Saturday, March 29, 2014

Richard H. Kirk: Step, Write, Run: Alphaphone, Vol. 1

From 1974 to 1994, Richard H. Kirk was a member of the great electronic group Cabaret Voltaire, but he also maintained a solo career from time to time, starting with the remarkable 1978 release Disposable Half-Truths to 1983's Time High Fiction, and a pair of 1986 albums, Black Jesus Voice and Ugly Spirit

After his CV partner, Stephen Mallinder decamped to Australia in 1993 and a last album, the phenomenal The Conversation was released, Kirk found himself truly solo and it seemed to liberate him.  Through the 90s, he worked at a prolific pace, though once when asked how he could release so many albums, he answered in typically modest and matter-of-fact fashion that the technology made it easier.

The 90s was also the peak of the electronica/techno scene and, though Kirk did not become nearly as commercially successful as such performers as Moby, The Orbital, The Prodigy, Chemical Brothers and others, he created a body of work that was highly diverse (in a world that could be immersed in a numbing sameness) and utterly distinctive.

Kirk's desire to put the music forward first and his resistance to image meant, among other things, that he employed a dizzying array of monikers for his many projects.  The most well-known of these was his Sandoz project, which began in the early 90s, with others like Electronic Eye, Nitrogen, Orchestra Terrestrial, and many more being utilized during the decade.  There were a few releases under his own name, as well, including one already highlighted here, 1994's Virtual State.

During the first part of that decade, Kirk created a label called Alphaphone that released several 12" vinyl recordings under more noms de plume.  In 1996, the Touch label, which has put out a number of Kirk-related albums over the years, issued a compilation double-disc recording titled Step, Write, Run: Alphaphone, Vol. 1.  While there haven't been subsequent volumes, this amazing album, characteristically devoid of any overt references to Kirk, reflects someone at the peak of their powers utilizing digital technology to create fascinating music.

The five aliases employed here include Papadoctrine, Multiple Transmission, International Organisation, Cold Warrior and Robots + Humanoids.  There are three tracks from the first, two for the second, one from the third, four from the fourth and three from the fifth.  Sequencing appears to have been directed towards a more techno oriented sound for the first disc and material on the second that moved in a more ambient direction.

The variety is compelling, with the Papadoctrine and Multiple Transmission material featuring the fastest material and highest bpm, somewhat akin to the 2-disc Nitrogen album, Intoxica, that also came out in 1996.  "Hybrid Energy" kicks things off with a bracing rhythm and lots of great electronic touches, including some percussive elements that keep things moving.  "Dreamreader" slows things down a bit, though there is a steady bongo and cymbal rhythm throughout most of the 10 1/2 minute piece and some recorded voices that break up the material.  "Red Menace" under the International Organisation moniker is somewhat slower and brings in some R&B touches.  A continuing Kirk motif dealing with religious preachers is emphasized in "Antichrist," a Multiple Transmission track that closes the first disc.

The second disc has more of the atmospheric sounds, samples and slower rhythms and beats mentioned above and somewhat reminiscent of Kirk's Electronic Eye work of the period.  An air of mystery pervades the opening to "Yellow Square," the first of four Cold Warrior tracks, before a repeated guitar-like riff enters and a steady drum pattern emerges, followed by another tribal percussive groove.  Another haunting opening brings in "Walk East" which, with its Indian vocal and tabla samples, takes to a stronger ambient path though supplied with a steady electronic bass drum rhythm.  The 11 1/2 minute "Witch Hunt" has a muted snare beat followed by a variety of interesting electronic sounds, some imbued with echo, and a catchy repetitive theme takes over highlighted by a bass-like element.  "Modern Art" has a flute-like opening interspersed with more spaced-out echoey electronic sounds, some of which sounds like it belongs with Cabaret Voltaire's 1992 album Plasticity.  The fastest rhythms of the disc are here, as well, with more cool percussive touches and a five-note pattern overlaid on a three-note figure on keyboards.

The Robots + Humanoids material includes "Indigo Octagon" which has a dripping water like sound and a single-note echoed figure, with a string-like background and other notable sounds over a steady snare.  Guitar-like riffs including a cool three-note one that stands out, nifty cymbal-like sounds, and more sampled singing voices make this a standout track.  "Paranoia" is probably named for its trippy opening with more echoed sounds deep in the mix and an eerie keyboard riff leading to a eight-note bass figure that sets the tone for the piece.  The closer "Moment of Truth" has a four-note opening figure that ends in silence before repeating and then joining with a higher-toned snare and an echoed three-note pattern and a three-note percussive accompaniment.  Later in the track more standout electronic figures, including that one that sounds like a higher toned violin bring the piece to a fade out.  Kirk's way of layering sounds is as well-developed on this piece as anywhere on the record.

This album probably encapsulates the diversity and variety of material that Kirk began to develop from the early 90s with Sandoz and which has largely continued to today, though he is not quite as prolific as he was in the years after Cabaret Voltaire quietly ceased working.  There are a number of great albums from his busy mid-90s period, including the aforementioned Nitrogen release, Virtual State, the Electronic Eye album, Closed Circuit, and the amazing Sandoz release, Dark Continent.

Step, Write, Run: Alphaphone, Vol. 1 is one of the great recordings in the 40-year career of a greatly underappreciated sound sculptor (Kirk has, many times, downplayed being a musician, so perhaps "sound sculptor" is more apt?)  Electronic music is often thought of as being one-dimensional, cold, and artificial, but Kirk manages in an album like this to show many facets of a form of music that can be more diverse and sensory than if often assumed with processed sound.  Let's hope he has much more to contribute from the evolving electronic palette from his Western Works Studio.

Richard H. Kirk:  Step, Write, Run: Alphaphone, Vol. 1 (Touch, 1996)

Disc One:  Papadoctrine
1.  Hybrid Energy  8:09
2.  Dreamreader  10:34
3.  Flesh Hunter  9:24

Multiple Transmission
4.  Low Load  8:22

International Organisation
5.  Red Menace  8:24

Multiple Transmission
6.   Antichrist  5:44

Disc Two:  Cold Warrior
1.  Yellow Square  7:06
2.  Walk East  9:35
3.  Witch Hunt 11:30
4.  Modern Art  8:37

Robots + Humanoids
5.  Indigo Octagon  8:10
6.  Paranoia  4:52
7.  Moment of Truth  8:50

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