[12 June 2012]
The Minimal Wave Tapes Volume 1, an expertly curated collected of rudimentary analogue synth artifacts from the post-punk era which Mark Fisher in The Wire called the “Nuggets of early 1980s bedroom electronica,” featured an array of songs whose lyric sheets seemed to comment on decay, memory loss, mutually assured destruction, and the process of forgetting. When asked about the influence of these buried-to-the-point-of-near invisibility curiosities on his current project, minimal synth torchbearer Sean McBride of Xeno, Oaklander and Martial McBride said, “It was as if these groups were writing soundtracks to a film depicting their own extinction.”
Two years after the release of the aforementioned compilation, minimal wave’s spotlight moment may have passed, but it is now in the precarious position of not having been forgotten. Minimal Wave Records founder Veronica Vasicka’s gems are spotlighted weekly on East Village Radio as she continues to unearth and drop mysterious newly recovered releases from the DIY and cassette synth underground on the Minimal Wave label. Unlikely converts in noise baron Prurient, kosmische h-popper Dylan Ettinger, and silky disco warriors Innergaze have released decidedly cold electro outings in the past several months that could be mistaken for unearthed minimal wave treasures, while gloomier minded mixologists like Marcel Dettman and the Blackest Ever Black and Sandwell District imprints have been dropping buried electronic gems hued in Vasicka’s patented palette into their setlists as of late as well. What seemed destined to be fleeting doesn’t seem to be leaving any time soon, destined to produce its own Back from the Grave type archival sets well into the foreseeable future.
Luckily, Vasicka seems to approach her archival role more from the perspective of a journalist than a DJ, even on her radio show. That the first volume of The Minimal Wave Tapes managed to be both essayistic and sonically coherent as a mixtape was what made it one of the pivotal compilations of the past decade. This is a hard act to follow. With lyrics scarce, tongues foreign, and voices obscured throughout, The Minimal Waves Volume 2 (assembled like Volume 1 by Vasicka and Stones Throw head Peanut Butter Wolf) is almost guaranteed to be letdown as a sequel since there’s nary a narrative thread to be found. Though one track’s title, “What Happened to You?”, does echo McBride’s above reading of music inferring its own demise, it also might be used by those who would critique Minimal Wave and Stones Throw’s less-than-consistent roster this go-around.
The tone is set by the opener, “Dirty” by Hard Corps, a crushing jolt of surging electronics propelling forward in elliptical patterns. The group themselves were not exactly hidden from sight during their heyday, just overlooked despite a record on Polydor, touring spots with the Cure and Depeche Mode, John Peel airtime, and production assistance from Martin Rushent and Daniel Miller. “Dirty” is a fantastic tune, but, unlike the bulk of the selections from Volume 1, there’s little to suggest that it emerged from the imaginative ether of an isolated wunderkind and an unlikely quantum collaboration. In all likelihood, Hard Corps were well aware of the emerging EBM/industrial dance scene arising at the time and the insistent arpeggiated loop driving the track is nothing that would have sound out of place on a Skinny Puppy track from around the same time. If anything strikes me as unique on the 1984 tune, it’s the final 30 seconds, in which the chaotic and claustrophobic electronic drums crash and spin in wild directions, recalling nothing so much as the Adrien Sherwood flourishes that would make dull industrial 12 inches far more interesting in the oncoming years following the 1984 release of “Dirty”.
The rest of the album leans heavy on this EBM vibe, which is perhaps a result of the recuperation of this material as dancefloor fodder over the past few years. Antonym’s “Cinnamon Air” is probably supposed to sound labyrinthine, but truly goes nowhere. It’s static, with no real dynamics, but would be a great transitional placeholder piece for DJ sets, which may be the point of its inclusion. The dance-y blueprint works better for Greek duo In Trance 95, whose mechanical grids that cut and turn in odd directions are juxtaposed against bookended samples of pro-wrestling and classical music fanfare. The cheap keyboards solo in player-piano programmed fashion, which would be muzak-y on most other tracks, but here adds to the sense of disorientation of the song.
The sibilant, creepy whisper vocal of the former track now strikes as a cliché, but it’s safe to say that practically no one regularly made voices as abrasive and tube-ular as they sound on Philippe Laurent’s “Distorsion”. Too far gone in the upper registers to be properly psychedelic, the grating feedback on the vocals is still too soft to be noise. A French multimedia artist by trade, Laurent’s cut lacks the luxury to preserve whatever visuals went along with it, but it’s the kind weird one-off that history would have surely written off if not for folks like Vasicka and Wolf and listeners are better off for its inclusion here.
For all its unique import though, “Distorsion” doesn’t smack of novelty like Ende Shneafliet’s pitch-bent oddball entry “Animals from Outer Space”. The difference between contrived novelty and sincerity is far less clear here than it was on the previous volume. The only repeat artist, Ohama, even seems to announce his work as outsider art by leading off “The Drum” with the introduction, “Hello, my name is Ohama and I live on a potato farm in Western Canada”. Whereas his “My Time” from Volume 1 was icy cool, “The Drum” is a schlocky slab of theatrics that comes off like an unused stakeout montage theme from The A-Team. The percussion of the title is amateur to the point of distraction and their enunciation in the mix can’t really be justified given the dominance of the track’s melody.
Minimalism is usually only effective when sequences gain greater power by their repetition, but the obnoxious car horns and space effects of Dutch group Das Ding’s “HSTA” or the chugging chants of Class Info’s “Out of Line” wear on the listener, rather than adding value. In artier music, this kind of tedium can occasionally become transcendent, but the music of minimal wave is foremost pop, masking its experimental tendencies behind hooks and catchy choruses.
Volume 1 in this series was admirably variegated, which may have extinguished some of Minimal Wave’s cultural capital. Nothing on here is particularly unfamiliar, even if there are occasional irresistible and delectable moments, like the groovis anti-aspirational chorus of “Fire” by Italian synth proggers Ruins (“Set your life on fire!”). Perhaps the most shocking entry is Geneva Jacuzzi’s “The Sleep Room”, though not because it’s a radical sonic departure. No, Geneva Jacuzzi stands out because singer Geneva Garvin only started recording music in the early naughts (she even shot a video with Ariel Pink).
By shifting focus from the postpunk moment, where inspiration was fueled by new access to technology and a release from the constraints of traditional methods of production, composition and distribution, to points in the late ‘80s and beyond where synths, tape labels, and weirdo experiments were commonplace, The Minimal Wave Tapes Volume 2 loses a bit of the first volume’s vitality. Furthermore, by suggesting that this music can be replicated in any era, the collection betrays its former thesis that there was something particularly special about the historical circumstances that lead to all this music coming into being.