Creating ‘80s-influenced goth-pop in 2022 is tricky. Artists inevitably run the risk of being too stylistically aligned with the stalwarts of the genre, but they also have to determine where and how to push their own ideas to the forefront. The wrong balance can end up alienating, particularly for listeners who have worshipped at the altar of gloom, glam, and groove for four decades now.
This is what sets Molly Nilsson apart from other underground artists with an analog synth aesthetic. Nilsson has been crafting spectacular electro-pop since 2008, and her aesthetic is as appealing as ever on Extreme. Across eleven top-notch tunes, she weaves sharp songwriting with buzzing ambiance and familiar chord changes with resounding success. Released via her Dark Skies Association imprint, this is immediately recognizable music in that the songs play to their goth roots but the overall mood is forward-looking instead of navelgazing.
It definitely helps that Nilsson is afraid of neither danceable grooves nor pop immediacy. In that regard, the album is reminiscent of Siouxie Sioux, Depeche Mode, and Robyn alike. Nilsson also sounds both pissed-off and purposeful, which is perfect for her raucous, guitar-centric tracks, the sort of stuff that readily lends itself to club-ready remixes. However, her superior musical instincts reveal themselves when she slows down the pacing to fold in more of the genre’s traditional bittersweet melancholy.
Extreme delivers its mission statement from the opening track, as “Absolute Power” ripples with aggressive, buzzing guitars and industrial drumming. With “Sweet Smell of Success,” Nilsson cranks up the glower to impressive levels, complete with an effects loop of persistent clicks that sets one’s teeth on edge. It’s easy to imagine her prowling a darkly lit stage with a savage sneer on her face while the music pummels the ears of the crowd.
“They Will Pay” features a crushing drum machine pattern that is also remarkably danceable, thanks to the sarcastic sway in Nilsson’s vocals, which are stacked in post-production to the point of being overdriven. The album concludes with “Pompeii,” a gleeful dance-pop tune, despite the ominous overtones of the subject material. It comes across as a welcome soundtrack to the apocalypse: You know that the end of the world is coming soon, so you might as well have a good time with your friends.
The instrumentation and arrangements shine throughout, especially in how they combine to give Nilsson’s reverb-soaked alto plenty of room to move. Keening synths and warm pads carry the day, as they rise above ambient minimalism to deliver melodies with bounce and heft. A fusion of brash guitars and thick bass create layers of distorted noise that sneakily hide the ample pop hooks. While some tunes feature a matter-of-fact drum machine and others showcase clattering percussion, it’s obvious that propulsive rhythms are essential to this entire project.
Bursting with energy and heart, Extreme also resists any sort of overt sparkle or shimmer. At times, the album would benefit from sharper guitars and less ‘80s schmaltz, especially in the 3rd quarter. However, that production note could also chalked up as a matter of personal taste since the material mostly matches the overall flow.
Molly Nilsson possesses a penchant for pursuing mountaintop highs with her songs, and she manages to reach for the sky without sounding too wide-eyed and naive. Moreover, she knows how to show off the right level of vintage goth moodiness, even though it feels more like sly side-eye instead of dour depression. This is how to update old sounds with new thinking in a way that respects the audience’s musical intelligence.
Label: Dark Skies Association