Original synth

A strange new wave of retro washes over music and nightlife

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Alex and Brendan at the retrograde Nachtmusik party, which features lost "wave" music
PHOTO BY SADIE MELLERIO

marke@sfbg.com

MUSIC "In a time when people are becoming more and more isolated every day by the Internet, alone at their computers and staring at the tiny, sad glowing screens in their cellular hands, it only makes sense to me that we are all feeling a slight sense of loneliness and (hopefully) the desire for connection with others ... Whereas 1980s groups responded to implicit cold, colorless alienation of the repressive regimes of Reagan-Thatcher-era politics and culture, today's groups I think express a similar frustration responding to what I call 'the culture of isolation.'"

That's Pieter Schoolwerth, founder of Wierd Records, a New York City label dedicated to releasing records by contemporary acts that eerily mimic the sounds of obscure electronic new wave, in a recent interview with Austrian music journal Skug. Oddly in the context of connection, he's talking about some of the most deliberately cold, enigmatic, bleak yet beguiling music ever produced — "lost" underground European and American music that came out roughly between 1979 and 1986 (if it came out at all), was inspired by goth, industrial, and synthpop giants like Throbbing Gristle, Joy Division, Bauhaus, the Cure, and Depeche Mode, and is only being rediscovered now.

It's igniting fierce interest, with musicological fanatics digging up spooky swaths of unknown angular gems and a slew of current bands channeling the sound. Originally made in decaying urban centers with then-newly-affordable analog synthesizers and drum machines by dozens of often untraceable musical mavericks — Ausgang Verboten, Esplendor Geometrico, Das Kabinette, Eleven Pond, Nine Circles, Zwischenfall, Gerry and the Holograms — these unearthed and unearthly tunes from decades ago are beginning to seep into the Bay Area scene via a handful of excellent compilations, club nights, and musical visionaries. Can something be retro if hardly anyone heard it the first time? That's just one of the intriguing questions that springs to mind. Meanwhile, humans are dancing. Here's a mix of some of the originals:

ANGULAR COLDWAVE LAUNCH MIX by Angular Recording Co

COLD CONNECTION, CHAIN REACTION

This bracingly unfamiliar music (or rather, slightly familiar — you think you're hearing some bizarre 1981 B-side by Soft Cell or Visage but it turns out to be a crazy one-off from Columbus, Ohio from that same year) was usually grouped at the time into three fuzzy genres that overlapped at many points, sharing among them a DIY spirit, a dystopian view of the future, an urge to map the melodramatic onto the automatic, erotic astringency, and pretension without pretentiousness. Yes, much of it veers into "Sprockets" territory, but that's actually part of the appeal.

Comments

fantastic! thanks for the comprehensive overview! and stay tuned for more unearthed wave music!!

Posted by josh on Apr. 06, 2010 @ 5:46 pm

This has been happening in the queer music scene for years. Not a new trend, just newly co-opted by straight people.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 06, 2010 @ 8:43 pm

No it hasn't! If you are so sure of what you're saying than write an article about it instead of leaving some jaded comment. Let us know when you're ready to present your case.

Queer people have always been a great force in new art and music trends. That's not new news. Co-opted by straight people? Trust me, this attitude will do you no good. Who gives a fuck!?!?!?! Just let people do whatever they want, and stop worrying about bullshit! That's a lesson I've learned from some of my good faggot friends! Stop worrying about bullshit!

Posted by Big NB on Apr. 07, 2010 @ 4:33 pm

HAHAHA!!! noooooo! the gay scene has been playing obscure cold wave and minimal wave, which mostly originated from continental Europe between the years 1981-1985??? haha I don't think so.. Where are you going out dancing?

Posted by Guest on Apr. 08, 2010 @ 1:57 pm

You're gonna work that separatist angle? First of all, about 30 percent of the people I mentioned in the article -- including Josh and, um, all of Sissy Fit? -- are queer. Second, I'm not viewing this as a "trend" -- I'm telling the story of how a particular music has come to light, and the implications and expressions of its appearance now.

And finally, I'd like to know what queer clubs you're talking about? I've reviewed and attended queer clubs seriously hardcore in San Francisco for more years than it takes to age a good mourvedre, sweetie, and other than Bus Station John's clubs (which do play "lost" songs from the era yet deliberately shy away from any overt melodramatic darkness in favor of covert sensuality), Bear Z. Bub when he plays out, and some of the guests at Honey Soundsystem (including Josh, who was formerly a Honeyer), I'm at a bit of a loss. I mentioned the bathhouse disco scene. Can you give me some examples of this amazing queer wave scene you speak of that's apparently been happening for years?

Seriously, me and about 10 other people. wanna. know. Please enlighten, unless typing on a computer that straight people made makes you faint.

Posted by marke on Apr. 06, 2010 @ 9:07 pm

though i guess that was ten years ago. and things go in 10 year cycles these days

Posted by confuzed on Apr. 06, 2010 @ 9:32 pm

You bring up an interesting point, confuzed, but there are significant differences

Electroclash wasn't based on any original "lost" template -- although I've a sneaking suspicion that Miss Kitten and Thee Hacker did a bit more research than they let on for their sound. As for the others, sure they had some original influences -- ESG comes to mind, and definitely Kraftwerk -- especially on the sex-rap side of electroclash, but when he "invented" electroclash, Larry Tee wasn't trying to exactly emulate the past, he was merely trying to find a way musically forward by mashing up rock and dance music in fun ways.

Also, even though electroclash referenced an analog feeling, it was often digitally produced and marketed by established labels. It definitely brought more laptops to the DJ booth. (There wasn't a heck of a lot of electroclash vinyl.)

The key difference, though, is the feeling. Electroclash could feign iciness and definitely be arty, but it was never about bleakness and isolation. Much of electroclash was overtly sexual (even Miss Kitten had to be a peepshow stripper in her videos), or campy beyond camp (Fischerspooner). It was definitely the very embodiment of irony. Also, the people who made it were almost all total fame whores. Electroclash was anything but shy or into art for art's sake. Also, I don't think, years hence, that we'll come across a trove of "lost" electroclash, although you never know.

Wave music is introspective, often gloomy, bare-souled, instinctively poetic, and just, well, angsty and blue-lit. The songs you're hearing in the above mixes were made in isolation with what we'd now call rudimentary equipment, by people who probably never expected to or maybe even wanted to or could even become famous -- definitely not Internet famous, of course, which is what a lot of electroclash kids aimed for.

I would give a little shout out here to Ladytron, who weren't strictly electroclash but embodied a wave-type desolation feeling during the sunny internet boom, while admirably shying away from "goth" and "emo" bombast or self-conscious irony.

Posted by marke on Apr. 07, 2010 @ 5:38 am

No mention of the Synth-Punk movement in the early 80’s. IMHO the androgyny of those bands’ identities seems to be quintessential to the queer-punk movement.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 07, 2010 @ 6:13 am

Yes, synthpunk was a name invented after the fact to describe bands like Suicide, which were more aggressive in their personas. I didn't have room in the article to go into those bands (although Josh does mention the Units) -- I was sticking to the more self-contained and temperamentally cool synth bands, which is more the kind of music that's being exhumed and excited-over today. No doubt many lost "synthpunk" bands can be included!

and definitely androgyny is a big part.

Posted by marke on Apr. 07, 2010 @ 6:49 am

I mentioned two bands, Voice Farm and The Units, that fall under the synthpunk genre that was coined in 1999. Both of these bands plus scads more SF synthpunk bands will appear on the Bay Area Retrograde (BART) compilation later this year. Also please check out the band Death Domain, who has sound samples on this page. Modern day synth punk from Baltimore!

Posted by josh on Apr. 07, 2010 @ 7:24 am

There are definitely tons of O.G. synthpunk bands that belong with this, not to mention the many synth wave bands that had one or two really fast/noisy/raw songs in their catalogue. A number of current bands are doing really exciting things with synthpunk templates on labels like Born Bad and Sacred Bones, to boot!

(Look for a future Warm Leatherette featuring old and new synthpunk- hope everyone can make it!)

Posted by nary guman on Apr. 08, 2010 @ 7:38 am

Can't figure out what the author sees here or know but first, Good Music is Never "Retro" and secondly, I don't understand where he gets this renewed trend idea. This music has been loved by people consistently from the start and with each "new wave" of 18 year olds, it continues. Darkwave/synth however one wants to classify was not hardly as obscure as the article makes it seem.
Sure it was never top 40 stuff but it certainly wasn't limited to close knit networks hanging around in dangerous parts of town.
I don't but it.
A Vargas

Posted by Guest on Apr. 08, 2010 @ 3:32 pm

I'm not talking about Heaven 17, Sisters of Mercy, and the Cure here. I'm talking about music that was never pressed to vinyl (or may have been in very limited runs) or played in clubs or on the radio much. Of course people knew about goth and synthpop, and waves of people each generation get into those -- but this is different because people are being attracted to music in that vein that hardly anyone knew about at the time. Folks are using the power of the Internet and their own wonderful research to dig up these tunes and finally get them to a wider audience. It's a reaction against boiling this music down to the same 20 acts that are always chosen to represent the era just because they had better luck scoring contracts. And new people are making music with that more specific sound -- perhaps it's also a reaction against change? -- that they have no problem calling "retro." Not sure what you mean by "good music can't be called retro"? Maybe you can explain a little more?

Posted by marke on Apr. 08, 2010 @ 3:39 pm

nothing new here and its electroclash for goths.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 08, 2010 @ 5:29 pm

how wonderfully astute.

Posted by marke on Apr. 08, 2010 @ 7:30 pm

I got into this music fairly recently after reading about it online. I have always been a huuge Joy Division and Martin Hannett fan and with this music you can see the other branch of the Martin Hannett sound that did not materialize into POP like Human League and whatnot. This is the other side of synth. It's time for "intimate"music again...I was blown away by the XX record that came out last year and finding these bands only further reinforces that there is "something in the air"...thank you for the article!

Posted by Guest Hiiiii from Rio on Apr. 09, 2010 @ 7:56 am

Yes, I wish I had been able to get into Hannett's work, which is so integral to the music. I love your "other side of synth" description!

Posted by marke on Apr. 09, 2010 @ 7:59 am

I tend to appreciate Marke B.'s writing style and research. However I take umbrage at the blanketed statement that was made with regards to this being "lost" music that was never really appreciated at it's inception or onwards. That's completely untrue. This music thrived in underground scenes since the late 70's through the early 80's and had various club scenes revolving around all the music mentioned from the Bay Area (why no mention of stalwarts like the Death Guild, Strangelove and the defunct Dark Sparkle all current clubs who play some of these artists old and new) to L.A. and all throughout the US and in Europe of course. Maybe a more accurate assesment would be that each generation since then has discovered or rediscovered this music. I myself was heavily involved in the LA scene from the late eighties into the nineties frequenting such clubs as Helter Skelter, DDT, Kontrol Factory and Sin-a-matic. All of these clubs played most of the seminal bands mentioned every single week.
I think it is important that new fans know their history and appreciate all the freaks that came before them. It's no good to make this so precious to the newbies by making such a statement. We can all share in the abundance and history while holding hands and dancing with our inner robots.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 09, 2010 @ 2:56 pm

Tru dat!

Posted by Guest on Apr. 09, 2010 @ 3:27 pm

I appreciate your comment. Of course I know about Dark Sparkle, Death Guild, Strange Love, Meat ... I've written about them many times, and I love(d) them dearly. To me, they totally capture a time period of yore when goth and industrial were kings of the underground (although I think of Death Guild as a more "modern" goth club.) But they do play the "hits." I'm not saying that there aren't a few rarities in there, but the emphasis is on familiarity -- and the fact that you won't hear that kind of music at other clubs. That's what bonds the people together who go to those clubs, or so it strikes me.

I'm happy you shared your memory of when a lot of this music was played and celebrated in the LA clubs you went to -- that's awesome. But it never became part of the canon that is hallowed as "synthpop" or "industrial" -- and a lot of it really is new. The people I talked about in the article really did have to rescue dusty cassettes from the artists themselves on only the strength of a rumor or one other track that made a tiny splash. It truly is unfamiliar, or "lost" in many peoples' eyes. For instance, I have never heard Nine Circles, Stereo, Neon Judgement, or even a semi-popular act like Martin DuPont, at Death Guild -- or even at any of the clubs I went to in the 80s.

For me what distinguishes a club like Nachtmusik from Death Guild is that people go there out of a sense of unfamiliarity. They want to hear things they haven't ever heard before -- or can't really hear at all, since much of it is so rare and unavailable -- and that's what binds them together. Also, the goth and industrial spirit that's invoked at Strangelove, etc, has a lot of heavy cultural signifiers. All you have to do is think of "goth" and you have a pretty good idea of what you're going to get, which is great, and what I believe those clubs aim for. But that's not what this movement is about. It's more about being unique, unfamiliar, and, maybe "lost."

In short, this movement isn't about reliving the past, it's about discovering it. There's a real sense of newness there among the retro feel. It just strikes me as a totally different thing. Maybe I didn't express that well enough -- I tried! And if I had room, I would have paid due homage to the great Bay goth and industrial clubs going now, but I wanted to talk about this. I love your point about us all sharing our freak past, and I totally agree, btw!

Posted by marke on Apr. 09, 2010 @ 3:33 pm

I also Djed and grew up in all the legendary late 80s LA clubs and on college radio back in the day like Scream, Helter Skelter, DDT, Kontrol Factory, Sin-a-matic, Club with No Name, Zombie Zoo, Lechtersternium etc. and I can assure you it was a completely different genre of music, and people went out looking fabulous to simply be seen and dance to the well known dark indie, goth and industrial dance hits we all knew well already and loved - from the likes of Wax Trax, Mute, 4AD, Factory, Zoth Ommog, et al., I still have many many of my old set lists from the clubs, the same trax over and over every week, with few surprises or obscurities. It was all very completely complicit with the MTV-oriented 120 minutes style image culture and quite predictable and commercially oriented in the end. It was a wonderful, deacdent and alive time, but as far as the music itself - not nearly to be compared with the amazing scene that has been forming around Wierd in Brooklyn that has finally made its way out here to great clubs like Nachtm, Tenebrae, and Killing Spree!

I went to Wierd many years ago and it really was an entirely new genre of music, and all the people there had come out to listen and hear that which they DID NOT know, it was all very alive like late 80s LA was interms of image, but here it really is all about the music itself. Cold Wave and minimal synth is now being heard for the first time and being someone whos been around the musical block too many years to admit to, I would not be surprised if this (hopefully) gives rise to an entirely new scene of young DIY electronic groups who are inspired by this amazing new musical language!

Thanks for the great piece SFBG, bravo!

Posted by Jason L on Apr. 10, 2010 @ 10:06 am

for sharing your thoughts and experience, Jason L!

Posted by marke on Apr. 10, 2010 @ 11:17 am

The good majority of the releases played at any of these clubs were sold in LTD editions in the early 80s, sometimes as few as 200 copies each, and often in small towns in the UK, Germany, or The Netherlands on K7. The claim that these releases were widely heard anywhere in California of the late 70s / early 80s is just bogus, unless someone was constantly visiting European suburbs, buying strange tapes, and returning with them for play at dance venues specifically...were tapes a common dancefloor format? Don't think so. This is why Minimal Wave's compilations are gaining traction, as it is the first time much of this dance-friendly music is available on vinyl at all. Additionally, the stuff with foreign language lyrics was and is still hard to get, as it was never marketed to Anglophones, or similarly thought to be interesting to anyone outside of the specific region in which the microscene existed (i.e. Wassenaar, a wealthy suburb of The Hague). A link was posted to Max and Intro's 'Beogradska Devojtka'...this was a hit in now Ex-Yugoslavia, but of course it was released on a state-owned label and existed in an entirely different social dimension than what was known in the U.S., not to mention performed with Serbo-Croatian lyrics. And as someone who has attended Wierd for the past 3 or so years, I can say that there is an even wider variety of rare music played than just this kind of early, angular synth music -- also bizarre Italo, dark New Beat and late acid stuff...and what's more, no one is too proud to still play things like Depeche Mode or Leaetherstrip (but you might get a look of disapproval from the man presiding over the booth)...

Posted by Jordan on Apr. 11, 2010 @ 8:42 am

Hi Jordan,

You have to remember that Europeans have been transferring these vinyl recordings to MP3 for as long as peer to peer file sharing has been around. Which is how I found this music as early as 2000. You're correct that in the late 80's this music would have been totally unknown unless you had vinyl imported, but in the past ten years there has been a growing movement online of sharing this kind of music with people from all over the world.

Posted by FACT.50 on Apr. 17, 2010 @ 9:04 am

a lot of this stuff never left, if you ask goths. also a lot was dug up during the "electro" revival of which "electroclash" was a part - and not all of it was popular like Adult or campy shit like Fischerspooner or utter shit like Larry Tee... even Gigolo put out the New Deutsch comp, Tuxedomoon remixes, etc.

its a great style of music and the article's appreciated even if much of it reads like late bandwagon chasing

Posted by Guest on Apr. 09, 2010 @ 4:18 pm

hey, to all that are confused -- here's a good example of the kid of thing I'm talking about -- a tune from yugoslavia that I'm pretty sure never got club play here (although, yes, maybe some enterprising goths did dig it up before)

www.youtube.com/watch?v=V7NGxoXZqIU

and here's an example of a newer band:

www.youtube.com/watch?v=wUq65XZp_RI

Posted by marke on Apr. 10, 2010 @ 9:15 am

20 year cycles
had some synth pop in our collections in the day

love joy division
lean more towards garage/punk

Posted by Guest on Apr. 11, 2010 @ 5:15 pm

... although a gentle admonishment is perhaps due in that (and here I wish there were a word to reflect the opposite of parochial - the kind of pride expressed in digging up the esoteric and obscure from far and wide - let's call it laihcorap) this degree of laihcorapism reinforces the view of the musical non-cognoscenti that musical genres are simply a maze constructed of an infinite number of fractal mirrors (or as Douglas Coupland referred to it in 'Generation X', "musical hairsplitting - the act of classifying music and musicians into pathologically picayune categories: "The Vienna Franks are a good example of urban white acid folk revivalism crossed with ska"). Nonetheless, thank you!

Posted by daen on Apr. 14, 2010 @ 9:19 pm

the multi-microniching of contemporary cultural (and potential cultural) artifacts has been well-documented and fretted over for a couple decades, only sped up by net marketing. It would be great to break out of laihcorapism and just call it all music, wouldn't it? (I'd be out of a job then, maybe.) However, I think in the context of the mood of this music, "a maze constructed of an infinite number of fractal mirrors" is a lovely description and maybe what its makers wished for?

I hope I'm writing for cognescenti a bit, that's the joy of writing for an alternative weekly -- I can advance the conversation, rather than commodify it. I do however love turning people on to new things -- hopefully the mirror-maze of language beguiles even as it distances. And among the many niche-names reside base descriptors.

thank you for your comment!

Posted by marke on Apr. 15, 2010 @ 7:41 am

Ok first, I just want to say thanks for writing this article and bringing this style some much needed press. However with that said, I was greatly dismayed that their was no mention of the bands and events that were around since the early 2000's that were in this exact style. As for bands, The Sixteens, Spector Protector, The Vanishing, The Phantom Limbs, and a number of other now defunct local projects were revitalizing this style as early as 1999. I've been spinning all of the above mentioned bands you cited at various events since 2000. Including Stereo, Nine Circles, Neon Judgement, Gina X, Das Cabinet, and a whole slew of other Euro Coldwave, Minimal artists. It's just all been very, very underground until a year or so ago. Hell even at the first Xeno and Oaklander show here in SF (that I helped put together back in 2008 with Pieter from Wierd) had a grand total of like 15 people show up. I am very glad that it is finally picking up steam (as I noticed when spinning at Warm Leatherette last Fall), but you can't make it sound like a new thing.

Again I am eternally grateful that you wrote this article, I just wish a tad bit more research had gone into it.

P.S. I do find it strange that Veil Veil Vanish was mentioned in this article as they really fall firmly in the Joy Division/Cure/Chameleons influenced side of Post-Punk, which used synths very sparingly, and mostly for atmospheric effects.

Posted by FACT.50 on Apr. 17, 2010 @ 8:59 am

Thanks for your comment! I didn't have room in the article to talk about Phantom Limbs and the older scene -- although I did get a mention of Rob Spector in there. And I couldn't recall any regular club night from that time period to hang a discussion on. But I'm sorry that the article didn't delve as much into the past, and that I wasn't aware of your current gigs. And I included Veil Veil Vanish (although they've also been described as Echo and the Bunnymenish) because I feel they do fall into the more dark wave side of things -- and Justin who puts on Nachtmusik is in the band. I didn't want to be too much of a purist, even though that's a lot of what the scene's about, because I wanted to give a sense of the variety available, and how the wave genre is taking on a life of it's own. Again, thanks so much for your response, I hope to write more on this great scene and its history (just starting the conversation here I guess), and I'll look for you out and about!

Posted by marke on Apr. 22, 2010 @ 6:14 pm

it was amusing to read through all these comments. disco, synth, electronic, dance(or danse if you prefer) music never stopped in europe after the 70s. people/labels/artists have been searching out, reissueing, and playing this music (even the super obscure stuff) consistently throughout time there. unfortunately, since we live in america, home of most music must be rock'n'roll for people to embrace it, music more associated with dance style aesthetics and electronics(analog or digital) is embraced in waves. lately, it's being embraced in minimal waves(sorry had to do it!) it's nice to see people in the states getting enthusiastic about electronic music that isn't super generic sounding like most of the crap that's been shoved down our throats this past decade. especially that fake ass shitty throw a disco beat behind some angular guitars and pretend we're post punk schlock that all sounds the same and has become corporate-punk, not post-post-punk. i'm glad some underground/indie labels here in the states are springing up and some actual good bands are coming out using electronics and making some good noise. plus, seeing labels not fronted by majors is always a nice touch in my book. blah.blah.blah. mostly i just wanted to write something here to pay respect where respect is due. for anyone reading this who likes these bands being reissued as minimal synth or the new bands coming out referencing that sound, you MUST check out the scene often times referred to as the west coast sound of holland. those people have been representing analog synth music(and just electronic music in general)old and new from all around in all it's forms and glory for a LONG time now. they have a sick online radio station=intergalacticfm.com....support it. there are a bunch of labels surrounding the scene too. search shit out! don't just wait to be told what's good. lates.

Posted by m. on Apr. 27, 2010 @ 2:38 pm

Nervous Gender + Magick Daggers + Fangs on Fur
Type: Music and Arts - Concert
Start Time: Saturday, July 17, 2010 at 7:00pm
End Time: Sunday, July 18, 2010 at 2:00pm
Location: The Airliner
Street: 2419 North Broadway
City/Town: Los Angeles, CA
View Map

Description.NERVOUS GENDER with MAGICK DAGGERS, FANGS ON FUR, 16 DAYS, HUMACHINE & BELLTOWER BATS.

DJ's: ERIC DEAD, DAVE BATS, JOB LEATHERETTE and THEE GABE

This is an 18+ event!!!

Cover: $10.00

Posted by epstapleton@aol.com on Jul. 01, 2010 @ 11:57 am

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