CABARET VOLTAIRE: RED MECCA (1981)
1) A Touch Of Evil; 2) Sly Doubt; 3) Landslide; 4) A Thousand Ways; 5) Red Mask; 6) Split Second; 7) Black Mask; 8) Spread The Virus; 9) A Touch Of Evil (reprise).
Prior to Red Mecca, the band had released an EP called Three Mantras — a musical representation of their views on religious fundamentalism, Christian and Islamic, by means of a ʽWestern Mantraʼ and an ʽEastern Mantraʼ respectively (the liner notes jokingly apologized for the lack of the promised third mantra and explained that the record was underpriced to make up for that). However, even though each of the tracks ran for twenty minutes, they felt this wasn't nearly enough, and eventually followed it up with a longer, more «comprehensive» album, aptly called Red Mecca so they could offend everybody. Frickin' hatemongers.
This is often seen as one of the highest points in the band's career — probably because it is the first Cabaret Voltaire album which feels like a self-assured statement, rather than just another incoherent bunch of some-of-it-works-and-some-of-it-oh-me-oh-my experiments. It also feels better produced than before, even though they were using the same studio in Sheffield as always (maybe they got better insulation on the windows or fixed some of the wiring, I have no idea). Other than that, though, it's just another Cabaret Voltaire album, meaning that its sounds, at best, are interesting and curious rather than «grappling».
The record symbolically opens with an industrial/avantgarde reworking of Henry Mancini's opening theme for Orson Welles' Touch Of Evil — a movie that did not deal with religious issues as such, if I remember it correctly, but did dabble around in various sick corners of the human nature; and it is good to have that hint, because the band's drab, morose soundscapes aren't exactly reminiscent of «evil caused by mankind» on their own. If I knew nothing about the sources of the recording, I would have regarded it... well, I still regard it as essentially the musical equivalent of taking a slow, uncomfortable, stuffy ride on some creaky underground train through a long row of caves, tunnels, grottoes, and mines populated by freaks, mutant dwarves, and methadone-addled incorporeal ghosts of Nazi criminals.
The «danceability» is faithfully preserved and even enhanced by a more musical than ever before use of brass instruments, but this still is no music to dance to: ten and a half minutes of ʽA Thousand Waysʼ ultimately sound more like an incessant, nerve-numbing «musical flagellation», with the percussive whips making as much damage to your body as the incomprehensible vocal exhortations do to your soul, than something to dance to (and besides, it's pretty hard to dance while being whipped). The bass groove of ʽSly Doubtʼ is as funky as anything, but when it is coupled with a synthesizer «lead melody» that resembles airplanes flying over your head, your sense of rhythm will be confused and shattered anyway. Same thing with the antithetical pairing of ʽRed Maskʼ and ʽBlack Maskʼ, except that guitars and keyboards on the former sound like malfunctioning electric drills, and on the latter like the soundtrack to an arcade space shooter.
Unfortunately, in one respect Red Mecca remains undistinguishable from any other Cabaret Voltaire release: it is hard to get seriously excited over any of these tracks, even if they sound cleaner, tighter, and imbued with sharper symbolical purpose. Memorable musical (or even «quasi-musical») themes are absent (the shrill, whining riff of ʽLandslideʼ is probably the closest they get, but even that one is nothing compared to what a Joy Division or a Cure could do with such an idea), «energy level» is not even a viable parameter, and there is almost no development — ʽA Thousand Waysʼ, after ten minutes (years) of that flagellation, leaves us exactly where it found us, and so do most of the shorter tracks as well.
This is why, in the end, I cannot permit myself to give out a thumbs up rating here: important as this album could be upon release, it does not seem to have properly stood the test of time. Even its symbolism has to be properly decoded with the aid of additional sources, and even if you do decode it, it is hardly a guarantee that from then on you'll be wanting to stick the CD under your pillow every night. It's interesting — but it's also boring. Which is a very basic characteristics of the band as a whole, of course, but since Red Mecca is often highlighted as «the place to start» with these guys, be warned: it's not too different from everything else they've done, and unless you've heard no experimental electronic music whatsoever post-1981, it's not highly likely to provoke a revelation. For historical reasons, though, it's worth getting to know.