Record Companies – Mute Records

Closing this mini-series out is a quick look at Daniel Miller‘s Mute Records, which, since its launch in 1978, has become one of the most cult, collectible labels. Initially devised as an engine to release Miller’s own electronic act The Normal, it has grown to house a huge roster of artists from a broad range of genres.

Key artists include Depeche Mode, Yazoo, Erasure, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Moby, Goldfrapp, and more recently, New Order, but it has also housed some hugely influential underground artists, including Fad Gadget, Nitzer Ebb, and Laibach. The list could be endless. Many of those artists were lost when Mute was sold to EMI in 2002, and didn’t follow back when it regained its independence at the end of the decade, but the list of artists is still very strong.

Perhaps most notable in recent times is the now-legendary box set MUTE433, a compilation of different artists performing John Cage‘s 4’33”. Which is clearly brilliant, even if I don’t really want a copy (thanks all the same). By the time you read this, it might already be in the shops.

You can find out more about Mute by going to
http://mute.com/

Recoil – Unsound Methods

Two decades ago this week saw the release of the third studio release from Alan Wilder‘s Recoil project, Unsound Methods. Whereas 1992’s Bloodline and its predecessors 1+2 (1986) and Hydrology (1987) had been primarily side-steps for Wilder, allowing him to explore different directions than he could with Depeche Mode, by 1997 he was now a solo artist in his own right, and this album came just months after his former bandmates’ comeback with Ultra.

It opens with Incubus, on which Francis Ford Coppola gets a writing credit thanks to a sample from Apocalypse Now. Vocals come from Nitzer Ebb‘s singer Douglas McCarthy, giving it a grimy quality which the preceding album had only hinted at.

Lead single Drifting is next, probably the most commercial of any of the tracks on here. It’s a bluesy, beatsy piece, with a brilliant vocal from Siobhan Lynch, and it serves as good preparation for the next track, the filthy, angry Luscious Apparatus. Narrated by the late poet and writer Maggie Estep, it’s a fascinatingly angst-ridden story of love and hate that fits the mood of this album perfectly.

Stalker is next, another collaboration with Douglas McCarthy, which is every bit as dirty as the title might lead you to expect. It was later released as a double a-side single with Missing Piece. Then comes the bleakly midwestern Red River Cargo, a huge piece of experimental semi-electronic blues rock which might actually be one of the best tracks on here.

Next is Control Freak, returning to earlier collaborator Estep for a slightly less successful but entirely enjoyable exploration, before we get the other half of that second single, Missing Piece. As with the first single, Siobhan Lynch appears to deliver the vocals on possibly the most laid back track on the whole album. It’s not particularly slow, but notably less angry than anything we’ve heard before now, and that’s pretty welcome by now.

By this point in the album you should pretty much have an idea of how it works, and be in the right mood to enjoy it, but it’s winding down already – Last Breath may not be the last track, but it is the penultimate. The tempo seems to be dropping too – this track still has the blues flavour (or perhaps flavor?) that previous tracks have brought us, but it’s also fairly relaxed now.

Finally we get Shunt, another dark and this time particularly rail-themed track that closes the album over the course of seven minutes or so. It’s an entirely appropriate ending to this curiously middle American album.

Unsound Methods is understated, challenging, experimental, and ultimately an excellent departure for Alan Wilder. Like many, I’d have been happier if he’d stayed to help shape Depeche Mode over the years that followed, but I’m also glad that we have Recoil to keep us challenged.

You can still find Unsound Methods at all major retailers.

Front Line Assembly – Civilization

As one of the most prolific acts on the planet, Front Line Assembly (pretty much the same people as Delerium, Conjure One, and a whole list of other artists you could be forgiven for never having heard of) are surprisingly little known. In the FLA guise, their style is dark, industrial, almost electro-metal. They draw influence from Nitzer Ebb and Front 242, and there are audible influences (and often samples) from the likes of New Order, but otherwise they sound almost entirely unlike anything in the charts.

Civilization was their twelve millionth album, released early in 2004. Since they have never really seen commercial success with this particular hat, it’s difficult to explain how it fits into their career timeline. For me, it was the first of their albums that I came across, and perhaps that’s why I like this one the best. You may know better.

The first track is Psychosomatic, which is not one of the strongest on the album, but it serves as a good introduction for the uninitiated. Deep, pounding bass sounds, and throbbing acid effects are punctuated by a reverb-filled piano and wailing female vocal. You should have the idea where this album is likely to be heading by now.

Next up is the first of two singles, Maniacal, which as with many Front Line Assembly tracks mixes some very strange influences. It opens with a female choir sample, and quickly builds into a throbbing but also brooding piece of industrial electronica, with a very angry vocal indeed.

As with much of FLA’s output, it also contains some very strange English (“obliverate,” which they have used a few times but definitely isn’t a word), and so should probably be interpreted as being more about the mood than the actual lyrics. The chorus though – whatever it’s actually about – is very powerful indeed.

Transmitter is my favourite track on the album. It’s the most melodic (the users on the band’s forum used to love the word “cheesy” to describe anything that contained more melody than shouting) and probably the most easily accessible, but it still hides some interesting experimental production. As always, it is driven by the cutting bass sound and atmospheric acid noises, but this time the vocal (“Let’s all march together until the world ends,”) seems more important and meaningful.

Vanished is strong too, and was justifiably the second single, despite their decision to remove all the good bits from the single version. As with the previous track, the lyrics are particularly strong, and the piano line, again full of reverb, seems to bring exactly the right feel to the piece.

Front Line Assembly boast an enormous cult following, particularly in the USA and Germany, and justifiably so. If they had been doing much in the 1980s, a few low end chart placings might not have gone amiss, but they don’t belong on the Top 40. And yet it’s difficult to know what the fans might make of the central track on the album Strategic. It’s only little, clocking in at just under two minutes, but it’s essentially acid rather than industrial.

The second half of the album is no less atmospheric or powerful. Civilization – as with most tracks mysteriously misnamed or misspelt on the album sleeve – is perhaps the slowest track on the album, but is still dark and dreamy. Until the chorus turns up, again using the invented word “obliverate,” but otherwise it’s pure metal.

Fragmented and Parasite are just as powerful, mixing darker and gentler elements to produce quite excellent sounds, still completely unlike anything you’ll hear on the radio. The penultimate track Dissident is particularly alien and otherworldly.

The closing track Schicksal is perhaps a little less powerful than some of its predecessors, but it’s still closing an extremely good album. Dark, perhaps even depressing at times, but always full of atmosphere and emotion, and definitely highly recommended.

You can find Civilization through all the usual physical and download stores, such as here.

Various Artists – Electrospective

The basic way this blog works is that when I’m reviewing an album, I listen to it in full, and while doing so write what I feel about what I’m hearing. How, then, do I tackle a two-and-a-half hour long compilation? I feel the skip button may be seeing some usage on this occasion.

Electrospective is the centrepiece of a recent record company campaign to get us buying mid-price synth-based albums of which I heartily approve. The compilation is a fascinating and wonderful journey, encompassing maybe ten tracks from each of the primary decades of electronic music. But its omissions are also fascinating. Perversely, almost, it contains none of the pioneering sound of Jean Michel Jarre or Kraftwerk. The early 1980s focus rightly on OMD and The Human League, but there’s no sign of Soft Cell or Frankie Goes to Hollywood. The late 1980s largely forego the “indie dance” and trip hop movements in favour of pop and soul. But then, if you were faced with the task of compiling a forty-track journey through the history of electronic music, how would you tackle it?

Electrospective opens, as all definitive electronic compilations should, with Delia Derbyshire‘s 1963 version of Ron Grainer‘s essential Doctor Who theme. Fifty years on, in an age where literally anybody can make music with their portable telecommunications devices, it’s difficult to picture the boffins of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop slaving away generating tape samples and cutting them into exactly the right length to sync and make quite astonishing music. In a sense it’s unsurprising that they didn’t really succeed with the syncing (Derbyshire also revisited the theme in 1967 to create a rather more orderly but definitely less charming version).

Some of the other early tracks are a little odder. Roxy Music‘s Virginia Plain is, I can only assume, here to show some of the early electronic experimentation in which popular acts of the early 1970s were indulging, and it has a few nice Moog sounds in it, but frankly it’s largely tolerable at best. Even Brian Eno, introducing this album to its first taste of ambience, fails to impress particularly with Here Come the Warm Jets (1974).

The 1970s start to look a lot stronger after this, with Tangerine Dream‘s Rubycon and Can‘s brilliant I Want More before launching into another unmissable moment with The Normal‘s Warm Leatherette. The final trio of Cabaret VoltaireTelex and Simple Minds round of 1979 in less compelling fashion, and you should be clear by now that electronics is firmly planted in the world of music.

We then enter the 1980s in typically variable fashion. OMD‘s excellent Messages carries into Ultravox‘s more questionable SleepwalkThe Human League‘s astonishing The Things That Dreams are Made Of is followed by rather more questionable choices from Duran Duran and Heaven 17, and then a distinctly dodgy choice of remix for Yazoo‘s Don’t Go.

The mid-1980s are, as you might expect, rather stronger. Together in Electric Dreams is perhaps a little unnecessary, coming as it does only five tracks after the previous Human League moment, but then West End Girls mixes into Who Needs Live (Like That), and you’re definitely reminded that the eighties weren’t nearly as bad as everyone seems to suggest.

All this is not to say that this album is without its surprises. Nitzer Ebb‘s Control I’m Here is an unexpected pleasure, as is Soul II Soul‘s Back to Life (However Do You Want Me), which ends the 1980s a couple of tracks into the second disc.

The 1990s are, of course, where electronic music comes of age. A whole slew of enormous, exceptional, and very well chosen hits follow from Depeche ModeMobyThe Future Sound of LondonDaft Punk and Adam FMassive Attack turn up, as indeed they should, but here they are represented by the slightly disappointing choice of Inertia Creeps, by no means bad, but a track which surely belongs in the middle of Mezzanine rather than here?

Air‘s wonderful Kelly Watch the Stars and St. Germain‘s Rose Rouge are here to represent the rest of the late 90s French invasion, which is inevitably followed by the experimental indie of Radiohead and The Chemical Brothers.

Finally, our potted history of electronic music has brought us into the 2000s, by which time “electronic” had definitely ceased to be a label for weird experimental noises or extravagant expressionism. It had, in every imaginable way, gone mainstream. In a good way.

Goldfrapp hammer this home beautifully with the essential Strict Machine, and then Dare by Gorillaz leads us through to a string of 21st century floor fillers. Eric Prydz‘s probably Bo Selecta-inspired Proper Education with its Pink Floyd elements leads us into some less interesting tracks from David GuettaDeadmau5, and finally a total abomination by Swedish House Mafia. Not a great ending, admittedly, but a fair assessment of the journey of electronic music over the past half century.

Make no mistake – in terms of meeting its remit of compiling a handful of tracks from every decade of electronic music, this is a great release. But it’s difficult to ignore the many omissions – you can’t help but feel that perhaps a themed or era-specific compilation might tick the boxes a lot more convincingly. In the end, all you get is fleeting glimpses of particular acts and eras. All told though, for all its failings it’s a great listen, and I can’t help but recommend it.

There’s also a companion remix album, which we’ll touch on in a future week. If you’re in the US you can find Electrospective here; if you’re in the UK try here; and if you’re anywhere else then you’ll have to fend for yourself.