The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Reissue Of The Week

Reissue Of The Week: Kling Klang's The Esthetik Of Destruction
Darran Anderson , August 20th, 2021 10:16

Darran Anderson explores the chaos and misadventure of Kling Klang and their newly reissued The Esthetik Of Destruction, music that sounds like it could have been made yesterday or tomorrow

Artwork by Gavin O'Brien

Eager to cling to some semblance of normality in these godforsaken days, I kept returning to museums between lockdowns, but they no longer seemed the same. Every object now seemed like a relic or wreckage of a present that had once been as immediate and unfolding as ours. These were not remnants of glory or power but examples of failure. Time had overtaken them all, however interesting they remained, and rendered them obsolete in terms of their original purposes. Yet instead of a sense of depressing futility, it felt kind of unburdening, hilarious even, in a kind of deranged way. It was also something I’d forgotten I’d already known.

When I was a boy, I was fascinated by finding or reading about obsolete things - the flags of former countries, the logos of discontinued brands, the teachings of failed messiahs. Part of this was due to the innately tantalising state of nonexistence - the thing you cannot have is much more enticing than the thing you can. There is little doubt that recognising that even a nation-state is mortal gives you a sense of haunting and intoxicating contingency, but I suspect my interest in defunct things was down to a romantic, and self-sabotaging, attraction to lost causes and an excuse for just liking old, weird shit.

Joining the flag of the Mountainous Republic of the Northern Caucasus, the livery of Harlequin Air, the gospel of Simon Magus, endless unspoken languages, outdated machines and so on in the museum of the obsolete are manifestos. We tend to think of these as radical future-facing proclamations but now that we are in the actual future looking back, we can see them as historical artifacts revealing the desires and neuroses of their age. Often, there’s a kind of tragic naivety that comes from the assertions of those who wanted to change the world, once you are aware of how the world came to change them. They are moments, and individuals, in time, that time then accelerated past.

Setting aside issues of legacy and redundancy, the one thing that unites all the disparate writers of manifestos is simply the desire to write a manifesto - that is, to attempt to impose your will on the future and render order, or a reordering, from chaos, tyranny or stagnation. Yet, as time passes, you begin to realise that the intention behind a manifesto is not just to gain future ground but also to recover something that has been lost or stolen, to go back to a path that was mistakenly abandoned. Often this comes as a return to childhood, to regain the curiosity, simplicity, hunger, and liberating possibility that is lost at some point during the 10,000 hours spent gaining expertise and the slow deadening creep that comes with it. The aim is to absorb then subvert; learning enough to know what to unlearn, as Irmin Schmidt and Holger Czukay of Can did with their former teacher the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, or Arthur Rimbaud did with the rules and forms of French poetry before he dismantled them.

To do so requires limits and challenges, restrictions and resistances. For there to be innovation, it is not enough to be reactionary. While punk’s drive against the virtuosity and pomp of prog rock inspired many who thought they had no place in music to get involved, the real lasting developments came when the more puritan strictures of punk were challenged by dissatisfied artists in the scene; hence the atmospherics and experimentalism of post-punk. As Raymond Queneau said of his literary OuLiPo group, “We are rats who build the labyrinth from which we plan to escape.”

Manifestos are seen as innately political so it’s easy to miss the essence of what they offer - a return to the playing of games and the sense of freedom that rules, paradoxically, bring. What are Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies cards but ways of escaping dead-ends and comfort zones through the playing of silly games? They work by pushing against limits that have either been manufactured or were already imposed and turning them into advantages, necessity being the mother of invention; artists such as Squarepusher and King Tubby returned to the relatively primitive but idiosyncratic technologies of their youth (8-bit computers and storm-frazzled electronic devices respectively); P.J. Harvey has frequently chosen new instruments on which she is a novice to write songs so that “the gates are thrown open”; the sound of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), claustrophobic and expansive as night, is largely the result of RZA’s ability to take the rudimentary equipment and tiny studio they were forced to work with and make it part of the sound; the character of Link Wray’s self-titled album is down to it being recorded in a former chicken shack with a can of nails and foot stomps for percussion. Compare the unrepeatable beauty of Daniel Johnston’s lo-fi recordings, with their mistakes, kid’s toy sounds, and tape hiss, compared to the relatively sanitised studio recordings later on. Less, much less, is more.

Perfection negates this magic. Children know this, hence their love of oddness and rackets, but it gets refined out of them. The key is how to return to that prelapsarian state. Chance often plays a part (and there is a whole history of intentionally aleatoric music from Marcel Duchamp onwards) in shifting popular music onto different tracks. Gary Numan finds a Minimoog, itself blessed by the happy accident of an overdriven filter giving it its distinctive sound, in a studio while intending to record a straight(ish) punk album with the soon to be dismantled Tubeway Army and a new wave of synth music is born. John Lennon leans his guitar against an amp and is startled by the ‘voodoo’ sound of feedback it emits, an effect the band introduce millions of listeners to at the start of ‘I Feel Fine’ starting the noble tradition of Scouse noise rock; a cause for which the Beatles sacrificed themselves, dissolving in a sea of white noise, at the climax of their last song together, ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy).’

Which brings us at long last, and apologetically, to Kling Klang, a band who embodied many of the aforementioned characteristics and pick up where the proto-doom metal of the Beatles’ demise and the Tubeway Army’s synth disintegration left off. Kling Klang’s manifesto was in their name, borrowed affectionately from Kraftwerk’s Düsseldorf studio. It was there in the posters they fly-posted across their native Liverpool before they had made any music. It was there in the fact they became a synth band, using cheap portasound keyboards because they couldn’t find a drummer. And it was there in their music, which was exhilarating.

I knew nothing of the band upon hearing their track ‘Heavydale’ in the early 2000s, which encapsulates everything that is glorious about them. Yet I felt like I somehow knew them because of the constituents of the swamp that song emerged, Kaiju-like, from. There were echoes of the heavier edges of Kosmische Musik, especially the transcendent recursive simplicity of Neu! There was the leaden groove of early Sabbath. There were the ‘three Rs’ of Mark E. Smith and the DIY inventions of Joe Meek, the robotic filth of Suicide’s ‘Ghost Rider’, the drones and distortions of Cale-era Velvets, the Grand Guignol of Goblin, but also the romantic minimalism you find in the rich seam of working class northern English synth music (OMD were early supporters of Kling Klang, inviting them to record in their Motor Museum studio). Somehow, whoever they were, Kling Klang had taken all these elements, and more, and compressed them with immense pressure into a kind of neutron star perfection, from which only two-note keyboard solos could escape. In other words, Kling Klang were fun.

The more I heard, the more I loved. ‘Vander’ was like the soundtrack to a long-lost Dario Argento movie. ‘Flying Hotel’ sounded like the level finale of a 16-bit video game. ‘Rocker’ had a strange feeling of ecstatic foreboding, music for neo-gothic robots when the humans are all dead. ‘Tesla’s Future War’ was an ambient drift across a dystopian, yet almost serene, landscape illuminated by an ominous pulse. The feral cacophony of ‘Untitled @33RPM’ eventually gave way to floating in space bliss. Each single felt like some mad scientist amalgam of oscilloscopes and haunted houses, motorik and pentagrams, The War of the Worlds and the sign of the horns. Yet it was all simple, unpretentious, filled with a kind of anarchic wonder, like children wrenching tunes for the first time from newly-discovered half-melted Fisher-Price instruments from a skip. And yet there was something of the future too. At several points, ‘Apex’ for instance, the songs sound, a la Michael Rother or Kraftwerk, like they are about to takeoff.

The more I learned of Kling Klang, the more intrigued I was. They started as a three-piece of Joe McLaughlin, Amy Corcoran and Peter Smyth before expanding and adapting the line-up. Around the time they added live drums and appeared on John Peel’s radio show, they came to Mogwai’s attention (you can hear an affinity between the bands in a song like ‘Remurdered’), who put out the original version of The Esthetik Of Destruction, gathering singles and other tracks, on their Rock Action label. It gave the band, then on hiatus, a second wind and they returned with a new line-up. What interested me was their spirit, the energy and inventiveness that comes with organising your own escape, essentially from the dole the way Sabbath had escaped the factories. When avant-garde art is academicised, all the joy, danger, self-effacement and humour tends to be drained from it. Kling Klang retained these qualities. In 2002, they created ‘The Noise Shop’ in Liverpool St John’s Market. The same year they worked with the German mineralogist/performance artist Michel Bestmann on ‘Jump Ship Rat’, converting a garage into an art space with 14 televisions designed to respond to the sound of the band and Bestmann taking a circular saw, in a shower of sparks, to a metal sheet to let the light in. They performed deafening, danceable (in a fashion) music while playing games of Pong onstage. When the performances collapsed, or threatened to, that was just part of the performance. It was absurd and reanimating, intense and carefree. Soon they were picked up by Portishead who took them on their tour for Third and had them open their All Tomorrow’s Parties (again you can see an overlap between the groups at the end of ‘The Rip’ or in Geoff Barrow’s work in BEAK> or with The Horrors). Kling Klang seemed poised to be huge. And then, sure enough, they disappeared.

Listening now to the reissue of The Esthetik Of Destruction, rereleased by Tenement Records with some striking collage cover art by Gavin O’Brien, the music sounds like it could have been made yesterday or tomorrow. Maybe it’s because many of the heavy synth bands of that time have since faded away and Kling Klang appear more of a monolith now. Maybe it’s because they seem even more cleansing in an age of production gimmickry. I get the feeling it’s because of an abiding sense of unfinished business, a sense that the journey they were on was abruptly and unfairly curtailed. You could say that, flirting with chaos and misadventure, the tension and release that comes with almost falling apart, there was always a risk that the band would snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Yet Kling Klang were also subject to an excess of misfortune. There’s a thin line between comedy and tragedy, and it doesn’t take much to tip laugh out loud stories of exploding equipment, enraged sound engineers, and a mysterious manager called The Doctor into grim tales of drug dependency, debts and death.

Photo by Greg Neate

Both strands culminated in the city of their namesakes - Düsseldorf. As they were about to go onstage, The Doctor ran in in a state of panic, “Guys you’re gonna have to change your name! Kraftwerk are going to sue us! How about ‘Klang Kling?” The band piss themselves laughing, shrug and then carry on but a cease-and-desist letter from Die Mensch-Maschine is already in the post. Their manager vanishes. They try changing their name to K* K* for the rest of the Portishead tour but they disintegrate shortly thereafter.

However much they influence the future, very few revolutionary manifestos turn the world upside down as they might intend. In terms of culture, the most profound ones offer a different interpretation of revolution - not the overthrow of existing order but a circular motion back to the point of origin and with it a regaining of possibilities we used to have or at least feel we had before the world got to work on us. In childhood folklore, stories often ended not with the Disneyfied ‘And they all lived happily ever after’ but rather, with hilariously brutal honesty, ‘And they lived happily until their deaths’. In the Arabic One Thousand And One Nights, it goes a step further, “They lived happily until there came to them The One Who Destroys All Happiness." We learn to forget such existential things just as we learn to forget curiosity. There is another ending though, scattered throughout Europe, that offers hope, “And if they haven't died already, they are living happily to this day.” There may be no happy endings but there are, in some cases, continuations. It seems that Kling Klang, now composed of Joe McLaughlin and a collective of former band members, have reformed to start once again rebuilding the labyrinth. In doing so, The Esthetik Of Destruction may change from being an epilogue to a thrilling introduction.

The reissue of Kling Klang's The Esthetik Of Destruction is available now