US release date: 24 June 2003
UK release date: 23 June 2003
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For the uninitiated, electro was a musical movement in the mid-to-late '70s that combined elements of black funk music with early synthesizers and drum machines, like the famous Roland 808. Even electro's vocals were often sheathed in a thick glaze of vocoders and voice-boxes. Some of the genre's biggest stars were Afrika Bambaataa, Herbie Hancock, Kraftwerk, and Cybotron. What made electro so compelling was that it was at the forefront of new technology. It was the first genre to successfully use synthesizers and drum machines to create pop songs, and it came from the street. It was hip-hop before hip-hop, and electronica before electronica. It was fresh and new and exciting. It was everything that Kitbuilders and S.H.A.D.O.'s electro compilation are not.
Let me start off by saying that I am a moderate fan of electro-pop. I have always enjoyed early hip-hop, Juan Atkins, and Kraftwerk, and have at least had a passing interest in the music of Georgio Moroder, Neu!, and Suicide. So, I am not immune to the genre's charms. However, the trick to enjoying electro is to understand its historical significance, because very often it can sound canned and repetitive to modern ears. That said, there is no better compilation of landmark electro than Rhino's excellent 4 CD box set, Street Jams: Electric Funk. It offers up almost all of the genre's innovators and hit-makers, and even provides ample historical perspective via its excellent liner notes. If you are a fan looking to get into the style, there is no better introduction. It seems, however, that just as there are people that still play rockabilly and doo-wop, there is a thriving modern-day electro scene around the world as well. Many of those artists are gathered together on the S.H.A.D.O. label, and are represented on this compilation.
S.H.A.D.O. is Italy's foremost electro label and, for the purposes of this compilation, they have handed over the reigns to "renowned" electro-punk pioneers Krisma, a husband and wife duo that was apparently defined by the British indie weekly, NME, as being the "real inventors of post-punk, new wave, and electro-pop". Now, there are certainly people in the world that know far more about post-punk and new wave than I, but I have never in all my musical years ever heard of Krisma, and I have a sneaking suspicion that at some point, some anonymous NME hack was given the unenviable task of reviewing a Krisma re-issue, and, in keeping with the indie rag's cheeky tradition of equating obscurity with worth, gave it a glowing review and claimed to have uncovered the "real" innovators of new wave and electro-pop. Well, I am here to tell you that this claim is, frankly, a little absurd. Krisma has not only assembled a collection of today's electro acts, but also, in a move that is strikingly ego-centric, has laced the compilation with no less than five of their own compositions. It's as if to say that they are the forefathers of this music, and these are the spawn of their creation. Well, if these are in fact Krisma's spawn, they have little to be proud of.
S.H.A.D.O. electro gets started with, you guessed it, a Krisma song. "Cathode Mamma" is not an altogether unsuccessful little song. It's covered in waves of fuzzy static and benefits from some intriguing vocals. Unfortunately, it's probably the compilation's highlight, as it's mostly downhill from here. The artists that follow (Micromars, Valvola, Electronicat, and many more) are so strikingly similar in sound and vocal styling that it gives the impression that S.H.A.D.O. electro is hardly a compilation at all, but instead one big jam session of knob-twiddling revivalists. Tellingly, many of the bands collaborate with each other on successive tracks. The best of the artists, (Pasan, DJ Spectra, Valvola) are only mildly talented, and Krisma are, sadly, the most talented group on display by a mile, possibly by design.
What makes this CD so difficult to enjoy, though, is that the modern-day electro artists here have given almost nothing new at all to the genre. In fact, the Krisma tracks that are included sound right at home next to the new cuts, and Krisma's tracks are over twenty years old! What must have sounded new and exciting from Krisma two decades ago, in the hands of these new artists, sounds hopelessly dated and uninspired. There is nary a memorable melody line or hook on the entire disc. If you're looking for an intro to electro, pick up Rhino's Electric Funk compilation instead. You won't be disappointed.
As for Kitbuilders? Wake up.
Based upon all that I have written previously, you can imagine what I must think of an entire album from one of the above artists. Yes, Kitbuilders is a resident on the S.H.A.D.O. compilation, and they have also released a full length LP, Wake Up.
There really isn't much to say about the album that hasn't already been said. They suffer from the very same problems that bring down S.H.A.D.O. electro: too much reliance on the past, and not enough innovation or creativity.
There is one good cut on the Kitbuilders album, and it is called "Slyder". A crazy little enigma of a song, "Slyder" is all synthetically stretched vocals and elastic, warped beats. It has a great hook, and the lyrics are completely incomprehensible. It's like an old REM song in that it's impossible to get out of your head, but it is equally impossible to sing to yourself due to its indecipherable lyrics. Frustratingly addictive.
Unfortunately, Wake Up also contains one of the worst songs I have ever had the displeasure of hearing. It is called "Superfast Service", and it is very, very bad. It is so bad that it actually contains, lyrically, a line seemingly tailor-made for a music critic to use for his or her own devilish agenda. In fact, it's striking that Kitbuilders left it on the LP. I won't go into all the painful details, but suffice it to say that "Superfast Service" is a song about consumerism and its vocals are so unnervingly annoying that if I ever had to sit through it again, I very well might not live through the experience.
So what's the lyric? Here it is: "We don't believe in gimmicks or rip-offs / We are willing to show the quality of our merchandise". If only it was true. For shame.