Dark Entries' compilation of early '80s underground bands from the Bay Area offers an exciting glimpse into a powerfully creative era.
Bay Area Retrograde, or BART, may sound like an obscure form of geo-tectonic analysis, but it’s the latest (equally earth-shattering) compilation released by Dark Entries Records. The San Francisco-based label launched by DJ Josh Cheon is a welcome entry to the ‘dark music’ scene, distributing not only more recent material (much of it retro-inspired) by groups such as Linea Aspera and Baltimore’s Adam Stroupe (aka Death Domain), but also classic bands as varied as Belgian new wave outfit Neon Judgment, UK goth rockers Danse Society, and Slovenian electronic performance artists Borghesia. With the BART compilation the label returns to its roots, geographically speaking. Following on the heels of BART Volume 1 and Volume 2 is a CD release combining both -- the latest in a series of ongoing releases “celebrating the hidden gems of underground music of San Francisco made between 1978-1988".
And a celebration it is. The first album in the double-CD set showcases the astonishingly diverse range of music that graced the scene during that remarkable decade. There’s the art-punk screaming of Wasp Women (an off-shoot of infamous psychedelic drag-art performers the Cockettes) on "Kill Me"; the suave deep male vocals of Distant Thunder’s new wave dancefloor opus "Tin Soldiers"; while Danny Boy and the Serious Party Gods offer a rambling spoken word paean to the eclectic sexual diversity of "Castro Street". Then there’s the stirring new wave electro of Quiet Room’s "Yangtzee River": a blend of cold metal beats rooted in warm enveloping seas of synth. And that’s just a sampling. New Romantic synthpoppy Quiet Room offers a good example of the powerful musical fermentation that was underway during this period. Although only active for a few years in the early ‘80s, during that period they shared stages with R.E.M., Echo and the Bunnymen, Gang of Four, the Fall, the Stranglers, and Duran Duran (for whom they opened during Duran Duran’s first US tour).
CD 2 opens with the thrilling and dark "Night to Forget" by Factrix, the tragically genius artists who pioneered industrial music on the west coast yet somehow never achieved the widespread recognition they truly deserved. On this CD too the range of diversity is impressive, from the post-punk jangle of Red Asphalt, to the extreme creativity of groups like Indoor Life. The latter's quirky piece "Gilmore of the Fillmore" features vocals that range from punk-style free-form to droning vocalization, while backing music travels from jangly punk to punchy electronic to experimental glitches and back again. Wonders of Science – San Jose’s contribution to the Bay Wave scene -- offers the delightfully quirky instrumental "Let’s Start a Rumour" from their EP of the same name.
A truly creative era is defined by the fearlessness of its participants. Every scene has its bands that take ‘risks’ by defying and ignoring the limitations of genre, but the samplings on this double album reflect a scene where the sheer intensity and celerity of creative experimentation knew few bounds because the genres they were pioneering hadn’t even been defined yet.
And unlike many compilations which feature the lesser songs of otherwise great bands, the BART collection showcases some of the true gems of the era. A great example is Zru Vogue’s masterpiece Nakweda Dream – a lovely, wistful tune that manages to combine a memorably melancholic guitar melody with just the right blend of rough-edged electronic beats for a truly dreamy synthesis. No wonder Sub Pop proclaimed it to be 1981’s best independent single.
Many of these bands are no more: the scene has changed, some of the artists have died and others are leading very different lives (Michael Dresbach from Wonders of Science is now a priest in Panama, from where he delivers the amazingly quirky blog Padre Mickey’s Dance Party). Others have emerged from the fogs of history: Factrix took to the stage and released a new studio recording in 2013, Red Asphalt put out an album of previously unreleased material in 2008, and Zru Vogue released two brand new albums in 2014 alone. Well, these artists were certainly never destined for a boring lifestyle of conformity. For those interested in exploring a scene that was driven by the intersecting pre-formative roots of today’s genres and bands, or in (re-)imbibing the spirit of an era whose sheer creativity and talent burns through your speakers with every track, Bay Area Retrograde is a delightful contribution to music history that will hopefully also serve as a font of inspiration for its future.