Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Twinkling Stars in a Polluted Atmosphere: Minimal Wave and Synth-Pop

Image: the cover of In Aetenam Vale's La Piscine.

By its very nature it would essentially impossible to write a history of minimal wave - any attempt to do so would inevitably be potted and incomplete. It certainly couldn't be described as a movement. Pre-internet, its purveyors were spread across time and space like twinkling stars in a polluted atmosphere (that overly-flowery description will make far more sense to those familiar with the genre). That's not to say, however, that it isn't worth writing about it. Far from it in fact. Although it is in some ways problematic, today's reissue culture is beginning to shine a light into the dark and dusty rooms where groups of sincere amateurs created some of the most forgotten and fascinating music of the 1980s. Now then is as good a time as any to take a look at the genre and where it sits in relation to the related, but infinitely more popular synthpop of the time.

Although no one really began making minimal wave until around 1980 or so, its roots lie a little further back. As with many other things, punk was certainly one of the starting points, although the sound is about as far away from the three cord thrash as you could imagine. The key to understanding the connection lies in the way that the punk groups approached making and distributing music. The old adage with punk was that you could “learn three chords and start a band”. Punk was proudly DIY, a profoundly non-musical form of music. Few, if any, practitioners had any formal training. Punk inspired the very literally labelled post-punk, which describes a far wider breadth of sounds than the term itself alludes to, and minimal wave is part of this broad continuum which runs between dub, industrial, jangle pop and a myriad other types of music.

Whilst most of the post-punk spectrum was still very much guitar-based, minimal wave relied more upon newly affordable synthesisers (though there were also some groups who incorporated a few six-stringers into their sound). These exotic instruments had once been the preserve of audio research laboratories and prog-rock bands, bloated by both ego and money, but as the 70s ended and the 80s began to dawn a raft of products for the home musician began to flood the market, fuelled largely by the mass production of Japanese manufacturers such as Akai, Korg, Casio and Roland. Minimal wave and synthpop practitioners took the amateurish and independent-focussed aspects of other post-punk groups and applied them to these new instruments. The difference between the minimal wave and synthpop groups was to arise later, when groups like The Human League, Ultravox and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark abandoned their earlier experimental roots for the yuppie pop sheen of the 80s, and met in charts and minds with the new romantics like Duran Duran and Japan. The Human League had in fact arisen from the same industrialist roots as Cabaret Voltaire, with whom they shared rehearsal spaces in the late 70s in their native Sheffield, and Throbbing Gristle, but a split in 1980 also resulted in the formation of Haircut One Hundred, whereupon both groups pursued a far more populist direction.

The minimal wave musicians, however, were ploughing a different furrow (quite literally in the case of Canadian Ohama, who worked and lived on a potato farm). Few of them truly had any commercial ambition, and stuck to distributing their scrappier, darker music with friends in the form of cassettes and cheaply pressed seven inches. Many of the musicians were Europeans who refused to kowtow to outside markets and sung only in their native tongues. Belgium in particular was home to many minimal wave groups (the Belgian label Walhalla Records now dedicates itself to unearthing long forgotten gems from the country), as were France and Italy.

The music itself is distinctly low-fi and dusty, a result of bedroom and garage studios, and the ferric hiss of tapes. One finger melodies rule, why even bother to learn three chords? Even with such simplicity human fallibility can often be heard in the records, but it's often the sincerity and the amateurism that makes them great; even when the lyrics fall on the side of cringe-worthy, it's still completely charming. Perhaps it is the amateurishness that most separates these groups from their more successful synthesis cousins, though thematic darkness is certainly also a factor.

Without further ado, a 14 song playlist below curates some of minimal wave's forgotten gems.

For anyone interested, this is a great place to start:

1. Ratbau - Ordinateur

2.  The Normal - TVOD

3. Van Kaye + Ignit - Cool

4. In Aeternam Vale - Dust Under Brightness

5. Jeunesse d'ivoire - A Gift of Tears

6. Eleven Pond - Watching Trees

7. DZ Lectric & Anton Shield - La Place Rouge

8. Hard Corps - Porte Bonheur

9. Solid State - Recalling You

10. Ensemble Pittoresque - Artificials

11. Stereo - Somewhere In The Night

12. Twilight Ritual - Tears on the Wall

13. Ruth - Polaroid/Roman/Photo

14. Moral - Whispering Sons

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