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Cherrystones Presents Critical Mass Joe Banks , May 29th, 2015 15:22

I've always been intrigued by the concept of 'crate digging', how an activity I'm sure most music fans have occasionally indulged in has been turned into some kind of pseudo-mystical pursuit. It conjures images of pith-helmeted sonic archaeologists doggedly sifting through the unloved debris and garbage heaps, occasionally emerging with some relic of a bygone age for our amusement and/or veneration.

Of course, in many ways crate digging is just the respectable end of our culture's current predilection for tunnelling away from the light of the future, and I'm certainly not immune to this impulse myself. The thrill of the past often feels more meaningful than the thrill of now – we already have the historical co-ordinates and context, or at least we think we do, which makes it all the more surprising when we hear something that challenges or unexpectedly adds to that picture.

I'm not sure whether Gareth Goddard (aka Cherrystones) describes himself as a crate digger, but it's a milieu he's closely associated with. There's certainly more than a hint of that evangelical fervour in the notes that accompany Critical Mass (subtitled 'Splinters From The Worldwide New-Wave, Post-Punk and Industrial Underground 1978 – 1984') – he describes this compilation as "A veritable platter to switch on the uninitiated," qualifies this by saying, "it's not an exercise in rarity to make people feel alienated," before going for broke with, "I hear the messages and feel the vibrations in these very songs - as will you if you allow them to." Crikey.

But let's not get too sniffy about our host's genuine enthusiasm for his subject. As that subtitle suggests, this is a pretty wide-ranging sweep through a period of music history where every month, let alone every year, seemed to herald a brave new world of possibilities. As such, it's not so much a definitive snapshot of a scene, but a personal choice of songs that for reasons of geography or just plain luck either didn't break cover or were quickly forgotten in the tumult of those times.

Very broadly speaking, there's four categories of songs here that mirror/shadow the various flavours of post-punk: electronic, funky, guitar-based, and experimental. Album opener 'FanFanFanatisch' by Germany's Rheingold fits neatly into that first category, being an up-and-at-'em slice of synth rock. Its fast-paced arpeggios evoke the clean lines of new Europa, or alternatively a bunch of speed-fuelled miscreants running amok in Kling Klang studios. Rizzo's 'I Don't Care' also has primitive, sickly electronics welded to a New York punk undercarriage, like Richard Hell fronting Chrome - except these guys are also from Germany (and ex-members of 70s rockers Jane to boot), its louche nihilism only slightly compromised by a suspiciously competent guitar solo.

One of the most fun but also compelling tracks here is Chandra's 'Kate'. It starts with a moody synth line and lugubrious bass before a higher, twinkly melody adds some light to the shade. But this still doesn't prepare you for the snarling, super snotty female vocal that follows, as though the young Siouxsie Sioux had been born in Brooklyn rather than Bromley. And the lyrics are wonderful: "There's a girl called Kate/And she thinks she's really great/But she's not!" Even better, Chandra turns out to have been just 12 years old when she recorded this, and her words get more sinister as the song progresses: "We don't want you/We can't use you/You're too good for us."

Of the tracks influenced by/contributing to the funky/Afrobeat division of post-punk, probably the pick of the bunch is by the Dutch group Dojoji. While some bands of that time deployed funk as a tangled signifier for the speed of life, Dojoji opt for space and groove on 'Quincunx', its skittering guitar, occasional horns and clattering percussion playing off against a fat, militant bassline. Also of note in this category is 'The Beat Goes On', a Sonny & Cher cover by Transmitters which almost functions as an angry remix of Talking Heads' 'Born Under Punches', both of them sharing the same vocal refrain.

Fans of the more experimental end of things are also well-catered for here. Belgian group Aksak Maboul contribute 'A Modern Lesson', an initially unpromising mixture of Arabic strings over a detuned Bo Diddley riff and some Lene Lovich-esque speaking in tongues. But it intrigues by the way it keeps stylistically mutating, from Zappa to Can to Penguin Café Orchestra. There's more out-of-the-body female vocals and a jerky, treated rhythm track on Fote's 'Permanent', while album closer 'UG' by The Flowerpot Men sounds eerily prescient of today's hauntological sounds with its bleak, minimal tape loops.

This is a pretty cool comp, but exactly how 'obscure' these tracks are is a moot point: it's because of crate digging that much of this material is already available online. However, as the floodgates of the past remain jammed open, expert curation is undeniably important. Whether you regard it as tilling the soil for new growth or raking at dead embers depends on your viewpoint.

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