The Nova Echo's recent age 16+ show at Stella Blue contained a lot of elements foreign to Asheville: No beer was served, for starters. And then there's the matter of the tightly crafted, immaculately produced electro-pop. It's possible that, not since Sinead Lohan's tour stopped (inexplicably) at Stella Blue in 1998, has such a major label-ready band taken that stage. But the Nova Echo has all the elements of stars in the making, from their astral-themed songs to their enviable hair to their pop culture references.
"I wrote this song for Heath Ledger 'cause he was f—-in' cool," said vocalist/guitarist Caleb Hanks before launching into "Icarus" from the band's just-released, self-titled, self-recorded debut disc. The song's techno intro is seamlessly paired with live drumming; pretty much the Nova Echo's sound. The band, formed in January of 2008 but only serious since April of '09, borrows the best of synth pop from the 80s (think Psychedlic Furs), pairs it with serious rock chops (bass, keys, guitar and percussion by Matt Hixon, Evan Bradford, Will Arledge and Lee Brooks, respectively) and adds wistful, poetic lyrics ("After several hours out in space/ it starts to settle in with this universal disconnection/ you work for me like anti gravity/ but that's one in a thousand things I will never tell you"). The live show is a high energy delivery complete with taut harmonies and synched projections (of, naturally, galaxy-scapes).
For all the polish, the Stella Blue show didn't come without its technical difficulties. A blown amp resulted in several minutes of down time. However, Hanks — the consummate frontman — regaled the audience with jokes about Angelina Jolie and Bill Cosby and did impressions of Stephen Hawking using Twitter.
Hanks' comfort in front of the audience is obvious: Yahoo answers turned up starry-eyed fan musings like "My friend and I became big fans and have been obsessed with them. We took a picture w/ the lead singer, and this morning, got on the escalator w/ him multiple times" and "He came up and hugged me and my friends … Anyway, I found out that his name is Caleb Hanks! He's a hottie! Nova Echo is awesome." (Hanks, by the way, is the former bassist for Dawn of the Dude and currently plays mandolin with bluegrass band Buncombe Turnpike — a far cry from synth pop. Further expanding the sonic spectrum, the Nova Echo ended their Stella Blue set with a bumpin' cover of Sean Kingston's reggaeton hit "Fire Burning.")
Stage presence goes a long way, but it's the Nova Echo's performance that really wins fans. When the band played "Satellite A1" (note to Ford Motor Company: option this one for your next commercial), the crowd went crazy. Everyone was singing along (hooky chorus: "But if you call my name/ you'll hear my heart through the satellite/ and the stars will fall from the sky"), girls were crying, and boys were dancing on the speakers. Really.
For all its techy prowess (Auto-Tune processors, vocoder software), the Nova Echo waxes blasé about that aspect of the sound. "Now it's all sexy-like," Hanks joked of one beat he produced from his la top on stage. "I spend way too much time programming this shit." But that blend of real-time instrumentation, tech loops and futuristic-romantic lyrics makes for instantly addictive songs.
The Nova Echo returns to Stella Blue on Friday, Nov. 20 (with By Morning and Metroid Metal). 9 p.m. www.myspace.com/thenovaecho.