Serendipity. It’s defined by Merriam-Webster as, “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.” It’s also a force that takes you through an unexpected back road that leads to some of the best and most unforgettable paths. There is nothing that could better describe how the band Strange Advance come upon my own battered and thirsty shores. In this case, the back road in question started at a very homey, used bookstore on the outskirts of town, complete with a metal roof that belied a possible agri-industrial root. Run by a very kind and gentle man who had offered me a discount as thanks for helping him find an out-of-print book, the store was amazing and too short lived.
Nestled among a murder of old and oak-steady bookshelves was a teeny-tiny section of VHS tapes. Well into the 2000s, this was pretty unusual but being a culture-fiend, I immediately scoped it out. Standing out from the wee arcane-technology pack was a black and pink spine with the words Picture Music splayed on the side in a font that was more eighties than Reagan and Thatcher dirty dancing their way to world destruction. This particular tape was a rare gem of the video-age: the music video compilation. An already lost art, the music video comp was a great way to have easy access to not only artists that were getting healthy airplay on MTV and MuchMusic in Canada, but also to get exposed to bands and videos that were not as visible on major cable outlets. (Especially in the US.) Picture Music featured artists ranging from Kim Carnes to Helix, Red Rider to Eddie Jobson, J. Geils Band, and, of course, Strange Advance.
Needless to say, I immediately bought it.
There are some gems on that tape but the one that captured and absolutely gripped me, was Strange Advance’s “She Controls Me.” I had vaguely heard of the band before then but nothing could have prepared me for this. The video itself, directed by a production company entitled Cinerock, is striking, utilizing a simple post-modern set that is as angular as it is futuristic. The band, consisting of its two core members, Darryl Kromm (vocals, lead guitar) and Drew Arnott (vocals, keyboards, percussion), as well as Paul Iverson (bass), and Billy (drums, though for years I always referred to him in my head as angry Jon Cryer) are dressed in suits that suitably looks more like a stylish uniform for a mission that is more in line with artificial environments than anything on Earth. These are not preening boys for a jaded, hormones-laced-with-advertising-influenced audience, but men looking anguished while playing a song sporting sophisticated synths mixed with strong guitar while Kromm sings about love and obsession. The viewer is consistently denied seeing the full face of the titular “She,” making her more of an obtuse fixation than a whole, red-blooded woman. The video is smart but the lightning bolt of the great musicianship, the physical presence of the band coupled with the striking lyrics….needless to say, it was total sonic love.
She controls the way I feel/She can make you crash/She can make it real
“She Controls Me”
In a sea of bands that utilized a heavy synth sound and pop sensibility, Strange Advance stand out as their own captains, creating music that cannot be cleanly categorized as anything except potent. Arnott and Kromm are the songwriters and musicians of past, present, and future generations.
The genesis of Strange Advance formed in 1979 in Terminal City itself, Vancouver. Kromm and Arnott had previously played together in the mid-1970’s British Colombian band called Slan. After parting ways, the two reunited in 1979 and, according to an archived web page from The Canadian Pop Encyclopedia, were making the rounds on the Vancouver bar circuit as a cover band called Remote Control. (Side note, this is also the name of an exceptional album by The Tubes, which was released in 1979.) In Remote Control, there was also a bassist named Paul Iverson, whom would go on to be a part of the first line-up of Strange Advance.
Behind the hills and scared to hell/Tears were murdered on their cheeks/
They pushed the blankets from their legs and crumbled to their knees
“One Chance in a Million”
Fast forward to late 1982 with the band releasing their debut album, Worlds Away. From feet first, Strange Advance established themselves by instantly forming their own category. In a year where synthpop was king on the charts, the band seemed to be framed in that subgenre, even at one point primed to tour with Kajagoogoo in Europe. (Which is utterly bizarre, since the latter was definitely more of a candy-coated and fluff-centered outfit. There is zero wrong with this, of course, but it is a weird combination of bands.)
Worlds Away does have some catchy songs with a strong pop-hook, with “Prisoner” being the biggest example. But even with that song and especially the three singles from the album (“She Controls Me,” “Love Games,” and “Kiss in the Dark,”) there’s something else there. A subtle edge of torment and sweet fixation riddles a lot of the love songs, resulting in work that is never ever in danger of losing any depth. Even in the promotional videos for “She Controls Me” and “Love Games,” Darryl Kromm looks more intense than anything. These were men not trying to pose for MTV or MuchMusic, but real artists creating something special with reverb and resonance with no sell-by date.
Speaking of the two videos, the outfit that created them, Cinerock, was headed by a former ad man named John Diaz. Cinerock was a company that, according to a piece in the September 11th, 1982 issue of Billboard, wanted to create a “niche doing conceptual clips and longer pieces.” This ties in pretty nicely with the videos for “Love Games” and “She Controls Me.” Both clips feature gray and pastel sets, often in angular shapes, not that far removed from a 1980’s variation of German Expressionism design, and the band wearing black and gray suits that fit well with the surrounding areas.
Both also feature a female model and with “She Controls Me,” in lieu of your typical 1980’s glamour model, we’re given a near faceless woman who is is the object of the song’s tormented fix. The end result is throttled voyeurism that adds a rich edge to an already fantastic song. The band looks good, with all involved looking serious, especially Kromm, whose presence brings such an artful gravitas to the proceedings. All of this highlights the song’s duality of both sexual enamoration and the angst when you have sacrificed part of yourself to focus on someone else.
“Love Games” has a similar motif except with a more traditional approach concerning the female model, whose face we get a full look at while dressed like the love child of Mrs. Scarlet and Mrs. White from Clue, and of course, she antagonizes poor Darryl Kromm. It’s more standard but still well made and the song, per usual, is primed and ready in its textured pop goodness. As far as I know, there was no video created for “Kiss in the Dark,” which is too bad since it is another strong single, featuring great lyrics like “…know you to love you to tears…” Even when Arnott and Kromm write love songs, there’s a mature sense of passion and fear. Plastic-pap love songs that ruled then and now have zero place in the Strange Advance musical universe.
We burned, the fire from the Sun/I know you never tried to deceive/
Who can touch us when we run?
“We Run” (The Extended Mix)
Three years later, the band released their second album, appropriately titled 2wo. A strong follow-up from the rock-solid excellence of Worlds Away, 2wo, proved to be even more commercially successful, helming two hits in the form of “The Second I Saw You” and especially “We Run.” 2wo went gold in Canada but more importantly, it further solidified the fact that Strange Advance continued to be a band that you could not wedge neatly into any boxes. You have the sunny pop of “The Second I Saw You” but then the post-apocalyptic dusty ambiance of the cryptically titled “Prelude,” the understated prog feel of “Nor Crystal Tears,” to the emotional and sonic heaviness of “Home of the Brave.” (The latter features some of Kromm’s best vocals, which is high praise given how much he always brings to the table.)
You’re on your own & meet a friend. Who doesn’t kill but wounds for life.
The sun blinds you through the trees. While watching clues fall from the sky
“We Run” (All versions.)
Standing far and proud from an album of great songs is “We Run,” providing that rare moment where a band’s biggest charting hit also being one of their best songs. “We Run” has some of Arnott’s most haunting lyrics, with the man also singing lead and doing a mighty fine job, with his voice bringing a proper quiet depth. Emerging in the Cold War that was omnipresent throughout the 1980s, “We Run” eschews any overt political statements by painting, instead, a damaged landscape and a humanity that is trying to vainly free itself from the very cross we have nailed ourselves to. The beauty of having songwriters like Drew Arnott is that he can paint an entire picture in one turn of phrase than whole albums composed by corporate rock stars doing the proletariat posture.
The music just sweeps into the song, fleshing out the band’s vision, with every sound and instrument serving as colors of black, rust, and bruise violet. Curiously, there are a few different versions of “We Run.” There is the main version that’s on the album, but there’s also another one that is nearly identical except for it being longer and featuring extra key lyrics. Drew Arnott actually tells the story of everything that went into the making and producing this song on the official Strange Advance web page. (I highly recommend checking out their site and reading about this in the man’s own words.) This includes how the original mix had extra lyrics, most notably the sole back and forth between Arnott and Kromm’s vocals that is absolutely my favorite part of the song. The two blend so beautifully together and the lyrics themselves are unsurprisingly near perfect. Who can touch us when we run, indeed.
The closest equivalent I have found that fits Arnott’s description is the extended single mix of “We Run,” which was released on the 1995 SPG Music Ltd various artists release Classic Alternatives Volume Three. The album version is great, since this song is masterful any way you want to slice or dice it, but the extended single mix is exquisite and definitely should be sought out. Another song that has an alternate mix from 2wo is “Just Like You.” The main mix is good but the alternative mix, which was posted on YouTube by Arnott, has more sonic texture, stronger bass, and some sweet flourishes, making it the best fit for lyrics like, “..I think I’ve gone too far this time. And I feel like I should change my point of view. Time fades like the shadows in the sun…” But like “We Run,” both mixes are fine and definitely do not harm the song in any way.
We forgot how to think. We forgot how to feel.
We’re barely crawling, but how we try to stand.
“Who Lives Next Door”
In 1988, the band released their third and as of early 2019, final album, The Distance Between. While not quite as heavy as the first two albums, The Distance Between is a rich and vibrant work, featuring the band’s ability to have both songs about love and our own beautiful and morally mottled human condition. Even with their poppiest and sweetest songs, there is that uniform depth and brilliantly crafted line that defines Strange Advance.
Speaking of which, the album’s two singles, “Love Becomes Electric” and “Till the Stars Fall” both have this big jubilance about their sound. “Till the Stars Fall” is a sweet love song, while “Love Becomes Electric” has to be one of the most clever tunes about the joys and questions of experiencing physical love with a new partner. This pop beauty has such great lines like, “Your silken smile, stardust a while. Your solar flesh, your synchromesh! And now….oh no.” It’s such a fun honest song with much big light and a killer mix of guitar and synth, which was no mean feat in the late eighties, an era that was wrought with tinny synths and Tupperware-sleek production. Thin-sounding synths were never, ever a problem with this band, thank Hades.
Another standout on The Distance Between is “Who Lives Next Door.” Written by Drew and Paul Hyde (best known for his work in The Payola$) and sung by Arnott, this is a straight-from-the-conscience commentary about the stuntedness of the ongoing state of things for humanity. This song features some on-the-money perception with zero egos or preachiness, eschewing such attitudes for a point of view of one who can see all too well the folly of our fellow man and even ourselves. The more things change, the more that they have always remained the same. The fear and sad-eyed-knowing that streams through “We Run” and “Who Lives Next Door” is just as prevalent and relevant now as it was when first pressed to vinyl and disc.
While the band’s Wikipedia entry has them breaking up in 1995, their bio on their homepage mentions that they took a break for thirty years, lining up with their last album release. Either way, there are two important things to note here. No matter what year they decided to take a break, this vastly underrated band released a trio of mighty albums that shine as bright now as they did in the 1980s. Great art is never truly dated and that is the case with Strange Advance because what they created strikes sharply on so many levels today. Even better is that after the aforementioned thirty years, the band has resurfaced with a crowdfunding effort that is tied with the goal of launching a new tour later this year. Given that unlike so many of their peers, this band has genuinely been out of the spotlight for years, so seeing this kind of reemergence feels like the twinkle of distance and art-hope-gift that is both wanted and truly needed.
From stumbling upon a long out-of-print VHS music videotape to fully delving into a small but oh-so-rich discography, the work of Strange Advance is accessible without even giving a nod towards sacrificing thought, vision, and that crucial organ that none of us can live without. (And if any of you smart asses reading this say stomach or liver, I will literally give you the stern eyebrow arch of eternal dismay.) From Worlds Away to our world now, this is a band whose crucialness remains steadfast and true forevermore.