Once Cabaret Voltaire became a duo of Stephen Mallinder and Richard H. Kirk, after Chris Watson's 1981 departure, a notable change in the group's sound was undertaken. While still experimental, the music also became more accessible, a development first highlighted on the half of the 1982 release, 2x45, highlighted here before.
Then, when CV, which was under contract to Some Bizarre Records, signed a distribution deal with Virgin Records, and the group headed into the studio with noted producer and engineer Flood, who became qiuckly known in the late 1970s and early 1980s for his engineering talents, working on the debut records of New Order and Ministry, for example. Later, he became well-known for his work with U2, Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, The Smashing Pumpkins, PJ Harvey, The Killers and many others.
The result was 1983's The Crackdown, a great record, recorded at the end of the previous year, that retained that edge while moving a little closer to the mainstream (but, fortunately, just a little.) To this listener, it isn't just that the sound is cleaner, but that the layering of sounds is better put together and Mallinder's whispered vocals are largely left unprocessed and more immediately compelling. Kirk's use of guitar, horns, and a wide array of electronic instrumentation is also more effective with Flood's obvious input--yet, the distinctiveness of CV not just remains, but is greatly enhanced.
"24-24" opens the album very effectively, with its electronic hand-claps, washes of keyboards, steady electronic drum beat, sampled voices, and other layered synthesized sounds very cleverly combined with Mallinder's menacing vocalizations.
"In the Shadows" opens with something akin to a fog horn (via Kirk's use of the Japanese shakuhachi) to establish an ambiance, but the big twist is the ethnic percussive touches, and a compelling two-note element to complement the percussion. Mallinder's simple and repetitive three-note bassline, embellished with some variations, holds down the tune nicely. This song is one of several that amply shows the growth in the band.
"Talking Time" opens with an echoed voice calling out "5 minutes" and there is another great mix of sounds and a steady drum pattern to keep things moving smoothly while Mallinder delivers an impressionistic lyric quite effectively, with the mantra "It's just a dream to hold you down" almost meaning something specific, but not quite.
"Animation" moves into dance territory, though in CV's own idiosyncratic way and thanks to an assist from Soft Cell's Dave Ball. Kirk's guitar establishes a simple melodic pattern along with keyboards and that steady drum beat, while Mallinder offers another well-delivered chanted vocal and another simple, but solid, bassline.
"Over and Over" had previously been released, but this reworking is leaner, cleaner and more efficient. Mallinder's vocal is far clearer and comes out better, as well. That background of Kirk's distinctive melodic element on guitar is enhanced by some nice percussive touches, as well.
"Just Fascination" was the first single and it has an interesting ambiance coming out of the gate, with a kind of "spreading" synth line and a four-note repetitive keyboard pattern to define the tune. Mallinder's lyrics are interesting and deals with closed door sexual fantasizing in a detached, clinical way--with a bit of a startling line in "If they knew, you'd shoot yourself" to highlight the shame that results in being found out. Not the kind of lyric to indicate a hit single necessarily!
Then follows a satirical, cynical and off-beat "Why Kill Time (When You Can Kill Yourself)?", though, again, it's hard to discern a literal meaning in Mallinder's chanted lyrics. Musically, Kirk has another strong melodic line and there is a dominant repetituve drum pattern, as well.
Ambiance takes over on the compelling "Haiti," which also appears to include more of the found voices found on 2x45. Discordant horns, echoed keyboards, splashes of piano, and a background wash of electronic sounds create a mood that makes this piece stand out from the others on the album.
The title piece is one of the more effective on the record, with another simple bass line working well with the array of percussion elements, dub like rhythm guitar, and keyboard effects (Ball is on this song, as well) to accompany Mallinder's low-key, but menacing vocals. Towards the end, the tension building through the piece to the distinctive melodic line on the keyboard and then rises up to an intense finish and abrasive keyboard washes ending a remarkable album.
It should be noted that Alan Fish, who toured and recorded with Cabaret Voltaire a good deal in this period, had a hand in much of the percussive effectiveness of the album.
From the first CD release back in the early days of the medium in 1984 onward, The Crackdown was augmented by four pieces that were released in other formats and all of which show the hallmarks of the earlier Cabaret Voltaire sound.
"Diskono" has a strong percussive beat, almost foreshadowing, perhaps, the coming techno and house movement, but with its strange echoed effects, Kirk's simple melodic guitar line doubled by Mallinder's bass and the latter's very processed vocals like that found in previous work. This is a very effective tune, pre-Flood.
"Theme from Doublevision" is a haunting statement, made for the group's own video and record label, Doublevision, which was one of the first such entities for a "rock" group--the cover photo of Kirk and Mallinder with early and bulky video equipment reflects their interest in mixing their distinctive music with video presentations in a "cut up" aesthetic influenced by William S. Burroughs and others.
"Moscow" is another ambient excursion--very dark and unnerving, especially heard through headphones. A variety of processed and found sounds, distant percussive elements, disembodied voices, cymbal washes and other effects are strangely appealing. The influence of avant-garde music is especially obvious in tracks like these last few add-ons.
Which leads to "Badge of Evil"--this last piece sounds like it might have come out of some of the earliest Cabaret Voltaire experiments from the mid-to-late 70s. Kirk's eerie horn lines, another basic Mallinder bass lines, a subtle five-note rhythmic line, what sounds like struck bells from time to time, and a remarkable Mallinder vocal which sounds like it was recorded in a deep, dry well, make for one of the darker ambient tunes in the band's catalog. But, for this listener, it is a highly compelling piece.
The next album, 1984's Micro-Phonies would prove to be the "most popular" album in the lengthy and diverse CV catalog, but The Crackdown might be more complex, varied and diverse, if not as accessible and danceable. In any case, Kirk and Mallinder's controversial (to fans of the Rough Trade era) decision to recalibrate their sound was artistically as well as (somewhat) commercially successful--something that would be much harder to try to do in the EMI years later in the 80s.