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Monthly Archives: January 2015

“… you’re either Gary Numan or The Human League.” (1) – a precise description of the first synth-pop generation at its peak. The clichés are still there – past and present, embracing the synthesiser beast, blame it on Kraftwerk or Giorgio Moroder to name a few, single-handedly providing the ideal platform for the electronic kindom come, pleasantly crowded with countless kling-klangs. Oh synthesiser – could there ever be a future (not just of pop music) without you? The present says it all – hi-tech gear is all and around, off and went, up and coming, people stand and stare into their tiny (fad) gadget screens, fascinated by the instant of the moment, but not reaching further than the very refrain. More like skipping to the next one. The internet – at the same time as Orwellian as it is endless fun, is the ultimate melting pot of lost and found information and its inevitable (information) wars. Without it, some treasure boxes would have remained next to impossible to even dream about being open. Times change and don’t seem to stop there just yet – fascinating, although communication is sadly at stake, experiencing both – a “breakdown” and countless versions of “Newspeak”.

Vice-Versa were one of the few late 70s experimental synth-pop groups that spoke of mass-consumerism in both terms; being challenged by it just as they were being disgusted by the very idea. Their 7” debut EP “Music 4” in mere 10 minutes demonstrates the rage against the dullness of the senses; “New Girls Neutrons” being the miniature attack on consumerist trends. Especially interesting about Vice-Versa’s stop-start lyricism is how they managed to express the very zeitgeist – the digital age at the time being this continuous retro-futuristic obsession that was still not fully realised or had materialised – but which was about to burst any second then after 1980 and the first fifteen minutes; “On your wrist you wore a digital watch, you checked the time but it seemed to have stopped.” This closing line to a catchy minimalist spoken-type song, reveals the fright of the forthcoming post-modern age. Things that either threaten to, or simply do spiral out of control – time especially, being portrayed as something we cannot capture by any means, let alone by up-to-date tech – except witness it constantly slipping away in the context of decay. “New Girls” serves as a description of instant youth, unaware of its aging process, as if distracted by new technologies. At the time, mini-skirts, icons, towerblocks, drugs and melting plastic were all put into the lyrics sheet for analysis – today, these are replaced by tablets, iPods and apps (the drugs and melting plastic haven’t changed much). The other side of the spectre displays the lack of emotional response – the banality of romance (“Then we kissed, the plot is b-movie…”), modern society portrayed as irreversibly automated. Even more menacing is the follower “Science Fact”, an ear-piercing glitchy song with the underlining claim of “danger pact”, which speaks of a far more serious and continuously present problem in the mind of the public – that of a nuclear war threat. Inspired by the Flixborough incident that occured in 1974, “Science Fact” explored the issue further, perfectly depicting split-second scenes from the heart of a chemical blast (“… blew out windows in a mile radius…” / “… A pregnant woman is about to take Thalidomide, she died later in a gas mains explosion”).

Around that time, songs about nuclear war happened to appear on the world’s pop-map – Young Marble Giants released “The Final Day”, while OMD explored the issue several times with each of their first three studio albums – the most notable of these was of course the top-ten hit “Enola Gay” which, like the Giants’ tiny anti-hit, juxtaposed a merry melody with the frightening subject matter of a nuclear aftermath. Around the same time as “Enola Gay”, there were “Bunker Soldiers” (off their 1980 s/t debut), plus one even more similar to Vice-Versa’s “Science Fact”, the equally frightening conclusion being “The New Stone Age” – the untypical opener to 1981’s “Architecture & Morality”, appearing in drastic contrast to predominantly pastoral electro-pop material from that album, with manic outcries – “So this is the goal, the aim of my life, this is the feeling they warned me about – oh my God, what have I done this time?” The hysteria in McCluckey’s voice, the accompanying, disorienting synths, the weird ‘flamenco’ guitar, and the Geiger-counter-like percussive pulse all serve to visualise the horrific warning of absolute annihilation. “Science Fact” in the form of a thin, sharp scalpel, comprises in a mere two minutes what can be viewed as one’s truly scary political agenda – here, the Kraftwerkian (consumer) friendly side of “Radio-activity” is faced with a far more realistic twist, rid of any (melodic) sentimentality. It was recorded and released five years away from a certain 1984 – the year societies were expected to collapse; in 1949, George Orwell predicted 1984 being the “year zero”, a time of total dystopia, those surviving the nuclear war ending up being alienated and exposed under constant surveillance, forbidden any emotional response, drenched in media fabrications and continuous wars. In reality, the Falklands War happened and showcased one in a row of perfect reflections of these predictions.

With “Science Fact”, Vice-Versa gave a frighteningly precise picture of a “Holocaust of catastrophic proportions” that was so brutally realistic in Mick Jackson’s 1984 faux-documentary/feature film masterpiece “Threads” – a story which, ironically enough, takes place in Sheffield, the industrial mecca, desolated and on the verge of mass-destruction due to many military target spots around the area. At the time, people had real issues to be worried about and Jackson’s assumption of a nuclear cataclysm was not without reason – some nineteen years prior to “Threads”, Peter Watkins directed “The War Game” – a what-if discourse on nuclear holocaust which without doubt inspired generations who were aware, and in fear, of the possibility; among them Mick Jackson and Vice-Versa took scientific assumptions, observations and their own conclusions, shaping up the sound and image for something as supposedly inevitable. “The War Game” was distributed by the BBC, but due to its brutally realistic content, the network hesitated to present it at the time in order to avoid panic and chaos. For the year 1965, it seems well-advanced and nowhere near naïve. And “Music 4” reviewed and communicated this feeling of uncertainty a whole decade later – as a personal discreet soundtrack, a warning of unrest on all levels, whether the cause is political, social, natural, scientific or plain military. “Riot Squad” is a fascinating resistance anthem providing the “freeze-frame” moment of guerilla self-training, while “Camille” concludes the whole EP with a beautiful throbbing pulse, accompanied by the almost-soothing melody, melancholic and repetitive, augmented by a random selection of tapes from interviews with various earthquake survivors. In total, “Music 4” is a stunning example of retro-futurism, carrying out fears of the very unknown future (think of one from H. G. Wells’ “The Time Machine”), for which there may still be hope – but just as with a large question mark.

Formed in 1977, Vice-Versa contributed to the first generation of punk in Sheffield. Not that it went smoothly; for most of their part in it, the initial trio of Stephen Singleton, Mark White and David Sydenham were either not taken seriously or were completely ridiculed and dismissed by most of the scene’s participants. Still, they willingly and enthusiastically provided when and where possible. In search of their perfect sound, Vice-Versa certainly looked up to their fellow Sheffielders, the living legends Cabaret Voltaire and to some extent to Clock DVA (whose Adi Newton in particular, was closely connected). Any resemblance with The Human League mk. I was less audible but formed the perfect balance between the avant-garde/anarchic leanings of the Cabs and DVA on one side and pop tendencies The League had towards the mainstream. In this era of possiblities and gaining popularity, Vice-Versa happen to have saved their essential sound imprisoned by a mere couple of official releases – the legacy being an enthusiastic excursion into the independent music market, challenging the competition with a very own sense of easthetics and textual wit. Vice-Versa already established Neutron Records in order to release and promote their own “Music 4” EP but soon found themselves helping out the exquisitely fertile underground scene of Sheffield, by putting out Robotnik’s cassette and another 4-track compilation EP – “1980: The First Fifteen Minutes” – which, besides Vice-Versa’s “Genetic Warfare”, also features Clock DVA, The Stunt Kites and I’m So Hollow, each commiting their music to vinyl for the first time.

In hindsight, the very EP sounds like a pleasantly mixed bag of punkish low-tech but that doesn’t affect nor undermine the very quality of these ideas; Clock DVA’s piece in particular being the strongest on the release – a frightening tale of war, the useless prospect of the economic circumstances that lead directly to utter waste of human life, the bitter shriek against degradation by the very participation in a conflict. Clock DVA were true visionaries, pulling inspiration from life’s absurdities, obsessions with technology and literary antiwork – with their own sense of aesthetics regarding words and image (de)collage (“A Clockwork Orange” and of course, Dada, being the most direct references). Their pattern undoubtedly stimulated Vice-Versa to explore and create their own terminology – “Genetic Warfare” being a scientific pop-review of the test tube’s dark side, analysing the god-complex (“Dr. Strangelove in a lab coat… – I saved the world”), including a cynical comment on the frightening mutation process in which “they’re breeding mice that look like men”, or the closing line that is pure Cronenberg by comparison (“I am the fly, I love my wife”). The Stunt Kites’ “Beautiful People” is a powerful, fully blooded punk piece with equally brutal comment on the society subservient to the rotting system antics – “All the beautiful people lulling us on their knee, the mentalities of people their personalities are weak…” / “The Commandant join the in-crowd, the commandant have a bitch!” This song honestly depicts generational frustration with the society’s mental poverty – the youth refusing to be blind, desperately kicking against the factors that imply “acceptability”. If there ever was a perfect equivalent to “White Riot”, then this is it – and more grandeur. “I Don’t Know”, the closing number on the EP by I’m So Hollow, is as every bit as psychotic and atonal but adorable mess speaking of isolation, inertia and life as one’s troublesome void (“Pulling the sheets up over my face, the only place I know I’l be safe, just can’t get up and stand the pace or face the human race…”/“Growing old is a thing of the past, you know from birth that you’ll never last…”). Both Neutron EPs gained a “Single of the week” tag respectively in the British music press.

Enthusiasm aside, the small independent record business soon proved frustrating – distribution channels such as The Cartel and Rough Trade slowly turned into talent hunting enterprises, which somehow left many small publishers disillusioned, among them Vice-Versa were no exception. Stephen Singleton explains in the 2001 documentary “Made In Sheffield” how the band had trouble selling their own records. All of a sudden, many people from the music underground scene found themselves facing the prospects of having to hand-fold, pack up and distribute the records themselves – which somehow left little space for concentrating on new ideas. In this chaos of administration, lack of mutual support and interest, and in the end, the inevitable – selectiveness and competition, things were destined to fall apart. Neville Brody, one of the post-punk generation’s most innovative graphic designers, encapsulated perfectly what went wrong in the independent music world; “If one struggle is between the head and the heart, ours was between major companies and independents. The whole independent record system had imploded due to a mixture of greed, lack of conviction, and inefficiency.” (2)  The regular music market suddenly became aware and was ready to devour the new and many were tempted to try their luck and make a name for themselves. According to Martyn Ware – “Post-punk, they were looking for the next best thing, it was an explosion of acceptabilities with record companies” (3).

Come 1980 and the first fifteen minutes were well and truly over – the mainstream crossover proved to be very potent for some; in Vice-Versa’s case, they came up with a new sound and a new name – ABC. In their earlier interview with Andrew Darlington, they too had expressed disillusionment with the independent market, pointing out it became saturated with rubbish and labels becoming more and more selective. Vice-Versa wanted populism. After performing locally and to some extent internationally, slowly realising they have exhausted their form of synthesis, the group experienced a drastic shift in both, music and style. Of course this drastic shift didn’t happen overnight – David Sydenham, one of Vice-Versa’s original members left not long after the release of “Music 4”. For a short while, Singleton and White operated as a duo, then asking a friend Fiona Russell Powell to join in (Fiona became a journalist with The Face and was also briefly involved later with ABC during their mid-80s’ weird electro-cartoon episode “How To be a Zillionaire”). Finally Martin Fry, who previously interviewed Vice-Versa for his “Modern Drugs” fanzine, ended up joining them around the time prior to the release of “1980: The First Fifteen Minutes”. This new line-up produced a mail order-only cassette, entitled “8 Aspects of”. The sound audibly progressed into something more energetic (or in Mark White’s words – more dark, less erratic), shying away from the icy minimalism of their previous work. The nature of these new songs gave Vice-Versa motivation to explore their ideas further afield, questioning the synthesiser as their (only) weapon of choice. With commercial expansion upon synth-pop which at the time already reflected in the likes of Gary Numan and The Human League, plus a cast of many others (among them – Thomas Dolby, Depeche Mode, Blancmange, John Foxx or OMD to name a few), Vice-Versa reached their conclusion. Losing further interest in just synthesisers, they decided to ditch the whole thing and restart as ABC. For that, “8 Aspects” as such sadly suffered, leaving eight raw masterpiece tracks – “Democratic Dancebeat”, “Stilyagi”, “Eyes Of Christ”, “Jazz Drugs”, “Body Sculpture”, “Trapped In Celluloid”, “Artists At War” and “Idol” – to rest in hiss. A collection of rough studio diamonds – augmented by a characteristic percussive element, white noise and a pop-tendency; especially “Trapped In Celluloid” which was once described by the very group as their attempt at creating a radio-friendly disaster hit. Inspired by “The Towering Inferno” film story, the song encapsulates the situation from a perspective of an individual suddenly realising all the affinities of life disappearing right in front of him, within a matter of minutes. A “posthumous soundtrack” to the very film, it is inevitable to view it also within a real-life disaster context – for example, that of the 9/11 tragedy, ever since observed through a variety of conspiracy theories. “Idol”, deals with assassinations – “real icons” may also be adding to the mercenary context (“What if it’s six million dollars, what if he looks like Ché Guevarra?”). While discussing the cult of personality and sensationalism, the song took particular inspiration from the JFK story – one of the world’s most popular unsolved mysteries.Also interesting to note that The Human League’s “Seconds” might have been partially inspired by “Idol” – the line “… It took seconds of your time to take his life…” can be viewed as an interesting parallel to “His body shakes, his wife is crying…”

Only two songs from “8 Aspects of” survived in slightly remixed form on a proper 7” vinyl single – the aforementioned “Stilyagi” and “Eyes Of Christ”, released posthumously in 1980 by the obscure Rotterdam independent label Backstreet/Backlash (joining Vice-Versa to the catalogue of artists as diverse as Z’ev, Winston Tong, Suspect or Mentally Unfit). In their desire to change, Vice-Versa preserved the energy and the promise of a synth-band that started make things happen for them but chose to make it legendary instead; the songs keep the artificial intelligence intact – “Eyes Of Christ” with a dark religious touch, and “Stilyagi” saluting the Russian post-WWII fashion cult, as a strange mutant of Amii Stewart and Hit Parade (a notorious one-man synth band from Belfast). The opening heartbeat-like kick with fragmented snare-type percussive outbursts, underlying menacing bassline with occasional saxophone and Mark White’s powerful screams, all fitting in with the perfect social statement. “Dissident fraction, secret stylists, youth movement, rebel gang…” – a repetitive line characterising American Jazz-enthusiasts in Russia who were often targeted for their outsider attitude and individuality, unwilling to adapt into the collectiveness of the grey-ish Soviet society. “Stilyagi” translates loosely as “style hunters”, some of whom were also sentenced to prison due to their illegal distribution of Western music via the x-ray network (dubbed “Rock bones”, which somewhat happens to be the precursor of the later flexidisc format). Vice-Versa’s crucial moment of change happened during their stay in Rotterdam, on one of their prolongued tour dates; Mike Pickering, a longtime friend of the group (later of M People fame), invited Vice-Versa for a studio jam-session where some of the members switched their roles; White chose the guitar and Fry started singing improvisingly.

Realising the potential of this exchange, things happened fast and by 1981, ABC were born – a disco-funk quintet completely anew. The fruits of their new hard work proved substantial with the initial, rough version of “Tears Are Not Enough” (later re-appearing a bit polished on the group’s deserved masterpiece debut-album “The Lexicon Of Love”). At the time, ABC could still be viewed as flirting with the edgier funk lines of Clock DVA whom they so eagerly embraced (Martin Fry even considered joining DVA at one point as their lead singer, or so the rumour says). Of course, the closest by comparison, “The Lexicon Of Love” seems like a light mirror reflection of “Advantage” (“4ever 2gether” in particular) – but apart from that, ABC did accept the challenge of success and by 1982 they found themselves on a world map of pop-darlings with several top-ten hits under their wing (even Madonna heavily borrowed from “The Look Of Love”, creating her own hit “Holiday”). At this point, any attempt to search for their once more sinister and fascinatingly sterile, commuter attaché case twin brother that was Vice-Versa, seemed to have drifted further and further into obscurity. They kept Neutron Records though, adding a new slogan – “Purveyors of fine product”, continuing to pay attention to visual aesthetics (this time – more lush, less minimal). “The Lexicon Of Love” conceptually remains their strongest work – from A-Z, from the sleeve noir to the very music, attention paid to every detail. New girls neutrons disappeared with a splice of an atom, new boys in gold lamé suits re-appeared for deserved spotlight. Of course, along came the music industry and all the drawbacks of success – the quintet split up (originally Singleton, White and Fry, with Mark Lickley on bass and drummer David Robinson (replaced by Dave Palmer). A year after participating on the group’s 1983 follower “Beauty Stab”, Singleton too had left the band disillusioned with the direction they were taking at the time, leaving Fry and White to continue recording as ABC, reduced to a core-duo with numerous collaborators and assistants. Today, ABC is just Fry from the original line-up, continuing to release an occasional adult-pop record, but somehow mainly relying on the nostalgia circuit. White left earlier in the 90s, after the release of “Abracadabra”, focusing on his career as a reiki-master. Years away after his initial leave from ABC, Stephen Singleton re-appeared in the early 90s with a tiny label, Tove Corporation, focusing on the work of Bleep & Booster, a project he originally started with Dave Lewin. Their album “The World of Bleep & Booster” was co-released by London Records and comes along in a weird promotional package, which besides excellent music, features extras as diverse as crayons, a badge and a fortune-telling fish (among other things). It is also pleasantly close a reminder or even more so, a certain “sequel” to Neutron Records’ 1979 data pack. On the inner side of the Bleep & Booster album’s poster-spread, once again retro-futurism took place. Unlike Vice-Versa, Bleep & Booster were less menacing albeit they kept the melancholy and the rush cityscape feel, only with a friendlier tone of “tomorrow”. “Technotropolis” (a city that never sleeps) is a perfect antipod to “Trapped In Celluloid”, while “Genki” can be viewed as a more optimistic sequel to “Camille” (with subtle Blade Runner overtones). “Electro City” is an uncrowned anthem of Sheffield’s longlasting legacy (as opposed to Pulp’s more voyeuristic vision in “Sheffield: Sex City”), while one of the album’s cool highlights – “Wonder Of the World” makes a perfect “block opposite” to a certain “New Girls Neutrons” (“The beauty and the power, the shapes of things…”). During all these years, with the Internet still away a luxury in the early 2000s, any chance to eventually reach the ear with something as obscure as “Music 4” was next to impossible. Hardly, if anyone heard of them locally and of course, for the pleasure of statistics these days, a certain Discogs website reveals there are numerous bands that bear the very same name. The Vice-Versa from Sheffield, being on this list, appear under number 4 (simbolically, some might say), but the “lucky number” after all, refers mainly to the submission order. Of course, these days, nothing remains hidden under the radar and finally Vice-Versa became re-discovered in both terms – of their potent, expressive minimal synth-pop sound and that of collectors’ item availability…

In 2002, a perspective Dutch documentary film maker Eve Wood released “Made In Sheffield”, the very first introduction to long-gone/defunct groups that marked the era between 1977-1982. Principal focus of course, was on Cabaret Voltaire, 2.3, The Human League, Artery, Pulp and ABC – with never-before seen footage from local events (snippets though), such as The Now Soc, where all these groups and many of their peers, enthusiastically performed at the time, turning Sheffield into one of post-punk music’s brightest epicentres. From the vaults, finally a snippet or two of Vice-Versa’s music was revealed and ever since it turned into an obsession. While I grew up adoring The Human League and Heaven 17 alike, ever since I properly heard Vice-Versa, there is no doubt now they’re one of the personal synth-pop favourites, many cannot match. Their aesthetic of words and music to accompany personal views of social decay and futuristic uncertainty,  is truly amazing and despite many ticking them off at the time, without doubt it is a vision all of their own (single-handedly informing the entire Warp Records generation ten years too early). They explored and exhausted the very synth in a way The Human League actually weren’t – like them, Vice-Versa were interested in the very electronic dance music, realised the potential and saw the opportunity, but avoided the clichés of “rock”, the compromising link which The Human League very quickly established; while both their early records, the all-electronic “Reproduction” and “Travelogue” are synth-pop classics, traces of blind ambition to morph into a proper synth-rock band of sorts were already there as many of these early songs sound easily translatable into the standard rock’n’roll format (ironically enough, The Human League did a cover version on the subject – picking on Gary Glitter’s “Rock’N’Roll”, despite their somewhat-purist statement of “Vocals and synthesisers only”, on the back cover of “Travelogue”). Meanwhile, “Made In Sheffield” also resurfaced on proper DVD with extras plus a stunning two-parts sequel “The Beat Is the Law”, and very probably thanks to Eve Wood alone, the worldwide interest (also helped by the electroclash boom) expanded in order to search out and save little treasures like Vice-Versa from collective oblivion. “Music 4”, “1980: The First Fifteen Minutes”, “8 Aspects of” and “Stilyagi/Eyes Of Christ” still do mainly survive via the second-hand network and occasional digital rips on the internet. Around the time of an early VHS release of “Made In Sheffield”, a proper release attempt almost came to fruition when a small label called Ninthwave Records showed interest and started officially announcing the CD release of Vice-Versa’s entire back-catalogue. Shortly afterwards, the news sadly remained frozen and later it was revealed the master tapes were impossible to track down, once again leaving this collection drifting unobtainable.

In 2013, again by complete surprise, through a variety of personal friends’ e-mails, it was suddenly revealed Vinyl On Demand are planning a release. The surprise was even greater when it was announced as a box-set – which, considering the group’s official catalogue only left a big question of how many unreleased studio tracks by Vice-Versa truly exist out there. Finally, after a considerable delay, the box set is out. No more-no less but a 4xLP+ treat for anyone remotely interested in this side of ABC, the sharp alphabet soup with a recipe twist – the Electrogenesis made of originals and never-before heard versions. How do they make it happen is an interesting question in itself, but VOD already put out an impressive box set of the earliest Clock DVA material available. Not that they’re alone in their research. Ten years ago, The Future – an early incarnation of both, DVA and The Human League, also shared compact disc space with The League’s very own early experiments surviving years of the jetpacks, and the resulting compilation “The Golden Hour of The Future” (released around 2002 via the Black Melody label) is also worth every ear-splitting second. In that respect, it is evident Vice-Versa worked just as hard, explored and recorded far more material from what they officially made available through their small, impressive catalogue. One tiny proof is this brilliant, odd two-minuter called “Chainsaw Pop” (which is even mentioned in the context of presentation via the group’s correspondence cards enclosed with the “1980: The First Fifteen Minutes” EP). The only other “official” song I’ve read about but never heard is the legendary “Modern As In Mary Quant”, which, as is now witnessed, survived only in live-recording form.

Stephen Singleton and Mark White kindly agreed that Small Doses provide a suitable audio accompaniment with the 6th volume, celebrating the release of the box-set via Vinyl On Demand – in the form of two exclusive readymades of now classic Vice-Versa obscurities – “Trapped In Celluloid” and “Stilyagi”. The initial idea was that these versions be presented as “remixes”, credited to Vice-Versa – but Stephen and Mark kindly insist these are re-recordings. The initial “remix” approach was actually inspired by the similar thing Tiga & Zyntherius and Akufen did when “remixing” Cabaret Voltaire’s “Nag Nag Nag” for NovaMute in 2002. They used bits from the original song, but deconstructed it into sort-of a cover version each under remix pretenses. In case of Vice-Versa’s songs, Small Doses finally proposed that these are “ready-mades”, credited to two fictional characters, each appearing in, and telling, their own story – The Fall Guy and Dissident. Also tiny bits from the very Vice-Versa songs were used (the hissing snare bit is from the original tape-version of “Stilyagi” complementing Dissident’s re-recording, while the tiny synth-burst towards the end of The Fall Guy’s version is actually borrowed from another Vice-Versa song – “Artists At War”).

Interesting to mention that there are also cover versions of “New Girls Neutrons” appearing on YouTube – one recorded to great effect by John Costello (dating back from 2008) and one done in a rehearsal carbon-copy mode, by Lower Synth Dept. Who knows what the very VOD box-set might trigger further – possibly a whole collection of honest cover versions – a testimony to the very legacy of Vice-Versa, who at the same time explored disco, industrial muzak and science into their own urban data cocktail. Iv An, Nov, 2014

(1) from the article/interview “Jazz Drugs, Jazz Violence” by Andrew Darlington, 1980

(2) quoted from “The Graphic Language of Neville Brody”, Jon Wozencroft, Thames & Hudson, 1988

(3) quoted from an interview with Eve Wood for “Made In Sheffield” (documentary, Sheffieldvision, 2001)

“Trapped In Celluloid” originally written by Stephen Singleton and Mark White in 1979, and performed by Vice-Versa. This version re-recorded by The Fall Guy on vocals and synthesiser for Small Doses, 2014. Contains a sample from “Artists At War” (Vice-Versa, Neutron Tape, 1980). Thank you Richard and Sasha for the analysis. “Stilyagi” originally written and performed by Vice-Versa (Stephen Singleton, Mark White and Martin Fry)  in 1980. This version re-recorded by Dissident on vocals and synthesiser for Small Doses, 2014. Contains a sample from the original version of “Stilyagi” (Vice-Versa, Neutron Tape, 1980). Thank you Miro P. for helping with all the mastering. Vice-Versa’s “Electrogenesis 1978-1980” box-set is now available from Vinyl On Demand via http://www.vinyl-on-demand.com Further reading: vvmusic.co.uk

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His Name Is Alive remains a truly bizarre world where fear of the unknown, accidental bits and sheer beauty mix into a challenging sonic experiment. To describe in words what HNIA stands for, is virtually impossible – its presence within the music medium is by all means uniquely confusing.

The story of His Name Is Alive started sometime in the mid-80s, with the early line-up providing a vast collection of weird experiments on tape. Among them, we now know of the strangely titled cassette – “I Had Sex With God”. Even if we wanted to, tracking down the main storyline behind these early experiments still is next to impossible. As a result of dedicatedly brushing up these, by 1990 a trio of youngsters appeared in the adult world of independent music with “Livonia”, a masterpiece debut album with a ghostly cover and a mixture of sounds that were so beautifully neither-nor – reflecting their creative output of the time, which by now blossomed into a gorgeous twenty-five year-old.

With every next record, the group (equally changing shape in terms of line-up) remains restlessly full or surprises – “Home Is In Your Head”, “Mouth By Mouth”, “Stars On E. S. P.”, “Ft. Lake”, “Someday My Blues Will Cover the Earth”, “Last Night”, “Detrola” and “Xmmer” show everlasting desire to constantly evolve – and it’s only a tip of the iceberg, with many parallel DIY releases aside from the regular 4AD catalogue – from the goth-like spooky innocence of the earlier material through avantgarde, surf and psychedelia to the full-blooded r’n’b and electroclash worlds. These do share only slight similarities inbetween, but stepping in and out of the experimental focus through their diverse musical doors, HNIA continue to make any musical references or resemblance to something that is/was, impossible to pinpoint.

In the meantime – they released a brand new album “Tecuciztecatl”. A nice little weird story told anew –  a psychedelic rock opera depicting an epic struggle between identical twins, reflective in nature and mirrored in twin science, secret language and mythology. The Brothers Quay must have been so proud, providing two video numbers for this bunch.

Like in the case of Cindytalk, whose work was once described simply as “Toby”, there’s the same “problem” with HNIA – the band’s name comes from an obscure reference to Abraham Lincoln, but it doesn’t really sound like “Abraham” – or “Lincoln”. But then who can ever tell. Except Warren Defever, the group’s lonely constant original member – in his own private underworld he is the king (of sweet). In someone else’s, he’s may be a complete unknown. Time to change that.

SD: Apart from Livonia, is there any other spiritual home out of this world that you see yourself at? WD: I wouldn’t describe Livonia as a spiritual home, it’s a city with no spirit, no ghosts, no positive or negative vibrations. It’s flat, it’s zero.  It’s not even cool enough to be a dead city.  It’s like a 6 mile by 6 mile square empty space right next to Detroit. It’s the shadow of a city, maybe just a reflection of place.

SD: Between sensibility and eccentricity – is this more of a platitude that the media build around an(y) artist? Does everything have to be “weird” in order to be acceptable as “different” and/or more interesting and arty – as opposed to mainstream? WD: I don’t believe I have ever intentionally tried to be difficult or confusing,  I was born this way, it just comes naturally. I have a lot of problems and I think the music is a reflection of that, I don’t even know how I’m still alive.

SD: Your music pieces happen to have very unusual titles – probably the most confusing is “Ode on a Dave Asman”.What was the craziest title ever that you gave your collection of songs? WD: Dave Asman was a good friend of mine from school who was a terrific songwriter, his music was just magical and there’s quite a few songs that from the early days that were inspired by his work and were dedicated to him.  As a young man, I believed that in the future people would’ve recognized his great talents by now. However, his lack of recorded output and sporadic and poorly attended concerts 25 years ago suggests that few will know the name.

SD: Apart from 4AD – and in recent years, Silver Mountain Media Group’s catalogue, what exactly is/was Time Stereo? There happens to be a vast collection of releases that are quite elusive – what is your latest project/album that you’re working on? WD: In 1984, I started recording on a 4-track cassette recorder, since then I’ve done very little else with my time.  I’ve amassed thousands of songs and weird tapes. Possibly millions. The releases reflect a prioritizing of the recording process with a complete disregard for public consumption.  I’ve released over a hundred records in the US, Canada, the UK, Japan, Spain, Mexico, Estonia, China and Texas on many different labels.

SD: How personal are your albums to you and not bothering with the expectations from the (general) public? Many raised eyebrows when HNIA released “Someday My Blues Will Cover the Earth” and “Last Night” for example, which marked a radical shift in the direction of pure r’n’b. WD: I didn’t realize that those albums were controversial, at the time I just thought they were unpopular because of the labels poorly promotion and by the delays, missed released dates, typos, lack of internal communication, and bureaucratic nightmares. I think those two records reflect the hopelessness and pointlessness of existence that I felt at the time.

SD: Despite many female vocalists you collaborated with, die-hard fans insist Karin Oliver is the ultimate voice of HNIA. Is there a difference between a die-hard fan and a stalker? WD: I love Karins voice more than anyone.  You die-hard fans cannot begin to compare to the level of stalking that I’ve spent the last twenty years doing.  I’m really great at stalking.

SD: What is the main reason you choose a certain (female) voice for a specific piece of music to fit in with? One of the vocalists you’re collaborating with in recent years is Andrea Francesca Morici, whose vocals are confusingly (read: pleasantly) reminiscent of Karin’s. Was there ever sort-of intention to find that kind of replacement in the band, or are we all full of crap, insisting too much that one person is the ultimate voice? WD: When you say collaborate, I’m not sure I agree with that word. Would you say a person’s neck “collaborates” with a vampire? I require a lot and I’m very demanding, once I have what I need, it’s often difficult for the musician or singer to contribute much longer.

Iv An, May-Nov, 2014

His Name Is Alive’s brand new album “Tecuciztecatl” is now available on London London/Light In the Attic/Silvermountain Media Group via lightintheattic.net  Further reading: hisnameisalive.com

“New Ways” is a soundtrack to the recently released and much talked-about documentary “I Dream Of Wires”, written and directed by Robert Fantinatto, to which Solvent himself contributed a great deal. Both, the documentary and the soundtrack present a full-pack in the form of academic analysis – the potential of the synth, it’s expansion of creativity beyond, from the simplest of choices that lurk from behind the black and white keyboard surface. The divine simplicity many still denounce explaining it lacks emotion and spontaneity (read: fault) – all technically too perfect and calculated. Rock purists may remain as stubborn by defending the “human factor” in guitar-playing, but stubborness only causes devolution – “New Ways”, plain and simple denounces this stubborness, greeting the synth as the ultimate refiner.

No doubt, Solvent himself is a synth-fetishist. And although his insisting on analogue gear used back and forth may be viewed as somewhat geek-ish (or elitist even), from the very music’s point of delivery the first thing that comes to mind is the word – pleasure. And “New Ways” once again does exactly that – it confirms Solvent’s pleasure principle, of enjoying giving personal statements by creating weird sounds and discovering just as many, but not for self-indulgence sake; more in order to present the modern world in its abstract reality upfront – choosing as many different patterns as possible to express the very nature of synthetics, the importance of technology as well as its satiation. This collection is so beautifully square two dimensional for three dimensional listening experience – as frigid as it is emotional, constantly bridging between cold and warm – machines that radiate with joy as well as they play at hints of uncertainty – yes, machines are unpredictible bastards and many expressed both – concern and interest, by carrying out ideas that machines one day will be more intelligent than ourselves (think of “Demon Seed”).

But Solvent is not the demon seed proclaimer, he communicates in his favourite language – Modular – the language that sends a universal message, articulating the listener with friendlier machine overtones. At times, some of it may seem too demanding – as high and low frequencies usually are when being exposed to (“Elephant Generators”), but then again, the senses do go crazy for more, through interesting method of “restart” rather than “meditation”.

In “New Ways” case, uncertainty provokes thought about where to take on from a tone that suddenly transforms from the spookier poltergeist (“Sender” and “Wow”) to a friendlier zeitgeist (“Pattern Recognition” which depicts a beautiful spring day with a hint of erotic), or one of the album’s highlights – “King Vincent” – inviting your body and mind to join in for the adorable synthetic orgy.

Solvent’s “New Ways” – the soundtrack and “I Dream Of Wires” – the documentary, are available from Suction Records via suctionrecords.com and idreamofwires.org

Martyn Young of Colourbox once said – “… Things became very abstract. Records that would have been seen as very avant-garde in the mid-Eighties, are now regularly heard in the Top 10.”

A statement reflecting both – the triumph and the downfall, the hype of “anything goes”, as if by any means or channels unusual and formless. These days, “installation art” and/or “conceptual art” happens to take over even more mercilessly than before, making it hard to detect interesting from dull, ingenious from redundant. But then again, there are always honourable exceptions. There always will be – whether in sound, image, form or printed word.

Ever since their early beginnings, Bernd Kastner and Siegfried M. Syniuga, created some of the most challenging and fascinating music – which by its own definition belongs to a fairly isolated world where artistic integrity remains intact from any outside influence – whether “commercial” or “non-commercial”. And of course, in their case, it isn’t just about music – Kastner and Syniuga’s work is one of a true manifesto, underlined with obscure history facts and social references. Whether freeform or organised sound, they add their magic touch to turn the distrubing into something of a mesmerising beauty. The element of confusion is a powerful weapon when you know how to use it. And when you know how to use it, the experimental world is entirely at your feet. In all of its sensuality. Starting out as EKG (documented on one of those very early 80s experimental LPs, the triple v/a sampler “Massa”, released through the Klar! 80 label), Kastner and Syniuga then formed Strafe für Rebellion and established themselves as the explorers of the obscure sound that is just as celebratory – not to mention the emotional impact mixed with brutality, like on their avant-funk invoked s/t debut album (“Portuguese People” in particular being one such moment, where pastoral beauty faces merciless hegemony, a wake-up call message with a killer chorus – “When those countries who plead for humanity – most are those countries which commit the worst crimes themselves”). From this debut, they continually evolved and developed a style that veered more towards the field music compartment with equally stunning results – “Öchsle – Bad People Have No Songs” and “Lufthunger” are among the conceptual masterpieces of the genre.

The eclectic beast of Strafe für Rebellion’s output is the exquisite ear for composition with the even more exquisite will to help building listeners’ imagination – what you hear in their music isn’t necessarily what you think it might be… by carrying out information about the sounds’ whereabouts as full-detail as possible, the picture may be to some extent revealed but at the same time, its mystery remains unsolved. I remember hearing their music for the first time around 1993, on a private edition compilation cassette called “Der Frühling”, made by Tomislav Burić (he was once fronting a group, called Raped Miss Mountain) – Tomislav did this cassette for a friend of his, inspired by the Egyptian Book of the dead. Along with the likes of Vasilisk, PTV, TG, Coil, Zone, Psychick Warriors Of Gaia, Somewhere In Europe, Sixth Comm, Nurse With Wound, TAGC and Mother Tongue, there he included a piece called “Airportfrogs”, by Strafe für Rebellion (the name itself abstract enough in Tomislav’s own expressive handwriting that I wasn’t even sure how to pronounce). What sounded like a merciless electric guitar noise fest (or chainsaw at its second closest), turned out to be the sound of the screaking door… Combining it with a field recording of the very frogs gathered near the Düsseldorf airport (hence the title of the piece), crossing over into this gorgeous melancholy of the piano part played by Makiko Tsuchya, then slowly fading away in sheer mystery. The piece stayed a particular favourite and couple of years later I managed to get hold of a compilation “Vögel”, containing selected official and previously unreleased music by the duo that only broadened the fascinating picture of the duo’s music world. Especially the ready-made songs that add to the experimental perversity but are in fact ingenious cover-versions – “Abendhimmel” (Leonard Cohen’s “The Sisters Of Mercy”), or “Long March” (“Walking After Midnight”) and “Love Bees” (“Crazy”), both delivered smoothly by Moyra Kirstin Boyd after Patsy Kline’s popular standards.

It turned out, by 1993 Strafe für Rebellion had built an extensive catalogue of releases – weird and beautiful in its honesty, in their world everything is “organic” – whether metal or plastic to name a few. The simple fact; Strafe für Rebellion’s music cannot be categorised, which makes it both – an astonishing achievement just as it is a frustration. In their thirty-something years span, Kastner and Syniuga remain dedicated academics, noble in their music mission and non-descript in terms of genre capture. To much pleasant shock of a surprise, in 2014, after their considerable absence from the avantgarde’s eye, Strafe appeared with their brand new album on Vienna’s experimental music label Klanggalerie – called “Sulphur Spring”. It showcases a new chapter in their fascinating catalogue and for the occasion, Mr. Bernd Kastner agreed to give us some answers.

SD: What is the meaning of “Strafe für Rebellion” – who is punished and who rebels against who? BK: There is the myth of Prometheus. He was a Titan not a god. He has taught the humans and told them how to use fire: Prometheus was punished by the gods for having done this. The eagle Ethon was eating from his liver every day but at night the liver was renewed and grew again. This could be an explanation what ´Strafe für Rebellion´means. But the real meaning is to be found in the gorges inbetween the letters.

SD: German underground culture has a truly rich history – Düsseldorf particularly standing out in this context. Your beginnings are linked with the explosion of Punk. Which music revolution was the most inspiring to you?  BK: Musically, we are interested in all epochs, in any style from all over in the world. There were the first Dada recordings from Raul Hausmann or the futurist approach of Luigi Russolo with his Intonanumori (Soundmachines) and his Rumoramonio (Special instrument). Francesco Balilla was interesting at the beginning of the 20th century.
In Russia, Alexander Mossolow composed “The Iron Foundry”. There were many other musicians who dared to tempt old established music patterns. The French music concrete based on those experiments. Of course, Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry is to mention. We like the Italian Luigi Nono and his ´Fabrica Illuminata´. In America, Harry Partch was important, so was John Cage and Morton Feldmann.
We listen to Karlheinz Stockhausen in Germany (Gesang der Jünglinge) and in Italy Giacomo Scelsi is important. The Strafe roots were also nourished by Steve Reich, Phil Glass. A more resent musician is Gloria Coates from the USA. From France, Gerard Grisey and Pascal Dusapin. In the late 1960s, there were MC5 and the early Stooges… in the 1970s, bands like Henry Cow or Pere Ubu, This Heat…
We listen to music from other parts of the world a lot, from different ethnics. There is the beautiful sound of Sardinia and Corsica. From India comes Bidur Malik & sons. The hypnotic court gamelan from Java (the Pura Paku)… The last but not least – the very inspiring series of records from the Museum National d´Histoire Naturelle (CNRS in Paris) must be lifted out. Especially the instruments of De Musique du Monde and Les Voix du Monde. We are fond of Ethiopian music and of music from Madagascar. In the European renaissance there is Johannes Ockegham. Again in Spain, in the 13th century, all the songs for King Alphonso X. (Mozzarabic music). Later: Antonio de Cabezon (Mexico) and in the 16th century: Antonio Morales (Spain)… Yes, there are many others…

SD: You started first as a group called EKG. Some of the music from that period was made available on the v/a boxset compilation called “Massa”. There is a similar pattern in these earlier pieces, which seemed to have informed your  later work as Strafe F. R. BK: EKG was more of a conservatively structured band with a guitar, a bass, vocals, drums – and the MS20 was played! Of course, there were special noises to be heard. Strafe F. R., in contrast to this, was a concept project right from the beginning.

SD: In an early 90s interview by Brian Duguid, you mention you like to torment and harass your instruments. In this context can “violence” be accepted as “emotion” – or a “feeling”? BK: We are not so much interested in the musician who is attending to his violin too much, fixing the strings in a craftsman way – this is not our way. You can be sure that a traditional concert-musician takes care of his instrument in a very different way than we do. But we do not harass or torment our own music instruments just for fun – this is a misunderstanding! We are searching for sound and constantly explore methods how to worm secrets out of the well-known classic music instruments. Well, by doing so it can happen, that an instrument is damaged or impaired or even breakes completely.  There is no predelection for a certain instrument. Any instrument (also a handmade one) deserves the purpose to evoke sound. If this sound is not according to our imagination, we might alter or even destroy the instrument in order to sound more strange, unheard, irritating, in order to make it scream.
However we will never destroy an instrument frolicsome because it is a rollicking gesture (like The Who did in “My generation”)… This kind of show affectation is boring. We dislike this! We are not interested in the violent act, but the sound is more important than a piano string or the valuable wood of an instrument.

SD: Besides music, you are also active with sculpture work. Is there a connection between these two worlds? Your music always had this aura of an exhibit piece… Can sound be viewed as “physical” – an “object”? BK: When we prepare a performance, it can be neccessary to create a stage scene which often is only constructed for this peculiar event. A stage scene can consist of several sculpture-like objects, but usually it is more of a room-installation which has nothing to do with our personal art that we produce separately from each other. Years ago, we made a performance in Boston/USA at the ICA. The main subject was the “Morgenthau Plan”. None of all those Harvard students from the nearby university had ever heard anything about those ideas from 1945. The concept was to change Germany into a purely agricultural country. During the performance the two of us were dressed in gardening – uniforms. The students didn´t have a clue.

SD: For years, Strafe Für Rebellion have resisted the temptations of the Internet. Recently, you decided to step out of the shadows and started your own, official webpage – providing the public with a proper review of your past and present work, which for many years remained obscure. In your opinion, is Internet a benefit or just a necessary evil? Do you feel compromised by this decision to obey the Internet giant? BK: The internet is neither a world-wide evil, nor is it the promissed paradise. It is a giant and a dwarf at the same time. Google is the giant. The net is a complicated arrangement with many facets. The net can bring utility to us, the stock- exchange speculator also uses it, he has very different criteria. For many years, we made all our recordings with analog equipment. But we are no luddites! We have nothing against downloads, it’s just another form of presenting music. However we do not need to have a kindle, as we both appreciate printed books and vinyl records.

SD: In an era of information overload, experimental music also became more accessible and in that way – somewhat predictable. In similar ways, you once expressed a certain point of view regarding electronics – on the sleeve of “A Soundless Message of Death” you even state “Brennt die elektronischen Musikmaschinen – Burn the Electronic Music Machines”. But, isn’t this a contradiction – the overall impossibility to live and create without electronics? BK: We create all sounds by ourselves, but we have nothing against electronic recordings. If the sound is originally recorded by us, it can also be electronically changed. Our CD “Sulphur Spring” was not recorded by a windmill or by a bicycle dynamo. In the 1980s, we wrote an article in the major german music magazine SPEX. The title was: “Brennt die electronischen Musikmaschinen”.  This article is again a contradiction to the Zeitgeist of that time. It was a provocation and we were also amused about the immature electronic technology of that time. A music listener of today can only endure most of the recordings from the early 80s, if he gives them the brand of “hyper-retro”.

SD: Did Strafe Für Rebellion ever use an electronic device on any of their albums? BK: Musically, we are hunters and collecters. We do not buy our sound at Yamaha or at Aldi. We do not go to Kaufland looking for selected drum rhythm-machines.

SD: Your new album “Sulphur Spring” speaks of the everlasting problem of food and natural resources exploitation. BK: Globalization is existing since the Neolitic age. Within the near future, there will be a new wave of it. “Sulphur Spring” deals with the subject of globalization in the 18th century. In former times there were forms of globalization mostly influenced by the Romans, the Egyptians, the Chinese… We are no prophets, we also do not know the new Maya calendar. But in 50 years time, Mr. Zuckerberg will also be pensioning.

SD: Musically it relies more on improvisation, which – albeit present – wasn’t dominant in previous work. On some of it you also dedicatedly carried out the information about the sound source. Despite the improvisation factor, how close is your creative process to the “organised sound” principle? BK: To improvise does not mean to have no plan. To improvise in music does not mean it is equate with accidental or random. When we have a new project, we are conscious and deliberate. We have working plans! For more than 30 years, we are systematically recording a sound archive, which is orderly. When we decide on a certain theme, we start recording sounds referring to this. Sometimes this can last for years.
For “Sulphur Spring” we also planned a certain instrumentation. The heavy breath of the organ. The large church room that we were allowed to use for several months was fascinating and the atmosphere was inspirering to us. But this had nothing to do with the sacredness of the church. A church is a building and it is architecture. We are interested in architecture and we value each building by its architecture.  Our female singer is a Buddhist. She had real problems to get along with the reality of the Lutheran church. The church was tempting her. For her, singing in this church was like disputing and argumenting. This kind of controversy automatically changed the music. It was almost inevitable that action demanded reaction. Those reactions could have been wild, also ironical referring to the reaction of the counter reaction. It was like a ping-pong match.
A free-jazz like music style was developed, without beeing free-jazz. The big organ or the trumpet were the go-between and the mediator. The atmosphere of this christian church sometimes created an animosity that the singer had to get along with. It happened several times that we reacted musically implacable. And she did the same. If you are disturbed by an alien atmosphere because religion is a pain in the neck, this can make you insecure. The recordings in the church were a challenge for us. This had a lot to do with those contradictions that we mentioned before when talking about Strafe F. R. Technically, the recording situation in the church was also rather difficult. Most parts of “Sulphur Spring” were recorded live. Live recordings are always peculiar and imponderable.
We own this italian book. That inspired us to do “Sulphur Spring”. It was published in The 18th century in Venice. Right from the beginning it was clear, only Caterina De Re could be the singer. She was born in Australia, but her family ancestors came from a place near Venice. She speaks both English and Italian language.

SD: Strafe F. R. show extreme interest in the socio-political and the evironmental issues – natural disasters, animals, hegemony, human conflict, and of course – religion and esotericism… Newer albums have a more explicit conceptual side; especially “Der Säemann”, “Lufthunger” and “Öchsle”… “Sulphur Spring” is the closest to these. What are your views of the world, especially the one we live in now? Which one of your records do you consider politically the strongest, especially on a personal level – which record reflects you the most?  BK: When the CD “Öchsle” was released, it somehow had two titles. The second title – “Bad people have no songs”, was an ironic comment. But we only use the main title which is “Öchsle”. Translated into English, Öchsle means “little oxen” –  but it also means something else.
There was Mr. Ferdinand Oechsle, he lived in southern Germany and he invented a small object (called refractormeter) to measure the must weight of wine. This is the natural sweetness of wine. This method is only used in Germany, Switzerland and Luxembourg. There are different measurements in France and again, different ones in England.
“Lufthunger” is a clinical picture and it also means “Hunger For Air”.
When you are working on a subject for more than 30 years, it is obvious that at certain time situations are mirrored. It is a quarrel with the particular Zeitgeist. It  just happened that Lufthunger was recorded during the time, when the first Gulf-war started. This was not the reason why we released this CD and it particularly had nothing to do with this war. Zeitgeist can push you into a trap.

Strafe für Rebellion’s “Sulphur Spring” is now available from Klanggalerie via http://www.klanggalerie.com

For archived work please visit http://www.strafefr.de

Neden is a beautiful palindrome. It is art and it is space – all resonate and floating, its vacuum graced with a new shiny star. The duo of Jan Jiskra and Adam Holub provided one of 2014’s absolute highlights. The soundtrack to a radio-drama with its main narrator gone missing, leaving the sound to tell its own story. In a sea of Krautrock-crazed virtuosos, Neden swim free and unladen of the influences that may be insisting on a credit. Yes, the most notable is the presence of a certain Eno spirit (to some extent even more fascinating is the duo’s leaning towards a certain Simon Fisher Turner), but not in order to emulate itself – Neden may be leaning on Eno’s “oblique strategies” theory but instead choose to live a life on the edge of their own “untitled” destiny – providing a fluid, impressive whole which should be rendered into the world of Jan Švankmajer or his equally gorgeous apprentice-duo, The Brothers Quay (or both) – the entire playlist of 12 is a sequence of short audio-extracts longing for stop-start animation companion.

This is music that deserves to be hailed head over heels – but instead, it somehow chooses to be this little treasure chest patiently pulsating from its own, isolated (panic) room. Naive, spacy and tristful, the record suits this year’s long (winter) evenings, sitting by the window, staring out into the dark, cosily wrapped in warm blanket with a cup of tea to go along and leave the mind turn pleasantly blank. Tranquil, never claustrophobic, with the absolute charm of static electricity.

Neden’s s/t LP is now available through the duo’s own Mata-Mata Records, linked to neden.bandcamp.com

Image detail: “Frozen silence” by Petr Bořuta