The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website


Close To The Noise Floor Ned Raggett , June 11th, 2016 07:30

Electronic music as some sort of disembodied harbinger of an alien future has almost always required an imaginative leap -- it’s as human as anything else, after all. It just seems alien, and though we now live in a time when computers appear to dream -- finally approaching the electric sheep phase -- it, much like its philosophical and creative equivalent in science fiction, is simply the condition, the joy and the trauma of the human in perceived drag, somewhere/something else but ultimately about the instant present and whatever has fed into it.

Thus Close to the Noise Floor, which could be -- and to some degree is presented as -- a kind of forbidding artifact; with a subtitle like ‘Formative UK Electronica 1975-1984: Excursions in Proto-Synth Pop, DIY Techno and Ambient Exploration,’ it almost sounds more like a presentation at an academic conference is at work. But from compiler Dave Henderson’s liner notes forward -- nearly every track comes accompanied either with his enthusiastic, thoughtful reviews from his long-running ‘Wild Planet’ column at Sounds in the early eighties, with often quite detailed and informative recollections from the composers themselves, or both -- there’s less contemplative considerations and more an enthusiasm for gumming things up. No ghosts in the machine but plenty of flies in the ointment.

Given the retrospective histories that have now long since created the space for placing and discussing this music -- celebrations of ‘minimal wave’ on the one hand, the overarching tagging of the late seventies/early eighties crossover as the Golden Age of DIY in UK terms in particular, the massive scene that never was noticed except by those who cared to look -- there’s a logic and an understanding for this compilation’s existence. If numerous figures who appear here could have easily done so on other comps with themes like “darkwave,” “industrial” or the like -- among other names mentioned later in this review, acts like the Legendary Pink Dots, Attrition and Portion Control take well-deserving bows -- by framing the collection as something of an unstable, wobbly grouping to start with is satisfying. If there’s a sense that nothing slick will be heard (and it essentially isn’t -- any number of songs are very carefully arranged and presented, but barely anything that would pass for sunny listening then or now), then that’s not so much selling point as raison d’etre.

But it would be a lie to say that there’s no pop or no pop artists, not with British Standard Unit’s cover of Rod Stewart’s ‘D’Ya Think I’m Sexy’ finding the unexpected midpoint between the Daleks and the Chipmunks. Not with the twisted catchiness of songs like Five Times of Dust’s ‘The Single Off the Album’ or the appearance of John Foxx with an unreleased 1979 cut, ‘A New Kind of Man’. And certainly not with OMD’s ‘Almost’ and the Human League’s ‘Being Boiled’ included among others (the latter group arguably appear twice thanks to British Electric Foundation’s “Optimum Chant” also getting the nod). Instead of being skew-whiff ‘early’ efforts viewed from the perspective of late fame, though, such songs here form part of the churn -- pointing out how “pop” as such could emerge from recording approaches, mixing decisions and quite simply poverty and lack of formal options or training. The shrill tones of the OMD song’s lead melody, the hollow-sounding murmuring of Phil Oakey on seroculture over blunt arrangements, this and much more on the collections points to how entryism could work in differing ways -- aiming for the charts was one goal, providing a peek backward to the newcomers another.

To dwell on the hits-as-such would undercut the collection’s goal, though -- how there was and wasn’t a “sound” shared across these acts, as well as the many that aren’t featuring here or have still never really been heard. It's never a question of an exact formula or model, more like a general feeling with numerous possible interpretations. Primacy is given to percussion that pulses, skitters, clatters; often there can’t be enough fuzz or hiss or echo (or all three) when it comes to any of the instruments. Vocals are anything but required, but when they appear, more often than not the singing is underplayed, tentative, a deliberate turn away from a star performance, or subject to the same sonic limitations as the instruments, or else kept as neutral, indeed robotic, as possible. (A perfect illustration of this: ‘Music to Save the World By’, with Alan Burnham’s delivery on such a Bono-sounding title being as non-Bono sounding as possible.)

Crisp and clipped approaches are plenty present in turn but all feel weightless in the best sense, a skittering rather than a pounding. If formal studios were used, polish seemed to be low on priorities; if done at home, the limitations might have been resented in part but created new possibilities on the other. You can almost audibly sense acts like Storm Bugs, on ‘Little Bob Minor’, or MFH, on ‘Mistral’, wondering if it might not be better just to bust open the plastic cases holding whatever is being used to twist everything around in a new shape by hand -- even if they'd put something together by hand to start with.

To say that there was no precedent for what was being heard would be inaccurate -- whether from figures like Parmegiani or Stockhausen, the more electronic end of prog or just something heard on random late night broadcasts, the signposts were there, and the lushness of approach one can sense at so many points puts paid to the idea it was just a bunch of people goofing off on the equivalent of ‘My First Synth’ or whatever it might be called. Thomas Leer’s ‘Tight as a Drum’ has a striking majesty evident across even just four and a half minutes, Zorch’s “Adrenalin (Return of the Elohim Pt 1), the number recorded in 1975, is overtly much more of a pre-punk bit of mysteriousness from a trio of early synth/prog fiends, and Adrian Smith’s ‘Joe Goes to New York’, in spite of his amusing protestations in his liner notes about making it all up as he went along and his addiction to melody, is as lovely and darkly serene as one could want.

There's also a sense of development and, however ill-defined, a “scene” that not only shared sonics but personalities. The latter makes sense given how much the DIY movement resulted from the thrill of like-minded souls being able to find each other through those means available at the time -- thus Henderson’s column but any number of fanzines and other points of connection, all the more difficult to obtain in the pre-widespread internet world. Al Robertson is a good example: his sole full credit under his name, the lovely and strange ‘Dignity of Labour’, appears near the end of the set but recurs at various points throughout as collaborator, promoter, label founder, in pseudonymous guise (his ‘Eco Beat’ as DC3 is a standout) and more. Meanwhile, Bryn Jones appears twice -- his ‘Muslin Gauze Muslim Prayer’, one of his first songs released under his famed Muslimgauze guise, shows how his pursuit of rough sonics and politically charged instrumental work was generally established from the start. But his murky ‘Tripych’, released just prior to the name change as EG Oblique Graph, shows not only his start but how he transformed polite atmospheric ominousness into something else quickly enough -- an implicit rebuke to the still commonplace yawp that electronic music in general somehow still all ‘sounds the same’ (all the more tedious when it comes from young bores who think modern music was invented when Bon Iver strummed a banjo or the like).

If there’s a limitation that the set possesses, it’s that nearly everything here is made by men, something all the more notable given how so many women were creating striking music throughout the UK at this time -- and how a figure like Kate Bush would eventually put a dramatic stamp on electronics in music building up to 1984’s Hounds of Love. (Not to mention the sheer unlikelihood of Laurie Anderson’s trans-Atlantic smash ‘O Superman’ providing another possible model.) Chris and Cosey take an understandable bow early on with ‘Re-Education Through Labour’, their well-practiced skill with sound from Throbbing Gristle evident in the 1982 cut from Trance’s sharp edges, while TG itself understandably crops up later in the set with an all-time underground great, the 20 Jazz Funk Greats cut ‘What a Day’. Meanwhile there's also the intricate arrangement and opening/concluding rhythmic vocal chant of ‘Live at Longborne’ by Suisse, the performing name of Susan Trigger, as well as Vicky Gordon-Jones on synth as part of the improvisational act Blah Blah Blah and (one hopes) one or two other women elsewhere on the set.

But otherwise, whether it was an unspoken perception about who such music was seen to be for and by or other more overt decisions, it’s more than a little depressing to consider that a scene who had Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram among its direct inspirations in the country itself almost lives up to a gender stereotype instead. The liner notes for We Be Echo’s ‘Sexuality’ discuss how the clipped snippets of a sex worker’s radio interview form part of the flow -- one could almost wonder how another musician might have let it played directly and clearly, and to what possible effect.

There’s also the hints of tension between how electronics was perceived and used in wider realms. As one example: O Yuki Conjugate’s first of two contributions, their first ever song, is a lovely start, a mix of distant synth melodies, tones like a lost whale in the dark, a basic but compelling rhythm hit. Yet nervy and perhaps nervous young men calling it ‘Disco Song’ -- even while house was starting to take shape in Chicago while UK synth pop’s unavoidable transitional figure, Gary Numan, had already inadvertently laid the ground for NY electro along with Kraftwerk -- shows that distance, however ironically or humorously intended, could be very much on the minds of the creators. From the present day, thinking about how many of these approaches transmuted into options for dancefloors and radio playlists provides its own irony in response.

But while these factors are worth keeping clearly in mind, the logic of Close to the Noise Floor, the music and what it showcases more widely, is its own constant reward. At four discs total, it may be something to dip into and out of rather than listen through in a straight line. It’s no matter how one hears it, though, when the stirring shimmer of ‘Faith’ by Nagamatzu or the murmuring intensity of the Instant Automatons’ “New Muzak” or the sweetly 50s sci-fi tripping out of Carl Matthews’s ‘Encounter’ delivers so much striking beauty beyond the edge. So much of this music is as distant to us now as the scratchy, unusual-to-later-ears country blues and early jazz of the 1920s was to 1950s and 1960s listeners wondering what strange world seemed lost to them. Play this off an iPhone while you’re busy Snapchatting and you might get the same frisson of the unusual -- not alien, all human, then and now.