secondBetween 1974 and 1994, Cabaret Voltaire made a career out of being a little ahead of the curve. They may well have been the world’s first industrial band. Throbbing Gristle coined the name for the genre, but more than a year before they formed, Cabaret Voltaire was set up in a Sheffield attic, experimenting with William Burroughs-inspired tape clippings, looping recordings of machinery instead of rhythms and noises. electronic. When his sound changed in the early 1980s to something more commercially acceptable, including funk, New York electro influence, and eventually collaborations with Chicago house pioneer Marshall Jefferson, he foreshadowed the unique vision of dance music from his hometown, which eventually produced the revered techno label Warp.
By contrast, Cabaret Voltaire’s first album in 24 years feels strangely of the moment. The song titles reveal a band that never knew a paranoid dystopian fantasy they didn’t like: Silent Command, Spread the Virus, Kneel to the Boss, The Crackdown. They, or rather Richard H Kirk, the only remaining member, find themselves returning in an era that seems, well, very Cabaret Voltaire. His old lurid hunches about information overload and misinformation, curfews and repression, surveillance and political mayhem all seem to have come true. At times, however, current events overshadow the content of Shadow of Fear. Microscopic Flesh Fragment ends with a sample of a voice grimly chanting the phrase “thousands will die,” precisely the kind of thing Cabaret Voltaire would have once used to conjure up a scene of unimaginable horror. Today, you listen to it and think: yes, that’s a conservative estimate.
Timely or not, the existence of Shadow of Fear raises some questions. How can a member make a Cabaret Voltaire album that is identifiable as Cabaret Voltaire, rather than a solo album that uses the band’s name as a flag of convenience, without turning to the past? It’s a riddle Kirk answers quite clearly. The sound of Shadows of Fear is definitely haunted by the band’s back catalog. The beats are often reminiscent of the primitive drum machine that powered his 1979 Mix-Up debut; the dense, claustrophobic sound, laden with samples of spoken words, has a distinctive tone from his early 1980s work on it. And it’s all thematically in keeping with Cabaret Voltaire’s worldview – to the list of haunting song titles above, you can now add The Power (of Their Knowledge), Be Free, Night of the Jackal, and What’s Goin ‘On, which cleverly He appropriates Marvin Gaye’s question and gives it a more desperate and pleading tone.
But it never sounds like pastiche. Part of the freshness is circumstantial: the vocals are absent, along with former Kirk collaborator Stephen Mallinder, the band’s default singer; Technological advances mean that the grimy sound quality of the old Cabaret Voltaire has also disappeared. Similarly, Kirk intends to move on, ensuring that hints of familiarity are never accompanied by a hint of comforting nostalgia. Shadow of Fear’s music is often so forceful and vivid that it excludes the feeling that plagues a lot of new music from rebooted “classic” artists – you never feel like you’d be better off listening to one of their old albums.
Instead, he is actively restless. Universal Energy has a four-to-the-floor house beat and something that comes close to an acid synth line, but it all feels out of control: the beats vibrate very slightly, the sounds collide, the muffled vocals chatter into the distance, the effect general a kind of danceable panic. What’s Goin ‘On churns in samples of Blaxploitation horns and a sound reminiscent of a funky pedal wah guitar, but it’s all distorted and backed by a relentless, machine-like beat until it feels harsh and incessant. The power (to your knowledge) is less cluttered with sound, but no less disconcerting: Beneath the synths shrouded in dubious echo, it features an extended, fuzzy guitar and a fading and fading layer of white noise, both lows in the mix, like something you’re listening to instead of listening.
Shadow of Fear makes few concessions to ease of use, it is much heavier than the last few albums the original Cabaret Voltaire made, and for every listener who finds it as a powerful, cathartic reflection of the times, there is bound to be one who feels that It’s the last thing they want to hear right now, life being what it is. On the other hand, Cabaret Voltaire was always divisive: this is, after all, a band whose first public appearance ended in a fight between the horrified audience, the band itself and those who, in Kirk’s words, “took our side of the discussion”. What it does, and what it does successfully, might be the hardest thing for a reformed band to accomplish: it adds to their catalog, rather than detracts from it.
This week Alexis heard
The Antlers: It Is What It Is
This is beautiful: a desperately sad, yet palatable and musically moving meditation on death that sounds like it was recorded live.
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