The Rarefaction of Minimal Wave
This year marks the release of two definitive minimal wave/coldwave documents, Stones Throw’s The Minimal Wave Tapes Volume 1, compiled by Vasicka and Peanut Butter Wolf, and Cold Waves and Minimal Electronics Volume 1, being released by Angular Records. The latter compilation was put together by Angular chief Joe Daniel and Wierd Records founder Pieter Schoolwerth, who has been concurrently releasing LPs and compilations of current artists working in this vein, many of whom even claim to have been inspired by the newly uncovered recordings.
“It was as if these groups were writing soundtracks to a film depicting their own extinction”, Xeno and Oaklander’s Sean McBride told The Quietus when discussing the affect the recordings had on him. In addition to the label, Wierd also holds regular club nights in Brooklyn that have become regularly celebrated and well-attended events.
Vasicka is not averse to admitting that the sounds of minimal wave are in no way anomalous to extant forms.The Minimal Wave Myspace page sets its parameters at a range consisting of “minimal electronik, electro, minimal wave, minimal synth, obscure new wave, darkwave, synthpunk, and new romantic music”. In this sense, Minimal Wave Records is almost like a Creel Pone or a Hyped to Death for obscure, frequently dancey down-pitched electronic music.
In the above list, Vasicka fails to mention a few genres which undeniably bear their imprint on minimal wave. This exclusion feels decidedly calculated. For the most part, minimal wave music is not very referential, but it’s hard to deny the sonic similarities between these styles. In fact, the artists from the compilation rosters that are recognizable at all (Snowy Red, Absolute Body Control, Severed Heads) are usually associated with genres like industrial and EBM, or electronic body music.
The Minimal Wave website maintains a running list of artists who qualify for the titular tag. The list unsurprisingly includes all the über-obscure names that have resurfaced via the accumulation of rare tapes and the opening of the transatlantic borders throughout the past few years, but the second tier artists included in this catalogue who may have achieved mild success in their respective scenes, or at least posthumous recognition, seems arbitrary at best. Tuxedomoon and Modern English, but no Fad Gadget? Robert Rental / Thomas Leer and Ike Yard, but no SPK? The Wake, The Names, and Minny Pops (all Factory Records bands), but no Section 25?
In the internet gaze, it appears that the centers of past subcultures have not only been exploded, but imploded as well. While minimal wave seeks to correct injustices of the past, it should not be overlooked that minimal wave too creates its own dust. It’s not hard to foresee a future where a college-aged kid knows Nine Circles, but has never heard of Front 242, whose album he or she could actually purchase down at the local record store.
In her selection of 20 Best Minimal Wave recordings for Fact Magazine, Vasicka took pains to note the crossover successes (Kraftwerk, Depeche Mode, John Foxx, et al.) that served as influences on the minimal wave and coldwave artists. Both the chart-toppers and the underground bands shared a thematic fascination with futurism, cold war dystopia, Ballardian sci-fi, and the alienating effects of modern society on human relations. There also seems to be a great deal of technological and compositional overlap, leading one to wonder why Vasicka, Schoolwerth, and company wouldn’t just call their movement a synthpop revival.
Andy Oppenheimer of Oppenheimer Analysis proclaimed in an interview with Vasicka that The Human League was and remains his favorite band, and its hard not see sonic similarities between the style of the two groups, namely the juxtaposition of dolorous high end synths and bold near-monotone male vocals. Oppenheimer, who now works as a Defense Consultant on nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, made the use of weapons of mass destruction one of his primary preoccupations, thereby joining a synthpop tradition that extended from Ultravox’s “Hiroshima Mon Amour” to Nena’s “99 Luftballons”. Oppenheimer noted that he “wanted the songs to be about guilt, betrayal, ‘how do I live with what I have done’”. This is a line that could perhaps even be completed by OMD’s infamous chorus-closer in their “Enola Gay”: “It shouldn’t ever have to end this way”. In “Radiance”, Oppenheimer sings with flat affect of the “radiance of 1000 suns” that “burst into the sky”, later declaring “I have become death / Destroyer of worlds”.
Proponents of the incoming electro-horde distinguish their lot from synthpop by proclaiming that minimal wave and coldwave are “less polished” than what were thought to be the original pioneers of this sound. This is both true and untrue. Certainly by 1984, the commercial gloss dripping off synthpop and new wave music was undeniably cachexy with hegemony, to the point where many even still refer to this music as Reaganite or Thatcherite dross. While the minimal wavers and coldwavers lacked the benefit of a Martin Hannett or a Trevor Horn, most of the recordings championed on the comps and blogs are DIY without sounding like R. Stevie Moore. It’s easy to forget that the earliest recordings by The Normal, The Human League, Soft Cell, and others were also self-produced or independently produced, but amazingly found pop chart success nevertheless.
In addition, the sequencers and synthesizers being produced at the time by Oberheim, Korg, Moog, Roland, ARP, et al., may have been far more affordable than the room-sized ones that preceded them at universities and in commercial sound labs, but that doesn’t mean they were cheap (nor were they easy to play). Minimal wave and coldwave music then wasn’t exactly punk then, as it took its time in the studio and aimed for more than just raw uninhibited nihilism. However, it wasn’t completely divorced from punk either, particularly in means of distribution (homemade artwork, self-distributed cassettes, abstract fashion).
If there is a distinguishing characteristic between minimal wave and coldwave, as defined on the Angular and Stones Throw compilation, it’s in the use of instruments outside of the electronics. Coldwave seems to have little hesitance towards throwing a jangly guitar (End of Data’s “Danse Votre Monde”) or a wailing sax solo (Jeunesse D’Ivoire’s “A Gift of Tears” has one, as does Stereo’s “Somewhere in the Night”, which otherwise sounds like Kraftwerk’s “Radioactivity” pasted on top of Ladytron’s “He Took Her to a Movie”) into the mix. The gloomy and often gothic overtones of coldwave are as much an outgrowth of Manchester (particularly Joy Division) as Sheffield (The Human League, Cabaret Voltaire, et al.). Meanwhile, minimal wave artists may employ guitars as well, but they are generally used for supportive effects, much in the way that many guitar bands of the time were using synths.
Vasicka astutely notes that with regards to the electronics “the sounds that are heard actually resemble the machines used to create them”. This has lead to sounds that straddle the line between synthpop and industrial, a divide that was admittedly more subtle before electronic bands began colonizing the pop charts and eventually trying to replicate “real” instruments through their machines. Minimal wave and coldwave artists were unafraid to engage with oft-kilter mechanical noise in their pop. Crash Course in Science’s “Flying Turns” sounds like less like the jet plane suggested by the lyrics than a robotic locomotive shooting out electric steam. Futurisk’s “Army Now” is assaulted by a barrage of frenzied Atari war games sounds whose uncanny simulation seems almost as frightening as the real thing. Ruth’s “Polaroid/Roman/Photo” musicalizes the scanning snips of snapshots as a prelude to its narrative.