Various Artists: The Minimal Wave Tapes Volume One

Various Artists
The Minimal Wave Tapes Volume One
Stones Throw

Minimal Wave as a synecdoche of a broader scene has been a term of contention for many. The phrase stems from Veronica Vasicka’s restoration project/record label of the same name, but has become something of a stand-in for the entire spectrum of music Vasicka championed, a cold and dark synth-riddled machinal basement pop that was fueled by DIY punk energy, but aimed for the high-culture futurist gloss of perfect sound forever.

Perhaps, the people who are irritated by the catchy new tag saw the label, founded in 2005, as too recent a phenomenon to claim all of the glory of the vast archival project that had been going on since this music was declared endangered. Those who had been rifling through dusty crates and scrounging red-eyed in listservs to amass their own collections had collected diligently and obsessively, their resulting finds eventually getting smeared all over podcasts, YouTube, blog posts, and eBay bid wars. Certainly, Vasicka had predecessors. In fact, bootleg compilation compendiums like Tribute to Flexipop, The Return of Flexipop, Tribute to Some Bizarre, The New Wave Complex, and various other one-offs were the first to feature many of the songs that appear on The Minimal Wave Tapes Volume One.

The record was assembled by Vasicka and Stones Throw founder/expert turntablist Peanut Butter Wolf, who himself has proclaimed an affection for synthpop that precedes his fascination with hip-hop. It’s a kind of “best of” album for both Vasicka’s label and minimal wave in general. The sounds therein are a bit of an assorted brew. Perhaps they can best be described by what the music is not, rather than what it is. An electro-leaning subset of French post punk, coldwave has become something of a vernacular synonym to minimal wave. In opposition to coldwave, though, the tunes on The Minimal Waves Tapes Volume One rely little on guitars/guitarists, basses/bassists, drums/drummers. The emphasis instead is on electronic hardware, particularly the sort of arpeggiators, oscillators, and other sequencing technology that became commercially available via portable synthesizer units during this era. Rather than mimicking known sound objects, as later technology like MIDI and sampling came to be known for, this music was proud to be producing new sounds and forging new ground. As Vasicka has noted, “the sounds that are heard” in minimal wave records “actually resemble the machines used to create them”.

This puts minimal wave in close proximity to what was originally called industrial music. Indeed, there’s a kind of steampunk energy to a song like Crash Course in Science’s “Flying Turns”, which whirrs in aerations that sound like concoction of an ink-thumbed Tesla obsessive whose laboratory could either spark up in flames or change the face of the world at any given moment. Yet, Industrial preached a kind of scorched earth eschatology. And while minimal wave was certainly not averse to a kind of apocalypticism, particularly in the mordant nuclear dreams of Oppenheimer Analysis, it also seemed to envision a tomorrow where creative ingenuity was in a constant race to outpace totalitarian surrender.

Industrial’s unlikely offspring, Electronic Body Music (EBM), merged an unholy alliance with disco, gutting its ecclesiastical euphoria and replacing it with a brooding misanthropy. The music presented on the Minimal Wave Tapes Volume 1 is a bit gothy, to be sure (Das Kabinette’s “The Cabinet” is essentially an awkward plot recap of an imaginary ’80s remake of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), but also less tenebrous, less extreme in mood and BPM. While somewhat slower than the proto-techno EBM, minimal wave often seems markedly darker, faster, and less commercial than most of the synthpop that made its way onto the radio.

With this in mind, minimal wave is actually more liminal wave, a style that fell through the cracks, that missed all opportunities for success. As qualification in the genre seems to consist of being too obscure for proper nostalgia, minimal wave is an unheimlich like a shadow universe, dance nights becoming a uchronia of newly established “classics”.

Vasicka and Peanut Butter Wolf’s album makes perhaps the best argument out there for this strange revisionism. The album kicks off with Linear Movement’s “Way Out of Living”, off of an album slated for release in 1983 which didn’t see the light of day until its Minimal Wave Records rerelease in 2008. Featuring Peter Bonne of A Split Second/Twilight Ritual/Autumn, Linear Movement’s gelatinous wah-wah shimmer is the closest that this music comes to funk. After two decades of attempts of mongrelizing an “authentic” white blues, minimal wave belonged to the postpunk milieu that slashed and burned roots in favor of cultivating new traditions and new clichés.

Arguably postracial or, to borrow an overused term from the advent of techno’s cyber-swell, posthuman, minimal wave is nevertheless fairly Euro-centralized. Artists on this mix are from Belgium (Bene Gesserit, Linear Movement, Somnambulist), France (Martin Dupont, Deux), and Spain (Esplendor Geométrico), as well as the UK and America (the rest), which is not exactly a geographically diverse selection, though online forums have found artists making similar sounds from the Slavic nations on down to Asia and Latin America as well. Perhaps even less bracing for many are the accents and broken English, which struggle mainly with syllabic stress in a way that can at times recall the faux-Eurotrash cool of electroclash. Das Kabinette, for instance, pronounce “Dr. Caligari” at least three different ways in the same song.

Yet, unlike electroclash’s detached cool, the minimal wave artists are dead serious sincere, with emphasis on the dead, because one would be hard-pressed to find any music that crosses through the proscenium arch of irony these days, unless they wish to be destroyed by the unapologetic snark of its religious advocates. So, when Bene Gesserit proclaims that “passivity is not an activity” sometime in the pre-iPod age over Construction Time Again drums and a vaguely creepy synth-organ, you bet she means it.

The highlights of The Minimal Wave Tapes Volume One are plentiful and loudly affirm how toxic the dust obscuring the historical rearview really is. The naked Mondrian chromatic strips of Deux’s “Game and Performance” form an elixir of austere potency. Turquoise Days’ “Blurred” is a brilliant slice of mounting tension that plays like Devo’s “Gut Feeling” if it was produced by Martin Hannett, rather than Brian Eno. “Just Because” by a band called Martin Dupont which has not a single member named Martin Dupont, has percussion so thin that it’s like dancing on nails and staccato synth that nearly induces epileptic fits, but the atmosphere created by the bubbling effects and melting voices warrants multiple repeat listens. Martin Dupont also possesses a unique genetic makeup that is the inverse of nearly every electronic act that walked the earth: three females instrumentalists accompanied by a male vocalist.

Minimal wave is reclaimed memory and zeitgeist rolled into one, as a new movement has emerged from its shadow to continue its (non)legacy. The Minimal Waves Volume One then is both history book and thesis, a blueprint for what we can accomplish when nobody’s listening, and proof positive that nothing stays buried if it still has work to be done.

RATING 8 / 10