Tag Archive: electro


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Gary Numan isn’t music that normally gets reviewed on Sonic Fiction and I have to admit to having been more interested in the man’s personal struggles with Asperger’s Syndrome as a musician and human than a Numan fan, with the exceptation of his biggest hits. However, in recent years my interest has been piqued and now that Numan’s back and more high profile than he has been for years I checked “Splinter” and decided to give it a review.

The album was written during and after a period of years of depression that Numan experienced and as such the album is full of songs that talk about fear of getting older, struggling with having children, the depression and its affects including how his marriage almost broke up. So while the lyrical content is fascinating but on a similar thematic lines the music is very diverse ranging from the “creaky, gothic atmosphere of ‘Where I Can Never Be’ to the minimalism of ‘Lost’ via the dramatic, poisoned string arrangements of ‘The Calling’, monster disco floor-filler ‘Love Hurt Bleed’, the ultra catchy ‘Who Are You’ and slow build anthems ‘Everything Comes Down to This’. Numan even digs back into his with the brooding and relentless title track recalling the sound of his debut album “Replicas” (1979).” 

The album opens with ‘I Am Dust’ which begins with clanging percussion a feedbacking synth and guitars thatfeel both digital and dusty. Numan’s lead vocals and a screaming digital lead synth enter for the first verse, a hi-hat pattern drops part way through and gives the rhythm forward momentum. Then there’s a breakdown/bridge before the epic, tortured sounding chorus. When the verse kicks back in there’s a full rhythm track and ripping synth riff in place and the track powers forward!! The rhythm also gives the bridge and chorus an extra lift and more synth layers, there’s some a little more joyous in the chorus now. Next up is ‘Here in the Black’, scraping sounds and synths rise out of the dark, they give way to the dramatic strings, pizzicato synths melody and heavy guitar riff and thick bass. Everything drops away then Numan enters again singing in a whisper over thumping industrial beats, synths and deep bass. The second section returns with the strings amping the drama further and a vocal synth part cutting for a delay covered solo. Numan enters for a nasally lead vocal part, then everything drops away again. The verse section and whispering vocals enter again, halfway through a great drum break enters before the song is lifted up again for the instrumental chorus and then the nasally vocals.

‘A Shadow Falls On Me’ opens with deep echoing bass drum and cracking industrial snare/clap, swiftly joined by a feminine sounding vocal from Numan and treated detuned sounding lead synth. Hi-hats drop in around one minute in to fill out the beat and drive the track forward. Cruching guitar kick in for the last minute as a delicate melody falls over the top of tough backing track. ‘We’re the Unforgiven’ combines fizzing distorted electronic snare, subtle stuttering electro drums and cascading lead guitar during its intro. The intensity builds with the entrance of two rhythmic synths lines. Then everything falls away to make way Numan’s vocal on the first verse. Again synths build the intensity before things drift away and a synth and guitar briefly solo. The guitars and dirty synths take over the with a huge filth riff for the last two minutes of the song. The album closes with the emotive ‘My Last Day’, its opens with distant filtered percussion and synth textures that crawl along underneath reverb heavy piano and Numan’s lead vocals. Around two minutes the synth comes into view properly for a moment then everything is filtered away and the piano and vocals take over again. Three and a half minutes in the synth lead rises again and the percussion is unfiltered and tumbles beneath the piano and synth lead. There’s a yearning to the synth and piano melodies offset by the tribal percussion.

With “Splinter” Numan has snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. A man once paralysed by depression emerges to deliver a great throughly modern album that doesn’t attempt to cash in Numan’s 80’s legacy or newly heralded position as a influential figure for everyone from Nine Inch Nails to Basement Jaxx. This is Numan’s (and collaborator Ade Fenton) truimph, so lets hope it isn’t anyone seven years before we get another one.

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I’ve been a fan of Factory Floor since discovering them back in 2009 when The Quietus began championing their cause. Since then the trio have collaborated with the likes of Simon Fisher Turner, Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti, released a series of astonishing 12” singles and remixes and stunned many a gig and festival audience. All this has lead to one of most highly anticipated albums of the year and it doesn’t disappoint.

The album opens with ‘Turn It Up’ which sets the scene for the rest of the album perfectly. It opens with electronic percussion that’s swiftly followed by a bass drum, processed male vocals and intense electronic cowbell. Nik Colk’s vocals join the male vocals and the track starts to feel like a minimal Arthur Russell production but more industrial in feel. Chattering techno hi-hats cut in upping the tension. The vocals get increasingly more processed and alien as the track progresses recalling those of Laurel Halo circa ‘Logic Hour’. Next up is ‘Here Again’ which begins with a synth arpeggio that fades in and out of view. Live drums kick playing in a breakbeat style and female vocals echo out. The track reminds me of Chris & Cosey who Factory Floor have collaborated with. There a great clap that comes in around two minutess in. Another arpeggio comes in to play counterpoint to the original in the third minute. the second half of the track is dominated by lots of descending delay effects, rolling toms and chattering hi-hats Colk’s vocals hovering just above.

The single ‘Fall Back’ combines a thumping acoustic bass drum, throbbing synth arpeggio and slap in the face electronic snare and toms during its intro. Colk’s vocals cut in coated in  thick effects (pitched shifted, with maybe some reverb). The chattering hi-hats kick in around 2 minutes in and give the track extra forward momentum and a faster feel. I love the way the intensity builds and when the acid bass that kicks in part through with its great spluttering, squelchy sound. ‘Two Different Ways’ is an great track that shows off the band ability to make you dance as it does their industrial intensity. It starts off with electronic bass drum and snare, backing huge synth arpeggio, toms roll in and out and hi-hats tease, the female vocal drops in coated in reverb. Wood blocks kick in with a funky rhythm around three minutes in. Wet, gloopy delay effects drip over the mix around the four minute mark, then the track finds yet more momentum with the synth bass arpeggio growing stronger and stronger as the track progresses.

The album finishes with the one-two punch of ‘Work Out’ and ‘Breathe In’. The former picks up where ‘Two Different Ways’ left off as electronic drums and percussion thump and patter while a stabby bass synth plays over the top. Tom-toms fall all over the place. Colk’s vocal echoes out creating a harmony. In second half there are more delay effects and an arpeggio that add variety and intensity, as does noise mixed in with the hi-hats and synths. A funky more resonate synth enters around 5 minutes adding extra movement and impetus to the track. The latter is the perfect end to the album and strongly recalls Cabaret Voltaire in their mid 80’s electro prime.  A thick bass synths starts things off before being swiftly joined by a tough acoustic four to the floor beat and intermit processed vocals. The vocals are used as samples rather than typical use of lead vocals.

All-in-all Factory Floor have created a great debut album that both lives up to the four years of hype that preceded it and is also surprisingly accessible compared to what I (and most critics) had expected. Go out and get yourself a copy of “Factory Floor” you won’t regret it.

1.       Julia Holter –“Ekstasis” (RVNG INTL)

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It was obvious at the time of release that with “Ekstasis” Julia Holter had created something special and the album was made Release of the Month for March and then topped my “Top Ten Albums of the Year… so far” in June. Little has changed since then and while there has been some serious competition nothing has matched Holter in the Alternative category.

The first thing that struck me about “Ekstasis” is the brightness of its sound, gone is the shadowy and foggy atmosphere’s of last year’s excellent “Tragedy” replaced by a sharp and incisive production job to revival today’s most intelligent pop stars. Ok, so Holter’s not going to be the next million selling pop star but this album’s production is almost the opposite of “Tragedy”’s. Then there’s the effortless feel of a lot of the music, despite many of the tracks being over 6 minutes in length. There’s no feeling of over indulgence even when a saxophone rears its head on ‘Four Gardens’ and ‘This Is Ekstasis’ everything here earns its place and makes sense within the context of the songs. It would be tempting to compare Holter to her many contemporaries within the hypnogogic pop genre especially her friend and collaborator Nite Jewel. Though her use of delay and reverb create similar feelings/images the musical content aims instead to transport the listener further back than the 1980s and into the ancient world which Holter is so interested in. With “Ekstasis” Holter has created her own sound world that seems to subtle reference pre-existing sounds/genres and rhythms without ever sounding directly like anything you’ve previously heard. An artist who can switch with ease between different sounds and sections without breaking a sweat or alienating the listener, Holter is an artist with a bright and long future ahead of her.

2.       Matthew Dear – “Beams” (Ghostly International)

Matthew Dear returns with his fifth album under his own name and “Beams” is another great work from an artist who has consistently delivered the good over the years. “Beams” differs from Dear’s previous solo albums as its not produced by him but Van Rivers and the Subliminal Kid, most famous for their work with Fever Ray and Blonde Redhead, of which Dear is a fan. The album combines the dark sounds of Dear’s last album “Black City” and the Talking Heads influenced techno-pop of his masterpiece “Asa Breed”. Due to his superior production and song writing skills Dear makes combining these two different but not unconnected sounds seem like child’s play and the result is an effortless feel throughout the album.  The album begins with the singles ‘Her Fantasy’ and ‘Earthforms’ the former a tropical sounding techno pop track of the highest quality the latter Dear self described “ deepest delve into a straight rock song”. The album swiftly moves on to another tropical sounding track in ‘Headcage’ the groove led title track of Dear’s EP from January this year. Two more upbeat groove based tracks in ‘Fighting is Futile’ and the Talking Heads influenced ‘Up and Out’ whizz by and give up the more electronically inclined second half of the album. This starts with the Surging synth bass line and techno beat ‘Overtime’ that are barely contained by speakers. ‘Get the Rhyme Right’ returns to similar territory to ‘Earthforms’ but with the emphasis on twisted synths and distorted guitars that smother the drums and bass in their electric filth! Things get more sparse and down tempo on ‘Ahead of Myself’ with Dear’s breathy vocals given minimal synth and drum machine backing. Then album enters the home coming straight with ‘Do The Right Thing’ a song that starts with just a bubbling and bouncing groove topped with lo-fi simple melody but steadily and sublty develops into a full and rounded track thanks to Dear’s masterful arranging. He finishes the album with the one-two punch of ‘Shake Me’ a dark torch song that recalls Depeche Mode of their most moody and magnificent and ‘Temptation’ a slow burner that repays the listeners patience tenfold! All in all “Beams” is a great album from an artist well into his career showing that he can still learn and keep the listen guessing  and satisfied even after all this time.

3.       Orcas – “Orcas” (Morr Music)

The debut album from this Seattle duo leaves me lost for words, one of those albums that are difficult to describe without selling it short. However, I will endeavour to paint a picture of this heartbreakingly beautiful music. The dominate sounds are plaintive piano, twanging to ethereal guitars and vocals and various crackles, hums and heavily processed electronic sounds. These simple elements are manipulated to create different textures, atmospheres and emotions across nine tracks. Though the duo have created a sound of their own there are some influences/inspirations suggested by the music including Peter Broderick & Harold Budd and Robin Guthrie’s soundtrack work, the noise abstract pop of Broadcast (who are covered on the album) and indirectly reminds me of the latest Oneohtrix Point Never album “Replica”. All this is held together by the songwriting touches that are subtly weaved throughout the album helping this album raise above more generic ambient and experimental music releases.

4.       Raime – “Quarter Turns on the Living Line” (Blackest Ever Black)

On their debut album “Quarter Turns on the Living Line” Raime have thrown down the gauntlet to all artists currently working on electronic and experimental music, “up your game before it’s too late.” Though it wasn’t the duo’s intention the album sounds like the soundtrack to an unreleased film, subtly referencing John Carpenter’s “Assault on Precinct 13” score or repositioning Ennio Morricone’s work to an industrial post-apocalyptic world. The duo expand on the critically acclaimed 12”s by adding emotional depth and a more organic sound via the use of field recordings, foley samples and acoustic instrumentation such as guitar, violins and cellos. Whereas the 12”s focused strongly on the duo’s jungle and industrial influences they broaden their range here to include post-rock, the doom metal of Sunn O))) and Earth and of course those previously mentioned soundtracks. The duo also manage to maintain a balance between the dark, heavy sounds and lighter, brighter sounds; another progression from the earlier 12”s. Raime have produced one of the debut albums of year, one that leaves many more established acts in the shade. Long may these soundscapes shapers continue to reign supreme.

5.       King Felix – “Spring EP” (Liberation Technologies)

The “Spring EP” picks up where Laurel Halo left off with the “Hour Logic EP” last summer, though she has some tricks up her sleeve and the music is a lot harder to pin down. Here the rhythms wiggle and squirm restless and constantly shifting not settling into a smooth groove, this is one of the things that makes the EP so exciting you’re never quite sure what’s coming next. The first three tracks are all a variation on the same theme, Halo is so inventive within this limitation that the listener is never bored by the central theme. Halo carves out her own style while referencing the glory years of early Nineties Detroit techno. The other crucial difference between this EP and “Hour Logic” is that whereas many of the tracks on the previous EP sound submerged beneath water this is Halo least veiled work to date; she lets the tracks reveal themselves and breathe all the elements able to exhibit themselves equally. The “Spring EP” is a fantastic addition to Halo’s discography.

6.       Ekoplekz – “Westerleigh Works EP’ (Perc Trax)

Back in January this EP was marketed as Ekoplekz’s first venture into dance floor territory and listening to it you can hear why. However, Ekoplekz still keeps his trademark sounds front and centre but he uses space more effectively and percussive sounds and deep bass provide the forward motion needed in techno music. Of the three originals ‘Ekoplatz’ sounds most like his previous material while being underpinned by techno bass and percussion, the other two ‘Narco Samba’ and ‘Xylem Teardrops’ are more stripped and danceable, while Richard H. Kirk (Cabaret Voltaire) remix of ‘Ekoplatz’ follows a similar template but adds electronic woodblocks, more structural dynamics and some of Kirk’s own idiosyncratic dub sounds. A highly recommended release for those into the darker side of dance music.

7.       Blondes – “Blondes” (RVNG INTL)

Blondes self titled debut album is one that hard to do justice to without its sounding like a repetitive bore-fest, which it is far from. The duo fit into both the modern dance music camp alongside the likes of The Field, Gui Boratto and other Kompakt techno alumni and alongside current ambient and hynagogic pop acts such as Laurel Halo, Teengirl Fantasy and Rene Hell amongst others. Blondes manage to fuse these two opposites together in way that plays to the strengths of both, you never feel the dance elements are getting bogged down by the atmospherics or that the atmospherics are dominated by the dance elements. The duo encompass a range of emotions across the album from the brighter tracks like ‘Gold’ and ‘Amber’ to the dark and subdued ‘Pleasure via drowned Kraftwerkian synth work on ‘Business’ and foggy tension of ‘Water’. One of the album’s strength is that despite the amount of recycling there is (every second track is a re-versioning of the previous track) the variety on show is impressive as is the duo’s ability to keep the listener engaged and excited by these same/similar elements. At the time of release I said the following of “Blondes” “Blondes have not only created a contender for Debut Album of the Year but an early contender for the Album of the Year itself”, as you can see the album has stood the test of time.

8.       Neneh Cherry and The Thing – “The Cherry Thing” (Smalltown Supersound)

When it was originally announced that Neneh Cherry and Swedish jazz trio The Thing would be releasing an album full of reinterpreted versions of songs in a range of genres from post-punk to hip-hop via jazz itself, the collaboration didn’t make sense to me. However, after a little internet research and hearing two tracks from the album my mind was changed and I got quite excited about the prospect of this album. It didn’t let me down either with The Thing more restrained than they usually are and Cherry on dazzling form on vocals. The album opens with a version of Cherry’s ‘Cashback’ (one of two originals on the album) featuring fantastic twangy double bass, a drum break and counterpoint sax playing off her melodious lead vocal. Things get striped back on a twinkling vibraphone heavy version of Suicide’s ‘Dream Baby Dream’ before a return to a more aggressive tone with the drum and double bass assault of ‘Too Tough To Die’ (Martina Topley Bird). ‘Sudden Movement’ is the other original this time written by Mats Gustafsson of The Thing, a dark and dusty yet up beat jazz number. The tempo slows again for Madvillain’s ‘Accordion’ with Cherry trying a half sung half rapped vocal over twangy double bass and subtle arching sax. There are also two nods to Cherry’s father Don (a famous jazz musician, The Thing take their name from one of his songs) the first is by Don himself the ghostly and experimental ‘Golden Heart’ the other is a track original by jazz innovator Ornette Coleman whom Don Cherry complete his jazz apprenticeship with, this track is a sparse finish to a busy and fiery album full of passion and heat. Recommended to fans of the unexpectedly enjoyable!!!

9.       Drokk – “Music Inspired by Mega City One” (Invada)

It’s hard to describe this album without overusing the words analogue synth(s) but here goes. The album uses just one synth as its primary mode of composition but Geoff Barrow (Portishead) and BBC composer Ben Salisbury manage to make limitation the mother of invention creating everything from intense drone heavy soundscapes to arpeggio led tracks via more delicate and reflective moments. In many ways the album bears comparison with this year’s other imaginary soundtrack album “Themes for an Imaginary Film” by Symmetry and though it’s not as ambitious as Symmetry’s album its equal as satisfying a listen. Drawing on many classic synth soundtrack staples such as John Carpenter, Vangelis, Walter/Wendy Carlos and with hints of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and other T.V. music from the 70’s and 80’s. However, repeat plays reveal this isn’t an album that merely imitates and pays homage but is an equal to those great synth soundtrack composers, the album throbs with the tension of a Carpenter score, while Vangelis arpeggios abound and experimental sounds that the Radiophonic Workshop and Walter/Wendy Carlos are thrown in at the appropriate moment and to keep the listener guessing. If Symmetry’s album is the Hollywood blockbuster then “Drokk…” is a homemade marvel and all the better for it.

10.     Peaking Lights – “Lucifer” (Weird World)

“Lucifer” showcases a more immediate version of their sound from previous foggy lo-fi releases. In fact along with Julia Holter’s “Ekstatis” this album proves that lo-fi home recordings can have a clarity and immediacy without sacrificing the grit that made them attractive in the first place. “Lucifer” acts a cooling balm or cool stream water leaping at your feet instead of the more humid and clammy sound of 2011 brilliant “936”, though it’s a little unfair to directly compare those two albums “Lucifer” demonstrates the duo ability to subtle evolve their sound while still using the same basic sound set. Maybe the biggest difference musical is that Peaking Lights have chosen to create more up tempo track this time round compared with leisurely to sluggish pace of previous work, this seems to run in tandem with their new clearer and more immediate sound. The best examples of this are the funk strut of ‘Dream Beat’, the pumping bass and purposeful drum beat of ‘Live Love’ and its darker musical twin ‘Midnight (in the Valley of the Shadows)’. Peaking Lights also add some new elements to the album such as marimba on ‘Moonrise’, piano on ‘Beautiful Son’ and an Oriental melody on ‘Live Love’, that it would e great to hear more of future releases. All in all I’d through recommend “Lucifer” to Peaking Lights fans, those who are curious about the duo or those whose interest is piqued by this write up, it’s well worth investigating.

Some Releases we missed in June

Mind Over Mirrors – “High & Upon” (Aguirre Records)

Jamie Fennelly’s best known for his work as a member of Peeesseye a U.S. drone/noise trio who’ve combined “elements of warped rock architecture, freejazz horror, intergalactic glossolalia and stripped down abstract expressionism” together since 2002. This is a reissue of his debut limited edition cassette release on Gift Tapes from 2011. The album starts with the thick hypnotic harmonium and Fender Rhodes through delays and synth drone that is ‘I’m willing to stagger’ a challenging and unorthodox opening that never the less reward the listener with its complexity and depth. This followed by a sparse and disorienting guitar and harmonium of ‘Harmattan Morning’ which kind of sounds like sunned warped version of “Tomorrow Never Knows” by The Beatles. Finally we’re treated to the sparse piano and steady emolliating organ and synth drone of ‘Mountain Convalesence’ a 15 minute epic. Though not a the type of release we generally cover on Sonic Fiction “High & Upon” is definetly worth checking out via Mind Over Mirrors Soundcloud as is the even more brilliant “The Voice Rolling”. You can buy “High & Upon” via Boomkat on vinyl or digital download. I hope they soon stock the sold out “The Voice Rolling” digitally too.

Bear Bones, Lay Low – “El Telonero” (Kraak Records)

Prior to this album Bear Bones, Lay Low’s biggest exposure outside of the noise/drone music scene was his fantastic contribution to Crammed Disc’s Congotronics vs Rockers compilation. This album is quite different from that track concentrating on creating short and satisfying songs heavily influenced by the krautrock of Can, Harmonia, the post-punk electronic synth music of Cabaret Voltaire and Ekoplekz, Jamaica dub and his cosmic contemporaries Black Moth Super Rainbow. The music is far more relaxed and colourful than what I had expected in fact it ranges from the brightness of ‘A Fourth Ring’ and ‘Bien Gracias’ to the deep dark undercurrent of ‘Drive Sucks’ and many shades in between. There are many artists recreating the sounds of krautrock artists such as Harmonia, Can and Cluster and a large majority sound like retreads but a combination of his weaving of other influences into his tracks and something that I just can’t put my finger helps Bear Bones, Lay Low rises above these mere imitators. It’s genuinely great to hear an artist who feels at once like he’s exploring with his instruments and at the same time creating such convincing and brilliant tracks. Definitely one for fans of any of the artists and genres mentioned above and adventurous listeners will be rewarded!!!

Chevel – “Reset EP” (self-released)

Techno producer and DJ Chevel (Dario Tronchin), from Treviso, Italy, self-released “Reset”, a mini-album of spaced-out techno, this month. Having previously created mixes for the highly-respected Stroboscopic Artifacts, the label headed by fellow Italian Lucy, Chevel’s “Reset” contains tracks that are in comparison to his SA material, sexier and slower with greater focus on rhythm and warmth. There is rawness to Chevel’s work, which comes by way of his live recording process and analogue gear, including a Roland SH101 and 606, sequencer and various modular synths. The Italian’s one-take shots capture the improvised patterns and spontaneous tweaks that result in a primitive yet controlled cut. Though now living near Venice, Chevel used to live in Berlin where he explored Basic Channel, Berghain and the records stocked in Hard Wax. The tracks on “Reset” undoubtedly show the energy and influence he soaked up during his time in the capital. ‘Reset One’ has a satisfyingly thudding bass drum with an intensely resonant bass line that rises and falls. ‘Reset Three’ is a warm, grooving techno cut with a signal-like delayed synth riff that rings out over Basic Channel-style drum programming. The slow, swarming synth notes and forceful, heads down German techno drum rhythm that makes up ‘Reset Four’ is as good as Marcel Dettmann’s own sex-infused push-and-pull rhythms. With an introduction of a thick analogue bass drum and a more discernible melodic motif it becomes a driving, silvery techno cut similar to the works of Morphosis or Claudio PRC, another exciting Italian talent whose album “Inner State” won a place on my ‘Albums of The Year…so far’ list. July will see the release of Chevel’s “The Building EP”, the second of a three part series.

The Cinematic Orchestra – “In Motion #1” (Ninja Tune)

The new release from The Cinematic Orchestra (TCO) is the first in a series of compilation albums on which TCO, their closet musical friends and other artists on Ninja Tune and its family of labels create new scores for classic silent films. For the first in the series they invited jazz pianist and Flying Lotus collaborator Austin Peralta, abstract hip-hop/electronica producer Dorian Concept and regular TCO guest vocalist Grey Reverend to contribute and collaborate. TCO kick off the album themselves and though the sound (strings, synth bass and heavily processed synths) aren’t their usual fare the atmosphere they create will be familiar to TCO fans, when they kick in the acoustic drums are the things that reminders the listen who they are listening to and the track takes off from there. Next up is Peralta’s contribution a minimal stately piece utilise his piano skills alongside a string quartet that feature throughout the album. Dorian Concept’s two piece in collaboration with TCO saxophonist Tom Chant take a different tack, the first ‘Outer Space’ combines Smeared psychedelic strings and effects with the string quartets dry sound and a wobbly echo leaden solo from Chant. Similarly ‘Dream Work’ uses abstract sounds and processes acoustic instruments this time for a haunting effect, to send a chill down the spine. ‘Entr’acte’ (TCO) begins with  strings and bowed double bass moving at a glacial pace before halfway through the track it turns into an instrumental and much more elaborate version of TCO’s ‘To Build A Home’, as the track enters its last quarter the string quartet and shuffling drums add much needed tension and release. ‘Regen’ featuring the acoustic guitar of Grey Reverend and double bass of Phil France of TCO is a spare and emotional effecting track that is far greater than the majority of the tracks from his debut album from last year. The album closes with ‘Manhatta’ (TCO) with its dreamy strings, TCO groove and acoustic guitar that recalls “Ma Flour” (2007) the bands last studio album. The criticisms I can really leave at this album is that some tracks lack the tension of TCO’s previous studio albums and that this may have worked better as a DVD where the experience would be completed, however you can create this yourself using Youtube. Though “In Motion #1” isn’t the best album on TCO’s back catalogue it’s still a  very strong album and well worth investigation.

KonKoma – “KonKoma” (Soundway)

We don’t usually feature the brilliant releases by Soundway Records as they generally focus on reissues and compilations of West African Afrobeat and High Life music as well as music from Columbia and Central America and these releases do not fit into our remit. However, KonKoma are an active London-based band inspired by Ghanaian Afrobeat and High Life and this release is their début album. It’s an impressive start too as the band not only perfect assimilate the main sounds and aesthetics of this music but move it forward with sensitive modern production that doesn’t take anything from the origins of the genres and some slower paced material that demonstrates this music needn’t be all about out of the traps drums breaks and funk bass lines. The band is also great at arrangements subtly but effective utilising the vast array of instruments and vocals in the mix to create dynamic, spacious tracks that keep the listen on their toes while never disrupting the grooves of the tracks. KonKoma have produced a début album that shows off their musical and production skills and points the way forward for Western African music that could have become a stagnant museum piece, highly recommended.

The Invisible – “Rispah” (Ninja Tune)

I remember the self titled debut album from The Invisible leaving little impression on me back in 2009. I wanted to like it and it seemed they were trying to attain something to but falling short and never quite convincing me, the listener. I’m glad to say that on “Rispah” (named after singer and guitar Dave Okumu’s late mother) that they’ve achieved an arresting and emotive sound that combines electronics, guitar, drums, bass, gentle vocals and a ton of hooks and they are now the complete package. The album is thoroughly modern combining traditional band performs with electronic music production, sounds and programming all delivered with a strong emotive punch. Though the album sounds on its own, there does seem to be a hint of TV on the Radio to The Invisible’s sound. Whenever a band attempts this kind of merger of sounds it often lacks the tunefulness and heart of this release, the band too busy being clever-clever or fussing over sonic details. The album never feels like a deathly dirge could so easily have become after the death of Dave Okumu’s mother instead it a bright and almost optimistic record full of hope and redemption. “Rispah” is a pleasure to listen to in every respect; it could a dark horse in the race for album of the year.

Disappointment of the Month

Florian Meindl  – “WAVES” (Flash Recordings)

Working as a sound designer and producer, Florian Meindl has a reputation built on his high production values and “WAVES”, the Austrian’s debut, maintains this standard. Indeed, for audiophiles there is a 4GB USB stick available to purchase with high resolution masters of the tracks. For all the undeniable production quality “WAVES” is missing something: an emotional pull, a heart to balance the dryness of sheer good production. Even ‘Isa’, a house track built on flourishes of piano chords that is dedicated to Meindl’s girlfriend, is insignificant and simply grooves away anonymously. Begging the question: how did dedicating a song to a meaningful person result in a meaningless track? Can Meindl only provide music that serves a practical purpose? There are some great tracks like ‘What Is Techno’, a powerful, dirty techno track with an irresistible bass drum, clap and hi-hat groove. A low male voice asks “What is techno? What is house?” while a percussive melody drives the listener to the dancefloor. ‘Spread Out’, a dark techno track dense with claps and percussion which build to an irresistible, surging synth melody with a cry of pain/ecstasy underneath. This stands out as does the fun and bouncy ‘Good Times’. Hats, a deep bass drum and a metallic synth punch as Ricardo Phillips’s vocals command we “let the good time roll.” This and a track like ‘It’s all making sense now’ would sound incredible in a club context: the immense bass drums hit in you in the chest and the bass lines and drum grooves bully you into dancing. The rises and falls tease and pummel. Away from this context, say listening at home “WAVES” doesn’t work. There is little if any emotion to be found in the head-pounding drums and aloof synth melodies. Besides, would the average listener have the equipment to do justice to the range and richness of frequencies “WAVES” contains? The different tack Meindl attempts with ‘Isa’ and ‘Wishful Thinking’ feat. Detachments falls flat. ‘Wishful Thinking’ needs Sascha Ring’s (Apparat) gorgeous voice, not the current singer’s uninspiring monotone, to carry the song to the emotional point it’s trying to achieve. Releasing the club tracks as 12”s may have been a cleverer option than compiling them in a form that rarely naturally suits techno.

Mortiz Von Oswald Trio – “Fetch” (Honest Jon’s)

Consisting of four long-form compositions that entwine elements of dub, techno and jazz, “Fetch” is darker and danker than Moritz Von Oswald Trio’s previous albums “Vertical Ascent” and “Horizontal Structures”. The oppressive opening track ‘Jam’ unfolds over 17 and a half minutes with acoustic percussion instrumentation, brass and woodind phrases, dissonant textures, puncturing stabs of delayed bass and a drum machine backbeat that meander beneath Sebastian Studnitzky’s darting trumpet melodies. Second is ‘Dark’, which drops the pace down further and maintains the tension and sense of dread that ‘Jam’ introduced the listener to. The beat is kept nodding underneath effected sound textures, viscous bass and steely horn melodies. The album’s standout is the dancefloor-in-mind ‘Club’. Steeped in Von Oswald’s Basic Channel pioneering mode of minimal/dub techno. The twelve minute track is built on a 4/4 bass drum and 16th note hi-hat pattern that pushes the listener into techno territory. Bass frequencies growl, percussion strikes and a distant two-note synth melody is surrounded by noisy atmospherics and ghostly textures; creating a hypnotic track that remains fluid as opposed to the usual grid-based structure of techno. The mid-tempo ‘Yangissa’ closes “Fetch”. Its simmering brass and tumbling African nyabinghi-style drums weave into a dub-influenced shuffle.

Bobby Womack – “The Bravest Man in the Universe” (XL)

Bobby Womack’s new album is a triumphant return for the soul veteran, after the success of his collaboration with Gorillaz in 2010, on the “Plastic Beach” album which finished at number 2 in my (Liam, Sonic Fiction editor) Top 20 Albums of the Year that year. “The Bravest Man in the Universe” is similar to Gil Scott-Heron’s “I’m New Here” (2010) which was also produced by Richard Russell, in that it brings together modern genres and production techniques with a black music star of the 70’s. One of the main ways this album distinguishes its self is that whereas “I’m New Here” was very focused on atmosphere to back poetry, melody is always front and centre here. The album focus around hip-hop beats, probing synth bass, strings and piano with Womack’s soulful, emotive and expressive vocals always taking the lead and slotting perfectly into a through modern backing. The music recalls everything from trip-hop (Portishead, Massive Attack), cinematic hip-hop/jazz (The Cinematic Orchestra) and the dance-pop and cartoon funk of co-produce Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz. Despite all this genre-hopping the album hangs to together and only one of the track truly lets the side down the Lana Del Rey duet ‘Dayglo Reflection’ in which Del Rey feels like she’s been dropped in at the last second in a cynical record company marketing ploy. This aside it’s great to hear Womack back doing what he does best: singing and writing great soulful pop music that sticks in the brain long after the music has stopped.

Oh No – “OhNoMite” (Traffic Records)

Oh No’s “OhNoMite” is another in a string of impressive hip-hop albums released in 2012 up there with releases from Killer Mike, El-P, Thee Satisfaction, Doseone and Quakers. In fact, the album’s overall sound and approach has much in common with Quakers self titled debut as both albums hark back to classic 90’s hip-hop sound, the main difference being “OhNoMite”s source material. The album is entirely made of samples from Rudy Ray Moore’s audio achieves drawing heavily on the soundtrack to Blaxploitation film “Dolemite” from the album takes its title. As a result of this the album is pack full of funk loops, smoky jazz chords and swinging tough hip-hop beats that get your head nodding. Another similarity with the Quakers album is that this is also stuffed with guest appears but doesn’t suffer from attention deficit disorder, each MC contributing high quality raps that fit into the album overall theme. The old skool styling’s of album don’t get in the way of enjoying it, in fact it’s a major part of “OhNoMite”’s appeal. One of the stand-out elements of the album is the fantastic array of analogue synth sounds that feature throughout; it’s also a sound that doesn’t always bed in well in straight hip-hop tracks, in my opinion and Oh No’s production’s successful ingrate them with thrilling results. This is a thoroughly brilliant and refreshing hip-hop record that will appeal to fans of Madlib, The Alchemist and filthy funk 90s classic hip-hop.

Doseone – “G Is For Deep” (Anticon)

The long awaited new solo album by cLOUDDEAD co-founder Doseone is one of the finest releases by any member of that trio since their self titled debut album in 2001. It picks up where the last Subtle (a spin off project from Doseone and Jel of cLOUDDEAD) left off but with a much greater emphasis on space and pop hooks. Throughout Doseone strikes a balance between chip tune elements and deep probing electro beats and strong melodic content. The releases of by cLOUDDEAD and their related projects have always used ambience in conjunction with beats and rapping but here it feels more like Doseone is tapping into a rich vein of dream-pop that recalls the Cocteau Twins in their 80’s pomp. The new found space and melodic clarity make for a more immediate listening experience though there are still enough twists and turns to keep long time fans interested, I’m sure some will see this as a compromise but this genuinely feels like a natural evolution for a unique artist.

Delta Funktionen – “Traces” (Delsin)

After four years of releasing EPs on the Delsin and Ann Aimee labels and DJing across Europe, Delta Funktionen (Niels Luinenburg) takes the next step and translates his skills to the album format. This is a hurdle where many talented techno producers falter as shown by Florian Meindl’s disappointing “WAVES”; it is one thing to produce a potent dance floor EP but it’s another to come up with fresh ideas and approaches that can carry the weight of a much longer format. Happily, Luinenberg joins that small group of techno artists who have made the transition. The Dutch producer has said that research was key in his approach for “Traces” and he aimed to pair “a raw, machine made aesthetic with plenty of real human soul and palpable earthly emotion.” “Traces” covers a lot of ground within electronic music sub-genres. The influence of Detroit and European techno, Italo-disco and electro are strongly felt. Album opener ‘Frozen Land’ is a track of driving, futuristic electro with a Model 500-esque rhythm of percussion, echoing claps and shuffling bass drum. Its metallic sheen is speared by the undercurrent of tension in the austere synths that recall Drexciya. The searing acidic synths and driving hats of ‘Enter’ bleed through the warm, thick texture of the analogue equipment to create a pure electro cut. This opening pair introduces the album’s over-arching principles. The pacing and structure of “Traces” is classic techno: start slow then gradually build to an opening up in the track’s centre, drop and then return to a visceral fury until the end. The bass frequencies are the star of the album. ‘Redemption’ features possibly the most resonant bass line you’ll hear this year. The subterranean bass drum pounds under a forceful hats and clap pattern while the central melody played on a sparkling synth rips through the air. This visceral and raging track demands to be included in DJ sets. ‘Utopia’, a techno/italo-disco cut, speeds the tempo up. A thick, resonant bassline and tight claps are complimented by washes of atmospheric chords and an ascending/descending melody played on a thin, bright synth. A section at 4:40 minutes breaks down to just the bass drum, hats and that deep, warm bass. The re-introduction of the melody and chords lifts ‘Utopia’ to an evocative finale. An elegy to Detroit techno, ‘Challenger’ is a seductive track composed of a purring bass line and slowly, evolving underwater synth chords, which provides a moment of reflection after the furious intensity of the previous tracks. ‘On A Distant Journey’ is perhaps the finest moment on “Traces”. As with the rest of the album, Luinenberg draws inspiration from classic techno and electro sounds. Its ten minute run-time boasts drum rhythms that raise the spirit of Detroit techno innovators such as Derrick May and Juan Atkins and merges this with the emotive synth melodies of Kraftwerk. Just when the listener is convinced that they are being taken on a meditative trip, it unexpectedly drops to vicious drums and distorted acid riffs before veering back to the track’s initial esoteric journey. Conversely to Meindl’s “WAVES”, Luinenberg doesn’t lose sight in intricate sound-design and instead allows the pure power of machines to control “Traces”. By doing this Delta Funktionen proves to be one of the few to thrive in this challenging setting for techno producers.

Peaking Lights – “Lucifer” (Weird World)

The stunning new album from Peaking Lights showcases a more immediate version of their sound from previous foggy lo-fi releases. In fact along with Julia Holter’s “Ekstatis” this album proves that lo-fi home recordings can have a clarity and immediacy without sacrificing the grit that made them attractive in the first place. “Lucifer” acts a cooling balm or cool stream water leaping at your feet instead of the more humid and clammy sound of 2011 brilliant “936”, though it’s a little unfair to directly compare those two albums “Lucifer” demonstrates the duo ability to subtle involve their sound while still using the same basic sound set. Maybe the biggest difference musical is that Peaking Lights have chosen to create more up tempo track this time round compared with leisurely to sluggish pace of previous work, this seems to run in tandem with their new clearer and more immediate sound. The best examples of this are the funk strut of ‘Dream Beat’, the pumping bass and purposeful drum beat of ‘Live Love’ and its darker musical twin ‘Midnight (in the Valley of the Shadows)’. Peaking Lights also add some new elements to the album such as marimba on ‘Moonrise’, piano on ‘Beautiful Son’ and an Oriental melody on ‘Live Love’, that it would e great to hear more of future releases. All in all I’d through recommend “Lucifer” to Peaking Lights fans, those who are curious about the duo or those whose interest is piqued by this write up, it’s well worth investigating.

Liars – “WIXIW” (Mute Records)

The new album from Liars is quite a departure from their previous efforts. The band completely abandoned their usual guitar, drums and bass combination and composed and recorded the album almost entirely using computer music technology. The album covers quite a lot of electronic music territory from dark techno to Matthew Dear style electro-pop, techno-punk and glitch electronica recalling Mouse On Mars. Angus Andrew’s vocal are still front and centre on the album but he’s quieter and more reflective on ‘”WIXIW”, the depth of his vocal brings to mind Matthew Dear’s deep tones. I was half expecting the band’s inexperience with music technology to result in basic and generic sounds but the lush synths and subtle drums are executed expertly. Another big difference is that melodies are given the room to breathe and atonal sounds are kept to a minimum and every track is more spacious than anything previously recorded by this ambitious and experimental band. In many ways this is Liars’ most conventional release but this is no bad thing as it showcases a different side to the band rather than being a betrayal of their previous work and ethos. This is the band’s most immediate release and I feel sure it will reward listeners even more every time they revisit it.

Joint Top Release of the Month

Christian Löffler – “A Forest” (Ki)

The forests of north Germany in which Christian Löffler lived during the making of the album are the backbone of “A Forest” and Löffler’s work as a visual artist informs his focus on narrating a story as would happen with a collection of photographs or paintings. Over the twelve tracks that make-up “A Forest”, a rich yet spacious tapestry gradually unfurls. “A Forest” sits together as one piece, an entrancingly atmospheric whole. Warm, organic samples of wooden percussion are underpinned with fragile synth melodies; the chord progressions recall John Tejada’s melancholy, sunset-tinged tracks, combined with Pantha du Prince’s percussive textures and attention to detail. Although the 4/4 bass drum dominates rhythmically, it remains unobtrusive, lying low in the mix beneath the hypnotic, dreamlike atmosphere.  The title track features John Tejada-style collapsing chords atop a warm bass line and slight percussion and bell-like instrumentation. The three vocalists on “A Forest”, Gry, Mohna and Marcus Roloff, are a new dimension to Löffler’s productions and give the album an even greater emotional resonance. Mohna’s dreamy, fragile voice on ‘Eleven’ is surrounded by buzzing noises and distant bass frequencies. In one section her looped voice sits between chopping hi-hats and a bass line that rolls back and forth like sea waves. The beautiful ‘Feelharmonia’ features the Danish singer Gry whose mournful voice is embraced by shuffling percussion, syncopated drums, tapping wood blocks and a bouncing synth pattern. It is a standout in its wonderful melancholic simplicity. An interesting track is ‘Signals’, which is inspired by the Tintinnabuli compositional style of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. The bells are brought to the dancefloor by a techno shuffle of bass drum, hats and claps.

‘Blind’ is a deeply moving sunset-suited track of ambient pads, rolling percussion, softly distorted bass, a distant male vocal and an elegiac atmosphere. ‘Swift Code’ is another notable inclusion. Lyricist and poet Marcus Roloff’s German poem passages alternate between implicit and explicitly threatening verses, which are encircled by crackles and floating glassy textures; the ambience circling like birds. On a ‘Hundred Lights’ a 4/4 bass drum finally comes out from the under the mix and pushes determinedly against an undulating bass line. Digital synthesis bubbles and wooden percussion, which features heavily throughout the album in reflection of the forest of the album’s title, chops through the atmosphere. ‘Slowlight’ is an effortless track. A simple melody loops, a bass line engulfs and a rhythm of bass drum and claps pushes and pulls. Wooden percussion grows in intensity as licks of reverb are applied and a brittle synth enters in the final seconds bringing “A Forest” to a delicate close.

Neneh Cherry and The Thing – “The Cherry Thing” (Smalltown Supersound)

When it was originally announced that Neneh Cherry and Swedish jazz trio The Thing would be releasing an album full of reinterpreted versions of songs in a range of genres from post-punk to hip-hop via jazz itself, the collaboration didn’t make sense to me. However, after a little internet research and hearing two tracks from the album my mind was changed and I got quite excited about the prospect of this album. It doesn’t let me down either with The Thing more restrained than they usually are and Cherry on dazzling form on vocals. The album opens with a version of Cherry’s ‘Cashback’ (one of two originals on the album) featuring fantastic twangy double bass, a drum break and counterpoint sax playing off her melodious lead vocal. Things get striped back on a twinkling vibraphone heavy version of Suicide’s ‘Dream Baby Dream’ before a return to a more aggressive tone with the drum and double bass assault of ‘Too Tough To Die’ (Martina Topley Bird). Next up ‘Sudden Movement’ the other original this time written by Mats Gustafsson of The Thing, a dark and dusty yet up beat jazz number. The tempo slows again for Madvillain’s ‘Accordion’ with Cherry trying a half sung half rapped vocal over twangy double bass and subtle arching sax. There are also two nods to Cherry’s father Don (a famous jazz musician, The Thing take their name from one of his songs) the first is by Don himself the ghostly and experimental ‘Golden Heart’ the other is a track original by jazz innovator Ornette Coleman whom Don Cherry complete his jazz apprenticeship with, this track is a sparse finish to a busy and fiery album full of passion and heat. Recommend to fans of the unexpectedly enjoyable!!!

This is a new quarterly column that will reassess the reputations of artists and address whether they are underrated or overrated. First under the microscope is Sheffield post-punk group Cabaret Voltaire.

The group were one of the original industrial bands that formed in the mid ‘70s and were a seminal post-punk band during the movement’s conception. However, when they attempted like many of their contemporaries to infiltrate the mainstream they struggled to gain a foot hold. In this article I will look at possible reasons why this happened, compare the band to their contemporaries and reassess their position in the late ‘70s and ‘80s musical landscape.

Taking their name from a Zurich nightclub that was central to the 1910s Dada art movement, Cabaret Voltaire had been an ever changing group of friends from 1973 who settled on a permanent line-up and become a serious operation in 1975. At this point the line-up featured Richard H. Kirk (clarinet and, later, guitar), Chris Watson (organ, homemade oscillator) and Stephen Mallinder (bass, vocals). The Dada movement was a big influence on the early material and attitude of Cabaret Voltaire (known affectionately as the Cabs). Their motto was ‘no sound shall go untreated’; everything was fed through a combination of oscillator, ring modulators, distortion, delays and anything else that could be acquired cheaply and this created a sound that was closer to the musique concrete experiments of Morton Subotnik than any of the rock and pop music being played by other bands at the time. Further to this the band adopted the mantra of ‘We are not musicians’, an idea that Watson and Kirk had heard in the records and lectures of their hero Brian Eno. A third important formative influence was that of William Burroughs and Bryan Gysin’s cut-up techniques which informed the group’s love of re-editing speeches by anyone from politicians to pornographers and the ever constant concepts of control (see song titles “Your Agent Man” and “Kneel to the Boss”) and paranoia that pervade their lyrics and sound.

In 1977 the band’s sound and confidence had developed enough for them to send a demo to Richard Boon at New Hormones. As he could not afford to release their material he gave them a support slot for the Buzzcocks at The Lyceum in London. By this point they also moved into a rehearsal and recording space called Western Works where the band installed a multi track tape machine and mixing desk which allowed Cabaret Voltaire to make and release high-quality music for the first time. The early Western Works recordings got them signed to Rough Trade and the band quickly released early singles ‘Nag Nag Nag’ and “Silent Command’ and established their combination of fuzz ridden itchy punk-funk guitar, organ stabs, sticky synth lines and tumbling electronic drums all fighting for attention with Mallinder’s processed vocals, which was described as: “like molten glass being blown into distended shapes.” They followed the success of the singles with debut album “The Mix-Up” which while not as vital as the band’s subsequent releases showed that they could last the distance on an album and demonstrated huge potential for the band to develop.

After their first trip to the US the trio returned to Western Works “fascinated by America but aware of its darker side”, as they sensed the tension just before Reagan’s  election and became entranced by televangelist Eugene Scott who the band sampled for the “Sluggin’ For Jesus” single. Their second album “The Voice of America” (1979) may have focused strongly on the US in its lyrics and sample choices but its sound combined Cabaret Voltaire’s trademark scathing sound with an explicit dub influence that had only previously been implied by the infrequent use of a dub delay. The dub music influence was now central to their drum machine rhythms and Mallinder’s impressive bass playing and deep tone. “The Voice of America” was the high point of this period of the Cabs, finding a balance between their diverse influences without compromise.

Their next album releases ‘Three Mantras’ (1980) and ‘Red Mecca’ (1981) looked at the parallels between fundamentalist Islam and born-again Christianity in America. The albums took very different approaches to these subjects. “Three Mantras” featured two side long tracks. The first song, “Western Mantra”, blends Neu!’s motorik rhythms, Mallinder’s subtle bass variations with Kirk’s Arabic sounding guitar squalls and piercing keyboards from Watson to mesmerizing, propulsive effect. “Eastern Mantra”, the second side, loops a vocal sample over a drone and Arabic and Israeli pop music flashes in and out of the mix, later Kirk joins in with some crisp rhythm guitar. Arabic wind instruments and found sound from a Jerusalem market complete the package and make for an incredibly evocative release that utilises its sources well without falling foul of cultural tourist clichés. “Red Mecca”, though a very good album feels like a step back to  the sound of “The Voice of America” yet it doesn’t quite have the same punch. It comes as no surprise that Cabaret Voltaire felt they had done all they could with their current sound by this point.

Another crucial element that the band used, was slide and cine projectors that were utilised to create sensory overload for the audience. Like their peers Throbbing Gristle the Cabs saw themselves as reporters operating in ‘the information war’. “The film projections were part of this counter-propaganda, working as a kind of anti-TV. Hence their non-judgemental stance, appropriate to the neutrality of the good reporter.” This stemmed from both the influence of Burroughs and his theories about control and “[t]he hard, unblinking, amoral stare of J.G. Ballard’s fiction as it surveyed the contemporary mediascape” was another huge influence. The band were keen observers of what was happening around them: urban riots in the UK in 1981, the situation in the Middle East and tension present in pre-Reagan America and were able to subtlety articulate this in the mood, tone, lyrics and samples present in their music and visuals.

Cabaret Voltaire’s next release “2 X 45” comprised of two 12” records which feature guest drummer Alan Fish of Sheffield experimentalists Hula and the last three songs recorded with Chris Watson who departed the band in October ‘81 for a career in television sound recording. The second record includes their first recordings as a two piece with guests Nort (drums) and Eric Random (percussion/guitar). Though it is correct to view “2 X 45” as an transitional release it seems there is a transition within the record itself. Watson’s input and influence is definitely reduced and keeps reducing across the three tracks as if he is moving towards the exit as they record. The second half of the record sees the band really start to push towards the dance music direction they would incorporate for the remainder of the ‘80s; the 12” format is also a clue to this new direction. “War of Nerves (T.E.S.)” would be a typical Cabs track but instead it is the rhythm that dominates, “Wait and Shuffle” is as close to upbeat reggae as they ever reached and “Get out of My Face” is driven by Kirk’s relentless yet fun rhythm guitar.

In 1981 Stephen Mallinder and Richard H. Kirk were invited to watch Soft Cell’s performance of “Tainted Love” on Top of the Pops by Stevo the head of Some Bizzare management/record company. Stevo was making a name for himself as an electronic and avant-garde music DJ and someone who could sell new acts to major labels and re-launch the careers of established acts like the Cabs who had reached an impasse. At the meeting Stevo discussed his idea of “conform-to-deform” which struck a chord with the group. He gave them £5000 to buy a video duplication machine for their video company Doublevision, allowing the band to be autonomous and able to produce small runs of video via mail order. Stevo also paid for the recording of the next album “The Crackdown” (1981) and in return the band stripped down their sound to make it more accessible and pushed Mallinder’s vocal central in the mix. This created a shift for his and Kirk’s roles as Mallinder was now becoming the front man and occasional bassist with Kirk taking on other musical roles.

The result of this was a sound that attempted to blend their post-punk paranoia with the electro sound that was emerging from New York simultaneously. As with their friends and peers New Order, who recorded part of their debut album “Movement” at Western Works, Cabaret Voltaire were trying to combine white angst and black groove, though New Order’s was an emotional angst and theirs was political. One of the fateful events that lead to the Cabs’ adoption of electro was Kirk who was blown away by Afrika Bambaataa’s ‘Planet Rock’ which he heard at The Hacienda (the Cabs had also played at the Manchester institution’s opening night) He later remarked, “it was like Kraftwerk only funkier”. This epiphany and (co-composer of “Planet Rock”) John Robie’s electro remix of ‘Yasher’ from “2 X 45” convinced the band on their change of direction and how to create a dance floor suited version of their sound. Cabaret Voltaire undertook this direction change with help from co-producer Flood, Soft Cell keyboardist Dave Ball and all the latest dance music technology of synthesisers, a sequencer, a Roland 808 drum machine, harmonisers and the electro staple, the Claptrap.

With Malinder now the front man the duo relied less on voice recordings from television programmes but were still intent on spreading a complex, ambiguous political message while attempting mass communication. This is a reason why the band are commercially disappointing when compared to New Order. The Cabs attempted to communicate both present and recent political past, their music rich with data and meaning, gleaming with the same number-crunching technology of the bankers and investors who inhabited Thatcher’s Britain. New Order conversely dealt in the universal emotions of yearning, love and death therefore their music was instantly relatable and thus climbed the charts. Cabaret Voltaire’s material was akin to “a night spent channel-hopping on TV, tuning through the shortwave radio dial or watching a sequence of advertising hoardings from the window of a speeding car could ever be”. There was no one subject. “It was more about creating atmosphere.” Kirk commented on the duo’s “cut-up method of setting voices snatched from the mediascape against Mallinder’s vocals”.

“The Crackdown” also signalled another important development. Cabaret Voltaire signed a record deal with Virgin on the proviso that they be allowed to put out 12” versions of album tracks. The duo left behind the scratchy, lo-fi sound of the 7” associated with punk and Rough Trade for the high end “seduction of the club sound system” and the lifestyle of excess that accompanied it. The 12” is synonymous with the 1980s and the circle that the Cabs moved in from the decade’s early electro scene through to the beginnings of rave music appeared in their sound. The album has a new “rhythmic certainty” and a feeling of “space, order and purpose” where previously there was chaos and claustrophobic. Dissonance, however, still remained but this could be blended seamlessly into the streamlined sequencer music.

They continued to pursue success and the harmonisation of man with cutting edge machinery with 1984’s “Micro-Phonies”. For this release Cabaret Voltaire employed an E-mu Emulator – a sampler keyboard that allowed Kirk to place samples where needed. The keyboard elevated the level of complexity that the Cabs were able to achieve, which was exemplified by the 12” mix ‘Sensoria’ from the album. The 12” “presented Redneck America’s party line on clean living, lifted from a television documentary on the Ku Klux Klan. Set against it, to deepen the conceptual irony further still were the chants of Zulu singers.”

Conversely their visual feature managed to directly mass communicate free of limiting censorship, certification and copyright law. Until the moral panic caused by video nasties which lead to the introduction of the UK’s Video Recordings Act 1984 Cabaret Voltaire were able to assemble cut-ups of hardcore porn, anatomical surgery and CCTV into their videos and could sell these to fans via mail order with no interference from Virgin. They were also able to experiment with all the possibilities of the format with typical video promos, their own Wipeout T.V. magazine show and Johnny Yesno, their film and soundtrack from 1983. In this respect the duo were forerunners to great Audio/Visual innovators like Coldcut and VJs (Visual Jockeys) who were inspired by rave era music are indebted to the Cabs’ pioneering music and visuals.

By the release of “The Covenant, The Sword and The Arm of the Lord” (1985) Kirk had bought a sampler (the E-mu Emulator had been hired due to its prohibitive price) and explored the techniques associated with it. Some of the sampler techniques on display in this release are the same that are used in hip-hop and their beloved electro. The band went a step further than on previous albums that had virtually avoided the traditional emotional palette of pop music. This typical subject matter is subverted on “I Want You” with “…words that once formed the basic unit meaning for just about every pop song in existence…skilfully exposed as the utterance of a TV preacher calling his faithful viewers to prayer.” The Cabs’ explicit, as opposed to earlier, implicit, subversion ended hopes of commercial success.

Another important factor in Cabaret Voltaire’s failure to achieve the commercial and dancefloor triumph akin to their contemporaries New Order, Soft Cell, Depeche Mode and Heaven 17 et al is that club music changed direction and attitude in the mid 1980s. In the early ‘80s post-punk innovators had lead the way and found an audience willing to follow their most daring experiments yet only five years later the times had changed. Conservatism took hold in music with most audiences disliking challenges and debates. Despite the similarity of the Cabs’ music and subject matter to the acts on the On-U Sound label (Tackhead, Mark Stewart, Gary Clail), they now overtook Cabaret Voltaire’s level of attention and popularity in clubs, though they too rarely entered the charts. House and techno DJs and producers grew increasingly popular and people did not want the Cabs’ technological chatter. Though they became unfashionable Cabaret Voltaire exerted a large influence on the development of techno and electronica. Derrick May has stated “Everybody from Frankie Knuckles to Ron Hardy, young black DJs in Detroit, and Richie Hawtin, loved Cabaret Voltaire.” The duo were also educated enough in dance music technology to meet with house and techno producers and share ideas. They also influenced the artists involved in Warp’s Artificial Intelligence series and important early ‘90s labels R&S and Plus 8 owe Cabaret Voltaire a great debt.

More recently their authority can be heard in new bands like White Car (the title of a Cabs track from “C.O.D.E.”), Factory Floor, Breton, Suuns and the reactivated Blancmange. It is odd that a band with this level of reach and whose fans regularly bemoan their underrated music are so consistently overlooked. Some of their Virgin albums are nearly impossible to purchase which should be addressed as it was with earlier albums. They should work with Richard H. Kirk to re-master, remix and re-release the later releases. If contemporaries like Nizter Ebb, Throbbing Gristle and Chris & Cosey can experience a resurgence of interest then why not Cabaret Voltaire? They are a band that consistently created fresh, different and worthy albums from 1978 to 1987 yet they have not received the same reappraisal as others, which needs to be rectified.

Spotify playlist:

Cabaret Voltaire

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