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.
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.
Vasicka 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).
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.
Belgian 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.
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.
Broken 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