The Minimal Wave Tapes, reviewed in The Wire

  • March 26, 2010

“This compilation is like the Nuggets of early 1980s bedroom electronica.”  Review by Mark Fisher published in The Wire April 2010

The Minimal Wave Tapes Various (Stones Throw) CD/DL/2×LP

Things moved quickly 30 years ago. The release of The Normal’s “TVOD”/“Warm Leatherette”, Thomas Leer’s “Private Plane” and Robert Rental’s “Paralysis” in 1978 seemed to presage nothing less than a new system of production and distribution for popular music. Cheap electronics, some hoped, would provide the means to escape major label domination, something which punk had promised but which rock instrumentation couldn’t deliver. “Now you can buy a synthesizer for a hundred odd pounds and you can hire a good tape recorder for something like, £20 or £30 a day,” John Foxx told In The City fanzine a year later, ahead of the release of his own Metamatic album. “You can actually make a record and have it pressed for something like £30 for a hundred copies… Just one man and his ideas, and his imagination working away with a machine.”

The best known evolution from this synthesizer music was the synthpop that dominated the British charts for a brief period in the early 1980s. The Minimal Wave Tapes Volume One traces the lesser known route, documenting the synthesizer underground that kept faith with the DIY methodology through cassette releases and homemade artwork. The Minimal Wave scene was an international movement, a system of alliances built up via post, in which the fanzine CLEM (Contact List Of Electronic Musicians) played a central part. This collaborative infrastructure anticipated what came after – the globalised network of music exchange in which we’re now embedded – but had its own specificity. There was still a punctuality and a physicality to tape releases, which is lacking in the seamless temporality of Web 2.0, in which tracks can be directly uploaded into cyberspace.

The template was established in those late 1970s/early 80s records by The Normal, Leer and Foxx: synthesizers, drum machine, dispassionate/neurasthenic vocal. Minimal was the right word: what these UK acts had subtracted from Kraftwerk’s music was its expansiveness. Like those UK pioneers, the music of the Minimal Wavers was defined by a certain thinness. Much of the grain came from the drum machine, which gave the rhythms a brittle, skittery edginess and a tireless, inhuman drive.

The Minimal Wave Tapes was compiled by Stones Throw founder Peanut Butter Wolf from the archives built up by Veronica Vasicka, an enthusiast who founded the Minimal Wave record label in 2005. There are acts here from Belgium, USA, UK, Spain, Netherlands, France and Canada – without the sleevenotes, though, I wouldn’t have been able to guess where they had come from. The lingua franca is English, but where rock induced performers into aping Americana, here everyone sounds European (with the UK very much incorporated into the continent: this was a scene in which a group from Blackpool would call itself Das Kabinette and record a song – “The Cabinet” – which reprises the plot of Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari). Far from Donald Rumsfeld’s Old Europe, what this music projected was a Europe built out of brutalist architecture, art films and paperbacks, and in place of rock’s slavering sexual monomania, a whole different affective lexicon came into play: fascination, disdain, anxiety, neurosis.

Given the limited sound palette, the tracks here are actually somewhat varied in style and tone. At five and a half minutes – two minutes longer than most everything else on the album – the opening track, “Way Out Of Living” by Linear Movement from Belgium, suggests a burned-out torch song performed in some disco-cabaret. It is notable, not for its minimalism, but for a kind of languid, lo-fi lushness. The brutal synthetic percussion of Crash Course In Science’s “Flying Turns”, by contrast, sets it somewhere between early 1980s Industrial and Techno. Oppenheimer Analysis’s “Radiance” reminds us that this was music made in the shadow of the Cold War: it’s an electro-psychedelic hymn addressed to the power of the Bomb, the catatonically flat vocals like an update of “Tomorrow Never Knows”. The backing track on Californian Mark Lane’s 1984 track “Who’s Really Listening” sounds like the precise midpoint between Foxx’s Metamatic and Acid House, while Ohama’s “My Time” is a disquisition on temporality, part pulp existentialist, part science fiction, its drum machine percussion conjuring a conspiracy of clock ticks.

Why disinter this music now? For Peanut Butter Wolf, it was partly a question of collector’s completism, partly a question of nostalgic return. “My friends and I were all discovering this music from 1981–84,” he writes. “I wore eyeliner to a few parties and straightened my hair, and a buddy started a Goth band called Mourning Becomes Electra, wore all black, and teased his hair out like Robert Smith.” And, certainly, Peanut Butter Wolf and Veronica Vasicka are to be applauded for shedding some light on this little known scene: this compilation is like the Nuggets of early 1980s bedroom electronica.