The Ultras 88 224.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
At the height of the ecstatically raved-out late-Nineties, warehouses and empty fields across Israel were routinely outfitted with generators, makeshift mobile sound systems and ultraviolet lamps, while mega-clubs like Jerusalem's Haoman 17 earned a spot on the European DJ touring circuit.
Seminal Dutch new wave band Minimal Compact was comprised of Israeli expatriates. And while Depeche Mode might have cancelled its summer 2006 Tel Aviv appearance due to the Second Lebanon War (over 40,000 tickets were ultimately refunded), for a few weeks it looked like the band was set to close out its world tour here - largely thanks to grassroots efforts by the local branch of the Depeche Mode Fan Club, one of the most active branches in the world.
Electronic music caught on in Israel.
Regardless of the country's love for electronic sounds over the years, before The Ultras, "Synth-pop in Hebrew didn't really exist," asserts Ultras frontman Sassi Zur.
With Zur on vocals (as well as on production and songwriting duties) and Dadi Mishali on keyboards, samplers and programming, the duo is doing its utmost to break new ground. "We're forging a new Israeli sound that will be contemporary and will speak to what Israeli life is like," says Zur.
It's new ground that's based in a throwback sense of aesthetics, but, according to Zur, "We're coming at it from another angle, taking some of the elements from synth music to a new direction that is suitable for singing along and for the radio."
If the Pet Shop Boys had been raised on the shores of Tel Aviv and had come of age in 2008, they might sound something like The Ultras' do on their debut full-length album, Not Bitter But Bored, set to hit stores on August 1. It's neither club grooves (insufficiently suitable for singing along, according to The Ultras) nor '80s pop (anachronistic and only for teenyboppers, according to The Ultras). "What we do is take the best parts of both and give it a contemporary feel," explains Zur. "Back then, it was for youth pop, and this is more mature - with deeper lyrics. On the other end, trance is huge in Israel, but not in people's houses, so we take elements from that too."
THE ULTRAS got their start in 2006 when they cut a demo EP, launched a Web site, played a few Tel Aviv gigs and started building a fan base. After landing a spot opening for German electro-industrial act In Strict Confidence at the Koltura club, the band snagged a distribution deal with the local Base imprint - which also handles artists like Maya Buskila and Pablo Rosenberg - and with Utah-based international synth-pop distributor A Different Drum.
While most Israeli bands market themselves internationally by releasing English-language versions of their wares, the marketing people at A Different Drum had nothing like that in mind. "They said that the foreign tongue put to progressive sounds has the potential to get people excited," says Zur.
With a few weeks to go until the Bitter release, the promotional machinery is doing its best to garner radio airplay for two singles, while Zur and Mishali are busying themselves by rehearsing for their upcoming concert tour. They've been playing with four other musicians and searching for "a new live energy to the songs," as Zur puts it.
Meanwhile, the pair's "Superman's Birthday" single has been slowly penetrating playlists on various municipal stations, but mainstream national media pipes like Galgalatz have been reluctant to back The Ultras. "We've encountered comments from the powers that be that have resisted conceptualizing of mainstream success for this type of music," says Zur.
But at the same time, he's confident that the post-release concert tour will change all of that. "We think that if we write songs that are actually good and that people find catchy and can identify with, it doesn't matter what niche genre we're in - we'll succeed."
In the meantime, Zur and Mishali are playing it safe and not quitting their day jobs. "I work in the offices of a computer company," confesses Zur into the phone from his cubicle, "and Dadi works in marketing - hey, it's not unrelated experience."
More information on The Ultras, along with some sample songs, can be heard at www.myspace.com/ultrasmusic and at ultras-music.com