Various Artists

So Low

If there is one legacy that could be derived from a casual analysis of the post-punk years, it’s that it wasn’t just the music that was made but the sheer amount of it that was produced. Outside the canonised collection of artists and labels that pass for the potted history of the era, underneath this layer there were swathes of DIY concerns aplenty brought about by an influx of cheap electronics and high quality tape recorders; micro labels, bedroom producers, tape releases, international scenes linked to each other by mail order distribution, numerous micro-genre offshoots and collisions. The production times from inception to release were short circuited, meaning that things moved quickly back in the 1980s.

And despite the fact that the sharity blogs today have pretty much mined these areas to the point of exhaustion (there are only so many bad rips of poor quality live bootlegs of 3rd Division Dutch industrial acts from 1986 you can muster an interest for), in the more official reissue market, where there seems to be a more judicious approach to selection, things are going strong with labels such as Vinyl On Demand, Dark Entries, and Minimal Wave still finding rich nuggets out there in the historical ether. Alongside this, we’re now also seeing the rise of the curated compilation, with the likes of Trevor Jackson and Adrian Sherwood applying their own selective ear in providing alternative narratives to the music terrain of that era.

To these two names we can also add Keith McIvor, aka JD Twitch, to the curatorial pantheon. As one half of the DJ duo Optimo (who also run their own top notch record label of the same name), he’s well placed to be your guide in these murky musical waters. Anyone who’s ever been to their legendary club nights in Glasgow, or listened to their shows on the likes of Rinse FM or NTS radio, will testify to the fact that they’re able to trace and traverse the myriad web-like structures that hang between techno, house, EBM, post-punk, synth pop, NDW, industrial et al, a testament to nearly 30 years of omnivorous DJing.

McIvor is now the driving force behind a new compilation, So Low, recently reissued by The Vinyl Factory label that provides another subjective take on 80s industrial, coldwave, and DIY underground electronic music that centres around his pre-house and techno tastes from that time, as well as taking its name from an occasional off-shoot Glasgow club night he helms. It’s actually McIvor’s second post-punk curated compilation in less than a year, the other being [Cease and Desist] : Cult Classics From The Post-Punk Era 1978-82 that came out on the Optimo label last year.

So Low definitely covers a fair bit of ground regarding track selection, . While [Cease and Desist] focused primarily on the lowest rungs of post-punk DIY sub-sub-culture obscurity, with So Low, McIvor takes a far more expansive overview of the music that he says that he was playing back in the late 80s, mixing more obscure musicians, such as John Bender and Gerry and the Holograms with now well-known names such as Throbbing Gristle, Chris & Cosey, and Front 242.

In terms of genre and aesthetic there’s not a truly defining sound, it’s more of a casual wander through. The industrial shrieks of Hunting Lodge’s ‘Tribal Warning Shot’ and a fine live rendition of Throbbing Gristle’s ‘Discipline (Berlin)’ sit rather snugly alongside to the bass-driven, melancholic coldwave of Siglo XX’s ‘Dreams Of Pleasure’ and the frenetic benzopop of Tuxedomoon’s ‘No Tears’.  The opening track, John Bender’s ‘Victims Of A Victimless Crime’ is the archetype of the DIY bedroom producer sound, with jittery rhythms, close mic’d vocals, and wobbling sound levels. Such stark, minimal efforts are so intimate, almost quaint, next to the disgustingly lush, post-industrial sound of Chris & Cosey’s ‘Passion’.

What you will also pick up in listening to So Low is just how truly international affair the post-punk milieu had become after the initial breakout from the UK and the US, with several of the tracks displaying a decidedly central European flavour. The biggest contingent comes from Belgium, where the likes of Front 242’s ‘Kampfbereit’ and The Klinik’s ‘Moving Hands’ provide a strident statement of 1980s EBM that’s complemented with Siglo XX’s serene bleakness. From Germany, you have Conrad Schnitzler & Wolfgang Seidel Meissner’s ‘Fabrik’, a minimal track bolstered by a harsh, frazzled Teutonic snarl and sprinkled with the essence of percussive dub. Holger Hiller’s ‘Das Freur’ meanwhile, provides a link between that period and the previous generation’s Krautrock experimentalism. France provides its own contribution to the compilation with Hard Corp’s ‘Porte Bonheur (Remix)’, its hi-NRG rhythms and crystalline, operatic French background vocals providing a decidedly Gallic version of the British synth pop of Yazz and the Eurhythmics. The decidedly northern Frank Sidebottom style vocals from Gerry and the Holograms’ self-titled track sound decidedly provincial in comparison.

You certainly can’t deny that with regard to its curatorial qualities, So Low is definitely a fine selection of tracks, although there are no surprises for the completest out there – many of the tracks on this compilation, such as ‘No Tears’ and P1E’s ’49 Second Romance’ having already been released on other compilations or reissues through the years. So who is So Low for then? It does seem to be marketed to younger audience over a nostalgic one. But with The Vinyl Factory’s asking price of up to £30 for the LP, it’s far more expensive for what you get when compared to similarly curated compilations from the likes of the Jackson and Sherwood, and Twitch’s own [Cease and Desist] compilation, all of which are just as well presented and comprehensive. This alas points to the unfortunate downside of our current mania for vinyl commodity fetishism of all forms. Many retro-reissues and curated compilations nowadays come all wrapped up in nothing but a standard package, and its difficult to justify such a high asking price.

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