By Cory Sklar
By Alee Karim
By Christina Li
By Dave Pehling
By Ian S. Port
By SF Weekly
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
We tend to link musical styles closely with fashion trends. It's now almost unthinkable that in the mid-'70s, when hair was feathered, bottoms were belled, and disco and classic rock ruled the airwaves, three gaunt young men were sequestered in an attic in Sheffield, England, grinding out unorthodox sounds with reel-to-reel machines and primitive noisemakers. By 1978, with punk in full swing, the fashions of the day finally caught up with Cabaret Voltaire. Over the next three years, the trio of Richard H. Kirk, Stephen Mallinder, and Chris Watson released a host of singles and three amazing albums for Rough Trade Records.
Now, Mute Records has re-released the seminal album-trilogy of Mix-Up, The Voice of America, and Red Mecca, along with a singles collection, The Living Legends. Listening to the four CDs, it becomes clear that this was a group way ahead of its time, one that prefigured much of the industrial, electronica, and avant-garde altrock to come. "Kirlian Photograph," which opens the 1979 debut Mix-Up, must have sounded absolutely otherworldly when released, with its walking bassline underpinning a bleating saxophone, angular sheets of guitar noise, and semi-discernable growls and yelps. The song is scarcely more familiar today, despite the fact that its DNA can be traced down the most unlikely lineage, from goth spearheads Bauhaus to the Bay Area hip hop collective Anticon.
The next year's The Voice of America found the band embracing a sound that was at once cleaner and meaner. The drum machine patterns are more insistent, the guitars more abrasive, the vocals more sinister. And the music keeps moving outward, emitting boomerang-like signals that are only coming back to us today: The Moog-y skronk of "Partially Submerged," part Krautrock and part free-jazz, anticipates Cologne's unfettered improv glitches, Radiohead's sprawling rock, and Aphex Twin's Dramamine ambiance.
By the third album, Red Mecca, Cabaret Voltaire's experiments became more focused, stripping away the excess flesh to reveal muscular rhythms. The record swings from "A Touch of Evil," a dissonant mash-up of synthesizers and bongo drums, to the funky slap bass of "Sly Doubt," a track as funky as anything Cabaret Voltaire recorded.
In 1981, Watson left the group to pursue a career in television audio production, and Kirk and Mallinder embarked on phase two, signing to a subsidiary of Virgin and focusing increasingly on industrial/dance hybrids. For a last glimpse back at Cabaret Voltaire's uncompromising origins, though, there's The Living Legends, a collection of the band's early singles, including the acid-soaked "Do the Mussolini (Headkick)" and the analog skank of "Talk Over." Taken together, these four albums show a group ably feeding off of punk's iconoclasm while refusing its generic ossification, blending Modernist experimentation with Situationist critique and rocking like crazy.