Author Archives: Danilo Bulatovic

Jean Francois visage musique

Visage Musique: Montreal’s underground Synth alchemists

Jean Francois visage musique
Jean Francois displaying the white vinyl pressing of Golden Zebra’s 2014 debut LP

Montreal’s Visage Musique, have been a fixture in the city’s burgeoning synth underground since 2010. Six years on, the label sounds as vital as ever. Thanks to creative incubators such as Visage Musique, Montreal’s former title as the “Synth City” has decisively returned, with the successes and acclaim earned by local underground acts such as Essaie Pas, now too big to be ignored by Canada’s mainstream press. In anticipation of the label’s upcoming Brusque Twins release, the excellent new techno-infused EP “Trashbag” (released Apr. 22nd), I had the opportunity to sit down with Jean Francois Morin aka Dino Secondino: the elusive international playboy and unofficial spokesperson of the label. I spoke to Jean about the beginnings of the label, the importance of balancing aesthetic unity with musical innovation, and the challenges of running an independent label in Quebec.

DB: In hindsight, do you remember a formative moment that you became interested in ‘80s synth music?
JF:
“It all started with new wave, I was hit with it when I was 16. It was watching television at 4 in the morning and the video for the The Smiths’ “How soon is now?” came on. I was completely changed from that moment, I had no idea about ‘80s music. From there Siouxsie and the Banshees gave way to Pet Shop Boys, which gave way to more synth heavy music, and disco” Continue reading

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Montreal’s Synth Palace: The Sonic Exploratorium you’ve always dreamed of

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Peter Behind the ARP Odyssey

Last week I had the pleasure of conversing with Peter Venuto, artist, promoter and operator of
Montreal’s newly acquired Synth Palace. Despite being fully operational since November of last year, word has spread fast, dubbing Venuto’s vintage equipment rental resource, the city’s own “synth museum”. There is no hyperbole in this title. The synth palace boasts one of the largest collections of vintage and modern synthesizers, sequencers, and drum machines in the world. As a synth enthusiast it is hard for me to articulate the sense of wonder the aluminum insulated interior of the Synth palace inspires, as one is confronted with this collection of equipment. The entire history of electronic music, stacked upon dozens of shelves, towered over whilst the timeless minimalism of Oppenheimer Analysis’ “New Mexico” played over the speakers. I asked the Toronto native about everything from Venuto’s very first encounter with a synthesizer as a child, to the launch of his very own “Synth Palace”: the new cultural fixture in Montreal’s predominantly Francophone, burgeoning synth underground.

DB: What was the earliest memory you have interacting with an analog synth?
PV: “I don’t know if I’d seen an analog synth since I’d encountered one when I was eight at the (Ontario) science center. I still have very vivid recollections, a glass room, a pair of headphones, a Juno-106 or something, that took me to paradise and back”

DB: Anymore synth interactions in your formative years?
PV:I was a teenager around the time the Yamaha DX-1 came out, and at that time there was this mad move to digital synths. So all the knobs and sliders were eviscerated, and there was just this svelte screen. I wasn’t exactly that thrilled…a lot of my friends were spending vast amounts of time going through menus, and it didn’t seem that much fun. It seemed like they were spending more time menu-diving than making stuff, so I had associated this limited encounter with synths at the time”

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A Fraction of the Synth Palace arsenal

DB: How did you stumble across your first analog synthesizer?
PV:Analog synth became a primary feature of what I was doing by strange accident. My brother at the time was renting out some rehearsal space in Cherry Beach. Some hair metal band skipped out on their rent, and my brother emerged from their rehearsal space with this Korg Sigma, this synth from 1975! It was completely unlike any modern synth, amazing from a design perspective. There are two 360 degree joysticks on it, which is amazing because it riffs on the 70’s, early 80’s video arcade paradigm, you’re immediately tricked into thinking that your synth is a game. There’s this element of fun that is endemic with those very design decisions. The first joystick on the left would control pitch blends…whenever you moved the joystick up it would squelch the sound in one way, when you’d push down it would squash and freak out the sound another way, so you have all these gradients between all of that to really mangle your sound. The joystick to the right was entirely for the filter.

DB: Did you use the Sigma for any creative endeavors?
PV:Around 20 years ago I was recording music in my bedroom, I’d just gotten a small record deal on this label called Grass records, operating under the name “Slurp”. I was coming up with songs, laying down drum machines, chord progressions, some fuzz guitar and vocals but the Sigma allowed me another melodic line that was not a lead guitar. I just fell in love with the strange quirks and electric inconsistencies that create the character of analog sounds. The ergonomic joystick configuration of the Sigma completely abetted the sounds that I would then include on the Slurp “Classic Rock” album. It became my signature sound to use analog synth for freaked out psychedelic indie music. If I wanted to replicate them with other synthesizers, analog or digital, it would be impossible.

Spookey RubenSpookey Ruben’s “Modes of Transportation Vol.1″ cover art

DB: When do you think the idea to open a rental space first emerged?
PV: I was finishing this Slurp “Classic Rock” album, and wanted it to be fancy in a couple of aspects. So I thought to myself I have this Korg Sigma and that’s all over the album, but in a couple of parts I’d really love something that sounds like cellos and piano. At the time that was totally out of range, it was like eating at a 5 star restaurant. My friend Spookey Ruben had just been making his record “Modes of Transportation vol.1”. He had a considerably larger record deal with TVT/Interscope and he had an Ensoniq ASR10 60 bit sampling keyboard. I thought “Oh my god that could do anything!” I asked if I could borrow it for the month, he let me. That was the third thing [following the science center encounter, and inheriting the Korg Sigma] that consolidated subconsciously the idea to open up the synth palace. I knew firsthand how much a big deal it is for someone who is working on their music to be able to have the practical means to execute that into reality. Spookey’s generosity made that divine interface happen and incepted this concept of opening this space where people would be able to get their hands on these synthesizers and analog equipment.

DB: What is the Synth Palace’s philosophy?
PV: I wanted to create a place where people would have access. What distinguishes me from your typical collector, is often you get collector-itus, you know? People get really anal and just want to hold on to the shit. The number one question people ask me is “Why are you doing that? People will
damage the equipment and it’ll be a big nightmare”. I have a general belief in humanity. If people in the situation know what’s up, they will understand that just like a library if you’re careful with the stuff and bring it back, it’s there for the community. Particularly in a city like Montreal, people are more community conscious than in larger cities. I encounter a certain respect here that goes beyond just being polite.

Rainbow PalaceVenuto’s performance space “Rainbow Palace” pictured above

DB: How was that transition to becoming a collector?
PV: The actual collecting, you never set out to do that consciously. It became conscious around 5 years ago, when I was operating my event space in Kensington Market in Toronto called “rainbow palace” and I was doing pretty good business. That was creating the flow to make that final leap, which was to try and get my hands on the pricier synths. The classic classics like the Jupiter 8, the PPG 2.2, the ARP 2600, the Buchla…I thought to myself these things are never going out of style, there will always be a demand to come face to face with the genuine article.

DB: Do you see a resurgence, this analog synth revival?
PV: I think that’s happening right now with Korg and Roland reissuing the Odyssey and making affordable versions, or even the modules, the Jupiter 8…this is proof positive to the fact that love for these sounds is never going to go away. What I have to offer is what a lot of people forget. More than half the joy is the actual user interface themselves. Like I was saying before “Let’s throw two 360 degree joysticks and see what people do with that!” These classic analog synths each have different user interfaces, each time you will have a different user experience, this informs the music that will be generated. We are haptic physical beings, computers create the illusion that we only exist from the neck up.

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Buchla 200e on full display

(On VSTs and artistic agency)
PV: You can get all those sounds off your computer with VST (Virtual studio technology) and I do celebrate that. For example John Maus’ “We must become the pitiless censors of ourselves” that was all done with VSTs of classic synths and I love that album to death, it’s a masterpiece. However when he’s asked if he would you like to get his hands on the real thing, of course he would! But to facilitate the fact that he’s a touring musician this allows him to continue to make music in hotel rooms or wherever he happens to be, couldn’t support that more. If you’re a good musician you’ll work with whatever you’ve got, but 99/100 would want to get their hands on the actual thing. The sound is better and you’re working within another haptic universe where you are not tethered by a mouse. It’s exciting to see what people are going to do with a synthesizer from the 80s but coming from a 21st century mindset, it never ceases to amaze me what new tricks or devices these machines will be put to.

DB: When did you become involved in Montreal’s minimal synth music community?
PV: While operating the “Rainbow palace” I was able to throw an event with a couple of friends Emad Dabiri and Jubal Brown, called “Shitfun”. The first one we did together was Martial Canterel doing an after-party. I was thrilled as a huge Xeno and Oaklander fan. That party was a catalyst for a more focused idea, which was to expose minimal synth music from Montreal to Toronto audiences. I saw Marie Davidson play at Pierre Guirineau’s space while visiting. I was just transfixed, this tremendously charismatic seemed to have a nervous breakdown on stage. It was the first time outside of maybe hearing Brigitte Fontaine that I heard something so perplexing, it was drawing you closer by creating a sense of distance. That same night I was looking to book her for “Cold Rainbow” one of the events I did. Marie Davidson and Essaie Pas did a double bill one night. Amazing dark luminary figures like Low Factor played as well.

Low Factor @ Rainbow Palace 2013Montreal’s Low Factor performing behind Venuto’s electric rainbow machine at the rainbow palace in 2013

DB: How did the switch from rainbow to synth palace here in Montreal occur?
PV: There were inherent problems in running an after-hours space, namely cops come by checking if there are illegal sales, even if there aren’t it just kills the buzz. I found there was no good way of circumventing that. I thought to myself I should really find something to segue into, and that’s whenever I was putting the final touches to the collection. The memory from the science center converged with this freak occurrence of getting this metal band’s analog synth, and I thought it might be a good idea to transfer to this synth palace idea.

DB: What is it about Montreal that fosters this return to analog synth?
PV: It was an interesting position for me as an Anglophone at the Marie Davidson show, it wasn’t important so much the content, but the delivery, the enunciation, the raw emotion attached to it. Coldwave, minimal synth is endemically in large parts a French phenomenon. The music came primarily from France, Belgium, it’s only fitting that Montreal is a prime location for its renaissance. It’s got Police des Moeurs, Essaie Pas, Low Factor, Litige, Xarah Dion, Violence and many others. When I go to Toronto, it’s not like I can go to a “casa”, or a “la vitrola” and see a coldwave act any given week. We’re really spoiled for choice here. It’s particularly interesting in a place like Quebec where there’s this cultural isolation, but all these things are eviscerated when you are watching or listening to this music, you can immediately lose track of where you are and when you are.

DB: How do you describe this retro-futuristic impulse to re-incorporate the original analog sound into contemporary music?
PV: Both time frames are having a discourse or dialogue, it may seem like we (the present) have the dominant position if you can talk about it in such terms, but it’s actually the other way around in this genre. I find it interesting that we have total command over the musical spectrum, and we can come up with anything that can be thought of, yet there’s something in us that we find tremendously aesthetically pleasing that we return to a perspective that was generated in the early 80’s. It’s that moment of time that persists and still has aesthetic inertia and power, 30 years later.

– Danilo Bulatovic

Visits to the synth palace are by appointment, contact Peter here

Danilo hosts Computer Sourire, a show about synth-driven music, every Tuesday at 4pm on CJLO 1690AM

Rational+Youth

A Canadian minimal wave retrospective: Rational Youth’s Cold War Night Life (1982)

  Rational Youth’s 1982 full length debut “Cold war night life,” released by the fiercely independent YUL records exactly 34 years ago this month, was Canada’s first purely synth-pop release. The album stands in contrast with the more experimental impulses and synth abstractions of countrymen Ceramic Hello and IKO while also serving as the most accessible and commercially viable release of the genre. “Cold War night life” is Canada’s quintessential synth pop album rubbing shoulders with classic releases by European juggernauts such as Kraftwerk’s “Computer World” (1981), Fad Gadget’s “Under the Flag” (1982), and Human League’s “Dare” (1981). A substantial amount of the album’s 20,000 units were sold in Europe, making it one of the nation’s largest selling independent releases.

Cold war night lifeOriginal 1982 “Cold War Night Life” album artwork

  Despite the band’s Montreal origins, Rational Youth’s European connection remained significant. The band’s formation corresponded with the abrupt changes and experimentation that was taking place in the European new wave subculture at the beginning of the ‘80s. Rational Youth co-founder Tracy Howe’s music career began as the vocalist and drummer of various Montreal punk and new wave acts including The Normals and Heaven Seventeen, who were widely credited as being one of the first punk groups to incorporate synthesizers into their sound. Howe met University of Toronto student and fellow synth enthusiast Bill Vorn in the summer of 1981 and together the pair formed Rational Youth, allegedly taking their name from Canada’s National Youth Orchestra. In contrast to the long-standing tradition of the nations’ premier classical institution, the two were en route to consolidate new generic sounds and conventions in pop music. Vorn and Howe, just like their European peers across the pond, belonged to a generation of musicians who were racing to pawn their electric guitars for synthesizers and drum machines.
Normals_(rational youth)Tracy Howe’s punk group “The Normals” pictured in 1979

  Cold War Night Life is a particularly nuanced album, musically and thematically. Rational Youth’s debut manages to balance dancefloor-ready pop sensibilities with cold war paranoia, caricatured hedonism with existential dilemma. The percussive structure of the record is provided by the iconic Roland TR-808 whose punchy staccato timbre (as would be established by its influence on house and techno) demands movement on the dance floor. Synthetic drum beats provide the framework above which harmonised, arpeggiated synth melodies soar and recede in familiar verse-chorus-verse pop structures on opener “Close to Nature.” The hopeful sincerity of “Just a sound in the night” appears to be a nod to Phil Oakey’s soulful vocals on Human League’s “Open your heart.” The lyrics on this track imagine a planet on the verge of nuclear destruction, wary of fellow humans and the material world; ultimately, the vocalist concedes that he prefers to remain “Close to Nature.” Second track “Beware the Fly” casually name drops Nietzsche in a cautionary limerick on the dangers of being too introspective. Leon Trotsky joins the ranks in another refrain about his Mexican vacation gone wrong, a casualty of being too true to one’s values. The band’s ability to craft songs that vacillate between sincerity and irony comes to the forefront, clearly apparent in the bizarre moralisations of “Beware the Fly.”
Rational_YouthPortraits from the 1983 line up consisting of: Tracy Howe, Kevin Komoda, Denis Duran and Angel Calvo once signed to Capitol records

  Rational Youth retain the hopelessness and lapsed idealism of the Reagan years that is perhaps residual from Howe’s punk background without ever taking themselves seriously. This is particularly apparent on stand out single  “Saturdays in Silesia.” This dance floor favourite illustrates the austere no-man’s land caught between two super powers: an anthem of political hopelessness and hedonist pleasures that references the mortality of all living things, providing a thematic curveball that stands at odds with the song’s raucous dance beat.

YULPromotional image 1982

Lines such as “working in a big hole just to pay the rent man” may ring too close to home to an entire generation of millennials, but should only serve to strengthen your resolve to “put on your cardboard shoes” and let Rational Youth take you “where the music is loud.” As cold war rhetoric rears its ugly head in political discourse, it is no surprise that Rational Youth’s unique brand of sardonic well-crafted synth-pop appears to be as relevant as ever. The recently reactivated YUL records, operated by former the band’s former manager Marc Demouy, reissued their entire discography in 2011 including newer versions of “Cold war night life” singles “Dancing on the Berlin wall” and “City of night.”

Early performance of Saturdays in Silesia

– Danilo Bulatovic

Danilo hosts Computer Sourire, a show about synth-driven music, every Tuesday at 4pm on CJLO 1690AM

IKO 83

A Canadian minimal wave retrospective: IKO “83 (1982)

The story of Montréal’s IKO fits within a familiar narrative shared by many early synth acts: a single release followed by a few decades of dormancy, awaiting acclaim that would come decades overdue. Just like fellow synth pioneers Ceramic Hello, the legacy of these acts is felt most strongly in their influence on the more successful groups and subgenres that followed them both locally and internationally. The bands themselves, however, remained virtually non-existent.
IKO 83Early promotional image photocopied from a newspaper clipping

Thirty years later IKO is credited as one of the first ever entirely electronic bands, formed in the corridors of University of Montréal’s electroacoustic department by three Kraftwerk enthusiasts who went by the pseudonyms Zao (Jean Décarie), U-gen (Eugène Delage) and Dax (Daniel Laberge). Criminally underappreciated in its time, IKO released a debut record entitled “83” in 1982 on the now-defunct Montréal disco label Manhattan-Formula. According to synth player Daniel Laberge, aka Dax, the band’s debut LP was doomed by a dispute between the local label and Polygram, causing the giant to stop international distribution of the record. Without any sales or airplay, petty administrative hurdles paralyzed the group’s creativity and the disillusioned artists disbanded shortly after the record launch.

IKO 83 original album coverOriginal 1982 album artwork

Consequently, rediscovering IKO’s 83 may be a bittersweet experience. It’s difficult to shake the what-if implications from a record whose music was as potent and innovative as IKO’s, only to be thwarted by bureaucratic incompetence. The unrealised commercial potential of the 1982 album is clear on tracks “Elevator” and “Gonadotropic synthesis,” whose catchy synth melodies are reminiscent of early Human League and the Belgian group Telex. IKO never loses its sense of humour with the monotone vocal delivery and lyrics working contrapuntally above the synth melodies. “Are you on dee other side of dat door” the vocalist proclaims in deadpan Germanic intonation on opening track “Elevator”. On “Gonadotropic Synthesis,” the lyrics cautiously flirt with sincerity, describing sexual arousal in purely medical terms over a particularly coy and meandering synth melody.
AndroidsEarly incarnation of the band as the “Androids”

A tangible sense of impatience runs through most of the record, highlighted by the overlapping synth melodies and driving up-tempo beats that exemplified the band’s innovative techniques in drum programming on the Roland TR606. Just as the record title 83 may imply that IKO is concerned with sounds of the near future, it also serves to render the familiar unfamiliar. This title, in a cruel instance of irony, may indicate a humble anticipation of longevity at least until the following of the record launch (1983). Fittingly, the songs appeal to a sense of travel both in name (“Subway 49,” “Approach on Tokyo,” “Digital Delight”) and form, with an emphasis on technological progress and musical innovation. The abrasive experimental instrumentation and reverberated shouts on “Communication off” resonate with early D.A.F, the song standing alone as an important example of proto-EBM (Electronic Body Music). IKO’s use of the TB-303 bass synth on “Approach on Tokyo” and “Digital Delight” appears to almost anticipate techno. As Dan Nixon of Dummy Magazine points out, the synth-wave influences of IKO on Detroit techno are uncanny when one pitches down Cybotron’s 1983 hit Clear”. IKO manages to reconcile the band’s synthpop and coldwave sensibilities of peers such as Rational Youth (Montréal) and Spoons (Toronto) while bracketing the structure associated with them. Accordingly, the band keeps its other foot in the unexplored realm of Hi-NRG dance music.

Third track from the acclaimed album

Following a series of bootlegs IKO’s debut album was reissued by the Seattle label Medical Records in September 2014, a full 32 years after its initial launch. The mythology of this record as a minimal synth gem that bridges divisions between synthpop, EBM and techno holds true with the Canadian museum of music estimating the original pressing of the LP at $500.

– Danilo Bulatovic

Danilo hosts Computer Sourire, a show about synth-driven music, every Tuesday at 4pm on CJLO 1690AM

Ceramic Hello

A Canadian minimal wave retrospective: Ceramic Hello’s Absence of a Canary (1981)

When the long-defunct Burlington label Mannequin Records pressed their original run of 1000 copies of 1981’s Absence of a Canary, it seemed unlikely that anyone could foresee the legacy of this record three decades later. Elusive minimal synth duo Ceramic Hello, consisting of Roger Humphreys and ex-Spoons keyboardist Brett Wickens, had a short and mysterious run as a band.
Ceramic HelloOriginal album artwork for Ceramic Hello’s “Absence of a Canary” (1981)

Ceramic Hello’s few releases (a single in 1980 and an LP in 1981), both released in limited quantities, and their lack of live performances are all factors that placed an exclamation mark next to the seminal minimal synth LP Absence of a Canary when discovered by electro fetishist and cratediggers, long after the band had dissolved.

The mythology of this album persists domestically and abroad after two comprehensive reissues, one by the German label Vinyl on Demand in 2006, and the other by the Toronto based Suction records in 2012. The longevity of Absence of a Canary, as Matthew Samways of Halifax based minimal wave label Electric Voice can attest to, is owed to its sound being unique to a moment of bold DIY experimentation that struck during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Ceramic Hello seized the sonic potential of newly-available equipment at the time, such as the Roland CR-78 and Korg MS-20. A borrowed TEAC 8-track brought the recording studio into the bedrooms of Wickens and Humphreys in unassuming Burlington, ON. This pastoral suburban setting and lack of resources spoke to the record’s unique minimalism. Absence of a Canary is earnestly influenced by the works of Brian Eno (Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy), Gary Numan, and Kraftwerk.

Climactic NouveauxThe Climactic Nouveaux 7″ is the third release from Burlington’s Mannequin records, which operated in the early 80’s with a staff of one.

However, this simplicity is misleading. Despite the minimalist production, the eclecticism displayed on the album’s 14 tracks makes Ceramic Hello’s strange brand of jagged synth pop hard to digest upon first listen. Just as the title of the album may ominously allude, we the listeners are the canaries in the coalmine exploring novel, and often austere sonic textures, together with Wickens and Humphreys as our guides. Behind slow chugging beats, wailing synths compete with Wickens’ vocals on the opening track The Diesquad. Half of the tracks on the record are instrumental pieces, which range from overtly grotesque synthesized horns on StatiCarnival to the triumphant ebb and flow of Grey Man. Humphreys, presumably influenced by John Foxx and the newly established Mute label, seized the records’ instrumental breaks as a means to inflect the synth tunes with classical influences.

This is particularly heard in the latter half of the record, with the track Trio giving the song a disquieting timelessness that sits at odds with the claustrophobic frigidity on the track previous, Ringing in the Sane. Absence of a Canary never lulls listeners into a passive state, the promise and vulnerability of Footsteps in the fog is abruptly shattered by the next track, sustaining a sense of volatility that persists until the closing Dig that crazy beat. Ceramic Hello’s deranged bedroom synth pop delivers visions of a dystopic future from the confines of suburban Ontario. The synesthetic characteristic of the music is no surprise considering Wickens’ parallel design career, going on to work on LP covers of more commercially successful peers including Joy Division, Peter Gabriel, New Order, and Ultravox.
OMD architectureWickens would go on to design various album covers for Orchestral Manoevres in the Dark including their 1981 LP “Architecture and Morality”

It’s doubtful that Humphreys and Wickens knew that with their original 1000 copy run of Absence of a Canary they would be contributing to a long-term movement for public attention and acclaim 30 years later. I am delighted that Absence of a Canary has been uncovered and hope it will continue to merit the attention it deserves as a pioneering Canadian minimal synth record.

The 9th song off the album, “Footsteps in the Fog”

– Danilo Bulatovic

Danilo hosts Computer Sourire, a show about synth-driven music, every Tuesday at 4pm on CJLO 1690AM

Minimal Wave Logo

Analog dance of the Sincere and Synthetic:

When one talks about music genres today, a discussion of the merits of such categorization schemes is never too far away. The terms that used to guide you through the aisles at your local HMV and informed your consumption of music: terms like pop, rock, metal, and electronic now seem hopelessly vague and clunky. If you’ve ever been asked to describe the sound or genre of an artist to a friend, you are well aware of how insufficient this language may feel in describing something as ephemeral and affective as music.

Minimal Wave LogoLogo for Vasicka’s New York based Minimal Wave labeled devoted to re-releasing lost synth driven music from the late 70’s to early 80’s

Alternatively, you may be overwhelmed by the endless distinctions made by audiophiles in claiming nuance between genres, where the suffixes –wave or –core are endlessly attached in a bid for cultural capital. Considering the slew of short-lived micro-genres of the past decade (witchhouse, seapunk, bubblegum-bass), it is not uncommon that claims to a new genre are often met with eyes rolling and music blogs immediately speculating, “is it here to stay?” Whereas these sub-genres emerged from the forefront of cultural trends, few genres are labeled 40 years after their sound developed with the purpose of reviving the work of artists from a subculture that was never properly singled out from under the broad umbrella of new wave music.
Minimal Wave - Vasicka ImageVasicka showcasing the 2011 Hidden Tapes compilation featuring rare, unreleased minimal wave tracks from around the world ’79-’85

  Veronica Vasicka launched the Minimal Wave record label/web-based restoration project in 2005 for the purpose of re-releasing and re-mastering obscure, dark, and synth-driven music from the late ‘70s to the early ‘80s. Her original website, minimalwave.org, quickly garnered a cult following amongst synth enthusiasts as a platform where obscure recordings, scanned images, translated reviews, and transcribed interviews could be archived. The term “minimal wave” entered the lexicon of synthwave enthusiasts as a sub-genre that shared characteristics with coldwave (the French appendage of post-punk from the late ‘70s) and minimal synth (early, minimally-produced synth music).

Minimal Wave - OhamaCanadian minimal synth pioneer Ohama in his home studio circa ’83

The genre of music characterized by its use of drum machines, simple pre-MIDI synth instrumentation, and “themes of sincere, rather than ironic detachment”. These attributes are packaged with a DIY punk sensibility, often recorded in homes and basement studios. The self-released and limited distribution of these tapes and cassettes is as much a defining feature of the minimal wave aesthetic as its sonic characteristics. Minimal wave places the electronic hardware and sequencers commercially available during the early ‘80s at the foreground of the recording and embraces their novel, synthetic sounds: the mechanical beats and tinny melodies that some today may dismiss as ‘80s kitsch. This overtly synthetic instrumentation combined with themes of sincerity in the lyrics and vocal performances accounts for the genre’s idiosyncratic philosophy on the relationship between man and machine. It is no surprise that the late ‘70s popularity of science fiction and the avant-garde Constructivism and Futurism movements combined to influence the minimal wave’s distinct formula of the sincere and the synthetic.

Minimal Wave - Linear MovementBelgian group Linear Movement’s album artwork for their “On the Screen’ LP

     Seminal synth duo Oppenheimer Analysis were the first to have their 1982 recordings re-mastered and re-issued into a full length LP by Vasicka’s New York-based Minimal Wave Label. Fittingly, Brighton’s Oppenheimer Analysis embodies the distinct minimal wave dynamic of man and machine. Beyond the group’s interrogation of humanity’s precarious relationship with scientific progress, it is interesting to note vocalist Andy Oppenheimer’s relation to father of the atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer. Their 1982 hit song “Devils’ Dancers” proclaims “All the radon daughters / Wonder what they taught us / Making up our status / Doubts are only traitors.”

Oppenheimer Analysis’ 1982 hit song ‘The Devil’s Dancers’

Andy’s stoic delivery is not sufficient to quell the song’s palpable sense of unease over a radioactive future. The tracks’ driving, abruptly arpeggiated synth patterns and mechanical drums punctuate the song’s unmistakable sincerity over the cost of scientific progress. Far from being classically trained, Andy recalls in an interview with Panic Film the duo having been formed at a science fiction convention. This anecdote is a testament to the DIY spirit of the minimal wave subculture of the early ’80s, where the embrace of electronic hardware meant the bracketing of conventional forms of music training, production and distribution.

Minimal WaveGerman bootleg label ‘Flexi-pop’ compiled many CD’s of obscure synth-driven music through the 90s

A lack of conventional music training may, however, be an asset for the musicians crafting minimal wave. The creative fervour where impulse overshadows one’s experience or skill level was essential in minimal wave’s bold exploration of unfamiliar synthetic soundscapes. Vasicka notes “the sounds that are heard [in minimal wave records]…actually resemble the machines used to create them.” Prioritising the electronic hardware as an autonomous instrument was a great departure from the synthesizer’s incorporation into more conventional musical arrangements where the machine was used to mimic familiar sound objects. This was seen in minimal wave’s commercially successful cousin synth pop. Minimal wave, far too dark and gritty to be considered synthpop yet too sincere for its sister genres Industrial/EBM and coldwave, found itself in an elusive category, destined for an obscure existence on bootleg compilation records.
Minimal Wave - Broken English ClubBroken English Club’s 2015 LP “Suburban Hunting” is the latest release from Cititrax

  Since 2005, the Minimal Wave label has evaded all the clichés that stigmatise new sub-genres as fickle trends quickly get exacerbated by the internet hype machine. Minimal Wave also has a sister label, Cititrax, that is oriented towards newer synth-driven music, featuring artists such as Broken English Club, Further Reductions and Toronto’s Kontravoid. The legacy of Minimal Wave is embedded in the eclecticism of the Cititrax catalogue: the diverse membership acknowledges that the distinctions between techno, new wave, and industrial music are as permeable as ever.

– Danilo Bulatovic