Various Artists: Rough Trade Synthwave 10

[10 February 2011]

By John Calvert

On track four of Synthwave 10—2VM’s “Ponika”—Veronica Vasicka (of Minimal Wave Records) pays tribute to the Brooklyn coldwave scene she helped foster over four years of archiving a 30-year-old passage of French genre history: “In the City / There are people / Mis-discovering all the ground.” She tersely intones, “On a day like this / I discover a neuro-sound,” which is followed by a refrain of “Lost / and found” with “lost” later sharpened to “lust”. It’s a lasting introduction to another in a long line of micro-societies engineering their own idiosyncrasy, and on the evidence of their latest genre compilation, Rough Trade know it’s a stirring that warrants curation.

The authoritarian though somewhat wary sound of New York imprints Wierd, Captured Tracks and Minimal Wave forms the de facto basis to Synthwave 10. Christened ‘Impossible Folk’ by Captured Tracks founder Mike Sniper (AKA Blank Dogs), its protagonists ply various permutations of creaky garage synth-pop, which when assembled, recall a mongrelised, anti-digital version of Williamsburg’s vainglorious Electroclash cult. Although, according to Vasicka and her gang of fellow ideologues, there’s a lot more to it than ‘80s revivalism, association, and historical signifiers. Suffice to say, they are quick to emphasise the human dimension to the music, which is a little fishy given that the early Mute sound permeates their music. That said, on tracks here from scene notaries Xeno & Oaklander and Led Er Est, there is emotion - stylised yes, but real. Speaking with the Quietus, Wierd CEO Pieter Schoolwerk provided the definitive summation of the sound: “‘Cold’ to me suggests something akin to sensitized and vulnerable—as in being strip-searched and laid bare on the ice, not guarded or detached.”

It’s a very 21st century construction, arguably because the ‘80s cold wave phenomenon never really was, not until compilations like this made it so, collating its existence from press snippets, collectors, or legend. The fictionalised past of their own design, the Brooklynites then romanticise for its vanished mystery, venerating its scarcity, its stillness, even its deadness, in a perpetual-motion world where such traits have been relegated to history by the internet. Predictably, of utmost importance is the semi-mythic context to the music, perfectly visualised by the bleary photos of French youth, pictured in misty villages and monochromatic rural suburbia.

Onwards now to the inevitable anti-climax. Earlier this year, Wierd’s compilation came populated with sparking, spitting scrap metal music, closer to a masticated Wendy Carlos than lo-fi new pop. In contrast, for the purposes of saleability, Synthwave 10 ignores the electric-fire analogue of past compilations in favour of more rounded fare. Without the coruscating likes of Martial Canterel, whose material is a beacon for the artists flocking to Brooklyn’s Home Sweet Home week-on-week, the more radical and thrilling soul of the demimonde has been culled. A fairly useful exposition of cold wave Synthwave 10 may be, but after prolonged exposure to the commercial end of the scene, the square beats, dirty filters and step-sequencers become oppressive and eventually rote. After one listen, the practiced dispassion evolves into joylessness, and the chill is numbing.

Although thinly melodic, Blank Dogs’ mid-tempo “Heat And Desperation”, with its sinuous synths and pop-up chorus, is insurmountably pedestrian, whilst Void Vision’s “In Twenty Years” is interminable, so much so that the fear you’ll still be listening in 20 years outstrips the malaise they’re aiming for. As for the nu-disco types on side two, “The Cold War Melts” conjures a lattice of hi-nrg, italo-disco, and acid house. The end product, however, is merely serviceable. You crave a different aspect, with relief coming in the shape of Zola Jesus’ caliginous, tearfully monumental cloak-pop, Crystal Castles’ mercifully dynamic rhythms or Factory Floor’s “Lying”, which effectively drags a howitzer to a knife fight, towering over the z-movie disco-goth and DIY new wave like an pylon amongst mewing lambs. Even refreshing is Scum’s hammy Halloween industrial, about as damning an indictment of coldwave as you’ll encounter.

Including Fever Ray’s typically perfect Nice Cave cover and Washed Out’s “New Theory” (set adrift on memory bliss), the established acts outflank the minimalists simply by force of lustre, technical sophistication, or protean energy, rendering the coldwave one-note and flat. Not the desired effect you would assume. That’s with the exception of London’s Desire A Wave, who sound how Cold Cave should, Grimes’ soft-focus “Avi”, and Led Er Est’s “Scissors”, which is dramatic, powerful, and stylish. Most disappointing are scene bigwigs Xeno & Oaklander, whose “Preuss” is both anodyne and derivative, barely registering amidst the throng of similar sounds.

As well as bringing Cold Cave’s “L.C.D.K” from their debut, frontman Wesley Eisold kicks off proceedings with his solo project, Ye Old Maids. Convalescing trepanning aerations, preset rhythms, and one-finger melodies, the banal-sweet rasp of “Cocoa Cherubs” bridges the gap between inchoate noise garage and Owl City. One of the most obvious qualities separating millennial cold wave from the ‘80s originals, this pithy tweeness is a dirty habit Schoolwerth and company have adopted from the lo-fi ironists, and toying with a little reflexive presentation doesn’t make you Roberto Fellini. As a fine antidote, plaguing the opposing end of the record is Franco militant and self-styled sound-terrorist Le Syndicat Electronique, closing the album in satisfyingly corrosive fashion with “On Strike”. As well as pimping his ridiculous cover of Q Lazzarus’ “Goodbye Horses” and taunting French House enthusiasts (“House Fuckers!”), the “body wave” demagogue has pledged to “shoot the opportunists”. Rough Trade Distrubution might want to secure the perimeter. Fin de Transmission, suckers.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/136579-various-artists-rough-trade-synthwave-10/