Tag Archives: minimal wave

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