Music

Various Artists: The Minimal Wave Tapes Volume Two

The second volume of this mix series of cold, dark synthpop contains many exciting moments, but suffers from an inconsistency of vision.


Various Artists

The Minimal Wave Tapes Volume Two

US Release: 2012-02-28
UK Release: 2012-02-27
Label: Stones Throw/Minimal Wave
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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.

6

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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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