Cabaret Voltaire (and Factrix)
Village Voice, July 29, 2003
by Simon Reynolds
Thesis: Industrial music, in its original late-’70s incarnation, was the second flowering of an authentic psychedelia. (“Authentic” meaning non-revivalist, untainted by nostalgia). There was the same impulse to blow minds through multimedia sensory overload (the inevitable back-projected, cut-up movies behind every industrial performance—attempts at “total art” only too redolent of 1960s happenings and acid-tests). And industrial, like psychedelia, believed “no sound shalt go untreated”; both adulterated rock’s “naturalistic” recording conventions with FX, tape splices, and dirty electronic noise.
There were even direct links between the blissed freaks of the late ’60s and the autopsy aesthetes of the late ’70s: The precursors of pioneering London industrialists Throbbing Gristle were COUM Transmissions, who began in 1969 as an absurdist-primitivist cosmic rock group, evolved into a taboo-busting, tabloid-scandalizing performance art ensemble, then mutated into TG. There’s also something quite Grateful Dead-like about TG, from the cultishness they cultivated to their habit of excessive self-documentation. Earlier this year, the gargantuan box set 24 Hours made available again Throbbing Gristle’s 1979 cassette-only chest, which contained lo-fi live recordings of every single performance—all two dozen of ’em—TG had played up to that point.
Cabaret Voltaire, Sheffield Roxy Music fans who liked to dress sharp, probably despised straggly-haired, afghan-clad hippies. Still, the early Cabs lineup featured clarinet (shades of Jethro Tull!), while local fanzine Gunrubber compared their live sound to Hawkwind. The Cabs were huge fans of German kosmische rock (particularly Can) and loved Nuggets to the point of covering the Seeds’ punkadelic garage classic “No Escape.” The band’s Richard H. Kirk used to describe their shows as “like a bad trip,” and indeed “Possibility of a Bum Trip” is one of the unreleased goodies on Methodology ’74/’78.
The Cabs’ box is part of a mini-boom in archival industrial: Alongside the strictly-for-nutters 24 Hours and a double CD by San Francisco’s Factrix, long out-of-print records by 23 Skidoo and Biting Tongues have recently been reissued. Last year also saw a bonanza of vintage Cabs material: the classic albums Mix-Up, Voice of America, and Red Mecca; a terrific brand-new compilation, The Original Sound of Sheffield ’78/’82. Best Of; plus the reissue of an older, even better comp of the early Cabs singles, The Living Legends. And in May of next year, Throbbing Gristle will reunite to headline and host “Re-TG,” a two-day industrial-music festival taking place at an English vacation resort.
The earliest material on Methodology is almost 30 years old. And what’s initially surprising about all this bygone futurism is how great it sounds as guitar music, given industrial’s general rock-is-dead stance. Kirk started out contributing clarinet (harshly processed and highly effective, actually—the multitracked woodwinds on “Fuse Mountain” create a psychotic-bucolic vibe, like Popol Vuh jamming on a steel mill’s slag heap). As punk kicked in, the Cabs went rockier and Kirk swiftly joined post-punk’s pantheon of guitar innovators. You can hear Can’s Michael Karoli and reggae’s scratchy afterbeat in Kirk’s choppy rhythm playing, but what’s really distinctive is his trademark timbre: a sensuously brittle distortion like blistered metal, needling its way deep into your ear canal. Often fed through delay units, Kirk’s sustain-heavy lead lines arc and recede through soundscapes that are soused in reverb yet feel curiously dry, evoking the dead echoing chambers of nuclear bunkers and underground silos.
The box’s subtitle, Attic Tapes, refers to an actual claustrophobic space, the equipment-crammed upstairs loft where the trio—Kirk, Stephen Mallinder, and Chris Watson—would meet several times a week and “jam” with the tape recorder running. Methodology‘s three discs draw from hundreds of hours of raw music generated in the years before the Cabs’ first EP for Rough Trade. A few tracks are throwaway juvenilia, but it’s amazing how listenable even the sketchy stuff is. Creaky and homespun, early musique concrète stabs like “Dream Sequence Number Two Ethel’s Voice” have an alien-yet-quaint quality reminiscent of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (most famous for their work on the cult sci-fi series Dr. Who), while the rattling synthetic percussion and soiled sheets of abstract sound on “Henderson Reversed Piece Two” could give electronic composer Morton Subotnick a run for his money. By disc three, we’ve reached 1977/78 and the archetypal Cabs sound is taking shape: hissy rhythm-generator percussion, dank synth-slime, viscous coils of reverbed bass, a stalking hypno-groove midway between death disco and Eastern Bloc skank.
If there’s an element that dates poorly, it’s the occasional recitative, typically Burroughs-blighted or imaginatively overpowered by Atrocity Exhibition-era J.G. Ballard. Just check the fetid imagery of “Bed Time Stories”: “with dogs that are trained to sniff out corpses/eat my remains but leave my feet/I’ll hold a séance with Moroccan rapists/masturbating end over end.” (Mind you, it actually sounds quite effective in a flat, dry Yorkshire accent). There’s a similar liability effect with the prose-poetry daubed over Factrix tracks like “Empire of Passion”: “I want your sex for my display case . . . my swarms of sticky flies/gnaw away her ivory limbs.”
The Art(aud)-damaged Factrix hailed from San Francisco—the major outpost, outside Britain, for industrial music. (Which sort of nails the industrial-as-psychedelia-redux theory.) TG and the Cabs played to big crowds there. Collaborating with local kindred spirits Mark Pauline (of Survival Research Laboratories) and Monte Cazazza (the guy who inadvertently christened the genre with his “industrial music for industrial people” wisecrack), Factrix provided the soundtrack for several multimedia shockfests. The most infamous involved dead animals grotesquely roboticized by Pauline—like his patented “rabot” made out of metal, electrical wire, and rotting bunny. This sort of audience-confronting art/anti-art malarky can be traced through ’60s outfits like the Vienna Aktionists (pig’s blood, self-mutilation, pagan ritual), all the way back to Dada. Factrix’s Cole Palme echoed the famous flinch-inducing image in Un Chien Andalou when he talked of the group’s desire “to take a razor to the mind’s eye,” while Cabaret Voltaire nicked their name from the original Dadaist nightclub in WW I Zurich.
Like the Cabs, Factrix were big on the mistreatment of sound, deploying an arsenal of Eno-like reinventions such as amputated bass, “radioguitar,” and “glaxobass,” along with tape-loops, exotic percussion, and Multimoog. But as with Methodology, the surprise stand-out aspect of Factrix’s Artifact reissue is the most traditional element—Bond Bergland’s trippy guitar work, whose keening lead lines are definitely in the West Coast acid-rock tradition, tinged with the angularity of Roxy’s Phil Manzanera. On tracks like “Snuff Box (Alternate)” and “Obsession,” the guitar billows up in gaseous columns and harrowed arabesques that recall Ashra’s Manuel Göttsching—stripped of their New Age serenity. There are non-psych guitar thrills, too: the stumbling lunge-riff on “Theme From NOW!,” a distortion-pocked cover of the VU’s “Beginning to See the Light.” Elsewhere, Factrix’s more anti-/un-rock side produces creepy delights like “Phantom Pain,” with its pitter-pulse rhythms and poltergeist-like leakage from the etherworld, while the group’s merger of metal-bashing and ethnic instrumentation (migh-wiz, doumbek, saz . . . ) sometimes suggests an unlikely merger of SPK and the Third Ear Band.
Factrix started out influenced by TG and CV, but as they evolved they anticipated industrial’s next stage, when Psychic TV, Coil, and their ilk embarked on a full-blown magickal-mystery trip. Partial to the occasional mushroom, Factrix talked of wanting to jettison language and escape time—a nakedly psychedelic agenda that Artifact was originally going to honor by containing a sheet of acid-blotter, undipped but perforated using a vintage machine once owned by one of Haight-Ashbury’s “acid barons.” After Factrix disintegrated, Bergland formed Saqqara Dogs, an overtly transcendental trio centered around his skykissing solos. Cabaret Voltaire, meanwhile, got deeper into dance music (a journey you can follow on 2001’s box Conform to Deform ’82/’90. Archive;), embracing sequencers and ultimately making a sort of bleak house music—just in time for rave, that other authentic, non-retro reflowering of psychedelia.
The Original Sound of Sheffield--The Best of the Virgin/EMI Years
Conform to Deform--The Virgin/EMI Years
by Simon Reynolds
On their first two post-Rough Trade albums, The Crackdown
and Microphonies, the Cabs are basically
trying to do a New Order: marry postpunk's angst with the party sounds of
electro and Latin Freestyle that ruled Manhattan clubs like the Funhouse and
Danceteria. If they never pulled off a "Blue Monday" or
"Confusion", they got close
with "Crackdown", "Just Fascination," and especially
"Sensoria", which gave an ultramodern sheen--all chattering
sequencers, pert chugging basslines, and robotic handclaps--to the classic
Voltaire vibe of twitchy, under-surveillance tension. The result---Shannon for
J.G. Ballard fans---was only a few
leftward steps from Depeche Mode in
their "political", Neubauten-infatuated mode. But Stephen Mallinder's sultry vocals were always
too subdued and moody for full pop impact. And melody was never the Cabs's
By the time a dance culture based around largely
instrumental music arrived, in the form
of acid house, Cabaret Voltaire was running out of steam (understandably, after
thirteen years and umpteen releases).
Remixes of post-1988 Cabs tunes
by dancefloor luminaries like A Guy Called Gerald and Rob Gordon show both how
much the Cabs had in common with acid and bleep, but also how they needed
assistance to really infiltrate that arena. Hooking up with Sheffield deejay
Parrot as Sweet Exorcist, though, Richard Kirk did enjoy the ravefloor impact that eluded the Cabs, with early Warp releases like
"Testone". Avant-funk finally had its day, as 'ardkore.
Melody Maker, June 30 1990
Kirk-related blurbs from my guide to "The 20 Best Bleep Records Ever Made", FACT magazine, 2008
Sweet Exorcist were Richard H.
Kirk from Cabaret Voltaire and
The Mood Set EP
"Clonk's Coming" (off C.C.C.D)
Bleep at its most sophisticated, the final tune on this seven track maxi-EP (or is it mini-LP?) starts with a dizzy-making roundelay of dub-delayed bleeps, falls into a strange loping sashay of a groove, and blossoms into a fiesta of textured percussion, clanking bass, and densely clustered electronic tonalities.
(Read this interview with DJ Parrot aka Richard Barratt, which has stuff on the primitive set-up they struggled with to make "Testone")
And the very first thing I wrote about Cabaret Voltaire, from Melody Maker, July 26 1986
Blissblog May 12, 2004
Richard h. kirk earlier/later (mute)
lives up to nick gutterbreaks praise, esp. the second disc of early days stuff. and worth the price just for the front cover --photo booth pic of kirk as a teenager looking like this sort of glam kid gone feral/reverted to hippie -- bowie meets peter the wild boy
Blissblog May 07, 2004
Very nice piece by Nick Gutterbreakz on the Richard H. Kirk Earlier/Later Unreleased Projects Anthology 74/89 (Grey Area Of Mute) CD which is out any day and which I'm panting to hear. I'm not quite as obsessive about Cabs-related output as Nick but not that far behind him. And weirdly it's quite a recent development. I really liked the Cabs at the time, had a fair few things by them, some vinyl, others taped off friends. And there were certain tracks like "Black Mask" and "Sluggin"/"Secret Agent Man" and swathes of Covenant that really stood out for me. But I wasn't like an obsessive fan by any means. But now, I dunno, through doing the book or something, in these last three years, I just really fell in love with the Cabs--as Sound and as Spirit-- to the point where I want all of it, the juvenilia and solo side project marginalia.... last year, if Methodology: Attic Tapes had been a new release it might have beaten out even Dizzee as my year's favorite listen (was amazed how little love that record got in the critpolls and blog roundups, praps most people didn't actually hear it?) ... yeah I really feel Nick's Kirkmania.... cos there's just something that imbues even the scraps and half-finished stuff... Something heroic about Cabaret Voltaire. Culture warrior bizniz innit.
For a cultural and material topography of postpunk Sheffield, check out this extensive interview I did with the late Andy Gill, the NME's Sheffield correspondent during this legendary time and friends with the Cabs and most of the other significant musicians in the town.
Here's what Andy had to say about the Cabs and Richard H. Kirk:
“... Before the Cabs had a record out, they used to come into Virgin, where I worked. I had hair down to my waist in those days. They came up to the counter and asked 'Have you got any records by Cabaret Voltaire?'. I’d heard of the name, and what I’d heard about them sounded really intriguing to me. So, I said ‘As far as I know they haven’t got anything out yet, but I’d really be interested in hearing them, cos it’s my kind of thing.’ I remember them being quite shocked that this guy who looked like a Ted Nugent fan was heavily into that kind of that stuff. Ever since then we’ve been mates....
"Mal and Rich and Chris and their gang were heavily into the sonics of Roxy. Although Mal was heavily into clothes too. He had two rooms in his flat, and one room was where he lived and the other was his wardrobe – and he had an ironing board in the middle of it. It was just completely full of clothes. Mal was the most stylish person I’d ever met; he always had a consummate sense of style.
“The early Cabs gigs were trying to get a reaction – it was a racket, just squealing noise. And there’d be films behind them of god knows what: biological warfare experiments, people in chemical warfare suits. They’d collect old Super-8 footage of things like that.
"Around 1975 or 1976, we became friends. They had been going since ‘73 or ’74. So, it was a bit after that I got to meet them. They had this studio in this old industrial building. The whole building was called Western Works – and they recorded in it and called the studio Western Works.”
What were they like as people, Cabaret Voltaire?
“Richard’s always been a bit stroppy –in that very Yorkshire way. He can be hellishly stubborn. That’s a typically Yorkshire thing: ‘if you say don’t do this, I’ll do it’. He’s got that thing in his voice.
"In Sheffield, it wasn’t like the London Musicians Collective, where everyone’s got wire-rim glasses and that sort of avantgarde middle class attitude. In Sheffield, it was working class Dada. They were heavily into Dada and liked to get a reaction. Wake people up. Richard, then, mainly played guitar and clarinet. Mal did rudimentary bass and vocals, treated beyond legibility.