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.
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.
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.
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.