Collapsing New Waves

<!>1978, London: Tough to get any of those punks to shut up and listen, busy as they are screaming and being gobbed at. A nonplussed Daniel Miller, billing himself as the Normal, pens two mono-intoned, electrodrone un-ballads in response: "Warm Leatherette," a Crash-fetishizing anti-"Autobahn," and the tele-snubby "T.V.O.D." His deadpan acerbity extends to the label—"This is a Mute record" —that he stamps on his single.

2002, New York City: Another generation tries on the warm leatherette. Equally disdainful of hyper-inclusive rave culture and the Poindexter perfectionism of so-called Intelligent Dance Music, Electroclash, a compendium of tunes by local Casio-stoked fashionistas, hinges on dumb beats and cracking wise—for better and worse. As with any good put-on, these folks are funniest when taking the piss out of themselves; and like any sharp bit of couture, the quality of their cuts is best understood via a look at their predecessors.

The Electroclashers' forebear Miller never released another record as the Normal. But Mute fast became a haven for extravagantly morose and frequently low-living musical eccentrics: Early signees included the Birthday Party and eventual introvert superstars Depeche Mode. Earlier still was Fad Gadget, the lone, Miller-minded Brit Frank Tovey; by 1983, Berlin-based industrial troupe Einstürzende Neubauten had joined the ranks. Neubauten's newish Strategies Against Architecture IIIspottily revisits their '90s output, while The Best of Fad Gadgetsums up Tovey's '79-'84 career in singles and B-sides, plus superfluous remixes. Incidental, experimental, accidental, transcendental—all of it, some of the time.

Neubauten plot against a schnitzel stand.
photo: Craig McNab
Neubauten plot against a schnitzel stand.

Details

Fad Gadget
The Best of Fad Gadget
Mute

EinstŁrzende Neubauten
Strategies Against Architecture III: 1991-2001
Mute

Electroclash
Mogul Electro

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"Einstürzende Neubauten" translates as "collapsing new buildings." By the time Tovey penned the referential, not reverential, "Collapsing New People" for his last and best album, Gag, the fad of caustic industrial music culture seemed to have overwhelmed both him and his gadget. But in the meantime he had put his amachurlishness to the best possible use, translating the misanthrope's ghetto of the mind he either could not or would not escape into broodylicious, perversely exuberant electropop. (Neubauten, meanwhile, were stuck in Berlin.)

When he put his fingers to synthesizer—an instrument that he purportedly chose not as a formal or symbolic gesture, but as the easiest means to his expressive ends—Tovey merged his identity with that of his music. Frank imagined himself a modern-day Punch—he appears as the smirking puppet on his second LP cover—leaping headlong into the face of Thatcher's retrograde empire. The result: Bashed noggins, black eyes, torn ligaments. All Frank's. Audiences awash in freshly yanked pubes—also Frank's. Not to mention a chain of singles that ingeniously exhibited the lurching strut of an escaped marionette tripping on its own strings.

Or, as Tovey himself later put it, "a visionary/as blind as a bat." "Back to Nature," Fad Gadget's earliest song—which weds woozy, chattering synthlines to a loping disco beat—turns on its title's dual meaning. Modern romantic Frank ponders turning his back on musty bucolic longings, as he and his sweetie snog "in the shade of a rubber tree"—possibly grown from a seed, possibly made of old tires (or, perhaps, bearing the rubbers that catch one's seed). The number sputters out amidst the gleeful whooping of an analog jungle menagerie, Tovey's ambivalence coyly multiplied rather than resolved. Come 1983 and "Collapsing New People," Frank's willingness to play the clown for kohl-eyed antisocialites who "stay awake all night/but never see the stars" had clearly waned, though the beguiling pulse of his tunes had not. And so the disaffected kept dancing as Fad Gadget limped offstage and into semi-obscurity.

Einstürzende Neubauten, on the other hand, continued refining their explorations of sound forged from objects musical and otherwise. While Tovey occasionally integrated electric drills and razors into songs, Neubauten—even after embracing conventional melody—still assemble tracks from the manipulation of jet turbines, steel coils, air compressors, burning oil, and Blixa Bargeld's occasional whistling-teapot squeals. As their name suggests, perpetual, revolutionary action initially concerned the group more than toying with personal identity. This is the essence of the industrialism they subverted: progress without regard for preservation of the past or human individuality.

No small point, then, that the percussive thrust and clamor of their music was wrung from the physical and cultural detritus of a city in which unfettered movement was verboten, and whose main architectural attraction was the one everybody wanted to see fall down. When the Berlin Wall finally crumbled, industrialism obviously didn't stop short. There was suddenly room, however, for Neubauten to play at something other than politics.

Strategies Against Architecture IIIrecapitulates the band's quieter, snarkier post-Cold War period ('91-'01, specifically). Unfortunately, unremarkable outtakes and live versions compose two-thirds of this haphazardly sequenced and selected two-disc set. It's mainly on the inherent strength of cuts like "Was Ist Ist (Extended Version)" (a pounding, choppy nonsense anthem with words for sound, not meaning) and "Ende Neu" (a diminishing spiral of agitated percussion cut by mournful synths and thrumming bass cable, performed live) that Strategies IIIsucceeds at all.

As for playfulness, "Scampi Alla Carlina" and "Anrufe In Abwesenheit"—blithe conceptual exercises in which Neubauten caricature gourmet cooking and portable-phone use, respectively—take the impulse too far. Conversely, "I Wish This Would Be Your Color" and "Redukt" (both live) nix pointless affect to mix prettiness and the band's singular gift for bombast. The former, an improvisation, wrings longing from tension and texture from clutter; the latter drifts dreamlike into a bellowed, clanging chorus. Here Neubauten are playing with what's expected of them, not lampooning their past but coaxing a new direction out of destruction, collapsing beauty and cacophony.

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