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Saturday, January 2, 2016

Cabaret Voltaire: Mix-Up


1) Kirlian Photograph; 2) No Escape; 3) Fourth Shot; 4) Heaven And Hell; 5) Eyeless Sight; 6) Photophobia; 7) On Every Other Street; 8) Expect Nothing; 9) Capsules.

It doesn't take much more than Cabaret Voltaire's debut album to understand why they are a band that is mentioned in every single account of the history of New Wave — and, at the same time, a band that people very, very rarely actually listen to. Like many of their contemporaries, they have fallen victim to the «why should I listen to this if it's not 1979 any more?» curse; unlike most of these contemporaries, they suffer from the curse even more strongly because at least other people would come up with melodies, and then clothe them in gimmicky electronic arrangements that sounded fascinating upon first listen, irritating upon second listen, and ridiculous upon the third one. Cabaret Voltaire did not bother coming up with melodies. I mean, you don't call yourself Cabaret Voltaire just to go on being a pop band, right?

On the other hand, Cabaret Voltaire weren't about making experimental chaotic noise, either. From the very beginning, they respected the groove, so much so that, no matter how strange, all of Mix-Up is eminently danceable, and the best way to approach this material is to look at it as a sort of electronic-shamanistic ritual — exorcism muzak for the new age. It is no coincidence that the first track refers to the art of «Kirlian photography», a widespread practice in parapsychology and freak pseudoscience: had they formed in 1969, the band would probably worship Aleister Crowley, but in the post-Star Wars era, who'd want spiritual elevation without futurism, techno­philia, and hissing tape loops?

Ideologically, they take their cues from The Velvet Underground: rhythm is treated as merely a compromising measure that helps you ease into the repetitive, evil weirdness of the sound, even if guitars, pianos, and violins are largely replaced with even more cold, gray, and merciless electro­nic devices (although Richard H. Kirk's rough, droning guitar sound is usually an integral compo­nent). One important element of that ideology that is almost missing, though, is improvisation: most of these tracks are produced with a lot of overdubbing, and the atmosphere of spontaneity that was so important for classic VU is nowhere to be found.

Another thing is «depersonalisation» — the entire album is completely faceless, dehumanized; again, this approach may have been all the rage in 1979, but today, when you turn towards the past in search of impressive faces, this seems to have a disheartening effect. Vocalist Stephen Mallinder does not have to resort to the antiquated practice of singing — he intones at best, and usually lays so much reverb and echo on his vocals that he ends up sounding like a semi-organic alien over a real bad radio transmission. Chris Watson's synthesizers hiss, hum, and rattle rather than vibrate in a musical fashion, and the guitars, as I already mentioned, are usually just there for a droning effect. At the same time, I would hesitate to call this «industrial» music, like many people do: it is certainly very different from the likes of both Einstürzende Neubauten and Throbbing Gristle, if only because relatively little importance is being attached to percussive ef­fects (most of the drumming here is represented by fairly simplistic drum machine patterns), and also because the band's worship of the groove is stronger than their worship of the «factory hum» principle. But who cares about the words? Let's call this «industrial dance music», like a distant ancestor to Björk's ʽCvaldaʼ.

Individual tracks are not worth commenting upon — other than, perhaps, the band's sci-fi cover of The Seeds' ʽNo Escapeʼ, on which the original garage rock guitar part is substituted for a «sci-fi garage» duet of hoarsely distorted guitar and synth. Again, though, its importance is more of a symbolic nature — with this song, they proclaim themselves as inheritors of the entire «caveman rock» tradition of the previous decade, except now they have more advanced technology to deve­lop it (ironically, in 2015 that advanced technology sounds even more antiquated than The Seeds' crappily played/recorded electric guitars). Other than that, it is just one shrill, somber, nasty, dull-gray musical landscape after another, curious to look upon but not all that enchanting. Or scary, for that matter — Joy Division, with their suicidal vibe, were scary; Kraftwerk's ʽRobotsʼ, so vivid and complete in their technofascistic imagery, were scary; these guys, however, did not have a complete vision, they were just actively searching for one.

Nevertheless, Mix-Up is not nearly as boring as this review would seem to picture it. Due to the band's relentless experimentation, there is a wide variety of tempos; the same groove never repeats itself twice; Kirk likes to drift from one guitar tone to another, and sometimes makes fairly amusing guitar noises (on ʽCapsulesʼ, for instance, his guitar tries to croak its way through the same frequencies as Mallinder's vocal «melody»); and even during the worst moments you can still toe-tap to the rhythms (only ʽPhotophobiaʼ loses it for a while). Repeated listens will bring out many subtle nuances as well. The biggest problem, in fact, is that the record really is much less experimental and innovative than it seems to proclaim itself — even in 1979, the only way people in Sheffield could be really stunned would be if they never previously heard Can's Tago Mago or anything by Faust. Which, I'm guessing, admittedly comprises the majority of the population of Sheffield — but then again, Cabaret Voltaire never really played for majorities, did they?

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