Music

Cabaret Voltaire: The Original Sound of Sheffield '78/'82 Best Of

Mark Desrosiers

Cabaret Voltaire

The Original Sound of Sheffield '78/'82 Best Of

Label: Mute
US Release Date: 2002-10-21
UK Release Date: 2001-12-24
Amazon
iTunes

Wait a sec, aren't there two original sounds of Sheffield? On the one hand, you had Def Leppard, a buncha sloppy, hungry teenagers who were gigging around town in 1977 prior to recording a loud glam-metal EP entitled Getcha Rocks Off. On the other hand, you had Cabaret Voltaire, a trio of pious unsmiling music students who laid down all sorts of droning/squeaking/buzzing experimental tracks with found noises, tape loops, speeches in German. Def Leppard turned into multimillionaires and created a pop-heavy super-schlock form of glam-metal that still sounds groovy today. Cabaret Voltaire sputtered and shifted, creating all sorts of tangential art projects and industrial-techno tracks up to the present. Neither band ever appealed to music critics much, which is puzzling, but their influence is incalculable. Sheffield is Britain's historical center for steelmaking, and it's no accident that two red-hot, smoking tendrils of music came out of the city: glam-metal and techno. But if I might belabor the metaphor a bit: Def Leppard are the slag pot -- dissed by critics and now ignored by fans -- while Cabaret Voltaire were the blast furnace, taking ore from Dada to Stockhausen to the Velvets and forcing it through the fire of their serious minds. The results were usually loud, often curious, always noisy, and the new compilation The Original Sound of Sheffield '78/'82 Best Of gives you a bracing dose of these early Cabaret Voltaire tracks. It's also an excellent introduction to the murky factory origins of industrial and techno music.

Right off the bat, I should mention that if you're a serious Cabaret Voltaire fan, there's nothing on this disc that you don't already own. Five of the fourteen tracks appear on the earlier Mute singles compilation The Living Legends, seven of them are album tracks from Mix-Up (1979), The Voice of America (1980), Red Mecca (1981), and 2 x 45 (1982), and the only two "rare" tracks ("Baader Meinhof" and "Loosen the Clamp") are from the early-demo comp Listen Up With Cabaret Voltaire. However, if you're out of the loop, like I am, then this album is a lot of fun. It ignores all the vaguely accessible tunes from their formative years (e.g. their cover of "Here She Comes Now") and concentrates entirely on difficult, metronomic noise. I love it.

Funny thing about this noise though: for a band that was always mocking fascism and plunking down abrasive art statements, this music sounds a lot like goosestepping. Take, for example, the classic single "Do the Mussolini (Headkick)", which has some nifty electronic soundscapes from Chris Watson, a nice sheet of guitar feedback from Richard Kirk, and some semi-distorted robotic vocals by that sonic sobersides Stephen Mallinder. When the sonar that keeps blurting "Head!" stops and Mallinder croaks "Do the Mussolini", as if it were an enforced new dance craze (and believe me, you cannot dance to this song), you sorta get the joke: these are marching orders to be disobeyed.

Most of the other tracks take a similar tactic: create nightmare soundscape, then lay on the Big Brother vocals. From the early demo "Baader Meinhof" (insectoid keyboards skittering around an ominous German speech) to the slightly funky cacophony of "Wait & Shuffle" (free-sax, Bootsy bass, and a speedfreak echoplex RAF sergeant on the mike), this is some very weird and ominous stuff. As a sonic critique of the new authoritarian state that came in with Margaret Thatcher (and safe to say she was not a friend to Sheffield's students or workers), Cabaret Voltaire do a brilliant job of making elitism look just as ugly as fascism.

My favorite tracks are the ones that combine punk momentum with inhuman ferromanganese sonics. "Nag Nag Nag" is the undeniable classic on this level. Mallinder's vocals (and I'm just guessing that's him on the mike) have that lip-curling sneer appeal that's a bit of a shock compared to his earlier robot delivery, and the dentist-drill sounds that surround him are addictive. And that's leaving aside the crazy headlong rush of the tune, completely in contrast to their usual staid art-poses. "Nag Nag Nag" sounds like getting a root canal in a wind tunnel, it does, and it'll be your favorite track on the album. Next to that, there's the jarring cover of the Seeds' "No Escape", which begins with crazed screams and cheapo keyboards, and continues on with the very same wind-tunnel sound effects backing up a new garage-rock momentum. In some curious way, it ends up sounding even more psychedelic than the original! Definitely not for stoners, though . . .

These guys were obviously eager to try almost anything, and from the oddball-reggae of "Silent Command" to the Arabia-noir of "Yahar", this album picks up some great strands from their experimental mindfuck aesthetic. Still, the tracks I keep returning to (besides "Nag Nag Nag") are "The Set-Up" (resonant guitar beauty crossed with Orwellian noise), "This is Entertainment" (sounds like Dr. Frankenstein's rock tumbler, but I'm still entertained), "Split Second Feeling" (where androids get all mystical and sensual for a couple minutes), and "Spread the Virus" (a harbinger of dinky new-wave craziness). Wonderful stuff, and to my ears they're pretty good tunes on their own, stripped of their historical weight.

In the album's liner notes, Richard Kirk says that Cabaret Voltaire existed "out of boredom, as an escape from the slavery of dead-end jobs and also to cause trouble". Now, where have we heard that before? Still, the overall impression you get from this album is that of some enthusiastic unembarrassed highbrow kids trying to make a new kind of noise. I wouldn't call them geniuses, but they did stumble on some great ideas every now and then. And their influence seems pretty obvious now: I caught snatches of proto-everything from Sonic Youth to Jesus & Mary Chain to Aphex Twin to the Cars in these old tracks, and so will you. And best of all, between the makeshift electronic fidelity (not lo-fi, but definitely pretty low-budget) and the this-ain't-been-done-before bravery, it all sounds pretty modern now. The sad part is that the ominous Orwellian tone is relevant once again . . .

Sheffield is now the home of the National Centre for Popular Music, which seems fair enough, considering the Cabaret Voltaire / Def Leppard connection. Let's just hope there are special galleries for both bands there, and that "Nag Nag Nag" is on permanent repeat in the gift shop . . .



Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Music

The 80 Best Albums of 2015

Travel back five years ago when the release calendar was rife with stellar albums. 2015 offered such an embarrassment of musical riches, that we selected 80 albums as best of the year.

Film

Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.

Books

The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.

Music

Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.

Music

King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.

Music

Jim O'Rourke's Experimental 'Shutting Down Here' Is Big on Technique

Jim O'Rourke's Shutting Down Here is a fine piece of experimental music with a sure hand leading the way. But it's not pushing this music forward with the same propensity as Luc Ferrari or Derek Bailey.

Music

Laraaji Returns to His First Instrument for 'Sun Piano'

The ability to help the listener achieve a certain elevation is something Laraaji can do, at least to some degree, no matter the instrument.

Music

Kristin Hersh Discusses Her Gutsy New Throwing Muses Album

Kristin Hersh thinks influences are a crutch, and chops are a barrier between artists and their truest expressions. We talk about life, music, the pandemic, dissociation, and the energy that courses not from her but through her when she's at her best.

Music

The 10 Best Fleetwood Mac Solo Albums

Fleetwood Mac are the rare group that feature both a fine discography and a successful series of solo LPs from their many members. Here are ten examples of the latter.

Music

Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.

Film

The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.

Music

'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.

Music

Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.

Books

Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pays Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.

Music

South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.

Music

Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.

Music

'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.

Books

A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.