Teamed with dubmeister Adrian Sherwood and his Tackhead associates (Keith LeBlanc, Doug Wimbish and Skip McDonald), ex-Pop Grouper Stewart produces what could best be described as avant-garde reggae on Learning to Cope With Cowardice. Making a wide left turn past Sly and Robbie, the disc is dark and forbidding, with a plethora of ghostly, off-center sounds floating in and out of nowhere, rarely paying heed to musical convention. At times, things get gimmicky enough to resemble a demo disc for effects units, but Cowardice is a rewarding album with political consciousness.
Stewart’s convictions push further to the fore on his second album. As the Veneer of Democracy Starts to Fade abandons reggae for a disorienting marriage of big- beat drums and dissonant electronics that is not unlike early Cabaret Voltaire. Several tracks feature taped authoritarian voices that you probably thought only existed in your nightmares.
Mark Stewart + Maffia, Stewart’s first US release, was culled from those first two albums (with one added non-LP cut) and is worthwhile for those who don’t have the imports. Stewart’s next release, simply titled Mark Stewart (although the same Maffia members are present), pushes funk and stripped-down metal; while Stewart and Sherwood’s aural experiments work well in this context, running out of ideas doesn’t deter them from letting a track go on for seven or eight minutes. The lyrics are uncharacteristically innocuous—some are even kind of smug. The CD contains a bunch of extra remixes of cuts that were already too long.
By contrast, Metatron has a much warmer, more immediate feel, and the band really gets a chance to explode. The sparing and effective use of electronics leaves plenty of room for crunching guitar cascades atop a megabeat rhythm section. Stewart’s lyrical visions have shifted from revolutionary politics to paranoia about late- 20th-century life: “These Things Happen” is his response to a bloodthirsty “human time bomb…an accident waiting to happen.” Musical ideas are still more or less at a premium, as riffs are prolonged ad nauseum and passed off as complete songs. The CD adds an instrumental version of the opening “Hysteria,” which sounds an awful lot like Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.”
Stewart returned six years later with the more compelling Control Data, featuring Wimbish and McDonald along with producer Sherwood. For some of the strongest material, Stewart scales back the heavy-metal techno funk and refocuses his attention on dub. Complete with female backing vocals, surprisingly melodic numbers like “Scorpio” and “Dream Kitchen” recall the high points of Learning to Cope With Cowardice, namely such tracks as “Liberty City.” That’s not to say Stewart has mellowed: he continues to harangue listeners with anguished sloganeering (concerning oppression, surveillance, dystopian technocracy and the general ills of capitalism). Although there’s less extended riffing, Control Data is no less confrontational. Punishing industrial-strength tracks like “Simulacra,” “Digital Justice” and “Consumed” increase the bpm and generate a metal-machine assault allied with the digital hardcore aesthetic. Indeed, two years on, Atari Teenage Riot’s Alec Empire and other like- minded sonic terrorists did various degrees of gabba violence to “Consumed” on the maxi-single Consumed: The Remix Wars.
As the post-punk revival wound down, Stewart arrived late to his own party — one he doubtless had no interest in attending anyway — with the career-spanning compilation Kiss the Future. The inclusion of the Pop Group’s “She Is Beyond Good and Evil,” “We Are Time” and “We Are All Prostitutes” underscores how closely the early-’00s generation of art-school Brooklynites and borrowed nostalgia-mongers studied the disjointed, barbed-funk blueprints of Stewart’s first band. The bulk of the collection, however, covers his subsequent forays into progressively denser, more dubbed- out electronic noise. The echo-laden experimental cut-up “Jerusalem” and the spectral, minimalist reggae grooves of “Liberty City” — as well as weightier, more expansive explorations at the interfaces of rock, funk, industrial, techno and hip-hop (“Hypnotised,” “Hysteria,” “Dream Kitchen”) — all vouch for Stewart’s pioneering status. One particular treat is “High Ideals and Crazy Dreams” (originally on the “Jerusalem” 12-inch), a bottom-heavy dubscape that finds Stewart wailing like a politicized Jandek. Three new numbers — “The Lunatics Are Taking Over the Asylum” (which first appeared on the 2002 On-U sampler Chainstore Massacre ),”The Puppet Master” and “Radio Freedom” — account for some of Stewart’s activity in the nine years since Control Data. These familiarly lumbering, gargantuan soundclashes, complete with Stewart’s subtle-as-the-Blitz haranguing (“From downtown Seattle to the ghosts of Tiananmen Square / You can feel the tension rising in the air / Atrocity after atrocity / How can you sleep?”), prove he isn’t losing his edge; however, that edge might not exactly be of the cutting variety anymore. This is all top-notch material, to be sure, and the older numbers sound as engaging as ever, but Kiss the Future‘s stingy 51 minutes (12 tracks) don’t offer a comprehensive overview of Stewart’s best work. It completely ignores, for instance, the Pop Group’s For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder? and Stewart’s self-titled third album. As a Cliffs Notes summary, it’s passable, but as a thorough compilation it’s unsatisfying.