In the Umbrage of the Millennium
“New memories are fading / Old things will end up changing / The spirit’s marvelous and bright”
— Linear Movement, “Way Out of Living”
“We are jumping into the abyss of a regressing history, falling for the nostalgia of a revised and resubmitted past, and, in so doing, we are losing the imagination of the future.”
“We are obliged to meet the tempo of the present and the future with reflexes and rhythms which come from the past; the inefficient and often antiquated nervous circuits of the past strangle our potentiality for responding to new possibilities.”
— Norman Mailer
“Whatever comes tomorrow / Happened yesterday / Come with us/ The future’s here to stay”
— Oppenheimer Analysis, “The Devil’s Dancers”
If there is a factor that defines the 21st century so far, it is jealousy of the 20th century, that hyperkinetic era of rapid-paced intellectual and creative growth. Prognosticating ahead, the late Jean Baudrillard predicted in his essay “In the Shadow of the Millennium (or the Suspense of the Year 2000)” that the postmodern era was on its way to being (un)stuck in collective millennial future shock thanks in no small part to mass media oversaturation, proclaiming that “when everything can be seen, nothing else can be foreseen”.
The vast reach of the internet, grown exponentially larger since the time of Baudrillard’s writing, has allowed for an unprecedented access to information. Within this daunting frame, Napster’s vast pirating network (which, incidentally came about at the turn of the century) constructed a profoundly voluminous library of music that enabled dilettantes of all stripes to surf to new sonic beaches and explore all new exotic audial roughs to establish new centers and enrich previously furbished tastes. It was an achievement of questionable morality and one that stunk of entitlement, but it also produced a space for critical pedagogy that the private sector, in all its wisdom, had failed to notice the demand for.
The millennium, Baudrillard said, provided an appropriate point in which to divide history and to divest ourselves from it. So, he asked “How to jump over the shadow of the millennium? How to jump over one’s shadow (particularly when it is gone; similar to Peter Schlemihl’s hero, we’ve sold it to the devil)? How to go through the century when we are caught in an indefinite work of mourning, in the mourning of the events, the ideologies, the violent situations which marked this century? How to surpass the century when none of its problems have been solved?”
After an ecstatic glut of accelerated and intensified modernism in the prior century, with an information horizon obfuscated beyond the limits of our periphery, the dizzying magnitude of what we just went through seems to have left our minds unable process it all. The explosion of the new in the 20th century left us with enough detritus that it could take several lifetimes to sort it all out. Rather than reaching into the ether to pull from beyond the collective imagination, our age finds us scrounging through the debris for the solutions that will allow us to “surpass the century”, though we perhaps just wind up re-performing it.
Baudrillard states that this task is a bit like a palimpsest of Marx’s famous declaration in A Critique of Political Economy that “mankind only poses problems it can solve”. Today, in a digital junkyard culture made composed of representations, virtualities, and simulations, “humankind”, Baudrillard says, “(or those who think on its behalf) only comes up with problems when they have already been solved”. Modernism’s propulsion, once fueled by the engine of Capital, is thereby stunted, stopped, and even resisted in an overconfident attempt to surrender to the virtualized accomplishments of the 20th century, or to rewrite them or bastardize them in ways that make late capitalism look like the end game of history.
This scenario can be likened to the driver on the highway, who, after proceeding with confidence on his journey, suddenly realizes he is lost. Rather than pull to the side of the road to ask for assistance, he fumbles for the map or the GPS and decelerates (or crashes), causing the vehicles behind him to decelerate as well and forcing the entire road into what is commonly known as gridlock.
Electronic music has spent the first decade of this century examining this gridlock and devising ways through it, unsure of what lies on the other side. The most interesting of these probes, for theoretical purposes at least, has been hauntology and what is now being collectively called chillwave (née glo-fi and hypnagogic pop). In a move that recalls the Deleuzian potentialities of simulation, both chillwave and hauntology engage with memory by ostracizing and alienating it, making it completely inapplicable to the now.
These movements reintroduce media that is already hardwired into our nostalgic cortexes as something unrecognizable, uncanny, and, in same cases, still potent in a way that all the completed narratives of the virtual era do not allow. They fuse together fragments of the developmental mnemonics of old media, which include not only cultural touchstones like children’s television soundtracks and “weird” fiction, but also physical mediums like VHS, cassette tapes, lite FM radio, and Penguin paperbacks. Tenable as singular objects, these artifacts become familiarly unfamiliar when hybridized, unsettlingly resonant in its amalgamated difference.
Elsewhere, electronic music has largely focused on rediscovery, reconsideration, and recontextualization, finding the history book/back catalogue to be an adequate source for re-inspiration. The 21st century’s crippling anxiety over what it has missed or kept buried has enunciated itself in the press releases of the past few years. Balaeric, Komische, Italian Horror Soundtracks, Acid, and Italo-disco have each seen their fair share of retrospectives and/or revivals in the past decade.
Now, the latest retroactive embrace involves what is alternately being called minimal wave, synth wave, coldwave, or any syntactical combination of this nomenclature. More than just the latest fad though, minimal wave and cold wave (for our purposes, I’m going to avoid the term “synth wave”, which reads far too broad) shares a few important distinctions from these previous reincarnations.
What exactly minimal wave or coldwave is or was remains a subject for debate. The etymology of “minimal wave” seems to stem from Veronica Vasicka’s website and record label of the same name, which was founded in 2005 with a reissue of a couple tracks by an amazing analogue synth band called Oppenheimer Analysis. The source material had originally appeared as a 200 run cassette handed out to friends and sold at sci-fi conventions, as well as at a David Bowie convention where the band played their first gig. The nucleus of “coldwave” is a bit more nebulous, but the term seems to have generated some subcultural traction after the release of the 2004 Tigersushi compilation, So Young But So Cold.
Both terms began to regularly pop up in music blogs and on YouTube in reference to a certain strain of dark, icy, experimental and somewhat catchy music that was mostly made at the tail end of or shortly after the postpunk annexation of popular music. As blogger and YouTube accounts that posted copyrighted material would get quickly taken down, these sites began to focus on a set of extremely deep DIY electronic cuts the likes of which Vasicka and company continued to unearth in the ensuing years. These were releases so rare that there was reason to doubt their authenticity. Available information often consisted of a single band photo and maybe a personnel list if you were lucky.
In the process of discovering this music, many second or third tier performers from a smattering of early synth-related genres were re-analyzed and deemed fit to be posthumously dubbed coldwave/minimal wave artists. Not particularly minimalist, the term “minimal wave” seemed more than anything to indicate that the artists had made minimal waves in the musical culture of their day, rarely breaking out of their own backyards.
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.
Game and Performance
Minimal wave and coldwave’s willingness to experiment, its punk distribution, its detachment from magazine sheen and big production varnish, its sometimes poetic disposition, and its cloaked mystique lend these scenes to discussions of the dreaded “A” word. Writing on the Bay Area coldwave scene in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Marke B. writes that coldwave’s “naive sincerity, refreshing lack of self-conscious irony, and marketplace virginity translate into authenticity”. Fans too seem to be attracted to coldwave and minimal wave’s introspection and feeling, its “realness” if you will, as reflected in various message boards and comment boxes.
Normally, any discussion of the authentic should drive us screaming for the hills. In the introduction to his More Brilliant Than the Sun, Kodwo Eshun warns his readers to beware of what he calls an “inertia engine”, which is run on “fossil fuel: the live show, the proper album, the Real Song, the Real Voice, the mature, the musical, the pure, the true, the proper, the intelligent”. However, what’s most interesting about the authenticity argument as it relates to these scenes is how little regard the artists themselves seem to have for it. Though there’s very limited information to go on, the proximity of these scenes to genres not known to shy from histrionics, theatricality, bold fashion, and other forms of performative artifice suggests that these near-miss stars and brittle heroes were likely no different.
It’s no coincidence that the new romantic bands rose to fame at the exact same moment when music video began to change consciousness as we know it. The sci-fi futurist aesthetics proved the perfect companions to elaborately staged visual accompaniments. If Vasicka and Schoolwerth’s Lazaruses diverge from synthpoppers at all, it’s not because their sound was more “authentic”. Quite the opposite. Cold wave and minimal wave took all the parts synthpop got criticized for the most- iciness, inhumanity, artificiality, simplicity, sexlessness, dry and affectless vocals, and masquerade- and augmented it, amped it up to 11. One could only imagine what their music videos would have looked like had they gotten major label budgets.
What’s intriguing then about the fans’ contention that this stuff is authentic is that perhaps, in age of endless representations, it is exactly this kind of hyperfiction that feels “real” (perhaps “correct” is a better word), not the just-as-performative faux ontology of indie and rock n’ roll. Even if it was never accepted as a worthwhile endeavor by the rock establishment, synthpop was only made a hit by its humanism, its defection from the avant-garde and its deference to soul.
If coldwave and minimal wave are specifically a surrogate breed of synthpop that did not chart, it should be exactly the subtraction of this appeal to the tradition of “realness” — Phil Oakey’s stoic take on Northern Soul, Alison Moyet’s diva banshee/canary — that defines this music. Fittingly enough, Oppenheimer Analysis’s Martin Lloyd proclaimed in an interview with Vasicka that his excitement with electronic music was “due to its ambivalence, ambiguity and impersonality”, not its ability to ossify an abstruse autotelicism or system of romance.
So if minimal wave and coldwave occupy at best a liminal space between past genres, why create a new movement around it? At least part of this has to do with creating a new story in a virtual age where all that can be known is known, where “nothing can be foreseen” and questions are never posed that have not already been answered. In a podcast interview with The Guardian’s Tim Jonze, Angular’s Joe Daniel expressed enthusiasm about the idea of a music for which one had to create his or her own mythos. Daniel complained that there has been little room to create much mystery these days when every band is on Twitter telling their fans what happened to them between truck stops. Minimal wave and coldwave, contra to punk, as Daniel points out, have no back story, let alone one that could be recited by any music geek worth his weight in bobby pins and ripped jeans.
Yet, the mythos that has begun behind coldwave and minimal wave — its tape-trading communities, its provincialism, its contact list and magazine club subscriptions — is already starting to solidify, perhaps damning its expansion. As Baudrillard notes, “Analysis itself is part of the process of disappearance” (the blood drips down my fingers as I type each successive word).
Luckily, there’s some confusion over the official story. The San Francisco Bay Guardian article cites a history of artist communes and club nights in seedy areas, while other stories state that these artists had no contact with one another and played virtually no gigs. Even the revival story contains conflicting narratives. It is said that the newly populated club scene strives on novelty, being a group that is largely composed of dancers and partiers who are looking to hear something they haven’t heard before. Elsewhere, there is also of anthems emerging within the club scene, such as Eleven Pond’s “Watching Trees” and Neon Judgment’s Hashim via Legowelt electro conjuration “The Fashion Party”, making it a scene dominated by “hits” just as any other.
One can’t help but postulate that, in a way, this kind of retroactive listening is a celebration of past passivity. This is music that was only ever heard in the bedroom, when it was even heard at all. It’s as if those who found all this exciting music online were looking for a way to celebrate their docility by bringing the music out of the home and into the clubs. Wierd’s Schoolwerth recognized this relationship between the virtual and the visceral and commented that “In a time when people are becoming more and more isolated every day by the Internet, alone at their computers and staring at the tiny, sad glowing screens in their cellular hands, it only makes sense to me that we are all feeling a slight sense of loneliness”.
When we hear an arcane track from history’s repressed memory, we participate for a moment in archaeology. Pop’s symbolic order has been studied to death, but what lies in Salvation Army tape racks? There’s always a sense that in examining this kind of stuff, the buried treasure, we may find some unconscious cultural yearning that has been lingering in the margins for years, the kind that might benefit the collective. If your music genre thrives on being forgotten and lost though, existing only in a space where only the rarest survive, it will inevitably and reflexively provide itself with an expiration date. A race to the margins can only bring you exactly where you intended to go (which is perhaps back to the bedroom).
Listening to undiscovered music allows us to share our loneliness with each other via sounds that history, in all its cold cruelty, forgot. What could be more isolationist and lonely than that? Not only does minimal wave and coldwave anticipate our disconnection from the world of the present, the virtual world of stunted modernism, but its existence provides an apt metaphor for a world so flooded with information that one’s chances for survival are slim to none.
As we’re finding out, the fragmentation we feel in the postmillennial era was there in the 20th century too. What we seem to lack now though is a compass, a guide, a map through the mind-eroding datastorm. Ironically, prior to their dissolution, it was the institutions that we all rejected which provided this kind of curatorial leadership. Radio, MTV, the music press, record labels, and late night television were in charge of locating the center and then gavaging it upon us. These are, of course, the same institutions that left the oft-fantastic sound of coldwave and minimal wave to rot in the walkman ghetto, but their dissolution has altered the narrative, remixed history, and flipped expectations for the incoming replacement institutions.
The story is now not that pop culture once caught on to something pretty radical in allowing “Fade to Grey”, “West End Girls”, and “Close (to the Edit)” on the radio, but rather that a lot of talented people got left out of the pool. Collective hierarchies may always be wrong, but pop culture lives and dies by iconography, which lives and dies by limited frames. In order to engage the word in new collective rituals, ones that move beyond history, at least beyond traditional notions of history, one needs to have a center, any center (excluding, of course the perennial center of late capitalism, the solipsistic “I”).
Step in Time
“Our music is both a lament to modernity’s undoing and a rally cry to its confrontation”, says McBride, who, in addition to being one half of Xeno and Oaklander, is also the lone member of Martial Canterel. If revival always maintains an inherent conservatism, particularly when it is invested exclusively in old technologies as many nu-coldwavers are, what to make of music that celebrates a scene that time forgot? What does it mean to relive a memory that we never even had? Only in collapsed time, where history has lost its object (that which occupied a space and a time), is this even possible.
When a music “comes back”, it forces us to think about its lifeline, particularly its death. If coldwave and minimal wave have come back, it must mean that they had once departed. Yet, it is only long after their apparent death that we have found out that they were ever alive, so they only really “exist” in the present. In this sense, minimal wave and coldwave are a bit like the specter in Derrida’s hauntology, in that they do not long belong to either the past or the present.
The revival then, based around a history that never was, does not celebrate either the past or the present, but rather the deconstruction of historicism itself. Thus, like every cultural recycling, the “new” brands of coldwave and minimal wave continue to make an argument in favor of the end of history rather than what Baudrillard calls “endless history” or, more opaquely, “beyond history”. The crucial difference is that in this version of history repeating, what is being reborn is no longer the past, but the present’s perception of the past. It can be argued that perhaps this is always the case, that every replication passes on the replica’s newly derived subjectivity, but here the subject-object problem is not even up for debate. Only the reconstructed history exists.
Nearly a decade ago, retro-obsessed analogue electronic music was one of the first major musical movements of the 20th century. Electroclash was a movement built around what Simon Reynolds at the time called “contrivance and superficiality”. (“The 70’s Are So 90’s. The 80’s Are the Thing Now”, New York Times, 5 May 2002) Adopting camp poses copped from queer culture, electroclash had no stake in originality and even less in authenticity. It didn’t strive for impermanence, but rather knew its number would soon be up. By the time a musical partner of mine began interviewing members of the scene for a never-finished documentary, most of the participants were already convinced that electroclash would be over within a year. “Analysis itself is part of the process of disappearance”.
Yet, electroclash took on a weird afterlife and not just in the recurring novelty of the ensuing sound-alike singles from Fannypack’s “Camel Toe” to Farah’s “Gay Boy” or the arguable ways it infected mainstream pop from Ke$ha to Lady Gaga. Electroclash’s predisposition of boredom and tedium towards the glamorous and superficial life it dreamed of became less a pose than an embrace. The original attitude was best typified in Miss Kittin, who sang about “endless pleasure in a limousine” and “sniffing in the VIP area” in a deadpan faux Eurotrash accent that suggested that the story was so dreadful, trite, and deficient in mystery that she was bored just singing about it.
Yet as electroclash imagined itself as a comment on pure entertainment, it became the hollow dream it sung about, just as Heaven 17 and ABC were cradled by all the Patrick Bateman types they mockingly evoked. The dispassionate electroclasher soon became the very living image of the prototypical “hipster”, the supervillian of the 21st century that, fittingly enough, never really existed.
Seeing the sounds of the early ’80s re-return is a bit bizarre. Electroclash was the first electronic music scene that I actively followed (my first ever published music review was for Ladytron’s Light and Magic). Some of the more electro stuff could even be mistaken for coldwave/minimal wave. Add some thick-accented Euro vocals to Savas Pascalidis’s “Space Woman” or Der Zyklus’s “Der Tonimpulstest” and those songs could have appeared on The Minimal Wave Tapes, Cold Waves and Minimal Electronics, the Flexipop bootlegs or any of the other regional compilations that have been released since. It’s a bit like déjà vu, but with something a bit off, something a little more self-serious. It’s not for nothing that Schoolwerth started his Wierd club nights in 2003, the exact moment when electroclash died.
As the second decade of the 21st century begins, we’re not only trapped by the previous century, but now by this century’s memory of it, as well. The simulacrum may deviate from its host model with every duplication, but the changes become less palpable or significant when the representation actively tries to replicate the original. If the coldwave and minimal wave revival is to successfully divorce itself from the reissued materials (it’s not yet clear if this is the goal or not), it needs to appropriate the abstract ideals of the latter and combine it with the potentialities of electro-modernism, contemplating its way through the gridlock as it travels forward.
If coldwave and minimal wave are now undead, living corpses created from the recombinant DNA of various unmarked graves, it remains to be seen what kind of creature they will become. Will they be zombified like all those genres which never went away but continue on in a lifeless trance, hypnotized by the muscle memory tics of their own nullified bodies? Analogue synth music has the potential to sit alongside pub rock as yet another outmoded ritual, a music whose only end is the perpetuation of its pulse even as the body decays. Yet this music could instead be the vampiric undead, feasting on the live blood of new ideas, current moods, and future contemplations, immortalizing itself as a revitalizing force. This could be the hidden elixir that allows us to get over our jealousy of the 20th century by becoming a center worth celebrating, an object for a continued history to focus on.