The prolific Cabaret Voltaire is one of the most energetic, progressive and dissonant forces in modern music. Working primarily in the electronic form, specializing in found sounds and tape manipulations, Cabaret Voltaire has relentlessly pushed at the outer edges of style, shedding an early primitivism for a subsequent accessibility that plays on the (almost) familiar. Coming from the industrial city of Sheffield, they have spent years attempting to make a music that reflects their experience and perceptions.
Extended Play launched Cabaret Voltaire — Richard H. Kirk (guitar, synth, horns, clarinet), Stephen Mallinder (bass, vocals) and Christopher Watson (organ, tapes) — and gave an early boost to Rough Trade (it was the label’s third single). It highlights the Cabs’ main features — unpredictable sounds and eerie, disembodied vocals manipulated over a very physical beat — and is particularly notable for a distorted cover version of Lou Reed’s “Here She Comes Now.”
The more professionally produced “Mix-Up” has better coordinated use of electronics, increasing the bizarre intensity of the sound. Bass, guitar and flute are evident (but deformed) in the mix, and Cabaret Voltaire makes visible use of other people’s material, as with the Seeds’ “No Escape.”
Live at the YMCA (as well as the later Live at the Lyceum tape) dispels any notions of Cab Volt as a sterile studio group. Wisely, they don’t seek to precisely duplicate their recorded sound, but convert it into outré-populist dance music that is almost improvisational in nature. Though the live recordings are more fragmented than their studio counterparts, they compensate for it in added energy.
Three Mantras is the group’s first explicit venture into non-Western musical forms. The Arabic material used is successfully developed into a chant, and then its structure is applied to a new work. The record also marks a shift in technique, as musical demands take precedence over production to strange and beautiful effect.
The Voice of America is an uneven release, combining older material with much more assured newer work, such as the political “The Voice of America/Damage Is Done,” which uses found tape and sparse electronics to juxtapose the repressive and libertarian aspects of American life. The new material shows much greater focus and cleaner production than the older, with the mantra technique rising in place of the former chaotic electro-noise.
For serious fans, 1974 — 1976 is a series of curious and intriguing false starts and experiments from the band’s earliest days.
3 Crépuscule Tracks captures the band in transition between their found-vocals/art-noise period and a commitment to dance-floor electronics. “Sluggin’ fer Jesus (Part One)” is a masterful combination of the two, as a right-wing TV preacher demands large cash contributions over a powerful, trance-inducing synth beat.
On Red Mecca, the trio tightens its focus to produce an album more coherent than its predecessors, underscored by a reworking of Henry Mancini’s score for Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. As their music reaches a new level of maturity and polish in both production and performance, Cabaret Voltaire focus and extend their film noir theme through all the material, making this an odd, deceptively accessible record.
Two 12-inch EPs packaged as an album, 2 X 45 picks up the trends begun on Red Mecca and compresses them into a new form. Also interesting is the move away from obvious electronics and manipulations to a more naturalistic sound, with emphasis on acoustic instruments, like saxophone and clarinet. This is the closest the group has come to making a rock’n’roll album.
Like earlier live albums, Hai! Live in Japan marks time, playing with recent developments, funky in nature and far more coherent than Live in Sheffield. The latter was a one-off show to raise funds for the Polish Solidarity union, and was released under the Pressure Company name for contractual reasons. Disordered and trenchant, it is a reminder that the band is still capable of electrifying cacophony.
In 1983, Cabaret Voltaire signed with that noted asylum for eccentrics, Some Bizzare, a move criticized by some as a sell-out. The resulting LP, The Crackdown, is perhaps the most left-field record ever accused of commercial compromise. Sticking mostly to a funk format, the songs are more structured than those on 2 X 45, and the band displays a plethora of high-tech but dark electronic textures. Probably the strongest of their many albums.
Johnny YesNo is a soundtrack to Peter Care’s film about a junkie. Released on the band’s own Doublevision label, it was recorded in 1981, prior to Chris Watkins’ departure. Like most soundtracks, it’s not designed for careful listening, and consists primarily of eerie electronic noodling. Micro-Phonies is similar to The Crackdown, except that the sound is a bit sparser and decidedly more rhythm-conscious. Much of the material would be very much at home coming from a beatbox, particularly “Sensoria” and “James Brown,” the 12-inch remixes of which are both highly recommended.
Drinking Gasoline is a double 12-inch (running over 30 minutes) recorded primarily as a video soundtrack. The four numbers are entirely interchangeable, the sort of hard electro-funk found on previous LPs. Fans will enjoy it, but the Cabs seem stuck in a rut, an unsurprising problem after so many releases. The Arm of the Lord (reissued on CD as The Covenant, The Sword and the Arm of the Lord) proves that no band could be so productive without a few tricks up its sleeve. Titled after an American neo-Nazi religious zealot organization, the record crossbreeds trademark electro-rhythm attack with odd breaks, varied tempos, the return of eerie found voices, unpolished production and harsh dissonance. “I Want You” and “Motion Rotation” actually have catchy melodies — a band first!
The Drain Train, a two-disc 12-inch, consists mostly of three not vastly different versions of a track quite similar to other recent material. The other two tracks don’t do much groundbreaking, either. Code‘s admission of outside assistance (Bill Nelson on guitar and Adrian Sherwood as co-producer) makes for some interesting but rather subtle touches, as the band reaches for crystal-clear, state-of-the-art sound. But the material is a stylistic reprise of The Arm of the Lord: tempos are varied quite a bit, but each track has the same feel. Artsy British industrialists or computerized hip-hoppers?
Obviously sensing the need for a rest and a rethink, the duo took their first extended vacation following Code. The late ’80s saw the release of several compilations. Those nostalgic for the Cabs’ white noise and distortion period will appreciate The Golden Moments of Cabaret Voltaire (and agree with the title) and Eight Crépuscule Tracks. The first is a CD-only release of material from the band’s Rough (Trade) days; there’s nothing more recent than 2 X 45, and most of it predates that. The juxtaposition inherent in digital reproduction of primitive music makes it a very interesting collection. Eight Crépuscule Tracks draws from the same approximate time frame, taking the original 3 Crépuscule Tracks and adding some singles and a previously unreleased cover of “The Theme from Shaft,” which sounds as if it was recorded around the time of Voice of America.
The two-LP/two-CD Listen Up with Cabaret Voltaire is an essential item, containing rarities and unreleased selections spanning the length of the Cabs’ recorded history. Even the previously released material is obscure, rescued from NME compilation cassettes, early Factory samplers and videos; the “new” cuts would have stood proudly in contemporaneous works — “This Is Our Religion,” for instance, would have fit in perfectly on Voice of America, while “Enough’s Enough” or “Why” could be from any recent LP.
The Living Legends consists of A- and B-sides from the band’s days as a trio on Rough Trade, fourteen tracks that underscore the enormous influence Cabaret Voltaire’s music has had on virtually every industrial and/or experimental band of the past decade. (Three items overlap Golden Moments, which is mostly culled from albums.) Real treats include the disassembled cover of the Velvets’ “Here She Comes Now” and the prehistoric “Is That Me (Finding Someone at the Door Again),” recorded live in 1975.
Three years after Code — by which point many had presumed the group no longer existed — Kirk and Mallinder returned with Groovy, Laidback and Nasty. Recorded partly in Chicago, the LP employs a number of co-producers and backup singers, all sorts of house-style arrangements and Mallinder’s warmest and most tuneful vocals ever; the result is an entirely updated Cabaret Voltaire, a group whose dance music has never sounded better. An EP of four remixes plus one extra cut is also included. Welcome back.
Both members have done solo work, which is especially interesting as it allows identification of who brings what to the band. Mallinder’s Pow-Wow mini-album is dominated by muscular bass and drum combinations, tapes and his husky voice. On his own, he seems to prefer electronically treated acoustic instruments rather than synthesizers. Pow-Wow Plus repackages that record with the addition of 1981’s “Temperature Drop” single. Kirk’s Time High Fiction is a one-man double album recorded over a three-year period; it’s richer in texture (mostly electronic) and less rhythmic than his partner’s work. The two-side-long “Dead Relatives” is even more dissonant than anything the two have done together.
Kirk released a pair of solo LPs in 1986: Black Jesus Voice and Ugly Spirit. (Both were combined on a single cassette under the title of the former.) Black Jesus Voice is not a drastic departure from Cabaret Voltaire; rhythmically similar but with slightly harsher sounds. Most of the vocals are from tapes rather than sung by Kirk himself. Ugly Spirit changes gears completely, however, and takes a sound-sculpture approach with often very effective results.
In 1986, Kirk joined forces with former Box singer Peter Hope for Hoodoo Talk, which wasn’t released until nearly two years later. Playing all the instruments, Kirk provides varied but familiar synth/guitar/drum machine patterns, from busy, booming rhythms with swelling layers of noise to minimalist sound bites. Hope adds disjointed, vaguely nightmarish lyrics sung in the same ingratiating, exaggerated way that made later Box material such rough going. The desire to spend studio time with someone new after so many years is understandable, but this probably would have worked better with Mallinder as a Cab Volt LP.