Christopher Owens is not holding back the years.

1994 seems like a lifetime ago.

Loughinisland, Rosemary Mallon, Arlene Arkinson, ceasefires, Bosnian War, Fred and Rose West, Rwandan genocide, Ayrton Senna's death, OJ Simpson, Tokyo subway attacks, Colombian football murders. A horrendous time before August 1994 brought on "the end of history" which saw the IRA announcing a ceasefire and Britain entering a period of newfound optimism.

Musically, the death of Kurt Cobain earlier in the year saw the rise of pop-punk and Britpop. Both reflected a desire to escape from the shackles of what grunge was perceived to have become: dour, nihilistic, inward looking. In the UK singles chart, 'Love is All Around' stayed at the number one spot for fifteen weeks, while America seemed to be enamoured with the likes of All-4-One, Boyz II Men, Toni Braxton, Mariah Carey and Bryan Adams, as their syrupy love ballads dominated the Billboard charts that year.

However, in the underground (which is where things matter), 1994 saw some life changing releases: Killing Joke consolidated their reputations as the pioneers of industrial metal with 'Pandemonium', a rejuvinated Gary Numan gave us 'Sacrifice', Scorn predated dubstep with the astonishing 'Evanesence', the Manic Street Preachers spat out Plath and Pinter on 'The Holy Bible' and Buzzov•en proved with 'Sore' that, when it came to sludge metal, they were the daddies.

1994 also gave us this late period classic from Sheffield legends Cabaret Voltaire.




Incredibly, the Cabs had (by 1994) been active in some shape or form since 1973. Influenced by the classic Krautrock bands (Can, Neu, La Dusseldorf), dub reggae as well as the cut up techniques of William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, the band (alongside Throbbing Gristle, NoN and Z'EV) would help pioneer the concept of industrial music.

By the turn of the eighties (and coinciding with the departure of future award winning sound recordist Chris Watson), Cabaret Voltaire had began to mutate into an electro outfit (with elements of hip hop and funk) which would bridge the gap between experimental music and the burgeoning acid house boom at the end of the decade. Subsequent attempts to adapt the acid house sound into their style would lead to mixed results.

However, the early 90's saw the duo of Richard H.Kirk and Stephen Mallinder return to the underground with a set of releases clearly influenced by the bourgeoining Warp label (in their home city of Sheffield) and The Orb. Indeed, a Kirk side project (Sweet Exorcist) is generally regarded as pioneering the bleep techno sound, which became synonomous with Warp and Sheffield itself.

So the Cabs found themselves in an interesting situation: straddling a fine line between being "the elder statesmen" of electronic/dance music and "the old bastards." So throwing out The Conversation, a 2CD album in 1994 was a bold move.

Opening the first CD with 'Exterminating Angel', the listener is subjected to around 50 seconds of ARP knob twiddling before a hauntingly ambient melody begins to float through the track, while a countermelody doubles up as rhythm. The imagery this conjures up is vivid: floating to the bottom of the ocean floor while the melody acts as a light, enabling you to see the red algae seaweed and grenadier fish. Eventually, the melody and rhythm fades into muted radio transmissions and an ever present signal like sound, indicating the classic Cabs fixation with surveillance, control and freedom being revoked.

'Brutal but Clean' (invoking the image of an official force using violence within the law) builds on this, but brings the groove right to the forefront. Possibly the most Orb like track on the album, it encompasses the skank (or ska stroke) of reggae, a Kraftwerkian style melody while retaining the scrambled transmissions in the background. Is it a commentary on the Criminal Justice Bill of 1994 (which saw the police being given the power to shut down events featuring music that was 'characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats')? Who knows, but it's some track.

'The Message' is an example of the bleep techno that Kirk had been putting out for a few years. No big message behind this one, just a dancefloor friendly tune that would have sounded immense coming out of a set of speakers in 1994, while 'Harmonic Paralell' is ten minutes of stoned out Steve Reich that closes the first disc in uplifting fashion.



So far, so very 90's Cabaret Voltaire. But the second disc is where things move up a notch.

Clocking in at nearly an hour, the track 'Project 80' is a crowning jewel in the Cabs catalogue. Eerie, paranoid, twitchy, ambient, groovy, and featuring samples from films like 'Altered States', 'Forbidden Planet' and interviews with cyberpunk author William Gibson, it acts more as a soundtrack rather than a stand alone track. The samples, when more up front in the mix, are more psychedelic in effect, while when mashed together, suggests phone tapping and paranoia (is it any coincidence that the album is named after a film involving surveillance?)

This track links the, then current, incarnation of the band back to their roots as Dada influenced experimental artists. As Kirk himself said in 1994: "There's one track on there, it's the very long track ['Project 80'], that reminds me of very early Cabaret Voltaire. It actually has a sample from 'Red Mecca' on there so maybe that's what it's all about!"



Two things, however, do hold the album back from being prime Cabaret Voltaire: one is the cover, designed by the legendary Designers Republic studio. It's a very typical 'cyberpunk' style image that was cutting edge in 1994, but looks horrendously dated today. For some reason, it makes me think of 'The Lawnmower Man.' The second is the disputed role that bassist/vocalist Stephen Mallinder had on the record. Although Kirk claims that the album was recorded before Mallinder left the band to go to Australia (and Mallinder himself suggests that he did have a hand in the record), it has been widely acknowledged that the whole record is Kirk in all but name.

Nothing inherently wrong with that of course but, with Kirk releasing a solo album and another 2 CD record the same year under the name Electronic Eye, it kind of cheapens the name Cabaret Voltaire.

However, when released, the album picked up some very positive reviews. Noted dance magazine Mixmag gave the album 9 out of 10, commenting that:

It's both unsettling and compelling - typical Cabaret Voltaire, in fact. Kirk and Mallinder are back where they belong: out on their own, at the head of the pack.


Melody Maker praised it as "...totally now, uncompromisingly 1994 - but, if you know their stuff, it's immediately recognisable as them. I can't think of a greater compliment than that." Only The Wire magazine gave a sour note, claiming that "...there's none of the edginess which once gave their use of anonymity its impact."

Jon Whitney (owner of the respected Brainwashed website) has said that:

in the US...people had lost interest in CV significantly by 1994...There wasn't a lot of coverage through magazines or radio and Internet culture was still for the 'fringe' collectors: only a small number of us were connected through places like usenet (rec.music.industrial was exceptionally popular), Prodigy, Compuserve, etc. The Conversation was issued in the USA through the techno label that first broke Moby...but by 1994 the techno boom was fading. The album more resembled a Kirk project, which wasn't bad, but only the rabid collectors were the market by this point, CV releases were collecting dust in bargain bins at the time.
This is a crying shame, as The Conversation still stands mightily high in 2019. It's one of the few double albums that work in terms of consistency, holding the attention of the listener and as a conscise work in itself. It has moments that are lush and dreamy, moments that groove like a bastard and (especially with 'Project80') are genuinely enthralling. Go for a walk in Belfast city centre at night time and stick this on as your listening material. The mood is reflected perfectly.


At the very least, The Conversation demonstrated that the pre-millennium euphoria would turn into a 21st century nightmare of control, surveillance and paranoia. This may have seem them dismissed as dinosaurs from a different era by younger clubbers, but that's the beauty of being old: you see everything come around again.




⏩  Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.

From The Vaults ➖ Cabaret Voltaire 'The Conversation'

Christopher Owens is not holding back the years.

1994 seems like a lifetime ago.

Loughinisland, Rosemary Mallon, Arlene Arkinson, ceasefires, Bosnian War, Fred and Rose West, Rwandan genocide, Ayrton Senna's death, OJ Simpson, Tokyo subway attacks, Colombian football murders. A horrendous time before August 1994 brought on "the end of history" which saw the IRA announcing a ceasefire and Britain entering a period of newfound optimism.

Musically, the death of Kurt Cobain earlier in the year saw the rise of pop-punk and Britpop. Both reflected a desire to escape from the shackles of what grunge was perceived to have become: dour, nihilistic, inward looking. In the UK singles chart, 'Love is All Around' stayed at the number one spot for fifteen weeks, while America seemed to be enamoured with the likes of All-4-One, Boyz II Men, Toni Braxton, Mariah Carey and Bryan Adams, as their syrupy love ballads dominated the Billboard charts that year.

However, in the underground (which is where things matter), 1994 saw some life changing releases: Killing Joke consolidated their reputations as the pioneers of industrial metal with 'Pandemonium', a rejuvinated Gary Numan gave us 'Sacrifice', Scorn predated dubstep with the astonishing 'Evanesence', the Manic Street Preachers spat out Plath and Pinter on 'The Holy Bible' and Buzzov•en proved with 'Sore' that, when it came to sludge metal, they were the daddies.

1994 also gave us this late period classic from Sheffield legends Cabaret Voltaire.




Incredibly, the Cabs had (by 1994) been active in some shape or form since 1973. Influenced by the classic Krautrock bands (Can, Neu, La Dusseldorf), dub reggae as well as the cut up techniques of William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, the band (alongside Throbbing Gristle, NoN and Z'EV) would help pioneer the concept of industrial music.

By the turn of the eighties (and coinciding with the departure of future award winning sound recordist Chris Watson), Cabaret Voltaire had began to mutate into an electro outfit (with elements of hip hop and funk) which would bridge the gap between experimental music and the burgeoning acid house boom at the end of the decade. Subsequent attempts to adapt the acid house sound into their style would lead to mixed results.

However, the early 90's saw the duo of Richard H.Kirk and Stephen Mallinder return to the underground with a set of releases clearly influenced by the bourgeoining Warp label (in their home city of Sheffield) and The Orb. Indeed, a Kirk side project (Sweet Exorcist) is generally regarded as pioneering the bleep techno sound, which became synonomous with Warp and Sheffield itself.

So the Cabs found themselves in an interesting situation: straddling a fine line between being "the elder statesmen" of electronic/dance music and "the old bastards." So throwing out The Conversation, a 2CD album in 1994 was a bold move.

Opening the first CD with 'Exterminating Angel', the listener is subjected to around 50 seconds of ARP knob twiddling before a hauntingly ambient melody begins to float through the track, while a countermelody doubles up as rhythm. The imagery this conjures up is vivid: floating to the bottom of the ocean floor while the melody acts as a light, enabling you to see the red algae seaweed and grenadier fish. Eventually, the melody and rhythm fades into muted radio transmissions and an ever present signal like sound, indicating the classic Cabs fixation with surveillance, control and freedom being revoked.

'Brutal but Clean' (invoking the image of an official force using violence within the law) builds on this, but brings the groove right to the forefront. Possibly the most Orb like track on the album, it encompasses the skank (or ska stroke) of reggae, a Kraftwerkian style melody while retaining the scrambled transmissions in the background. Is it a commentary on the Criminal Justice Bill of 1994 (which saw the police being given the power to shut down events featuring music that was 'characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats')? Who knows, but it's some track.

'The Message' is an example of the bleep techno that Kirk had been putting out for a few years. No big message behind this one, just a dancefloor friendly tune that would have sounded immense coming out of a set of speakers in 1994, while 'Harmonic Paralell' is ten minutes of stoned out Steve Reich that closes the first disc in uplifting fashion.



So far, so very 90's Cabaret Voltaire. But the second disc is where things move up a notch.

Clocking in at nearly an hour, the track 'Project 80' is a crowning jewel in the Cabs catalogue. Eerie, paranoid, twitchy, ambient, groovy, and featuring samples from films like 'Altered States', 'Forbidden Planet' and interviews with cyberpunk author William Gibson, it acts more as a soundtrack rather than a stand alone track. The samples, when more up front in the mix, are more psychedelic in effect, while when mashed together, suggests phone tapping and paranoia (is it any coincidence that the album is named after a film involving surveillance?)

This track links the, then current, incarnation of the band back to their roots as Dada influenced experimental artists. As Kirk himself said in 1994: "There's one track on there, it's the very long track ['Project 80'], that reminds me of very early Cabaret Voltaire. It actually has a sample from 'Red Mecca' on there so maybe that's what it's all about!"



Two things, however, do hold the album back from being prime Cabaret Voltaire: one is the cover, designed by the legendary Designers Republic studio. It's a very typical 'cyberpunk' style image that was cutting edge in 1994, but looks horrendously dated today. For some reason, it makes me think of 'The Lawnmower Man.' The second is the disputed role that bassist/vocalist Stephen Mallinder had on the record. Although Kirk claims that the album was recorded before Mallinder left the band to go to Australia (and Mallinder himself suggests that he did have a hand in the record), it has been widely acknowledged that the whole record is Kirk in all but name.

Nothing inherently wrong with that of course but, with Kirk releasing a solo album and another 2 CD record the same year under the name Electronic Eye, it kind of cheapens the name Cabaret Voltaire.

However, when released, the album picked up some very positive reviews. Noted dance magazine Mixmag gave the album 9 out of 10, commenting that:

It's both unsettling and compelling - typical Cabaret Voltaire, in fact. Kirk and Mallinder are back where they belong: out on their own, at the head of the pack.


Melody Maker praised it as "...totally now, uncompromisingly 1994 - but, if you know their stuff, it's immediately recognisable as them. I can't think of a greater compliment than that." Only The Wire magazine gave a sour note, claiming that "...there's none of the edginess which once gave their use of anonymity its impact."

Jon Whitney (owner of the respected Brainwashed website) has said that:

in the US...people had lost interest in CV significantly by 1994...There wasn't a lot of coverage through magazines or radio and Internet culture was still for the 'fringe' collectors: only a small number of us were connected through places like usenet (rec.music.industrial was exceptionally popular), Prodigy, Compuserve, etc. The Conversation was issued in the USA through the techno label that first broke Moby...but by 1994 the techno boom was fading. The album more resembled a Kirk project, which wasn't bad, but only the rabid collectors were the market by this point, CV releases were collecting dust in bargain bins at the time.
This is a crying shame, as The Conversation still stands mightily high in 2019. It's one of the few double albums that work in terms of consistency, holding the attention of the listener and as a conscise work in itself. It has moments that are lush and dreamy, moments that groove like a bastard and (especially with 'Project80') are genuinely enthralling. Go for a walk in Belfast city centre at night time and stick this on as your listening material. The mood is reflected perfectly.


At the very least, The Conversation demonstrated that the pre-millennium euphoria would turn into a 21st century nightmare of control, surveillance and paranoia. This may have seem them dismissed as dinosaurs from a different era by younger clubbers, but that's the beauty of being old: you see everything come around again.




⏩  Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.

18 comments:

  1. Christopher

    I wasn’t even aware Cabaret Voltaire were still functioning in 1994. There were many horrors filtered through the media from Northern Ireland and Loughlinisland is one of those that remains in the mind for the absolute injustice of it. Musically I would add Johhny Cash ‘Amercan Recordings’ to the highs of 94. I can’t think of any other artist at that stage of their life/career coming up with an album that ranks in the top 3 of their best. I think another Krautrock influence on Cabaret Voltaire would be Tangerine Dream during their ‘Phaedra’ and ‘Rubycon’ period, 73/74, only a short time span but hugely influential as it was the first time their albums were widely available in the UK and pushed hard by Virgin. I checked out ‘Exterminating Angel’ and ‘Project 80’online and they really do it for me. Much of the album I find too anonymous though. It is a dilemma for many artists - how they were and what they think they should/could be now and in the future. Killing Joke solved it brilliantly in 94 we might agree. I bought the
    Cabaret Voltaire ‘Methodology '74-'78: Attic Tapes’ 3CD set a few years ago and I now think that period is their best. In that period they were under the underground, far away from London (and punk which would allow them to sneak through eventually). As with previous times thanks for pointing me in a rewarding direction with your review.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. PaulJPMN,

      Yes, it's strange looking back at 1994 in particular, as it is often hailed as the year where "the 90's began", thanks to the release of Definitely Maybe. But when you look at the events that occurred, it was a pretty horrendous time. Interesting to see how the passage of time can gloss over horror.

      Good call on Johnny Cash (although I was never a fan, I recognise the significance of that particular LP). I'd also add:
      King of all Spaceheads - Terminal Cheesecake
      Cleansing - Prong
      Fear, Emptiness, Despair - Napalm Death
      CrazySexyCool - TLC
      Cross Purposes - Black Sabbath
      Everyone Should be Killed - Anal Cunt
      Selfless - Godflesh
      Of Ruine Or Some Blazing Starre - Current 93
      Pomme Fritz - The Orb
      The Sporting Life - Diamanda Galas/John Paul Jones
      Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age - Public Enemy

      I'd certainly say TD were an influence, although maybe not quite as hip a name to drop as Neu! Throbbing Gristle certainly bore the influence of TD.

      What you say about the rest of the LP is definitely one of the most common criticisms of the record. I get it (and Kirk didn't help himself by releasing two similar LP's that year) but I feel if you're someone who's a fan of all periods of CV, then you appreciate and welcome the transition. Whenever I got into them, I was repeatedly told they died in 1981. But I loved everything I heard from after that period ('Crackdown', 'Sensoria', 'Covenant, Sword and the Arm of the Lord') and just embraced it. Now that period has been reapprised as their imperial phase! Check out the 'Body and Soul' album from 1991, which has Mal singing on it. Might be more to your taste.

      That is a brilliant box set. Hard to believe they were teenagers doing all that recording. It really marks them out as something special. And thank you for enjoying the review.

      Delete
  2. Haha on a slight tangent but 1994 and the Manics. Quite a few in my year (myself included) visibly carried around The Torture Garden by Octave Mirbeau just because a quote featured on the Holy Bible sleeve.

    I used to think I was dumb because none of there references made any sense, now I realise I was “too honest with myself I should of lied like everybody else!”

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The good ol' Manics. Introducing people to books they've never read since 1991.

      Delete
    2. I think that “beauty in destruction” crap was given a modern face with ISIS. The French intellectuals would of found nothing but horror in the bataclan that night, a horror so bad the State couldn’t risk to tell the public about torture and castrations ISIS performed on their captives. I was at a Manics concert (I think it was Sept 12,2001 if not the day after 9/11, it was that week) at the Kings X Scala, Nicky wire was very quiet about what happened in New York, thought that sort of thing was supposed to be beautiful?

      Delete
    3. And that was around the time they were promoting 'Know Your Enemy', and met Castro in Cuba. It's generally been noted by Manics fans that that period was the last time they were truly outspoken in political terms (even if it was rather juvenile), and the September 11th attacks showed up just how juvenile their posturing was. Primal Scream did the same thing. Around that time, they'd been playing a new song called 'Bomb the Pentagon' live, and when it was recorded, it was changed to 'Rise.'

      Delete
    4. Didn’t Castro tell them their music wasn’t as loud as war? They seem to miss the deeper point made there, we may differ on this, but I think political music is ineffective, only one “headliner” at the Bataclan could ever be revolutionary, and that was ISIS not Eagle of Death Metal. One group LARP’ing as renegades, the other actual renegades.

      Delete
    5. But was any of it true? ISIS would do it and the French government would cover it up but the reports seem mixed with contradictory claims.

      Delete
    6. AM, I am inclined to believe the reports given how they trickled out some months later. My memory is a little hazy, but didn’t a coroner first report the mutilations? As you have said nothing that’s been reported is improbable from any party.

      Delete
  3. I was aware of their imperial phase as the videos got shown on programmes like ‘The Tube at the time and tracks like ‘I Want You’ were big in the indie clubs. The two ‘Sound of Sheffield’ CD compilations acknowledge the separation with the years each cover and are a great idea but the first one covering 78-82 could be much more complete. I always respect any artist or act that changes and moves on even when I don‘t like the new direction or have lost interest even before the new direction.

    The first Marilyn Manson album came out in 94 too.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's odd how much journalists and fans differ on certain periods, with the former effectively writing off swathes of bands (and periods in music) whereas fans hold diametrically opposing views on the matter. I once read one critic dismissing 'I Want You' as a blatant stab at commerciality. Yet it's a jittery, coked up ode to wanking, with a video that references The Exorcist and Nosferatu. How was that 'commercial' in 1985?

      And the first Korn album as well. Both began to lead metal down a path that it didn't need to go down and we ended up with horrific acts like Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park dominating the charts.

      Delete
  4. Good call on Johnny Cash (although I was never a fan, I recognise the significance of that particular LP)

    American Recording were very much like what Cash recorded at Sun. I don't see much of a difference to how Rick Rubin handled Cash and to how Sam Philips/ Jack Clement's produced him. They all let Johnny do his thing, his way...Johnny always get my vote..Like Presley, he was punk, rockabilly, gospel, country...And when he recorded other peoples songs, he made them his own...

    My personal high light of 1994 was my oldest wee girl was born<---musical link is, she shares the same birthday as the king of rockabilly Carl Perkins...

    ReplyDelete
  5. frankie

    In a radio documentary about ‘American Recordings’, WS Holland who was Cash’s drummer (and was with Carl Perkins originally) was critical of the album because Rubin didn’t use Cash’s band. on it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. PaulJPMN,

      I have no reason to doubt what you said about 'Fluke' being sore, pissed off he didn't play drums on American. Over the past few days I have been looking for the radio show or at least find out more about why Rick Rubin didn't ask him.. Wiki doesn't tell me much apart from Cash's change of line up.. The Great Eighties Eight. From the rockabilly hall of fame, Fluke ' doesn't mention anything..W S “Fluke” Holland . I knew he played with Carl Perkins before he played with Cash but what I recently only found out was why..

      I asked Carl Perkinsonce why he picked me to play drums. He told me I was the only one he knew who had a Cadillac. He said that he had always wanted to drive up to Sun Studios to play music for Sam Phillips in a Cadillac”

      Delete
  6. Damn I'd like to see your vinyl collection Christopher!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Steve R,

      I fear any attempt would end like this:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P-NgeXl-PPA

      Delete
    2. Don't blame you! (LOVE Spinal Tap by the by)

      Delete
  7. Barry...

    Rock n Roll 50's Night...Just up the road from you... Fri Sep 13 2019 at 06:00 pm to Sat Sep 14 2019 at 01:00 am .. Stock Street Farm Barn, Colchester, United Kingdom ...

    Slap grease on your hair and dust off your blue suede's..There is a lot of Rock'n' Roll /Rockabilly in your part of this rock..

    ReplyDelete