Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Cabaret Voltaire: 2x45

In 1981, Cabaret Voltaire was on the verge of a sea change.  For seven years, the trio of Chris Watson, Stephen Mallinder and Richard H. Kirk had honed their unusual sounds of manipulated and processed sound and developed something of a cult underground following from their signing to Rough Trade Records in 1978.  This yielded a series of EPs and albums that included such early classic pieces as "Nag Nag Nag," "Do The Mussolini (Headkick)," and other otherworldly electronic works that placed them in a category all their own.

Yet, there was a feeling among the members that new directions were needed.  For Watson, this had more to do with a change in occupation, as he was hired as a sound recordist for a British television network and then later went on to do notable work recording natural environments for the BBC, as well as working in the highly-esoteric band/project, The Hafler Trio.  In more recent years, Watson, as has been covered once her, has released a series of fascinating albums, largely based on his years of nature recordings, and which challenge established definitions of what music is.

As for Kirk and Mallinder, Watson's departure gave them an opportunity for reinvention of the Cabaret Voltaire sonic pallette.  To those fans who loved the early music, their move to strip down the sound, develop more defined melodic and rhythmic ideas, and engage in less manipulation and processing of instrumentation and vocals amounted to nothing less than a commercial sell-out.

On the other hand, asking creative artists to stop growing and challenging themselves is just not realistic.  Mallinder and Kirk clearly felt they had done what they could with their earlier sound and that it was time to chart different territory.  Their first efforts, however, were transitional and are documented in the remarkable 2x45, which title speaks for itself.

Six pieces originally released on two 45 rpm discs, hence the album title, include one set done with Watson and the other with Kirk and Mallinder joined by guest musicians.  On the first trio of tracks, recorded in October 1981, the group is augmented with drummer and percussionist Alan Fish, of the group "Hula" who also toured with Kirk and Mallinder when they became a duo in 1982.  These songs include "Breathe Deep," "Yashar," and "Protection." with familiar attributes like the harsh processed vocals of Mallinder, the vox continental of Watson and the processed horns and simple spiky guitar of Kirk joined by a stronger percussive presence from Fish.

"Yashar," which was remixed into something of an underground dance hit, is tamer and more subdued on the album version, but it does contain the memorable sample from a 1950s sci-fi film asking where the 70 billion people on Earth were hiding.  The metallic percussion, Middle Eastern synth lines, and catchy bass line from Mallinder are the hallmarks of this tune.

"Protection" puts an emphasis on Kirk's squawking clarinet work, interesting vocal samples, and Mallinder's trademark menacing echoed vocals, as well as a swirl of sound effects and steady percussion from Fish.

The big change comes with the second trio of tracks, which were cut in February 1982, and featured drummer Nort and guitarist Eric Random.  "War of Nerves (T.E.S.)" starts off with a sampled explanation of a horrific form of torture, complete with the nauseated reaction of the listener on the sample, before the band moves into a relaxed and, yes, even funky groove.  Then comes another of Mallinder's disembodied and processed vocals, as more vocal samples abound and Kirk and Random offer interesting guitar textures.  This is kind of a spooky, trippy tune for a band with lots of them.

"Wait and Shuffle" begins with a strange processed vocal sample and an echoed synth form before Mallinder's two forms of simple, repetitive bass are joined by Nort's effective drumming and washes of wild guitar lines, Kir's tortured horn work, and sampled sounds complete the interesting textures.

But, the album's most interesting track is the lengthy "Get Out of My Face,"which has a hypnotic synth intro with military-like sample shouting before Mallinder comes in with one of his better bass figures and the guitars again provide notable and varied expressive textures.  Mallinder's vocals are less menacing and more whispered, though offered with plenty of echo.  The opening synth undercurrent continues, with some of an arpeggio joining in early on and more sax wailing found throughout.

There is a complexity in layering sounds on this track and the other two from the early '82 session that provide a signpost for where CV would be going, albeit in a funkier, more groove-oriented direction by the time The Crackdown was recorded in 1983 after a new deal was signed with Virgin Records and the band left Rough Trade.

2x45 is clearly a transitional record for Cabaret Voltaire, but despite the shift in personnel and the expected variances in sound, it comes across rather well as a single listening experience and was an honest attempt by Kirk and Mallinder to confront the transformation after Watson's departure.  And, they lost no time, as they moved into a phase through 1985 that saw them release some of their most interesting music, albeit to the concern of the fans of their earlier, rougher sound.

But, a change had to come and, to this longtime listener, it was a necessary and successful one.

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