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Cabaret Voltaire
#8385 (Collected Works 1983-1985) Albert Freeman , November 22nd, 2013 10:15

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It has now been 40 years since the formation of Cabaret Voltaire, one of Sheffield's single most enduring contributions to music worldwide, and, in both a musical and cultural perspective, it seems a fitting time to revisit their work. In the polarised era that they existed in for the first decade of their career, with the transition from Britain's grim economic decline in the 70s to the false promises of the beginnings of New Liberalism in the early 80s, a highly-charged political climate caused many decisions by artists and most everyone else to be implicitly interpreted as politically weighted. Starting as they did on Rough Trade, an organisation who enthusiastically dirtied their hands in the movements of the times, it would have been difficult for the Cabs to avoid these currents, and if the lyrical content of their material seemed to dodge direct references to contemporary events, it was hard to ignore the revolutionary sound of the group, which quickly earned them the ire of punks and their successors and cast the group perpetually on the fringes of popular music.

This is an odd fate for a band whose music could easily be said to have made outright overtures to the very scenes that spewed vitriol back at them. Although the more abstract and noise-derived pieces clearly ruffled feathers, the borrowing from sounds of the time such as reggae and dub, and even a few punky numbers ('Nag Nag Nag'), clearly show the Cabs were attempting to be somewhat accessible in their wanderings. The independent music scene in Britain was thriving at the time and earning its fair share of hits, but their strangeness, obsessive use of American preachers as lyrical content, and repeated references to fascism all made them a bit too far out to attract chart success.

It also earned them the rejection of the rapidly growing indie fan base, who were quickly becoming the new mainstream in the emerging music scene, but were losing their more radical notions with the transformation. Eventually, Cabaret Voltaire simply did what many a frustrated independent band did, and seeing major label interest in electronic, dance-oriented music growing, opportunistically signed to Virgin in 1983, all without really changing their musical outlook much. This further alienated independent music fans but also, rather contradictorily, earned them their biggest selling records, and the end of the decade found them aligning themselves with American house music before the members eventually took separate paths that continued to influence future developments.

In the longer term, what the brief and underrated visitation to the majors did was cause their albums of this era to be criminally under-heard by later generations. Critics of the time dismissed them as commercial capitulations, and they quickly disappeared from circulation to remain mostly gone for almost three decades, while earlier material remained available and celebrated. Eventually, a lopsided consensus emerged that was more the product of the polarised times than a neutral evaluation of these works. Large labels are rarely kind to those with limited profit-making potential, and by decade's end Cabaret Voltaire had essentially ceased to exist as Stephen Mallinder relocated to Australia and Richard H Kirk's succession of pseudonyms and projects took him deeper into techno, with the seminal Sweet Exorcist releases anchoring the very earliest of Warp's catalog.

Now, with industrial music in general and industrially-inclined techno back in an uproar for the past few years, Mute's reissue campaign comes at an opportune time. Culturally, it also comes at a significant juncture; after 30 years that saw the rise and collapse of New Liberalism in Europe and the States, contemporary outlook for common citizens not of the moneyed classes is especially bleak, and indeed some greater parallels to the late 70s are visible given analysis. At the same time, the judgments of music critics made 30 years ago are also starting to fade, and it is now possible to revisit this music in a fairer context.

Apart from a single, overlooked Virgin reissue around 2000 and scattered compilations, most of the music here hasn't been available almost since it was initially released, and certainly The Crackdown alone will serve to change some opinions of the Cabs' tenure in the majors. Indeed, if the record takes a step back from the sprawling experimental tracks of 2x45 or Three Mantras, it does so by harking back to the shorter song lengths of their earlier albums. The dub influence is back to the fore, as are weird, tinny reggae horns, both of the synthesised and acoustic variety. The production is noticeably cleaner than their underfinanced independent recordings, but it's hardly less dark, and the added clarity serves to show off the diverse, layered productions, which draw equally from dub, funk, and early electro. Mallinder's vocals are easier to cipher than they had been before, but the pop tones they would later take on are evident on a few tracks from the album: the title track, 'Taking Time', 'Animation' and the cynically comical 'Why Kill Time (When You Can Kill Yourself)'. Much of the rest would not sound out of place on Red Mecca, but benefits from more transparent production, while the lyrical themes remain as fragmented and inscrutably bleak as ever. The album's second half mostly finds them sounding very recognisably like their earlier selves, especially the closing trio of sinister nearly-ambient works and prominent swaths of horns by Kirk.

By next year's Micro-Phonies, the gap between this and their earlier, independent music becomes clearer. 'Do Right' uses keyboards more overtly melodic, and the funk of its backbone is less choppy and fragmented than it was before, with the beat moving close to a straight 4/4 pulse. For a band who had referenced reggae so many times previously, 'Digital Rasta' seems overly obvious, although its dub-influenced production was extremely sophisticated for the time; 'James Brown' channels another of their fundamental influences in a similarly conflicted manner. The pop-leaning vocal approach now dominates even if songs evade easy interpretations. It ends in the famous single 'Sensoria', a curiously light dancefloor track about overstimulation and addiction in the modern age. Throughout, the innate weirdness and jumpiness of their rhythmic approach is dialled back and the sequencer melodies more obvious than before; the result may be more unified and the combination of elements still distinctly Cabaret Voltaire, but the sharper edges have started to fade in favour of the sleekest dance sound they would ever achieve.

Going back to their obsessions with American oddities, The Covenant, The Sword, And The Arm Of The Lord references American political extremism in its title and American music in its substance. It's a pacier, funkier album than the 1984 effort, but it also it more abrasive and strange and holds together better, even if it lacks obvious singles. The squalling electronics, metallic sheets of noise, and Eastern influences of 'Whip Blow' hark back to earlier triumphs, but it ends unremarkably one track later. It's case of a band revisiting past themes in a toned-down manner, but overall the record feels like an indecisive combination of their classic sound with the newer dance leanings.

For the remaining material, collectors are well taken care of with a “lost” but partially-released soundtrack to Earthshaker, about half of which are alternate versions of album or single tracks; the remainder is a series of numbered but interesting instrumentals very much in the style the other music in the box. Also included is a DVD of two live performances from 1984, and more DVD material of experimental video footage featuring songs found on the box but whose videos were previously only on VHS. Of greater general interest to listeners are the two discs of extended 12” mixes and Drinking Gasoline, both of which showcase The Cabs on extended dancefloor versions and give more room for experimentation than the shorter album tracks. Par for the course for 80s disco mixes, the extended versions are mostly radical reworks whose choppy editing and extended instrumental sections erase the more pop-leaning structures they were starting to use in favour of freeform, beat-based sonic experimentation. No other credits are given, so it is safe to assume the sometimes maddeningly twisted works are the band's own, and they go some way to making up the distance between the poppier later tracks and their earlier collage-esque efforts. Alongside The Crackdown, these extended mixes mark one of the real highlights of the collection and illustrate the essential link between Cabaret Voltaire and later dancefloor sounds.

If the continuing relevance of this material was never seriously in doubt, in resurrecting a swath of the Cabs material that had unfairly languished in obscurity for far too long, Mute have done a service in recovering an important transitional period for the group and for dance music in general. Sheffield would continue to be an important center for electronic experiments in decades to come, and this music more than most others illustrates a sophisticated blend of pop elements and diverse rhythmic influences that far outlasted the initial noisy outbursts of late 70s industrial music. Now, with the 90s pop-industrial movement fading into the background, it is refreshing to see record labels taking chances and reviving a once-stigmatized genre, and the current crop of bands exploring these sounds contains some of the most promising new music heard in some time. Cultural parallels considered, it could be that, like their 70s and 80s predecessors, their intense statements concerning the state of society may do little to change the status quo. That said, the leaden-handed interpretation some of industrial music's current talents take is only a small part of the sound, and there is still much to be learned from Cabaret Voltaire's diverse, agile, and quick-footed work from this era.

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Nov 22, 2013 1:14pm

Problem is CV are vastly less interesting without Chris Watson than they were with him. This stuff was overlooked-- and not especially valuable used-- for a # of reasons: the funk isn't the funky and the noise isn't that noisy. There are moments, yes, but mostly this period highlights the limitations of the band's form as well its concepts.

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Nov 22, 2013 2:52pm

This is their best period. I have heard very little beat driven electronic music that comes close. Just thinking about some of the tracks sends a shiver down my spine. Big Funk!

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Nov 22, 2013 6:18pm

If you were not fortunate enough to have access to the nascent forms of electronic dance music available in the mid-1980's -- possibly due to the dour, guitar-fixated independent music stores of the period -- Cabaret Voltaire were a godsend. If you didn't live in the big city, your choice in edgy synth acts boiled down to Midge Ure's Ultravox or these guys. A terrible time, the 1980s.

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Vitreous China
Nov 22, 2013 9:39pm

This review is curiously revisionist. Actually, most of CV's Virgin-era releases remained in print throughout the '90s & into the '00s (albeit on compact disc), while the vinyl was easy to pick up c/o any decent back street used vinyl store. The reason listeners abandoned them in droves is because, in the wake of their groundbreaking Rough Trade era, everything post-The Crackdown was a massive let-down: CV had dropped the creative baton & were desperately struggling to keep up as new electronic innovators effortlessly soared past them.

As another commenter has already pointed out, CV never overcame Chris Watson's departure. Those Virgin-era records all have a yawning chasm at their centre(s), reflecting the crippling absence of Watson's chance-dictated Dadaist edge, & no amount of looped Burroughs samples, awkward pseudo-Chicago foot-shuffling, or fuzzy Super8 footage of downtown NYC could replace him.

The Crackdown remains a terrific album because it was a genuinely experimental one, with a major label budget to boot. Thereafter, the rot set in fairly quickly - they would've knocked it on the head after Microphonies if they'd had any sense...

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Johnny Nothing
Nov 23, 2013 12:03am

Code is pretty listenable. Aided no doubt by (as I recall) an Adrian Sherwood production. But, sure, I like the earlier stranger stuff better too.

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The Good Doctor
Nov 23, 2013 2:04am

I didn't discover CV until the early 90s, They've always intrigued me and I've worked my way through their uneven and confusing back catalogue over the years - so I don't have particular hang-ups about which period is best. Clearly the early Cabs made some of the most extraordinary music you'll ever hear, and I'm still getting to grips with it. I've really enjoyed revisiting the music on this box set though, I think the Virgin/Some Bizarre stuff has aged rather well and it's best to not compare it to the earlier material and just appreciate it for what it is...two blokes in Sheffield having a load of fun with Synths and drum machines, trying to make electro tunes .
I love Code too (still sounds good), and even Groovy, Laidback and Nasty has its moments.

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David Gerard
Nov 23, 2013 11:42am

I bought Micro-Phonies when it came out and have played it in the years since to the point of memorising it. It's a coherent and brilliant album and has been seriously underrated, despite the perennial favourite "Sensoria".

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Jason Taverner
Nov 24, 2013 12:20pm

Cabaret Voltaire without Chris Watson were Cabaret Voltaire without Chris Watson. Anyone who followed CV from the start of their Industrial Records cassette and Rough Trade singles onward through the dance-floor end of days knows it isn't a matter of more or less interesting. In fact, that perspective misses the entire point of CV, which is an evolution from electronic home tinkerers to beat-driven studio artists, with plenty of innovation along the way. There's no doubt that The Crackdown was a brilliant record, but when The Covenant, The Sword, And The Arm Of The Lord came out there was nothing remotely like it and it presages countless bands to follow, as suggested by the highly accurate last sentence of this article.

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3 Days Monk
Nov 24, 2013 2:40pm

In reply to Jason Taverner:

No. Sorry, but you're kidding yourself. Covenant... was a crushing disappointment in 1985 (a complete embarrassment actually) & it still sounds awful now - like a Toytown version of The Crackdown, but stripped of all that album's innovations (i.e. the introduction of melody & Virgin-funded technological upgrade).

Code / Groovy... are better records, but they're C.V. albums in name only, while Body & Soul is essentially a Kirk solo LP (albeit a quite good one!).

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Nov 25, 2013 11:45am

In reply to 3 Days Monk:

Actually, he's not kidding himself, he's expressing an opinion - one you don't agree with, fine, but that doesn't mean anyone's kidding themselves. I was loved 'Crackdown,' I thought 'Micro-phonies' was a mis-step, and I thought 'Covenant' was an amazing and powerful piece of work at the time. Listening to them all again now years later, I still think that. See, that was an opinion too...

Saying 'Code' was a better album? Now, you really are kidding yourself!

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3 Days Monk
Nov 26, 2013 12:57am

In reply to David:

At least Code is genuinely funky... Covenant is just an aimless series of half-remembered gestures, & it's the worst-sounding (& most dated) album C.V. released.

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Nov 26, 2013 2:38pm

I think it's time for a Quietus look back at Tom Ellard's, Severed Heads. Some great comparisons to early experimental stuff and more later 'pop' moments. Although 'Petrol' and 'Harold & Cindy Hospital' are pretty damn poppy to me. So underrated and a wicked sense of humor to boot.

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Nov 29, 2013 6:45pm

Thanks to The Quietus and Freeman for this. I became a CV follower in 1985 and have enjoyed all of their so-called "periods," although G,L & N was a real shocker (but, yes, has its moments.) Bands with longevity have to change and evolve. No one should have been surprised that the sound altered radically after Watson left--it was time. And, after the Drain Train, bringing in Sherwood was another example of change, even if in the midst of the disastrous EMI foray, that made Code a pretty good record. With the debacle over following G,L&N, CV once again reinvented and resurrected itself (which, by the way, is no small achievement) with some great early to mid 90s albums like Plasticity and The Conversation, the latter being a fantastic capstone to a long, fruitful and, yes, necessarily varied career. Looking forward to getting this set and reveling in some amazing, vital and still relevant music!

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Jan 22, 2014 11:23am

Who proofreads these articles, anyone??!!!

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John Doran
Jan 22, 2014 12:10pm

In reply to :

No. We don't charge a cover fee and hence can't afford to pay any production costs.

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Mantra Mantra Earth Band
Mar 24, 2014 11:46pm

Funny how post-Waston CV defenders are both so timid and delusional... Is this your evidence?


seriously, would love to hear anyone come up with some positive comment on this performance, music, fashion, business... anything!

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Apr 8, 2014 6:37pm

In reply to Mantra Mantra Earth Band:

That performance was from the early 90's when house music was huge in the UK, particularly the Madchester scene. It might seem drastically different than their earlier work, but not terrible by any means. Considering that there is a lot 90's house music influence creeping it's way into modern EDM, the Cabs work from this period is still somewhat relevant.

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Sep 20, 2014 5:07pm

In reply to R3:

i have to admit there is something perversely fascinating about dance era CV live; I keep hoping to hear some subversion from within but I'm not sure I hear it over Mallinder's happy feet.

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Sep 27, 2014 4:23pm

In reply to :

This is a GREAT set, both eras of CV are extremely valuable and RHK is highly undervalued as as musician or non-musician, take your pick. The one criticism of this box is the list cost and that original LP vinyl isn't hard to find. I wish there was more comment on the remastering and what various changes RHK made to the artwork. Nonetheless. 9.5/10!!

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Sep 27, 2014 4:25pm

In reply to 3 Days Monk:

"Code" box set next, Mark Stewart >>>>>>>>>

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