Martial Canterel You Today

[Wierd; 2011]

Styles: cold-wave, post-wave, minimal synth
Others: Xeno & Oaklander, the Wierd Records catalog, the Genetic Music catalog

Ready for a little cold-wave 101? The movement began in the late 70s as a post-punk mashup of Krautrock, industrial noise, and new wave pop. Reflecting widespread disenchantment with modernity and the Cold War, independent bands across Europe began churning out icy anti-anthems of anxiety and malaise, laying them down in small runs on cassette as future documents of a lost world. For a moment, with newly affordable synthesizer technology hitting the market, medium and message collided perfectly. Synth-based groups like Absolute Body Control, Opéra de Nuit, Jacno, and Ruth (among others) seemed to turn the technological sublime against itself, at once embracing and critiquing the techno-industrial-military complex as a whole. Shaping electronic waveforms into chilly patterns of sound and noise, they stripped music of its human warmth and signaled, instead, the claustrophobia and impending meltdown of the technocalypse. Like all subcultures, though, cold-wave was celebrated as much for its scrappy DIY attitude as for its steely-eyed critical vision. We can certainly trace the snaky wires of high-art influence from the progressive avant-garde of Futurism, Bauhaus, and Dada though the postmodern cool of French New Wave and Fluxus right into the pounding amps of the cold-wave movement. At the same time, though, these bands thrived on the sheer amateurism of punk and the cheap minimalism of techno, and in the end created a sound that was at once high and low, stoic and senseless, otherworldly and immediately obsolete.

If you thought it seemed unreasonably cold this winter, it might be because we’re in the middle of a major cold-wave revival. Helmed here in the states by Wierd Records, but also making inroads in Germany, Belgium, Athens, and Australia, contemporary cold-wave maintains its ethos and its methods but, given the lapse of three decades, now signals retro cool and a steampunk-like relation to obsolescent technology. Leading this chilly front, Brooklyn-based Sean McBride uses only analog synths and multiple step sequencers, but he records and performs live with no sampling or overdubbing. His sound, in turn, seems unbearably technical and yet oddly affective. His interest in older technology is clearly defiant, positioned against the colder programming of digitalism, while his methods are decisively retro-humanist. As he claims in a recent interview with Prefix, “The true materiality of this music is what really appeals, its truly electric nature, the vulnerability of the instruments, the synthesizer as an ‘instrument with a limit.’ All these things purport a kind of humanness to electronic music; something we haven’t seen widespread in many a decade.” Warmth amidst coldness, the human in the machine — irony of ironies, McBride uses the dead technological forms of the past to create a thoroughly vital sense of craftsmanship.

McBride’s latest album, You Today, may indeed turn out to be the movement’s definitive statement. It’s not exactly an easy album to absorb, for it pushes the cold-wave ethos right through to its bitter end. The opening track, “Occupy These Terms,” sets the formula — emotionally, musically, and thematically — for all that follows. Blasts of industrial noise and a frantic beat set the noir-like scene. Then, two synth lines — one dark and plodding, the other manic and quick — push the song forward in a mad rush. Over it all, McBride’s heavily-reverbed voice sings of claustrophobic restraint and impossible release. Both singer and song seem locked in an abstract pattern of sound, one in which the search for a way out only reproduces the entire sequence. McBride flatly declares, “We’re joined in life/ Occupy some other’s terms/ We’ll slip away/ Against life, the dial turns.” Apparently, there’s no escape but through the machine itself, he seems to suggest, with the flick of the dial. At this point, though, release and restraint have become one and the same; each move forward is another move backward, and vice versa, all along the wires and circuits of the mechanical assemblage called modernity.

You Today is essentially an album about the difficulty of mapping this increasingly complex world and finding any meaning within it. Each song comes across like another frantic search, a series of false leads and wrong turns, for some elusive object of desire or wholeness. Its undeniable high point (or low point?) is the small triptych of songs that form part of the album’s first half: “Market,” “Sidestreet,” and “The Empty Sand.” The first, marked by quick arpeggios and giant blasts of noise, places us in the middle of a crowded city, where a man searches frantically for his lover. The second song is more cryptic, but just as anxious; McBride slows down the pace and opens up the intervals to generate a sense of uncanny mystery. Combing the side streets and alleyways, he sings, “A diagram half intact/ All I have a ruined map/ For I’m always lost/ Can I reach you?” The third song empties out the entire mix, generating a sense of inner space rather than physical space; here, we’re stalking the desert of the mind, or memory, looking for clues to a lost past. A spare knocking rhythm, a few pulsing synth lines — the song places us in the middle of “a range farther than its depth can be/ A timeline fraught with hours of mystery.”

With songs like these, McBride seems to have mastered his genre, finding within it new possibilities and meanings. But there’s a point in this music when the claustrophobia it purports to explore becomes merely claustrophobic. Ultimately, the album seems locked in a method that is, in turn, locked in the technology and anxiety of the late 1970s. It comes across as a dead garden of spliced wires (to paraphrase Borges) and, perhaps, in the end, its moments of pleasure are too subtle, too precarious to be of much use today. It doesn’t help that McBride shows little restraint when it comes to composition; there’s little room in these songs for a listener — they’re crammed with noise and rush by at supersonic speed, providing few points of entry. Of course, the collection’s oppressive qualities are part of its significance, and, if anything, McBride can be commended for embracing the movement at its most unforgiving. Still, importantly, the original cold-wave sound evolved via the new wave synth pop of the 80s — Berlin, OMD, Depeche Mode, and beyond — where its principles lived on in a series of more accessible forms. Berlin’s “The Metro,” for example, remained equally critical, but its mix was much more spacious and inviting, full of quirky rhythms and stunning melodic shifts; the song at once summarized and transcended the genre, giving it a wider audience and updating it for the new techno-consumerist realities of the 80s. I don’t want to begrudge his movement, or its critical significance, but it seems that the warmer pop styles of the 80s provided a way out of cold-wave’s chilly techno-labyrinth and set pop musical history back into dynamic motion.

Links: Martial Canterel - Wierd

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