Ten essential electronic albums – Part IX and X

As the 80’s sputtered to a close, electronic music with mainstream appeal began to die on the vine. The popular taste had moved on and electronic bands that defined the early part of the decade were disbanding, changing or just fading away. 

But meanwhile exciting things were happening across Europe. For years bands like Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle were working outside the confines of more popular forms of electronic music, but this remained steadfastly on the fringes (Cabaret Voltaire would enjoy some degree of commercial success with later tracks like “Sensoria” and “I Want You” but would streamline their sound a great deal in the process). Ministry morphed from a British-style traditional synthpop band into a darker, experimental electro band, then further to the fringes until they found themselves out of the scene altogether as a de facto heavy metal band (but with numerous side projects that kept their feet firmly planted in the outer reaches of the genre, like PTP and Revolting Cocks). The masses weren’t in the loop but electronic music was doing some very exciting and interesting things, off to the side.

Front 242: Front by Front (1988)

More than any band of the era Belgium’s Front 242 shifted the narrative of electronic music at the tail end of the 1980’s. Though they had been active throughout the 80’s it wasn’t until 1987’s Official Version that they started to enjoy wider appeal. That album took the rougher, harder-edged beats from the European club scene and rounded off the edges just enough to create a danceable version of that which had captured the imagination of the inheritors of the punk ethos. 

The band coined the phrase EBM, or electronic body music, and thereafter the EBM movement, and its offshoot, Darkwave was as vital, and prolific a segment of the totality of electronic music as any other.

This album showed that the music could be edgy and challenging but still accessible and suddenly the electronic universe felt a lot larger. No track better exemplified this than “Headhunter”, the catchy, aggressive stomper with allusions to slavery. Even 20 years later it still stands up as among the best of the subgenre. 

But though it is the track most recognize, there was more than “Headhunter” to the album. “Welcome to Paradise” makes great use of samples vocal snippets (a frequent go-to-the-well option for the band, especially bits and pieces of preachers doing their thing, a staple, incidentally, of electronic music from Cabaret Voltaire to Recoil); “Never Stop” screams in your face until you pay homage; “Until Death (Do Us Part)” established the mid tempo plodder scores of EBM bands have since attempted to emulate. While Official Version and even the earlier No Comment might be “better” albums, with more creatively built songs, it was Front by Front that smashed through the barriers and offered an official “fuck you” to the masses, saying, “Like it or not this is the future. Now get busy dancing.”

Nine Inch Nails: The Downward Spiral (1994)

The 1990’s were a bleak time for electronic music. The decade got off with a bang with the release of Depeche Mode’s Violator, but thereafter the wheels came off. Nitzer Ebb and Front 242 flamed out mid-decade; Al Jourgenson’s various side projects produced less and less frequently as Ministry turned ever more sharply away from electro; Pet Shop Boys and Erasure drifted into irrelevance; things were brewing in the early days of the Swedish electronic scene (which would breath new life into the genre in the ‘oughts’, but were years away from being fully realized) and in other corners of the world but remained solidly on the fringes; the EBM scene fell into a rut and was producing little of real interest; and Depeche Mode themselves, splintered and began producing self indulgent work, fueled by the worst in rock cliche excesses.

But the genre had a little life in it yet. Trent Reznor teamed with noted electronic producer John Fryer to release Pretty Hate Machine in 1989, and the album was a tonic. Someone had fully harnessed the best of electronic music and fused it with hard edged metal-influenced guitar and more importantly, tapped into a from-deep-in-the-gut anger. It was Janov’s primal scream therapy put to a beat. He floundered about for some years after releasing the underwhelming EPs Broken and Fixed, but it was in 1994 that he built his masterpiece.

It was best realized on “Closer”, the most purely electronic and also most viscerally angry song on the album. Never before (or since, frankly) was there a more perfectly blended vision of NIN’s various influences. It was so fresh, no new that it single-handedly breathed new life into an entire, atrophying genre. “Heresy” is one of the boldest anti-religion screeds this side of XTC’s “Dear God”, and tracks like “Ruiner” are almost overwhelmingly propulsive with something new discovered in the mix with each listen.

Recorded at the site of the Sharon Tate murder, the album makes numerous dark references to the “Pig” terminology (referencing the scrawlings on the walls at the hands of Manson’s acolytes), and some called it tasteless, others thought it overly affected, but ultimately it fed into the atmosphere of pure dark energy, the better to create an album of such sheer unadulterated power. Once again, the boundaries had been stretched, the definition of what constituted electronic music thrown to the trash heap and we had to rethink the very concept of the genre.

 

The here and now/the future

Wait, is he going to do that douchy thing of doing a “top ten” list and making it a “no, really it’s eleven, or even twelve?” Well yeah, I am. But only to illustrate that the genre and its countless subgenres have a rich life yet to live. Two albums released in recent years show us how much excitement can still be had in the world of electronic music.

Goldfrapp: Supernature (2006) & Ladytron: Witching Hour (2005)

Two albums gave the genre a serious shot in the arm in the mid-to-late 00’s. Goldfrapp built an ode to disco with their clever, thoughtful Supernature and Ladytron burst out of the gate with the darker, pulsating, but equally thoughtful Witching Hour. Each of these albums showed the instrumentation mattered less than the ability to write kick-ass songs and each did just that using the digital tools available to them. If ever one thought that the best days of electronic music lay in the 80’s or early 90’s in the case of EBM, darkwave, trance or other offshoots, their fears were quickly shown the back of the genre’s hand. There’s so much yet to come. Electropop lives on (thank you Goldfrapp), sleaze-pop is healthy, (thanks Client), industrial, trance, hybrid, each subgenre has a lot of life to come.

You may disagree with any or all of the ten (okay, 12), if so let is hear it. This is not a definitive list, but a series of suggested signposts on the road between Kraftwerk and the best the genre has to offer today. Each had their role to play, each was an essential album that kept the genre pulsing through the years. And most importantly each one is one hell of a good listen.

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One Response to “Ten essential electronic albums – Part IX and X”

  1. Cool post! Pretty sad that Florian is finally leaving the Kraftwerk band, I hope they continue to produce electronic avantgarde music. I’ve posted some video of a Kraftwerk concert on my blog you may visit if you like. Kraftwerk rocks!

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