by Simon Reynolds
4AD was founded by Ivo Watts-Russell and Peter Kent in 1979 as an offshoot of the independent label Beggars Banquet and intended as a spawning group for groups to graduate to the larger label. The imprint soon became its own entity, with a sensibility rooted in the adventurous, open-ended spirit and sonics of 1979, but tilted towards the darker, more existentialist side of post-punk- (Joy Division and the Banshees, rather than the politically militant Gang of Four end of things).
Crucial to 4AD’s burgeoning mystique was the lush and enigmatic artwork of Vaughan Oliver, whose role in establishing the label’s identity was as important as Peter Saville’s at Factory. 4AD’s earliest acts were proto-Goth outfits like Bauhaus, The Birthday Party, and Rema Rema, but the label really blossomed circa 1983 with a sound you could call, not unkindly, Goth-lite: delicately textured and gentler on the ear than the harsh ‘n’ hammy horror-show that Goth proper had degenerated to, oriented more to rapture and reverie than the macabre or morbid.
4AD will be forever identified with its signature Goth-lite group the Cocteau Twins, but other key signings of this period include Dead Can Dance, Xmal Deutschland, and Wolfgang Press. Just as the “4AD sound” was getting perilously close to formula, the label reinvented itself in the late Eighties, by catching a wave of arty-but-raw, rootsy-but-weird rock coming out of America: the brilliant New England outfits Throwing Muses and Pixies (and later its offshoot The Breeders). In the Nineties, the label diversified again, signing shoegazers Lush and Pale Saints while keeping an eye out for American talent like Nick Drake-like melancholics the Red House Painters. The label faded from earshot for much of the Nineties but has recently resurged with critically acclaimed acts like TV on the Radio, Piano Magic, and living legend Scott Walker.
After the Snow
Many British groups in the early Eighties struggled to shake off Joy Division’s influence. The cold marble beauty of their sound and the mature majesty it lent to adolescent despair proved so compellingly original it practically condemned a generation to non-originality. (Hell, even New Order had some difficulties carving out a fresh path). Following their Closer-damaged 1981 debut Mesh and Lace, Modern English stepped boldly into the light with a sound that found the interzone between Joy Division-style severity and Orchestral Manoevures in the Dark winsomeness. The tom-tom churning drums frequently infringe Steven Morris trademark patterns and the bass guitar drones melodiously a la Peter Hook, but the sparkling guitars and soaring synths could be Tears for Fears or Depeche Mode. The bouncy gloom of a tune like the oh-so ironically titled “Life in the Gladhouse” is perfect for Goths who want to dance but keep their deep’n’mysterious cool intact. The sighing chorus “oh me, oh my” verges on comical but the great rolling beat banishes any reservations. Indeed throughout it’s the lithe exuberance of the rhythm section (drummer Richard Brown and bassist Mick Conroy) that makes After the Snow such a winning slab of Goth-lite. That, and artful arrangements and mad-catchy tunes, such as MTV perennial and wedding-song fave “I Melt With You”.
Far from 4AD’s most famous or celebrated band, instrumental quartet Dif Juz were nonetheless reputedly the Cocteau Twins’ favorite group. Indeed Robin Guthrie produced this, their sole full-length excursion. Soaked in reverb and echoplex (the group were huge dub fans but thankfully never stray into the faux-skank zone), Dif Juz’s dual guitar interplay resembles an out-of-focus Television or Durutti Column heard from the bottom of a lake. Impressionistic and rhapsodic, the plangent ripples and frenetic flurries scattered by guitarist brothers Dave and Alan Curtis dominate the proceedings, but Harold Budd-like piano peeks through on “Love Insane” (along with an offkey Elizabeth Fraser from the Cocteaus) while Richie Thomas’ saxophone on tunes like “Crosswinds” recalls the serene fjord-scapes of ECM artists like Jan Garbarek. Listen expecting shapely song-structures or clearly signposted melodic pathways, and you’ll be frustrated. But if you surrender to the be-here-now meander of it all, the spangled eddies and lustrous whorls of the Dif Juz sound will carry you up and away.
THIS MORTAL COIL
Filigree & Shadow
With This Mortal Coil, 4AD boss Ivo pioneered a format since adopted by the likes of U.N.K.L.E.--the non-musician with loads of ideas surrounded by a floating pool of musicians and guest collaborators who help realise his vision. In this case, the project largely involved cover versions of obscure Ivo favorites and is perhaps best understood as a form of rock criticism and an act of canon-making. In the mid-Eighties, the choices Ivo made were striking: then largely forgotten post-psychedelic minstrels like Roy Harper, Big Star’s Chris Bell and Alex Chilton, Tim Buckley, Tom Rapp. While the first This Mortal Coil album, 1984’s It’ll End In Tears, features the project’s single most successful reinterpretation (Liz Fraser’s awesome and damn near original-eclipsing version of Buckley’s “Song to the Siren”) Filigree & Shadow has the edge over the debut. Two more Buckley tunes (“I Must Have Been Blind” and “Morning Glory”) are joined by “Strength of Strings” off Gene Clark’s solo album No Other and a version of Pearls Before Swine’s “The Jeweller”. The stand-out remakes aren’t from the singer-songwriter era, though, but postpunk: a clangorous treatment of Talking Heads’ “Drugs” and a version of “Alone” even more glacial and gripping than Colin Newman’s original on his post-Wire solo debut A-Z. Ivo’s overt over-arching concept for This Mortal Coil was a twin celebration of “the beauty of despair” and the timelessness of song. But one also suspects a secret semi-conscious motivation: claiming for 4AD the kind of maverick stature held by Elektra Records in its heyday.
Within the Realm of a Dying Sun
Dead Can Dance’s motto could be “anywhere but here, anywhen but now.” At once somber and ornamental, their music forges links between Medievalism (Gothic in the original sense of the word, DCD’s sound often recalls liturgical music designed for the reverberant spaces of massive cathedrals) and the non-West (you can hear threads of Middle Eastern, African, and Oriental music in their tapestry of exotica). This Australian duo is also something of a split personality group. Running a very close second to Liz Fraser, Lisa Gerrard’s voice is a thing of wonder in both senses of the word: awe is her primary emotion, awe is what her piercing ululations strike in the listener. Brendan Perry is closer to the mold of the troubled troubadours that inspired This Mortal Coil, figures like Tims Rose and Buckley, and above all Scott Walker. This means that his rather portentous lyrics (song titles like “In The Wake of Adversity”) sometimes weigh down his undeniably grand and mellifluous singing. On Within the Realm, the follow-up to Dead Can Dance’s dark masterpiece Spleen and Ideal, the split personality was splayed across the two separate sides of the original vinyl album. Side One frontloads Perry’s doomy ballads and gloomy instrumentals, while the reverse is devoted to Gerrard’s devotionals, like the dervish-whirling “Cantara”. Her singing is so bliss-rich that “In the Dawn of the Iconoclast” was sampled for the Ecstasy anthem “Papua New Guinea” by the Future Sound of London. Later in the group’s career, DCD would cross over to a mass audience of the sort of people that listen to New Age, Gregorian chants, and Enya. But Within catches them at the perfect median point between the crypt and the chill-out zone.