An 8 Track Introduction To The World Of Minimal Wave


Veronica Vasicka has been salvaging rare 80s synth records for just under a decade. Often sourced from cassette material originally recorded in artists homes using early, prototypical equipment and technology, the output of Minimal Wave has often allowed a fascinating glimpse into an otherwise insular world. Constrained by means of distribution and circumstance, this world of obsessive musicians enamoured with modern developments in analogue synths and drum machines was only accessible to those sharp enough at the time to sweep a limited run copy or those with deep enough pockets now to offer obscene sums. In other words, none of us. 

Considering the irrepressible quality of the sounds Vasicka has recovered for a wider, contemporary audience, her continued digging, mastering, and artwork efforts for Minimal Wave continue to represent salvation for lost or forgotten glories as well as an exception to the increasingly uninspired standard. Contrary to the boutique retro-fetishism many other labels are peddling since crassly cottoning on to the resurgent vinyl market MW offer 180 gram vinyl in coloured forms, with artwork and design faithful to the original aesthetic and representative of the sleek, piercing frost of the music. More recently, Vasicka has inaugurated a subdivision; Cititrax, which serves to connect the dots with those early experiments via contemporary projects which draw on that innovative, strange futurism for their own ends, subsequently fashioning something exciting and new out of novel combinations. 

The startlingly rough and experimental forms of the late 70s and early 80s (EBM, industrial, post-punk and, of course, synthwave) seem to be the nebulous focus of infatuation, as can be heard on Vasicka’s East Village Radio show, but despite the variance of form and divisions of time and place separating them, there’s a tangibly united front at both imprints, across all of the output; one seemingly characterised by gothic allure and extremity driven by sharply rhythmic and impactful machine music. Twisted, raw but often darkly romantic; a dog-eared, alternative (and preferable) history for synth-pop, richly restored. 

Fortunately, Vasicka is gracing Corsica Studios with such sounds come Friday for the first Leitmotif night, along with Daniel Miller (Mute), Regis, Helena Hauff, Oake,  and a load of other morbid miscreants who revel in the like, in aid of 20 years of another veritable institution; Downwards Records. So, here we present a slapdash companion consisting of our highlights, ideal for those seeking an inlet into the Minimal Wave/Cititrax discography, or as something to stoke anticipation before the end of the week, or even as a reference for reliving some of the material that’s likely to be played over the course of the night (Regis and Silent Servant also feature)

Facit – A Thousand Years

One of the contemporary acts on Cititrax’s roster, comprised of Gothenberg’s Joakim Karlsson and vocalist Mai Nestor, these tracks were released as part of an EP last year; one which didn’t receive the attention it warrants. 

With A Thousand Years, comparisons could be made with the torpid, romance-by-the-grave despondency of Tropic of Cancer, if illuminated by synthwork and vocals which come to the fore a little more, forming an atmospheric, airy cruise through the same imagined streets that the Chromatics anthemically pine on (probably a lot like those of Drive) 

But then, comparisons are for pitiful hacks who also conjure awkward compound words as a ruse to disguise their lack of imagination. To give this the weigh it does deserve; its full of compact percussive clicks and ticks, Nestor’s vocals are given a disintegrative dice into a voice strangely engineered and fragmented, and there’s extended mourns of synth…a beguiling, mechanical kind of crestfallen:

Deux – Golden Dreams

One of MW’s most rewarding pop finds Deux came to be after Gérard Pelletier was galvanised by a tenure in Germany, where he was exposed to the native synthesists and electronics of the late 70s (Klaus Schulze, Can, especially Kraftwerk) Eventually he returned to France where he found work in Lyon in 1979, where he ended up forming a creative bond with Cati Tête, born out of a nightlong discussion of music. 

Initially I considered this particular track Chicago-house inflected with lyrics innocently grasping at a general fulfilment of love and aspiration in sweetly ardent, Gallic tones. And it is along those lines. Then I read the biography on the band’s website and a name rung out in my mind leading to this initial interpretation being irreparably sullied. Mentioning Georges Bataille as an influence led to another potential meaning associated with Golden Dreams, one more prurient…(I’ll let the connotations simmer)

Apart from corrupting that assumed innocence, it also frames this track in a more radical continuum. Closer listening reveals that they draw on that urge maybe more than at first realised; a scratch of distortion nested inside the jacking line that leads, and an occasional squeal, as if the duo are pushing their machines as far as they can go. 

Tragically Pelletier passed away at the beginning of last year. Despite never breaking the barriers to commercial success, he, and Tête, leave an incredible body of work in their wake (the rest of this EP and their full length Decadence – also released on MW – are both impeccable) 

In Aeternam Vale – Dust Under Brightness

Another act originally from Lyon, Laurent Prot (although previous incarnations have included a litany of members) makes something altogether more formidable. Formed in 1983, IAV’s material is intimidatingly extensive (as much as 25 releases over the years?) The intimidation continues in the music. 

In this instance; titanic, incessant, brutal blares of synth locked in a heavy, industrial process likely to bruise the body as much as it causes it to move. With that process pummelling at its heart, Prot adds a series of disembodied vocal bawls, hiccups, and croaks, as well as snatches of early (Cabaret) Voltaire-esque volatility; all kinds of abrasion seemingly coaxed out of factory refuse. Self-described as ‘deadly moods’, listening to this at high volume you’ll probably find yourself stripped of all self-respect, self-restraint…any rational code of conduct essentially, before you could say ELECTRONIC BODY MUSIC. This should be mandatorily blasted in the throes of a late night. Amazingly, Prot is still going strong with IAV today. 

Crash Course in Science – Flying Turns

Consisting of art school alumni who converged in Philadelphia, CCiS was formed by Dale Feliciello, Mallory Yago, and Michael Zodorozny. Their beginnings came in experimentation with tape recorders and toy instruments, admitting that in their early days they would ‘put some words in and laugh most of the time about it’ – a refreshing thing to hear in light of the apparently unconventional, conceptually rooted art world the project seems to have emanated from; not a world which embraces laughter or dance as a response as often as it perhaps should (Yago also admits in the same interview her preferred reaction to her own music is to react with the latter)

They usually performed live with homemade instruments and equipment modified to their own ends. What they use in this instance is beyond me. There’s a rampage of pneumatic fizz, grinds of steel, gusts of gnarled frequencies accompanied, weirdly enough, with a camp, vocal enunciation – though there’s a feeling of hyper-neurotic paranoia to the voice too. MW featured this twice (on The Found Tapes and The Minimal Wave Tapes Volume 1) in some of their more recognized compilations, giving the band, and this song, somewhat of a key status in the MW identity. The album its lifted from, Signals from Pier 13, was recorded at an ‘abandoned coal-loading machine along the Delaware river’, a place which Yago identifies as filled with ‘huge silent machinery, shapes, shadows, ghosts and debris’. Apparently Flying Turns was written right before they entered the studio. It’s the sound of that environment’s industrial litter and dystopian atmosphere swarming together and igniting into nightmarish life. And all you can do is dance: 

(More recently, the band’s work has been picked up by similarly admirable staples of curation and taste including Soul Jazz – for one of their American Punk Underground comps – and Trevor Jackson – for the second Metal Dance collection)

Sandra Plays Electronics – Her Needs

The solo project of Karl O’Connor incepted before Regis, Sandwell District, Downwards, British Murder Boys, all of that. For my ears the 1999 version sounds up there with his best, the kind of sonic storm and terror Martin Rev wouldn’t mind putting his name to, with more grizzle and growling chaos around the beat than the often pounding, skeletal lobotomy that his more famed work deals in. For my mind it’s even up there with this appearance of O’Connor under the Regis guise in Madrid (two years after this particular version) in which he dons a fetching pair of yellow rubber gloves, and thanks/berates/howls (at) the crowd between the unerring pulse of his demolition. Loose cannon doesn’t quite cut it: 

Here’s the track in question:

And a live version with Juan Mendez (aka Silent Servant) complete with added strobe-overkill:

MW are set to release more material from Sandra Electronics at the end of the month (30th) Lock up any faint-hearted fans of deep house.  

In Trance 95 – Presidente

Greek teenagers Alex Machairas and Nik Veliotis came together to form In Trance 95 in May 1988 after initially meeting at a Blaine L. Reininger (of Tuxedomoon) gig. They crossed paths again soon after and found that they shared a mutual adoration for electronic sound. Fortune favoured them in the form of a soundproofed basement studio Veliotis built after being given the space by his father. They were apparently an anomaly in their use of synthesizers at the time, largely outsiders to a scene inhabited by those fixated by garage punk (all the rage in Greece at the time according to Machairas and Veliotis)

That impetus to prove the capabilities of their technology might account for the barbed, cavalier nature of Presidente; drums are belted as if engaged in some war-dance assault, and the voice is feral, lecherous; creeping somewhere between a rasp, a snarl and a whisper in the ear. Samples of news bulletins raise the drama, enhancing the state of dissolution until it breaks, finishing uncannily on an orchestral big-band flourish. Barmy, savage but brilliant. 

Polyphonic Size – Night is Coming On

Roger-Marc Vande Voorde, from Brussels, began Polyphonic Size in 1979. As with many in MW’s trove, the story behind the artist holds as much intrigue and appeal as the music. Through PS, Voorde ended up working extensively with Daniel B (of Prothese and Front 242) and Jean-Jacques Burnel (The Stranglers), encountered Ryuichi Sakamoto (and Yellow Magic Orchestra), had drawn out legal wranglings with Virgin records, and at one point held residence on the Trans-Siberian express leading to a concert in Beijing; one which was shut down abruptly before a note was played, due to concerns raised by authorities.

This comes from the first LP, made in 1982. High drama, like early-Human League, it seems to hold the same sullen, effeminate, and debonair contours, and the bilingual element (verse in French, chorus in English) adds something cosmopolitan. Decked in eyeliner, sporting something asymmetric, it lifts a darkly suave profile. 

Richard H. Kirk – Never Lose Your Shadow

Yet to be released by the label but a 12inch of this has been promised (fingers crossed) It gives an exciting indication that the standard will be maintained. There’s not much that needs to be said about Kirk that hasn’t been expounded better elsewhere. 

A few tangential thoughts though that might be of interest; I was riding the train the other week, packed on one that services the outer innards of London, listening to this followed by Red Mecca (Cabaret Voltaire) and the sax screeches that often arise throughout both (not too different from the rickety, grating wails and lurches of the train itself) triggered vague memories of that Jim Jarmusch film, Permanent Vacation, where a delinquent runt wanders around annihilated streets. Fragments of jazz are provided by the soundtrack (by John Lurie?) but they’re choked and become stifled by all the images of decay and mood of malaise that defines the film. It’s not too far from the spoils of sax that surface here. So there you are, this song, beyond any logic or reason, reminds me of the ruined jazz of that film.

Speaking of decay, the video reminds me of Sheffield basements (the likely site of this shoot) – a particular confine I spent a few misguided nights in. They always seemed to be molting; rife with crumbs of cement and chalk and fumes which seemed to hang in the air, left from previous owners who were now silently disapproving of your presence. Student parties eh? Side-tracked there. This is one of the best things I’ve heard from the Kirk/CV camp though. A song which can apparently be invested with evocations of a now distant New York or more aptly; the subterranea of its creator’s city. Gritty and berserk; an addictive 10 minutes.  

There’s much more that deserves inclusion here; pretty much all of the Minimal Wave Tape compilations, The KVB (Immaterial Visions and Remixes), Streetwalker (Future Fusion), the recent An-i EP (Kino-i), Oppenheimer Analysis (S/T)…and more…but hopefully this will whet some appetites and spark some obsessive listening.

The wealth of it can be staggering but it’s a pleasure to get swept up in, 9 years worth of the stuff represents something akin to one of ‘Never Lose Your Shadows’ indelibly memorable lines; ‘my head is jammed with pop culture…’. The MW output presents a similar premise; a now overwhelmingly abundant world defined by the raw onslaught of DIY electronics. Yet it’s an onslaught of the best kind, worth overloading on.

Tim Wilson