Electronic innovators Cabaret Voltaire make a mind-bending return on Shadow of Fear | Music Review | Chicago Reader

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Electronic innovators Cabaret Voltaire make a mind-bending return on Shadow of Fear

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In this hellish age, true celebrations feel few and far between, but the first new Cabaret Voltaire album in 26 years is definitely cause for rejoicing. Its title, Shadow of Fear, sticks to this UK group’s usual dystopian vibe; they kicked off the 1980 album The Voice of America by addressing the messed-up state of the U.S. on “The Voice of America/Damage Is Done.” Formed in 1973 as an experimental electronic trio in Sheffield, Cabaret Voltaire predate the punk and industrial movements, and their music influenced both—their use of wildly distorted and processed guitars, drum machines, samples, and electronics even led to uncomprehending audiences pelting them with debris (much like their American counterparts Suicide). In 1978 Cabaret Voltaire signed to Rough Trade, where their releases included the scuzzy, futuristic garage-rock single “Nag Nag Nag” and the sublimely droney and trancey LPs Three Mantras (1980) and Red Mecca (1981). In 1981 keyboardist Chris Watson departed (he’d soon join the amazing Hafler Trio), and the band became the duo of multi-instrumentalist Richard H. Kirk and vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Stephen Mallinder, who moved in a more commercial electronics-driven direction. Kirk launched a solo career in the 80s, and he and Mallinder continued to make albums as Cabaret Voltaire until 1994, when they put out The Conversation. By the end of that decade, Kirk had started hinting about resurrecting the band, and in 2014 he finally did it—as the sole member.

Though Kirk remains the entirety of Cabaret Voltaire on Shadow of Fear, the album delivers the goods that longtime fans crave. It also adds new elements: Kirk has grown even more enthralled with the early-70s German kosmische sound (Cluster, Ash Ra Tempel, Tangerine Dream), judging by these songs. Opener “Be Free” starts with Cabaret Voltaire’s trademark garbled samples, oscillator sweeps, blasts of static, and slowly building layers of programmed percussion. “The Power (of Their Knowledge)” features dubby cosmic synth, what sounds like a sputtering and out-of-control beatbox, and what might be a touch of Kirk’s hyperdistorted guitar (an often underrated contribution of his). The relatively conventional “Night of the Jackal” and “Universal Energy” could work on a sweaty, black-draped dance floor (let’s never take those for granted again), while the cut-up, abstract “Microscopic Flesh Fragment” and the unstoppable thumper “Vasto” best illustrate Kirk’s love of the German underground. As delightfully weird as Shadow of Fear gets, though, nothing on it can prepare you for the closer, a take on Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” that’s one of the strangest and most radical covers I've ever heard (and I’m including Cabaret Voltaire’s doomy, proto-electro 1979 version of the Seeds’ “No Escape”). It took me a second to realize that the song was turned inside out, reduced to stark programmed beats, 80s-style synth horns and gurgles, and a bizarrely pitched vocal sample a la the Residents. (Also . . . is that some modulated wah-wah guitar from Kirk? Pinch me!) It's an oddly drawn-out and grandiose finale to a darkly mind-bending album, which feels especially welcome in this surreal-as-fuck year. As Kirk recently put it in a press statement: “Surrealism has always been really important to Cabaret Voltaire . . . and that’s still present too.”   v

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