Be thankful for the mid-’90s uprising of stale, tasteless techno; without it, London’s electro-mod pioneers Add N to (X) might never have existed. Fueled by discontent with what was then passing as electronic music, Barry Smith, Ann Shenton and Andrew Averling formed the group as a merger between ’60s-era Moog lust and Alec Empire’s early acid-synth abuse. And while their first release, Vero Electronics, is a notable experiment in razor-sharp electronica, it wasn’t until Steve Claydon replaced Averling that the group morphed into a menacing man-machine of steel-and-wire alter-egos. Barry Smith became Barry Contraption 7, while Shenton and Claydon took on the cyborg-like qualities of those deeply in tune with LFO modulation.
Unlike the calculated roboticism of Kraftwerk, however, Add N to (X) maintains an organic air unparalleled in modern electronic music: this man-machine equal values both elements. On the Wires of Our Nerves is a frenetic display of synth aggression — the fabled pocket calculator gone completely haywire — but it’s often more reminiscent of no wave’s rock structures than it is of, say, Wendy Carlos. In fact, some of the album’s best tracks (“The Black Regent,” “Orgy of Bubastus”) use live (albeit highly stylized) drums to temper the otherwise sterile programming. Even the cover art is a nod to the fine balance between human and mechanical: it depicts Shenton, bloody and docile, having a Moog Rouge extracted from her chest cavity. On the Wires of Our Nerves is not the best Add N to (X) record — far too many of the tracks dissolve into jam-band nothingness — but it’s certainly the most thematically poignant.
In contrast to the frantic cacophony of On the Wires, Avant Hard is lush and harmonic. The cacophony isn’t gone, but its brute force has a new versatility. “Fyuz”, for instance, begins with sickly dissonance but then slides into a bout of smooth lounge vocals. “Skills” has a bouncy mod vibe (one could actually pony to this dance track), while “Machine Is Bored With Love” samples Egg’s “Fugue in D Minor” to create a disturbing experimental orchestra. But by far the most inspiring track on Avant Hard is “Revenge of the Black Regent,” a successor to On the Wires‘ stunning “The Black Regent.” Add N to (X) are at their compositional best, as pulsing strings build and shift, eventually exploding into a military cadence and Maria Callas-like vocal melody. Intense and emotional, this one. Almost a tear-jerker.
Add Insult to Injury offers another perspective change, but this one isn’t quite so favorable. The group’s poppiest (and most commercially successful) record has cleanly produced lines that sound less like an intentional creative decision than an absence of ideas. The hook-heavy (and seriously Bruce Haack reminiscent) “Plug Me In” and “Poke ‘er ‘ole” aren’t terrible, but they lack that delicious Add N to (X) menace. “Brothel Charge” and “Incinerator No. 1” are more of a return to form, but even then the nasty dissonance is muted. The only real knockout here is the funeral dirge of “The Regent Is Dead.” Harkening back to the stark wartime feel of “Revenge of the Black Regent,” this brings both the Black Regent saga and Add Insult to Injury to a powerful, tightly conceived finish.
Add N to (X) find a comfortable middle ground between poppy and experimental on 2002’s sleazy Loud Like Nature, making it the group’s most brilliant work. “Take Me to Your Leader” and “Sheez Mine” embrace catchy hooks with a cacophonic sheen, perfectly balancing warm, inviting synth tones with jarring noise. “Total All Out Water” is a gloriously uncomfortable analog masterpiece, and the bass-heavy “Invasion of the Polaroid People” (with a spoken word diatribe by Kim Fowley) is just downright terrifying, a song best appreciated alone and in the dark. Add N to (X) officially parted ways shortly after 2003’s Loud Like Nature tour, but the sheer destructive energy of this record set that exit on a high plateau.