Electronic

Terry Riley “Shri Camel” (CBS, 1980)

As we round into the most stressful week of the most stressful year in recent memory, we need frequent immersions into the transcendent sonic world of Terry Riley, the greatest living American composer/improviser… if I may be so bold (and I may).

Now, the great thing about this master of minimalism and mesmerism is that you can dip into almost any record in his discography and find succor. I’m partial to anything Riley’s done from the ’60s to the ’80s. And that’s where Shri Camel falls. Commissioned by West Germany’s Radio Bremen in 1975, Riley started composing it that year and performed an early version of Shri Camel in Bremen the following year. In 1977, Riley cut a different iteration of the work, dividing it into four suites at a San Francisco studio. For some reason, CBS didn’t issue the recording until 1980. Better late than never, he understated.

Using a modified Yamaha YC-45D combo organ tuned in just intonation and augmented with digital delay, Riley applied lessons learned from Indian raga guru Pandit Pran Nath, especially regarding “singing in search of swara, or ‘the knowledge of profound pitch relationships which reigns supreme,’” as Hugh Gardner put it in the liner notes. Suffice it to say, Riley synthesized Nath’s ancient wisdom with modern technology and his own spontaneous creativity to summon a zoner for the (s)ages.

Seemingly sputtering out of a golden spigot in the holiest temple, album-opener “Anthem Of The Trinity” is a fanfare for a benevolent god who only wants you to feel buoyant, warm, and loved for eternity. Throughout most of Shri Camel, Riley dazzles up a momentous motif—a bass-y three-chord figure (da da DAAA)—that sounds as if it could be a sperm whale’s mating call. The track ebbs and flows from elation to sternness, with moments of warped turbulence. “Celestial Valley” unspools more introverted fractals of organ drones, spiraling inward to massage all of your chakras. At times, Riley’s organ swells to revelatory dimensions (no double entendre, sorry), generating flurries of vamps geared to excite and exalt your every atom. You wonder how much pleasure your head can endure under such an onslaught of heavenliness.

Obviously, there’s no way to maintain that level of highness, so Riley downshifts on “Across The Lake Of The Ancient Word” into a more somber feel, like the entrance music for the funeral of a benevolent cult leader. Riley embroiders that aforementioned bass-y three-chord motif with frantic bubbles of keyboard spume. It feels like you’re floating in an ocean of champagne. “Desert Of Ice” starts where “Ancient Word” left off, and then intensifies and embellishes it. Riley appears to be playing a vibraphone made out of said ice with an elegant swiftness that seems supra-human, à la Conlon Nancarrow’s player-piano works. The bass-y three-chord pattern’s urgency keeps surging into the increasingly ebullient organ carbonation, and Riley begins to improvise variations on the spacey theme, with every tonality contoured to levitate you light years from earthbound reality. This is how you close an album. Bow down to the master of aural transcendence. -Buckley Mayfield

Kraftwerk “Kraftwerk” (Philips, 1970)

Musicians sometimes have very poor insight into what constitutes their best work. Bob Seger and Alex Chilton come to mind. One of the most extreme cases of this unfortunate phenomenon is Kraftwerk. The legendary German group’s founders—Ralf Hütter and the late Florian Schneider-Esleben—are/were undoubtedly intelligent people, but for baffling reasons, they refuse(d) to acknowledge the existence of their pre-Autobahn releases. It’s a shame, because Kraftwerk, Kraftwerk II, and Ralf & Florian represent some of their greatest, most adventurous creations.

Like many of their early ’70s Deutschland compatriots (Can, Tangerine Dream, Neu!, Faust, Popol Vuh, Et Cetera, etc.), Kraftwerk were both striving to distinguish themselves from post-WWII German culture and not simply imitate the era’s dominant Anglo-American rock paradigms. Operating under this liberating notion, Kraftwerk created some of the most revolutionary experimental rock and electronic music of all time. Most heads still aren’t ready to absorb the genius percolating on these early records (plus that of Tone Float by Organisation, Ralf and Florian’s pre-Kraftwerk band).

The sounds on Kraftwerk et al. diametrically oppose the precise, linear driving musik and robotic electro-funk that marked their work from the mid-’70s onward. No doubt, all of that stuff should be revered, too, and its influence is staggering. But it’s so frustrating that the creators of those early releases disown them, making the LPs ripe for bootlegging and gray-area reissues. I normally don’t condone buying those, but in this case, do what you gotta do to get ’em.

So, finally, to Kraftwerk’s debut album. Produced by the studio wizard Conny Plank, it consists of four long tracks, each a mind-blower. Opener “Ruckzuck” (translation: Right Now) is the pinnacle of flute-centric avant-rock. Schneider’s electronically treated instrument stutters and splutters with contrapuntal ingenuity, forming a mesmerizing motif over Andreas Hohmann’s motorik drums and Hütter’s guitar stabs and organ whorls. An interlude of cymbal and warped-to-hell flute crescendos will shock you with a horror-film force. That rupture is indicative of a piece that keeps regenerating, changing tempo, accruing strange textures, ebbing and flowing, and throwing surprises at your ears at a frantic rate. “Ruckzuck” is nightmarish yet euphoric psychedelic music as you’ve never heard it before. Schneider proves himself to be the Sonny Sharrock of the flute, a mad genius who took his instrument’s timbres to heretofore unexplored and untamed realms..

Stratovarius” (Schneider plays violin, too) resembles Can’s “Aumgn,” emitting several minutes of maleficent squall and alienating drones. Eventually, a slack, quasi-funky rhythm emerges along with cantankerous guitar feedback and squawks. When the song shifts into a freak-rock rave-up à la Can’s “Outside My Door,” it reveals Kraftwerk deconstructing rock into fascinating shapes while ratcheting up the intensity to horrifying dimensions. “Megaherz” is an electronic experiment in extreme dynamics and tonalities, but it’s not without its tender, beautiful passages. The one in which Schneider’s flute and Hütter’s organ and triangle cohere into a meditative respite is exemplary.

Von Himmel Hoch” (From Heaven Above in English) remains one of history’s maddest album-finales. It begins with a series of otherworldly aircraft noises, explosions, and alarms. Gradually, a menagerie of bizarre animal growls generated with a modified organ called a “tubon” coheres into a powerful rhythm, underscored by future Neu! member Klaus Dinger’s pugilistic drums. As some of the most fucked-up borborygmus/stomach gurgles ever laid to tape ensue, you think, “It’s too bad Roger Waters and Ron Geesin didn’t conceive these sounds for their Music From The Body LP.” Unexpectedly, the track gets urgently funky near the end, before finishing with a bass frequency explosion. WOWOW.

To reiterate, it’s shameful that Kraftwerk is out-of-print. Instead, it deserves a reissue with liner notes, previously unseen photos, bonus tracks, the works. Come on, Ralf. Quit being such a Scheisskopf. -Buckley Mayfield

A.C. Marias “One Of Our Girls (Has Gone Missing)” (Mute, 1989)

A.C. is Angela Conway, the mysterious chanteuse who cowrote the 10 songs on One Of Our Girls (Has Gone Missing) with Wire/Dome guitarist Bruce Gilbert. She’s also appeared on Wire bassist Graham Lewis’ He Said records and Gilbert’s The Shivering Man LP, as well as these Wire dudes’ Dome and P’o projects. Clearly, Conway was a key figure in the Wire diaspora throughout the ’80s, so it makes sense that she would cut her own full-length with those in their orbit. And what a quiet little treasure One Of Our Girls is.

With a voice pitched somewhere between the Dream Syndicate/Opal’s Kendra Smith and Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell, Conway radiated an ethereal gravity with A.C. Marias. The group included Paul Kendall (studio wiz who’s worked with Gilbert and Loop and Main’s Robert Hampson), John Fryer (producer of This Mortal Coil, Cocteau Twins, Nine Inch Nails, etc.), and Gareth Jones (producer of Depeche Mode, Wire, Diamanda Galás, Einstürzende Neubauten, etc.). Conway’s singing may not be technically extraordinary, but she optimizes her narrow range with an intriguing delivery and glazed timbre. She keeps her emotions close to the vest, forcing you to lean in to try to discern the details.

Case in point is the opener, “Trilby’s Couch.” It begins with a melancholy woodwind melody redolent of seaside desolation. Then a stealthy walking bass line and woodblock taps appear as Conway sings about a hypnosis session. When the avian synth twitters surface, you can’t help getting chills. “Just Talk” furthers the hypnotic quotient with a simple yet transporting guitar riff that cycles over a high-pitched, majestic drone. Conway croons in hushed tones about an enigmatic scenario featuring two lovers and a gun, while meditating on the nature of language and time.

“There’s A Scent Of Rain In The Air” might be the album’s oddest highlight, a mix of pneumatic beats, gaseous gusts, faraway airplane-engine drones, and spidery, glinting guitar accents, like if the Edge had shown more restraint on The Joshua Tree. Another highlight and an outlier is “Give Me,” a serious stab at dance-floor domination, similar to the propulsive yet cool-browed cover of Lou Reed’s “Vicious” from a previous A.C. Marias single. The warped, spiraling guitar filigrees and punchy drum-machine beats form a foxy foundation for Conway to request a “stolen kiss” and a “little bliss.” Hell, she’s earned it.

One Of Our Girls (Has Gone Missing) climaxes on the title track, one of the greatest songs of the ’80s. Powered by a valiantly galloping rhythm and buoyed by softly stroked guitar and sighing synth undulations, the song bears a melody as sublime as that of Wire’s “Map Ref. 41ºN 93ºW.” After playing “One Of Our Girls” hundreds of times, I can attest that it’s one of the most satisfying syntheses of happiness and sadness in songform.

Following Conway’s sole album as a songwriter, she went on to direct several music videos, including those by Wire, Nick Cave, and Bryan Ferry. We’re fortunate that she dropped One Of Our Girls before finding her more lucrative calling in film. This album is one of those cult artifacts that make aficionados feel as if they’re in on a special secret. Unlike you and me, it never gets old. -Buckley Mayfield

Lothar And The Hand People “Presenting…” (Capitol, 1968)

Look at that cover. The five members of Lothar And The People seem like the high-school students most likely to join a benign cult based on the plot of a ridiculous fantasy novel. Yet after they moved from Denver to New York City, the quirky quintet signed to Capitol Records… and the rest is cult-rock history.

LATHP cut two surprisingly good albums and then adios’d. But they had the distinction of being the first rock group to tour with synthesizers and one of the few to manipulate Theremins. These nerds had an air of gimmickry about them, but they also had talent. Their 1968 debut album, Presenting…, abounds with high-quality, Moog-enhanced novelty rock.

Produced by Robert Marguleff of the excellent synth duo Tonto’s Expanding Head Band (who later worked studio magic on Stevie Wonder’s best albums), Presenting… begins auspiciously with “Machines.” A Mort Shuman composition originally cut by Manfred Mann in 1966, the track rides a ludicrously chunky, mechanical rhythm while the singer belts a cautionary tale about said machines transforming from things that serve humans to becoming our enslavers. The grim message almost gets lost in the robotically bouncy joy the music induces.

A jarring transition occurs with “This Is It,” an easy-going, jazzy charmer that carries the air of a sly Mose Allison tune. The melody is sophisticated yet attention-grabbing, immediately burrowing itself into your memory bank and wiggling adorably there forever more. More catchiness ensues on “This May Be Goodbye,” a psych-pop tune toggling between endearing and annoying, thanks to John Emelin’s nasal, forceful vocals, and “That’s Another Story,” which feels at once old-timey and as hip as Pentangle-esque folkadelia, thanks to its wonderful see-sawing melody.

LATHP could go hard, too. “Sex And Violence” is a groovy, heavy jam featuring the title chanted and sung menacingly. Rusty Ford’s bass line is sick and the guitar solo anticipates Butthole Surfers freak Paul Leary. The tough yet baroque garage rock of “You Won’t Be Lonely” evokes Detroit’s SRC. “It Comes On Anyhow” is the most psychedelic and disjointed moment on the record, full of “OM”s, warped harpsichord motifs, Paul Conly’s synth drones, Tom Flye’s huge beats, and mutterings of “It doesn’t matter.” Imagine a more concise “Revolution 9.”

For Moog-lovers, Conly shines on “Milkweed Love,” an ominous ballad in the vein of Mort Garson and Jean-Jacques Perrey, and “Paul, In Love,” a beautiful reverie à la Garson’s Plantasia. Plus, nearly every song here is capped by little Moog filigrees.

A cloying wackiness occasionally mars Presenting… “Kids Are Little People”’s goofy children’s-television rock and “Woody Woodpecker” (yes, the cartoon theme) especially annoy. But the loony-bin-bound pop of “Ha (Ho)” at least has the decency to end with an enticing electronic coda that foreshadows Tonto’s Expanding Head Band. Thankfully, most of this LP hits the sweet spot between sublime and silly. These songs may carry an indelible late-’60s timestamp, but that only adds to their charm when heard in 2020. -Buckley Mayfield

The Art Of Noise “Who’s Afraid Of The Art Of Noise?” (ZTT, 1984)

The Art Of Noise’s debut album has the air of a Dadaist art prank (orchestrated by NME journalist and propaganda minister Paul Morley) mixed with the savvy production of a prog-rock/synth-pop genius (Trevor Horn of Yes and Buggles fame), bolstered by the keyboard mastery of composer Anne Dudley and the studio ingenuity of programmer J.J. Jeczalik and engineer Gary Langan. Who’s Afraid Of The Art Of Noise? Is not great all the way through, but at its best, the album’s a brash exhibition of sonic collage and complex mood conjuring.

“A Time For Fear (Who’s Afraid)” establishes the Art Of Noise’s exceptional affinity for brutalist beat science, ominous synthetic orchestrations and atmospheres, and deeply poignant melodies. It’s this contrast of extremes that makes AON’s music so tantalizing. The group’s first single, “Beat Box (Diversion One),” gets reprised here, and it’s simply one of the most clever minimalist-maximalist dance tracks ever, powered by some of the smashingest beats ever conceived (samples of Yes’ Alan White) all the while keeping the funk factor Empire State Building high. It almost sounds like a novelty tune, but the few well-chosen elements cohere into club classic that’s more Kraftwerk’s “Numbers” on steroids than Laibach. Maybe best of all, it ends on a languorous soul-jazz piano motif that no one saw coming. This is an exemplary use of typically non-musical elements to build memorable sonic collage.

“Close (To The Edit)” stands as the more exciting twin of “Beat Box”; it slams even harder and grooves even funkier, if you can believe it. Seriously, this must have caused beat envy in producers worldwide. Inspired by the spirit of Dada and musique concrète (stuttering car ignition, power saw revving, etc.) and fueled by an unbelievably studly bass line, “Close (To The Edit)” might be Trevor Horn’s crowing achievement in the studio.

I’ll skip over the filler tracks, but note that the other good but lesser cuts include “Who’s Afraid (Of The Art Of Noise)” and “Snapshot.” The former is disorienting, industrial anti-disco, like Swiss electro pranksters Yello with stronger beats and less whimsy while the latter consists of a minute of perky, Buggles-like synth pop.

On “Moments In Love,” AON dispense with the junkyard/factory-floor tomfoolery and get down to the important business of creating a soft, shimmering electro-pop reverie that exquisitely evokes the title over its 10-minute duration. This is Dudley’s shining moment.. Deemed a classic by the Art Of Noise’s most ardent fans, this song’s a cross between 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love” and Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman.” It really is that special. -Buckley Mayfield

Mandré “Mandré” (Motown, 1977)

Michael Andre Lewis, formerly of soul band Maxayn, reinvented himself in the mid ’70s as Mandré, a helmeted and masked synthesizer savant (Roland TB-808, among others) to whom Daft Punk paid homage (or “ripped off,” if we’re being honest) with their look and, to a degree, sound. His first album in this guise is a cult classic among smart club DJs. Bolstered by excellent musicians such as James Gadson (drums), Johnny “Guitar” Watson, and former Maxayn saxophonist Hank Redd, Mandré has become one of Motown Records’ greatest anomalies—and an influential blueprint for a lot of quality electro-funk and Detroit techno in the decades hence.

“Keep Tryin’” kicks off the album with brash, horn-ballasted space-funk made for seduction and gliding travel. Mandré’s not a very distinctive vocalist, but that’s not really an issue when the music’s this transportive… plus, he gets some women singers behind him to add luster. The LP reaches an early peak with “Solar Flight (Opus I).” A classy club classic that makes Barry White’s lush opuses sound modest, this pell-mell jam fools you into thinking you’re about 73 percent more sophisticated than you are. It’s a silver-dusted whirlwind of interstellar funk, geared to inspire roller-skaters on Neptune to move faster. Play it in a DJ set and watch the crowd go elegantly wild. (Interestingly, it briefly appeared as the theme for ABC’s Wide World Of Sports.)

Almost as great is “Third World Calling (Opus II),” whose ominous electro-funk features wonderfully squelching synth, flanged chikki-wah guitar, clavinet, and dreamily soulful vocals. Most importantly, Mandré’s trademark solarized synth vapors that make you feel as if you’re getting a spray tan in outer space. I get the sense that Prince loved the hell out of this track and tried to emulate it, but couldn’t quite master its menace. Thus ends a killer side 1.

Side 2 skews goofier and not as sublime as 1, but it definitely has its charms. Co-written by Watson, “Masked Music Man” is a snaky, slow-burning funk cut full of his eloquent ax action. Oddly, it recalls Dr. John’s voodoo-haunted classic Gris-Gris. As a show of gratitude to his label boss, Mandré interprets Berry Gordy’s “Money (That’s What I Want).” This paean to greed has been covered often, but not quite like how Mandré does it. He blows it out to an elastic, P-Funk jam that would make Bootsy Collins’ sunglasses levitate.

“Wonder What I’d Do,” aptly enough, is a languid love ballad not too different from Stevie Wonder’s ’70s work in the same vein. The LP’s shocker is “Dirty Love,” a cover of Frank Zappa’s lascivious funk-rock goof. Mandré is surprisingly well-suited for this snide lewdness. “Masked Marauder”—another Watson co-composition—flexes some broad, winking funk that ends the LP on a somewhat flat note. But what comes before is so damn good and ambitious, we can cut Mandré some slack. -Buckley Mayfield

Tangerine Dream “Phaedra” (Virgin, 1974)

A lot of smart people—and yours truly, too—think Phaedra represents peak Tangerine Dream. With a catalog as vast as this German electronic group’s, you’ll never get a consensus on said peak, but for this blog’s purpose, let’s go with Phaedra.

While I dig the four preceding Tangerine Dream opuses, it always seems like I need stronger drugs to truly understand what the hell’s going on with albums such as Electronic MeditationZeitAtem, and Alpha Centauri. Not so with Phaedra. It’s as if Edgar Froese, Christopher Franke, and Peter Baumann clarified what the group does best and then magnified it to infinity.

The opening sidelong title track is a case in point. It’s a 17-minute masterstroke of oscillations, arpeggios, fibrillations, whooshes, woobs, whistles, and phantom choirs criss-crossing and intertwining across the firmament in dramatic arcs. Ever so subtly, Tangerine Dream’s three VCS 3 synth and Mellotron maestros modulate the sounds to optimize tension and release. I once played “Phaedra” in a large club where I was DJing, and it might’ve been the closest I’ve ever come to feeling like a god.

Side 2—which reputedly was accidentally mastered backward—isn’t quite as momentous, but it is great. The Froese composition “Mysterious Semblance At The Strand Of Nightmares” exudes an enigmatic orchestral grandeur—which explains why it was used in the 2018 film Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. Sounding like a harsh meteorological event transpiring in an aviary by the sea, “Mysterious Semblance” is pretty dang disorienting. “Movements Of A Visionary” offers a menagerie of tantalizing tones and timbres—icicle-tinkling, motorized twittering, Doppler effect arpeggios and drones, etc.—to which any sensible person would want to dose. Finally, Baumann’s piece “Sequent ‘C’” closes the record on an elegiac, haunting note.

Tangerine Dream would go on to do a lot more good work—Rubycon, Sorcerer, Thief, Exit, etc.—but none as stunning as Phaedra. -Buckley Mayfield

Land Of The Loops “Bundle Of Joy” (Up, 1996)

Seattle-based indie label Up Records put out some overlooked gems during its 1994-2008 run. One of the finest and quirkiest is Bundle Of Joy by Land Of The Loops (aka East Coast musician/producer Alan Sutherland). Deploying beats, bass lines, and synthy FX as well as guest singers and an array of samples, Land Of The Loops created a wonderful hybrid of bedroom indie-pop and hip-hop. Bundle Of Joy is probably Sutherland’s peak.

The aptly titled “Welcome” starts as a kooky collage, before some of the fattest, funkiest beats ever to appear on an Up release (is that Billy Squier’s “The Big Beat”?) enter the fray. These beats engage the delayed, dulcet vocals of Simone Ashby in a cagey duel in a cut as minimal as early Run-D.M.C. Ashby resurfaces on the phantasmal, disorienting “Burning Clutch (five-speed dub),” her vocals recalling the dreamy tenor of Dorothy Moskowitz of the United States Of America. What a heady trip.

Speaking of guest vocalists, Beat Happening’s Heather Lewis appears on “Growing Concern,” delivering her trademark child-like vocals over an easygoing funk charmer, bestowing a distinctly PNW innocence to the album. She also adds darling singing to the sparkling, stuttering funk of “My Head (leaks)” and to “Cruisin’ For Sentient Beings,” which is powered by a classic, urgent break (close to Skull Snaps’ “It’s A New Day,” but not it) that you’ve heard on at least a dozen hip-hop tracks. Nevertheless, the results are fresh.

More evidence of Sutherland’s kaleidoscopic vocal sampling trickery occurs on “Mass Ave. And Beyond,” on which he sprinkles enchanting bleeps and bloops over a starkly funky foundation, and “I Dream Of Ghosts,” which evokes the eerie, spacey dub of early Seefeel, thanks to the sampled angelic sighs. Perhaps LOTL’s best-known track, “Multi-Family Garage Sale (bargain-bin mix),” presents ludicrously bubbly and loping suburban funk with a staccato female vocal sample, snippets of children talking (“Don’t leave me”; Where are we anyway?” etc.), and beats not unlike those in George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog.” No wonder Miller licensed the track for a beer commercial. I bet Sutherland significantly upgraded his studio after this transaction.

Other highlights include “Help For Your Aching Back,” a swirling, psychedelic workout that might should be playing in hipper chiropractors’ offices, and “Day Late & A Dollar Short,” a fantastic sampladelic agglomeration of Buddhist monk chants, children jauntily singing, twangy guitar from the James Bond theme, archetypal sci-fi analog synth emissions, and very rugged, funky beats. Play this in a DJ set and watch people lose their shit—while looking befuddled.

Discogs prices for Bundle Of Joy have jumped up in recent years. It seems odd that no label’s reissued this wonky wonder since its first issue 23 years ago, but perhaps this review will nudge somebody into doing that. (Gotta dream big!) -Buckley Mayfield

Dick Hyman “The Age Of Electronicus” (Command, 1969)

Even some of the best Moog albums have a fair amount of cheesy camp elements littering them, and Dick Hyman’s The Age Of Electronicus is no different. While Robert Moog’s invention tends to time-stamp music with as much finality as Auto-Tune has done in this century’s first two decades, some of the former material has endured beyond cheap nostalgia thrills. And that includes this cover-heavy opus.

Now a spry 92, Hyman was 42 when Electronicus came out, and he’d established himself as a jazz pianist who once played with Charlie Parker. Dick also was the in-studio organist for the stunt game show Beat The Clock, which sounds like a very fun gig. So, dude has chops. He applied his dexterity and ingenuity to the then-novel Moog synthesizer with both virtuosity and opportunistic glee.

Electronicus boasts the obligatory Beatles covers (“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” and “Blackbird”), two Booker T. & The M.G.’s cuts (“Time Is Tight” and “Green Onions”), Hair show-stopper “Aquarius,” an interpretation of James Brown’s “Give It Up Or Turn It Loose,” a rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” and merely one original. Sure, Electronicus smacks of Moog-hysteria cash-in, but Hyman’s inventiveness with this familiar and relatively eclectic material raises the record high above most of its counterparts now moldering in bargain bins.

The album starts with one of the Beatles’ most insufferable tunes, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” and Hyman squirts chintzy Moog sauce all over the gratingly ingratiating dud. Thankfully, this poor start’s obliterated by the über-funky “Give It Up Or Turn It Loose,” which has more freaky libidinousness than you’d expect from suit-and-tie-wearing, middle-aged white guy who likes to twiddle nobs. Yeah, I’ll still drop this heater into DJ sets. “Blackbird”’s solemn beauty survives Hyman’s wonky timbres and insistent, synthetic pulsations—barely. I bet McCartney dug it.

“Aquarius” is “Aquarius”; it’s hard not to smirk when any version of it is playing. Hair-raising it isn’t. However, “Time Is Tight” and “Green Onions” strut with alpha-male bravado while flaunting extremely flute-y tonalities. Hyman finds a quite annoying setting on the Moog for the folk standard “Both Sides Now,” so I usually skip over it. The sentimental Bacharach-David movie theme “Alfie” fares a bit better, but is still inconsequential. However, the lone Hyman composition, “Kolumbo,” is an epic excursion into complex, swarming oscillations and delayed percussion. It’s by far Electronicus‘ most serious and psychedelic effort. I wish Hyman would’ve unknotted his tie and frolicked in this direction more often.

One good thing about Electronicus: It hasn’t become a hipster totem nor received a fashionable deluxe reissue, so you can still find used vinyl copies for under $10… for now. -Buckley Mayfield

Cabaret Voltaire “Eight Crepuscule Tracks” (Interior, 1987)

If you’re looking for a relatively easy, affordable way to get into Cabaret Voltaire, you should check out the Eight Crepuscule Tracks compilation. Gathering cuts from the English electronic group’s fecund 1981-1983 phase, this collection spotlights Cab Volt’s inventive industrial electro excursions. Think Throbbing Gristle, but with more danceable grooves and a greater propensity to sample American evangelists and menacing authority figures.

Composed of Richard H Kirk (who went on to a prolific solo career as a techno maverick), Stephen Mallinder (creator of the excellent 1982 LP Pow-Wow), and Chris Watson (who became a renowned field recordist), Sheffield’s Cabaret Voltaire began in the mid ’70s as experimental synthesists and collagists whose esoteric explorations you can hear on the 3xCD Methodology box set. By the time we get to the material on Eight Crepuscule Tracks, Cab Volt had morphed into a sinister outfit who want to make you twitch on the dance floor even as they’re inducing serious paranoia in listeners. They would go on to get even funkier and more techno- and house-oriented in the late ’80s and ’90s. But for my money, the early ’80s remain Cabaret Voltaire’s peak era.

The “Sluggin’ Fer Jesus” trilogy that opens Eight Crepuscule Tracks sets an ominous tone that epitomized Cab Volt’s enigmatically unsettling sound at that time. The first part’s an urgent, desolate shuffle that could be considered dance music, but it’s actually more of a soundtrack for a panic-stricken search for escape from a sinister plot. Part two’s a throbbing industrial nightmare scenario that would segue well into Throbbing Gristle’s “Hamburger Lady” or “Discipline.” “Fool’s Game – Sluggin’ Fer Jesus (Part Three)” features a slurred, ill rap by Mallinder over a malignant strain of electro-funk laced with queasy synth horns. Electro-funk is typically party music, but in Cabaret Voltaire’s hands, it’s a soundtrack for running through back alleys in terror. They loop a white American man shouting, “We’re sick and tired of hearing about all the radicals and the perverts and the liberals,” as Mallinder’s bass methodically describes a tight, head-nodding groove that works on a subliminal level.

“Yashar” is a galloping slice of Middle Eastern-inflected dystopian disco that will appeal to Severed Heads fans. The track’s innate paranoia intensifies every time the movie-dialogue sample, “There are 70 billion people over there.” “Where are they hiding?” surfaces. “Your Agent Man” pits unnerving, warped funk with automaton vocals, as it reflects the recurring CV theme of surveillance and espionage. Think Throbbing Gristle’s “20 Jazz Funk Greats” melded with Gil Mellé’s pestilential Andromeda Strain soundtrack.

“Gut Level” and “Invocation” make excellent diptych of eerie, percolating funk, with the former full of urban-aggro movie dialogue and the latter augmented by solemn monk chants looped into a liturgical drone. The comp climaxes with “Theme From ‘Shaft’” as CV convert the 1971 blaxploitation-funk smash hit into a hazy, cold-sweat chiller-thriller score. With the vocals pitched down to a creepy mutter, it’s practically Residents-like. I wonder what Isaac Hayes thought of it… if indeed he ever heard it. -Buckley Mayfield

The Normal “T.V.O.D./Warm Leatherette” (Mute, 1978)

English cultural catalyst Daniel Miller used some Korg 700 synths and a TEAC 4-track tape recorder to cut a single in 1978 that was so riveting and fulfilling, he didn’t need to follow it up. Plus, he put the better track on the B-side, like the perverse mofo he is. He formed his own label, Mute Records, to releases, thinking it would be a one-off, but the single unexpectedly caught on with the punters, capturing Europe’s disaffected demeanor of the burgeoning minimal-wave movement. While Miller basically ceased operating as a recording artist after this 7-inch dropped, he embarked in earnest as a record-company mogul, and Mute is still going strong more than four decades later.

“T.V.O.D.” is a throbbing synth ditty whose main chipper motif radically contrasts with the foundational low-end oscillations and swift, spluttering Velcro-rip beats. It’s the epitome of a kind of robotic synth-pop that was gaining traction in the new-wave/post-punk era. Miller recites his lines in an unnerving, panicky monotone: “I don’t need no TV screen/I just stick the aerial into my skin/And let the signal run through my veins.” Sick stuff, on all levels.

A song about the erotic possibilities of vehicular carnage, “Warm Leatherette” is a paragon of monomaniacal, minimal, anhedonistic synth-pop. Irony! Granted, you can dance to the track’s fleet, lopsided drum-machine beats, but the emergency-room Korg ripples and dentist-drill-drone counterpoint seem intended to zap the joy out of such movement. Still, there’s no denying the hypnotic power of the synth headfuckery and inhumane rhythm Miller generates here. Inspired by J.G. Ballard’s 1973 novel Crash, Miller’s lyrics condense the climactic scene into a morbid fantasy of auto(mobile)-erotic pain. The words deserve to be reprinted in their entirety.

“See the breaking glass
In the underpass
See the breaking glass
In the underpass

Warm leatherette

Hear the crushing steal

Feel the steering wheel

Hear the crushing steel
Feel the steering wheel

Warm leatherette

Warm leatherette

Warm leatherette
Melts on your burning flesh
You can see your reflection
In the luminescent dash

Warm leatherette
A tear of petrol
Is in your eye
The hand brake
Penetrates your thigh
Quick – Let’s make love
Before you die

On warm leatherette
Warm leatherette
Warm leatherette
Warm leatherette

Join the car crash set”

With this one track, Daniel Miller spawned dozens of covers, nearly all of them worth hearing—especially those by Grace Jones [see the Jive Time review of the album on which it appears here], Trent Reznor/Peter Murphy/Atticus Ross/Jeordie White, Suzi Quatro, J.G. Thirlwell, and Boyd Rice. This is how you do a one-and-done music career, people (not counting his joint 1980 live release with Robert Rental). -Buckley Mayfield

Edgar Froese “Aqua” (Brain, 1974)

Edgar Froese was on fire in the mid ’70s, both as leader of Tangerine Dream and as a solo artist. For the former, he helmed the super-deep kosmische space-outs of Phaedra and Rubycon, while under his own name he released the ambient classics Aqua and Epsilon In Malaysian Pale. For many people, Aqua was the best work out of all of those classics.

Herr Froese sure knows how to start an album. The 17-minute title track begins with the sound of burbling water, aptly enough, followed soon by a rippling, chirping synth that sounds like a bird panicking in a submarine engine. Right from the get-go it becomes apparent that Aqua is one of those archetypal headphone albums. You need the cans to capture every frosty, frothy detail Froese generates with his keyboard arsenal. (As a bonus, Günther Brunschen applies effects through the “artificial head system.” I don’t know what that is exactly, but it sounds cool as fuck.) As “Aqua” progresses, it really does feel as if you’re floating in gently turbulent waters. Are there planetariums, but for oceans? Well, if there are, “Aqua” needs to be in heavy rotation there. The effect is simultaneously tranquil and troubling—a rare feat.

Things get really deep and ominous with “Panorphelia,” with its bassy synth oscillations pulsing like the vein on a blue whale’s head throughout the whole track, topped by a swirling, Mellotron-like motif that recalls the dramatic tenor of the Rolling Stones’ “2000 Light Years From Home,” of all things. (Did you know that a blue whale’s veins are big enough to allow a small child to pass through them? Just don’t let your kids near them, okay?) Where were we? Oh, yeah, “Panorphelia”: If you want to get the crowd moving (toward the exits, in fear), play this killer jam.

For the 15-minute “NGC 891,” Tangerine Dream member Chris Franke provides Moog accompaniment on this weird, imaginary sci-fi soundtrack that’s somewhere between Tonto’s Expanding Head Band’s “Jetsex” and Gil Mellé’s Andromeda Strain OST. Album-closer “Upland” is a liturgical spasm, sacred music besieged by fibrillating synths that sound like the emissions of grotesque sea life. It’s at once grandiose and unsettling—a hell of a way to peace out of an album.

Unlike a lot of spacey, beatless music, Froese’s flaunts extremely interesting dynamics and timbral fluctuations. On Aqua and many other entries in his catalog, this mensch really takes the listener on a proverbial journey, and it certainly isn’t to anywhere mundane. -Buckley Mayfield