Nation of Language Channels Eighties Synth Pop Revival

Acclaimed trio’s L.A. show is a taster for this weekend’s Cruel World Festival in Pasadena

For some initial moments at the Fonda Theatre in Hollywood, the mood was understated and calm as the acclaimed synth-pop trio Nation of Language stepped onstage Wednesday night. They were accompanied by prerecorded ethereal sounds of the ambient tradition, but the serenity was quickly shattered by bright robotic melodies and the torrid, euphoric vocals of singer Ian Richard Devaney, whose sound and aerobic dance moves were right out of 1983.

Devaney is a retro-future song-and-dance man. He brought to Los Angeles his band’s next-generation synth-pop from Brooklyn to preview songs from their upcoming third album, Strange Disciple, out in September. The 75-minute show was also a fitting appetizer for this weekend’s Cruel World Festival in Pasadena, hosting the likes of Siouxsie, Iggy Pop, Echo and the Bunnymen, Human League, and Gary Numan.

Nation of Language is authentic to that history, but with an energy that keeps things fresh, attracting a multi-generational audience. The trio appeared with minimal production values, mostly backlit, and with just enough stage fog to keep things pleasantly murky. That also left the stage mostly empty and wide open as Devaney’s personal dancefloor, as the barely contained frontman bounced forward and back anchored between his wife, Aidan Noell, on synths and newest member, bassist Alex MacKay.

Early in the set, “Stumbling Still,” the first single from Strange Discipline, sounded like a classic synth hit with its quick-paced Peter Hook-style bassline, as Noell hovered over her machines, swaying side to side. At one point, Noell flipped a switch to send a synth into motion, then quickly stopped and laughed. “That’s the song we just played,” Devaney said with a smile to his wife. “I didn’t like it that much.”

Hours before their sold-out Fonda concert, the trio relaxed backstage, looking back at their unexpected rise.

Devaney found himself gravitating toward synths in 2016 after his punk band, the Static Jacks, broke apart and the new songs he was writing on guitar were all sounding the same. Then he heard “Electricity,” the 1979 debut single by the UK’s Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, and got permanently hooked. “I was trying to activate a different part of my brain, to let me write some songs on keyboards instead,” he said. “It had the simplicity of punk music.”

Devaney got his hands on a vintage Moog synth and after some experimentation, gravitated towards the beats and textures of classic synth pop of the 1970s and 80s, including Human League, New Order and Kraftwerk. “I was of a mindset that simpler was better,” he said. “I didn’t want anything that was too lush or elaborate. I wanted that immediacy.”

With Noell and then-bassist Michael Sue-Poi, the new group began playing local New York clubs. By the time of their first full album, 2020’s Introduction, Presence, COVID-19 was raging, keeping them stuck at home. (Pitchfork called the debut “remarkably self-assured.”) The followup, 2021’s A Way Forward, was recorded and released late enough in the pandemic to allow for some touring, and they last year headlined two nights at the Lodge Room in Highland Park.
Along the way, Nation of Language won critical acclaim and a steadily growing audience; this week’s gig at the 1,200-seat Fonda was their first headlining show. They have yet to share the stage with any of their synth-pop forbears, and MacKay says he already has nightmares about one day seeing one of those heroes watching them play with a disapproving look. “Very scary prospect,” he said, half-joking.

That’s unlikely, since Nation of Language keeps a vibrant human element at its center, some of it unavoidable. “Luckily I am an amateur,” Noell explained with a laugh. Before joining the band, she had never played an instrument. “So I am very imperfect, and it is one of many human elements that add to my performance on the keys.”

There’s also the intense emotion and heavy breathing within Devaney’s lyrics, exploring romance and human failings as he dances nonstop as if in the final days of disco.

“I’ve most often related to songs where someone is struggling with some idea or having an existential crisis,” he said. “I’m trying to capture the flawed human experience.”