Words: Veronica Vasicka
Mainly characterized by minimal musical structures, the sound of Minimal Wave was hallmarked by the use of the analog synthesizers and drum machines that were manufactured in the 1970s and 1980s by Roland, Korg, Yamaha, ARP, Linn, Oberheim, Moog and Sequential Circuits (to name a few).
Most of the Minimal Wave bands recorded in their home studios and created their own album artwork, which naturally paved the way for a D.I.Y. aesthetic to emerge. Generally, the musicians were influenced by avant-garde movements such as futurism and constructivism as well as by the literature of science fiction and existentialism. They had an innovative, unique approach to music-making, which was less polished than the music that appeared on mainstream charts during the same time period.
These musicians made electronic, synthesizer, and experimental “music of intelligence and feeling” around the world and many collaborated on music together via the mail. The Canadian fanzine CLEM (Contact List Of Electronic Music) was very influential in creating a worldwide community for this type of music, before digital technology and the internet came into play. It was a directory of artists, organizations, radio stations, magazines, and record labels throughout the world. Through CLEM, musicians were able to collaborate via the mail by sending their recorded music on cassette to both fellow musicians and labels around the world. A result of one of these collaborations, between Henk Wallays (Belgium) and Tara Cross (Brooklyn, NY) made this 20 best list. The track is called ‘Like I Am, Comme Je Suis’.
The Minimal Wave genre actually formed only several years ago, as a result of a resurgence of interest in the roots of pre-MIDI electronic New Wave (1978-1985), mainly from North America, Europe and Japan. This music is sometimes referred to as Minimal Electronic, Minimal Synth, Cold Wave, New Wave, Techno pop, or Synthpop, depending on the particular style, year, and location of the band. Many of these bands released their music in small batches on cassette or vinyl, and distributed it themselves.
“What was once attractive became boring and resulted in a dramatic clash between authenticity and artifice.”
They predominantly created music with synthesizers and drum machines, that remained true to its noticeably synthesized drum programming and trebly, thin melodies. Instead of shying away from the nature of the synthesized sound, there was an emphasis on the inherent artificiality of it. The remaining elements: mechanical beats, short repetitive patterns and vocal arrangements acted as a counterpoint to that artificiality. These bands never aimed to use synthesizers to imitate the big band sounds or acoustic string instruments that characterized mainstream pop at the time. While it’s true that some of the song structures are similar to those of other popular music, the sounds that are heard actually resemble the machines used to create them. What’s left is stripped-down, bare bones New Wave. In Jeremy Kolosine’s words (founding member of legendary synthpunk band Futurisk), quoted from Alternative Rhythms (July, 1983), “hopefully, the concept of ‘synthpop’ will fade away. It sounds like a weird thing for me to say; but when synthpop fades away, then the synthesizers will be used as the TOOLS they are meant to be. Used as a musical instrument, and not just as a gimmick.”
The influx of digital technology and introduction of MIDI in the mid 80s created new possibilities for song structuring and production techniques that fundamentally changed the sound of New Wave. The old minimalist approach of using a drum machine pattern to trigger a synthesizer was no longer exciting and musicians began following suit with the rest of the mainstream rock world, opting for heavy, compressed production. What was once attractive became boring and resulted in a dramatic clash between authenticity and artifice. New Wave music became formulaic and more homogenized.
Some of the bands that made the Top 20 list, such as Oppenheimer Analysis, Solid Space, Linear Movement, and A Blaze Colour only made a couple hundred copies of their tapes in the early 80s. Those tapes circulated though, and created a buzz. They were gone, but not forgotten. The problem was that much of this talent was brewing in the underground scenes during the time and never quite surfaced. There were pockets of scenes here and there, but not until now has there been a cohesive network of people interested in this genre.
It was difficult to edit the hundreds of favorite cassettes and albums I love down to 20 selections but I think this group is a solid starting point for those new to the genre. Of course it’s important to mention some of the mainstream albums which were quite influential on Minimal Wave – such as OMD’s Organisation, Depeche Mode’s Speak And Spell, John Foxx’s Metamatic, Kraftwerk’s The Man Machine, Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Solid State Survivor and the Human League’s early material.
Veronica Vasicka is a co-founder of New York’s East Village Radio and runs the Minimal Wave label, a peerless source of minimal wave reissues and first-time vinyl pressings. Together with Peanut Butter Wolf she compiled The Minimal Wave Tapes, the essential introduction to minimal wave, out now on Stone’s Throw. More information here.
01: OPPENHEIMER ANALYSIS
(MINIMAL WAVE 12″, 2005)
Andy Oppenheimer and Martin Lloyd met in 1979 at the World Science Fiction Convention in Brighton, and began collaborating on music in the early 80s. By 1982, they released a bunch of brilliant tracks on a cassette entitled New Mexico. These songs were recorded in Martin’s home studio and the production is excellent. They only made 200 of these tapes, and sent several of them off to Melody Maker and Sounds, where they were reviewed. In 2005, their music was re-mastered (after Martin did some tape baking restoration!) and released on vinyl by the Minimal Wave label, and has finally begun to gain the recognition it deserves. Martin and Andy reformed Oppenheimer Analysis in 2006 and have been playing shows in Europe since. Some of their “hits” include ‘The Devil’s Dancers’, ‘Radiance’, and ‘Cold War’. Theses are prime examples of lost 80s synth-pop gems.’The Devil’s Dancers’ tends to be the popular standout here [that track was also re-issuedon 12″ by Clone Classic Cuts]. It’s addictive, minimal electronic disco with superb vocals from Andy Oppenheimer: “Come with us, the future’s here to stay / Dance with us, dance with us / We’re the devil’s dancers, swinging all the answers”. A must for those new to Minimal Wave.
02: SOLID SPACE
(IN PHAZE MC, 1982)
Solid Space formed in the UK in late 70s. The two members, Maf Vosburgh and Dan Goldstein met at school when they were 11. Around the age of 14, they started playing in a 4-piece new wave band called Exhibit A. By 15, they had created their own record label, Irrelevant Wombat Records (1979). In 1980, they formed Solid Space, and spent the next couple of years recording. They released all their material on the Space Museum cassette in 1984. According to Maf, “Solid Space at that point involved me getting on a bus with a bunch of equipment and going over to Dan’s house for the afternoon, one reason we always favoured light battery-powered gear.” Some of the highlights include ‘A Darkness In My Soul’, ‘Destination Moon’, and ’10th Planet’. These songs are dark, atmospheric, and atypical because they contain acoustic guitar along with synthesizers and drum machines. Rumour has it that a bunch of labels have been trying to reissue this one for about a decade now. Good luck!
03: LINEAR MOVEMENT
ON THE SCREEN
(MINIMAL WAVE LP, 2008)
‘Way Out Of Living’ is so warm and fills me with pure analog love. The synths are slinky and have a funky melodic vibe to them, and Lieve Van Steerteghem’s vocal is just fantastic. This is a nice example of the warmer side of Minimal Wave. Peter Bonne formed Linear Movement in Belgium in 1981, and recorded these tracks the following year. At the time, he was creating music as Twilight Ritual and Autumn which was more experimental, and he wanted to break away to try something more pop-oriented. In his 1986 catalogue, he described Linear Movement as “melodic and popular rhythm music for dance and easy listening. Steady.” Linear Movement tracks were released on the Pulse Music (1982) cassette, and appeared here and there on cassette compilations throughout the world. Their material was never cohesively released on record until On The Screen came out last year. Linear Movement was Peter’s exploration into pop territory, and later led him to form A Split Second.
04: UNOVIDUAL + TARA CROSS
‘LIKE I AM, COMME JE SUIS’
(from ENTROPIES, MICRART MC, 1986)
Unovidual was the solo project of Henk Wallays from Belgium. Henk got into making electronic music by way of Peter Bonne from the Micrart Group. During his first visit to Peter’s place, Henk ‘dared’ to ask him how he actually made his music. Then while showing him and playing around with the Roland TR808 rhythm composer and a sequencer, Henk was immediately ‘sold’ and realized that listening to music and discovering new groups was not enough anymore. Peter awoke a feeling in Henk and inspired him to begin making his own music. Soon after this decision he bought his first synthesizer, drum machine and 4-track recorder.
He began collaborating with artists via mail, exchanging tapes back and forth. One of his most intense and fruitful partnerships was with with Tara Cross, an artist from Brooklyn, NY. One can honestly say that they had a incredible musical link, they had similar reactions to specific riffs. When Unovidual sent out the base tracks to Tara, “she always managed to add just those parts on it which I actually had in mind without telling her so… an incredible, enriching experience”. Tara once flew over from the US and they went into the studio aiming to finish one of Henk’s titles called ‘Finance’. After two days of studio work they came back with a rather commercial, polished version under the well-meaning influence of the technician – not bad, but a slight shift away from what they had originally planned. Arriving at the 4-track studio they made another title in less then two hours; ‘Like I Am, Comme Je Suis’ was born. This, they felt, was closer to what they had in mind. If only they’d skipped the studio and worked on the 4-track alone, they would probably have recorded a whole set of songs.
LJUBAV JE HLADNIJA OD SMRTI
(FV ZALOZBA, TOTO ALLE PRESE COI DISCHI LP, 1985)
I often play this track out, because it’s so damn catchy. It’s danceable Minimal Wave with a heavily affected vocal chorus and sounds of a man screaming in pain in the background. The trebly melodic synth that comes in midway through the song is an unexpected surprise. The drum accent sounds throughout like the Mattel Synsonics toy drum machine. Borghesia were a Slovenian band who formed in Ljubljana in 1982. Their aesthetic was built around imagery that was taboo, prohibited and repressed. Check out their video and you’ll get a sample of that. ‘ON’ was recorded in 1983, and came out on the album Ljubav je hladnija od smrti (Love Is Colder Than Death) in 1985. Later, Borghesia became known as pioneers of the EBM genre.
06: 1000 OHM
(ACE RECORDS 7″, 1979)
1000 Ohm was Frank Van Bogaert’s New Wave project, scoring one of the biggest hits in Belgium and beyond in 1981. He formed the group when he was 18 and continued until about 1987. This song is well balanced with a driving bass synth, and pretty, melancholic melodies. This is more of a mainstream Minimal Wave track, if such a thing exists. Another standout track of theirs from 1983 is ‘I Think She Understood’. Also full of hooks, these two Belgian synth-pop songs are masterpieces.
(MANHATTAN-FORMULA LP, 1982)
This entire album is a treasure that exemplifies Minimal Wave. The fact that it has remained relatively obscure and didn’t get much attention or distribution at the time is incredible. It came out in 1982 on a Canadian label called Manhattan-Formula. ‘Approach On Tokyo’, ‘Subway 49′ and ‘Digital Delight’ are highlights for me. Since the artists are only listed by their nicknames on the back of the album (Zao, Dax, and U-Gen), ‘83 has remained one of the mysteries of the Minimal Wave world. The simple heartfelt lyrics, combined with groundbreaking techniques in TR606 drum programming, and experimental sounds used as accents throughout the tracks, make this a unique and important record, as well as a wonderful archive of early synth music. Personal note: I made a stencil of their logo when I first got the record, and stenciled it all over many of my old t-shirts. Talk about obsessed!
08: CERAMIC HELLO
THE ABSENCE OF A CANARY
(MANNEQUIN RECORDS LP, 1981)
What a beautiful record, inside and out. Ceramic Hello was a duo from Burlington, Ontario, formed by Brett Wickens and Roger Humphreys in 1980. The songs have a classic minimal electronic feel, nice clean production and moody synth melodies. ‘Climatic Nouveaux’, ‘Footsteps In The Fog’, and ‘Symphony Of Shudders’ are standouts for me. ‘Theatre Matrix’, which appeared on their first 7”, is another favorite. It has some prog-rock elements too which adds a sweet touch. For the nerds out there, the album was recorded using an MS-20, PolyMoog, Juno-60, Roland Space Echo, various guitar effects pedals like the Phase 90 and Electric Mistress Flanger, an old music box that played “Raindrops Keep Falling on my He…ad”, a pull-string doll from the 1960s called “Mod Madge” who said weird things, Minimoog, Farfisa stage organ, and a Fender guitar. The whole thing was recorded on a Tascam 8-track reel-to-reel and mixed in a 16 track studio in Waterdown, ON, Canada that was mostly set up for country and western bands! It’s interesting to note that Brett Wickens later went on to work as a graphic designer, partnering with Peter Saville and designing many seminal LP covers for bands such as Peter Gabriel, New Order, Joy Division, Ultravox and others.
09: GUYER’S CONNECTION
(SELF-RELEASED LP, 1983)
This is definitely a weird one. Two guys from Switzerland: Philippe Alioth and Tibor Csebits formed Guyer’s Connection in 1982 when they were 14 and 15. They had two synths, a drum machine and a 4-track tape recorder, and plenty of ideas, phantasms and weird convictions. Most of their friends were convinced that this “beep –boomboom-blip-bloup-boing” music would not interest anyone (which was true in 1983, by the way). But Tibor and Philippe were confident that they were on the right track. They self-produced and released this album, Portrait, in 1983, which to no surprise is highly sought after these days. When listening to this record, you can hear that they’re fumbling around a bit, kind of uncertain of their playing ability. That imperfection is really cute. The intro track ‘Pogo Of Techno’ sounds so deep and ahead of its time. And they didn’t take themselves too seriously, which is refreshing. There’s another great track called Dallas, and the lyrics are: “no more time for sex and crime cause everywhere it’s Dallas time, that’s fine, so fine / No more war in Palestine cause also there is Dallas time, that’s fine, so fine / Bobby, Pamela and JR are more important than an atomic war…”. ‘She’s So Hot’ is also a killer track (“She’s so hot she’s so cool / **** her in the swimming pool”).
10: KYM AMPS
‘YOU DON’T KNOW MY NAME (BUT I KNOW YOU)’
This one is a melancholy minimal synth track with female vocals. It’s dark and mysterious, and pretty much sounds like what the cover looks like. The bassline is simple and solid, and the melodies create a nice atmospheric mood for the vocals, “You don’t know my name (but I know you)”. It’s a sad love song about loneliness and obsession. There’s a 120bpm TR808 kick drum through out the track, and never a snare or hi hat. That sparse rhythm section creates a nice build-up of tension.
11: NIGHT MOVES
(GC RECORDINGS 12″, 1981)
Night Moves was created after Michael Guihen saw Gary Numan on Top of the Pops in the spring of 1979, performing ‘Are Friends Electric’. The droning, driving sound of the opening notes took his attention and inspired him to make electronic music. Not having any classical music training except for a few piano lessons at school, he placed an ad in a well-known music magazine for anyone who had interest in forming a synth-based band. He formed Night Moves with John Davis and got keyboard wizard Denis Haines (known for playing on some Gary Numan, and Gazebo tracks) to play on ‘Transdance’ and then had it engineered by Simon Smart. Another TR808 jam, this one is a pure electro pop italo dance track. It’s surprising that it didn’t make the pop charts. It remained fairly underground yet it did reach early 80s Chicago since it was played on WBMX, probably due to its popularity on the dancefloor. It ended up representing the New Wave influence on the early Chicago house scene. This masterpiece is a cross between Italo disco and minimal synth. The original white label 12” version sells for about $300.
12: PSYCHIC YOUTH
‘STEP IN TIME’
(SELF-RELEASED 7″, 1982)
This is a cult Minimal Wave 7” record from the US. It was pressed in Wyandanch, N.Y. in 1982. The A side ‘Step In Time’ is built around the KR55 drum machine, it starts right off with a quick tempo and bouncy synths. The vocal sits in the backround, has nice futuristic lyrics referencing modernity, analog-digital, control, circuits and “the Russian invasion too (in a flash, we’ll be ash)”. The synth sounds and sequencing complement the drum machine perfectly. The B side ‘The Future Now’ is just as great, featuring catchy female vocals and what sounds like an SH09 melody. Listening to this song now, I’m remembering how addictive it is.
13: SNOWY RED
THE RIGHT TO DIE
(DIRTY DANCING LP, 1982)
This is one of my all time favorite records. Again, the driving rhythm is the KR55. Snowy Red aka Micky Mike was Marcel Thiel from Belgium. He started out making minimal synth wave stuff and then called it quits in 1989 with an album called The Beat Is Over. Between 1981 and 1989, he released four LPs, four 7”s and five 12”s. The track ‘Lies In Your Eyes’ has always stuck with me. The intro starts out like an icy landscape of noise filter sweeps and then at the 1 minute mark, the drum machine kicks in, and the synth melodies take over. The noise filter sweeps remain throughout the track creating a nice build up, and are solo’d again for the last minute. It’s seven and a half minutes of pure, stripped-down synth-wave heaven. Another standout is ‘Sinking Down’, which came out on his first LP in 1981. Actually, there are too many great tracks by Snowy Red. Definitely a staple in the Minimal Wave world.
PLAYER PIANO EP
(CLARK HUMPHREY RECORDS 7″, 1982)
Futurisk was a special wave band, with a synth-punk angle. They were a three piece from South Florida who formed in ‘79 when a teenage Jeremy Kolosine won studio time and money in a competition with his drum-machine triggered guitar-synth act Clark Humphrey & Futurisk. Jeremy decided to form a band around the truncated name ‘Futurisk’ and recorded two 7”s on his own label, Clark Humphrey Records. The second, a 5 song EP called Player Piano, came out in 1982. This is a fine example of synthpunk/wave. ‘Meteoright’ is superb as well as ‘Lonely Streets’, which is kind of disco. According to Kolosine, quoted from Alternative Rhythms (July, 1983), “disco people love us ‘cause of the heavy backbeat to our songs. But then again, rock people who wouldn’t dance to disco can dance to us cause we have that Rock ‘n Roll sound”. A must have!
15: STEPHAN EICHER
STEPHAN EICHER SPIELT NOISE BOYS
(OFF COURSE RECORDS 7″, 1980)
Here’s a completely DIY, Minimal Wave one man band from Switzerland from 1980. Stephan Eicher played in the band Grauzone, known for their hit single ‘Eisbär’. Prior to that, he began recording his solo stuff and releasing it on an independent label called Off Course. This is probably the most minimal release in this list. It’s a 5 song 7” EP, and the songs sound like they were made with one drum machine and one synthesizer. There’s so much emotion coming through his vocals in each track that it doesn’t even matter. He’s really singing and it’s great. ‘MiniMiniMiniMinijupe’ and ‘Disco Mania’ are highlights for me. ‘MiniMiniMiniMinijupe’ starts out with him singing “baby baby baby baby”, and he goes on singing on top of the track. Its definitely spontaneous, like a bedroom recording on a tape recorder late at night. In ‘Disco Mania’, he’s chanting “Dance Dance.. baby baby, let’s dance”. Such simplicity is key to great Minimal Wave.
(CGD 12″, 1984)
Ruins were an electro-wave duo from Italy. They were arty and experimental and definitely not interested in joining the mainstream. They were interested in multimedia and had a strong visual aesthetic via their album art, videos and projections. This track ‘Fire’ is super powerful. It’s where Italo meets Minimal Wave. I often play it out, and people go nuts. It has a great energy and beautiful production. This video is a must-see if you want to grasp the full effect of the song.
17: EXPERIMENTAL PRODUCTS
(SHORT CIRCUIT LP, 1982)
I met Michael Gross when I took a trip to Philadelphia several years ago to conduct an interview. He was living with Dale from Crash Course In Science and he still had a studio full of synths. It felt like not much had changed since they were making minimal synth music in the early 80s. This album is a prototype of this kind of music. It was self-produced and self-released. It’s one of the most sought-after records and relics of minimal synth from the US. ‘Sweet Rejection’ is a wonderful track, with beautiful soaring synth melodies and cool mysterious vocals. Actually, every song on this record is moving; all chugging, arpeggiated synth lines and New Wave vocals. These guys played shows where they resided at the time: Claymont, Delaware and were pretty known in the underground scene during their time there. Later they went on to release ‘Glowing In The Dark’, another true masterpiece, but this time more in the Italo vein.
18: CIRCUIT 7
(RAPP / MICRO RECORDS 7″, 1984)
Circuit 7 was the “legend and myth” created by Martyn Good and Andy Partington. They formed in the UK in 1981 and released a couple singles including their ‘hit’ ‘Video Boys’ on their own Micro Records label in 1984. ‘Video Boys’, ‘Modern Story’ and ‘Beat Tonight’ are all brilliant minimal wave / synth-punk tracks with male vocals featuring the Juno 60, SH09, Wasp synth and CR8000 amongst others. They also had some electric guitar and sax thrown in for good measure. I usually cringe at sax but it totally works here. Their song structures are pretty straightforward with some upbeat catchy pop punk elements. Blasting ‘Video Boys’ makes some people want to throw things across the room – powerful! Their original singles still remain ultra-rare and are highly sought-after.
19: A BLAZE COLOUR
‘AGAINST THE DARK TREES BEYOND’
(SELF-RELEASED MC, 1981)
A Blaze Colour is Ludo Camberlain aka Carl S Johansen and Bart Azijn from Belgium. This is definitely one of the best Belgian Minimal Wave bands. Actually, I would die to reissue it but these guys don’t seem interested in revisiting the past. Against The Dark Trees Beyond came out in 1982, and was recorded on a Teac 3300 2-track recorder. The opening track is a chaotic number called ‘Means To An End’. It starts out innocently with some Casio rhythm sounds and vocals, and then builds up for about two minutes in the same fashion until kicks in full force with a fierce drum machine. Not only is this a great track, it’s a perfect example of successfully working within the confines of using only a few pieces of gear. My next favorite track, and I must’ve listened to it 1000 times now, is ‘Or Lie Again’. It’s more like a melancholy minimal synth lullaby.
SOMEWHERE IN THE NIGHT
(MINIMAL WAVE LP, 1982)
Somewhere in the Night is a collection of recordings circa 1982-’85, from France’s Stereo (Bernie Adam and Thierry Noritop). They remained quite a mystery until several years ago. The opening and ‘hit’ track ‘Somewhere In The Night’ has a majestic, science fiction soundtrack vibe, with great vocoder vocals and Vangelis-style keyboards. The other ‘hit’,’No More’ – a song that had been haunting me for years – is straight up early New Wave. I had heard it out in some downtown clubs when I was in High School and always wondered what it was. These songs are very well produced and could even have entered the mainstream alongside OMD and Depeche Mode in 1982. The painting on the cover is fantastic: an alien playing records in outer space, featuring the caricatures of the Stereo guys’ faces on the bottom.