A Quietus Retrospective – Oil On Canvas by Japan (July 19th, 2013)

In many ways, Oil On Canvas is something of an odd swansong for a band that were, in this writer’s opinion, the most fascinating of the late-seventies and early-eighties “synth-pop” acts, if Japan can even be described as such. By the time 1982 rolled towards its conclusion, the quartet’s long slog towards recognition and success -which had seen them bang heads against the wall since 1978’s ‘Adolescent Sex’- had been spectacularly rewarded with the surprise chart success of 1981’s Tin Drum and its slow-crawling single ‘Ghosts’, performed with icy detachment on Top Of The Pops in March of 1982 on its way to number five in the charts. Lead singer David Sylvian had even received the dubious crown of “most beautiful man in pop”. Most bands would have received this belated adulation with relish and milked it for all it was worth, but for Japan it represented a final flourish, as Oil On Canvas was recorded live a month before they parted ways and released posthumously in June 1983.

Oil On Canvas is not just odd because it caps a fine musical catalogue with a series of familiar songs played live, but also simply because it is a concert recording. Much had been made of Japan’s somewhat impersonal stage presence over the years, so to decide to bid farewell with a live album could have been the ultimate wet fart of a climax. Maybe for some, it was. For me, Oil On Canvas crystallizes what was so brilliant about Japan in one neat statement. Tin Drum and Gentlemen Take Polaroids might be their definitive works of art, but, if anyone I know asks me where to start when deciding to explore Japan’s oeuvre for the first time, I generally point them towards this (beautifully-packaged, it must be said) double album and film (now available on DVD). The criticism might have something to do with the lack of stage banter or pyrotechnics one usually associates with a live album, at least those of us used to iconic rock statements such as Live At Leeds by The Who or Slade’s Alive!, but that misses the point somewhat. Japan never intended their music to be mere sweat-inducing, high octane entertainment. Even during their early days as something of a punk-glam hybrid, they, and especially Sylvian, were too thoughtful, too introverted to get a crowd pogoing like dervishes, as they quickly found out during a disastrous tour supporting Blue Öyster Cult.

The synthesizer fervour that gripped Britain in the wake of Kraftwerk and The Human League’s late-seventies output was particularly beneficial to Japan, who, seemingly overnight, ditched the platform boots and wild hair, refined their make-up, slowed down their sound to take in swirly synth textures and loping fretless bass, and emerged in 1979 with Quiet Life, an album that pushed the elegant, improbably-coiffed Sylvian into the limelight, aided and abetted by some of the band’s best songs, such as the pleasingly camp title track, the driving ‘Fall In Love With Me’, the ice-cold ‘Despair’ and a delightfully rigid take on the Velvet Underground classic ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’. Quiet Life deserves to be placed alongside Travelogue, Mix-Up and Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark as one of the key early British synth-based pop/rock albums, as it defined a very European form of detached, sexually-ambiguous and thoughtful art-pop, one not too dissimilar to what the ever-prescient David Bowie had delivered two years earlier with Low.

Quiet Life became a springboard to send Japan into radically bold new territory. The album followed its two predecessors in garnering very little interest in the UK, but Sylvian’s beautiful features, tight-fitting suits and elegant quiff helped make them stars in the country that gave them their name. Struggling to get noticed at home, they could fill the Budokan in Tokyo, and this exposure to a brand new culture seemed to fire Sylvian’s synapses, as 1980’s Gentlemen Take Polaroids took the sound of Quiet Life and refined it into a series of oblique, almost cinematic avant-pop creations that exquisitely surround the frontman’s woozy post-Bryan Ferry croon in layers of pop textures that sounded like little else by Japan’s contemporaries. As well as Sylvian, Japan featured the talents of his brother Steve Jansen on drums, a polyrhythmic genius behind the skins, the late, great Mick Karn, whose bouncing fretless bass made Japan instantly recognisable and was also a dab hand at the sax and clarinet, and the increasingly moody and atmospheric ambient synth flourishes of keyboardist Richard Barbieri. Together, they transcended the very notion of “synth-pop”, rendering the term completely useless as a way of describing towering, crystalline mini-masterpieces like ‘Methods of Dance’, ‘Swing’ and ‘My New Career’. Only guitarist Rob Dean was an uneasy fit in Japan’s meticulous form of synergy, and he promptly left before the band recorded its masterpiece, Tin Drum, in 1981.

Too much has been written about Tin Drum for me to be able to really add to its reputation. Suffice be it to say that it is unique in pop history, a fearlessly ambitious, unusual and conceptual work of art that defies genre categorisation. That it became a hit and spawned a top five single, makes it all the more startling, because I doubt there are many hit records this chart-unfriendly. But tensions within the band, and David Sylvian’s increased hostility to the limelight spelled the end for Japan just as they were becoming huge, leaving Oil On Canvas with the unenvious task of seeing them off in style. Which it does, even if it could never come close to matching Tin Drum for brilliance (it features most of that album’s tracks after all), and will surely therefore be condemned to be viewed as an afterthought by a band whose singer’s mind was already on his (marvellous) solo career.

But if you watch the film that accompanies Oil On Canvas, and was recorded at the same concert, it’s clear that Japan weren’t the sterile live act many have claimed. They were no Sex Pistols or The Clash, but their demeanour suits the music they play to a tee. You can almost hear women (and probably some men) in the audience swooning as Sylvian strides onto the stage midway during the lugubrious ‘Sons of Pioneers’, and the man looks like a suave android in his neatly tailored grey suit, peroxide blonde hair barely moving as he sways in front of the front row, his sensual voice caressing the senses. Mick Karn performs weird crab-like dances as he thumps his bass, sliding to and fro across the stage, whilst Barbieri remains statuesque and impervious behind his banks of keyboards. Perched above them all, Steve Jansen cuts a cool figure behind his kit, earphones sitting on his head to make sure he doesn’t miss a beat. Joining the quartet is guest Masami Tsuchiya to flesh out the tracks with guitar, keyboards and tapes. On each track, they are all bathed in subtly-applied lighting of various colours, the beams glinting off the neck of Karn’s bass. He and Sylvian captivate the most, their gentle movements coming on like a restrained choreography based on kabuki theatre. Oil On Canvas, as a performance, enhances the status of Japan’s music as the most perfectly-realised combination of east and west inside a pop format. It’s no wonder the band, and Sylvian in his solo career, would work so much with the likes of Ryuichi Sakamoto, Yukihiro Takahashi and Tsuchiya.

Highlights abound, from the early twin onslaught of ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’ and ‘Swing’, the former bleeding into the latter via moody, rumbling synth ambience; through a rapturously-received rendition of ‘Ghosts’; blistering takes on ‘Still Life In Mobile Homes’ (with stirring guitar noise from Tsuchiya) and ‘Methods Of Dance’; and culminating in a rousing finale of ‘The Art of Parties’, all of which combined make me feel very jealous of the Hammersmith audience. Critics will moan that the songs are almost note-for-note recreations of their studio counterparts, and I agree that the film is the better medium to absorb Japan’s curious form of stagecraft, especially as it is bolstered by gorgeous abstract footage of Chinese life and scenery, but I think hearing such beautiful music with the added cheers and applause only enhances the tracks. It should also be noted that there’s a bit of sly humour at play on Oil On Canvas, as three studio instrumentals, composed by Sylvian, Jansen and Barbieri are dropped into the tracklist, as if the band is deliberately blurring the lines between stage and studio. I’m sure they were well aware of their critics’ complaints, and maybe the title track, ‘Voices Raised In Welcome, Hands Held In Prayer’ and ‘Temple Of Dawn’ are their way of pointing out that they don’t give a shit. They also serve to point in the direction Sylvian and, to a lesser extent, Jansen and Barbieri (as Dolphin Brothers) would take after Japan had been disbanded.

Oil On Canvas is ultimately an oddity because it serves as both a great introduction to Japan, and as the final chapter in their existence (discounting Rain Tree Crow). As such, it has a strong emotional pull for the Japan fan, and offers a neat way in for the rest of the world. It’s probably not an essential record, as I noted, but it’s a damn fine one by a damn fine band.

A Quietus Review: Monomania by Deerhunter (May 1st, 2013)

Deerhunter are one of those very fortunate indie rock bands who have managed to achieve a surprising amount of critical and popular consensus. I would imagine that, when all is said and done, there are a good number of NME-fronting four pieces who may have had more hits (briefly) or Glastonbury-fueled hype, but who ultimately would trade it all, now that they have been exposed as being irrelevant and fatuous, for Deerhunter’s less heralded but more sturdy popularity.

As annoying as Deerhunter can be at times, I’d still embrace every one of their shoegaze-meets-pop-rock songs if it meant we could banish every overhyped, moronic, culturally insignificant release by Kasabian, Kaiser Chiefs, The Enemy and Babyshambles into the abyss of non-existence. But, if Monomania signals anything, it’s that, as superior as Deerhunter may be to the aforementioned dogshit, they actually sit much closer to mainstream “indie” than their cheerleaders would have us believe.

It’s all the more frustrating because Deerhunter have often promised a lot, only to fall just short of their much-publicised influences, generally due to a lack of proper filtering. From Cryptograms to Halcyon Digest, you often got the feeling that frontman Bradford Cox lacked the discipline to cut away excess and inferior tunes, culminating in their baroque pop album Microcastle being released with an entire extra album tacked on. Ironically, perhaps, said bonus record, Weird Era Cont. has always struck me as being the band’s most striking release, outdoing its parent in terms of melodies, atmosphere and general bizarreness.

At their best, Deerhunter can reach heady climes of drone-based rock, consolidating their influences (krautrock, drone, punk, post-punk) into crisp, dreamy slices of pop-rock, all driven by Bradford Cox’s melancholic lyrics and fragile voice. They also cast their net wide enough, with the fuzzy shoegaze-meets-punk of Cryptograms differing remarkably from Halcyon Digest‘s monochrome dream pop. On Monomania, they take a reverse turn and move away from their more opulent recent output to reconnect with their more brittle beginnings. It’s possibly their most upbeat and punchy release to date.

‘Neon Junkyard’ is a classic opening track, the kind that seems to immediately set the album’s tone with its choppy acoustic guitar riffs, swirling synth effects, sweeping electric guitar lines and driving drums. Cox’s voice is multi-tracked and distorted dramatically, and the track collapses to a close after just under three minutes. The message is clear: this is Deerhunter unfettered and raw, as beholden to Hüsker Dü and Pixies as they are to their ancestors on 4AD like Cocteau Twins.

‘Leather Jacket II’ continues the trend, at even greater levels of thrash, all distorted guitars and mumbled vocal phrases. If the band had built on this intensity over the course of the rest of Monomania, they might have had a winner on their hands, but most of the remaining ten tracks are slight, like echoes of their previous work, from ‘The Missing”s drifting pop-rock plod, which sounds like a Microcastle outtake, to the dull garage stylings of ‘Dream Captain’. Most of the album sounds like a kaleidoscope of every “indie” rock archetype, to the point that, whilst it’s never debatable that Monomania is a Deerhunter record, you still find yourself thinking of Silversun Pickups, The Black Keys, The Flaming Lips or Arcade Fire, not necessarily with positive comparisons in mind.

Most irritating is Cox’s voice, which is excessively layered with the kind of effects Julian Casablancas favours. OK, so Cox’s wistful yelp is more endearing than the Strokes man’s self-satisfied croak, but over the course of 45 minutes, it rapidly gets tiresome. The hefty title track occasionally flirts with the sort of robust rock of the opening two tracks, scrambling to a sort of overdriven finale befitting its title, but with so many of the other pieces sounding either rough, out of place or uninspired (notably ‘Pensacola’, which sounds like a drab Crazy Horse number recorded during the American Stars’n’Bars sessions), Deerhunter never achieve cohesion of style or energy on Monomania. As ever, there is a talented band at play here, but not one that has the consistency to match the column inches I’m sure it will generate.

Liminal Reviews: Liminal Minimals, April 2013 (April 30th, 2013)

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Ensemble Skalectrik – Trainwrekz (Editions Mego)

Ekoplekz’s Nick Edwards has found a nice home for himself on Editions Mego, and this is another offering of saturated, noise-inflected electronica from the Briton, this time under the Ensemble Skalectrik moniker. Trainwrekz, as its title suggests, contains some of Edwards’s most abrasive and vicious work to date: six concise and moody vignettes dominated by twisted synths, untethered found sounds and unsettling industrial noises. ‘Wrektoo’, for example, is dominated by sampled gunshots and bubbling, watery found sounds alongside metallic clangs and thuds that sound like they were recorded in a disused factory. ‘Wrekfore’, meanwhile, juxtaposes repetitive electronic mini-drones with swirling futuristic textures that could have been lifted from the archives of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. The influence of industrial pioneers like SPK and Throbbing Gristle is clear, but Edwards’s scope is broader than that, and subtle injections of humour and hauntology, along with his use of the letters ‘W’ and ‘Z’ and a clear experimental bent, make me think of the late, great artist Jeff Keen, whose sonic creations recently appeared on a recent compilation by Trunk Records. Good company indeed!

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Jacob Kirkegaard – Conversion (Touch)

Conversion sees Danish sound artist and composer Jacob Kirkegaard re-interpret two of his more experimental sound creations as instrumental compositions, performed by his fellow countrymen Scenatet. The first, ‘Labyrinthitis’, was initially produced using sounds created by the composer’s own ears (!), a form dubbed “oto-acoustic music”. Here, these vibrations are reinterpreted as overlapping, ever-evolving string drones, starting off in a fragile high register, before more insistent, extended lower tones shimmer out of the omnipresent haze. While the original may be more surprising, ‘Labyrinthitis’ is steeped in the tradition of slow-burning minimalism, and the way Scenatet recalibrate Kirkegaard’s organic source as stirring, increasingly present micro-tones that is deeply affecting. ‘Church’, meanwhile, initially started out as field recordings captured in an abandoned church near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. On Conversion, Scenatet recreate the ambiance of emptiness and vastness suggested by the piece’s origin, again creating a work of music that evolves gradually in and out of near-silence, to deeply dramatic effect.

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Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou – The Skeletal Essences of Voodoo Funk (Analog Africa)

Analog Africa deserve a medal for the way they’ve gone about digging out some of the most obscure -and best- music from that continent currently available in a market that keeps growing and growing. Benin has proved a particularly fruitful hunting ground for the label. Given its geographic location, sandwiched between Nigeria and Togo, with Ghana close by, it’s unsurprising that many tracks on this compilation seem infused with afrobeat and highlife influences, but it also stands apart from those more famous genres, not least due to the French lyrics that pop up on a couple of the numbers. The term “skeletal”, used in the title feels appropriate, because there is a brittle, stripped-down quality to the orchestra’s polyrhythms, while horns are used sparingly, like flashes of colour splattered on a canvas, bringing to mind a more stripped-down take on early Osibisa rather than, say, Fela Kuti’s high-energy funk. One of the standout tracks is ‘N’Goua’, which moves at a sensual, languid pace, with loping bass, drums and percussion serving as a solid foundation for the vocals, sax spurts and twisty, winding guitar solos. On ‘Vi E Lo’, meanwhile, Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou turn their gaze across the Atlantic to take in Latino influences, further fleshing out their musical palette. The band produces music that straddles genre, but which is always haunting in its melodic and rhythmic grace.

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Charlemagne Palestine and Z’ev – Rubhitbangklanghear Rubhitbangklangear (Sub Rosa)

Charlemagne Palestine first started playing bells in the sixties, during his student days, and there’s always been a trace of their chiming overtones in his music for other instruments, notably in the way he repeats piano notes and in his use of glass. Here, he teams up with enigmatic American percussionist Z’ev for three pieces that juxtapose Palestine’s see-sawing carillon with quiet rhythmic patterns. The drums are pitched low in the mix, at times barely audible, but Z’ev follows Palestine’s every temporal shift with dogged determination. Rubhitbangklanghear Rubhitbangklangear is a minimalist affair, driven by the Palestine’s patient repetitions, which instantly recall his Strumming Music triple-album, also released on Sub Rosa. On the second piece, these hypnotic harmonics are countered by moody drones that pull Palestine into Z’ev’s orbit, leaving tense moments of expectant quietness. This tension forms the bedrock of Rubhitbangklanghear Rubhitbangklangear, with both musicians clearly keeping a keen ear on what the other is playing at all times. As such, the album bears little of the natural spirituality and reflectiveness induced by a lot of minimalism, with Palestine and Z’ev refusing to lapse into blissful contemplation. It closes with a dissonant 8-minute duel where Z’ev’s industrial clatters are (naturally?) reverbed to the max, a jarring conclusion – and all the better for it.

A Dusted Review: Confrontations by Umberto (April 25th, 2013)

Matt Hill has made a name for himself as Umberto for his subtle exploration of the legacy of horror movie soundtracks via shifting melodic patterns that owe as much to pop as Goblin. This, of course, has led him to be conflated with the swelling ranks of “hypnagogic pop” acts, something exacerbated perhaps by his presence on that sub-genre’s flagship label, Not Not Fun. He returns to the label for Confrontations, a dramatic shift from both his breakout release, Prophecy of the Black Widow, and follow-up, Night Has a Thousand Screams.

Prophecy of the Black Widow was dominated by the spirit of vintage Italian horror, from Dario Argento’s Technicolor terror to the splattery gore of Lucio Fulci, but the synth heavy doom-prog of composers Fabio Frizzi and Claudio Simonetti was intercut with murky drum machine beats and woozy pop melodies. It led to a sort of schizophrenic musical strand: not quite film soundtrack, not quite pop, and, to these ears, it wasn’t an entirely successful exercise, especially when compared to the authentically unsettling music of Failing Lights or Nate Young’s Demons. On Confrontations, Hill has turned to the imagery of sci-fi horror, the cover art clearly echoing creepy alien invasion movies like Body Snatchers and They Live. Indeed, the latter film’s director John Carpenter is a clear influence, for his scores effectively pioneered the potential of lo-fi synths and electronic percussion creating evocative musical accompaniments to horror and sci-fi.

Confrontations, however, doesn’t feel like an actual soundtrack, or even a pastiche of one, as opposed Umberto’s previous albums. Instead, whilst there is a vague semi-narrative strain running throughout, Confrontations is best appreciated as a bloody good dance album. “Night Fantasy” opens the album in style, with loping bass synth rolling under glossy undulating synth patterns and minimalist electronic snare beats. The overall effect may be futuristic, but rather than merely echoing sci-fi soundtracks, instead what springs to mind are the best outfits from Germany’s Kompakt label, such as The Field and Wolfgang Voigt. There’s a warmth underneath the detached synth lines and nearly every track, especially the aforementioned “Night Fantasy” and its follow-up, the disco-tinted “Initial Revelation,” which is all swirling synths and monomaniacal beats, would function superbly in a club alongside those doyens of European tech-house. “Confrontation” sees Hill relax the pace somewhat, and drop in a ghostly sampled choir, bringing it closer to his earlier work, but it still overflows with sweeping synths and oscillating sequencers. Only the arrhythmic “Dead Silent Morning” and the tempo-shifting epic “The Summoning” feel like scores, in a Ballardian style Gary Numan and John Foxx would have loved back in 1981.

Umberto, like many a “hypnagogic pop/hauntology” act, seemed to me increasingly obsolete as the genre’s 2010 heyday receded further from view; even the Ghost Box crew struggle to garner the same enthusiasm as before. Confrontations throws that notion into the ditch, building expertly on Hill’s previous work as a soundtrack impersonator/jester (“The Summoning” is so evocative as to produce visions of soaring UFOs descending on the world’s population), but moves into new realms where these affectations collide with the dancefloor with so much confidence, it’s a wonder he didn’t try this before. I am usually loath to use words like “triumph”, but Confrontations is damn close: it’s atmospheric, infectious and enjoyable. I can’t really praise it higher than that.

A Dusted Review: HD by Atom™ (April 15th, 2013)

On HD, Atom™, a.k.a. Uwe Schmidt, emphatically breaks down the barriers separating disparate forms of electronic music. Pop, techno, glitch and hip-hop all collide in ways both engrossing and impossibly messy.

The clearest influence in this endeavor is his fellow German electronic act Kraftwerk. Like Ralf and Co.’s most memorable songs, opener “Pop HD” is centered around neutrally-delivered soundbite-esque lyrics seemingly lauding (in French) the potential of high-quality (or hard-hitting) pop music: “Pop HD […] / C’est intense/et politique,” all delivered in a Hutter-esque deadpan over minimal, circular beats interjected by fizzy synth glitches. But there’s an edge to Schmidt’s music that is mostly absent from Kraftwerk’s meticulous pop. Atom™ clearly views pop music as wholly relevant and useful music, but only if it learns to challenge the straightjacket it is being hemmed into by corporate and market forces. This is even more evident in the tension between the more overtly catchy elements of his music and those aforementioned glitches and noises that Schmidt uses to disturb his music’s flow. At the end of “Pop HD,” the track briefly stops altogether, like one of those cliffhangers house DJs like to use in clubs, only for the voice to kick in at full force, this time drenched in saturation, its robotic disconnection suddenly transformed into an aggressive rush.

“Pop HD” lays the foundations for the thought-processes on HD, but these are expanded on most effectively on later tracks. “Empty” sounds like a glitchier take on The Normal’s “Warm Leatherette” or “T.V.O.D,” with rather to-the-point lyrics excoriating music’s commodification via television: “Empty / MTV / Empty,” etc. It’s not very subtle, but it’s hard not to smile at Schmidt’s determination, especially since this is the kind of harsh, minimalist synth-pop that initially flourished in the late-1970s before making way for the lusher excesses of the new romantics movement. “Stop (Imperialist Pop)” is perhaps Schmidt’s boldest statement on HD, its vocoder’d vocal invectives brimming with anger as the German takes broadsides at the major record labels and highly-manufactured stars like Justin Timberlake (“Give us a fucking break”) over shuffling beats and jittery electronic textures. “Stop (Imperialist Pop)” is neatly followed by a brash electro cover of The Who’s “My Generation,” just to ram the point home. Somehow, against expectations, Pete Townshend’s defiant lyrics take on fresh momentum when delivered in a mechanical voice and skittish drum machine clusters. And of course, Atom™’s music is so artificial-sounding, a line like “Hope I die before I get old” takes on new meaning. Do androids dream of making pop records?

In addition to these rants against consumerist pop, Schmidt also displays quite a bit of humor. “I love U” features Jamie Lidell in a cool guest appearance singing hilarious lines like “I love you / Like I love my drum machine,” whilst the aforementioned lyrics on “Stop (Imperialist Pop)” will have even the most stern-faced glitch fans smiling into their Ableton software. The tracks do get a bit samey, with only “I love U” and “Riding the Void” displaying true dance rhythms, whilst some of the more abstract pieces tend to grate, but there’s a humanity underneath the omnipresent synth noises and drones that belies Schmidt’s apparent austerity. HD is a weird and funny take on synth-pop conventions, and perhaps signposts new directions for the genre.

A Dusted Review: Shaking the Habitual by The Knife (April 4th, 2013)

The Knife have always been mysterious and unpredictable, and anyone drawn to the Swedish brother/sister duo of Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer solely by their 2003 hit “Heartbeats” and its pop-centered parent album Deep Cuts will have surely since been discombobulated and discomfited by the pair’s refusal to play the standard cards of electro-pop, from giving interviews in Venetian masks to performing clad in balaclavas. A recent interview in The Guardian highlights this malaise, with the interviewer expressing dismay at Olof’s use of the word “jam” (as in a musical jam, not the spread) and mocking the duo’s avowed political and philosophical stances. It’s a view born of ignorance, really, because as early as “Pass This On” (also from Deep Cuts), The Knife displayed their non-conformity, blurring the lines of gender and sexuality in the song’s remarkable video, proof that their elusively militant take on pop has always been a key element of their musical DNA.

Even with this in mind, Shaking the Habitual, their first album since 2006’s melancholic and minimalist Silent Shout, is a curveball. The mournful post-Soft Cell infectiousness of “Pass This On” and “Heartbeats” seems a world away, replaced with a rich and abrasive palette of sounds that takes in industrial, hardcore techno, minimal house and ambient across 13 jarring and unsettling tracks. Lead single “Full of Fire” is a case in point: nine minutes of crisp, juddering beats and drone-heavy electronic textures that evoke Halber Mensch-era Einstürzende Neubauten, with Karin’s heavily-processed voice ratcheting up the tension. “Full of Fire” is claustrophobic and oppressive, and is all the more brilliant for it. It’s a leftfield move to release it as a single (complete with an experimental and confusing video), one that shows that The Knife have become bolder than ever in the seven years since Silent Shout.

“Full of Fire” serves as a template for roughly two-thirds of the tracks on Shaking The Habitual. On “Without You My Life Would Be Boring,” Olof juggles hypnotic deep grooves with jerky polyrhythms played on an array of “real” drums and percussive instruments, and Karin’s keening, shifting vocals are surrounded by a panoply of effects and sounds, from multi-layered flute parts to strange samples of birds and what sound like baby cries. The closest comparison I can think of would be the Gang Gang Dance of “Glass Jar,” except that The Knife are a much more caustic proposition. “Wrap Your Arms Around Me,” meanwhile, progresses at a more sedate pace, with cavernous industrial percussion (again, Neubauten springs to mind, as Olof turns to sheet metal and other non-musical percussion to flesh out his beats) and somber synth patterns, in a style not dissimilar from Blackest Ever Black stalwarts like Raime and Regis. “Raging Lung” is warmer, a sort of disconnected funk-pop not entirely removed from mid-‘90s Portishead, only with more aggressive percussion. Dreijer Andersson’s voice is uniquely suited to these relentless shifts, as she rises from deep moans to hysterical screeches in one breath. It equally helps to convey the duo’s takes on matters both political and social. The lyrics are not always easy to follow amid the dense clusters of percussion and noises, but her vocals are pregnant with emotion and, much like Throbbing Gristle and SPK, the presence of so many unsettling sounds in The Knife’s compositions is in itself a statement (albeit an abstract one) and fully debunks the notion that a pop band (a term that could be seen as reductive in the case of The Knife) can’t be engaged or even militant. Just don’t expect the message to be delivered overtly. The Knife wrap their ideas in layers of mystique and sonic riddles.

The minimalist “Networking” and “Stay Out Here” continue the album’s trend of manipulating and colliding various electronic styles, the latter being an edgy 10-minute shuffle propelled by wispy snares and occasional breakbeats under throbbing bass and moody, Eastern-tinged drones. But the album’s centerpiece, the colossal 19-minute “Old Dreams Waiting to be Realized” is a complete about-turn: completely beatless, it’s a drifting slab of ambient drone similar to the likes of Lustmord or Thomas Köner, that ebbs and flows patiently, building in intensity, with wisps of textures and effects fluttering in and out. Even someone used to the vagaries of The Knife’s intricate vision will be surprised at this particular piece, perhaps all the more so because it is so troublingly beautiful, like the best of any dark ambient act you care to name.

It may be seven years since The Knife last threw out a communiqué to the rest of the world, but Shaking The Habitual is quite simply a triumph, a bold and experimental statement. The duo is still shrouded in that omnipresent aura of theirs, and few “pop” acts have achieved such levels of mystique whilst producing music this good.

Unpublished: Kraftwerk – The Mix, Live at Tate Modern, February 13th 2013

This is a review I wrote for the Quietus on the recent Kraftwerk perforance of their album The Mix at Tate Modern.

The question of whether Kraftwerk needed to do a remix album way back in 1991 will not be answered by tonight’s show at Tate Modern, the penultimate concert of the series and perhaps the most “Greatest-Hits-y” of the lot, which, from what I hear when discussing the event with friends and fellow concert-goers, is saying something.

As I wander into this illustrious gallery’s cavernous turbine hall, swearing under my breath over the price of a can of lager, I’m struck by a realisation that won’t leave me for the rest of the evening: I know what I’m going to get tonight. Perhaps more than any other band in pop music, Kraftwerk have become masters of note-perfectly recreating their studio creations in a live format. I also know that there will be 3D visuals and, beyond The Mix, a smattering of fan favourites from the band’s back catalogue (the latter information courtesy of all the hubbub this retrospective has, somewhat bizarrely, caused. Any excitement I initially felt was quickly dampened by the ticket prices and effectively annihilated as I cried when handing over five pounds per drink consumed. Ok, maybe that’s bugged me inordinately…). So, if surprises are definitely off the menu, beyond the booze (let it go, Burnett!), what is there really to look forward to? I mean, this is The Mix we’re talking about. About as far from a career high-water-mark as Kraftwerk got.

Well, these are still great tunes, aren’t they? And, at the risk of being called a heretic, I think The Mix versions of “The Robots” and “Radioactivity” improved on the originals quite substantially, making them pacier and, somehow, more fun. Aided by the decent acoustics within the turbine hall, both pack a decent punch and quickly get the punters dancing, which is an impressive feat when wearing flimsy 3D glasses. Other tracks such as “Autobahn” and “Computer Love”, however, reinforce the feeling that many had when The Mix was initially released: what’s the point? They’re not bad versions, but they don’t deviate enough from the originals to really excite. 20 years on, and with remixing having blossomed into an art-form itself, these tracks sound more dated than their originals, coming on like Pet Shop Boys B-Sides from 1988. Having said that, only at a Kraftwerk concert will you ever witness an audience erupting into ecstatic cheers upon hearing a bit of morse code. Credit where it’s due!

Personally, I also like the fact that the quartet never really does anything onstage. They don’t smile or acknowledge the crowd, and it’s impossible to determine who is doing what (how cool would it be if it was all lip-synched?), beyond Ralf Hütter’s singing. There is something remarkably post-modern in this deliberately obtuse approach. However, by focusing backwards, musically, at merely celebrating and rehashing their past, Kraftwerk end up undermining their own aesthetic. The 3D videos are simplistic and cartoon-ish, and a slight staleness permeates even the best moments. Kraftwerk were once a sublimely forward-looking band (I still have to pinch myself at the notion that Radioactivity, Trans-Europe Express and The Man Machine all came out between ‘75 and ‘78), but with this concert, and maybe even the entire series, such avant-gardism has become a thing of the past. As enjoyable as many of these songs are, it seems fitting that I’m witnessing them in a museum.

Photo copyright Katja Ogrin, first appearing in The Quietus: http://thequietus.com/articles/11331-kraftwerk-live-review-tate-modern-autobahn