“Within electronic music, not being romantic is considered normal. It’s become very normal to behave like a scientist. I find it a bit pathetic, people behaving as if they’re at the forefront of modern art, doing music which is like 20 years old.” – Uwe Schmidt, 2009
Earlier this week I finally got round to watching When I Sold My Soul To The Machines, a 2005 documentary about The Hague’s electro scene – if you’ve not seen it, you can find it here on YouTube.
The short film is an interesting source of information about how the italo and electro-oriented “Hague sound” came to be, but it’s also a charming character study: worth watching simply to hear I-F’s impassioned ranting about the hollowness of modern-day Christmas celebrations and Bunker founder Guy Tavares describing how he funded his early releases by pushing LSD.
The DVD was released by Murder Capital, the Viewlexx sub-label set up by I-F to showcase the work of artists like Novamen and Brothers Fuck. The name alludes to Den Haag’s serious crime rate, which towers over that of Amsterdam, and the label itself wryly revels in gangster and weapon imagery. The imprint has lain dormant since 2003, but last week it was quietly re-activated with a self-titled 12″ by Gesloten Cirkel, an artist who has no previous form that I’m aware of. Lead track ‘Twisted Balloon’ lives up to its title: it’s low-slung, bottom-heavy acid techno with the kind of freaked ‘n tweaked quality that could see it finding favour with the more open-minded denizens of the aqua-crunk set. The attention-grabber, though, is the self-titled track ‘Gesloten Cirkel’ – a peaktime 4/4 banger replete with cock-crows subbing in for rave alarms and phased strings that reference 80s synthetic disco and – probably unconsciously – early noughties grime. ‘Swedish Lady’ is flexing, warehouse-friendly electro while ‘When It’s Late’ is pure acid revivalism. There are no “new” sounds on this EP as such – but it is far and away the most entertaining and vital-sounding 12″ I’ve heard all month.
DJ Overdose is one half of Novamen with Mr Pauli; his solo debut on Murder Capital was a 2002 EP called You Don’t Trust Me. Coming from an old-school hip-hop and electro background, Overdose’s work has grown stranger and more compelling with time, taking on more and more inspiration from the spooked synth soundtracks of John Carpenter and the jeep-friendly sounds of Miami bass and ghetto-tech. This month he’s back with a mini-album for Strange Life, the label operated by Hague hero Danny Wolfers, AKA Legowelt [of whom more later] His first release since straightforward club jam ‘The Beat’ 12″ for Monotone back in ’07, In For The Kill is a revelation: the tremulous, beautifully interlocked Jupiter arpeggios of the title track and ‘Face Down In The River’ s represent a new level of sophistication for Overdose’s previously proudly thuggish sound: it now has that ghostly, hovering quality of the best Carpenter compositions. ‘Time Dicer’ and ‘Know’, meanwhile, summon Glass Domain’s ‘Hiccups’ and other instances of Drexciya at their most playful. Check out the vids above and below.
As you can hear, In For The Kill is an assuredly retro venture, but one realized so vividly and completely as to be very powerful indeed. In the otherwise generally rather tawdry inaugural edition of Loops Simon Reynolds bemoans early analogue synths’ “bygone ability to conjure the future in either utopian or dystopian hues”, and how their once-startling sound has become “contaminated with camp amusement”. Far from fleeing it, Danny Wolfers’ Strange Life label and associated artists confront and embrace the camp, retro status of analogue synthesis; in fact they seek to deepen and build upon it. Wolfers in particular uses electronics not to soundtrack the present or indeed the future, but to imagine the past – a past that never really was. Like the hands that guide the more complex and nuanced Ghost Box, Strange Life is concerned with “past visions of the future”, or to paraphrase The Caretaker, “how the future used to be”.
Strange Life’s releases are carefully – but not too carefully – constructed works of sonic fiction.
Strange Life’s releases are not only estimable musical statements, they’re also carefully – but not too carefully – constructed works of sonic fiction, the accompanying sleeve art full of visual and verbal jump-off points for the imaginative listener. Though rave in itself might be a narrative vacuum, those making instrumental electronic music have long sought to attach stories to what they’re doing – think of Drexciya, whose intoxicating if awfully confused aquatic mythology is utterly integral to their art’s success, and also the subject of this this very serious fan blog.
The more one delves into Strange Life, the more its resonances with Ghost Box become apparent. But Wolfers is more playful and less ponderous than, say, Belbury Poly; his subjects and the way he tackles them altogether more pulpy. He’s proccupied with sci-fi, spy and horror-flick aesthetics that err just on the right side of kitsch. Take a random selection of titles from the SL catalogue – Cultus Island, Stories From My Cold War, ‘Mystery Organization’, The Cambridge Library Murders – and the simple love of schlock is self-evident. The Cambridge Library Murders is perhaps my favourite release on the label to date. Credited to Phalangius, one of Wolfers’ many aliases, its track titles allude to a familiar world of quaint, country-set British detective fiction, and though of course meaningless they read like clues, a code to be broken: ‘Aulton Marsh’, ‘Snowman Theorem’, ‘Percival Pembroke C1’. Wolfers is obsessed with mystery; harking back to the kind of TV and B-movie storylines that innovative synth-players were once routinely hired to soundtrack on the cheap. Check, for example, the amazing dubbed-out radiophonics of ‘Snowman Theorem’:
Strange Life is all about mystery, then, and unsolved mystery at that. Computer World by Smackos (Wolfers again) bears the following note: “1985, somewhere in a not so populated area of the USA a lonely man decides to buy a computer. A dark and tragic story unfolds as he starts to program a computer game called Forest of Doom and people start disappearing from his small town…“ Or how about this, from another Smackos release, Waiting For The Red Bear: “The inhabitants of a small Canadian town in the middle of nowhere are convinced a soviet nuclear strike on their city is imminent… meanwhile the little town’s domestic airport is frequented by the mysterious Unicorns Airlines…something is going on but we don’t know quiet really what… can you figure it out!?” If you’re not charmed by all this geeky yarn-spinning, you need to get out more. Or rather, stay in more.
Not all Strange Life projects are so camp in conception: see Heinrich Dressel’s relatively earnest Studium Amphorae trilogy. A psychogeographic trawl through the waterways of ancient Rome, the first two parts of the trilogy, Mons Testaceum and Escape From The Hill, are out now, and the third is imminent – you can stream a number of tracks over a Dressel’s myspace. Listen and marvel at how weirdly effective queasy, post-Simonetti synthesizer music is at the job of evoking an era that was pre-electric, never mind pre-electronic.
This summer has seen the release of three excellent new CD-Rs on Strange Life, in addition to the aforementioned DJ Overdose 12″. Florenza Mavelli’s Special Brigade, another Wolfers confection, is archetypal Strange Life: the soundtrack to an “obscure Italian tv-series of yesteryear”, Uomini Brigata Specialle, it’s a gloriously slinky synth melodrama in the spirit of Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, with a certain pomp to it that might even remind you of Wendy Carlos’s work for A Clockwork Orange. Mono-Poly‘s Atlantic Storm, an unsettled suite of droning ambient that recalls Aphex’s Selected Ambient Works II and Mordant Music, was made using rare modular synthesizers; Strange Life justly compare it to Eno’s On Land and dark isolationalist ambient from the 1980s, going on to describe it as “essential rural ambient”. Speaking of, er, “rural ambient”, I was sent a copy this week of Symbiosis, the debut album by Demdike Stare, AKA Modern Love’s Miles Whittaker (MLZ / Pendle Coven) and Sean Canty. The record continues Pendle Coven‘s preoccupation with Pendle Hill, the site of the infamous witch trials of 1612 and an area generally considered to be positively steeped in the spirit of evil and ill-doing. I’m not sure I rate Demdike Stare as conjurors of the occult – mostly the LP sounds like Pendle Coven with an extra death-rattle here, an extra spooky wail there – but their music, like Pendle Coven’s, does seem to me highly adept at bringing across the gloom and sheer groaning girth of the industrially-scarred Lancastrian countryside. Or maybe that’s just the sleevenotes getting to me.
Let’s return to Legowelt. His recent Strange Life release, Amiga Railroad Adventure, is a Kraftwerkian rail and air-travel romance that doesn’t pique the imagination quite so much as, say, Computer Day, but sonically it might just be the most successful album in the label’s history. Check ‘Lufthansa 1983’ for burbling, jacking horror-disco at its very best, and listen on in wonder at ‘Ocean Arrow”s submerged rave vamps and the elegiac ‘Playing A-Train’ (echoes of Tangerine Dream’s ‘Love On A Real Train’ there). This is a wonderful album, and if you’re new to Strange Life, a perfect starting point; you can listen to reasonably generous clips at Juno here.
I was less impressed with Slompy Jitt, an EP of tough-as-nails Chicago-style box jams released on Delsin-affiliated M>O>S Recordings a couple of months back; Vatos Locos, an(other!) album Wolfers recorded for Creme Organization of club-ready, spaced-out electro-techno worth checking for growling, snapclap-happy closer ‘Kung Fu School’ alone. For me, though, Wolfers most interesting work outside of Strange Life right now is that which he’s making under the name Nacho Patrol. Don’t worry too much about The Maze of Violence II – an album recorded for Heinrich Dressel’s Minimal Rome imprint last year – and head straight for the Futuristic Abeba 12″, released back in April on Kindrid Spirits offshoot KSE. Opening salvo ‘Africa Space Program’ is dizzying in its brilliance: bringing razor sharp drum edits to bear on skronky organ and percussion that sound like they’ve been sampled from a classic Fela Kuti session. ‘Futuristic Abbis Abebbav’ is a similarly scintillating gesture of afro-futurism – I don’t know what more to say, the whole damned EP is essential, listen to the clips here and you’ll see exactly what I mean. A Hudson Mohawke remix of ‘Africa Space Program’ is reportedly on the way.
JULY/AUGUST TOP 8
1. Gesloten Cirkel – S/T [Murder Capital 12″]
2. Omar-S – Still Serious Nic [FXHE 12″]
3. A Made Up Sound – Archive EP [Clone 12″]
4. Demdike Stare – Symbiosis [Modern Love CD]
5. Shake – Levitate Venice EP [Morphine 12″]
6. Tom Trago – Walking The Streets of NYC (Actress Remix) [Rush Hour 12″]
7. Karizma – Groove A ‘K’ Ordingly [R2 12″]
8. Martyn – Megadrive Generation [forthcoming Hyperdub 12″]