Things We Were Due to Forget: The Cold Undertow of Minimal Waves

When a music such as minimal wave “comes back”, it forces us to think about its lifeline, particularly its death. Yet what does it mean to relive a memory that we never even had?

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."

-- Baudrillard

"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"

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.
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.

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