06 May 2004


...gradually returning to reality after immersing myself in the musical garden of unearthly delights that is Richard H.Kirk's bumper crop of Mute releases. I knew I was in for a thrilling ride in the first few seconds of track 1, disc 1 of "Earlier/Later", which sounds uncannily similar to the intro to Model 500's "No UFO's", which wouldn't be so remarkable if not for the fact that this track, "Never Lose Your Shadow", was recorded a good two years prior to Juan Atkin's landmark Techno template. Created sometime around '82/'83, "Shadow" is a far more austere offering than the complex clatter of sensation usually associated with the Cab's output from this period. Held together by a simple metronomic kick/snare pattern, occasionally dubbed-up with that distinctive reverse-reverb effect used so effectively by 'Magic' Juan on "UFO's", augmented by crystalline sequencer and portentous clarinet calls. There's so much space in this groove - a perfect example of why some of the stiffest rhythms are the most funky. Perhaps most surprising is Kirk's vocal - though inflected by that typical European-industrial 'deadness' of the era - it sounds as sensual in it's blankness as Atkin's intonation, which was itself perhaps inspired by the European electronic new wave. It's hard to reconcile "Shadow"s obvious pioneering vision of future-funk with the fact that it has until recently only been heard by Kirk himself (and possibly a few close associates). Clearly, it's way ahead of the game, yet has had no direct influence on the course of electronic music. This feeling could be applied to much of disc 2's material. "Earlier" charts Kirk's solo experiments from '74/'75; splinters of sound-matter running adjacent to his Cabs work documented on last year's "Attic Tapes" box set. Literally 'home recordings', these pieces were not created at Chris Watson's loft, but at Kirk's parent's house in the Pittsmoor area of Sheffield. I find material like this utterly fascinating...like John Cale's New York demos from the '60's or Suicide's First Rehearsal Tapes from '75, these recordings exist in a creative bubble - private research that appears to have no direct ancestors nor any influence on future generations due to it's complete non-existence in the outside world. Out of time. Beyond time. Time-less. How the hell Kirk even thought to conceive tracks like "Hell In Here" at such a young age is beyond me. Whether or not he was already well-versed in Stockhausen, Reich, Cage, Riley et al is a moot point. As far as I know he was still listening to Roxy Music at that time and even Eno had barely begun to explore the boundaries of creative recording processes then. In just under six minutes "Hell In Here" single-handedly invents the distressed sound of Throbbing Gristle's "Second Annual Report" and, by association, the 'industrial' genre as a whole. Through a heat haze of tape hiss and mains hum, spectral waves of white noise interlock with fragments of half-heard dialogue and baleful clarinet squall, punctuated by savage pause-button edits, finishing with a fragment of what sounds like Ron Mael's opening keyboard arpeggio from Spark's "This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us". I shudder with awe at the primal attack of this piece which hits you in the guts far more effectively than the more academic tape music that was in existence at this time. Kirk was literally swimming through oceans of sound, limitless possibilities; conquering new frontiers without a map, in a way that would be impossible for any youngster today. The spiritual link with Cale's earlier demos is reinforced by "Concerto For Damaged Piano" on which Kirk hammers out a brief, spirited tune on a rotting piano in the family's shed, echoing Cale's "(Untitled) For Piano" on which the Welsh wizard also found sonic possibilities in the workings of an abandoned/damaged piano. Kirk returns to the piano for "Solar Defiance", using a single low sustained note (looped and augmented only by some muffled audio artifacts - like a hand brushing against the microphone) to create six minutes of zen-like spiritual contemplation. Even better, the final cut "Cosmic Overide 2" takes a loop of what sounds like run-out groove static, adds the merest hint of echo and let's it run for five minutes. The effect is bewitching. It's ominous-yet-gentle repetition is a balm for the soul, and is an unusual move for Kirk: to set up a process and let it run with minimum interference from the creator, similar in concept to that employed by Eno on "Discreet Music" a year later.

Of course, some of these early examples are somewhat meandering, directionless jams, but when Kirk hits the spot (sometimes midway through a track) you can almost feel the the sensation of revelation, as the ideas coalesce into sharp-focus. After several plodding drum machine warm-ups, "Lost rhythm Of Life" suddenly seduces with it's fragile surf-guitar melody (a sonic template for the intro to the Cabs' '81 single "Jazz The Glass") and haunted delay effects.

There are several tracks from the '81 period, which have strong similarities with the style employed on Kirk "Time High Fiction" collection. Indeed, part of the fun of this CD for serious Cab-heads like myself is spotting the sonic thumb-prints that carbon date each track. For instance, "On Fire" can immediately be identified as a '84/'85 track, as it sounds like an outtake from "Drinking Gasoline", all pile-driving machine beats, Loud As Fuck snare drum, and distinctive keyboard sounds that are so evocative of the era.

It's great to see the 12 inch mix of "Martyrs Of Palestine" included (the only track to have been previously released, in '86). Originally taken from "Black Jesus Voice", an album I love so much that one of it's track titles is now the subtitle of this blog. At the time, "BJV" was like an addendum to the Cabs' "The Covenant, the Sword And The Arm Of The Lord", full of similarly intense 'hit-you-over-the head' beats, dynamics so violent that they literally drained you, the most Exciting Sound On Earth as far as I was concerned around 1985/86. I can see why this track was considered worthy of re-appraisal. It's theme is totally bang-up-to-the minute in 2004 and the production is inspired, re-tooling the original album version's clumpy electro-punk-thrash with a wicked dancefloor undercurrent that should have set dancefloors alight at the time. Maybe it's time is now? The additional 12 inch-only "Detonate/reworks" EP sees Kirk remixing "Martyrs" in a 2004-stylee, but don't expect any kind of concessions to current club trends. That would be too easy. Instead, Kirk injects it with a new 909 drum pattern that only a masochist could groove to. "Detonate" is the buzz-word here. This beat doesn't inspire jacking, moshing or even frugging. The only possible physical response is a whip-lash inducing spasmodic jolt every time the kick drum hits on the first beat of the bar. Each of the three mixes becomes increasingly more 'difficult', as Kirk takes some wild chances (at one point in the third mix the rhythms seem to be going out of sync with each other, only adding to the deranged, Fatwa-like assassination of the original track). Obviously not interested in making any new friends, eh Richard? Of course, I LOVE it!

Okay, so Kirk & Co.'s legacy, pre-House, is pretty much beyond dispute. Yet although they switched-on to the fresh sounds emanating from Chicago and Detroit very early on, the initial results inspired by these new influences were curiously inconclusive. During Dance Culture's "Year Zero" (1988), the Cabs were taking a gap-year to work on solo projects. Mal had his short-lived Lovestreet collective (with Robert Gordon and Dave Ball) and Kirk almost released his most pop-orientated material ever, the aborted "Let's Get Down", as Wicky Wacky. Then in 1989, Cabaret Voltaire returned with their second and final EMI album "Groovy, Laidback and Nasty", a record that still polarises opinion among Cabs fans to this day. Part of the problem was perhaps the fact that they bought into the whole luvved-up, E-friendly vibe a little too thoroughly, adding a light, pop-flavoured positivity at the expense of those elements that had defined their approach for so long. Although tracks like "Hypnotised", with it's "Are You Afraid" samples, bore some of the trademark paranoia, most of "Groovy" simply sounded ordinary. As Simon Reynolds remarked at the time (when reviewing Mute's first batch of Rough Trade-era re-issues), without their "stilted strangeness", the Cabs had become "just another House combo".

It's from this troubled period that several solo Kirk tracks on "Earlier/Later" originate. One of the first of these, "Numero Uno Baby/Information", takes "Code"-era textures and harnesses them into a solid House groove, adding "found" voices, B-movie dialogue etc. A pleasant enough romp, yet strangely sterile. Although the dialogue samples are typical (patented?) Cabs-fare, the effect is more 'novelty dance tune' than synapse-stimulating cut-up theory. "Do As I Do" works on almost the same principles; film dialogue superimposed against workman-like House tempos with the addition of smooth keyboard textures that hint at "Groovy.."'s poptone-palette the following year. Perhaps part of the problem here is that much 'first-wave' House music sounds, in terms of texture and production, a little 'bland' by today's standards. The best stuff (like "Can You Feel It")is inspired and timeless, but many tracks simply sound dull in 2004. Perhaps the most successful of these late-80's Kirk tracks is "Digital Globe", where ethnic vocal samples are chopped-up to create a shimmering flutter of rhythmic crosstalk that most accurately predicts his future solo direction. "One Three Fourgasm" and "Latin/MYBM" are further respectable blueprints for the '90s, yet I find it curious that Kirk's earliest home recordings should resonate more powerfully in my psyche.

Post-"Groovy", post-EMI, Cabaret Voltaire slammed on the brakes, regrouped, went back underground, emerging with "Body And Soul", the most stark, un-produced Cabs album ever. Then heavy-duty Techno side-projects/collaborations Sweet Exorcist and Xon showed that Kirk was starting to find his feet again. But it was the Intelligent Techno/Artificial Intelligence explosion around '92/'93 that really created the right environment for Kirk to flourish once more. The turning point was the 1992 Cabs album "Plasticity". Mal's decision to abandon vocal duties was a sad though inevitable development: the wide-screen, multi-textured mood muzik that AI introduced rendered his voice unhip and redundant and provided the perfect environment for the Cabs to focus on the more abstract (dare I say 'ambient') elements of their muse. Free of all pop and dancefloor constraints, the album-orientated electronica of AI sustained the Cabs through their final phase that saw two further albums, "International Language" and "The Conversation", after which Mal headed into the sunset for a new life in Australia. But the precedents set by Cabaret Voltaire's final "Ambient Trilogy" provided the springboard for Kirk to develop his solo career...