The aesthetic of Cory You’s Vandalaze project, as communicated by album artwork and videos can make just as sharp a first impression as its music. While trying to describe to a friend the project’s style, channel-surfing across late 80s/early 90s kitsch, he asked if it fell into the vaporwave realm. “Yeah, but no,” I replied. “Less old Windows installations, more Rocko’s Modern Life“. The look and sound of Vandalaze’s latest once again rides the line between the exuberant and the grotesque, shuffling rubbery synths and jittery samples to a range of effects.
You’s deeply familiar with the history of post-industrial songwriting and production, as shown by the Covenant-style sequencing of “Icefade” and subtle but canny nods to early Puppy throughout Blab, but Vandalaze’s appeal lies in You’s ability to identify sounds and genres which have always been adjacent to that legacy, and bring them into a synth confluence which is far more open-ended. The bassline of “Fabrik Oblong” owes as much to Art of Noise as EBM, and the boisterous synth funk of “Omaha” comes across with wide-reaching technicolor appeal.
As with its predecessor, Big Diner, if Blab does have a failing it lies in You’s vocals, which often reach beyond his grasp, often sounding more like demo takes than official release material. That’s a shame, because it’s clear that You’s trying to leverage his voice as a key aspect to Vandalaze’s quirky ethos. At times this works admirably – the drippy distortion the vocals are pushed through on “Measure Of Time” fit the song’s mood well – but more often their production and delivery suffer in comparison to the capable instrumentation and production, as on the Max Headroom-like approach to “Wrong Channel” and the Jourgensen-style road-trip raconteurship of “Omaha”.
In the case of a project as dedicated to pure weirdness as Vandlaze (I wasn’t kidding about Rocko’s Modern Life: check the Nickelodeon-style “boi-yoings” mixed in with orch hits on “Wrong Channel”), it’s tough to say whether a sharper vocal delivery could run the risk of fouling what does work about Vandalaze. That question gets to the heart of what I’ve found so interesting about Vandalaze over the past few years: the spirit of You’s work is instantly recognizable, yet almost wholly unique in the contemporary synth world, and I want it to find the strange overlap of melt movie and after school special fans it deserves.
For a band so heavy on atmospherics (and whose name hints at being smudged and indistinct), Ash Code come across as clear as day on their third LP, Perspektive. Partially that’s a function of their often blunt and repeated lyrical declarations (“Give me my life back”, “There’s no mercy anymore”). But it’s also due to a canny sense for arrangement and production which delivers driving, full-impact post-punk instrumentation just as well as it does coldwave drama. The end result is as good a marker as any of how different sub-genres of dark music are intersecting in 2018.
Make no mistake, Perspektive is a dark and gloomy record, but the Italian trio behind it are able to bring to bear an unblinking and strident style of songwriting, buoyed by a knack for putting each piece’s weightiest passage front and center. Check the opening of “Disease”, with magisterial yet mournful synths set atop a foundation of alternately mechanical and echoing percussion. It’s the sort of synth tour de force one might expect from Ultravox at the height of their powers, yet Alessandro Belluccio’s tortured vocals quickly brush off external comparisons. The slinkier “Betrayed” isn’t nearly as portentous, but it pings a light synthpop melody off a trad post-punk bassline right off the bat to set up the structure Ash Code build upon for its remainder.
Despite the clarion punch of so many of Perspektive‘s highlights, it’s also a record full of the odd restraint and labyrinthine compositions which makes classic 80s coldwave so beguiling and inscrutable. The skittering beat of the title track draws in the listener but never settles into dancefloor simplicity, making the chiming refrains of Claudia Nottebella’s vocals all the more mocking and haunting. It’s catchy, it’s insistent, it’s a complete earworm, but it retains the sense of mystery that is central to music of this ilk.
Coldwave hasn’t sounded this rich and full-bodied since Die Selektion recently upped the ante (it’s perhaps no accident that Die Selektion’s Luca Gillian appears on the title track to offer backing vocals), and like that recordPerspektive has the core songwriting and gothic drama to justify its ambitious production style. Highly recommended.
Low Factor L’Oiseau du Désespoir
Young And Cold Records
The line between coldwave and minimal wave is one often obscured by synth pads and frost, and the latest LP from Montreal’s Low Factor shows not only how vague that border is, but also how easily it can be traversed to make a stylistic point. While never straying too far from a tersely programmed toolkit set out from its beginning, L’Oiseau du Désespoir manages to wring a balanced and engaging set of tunes, alternately stringent and florid.
L’Oiseau du Désespoir makes a good amount of hay from its outset as a stripped-down and decidedly mean sounding release. The often sparse and fatalistic arranging of drums and synth-bass which accompany Rubin’s vocals convey a Saturnian dissatisfaction which seems to be begging for a more expressive and cathartic vehicle (see the pensive “Waste Island” which acts as a representative introduction to the record). That hesitation isn’t necessarily a weakness, but rather acts as a telling damper on the pop melodies Low Factor are alternately exuberant about exploring and hesitant to show off.
It’s in the moments where L’Oiseau du Désespoir moves away from its melancholy moods that the kinetic potential of Low Factor’s sound is made apparent. Dancefloor-driven numbers like “Facedown” and “Souffrance Castel” (which offers up an especially fun, tropical outro) don’t vary so much from their moodier brethren in sound – the same thudding yet muffled kicks and piched up synth bass hold sway – only arrangement. It’s tempting to imagine a version of the record chock a block full of immediate bangers like these, but in all honesty their impact would be lost within identical company: their quick and desperate gallops full of vitae feel lively mostly in comparison to the record’s more taciturn numbers.
This manic back and forth betwixt unimpressed and over-stimulated synth numbers carries with it enough froth and tension to sustain an enjoyable (?) coldwave record, but the album’s final move, a decadent mix of off-tune synth melodies and warbling rhythmic elements, explodes the whole dialectic. “Terminal” tosses a barrage of off-kilter horns and synths at the listener which are simultaneously more expressive yet also more hamstrung than anything else on L’Oiseau du Désespoir. Self-defeat or savvy triumph? It’s up to you.
RadioVoid Violence Acts
While the description “antifascist industrial music for the coming dark ages” might lead you to believe Montreal’s RadioVoid were a chaotic and violent band, the sound on their recent 3-track Violence Acts is of a pretty subdued nature. Situated at the minimal end of the European coldwave spectrum, the duo keep things simple in their compositions, with sparse arrangements and limited building blocks. The results are monochromatic in nature, relying on rhythm and repetition more than bombast to engage with listeners. “Stones” opens with a bold synthline, but when a thudding kick and gated snares come into the mix it settles into a straight groove, with delayed vocals layered affectlessly over top. Late in the song a feedback drone is introduced, slowly growing until the already familiar drum hits have to carve themselves a place in the mix, changing the dynamic of the track considerably. “Secluded Sunset” plays it a bit more straight, feeling like a classic Mute records number a la the Normal or Fad Gadget, albeit with less manic energy and a more disinterested outlook. The title track departs considerably from the preceding songs, starting with a distant percussion loop that is slowly dragged underwater and lost by massive drones and reverbed pads, with only the occasional cymbal breaking through to the surface to remind you of the song’s origins. It’s interesting stuff, if not necessarily the most urgent or attention grabbing, dealing in implication more than immediacy.
Visions & Phurpa Monad
Dark music aficionados will likely be most familiar with Frederic Arbour as the man behind Cyclic Law, but he has dark ambient work of his own in addition to promoting that of others. Arbour’s taken up his Visions project for the first time in a number of years, and is doing so in order to collaborate with Phurpa, a Buddhist liturgical collective based out of Moscow who focus on ritual chants (never let it be said that you don’t meet life’s more outré travelers in dark ambient). The end result is a slow and weighty listen which seems to press in upon the chest and the soul, simultaneously crushing and liberating both. While never sounding either “stygian” or “cosmic”, Monad does conjure a sense of the otherworldly if only by pressing in on the senses to the point that one’s own self begins to feel alien and unfamiliar. Sonically, while there are slow moving harmonic shifts to be teased out of Monad‘s pads, much of its traction comes from the textural tension between its buzzing drones and the slow, gutteral timbre of Phurpa’s chants. Without ever reaching catharsis or release, the glacial back and forth of Monad‘s four pieces build patterns which aren’t so much rhythmic as cyclical, matching the processes of bodies adjusting to move, breathe, and function in keeping with the tones resonating from Phurpa’s throats without beginning or end.
True-schoolers need not fear: the title of Horror Vacui’s third record doesn’t portend a pivot to softer synth melodies and pastel croon vocals. Nope, Italy’s crusty deathrock troops are keeping things right in their wheelhouse (wheelcrypt?) with New Wave Of Fear: smoky guitars still hang above churning drums while Koppa bellows like a wounded animal. It’s a formula which has worked well for the five piece since 2012, and having reached the near Platonic ideal of the intersection of goth and punk, there’s no reason to alter it drastically.
The few distinctions between their latest effort and In Darkness You Will Feel Alright and Return Of The Empire are subtle: there’s perhaps a bit more reverb on the guitar lines and vocals, and the second wave goth rock genome the group have always kept in the mix is perhaps somewhat sublimated, taking a secondary role to the more blustery and swaggering brand of deathrock with which Horror Vacui ally themselves. Perhaps more significant is the shift away from explicitly political lyrics to a more insular and lamenting tone; the social realities giving rise to the anguish spelled out literally could perhaps be inferred, but that seems a stretch. A rare exception to the bleak mood is “Forward”, which takes a page from peace punk revivalists like Spectres both melodically and philosophically.
Musically, deathrock is sometimes torn betwixt its desire for atmosphere and the lure of speedy punk breakdowns. It’s a tension bands have been toying with since at least TSOL, and at times Horror Vacui’s reach exceeds their grasp: the abrupt tempo changes in “Behind” are (I think) meant to underscore the tune’s pathos but just end up causing havoc. Thankfully, things finish off with a great one two punch which cinches that aforementioned binary. Penultimate number “Don’t Dance With Me” is an insistent groover set with caustic solipsism, which segues perfectly into the miserable waltz of “Upside Down”.
Three albums in, Horror Vacui know their audience, know their sound, and know how to deliver the latter to the former. Deathrock may be something of a formalist exercise so many years after its inception, but with craftspeople as skilled as Horror Vacui taking it up it’s very hard to complain about that.
Sashcloth and Axes M.A.R.K. -13
While catching Sashcloth and Axes at this year’s Verboden festival, I was initially struck by the aplomb with which the California based one-man act was balancing noise and melody in his set. The distortion and density with which Richard Douglas’ material was delivered was a nice counterpart to the synth melodies and catchy rhythms which were also shaken in. I might have been missing the forest for the trees, though, as proper listens of his new LP M.A.R.K. -13 reveals how much of his style of synthpunk is rooted in EBM rhythms, some of which are shared with fellow new-school mutants like High-Functioning Flesh, going back to the genre’s most minimal roots.
The repetitive simplicity of opener “Hardware” is something of a feint, designed to prepare you for the phased synth sound which acts as a guiding thread through much of the record, but bereft of the stacks of drum fills and noise-blasted vocals which adorn much of M.A.R.K. -13‘s body. Once through the gates, though, Douglas is off and running pell-mell through an amusement park loaded with punchy body music rhythms and garish synth excess. Tracks like “A.I. 32” and “Breakdown” are build on rock-solid tempos which offer enough propulsion for the former’s sampledelica and the latter’s floorpunching vitriol to liftoff.
The pairing of simple and raw programming with barked vocals Sashcloth and Axes showcases might have some folks thinking of the likes of Spit Mask, but for my money the quirky stylings of Kangarot are a closer comparison. “Mind Waste” kicks along with a spritely and almost funky bassline, kicked off by simply programmed fills, but punctuated by Douglas’ guttural moaning the whole affair becomes woozy and disorienting. For all its lo-fi engineering, M.A.R.K. -13 displays an omnivorous appetite for EBM, funk, noise, and all points between.
The line between “synthpunk” and “roots EBM” is a blurry one to be certain, and likely has more currency with regards to personal histories and interests in music rather than any claim of objective aesthetics. Regardless of genre, Sashcloth and Axes’ brutal yet undeniably fun tour of the noisy electronics carnival hits the mark at the levels of both the dancefloor and the primal id.
A lot’s happened in dark electronics since Kontravoid’s last major release. The combination of darkwave and minimal wave sounds put forth on the Toronto producer’s 2012 LP put him ahead of the curve at that point, but the embracing of industrial and noisier textures in the broader electronic world in the interim has been significant. That Undone, the project’s first sustained release since 2013 (presaged by stand-alone 2017 track “So It Seems”) has been released by the razor sharp Fleisch collective out of Berlin speaks to how Kontravoid’s responded to that change. And yes, a marked EBM influence is apparent right from the start on Undone to be sure. It’s never been too far from hand in Kontravoid’s previous work, but tunes like “Hold Nothing” and “Not Your Dream” are kick-forward EBM bangers from start to finish. That said, Kontravoid hasn’t rushed into a wholly generic EBM template in seeking to update his sound. Plenty of the quirks of his original sound design and synth-work remain, offering fuzzy and bendy fun even as the rhythms remain strict. The combination of oddball synth squalls alongside new-school EBM fascination ends up being somewhat reminiscent of //TENSE//’s trailblazing work, but is also clearly in line with the more synthpop-oriented tracks on Kontravoid’s early releases.
Vanligt Folk Svenskbotten
Despite listening to the band for about five years, we’re still pretty much at a loss when it comes to describing Swedish trio Vanligt Folk. While their earliest recordings suggested a link to EBM, every subsequent release has pushed their oddball mix of sounds further and further afield. Settling into a striking combination of sounds that prominently includes IDM and dub, new release Svenskbotten still has the wry sense of humour of their earlier synthpunk material, but perhaps a little more laidback. “Kall Mat” pairs a springy, tropical electro vibe with punch vocals, the whole track revolving around a plain cymbal groove. “Kastas I Soborna” is reminiscent of The Bug or Kode 9, with a springy bassline that comes across as sinister, especially when peaky synth pads and and breathy hits elbow their way into the mix. Bookended with tracks that take distinctly opposite approaches: “Köad” is all whirring vocal cut ups and syncopated kick-snare patterns, “Lik Null” is filled with lush reverbs and rich keyboard sounds. It’s another distinctly WTF release from a band who consistently walk the walk of experimentalism, never settling for what they’ve done before. At this point it’d be foolish to expect anything else.
Discussions of post-punk (including those native to this site) often speak of its mood as if there’s a direct corollary between it and a certain type or style of instrumentation. Is it “dour”? Well, then of course we’d be talking about slow, low-key bass guitar heavy music. Is it “anxious”? Then we must be in the sort of up-tempo, groove and jagged guitar territory which lights up dance floors every few years. The latest from Chicago’s Ganser throws all of that out the window. Odd Talk has moods, to be certain – it’s a frustrated record, an uneasy record – but it reaches them with clashes in sound and an almost pastiche like approach seemingly designed to keep the listener on edge.
Some of the above restlessness in instrumentation and feel can perhaps be explained when the influence of original no wave on Ganser is considered, both musically and spiritually. Guitar and bass rarely speak the same language let alone move in the same direction on Odd Talk, and the results are disquieting from the start. It’s often left to the vocals, traded between Alicia Gaines and Nadia Garofolo to guide the tracks, and they’re rarely heading anywhere comforting. “Don’t disappoint, don’t overdo, don’t die, like, really die” Garofolo demands of herself in opening track “Comet”‘s personal reflection.
Brief interstitial pieces of music, some sampled (the bossa nova-type rhythm at the end of “YES NO”), some originally composed (the gentle synth refrain which opens and closes “Revel”), offer respite from the oppressive and clattering sound Ganser pursue, but that’s short-lived. The churning and borderline atonal fretwork of “PSY OPS” certainly feels like the musical equivalent of its namesake. A more permanent resolution comes right at the end, in the form of an out of left field shoegaze number, “Touch Insensitive”. The regretful and mournful lyrics which make up much of the rest of Odd Talk are still in place, but clad in Medicine-like garb some degree of succour is finally reached.
Their first full-length after two EPs, Odd Talk is far more fragmented and discordant in its delivery than Ganser’s preceding work. Ironically, that sense of fragmentation and difficulty gives the group a much firmer identity. Regardless of its apparently perpetual state of unease, the experimentation of the record’s construction give Ganser a new purpose and intensity.
Phil Barry The Inside Out
Phil Barry’s work as one half of the legendary Cubanate needs no introduction, and his recent work as Be My Enemy has shown his talents for stand-alone songwriting. His new solo release is of a wholly different cast than either of those projects, however. Crafted with effect and loop pedals and a single guitar (check the release page for details if you’re a gear-head), the eight pieces which comprise The Inside Out are ambient works of striking warmth and serenity. While the manner in which soft waves of tone and feedback are slowly woven back and forth initially reminded me of Nurse With Wound’s immortal Soliloquy for Lilith, as the delicate chiming of Barry’s guitar work unfolded, a host of more “approachable” names came to mind: Eno, Budd, and the more minimal moments of Robin Guthrie’s solo catalog. Although the record’s structure suggests an at least somewhat improvisational process, the clarity and precision with which simple but striking notes are struck across layers of analog warmth suggests careful consideration of the changes in mood any of those notes might evoke. The simultaneous vulnerability and confidence connoted by The Inside Out hits deep regardless of your level of familiarity with Barry’s far more acerbic work.
Corvax Fake EP
London-based industrialist Corvax is absolutely the kind of act you would expect to hear on audiotrauma. While the label run by Arco and Syco Trauma of Chrysalide encompasses a lot of different sonic ideas, Corvax embodies the angry, rusty aesthetics that we associate with the former act to a tee. There’s also a lot of off-kilter stop-start timing and sample abuse on the project’s first EP Fake that make the association abundantly clear. It’s a brash and punky effort that makes the most of the rage fuels it, with opener “I’m Fine… (Keep It All In)” coming out swinging with screamed vocals, gritty lo-fi programming and clanging percussion that gates open and shut to create dynamics. Follow-up “Anger Out” goes full rhythmic noise at the outset but quickly transitions to grinding bass and a suprisingly funky cymbal-led groove before a full-on hardcore breakdown with Corvax howling “Use my face as a fucking drum!” over it. Latter tracks “I Don’t Fucking Care” and “Get a Real Job” are a bit less overtly agresssive, but no less caustic in their delivery, although both feature surprisingly melodic moments of calm amidst the chaos. Coming at 4 tracks and a little over ten minutes, it’s a bracing introduction to an act whose rabid veneer belies some surprising emotion and vulnerability. Invigorating stuff.
The exact line separating death industrial from pure noise can be difficult to ascertain, especially when the former grows particularly dense and overwhelming. It’s not the most empirical metric, but there’s an underlying mood, part sardonic, part misanthropic, which at least for me, characterizes death industrial in this regard. Whether that takes the form of a record’s historical or philosophical framing or is just an unquantifiable meanness, the sense of control and drive (even if ultimately futile) which characterizes death industrial endures even amidst densely layered cacophony. That malevolent spirit serves Norway’s Dødsmaskin in good stead on their third LP, keeping all of Fiende‘s unearthly noise in uncanny order.
Dødsmaskin’s sound is churning, machine-like, and relentless; fitting given their moniker. Beyond the more classical machines of death industrial of all stripes has been concerned with for years, Fiende is apparently a meditation on the threat of strong AI, but the squalling throes of “Blod Fra Helvete” seem to speak more to primal faults in humanity which predate such contemporary anxieties (I can’t speak to the substance of brief spoken passages). A recurring motif throughout the record are drones, blasts of static, and subterranean pads seemingly being left free to roam but offset by rhythmic industrialized clatter. Whether through mixing techniques or arrhythmic quirks, these beats often feel out of phase with the rest of the composition, producing that aforementioned tension between chaos and structure. Are the klaxons which scream out over “Syndrom” emerging forms of AI attempting to get out from the shackles of their programming at the rhythmic base of the track? What’s the connection between the cricket-like pulses of “Den Nye Døden” and the power noise-styled pummeling which occupies so much of its mix? Damned if I can tell, but it’s all effectively unsettling.
I’d like to make some hay of the fact that Dødsmaskin are releasing “Fiende” on Cyclic Law after having their previous LP issued by Malignant, but I’m not exactly sure what this signifies. While the latter certainly seems an environment more in keeping with the duo’s harsh and unremitting style, could there be some hidden flourish to Fiende‘s style or construction which made Cyclic Law’s dark ambient ethos a more welcoming haven? If so, I’ve been unable to detect it. Even when closer “Posthum” brings some lamenting harmonic pads into the fold in the record’s closing minutes, crackling distortion ultimately prevails, effacing the briefest moments of calm into ash.