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Cabaret Voltaire
#7885 (Electropunk to Technopop 1978 - 1985) Eugene Brennan , June 27th, 2014 09:02

The stylistic changes of Cabaret Voltaire charted by this compilation have been the subject of widespread critical discussion over the years. In moving beyond their avant-garde origins, the 'technopop' which comprises the latter half of this compilation has often been viewed as a descent into the lightweight, and a commercial sell-out. On the contrary, #7885 (Electropunk to Technopop 1978 - 1985) proves a mastery of superficially conflicting musical spaces.

The selection suggests an attempt to emphasise some sense of continuity, that in reality they were never very far from the dancefloor anyway. For all the chaotic collisions and reverberation of noise on the earlier records, they were nearly always propelled forward by engaging rhythmical patterns. Favourites like 'Nag Nag Nag' and 'Do The Mussolini' showcase the wiry, taut amphetamine-fuelled sounds characteristic of their early work. 'Silent Command' is a weird and compelling combination of elements of 2 Tone punk and dancehall. One of the stand-out tracks from this period is 'Seconds Too Late', where distorted vocals, shards of guitar, eerie B-movie-horroresque synth lines, and warped TV samples come and go over a repetitive but incredibly effective bass and synth line, all creating a fantastic slice of voodoo-disco.

For all the continuities though, the compilation still highlights the distinct shift in style that came after their 1982 LP 2x45, represented here by 'Breathe Deep'. Its primitive drum patterns, aggressive post punk bass and guitars and clarinet set up a sharp contrast against the dancefloor electronica of the following track, 'Just Fascination'. Far from mere cynical attempt to remarket themselves as pop, though, tracks like 'Just Fascination', 'Crackdown',' Sensoria', 'The Dream Ticket' and 'I Want You' stand up as not only some of the best moments from the Cabs back catalogue, but number among the finest dancefloor tracks of the decade.

One of the most striking differences in the crossover from the Chris Watson-era experimental work into technopop is the distinct clarity and amplification of Mallinder's previously distorted voice. On the earlier records, his voice was dehumanised, used like an instrument. But in their further embrace of technology and abandonment of guitars and more traditional instrumentation, there was a simultaneous attempt to reassert a human trace to the music with more pronounced vocals. Thus Cabaret Voltaire kept exploring the tensions between the mechanical and the human which their music had always implicitly raised.

While they're often discussed in relation to Throbbing Gristle, I also think Cabaret Voltaire's early work benefits from a comparison with contemporaries This Heat, especially in their registration of political turmoil. Both groups had a unique takes on musique concrète crossed with a wiry, angsty post punk aesthetic, and marked by a distinct political consciousness. The latter was often characterised by a dark surrealist perspective. This Heat's 'The Fall of Saigon', for example, explores the cataclysmic event from the perspective of the under-siege U.S. embassy where staff resorted to eating a cat. Guitar solos grimly evoke the sizzling feline against the military barrage of noise. A similar bleak surrealism characterises 'Do the Mussolini', in which the Cabs attempted a post punk dance as a kind of hypothetical soundtrack to accompany film footage of the Italian dictator's executed body being kicked by the public and dragged through the street.

Both This Heat and Cabaret Voltaire were evocatively responsive to the events of their time, from the rise of religious politics on the Three Mantras EP to the echoes of the 1981 riots on Red Mecca and the sense of Cold War paranoia and anxiety. This Heat's 1981 LP Deceit made the anxiety over impending nuclear devastation clear from the mushroom cloud on the front cover to the anxiety and doom-laden lyrics. Through forward-thinking music with despairingly bleak political overtones, both groups explored a kind of libidinous counter to what looked like imminent geo-political catastrophe.

The further into the realm of technopop the Cabs go though, the less doom-laden the music becomes. This is not, however, an apolitical drift in tandem with the commercialisation of their sound.

There's an implicit political maturity at work here, exemplified by a consciousness that hyperbolic proclamations of crisis are more and more used as paradoxical reassertions of the status quo. Ideas about the pacifying effects of crisis simulation and the use of media as a weapon start to recur more often in the Cabs' work around this period. Their response to the ubiquity of such apocalyptic rhetoric became delightfully playful, and this becomes particular evident on their vastly underrated 1985 LP The Covenant, The Sword & The Arm Of The Lord.

The record was named after a far right Christian militia group who believed that doomsday was imminent. The LP referencing Christian concerns over the decline of Western civilisation mischievously led with 'I Want You', which was basically the best pop song about masturbation since 'Teenage Kicks'. With similarly mocking overtones, the dance funk party vibes of 'Sensoria' are punctuated by samples from a Klu Klux Klan speech and Zulu chants.

Their absorption of diverse influences - dub, disco and early hip-hop - becomes evident throughout this period too, especially via tracks like 'Just Fascination'. Mallinder is even on the brink of rapping at times, and the traffic wasn't only one way. The likes of Derrick May and Carl Craig referencing the impact the Cabs had on Detroit Techno is just one example of how ahead of the curve they were.

A few years ago The Quietus initiated a debate around the usefully provocative motion that 'the avant-garde is only good if you can drink, dance, fuck or take drugs to it'. In truth any strict adherence to this would leave you deprived of some perhaps unsexy but nonetheless mind-expanding music. When the terms are met though, and when apparently conflicting musical languages come into collision, the results can be pretty thrilling, as this compilation shows.