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Stephen Mallinder
Pow-Wow Richard Foster , July 20th, 2020 07:50

Stephen Mallinder's solo debut may be pushing forty, but it still hums with the post-human future

It seems to be standard practice to call a record from 40-odd years ago “fresh”, or “timeless”. And such is the case with this reissue of Stephen Mallinder’s 1982 debut solo album, Pow-Wow. But this hoary old marketing ploy isn’t really needed here. Mallinder’s band, Cabaret Voltaire were early exponents of an essentially “faceless” post-punk electronic sound that, given its clear aesthetic and instantly recognisable - often interchangeable - codes and mores, became a sound that existed apart from any time.

Even so, it doesn’t hurt to note the creative foibles and impulses of that era. Like many records in the genre that Mallinder helped shape, Pow-Wow revels in the display of atonal or abstract sounds, machine-like beats - or beats that emulate the movement of machinery - and the idea that the music made is driven by a number of power sources, human or otherwise.

For Mallinder and his peers, flattening out creation’s curve by using new technologies was crucial. These tracks were initially slung down on an 8-track and then refined through dubs and overdubs, remixing and bouncing fragments until a homogenous sound presented itself. It is a remarkably compact listen, familiar elements meet and interact with each other throughout, as travellers would greet each other on a lonely road. The itchy and wry title track is a great example: it almost acts like a prism, both absorbing and refracting the essences of other tracks on the record.

Despite the obvious industriousness displayed in the making of Pow-Wow, another rope bridge to the past is experienced with the clear rejection of the idea of the virtuoso craftsman (for pop, read wanky guitarist or keyboard maestro). To nick a title from fellow travellers Mekanik Kommando, Pow-Wow is “factory pop”: a collective, bottom-up ideal forged in the white heat flash of punk, and further seduced by the siren’s call of European disco. In this new world, the “music worker” was just an element of a wider sound, synthesized from the interaction of other elements. It’s noticeable the human musician as the prime sonic architect never really gets a look in on Pow-Wow. You hear this with the anonymous vocal samples (on ‘Three Piece Swing’ which reluctantly kicks its football back to My Life in the Bush of Ghosts). Or in the short intermezzos like ‘0-58’ and ‘1-20’, where the only relationship exposed is that of the actual time the sounds take to play out. Or the arbitrary way human interactions are captured on tracks like ‘Going Out’ or ‘In Smoke’. They are essentially incidental noises that just add to, rather than dictate, a wider aural tapestry.

For all the lack of the human touch, Pow-Wow is stuffed full - weirdly enough - of supremely gestural music. You can feel this with this re-issue’s opener (an edit of 1981’s single b-side), ‘Cool Down’. Demonstrably in love with Neu!, the track is like an actor in a renaissance painting, pointing to a symbol, vista, or figure to make a point on a wider matter. This audio-mnemonic positioning may have something to do with yet another post-punk rabbit I can conjure up: a fascination with the idea of Europe. Mallinder’s debut is very much part of a wider, pan-European music movement active in the late 1970s and very early 1980s. In part driven by the likes of Moroder, Eno & Kraftwerk and the wider “krautrock” and French progressive scenes, this movement is still known to many, and in many forms: Cold Wave, the Dutch Ultra scene, Disques du Crepuscule in Belgium, and the NDW in Germany. Not to mention British industrial / electric music made by the likes of the Human League and Clock DVA, John Foxx and Gary Numan, or United Dairies and the wider “Industrial” music scenes.

This loose tribe of musicians and creatives swapped tapes, wrote letters, circulated photocopied artworks, crashed on each other’s floors and glumly listened to William Burroughs together. In Britain the idea of Europe enjoyed an especially strong pull. British musicians mined the continent as a repository of new and old ideas, and as a place of impossible glamour and past barbarities. The resulting reflections could be sublime (Associates) or ridiculous (Spandau Ballet). We hardly need mention Mallinder’s main band here. So ubiquitous was this sympathy, I feel it’s worth quoting a 1981 article in Dutch post-punk magazine Vinyl, where the singer of great Dutch post-punk band Mecano, Dirk Polak, comments wryly on British pop music’s seemingly unquenchable fascination with Europe as a place of ideas. How sad to read such enthusiasm, in the current climate.

Enough of my projections. As a package existing in “the now”, the reissue of Pow-Wow is a luxurious listen. Our unspoken neoliberal unconscious demands extra tracks and, unsurprisingly, we get extra tracks; such as the 1981 single ‘Temperature Drop’ (which is a sort of precursor to album track, ‘Length of Time’). ‘Temperature Drop’ is a brilliant game of aural ping pong - a minimal soundscape hanging on a set of percussive taps and strikes, interspersed with half-heard whispers and groans. This is music that literally sounds like a factory; it could be a lathe turning. And anyone who has operated machinery on a factory floor will recognise the rhythms and ambience. Another non-original album track, the magnificent ‘Del Sol’ (which once found a home on a 1983 label compilation) could be the clack of a giant loom turning, though the guitar parts add a spaghetti western feel to it.

But fresh? Good as new? On listening back to this record (which I first heard as a teen back in the mid 1980s, in that wondrous, lost place of many musical rites-of-passage, the Best Mate’s Elder Brother’s Bedroom) it strikes me that Mallinder’s music is yet another cog in the machine we all build, the one that plays with time itself. Pow-Wow was a great listen then, it is now. It doesn’t really matter when it was made.