’t need them/Fuck it we don’t them.”

Then there’s the melancholic ‘Falling in Love with a Memory’. Despite its mournful subject matter – “She waits for him while the seasons turn/The flame in her heart it will always burn/Keep falling in love falling in love with a memory” – the music itself is irresistibly danceable. This is a common thread throughout their latest material – the contrast between the dark energy of their dancehouse beats and an often tragic lyrical style.

‘The Beautiful Ones’ is a straight-up 80s homage that wouldn’t be out of place on an OMD album, sparse and introspective. And yet it’s immediately followed by the poetic “Almost Human,” sung beautifully a cappella. What emerges is the real versatility of Ra Black’s voice – within a single song he can range from a Placebo-esque aloofness to singing like a fallen angel.

Monarchy have a lot of fun with covers too, as is evident from their latest album release ReVision. One of the more interesting takes is on Lana del Rey’s ‘Video Games’ which DJ and producer Andrew Armstrong has expertly deconstructed, simplified and rewired on a low-key synth setting. Here Black sounds like Mike Patton in Faith No More’s ‘I Started A Joke’ – his sad vulnerability serves as the perfect foil to the electronic framework.

If there’s one song that truly represents Monarchy’s dynamism, it’s “Disintegration.” There’s a little bit of everything in there – some heavy percussion, some heartache, some Gothic organ, some operatics, some serious 80s beats. There is a contrast between the fabricated and the natural – a declaration that no machine can ever replicate raw human emotion. With the album version featuring Dita von Teese, played live her husky whisperings are overwritten by a robotic drone – “Disintegration, suffocation, my life is taken, my annihilation” – that perfectly emphasizes Black’s defiant and raw crescendo: “Take my love for you.”

By the end the crowd, having initially stood rather coyly at the back of the room until Armstrong jokingly threatened not to play another song until we got into the spirit, is dancing with abandon to two more Abnocto favourites ‘Black Widow’ and ‘Living Without You’. Live, Monarchy are curiously complex – their sound is at once sexy, raucous, melancholic, intoxicating and eminently danceable. As they come back onto the stage for the encore there’s one final surprise – a daring cover of Nirvana’s “Lithium,” which is probably the strangest part of their set. Unlike Monarchy’s other covers there has been an effort to remain true to the original, as if they didn’t dare synth it up. It’s a brave thing to cover Nirvana and I’m not sure it worked, but by the end we were all so in love with Monarchy they could almost do no wrong. Who knows what their PR company has been doing for the last 5 years but these guys should be massive: watch this space.

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Bee Gebhardt

A jack-ette of all trades (and arguably mistress of none), I’m an editor, law student, avid runner, travel fiend, wine-guzzler and above all, music lover. Originally from South Africa, I’m now a proud Mancunian. This city is awesome − the only thing I can complain about is the damn weather.