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20 best: Minimal Wave records ever made

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  • Veronica Vasicka picks the best DIY synth records to emerge from the 70s and 80s
  • published
    26 Jan 2010
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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.


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.

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.”


What was once attractive became boring and resulted in a dramatic clash between authenticity and artifice.


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
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
SPACE MUSEUM
(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.


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