A Bum Trip Reborn

Blissed Psychedelic Freaks Bequeath Skykissing Guitars to Industrial Autopsy Aesthetes

Thesis: Industrial music, in its original late-'70s incarnation, was the second flowering of an authentic psychedelia. ("Authentic" meaning non-revivalist, untainted by nostalgia). There was the same impulse to blow minds through multimedia sensory overload (the inevitable back-projected, cut-up movies behind every industrial performance—attempts at "total art" only too redolent of 1960s happenings and acid-tests). And industrial, like psychedelia, believed "no sound shalt go untreated"; both adulterated rock's "naturalistic" recording conventions with FX, tape splices, and dirty electronic noise.

There were even direct links between the blissed freaks of the late '60s and the autopsy aesthetes of the late '70s: The precursors of pioneering London industrialists Throbbing Gristle were COUM Transmissions, who began in 1969 as an absurdist-primitivist cosmic rock group, evolved into a taboo-busting, tabloid-scandalizing performance art ensemble, then mutated into TG. There's also something quite Grateful Dead-like about TG, from the cultishness they cultivated to their habit of excessive self-documentation. Earlier this year, the gargantuan box set 24 Hours made available again Throbbing Gristle's 1979 cassette-only chest, which contained lo-fi live recordings of every single performance—all two dozen of 'em—TG had played up to that point.

Cabaret Voltaire, Sheffield Roxy Music fans who liked to dress sharp, probably despised straggly-haired, afghan-clad hippies. Still, the early Cabs lineup featured clarinet (shades of Jethro Tull!), while local fanzine Gunrubber compared their live sound to Hawkwind. The Cabs were huge fans of German kosmische rock (particularly Can) and loved Nuggets to the point of covering the Seeds' punkadelic garage classic "No Escape." The band's Richard H. Kirk used to describe their shows as "like a bad trip," and indeed "Possibility of a Bum Trip" is one of the unreleased goodies on Methodology '74/'78.

Cabaret Voltaire needle into your ear canal.
photo: Courtesy Mute Records
Cabaret Voltaire needle into your ear canal.

Details

Cabaret Voltaire
Methodology '74/'78. Attic Tapes;
Mute

Factrix
Artifact
Storm Records

The Cabs' box is part of a mini-boom in archival industrial: Alongside the strictly-for-nutters 24 Hours and a double CD by San Francisco's Factrix, long out-of-print records by 23 Skidoo and Biting Tongues have recently been reissued. Last year also saw a bonanza of vintage Cabs material: the classic albums Mix-Up, Voice of America, and Red Mecca; a terrific brand-new compilation, The Original Sound of Sheffield '78/'82. Best Of; plus the reissue of an older, even better comp of the early Cabs singles, The Living Legends. And in May of next year, Throbbing Gristle will reunite to headline and host "Re-TG," a two-day industrial-music festival taking place at an English vacation resort.

The earliest material on Methodology is almost 30 years old. And what's initially surprising about all this bygone futurism is how great it sounds as guitar music, given industrial's general rock-is-dead stance. Kirk started out contributing clarinet (harshly processed and highly effective, actually—the multitracked woodwinds on "Fuse Mountain" create a psychotic-bucolic vibe, like Popol Vuh jamming on a steel mill's slag heap). As punk kicked in, the Cabs went rockier and Kirk swiftly joined post-punk's pantheon of guitar innovators. You can hear Can's Michael Karoli and reggae's scratchy afterbeat in Kirk's choppy rhythm playing, but what's really distinctive is his trademark timbre: a sensuously brittle distortion like blistered metal, needling its way deep into your ear canal. Often fed through delay units, Kirk's sustain-heavy lead lines arc and recede through soundscapes that are soused in reverb yet feel curiously dry, evoking the dead echoing chambers of nuclear bunkers and underground silos.

The box's subtitle, Attic Tapes, refers to an actual claustrophobic space, the equipment-crammed upstairs loft where the trio—Kirk, Stephen Mallinder, and Chris Watson—would meet several times a week and "jam" with the tape recorder running. Methodology's three discs draw from hundreds of hours of raw music generated in the years before the Cabs' first EP for Rough Trade. A few tracks are throwaway juvenilia, but it's amazing how listenable even the sketchy stuff is. Creaky and homespun, early musique concrète stabs like "Dream Sequence Number Two Ethel's Voice" have an alien-yet-quaint quality reminiscent of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (most famous for their work on the cult sci-fi series Dr. Who), while the rattling synthetic percussion and soiled sheets of abstract sound on "Henderson Reversed Piece Two" could give electronic composer Morton Subotnick a run for his money. By disc three, we've reached 1977/78 and the archetypal Cabs sound is taking shape: hissy rhythm-generator percussion, dank synth-slime, viscous coils of reverbed bass, a stalking hypno-groove midway between death disco and Eastern Bloc skank.

If there's an element that dates poorly, it's the occasional recitative, typically Burroughs-blighted or imaginatively overpowered by Atrocity Exhibition-era J.G. Ballard. Just check the fetid imagery of "Bed Time Stories": "with dogs that are trained to sniff out corpses/eat my remains but leave my feet/I'll hold a séance with Moroccan rapists/masturbating end over end." (Mind you, it actually sounds quite effective in a flat, dry Yorkshire accent). There's a similar liability effect with the prose-poetry daubed over Factrix tracks like "Empire of Passion": "I want your sex for my display case . . . my swarms of sticky flies/gnaw away her ivory limbs."

The Art(aud)-damaged Factrix hailed from San Francisco—the major outpost, outside Britain, for industrial music. (Which sort of nails the industrial-as-psychedelia-redux theory.) TG and the Cabs played to big crowds there. Collaborating with local kindred spirits Mark Pauline (of Survival Research Laboratories) and Monte Cazazza (the guy who inadvertently christened the genre with his "industrial music for industrial people" wisecrack), Factrix provided the soundtrack for several multimedia shockfests. The most infamous involved dead animals grotesquely roboticized by Pauline—like his patented "rabot" made out of metal, electrical wire, and rotting bunny. This sort of audience-confronting art/anti-art malarky can be traced through '60s outfits like the Vienna Aktionists (pig's blood, self-mutilation, pagan ritual), all the way back to Dada. Factrix's Cole Palme echoed the famous flinch-inducing image in Un Chien Andalou when he talked of the group's desire "to take a razor to the mind's eye," while Cabaret Voltaire nicked their name from the original Dadaist nightclub in WW I Zurich.

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