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Album Of The Week

A New World Being Born – Third Noise Principle: Formative North American Electronica 1975-1984
Noel Gardner , January 24th, 2019 08:14

Following UK and European volumes, 60 left-of-the-dial electronic acts from 70s/80s North America, and another wildly enjoyable multi-disc compilation from veteran indie label turned licence maestros Cherry Red

Futurisk, with Jeremy Kolosine front right

“It’s funny, looking back, how new it all seemed to most people,” Jeremy Kolosine of early 80s DIY electropunks Futurisk has said. “Many were ambivalent towards drum machines and synths, especially in most US markets at the time.” Futurisk existed during a moment of technological and subcultural upheaval in music, one which Third Noise Principle goes a creditable way to capturing. They also existed in Miami, a musically and socially conservative bunion on America’s big toe Florida, and as such they were pretty much out on their own.

A lot of the musicians on this wildly enjoyable compilation claim outcast status in the sleeve notes, or have it claimed for them (as usual with Cherry Red comps, info about the acts is a wonky mix of original bios, horse’s-mouth testimony and cut’n’pastes from previous reissues). Some dealt with it by creating their own microscenes, perhaps made up of multiple pseudonymous versions of themselves; others immersed themselves in the cassette underground that took off in the early 80s, when recording and distributing one’s music became significantly cheaper (and which also features heavily on Close To The Noise Floor and Noise Reduction System – the UK and Europe-based predecessors to Third Noise Principle). Many simply accepted their position and used it to puzzle and needle, like Futurisk (founder member Kolosine plus Jack Howard and Richard Hess) did via performance-arty audience interaction and local flyer-bombing campaigns.

The Futurisk song on here, ‘Push Me, Pull You (Pt 2)’ (there’s no indication a ‘Pt 1’ existed) is one of the compilation’s shortest songs at two minutes and 21 seconds, but it fits so much into that space. The term minimal wave has latterly become used to categorise a lot of homemade 80s synth music: indeed, the archive label of the same name released a collection of Futurisk recordings in 2010. There’s nothing sparse, suave or icy about this cut, a concoction of live and programmed drums clashing with squealing keys, rude’n’oily motor-revving funk bass, and vocals fed through a vocoder and buried in the mix to the point you’d be excused for not noticing them on first listen. For the first and last ten seconds of the song, though, it’s just a rubbery rhythmic backbone, almost as if it was designed to be mixed in and out by DJs – whether this track would have been at all likely to feature in anyone’s beatmatched set in 1982, when it was released as part of the Player Piano EP, is a moot point. Still, ‘Push Me, Pull You (Pt 2)’ has been described as a precursor to Herbie Hancock’s ‘83 hit ‘Rockit’, and this isn’t a completely outlandish invocation.

It is, though, a sort-of outlier in Futurisk’s brief canon, most of which is punkier and more histrionic in the vein of The Units or The Screamers (two Californian bands singled out as other-coast peers by Kolosine) with fragments of Berlin Bowie theatre, Eno Roxy aloofness and Numanoid paranoia. One can’t quite listen to it and baldly assert that they could or should have been stars, but beneath the homefried synth clatter there’s a glass-clear pop sensibility and a modish taste for fashionable music of the time (perhaps not so much in Miami). And Futurisk were objectively successful within their modest means, selling all 500 copies of 1980 debut single ‘Army Now’ and the thousand-strong run of Player Piano.

This non/commercial schism is threaded through a lot of Third Noise Principle’s four-and-a-bit hours. You’ll appreciate, I hope, how the dividing line between hipster and nerd is often tenuous or imperceptible; here, similarly, we find unsung prophets whose technological acumen and fave raves occupied the cutting edge of their era, yet they remained wilfully difficult oddballs with no interest in music-scene social climbing, or perhaps no ability for it. ‘Intermission: Pop’ by Lon C Diehl, a member of Michigan industrial band Hunting Lodge (who feature later on), is so titled because it was designed to be played between noisier live sets as a “palate cleanser”. In hindsight, it seems wild that it was ascribed such a benign role – or that this sternly steely proto-techno clank was getting aired in 1983.

‘First Mutation’ by Kevin Lazar, a Chicago synth head who released a sole tape the year before (this track is previously unreleased, presumably from around the same era), is even more boggleworthy, a chattering meltdown driven by hectic proto-Phuture 303 abuse. Smersh’s contribution here, ‘What The Peeper Saw’, is clammy ambient clonk and not especially futuristic for 1984, but if I may go off-piste I’ll talk up the New Jersey duo’s later glomming onto techno and acid house, such as this crypto-mnml bubbler from 88 – they deserve their recent and part-posthumous coronation as outsider rave royalty.

Two more techno-not-techno Third Noise Principle selections, sequenced next to each other on the final CD in fact, highlight the breadth of its scope, for better or worse. Isosceles were, state the liner notes, “two Canadian college dropouts (both of whom are now active anti-Government protestors and wish not to be named)” whose 1984 tape came out in 1983 and is named in reference to the Orwell novel. ‘Possibly Winston’ – as in Smith – is exemplary post-Throbbing Gristle industrial disco pistoning that sounds years ahead of its time and also has no apparent evidence of its existence outside of this release. Either Isosceles did an unusually thorough job of scraping their past activities from Google’s trenches or someone is having us on. Conversely, new age big dog Steve Roach is indubitably real and active, having released six new albums in the past year, and his ‘Worlds’ is contextually astonishing, a liquid Berlin School-with-beats tripper that could have easily graced, say, one of Aphex’s Analogue Bubblebath EPs.

Roach is one of several artists across the tracklisting who don’t quite fit the apparent remit, in that they operated via different channels. Certainly, there’s common musical and ideological ground between the early 80s new age scene and the industrial/synth one of the same period, but there were few if any interacting nodes at the time. Craig Leon’s ‘Donkeys Bearing Cups’, from his reappraised 1981 LP Nommos, is an enveloping shoegazey rush which sounds like Fuck Buttons a quarter of a century early, yet Leon was less an underground guy than a major label studio bod who tinkered with electronics in his spare time. Terry Riley and Philip Glass are both hugely significant to the development of synthesizer-based minimalism, but their featuring on here feels a bit like, I dunno, putting Judas Priest on a thrash metal best-of. Much the same applies to the inclusion of Patrick Cowley, Ministry, Laurie Spiegel (one of very few women here) or NON, although that’s just on the grounds of Boyd Rice being a fascist prick.

The majority of the music on Third Noise Principle has already been excavated and reissued, thus contextualised and viewed with hindsight. As with most compilations like it, especially the ones Cherry Red specialise in, it’s best seen as a potential diving board to enable future submersion in a frighteningly productive scene and its (often now very expensive) records and tapes. Listening now, it’s as harsh as it is beautiful – it sounds like a new world being born.