2X45 is a return to a moment where the work of Cabaret Voltaire clarified, coalesced and, after shifting a gear (and record labels), powerfully continued.
Liminal albums can often reveal a band’s or musician’s work in progress, emerging as they do at points in-between, during moments of transition from state to state. They’re rare in popular music, increasingly so, because they mark change as it occurs. This is always risky for an industry that is appallingly conservative even as it seeks to exploit genres that must evolve or die.
Cabaret Voltaire’s 2×45 from 1982 is exactly this kind of document, their last release for Rough Trade, the last to feature founding member Chris Watson before his departure. The release captures the sound of the band in transition, wrapping up the angular experimenting and soundscapes of the first stage of their career and giving freer rein to the rhythms and beats that would be an increasingly dominant feature of their next stage, the Some Bizarre years. This is not to say that there’s a cut-off where one stops and the other begins. The lo-fi rhythms of Mix- Up and The Voice of America, which had become disciplined and compositionally controlled by the time of Red Mecca, were now increasingly a governing feature, while the themes of their first albums and singles remained audible in both form and content; power and control; surveillance; sex and propaganda; technology and creativity, matched with, on occasion, danceability.
The object, two 45rpm, 12” vinyl discs (hence the title), was originally released in a black outer/silver inner gatefold and then re-released in a colored gatefold, both designed by Neville Brody and, with the second edition, featuring the typeface he’d developed specifically for the band. Today, this kind of detail is no longer particularly special, the fact that a band might extend both their mission and their care to the graphic design of the packaging. However, Cabaret Voltaire’s concern to establish a graphic identity that was both corporate in its branded use of repeated elements and logos, and equally anti-corporate in its linking of these elements to the seedier concerns of a paranoid century, was unique. Equally unique was that, by the time of 2×45, the band recognized that they were sitting between two important, if often opposed traditions: the art music of Cage and Stockhausen and the funk of Motown. These elements, filtered through a heady diet of Burroughs, Gysin and Ballard, translated to stuttering beats and distorted sounds that, as the music developed in complexity and the technology advanced, came to resemble songs with versus, choruses and repeated refrains. Here the manipulation of affect and meaning in a mutated pop music form is more the experiment than the gathering of sounds themselves. All of this development can be heard in 2×45.
“Breath Deep” opens the the first disc with militaristic snares and rim shots over a rock-steady 4/4 bass drum while an anonymously organic sound modulates around a single note and then, with a glorious roar, massed fuzzed guitars and horns swoop in and land, the song grinding into focus as if from a seriously unwell Isaac Hayes. Throughout, Stephen Mallinder whispers in the background, his voice a vague unfocused threat while those horns bray. There’s no story here. Indeed, Cabaret Voltaire generally eschew narrative, although they do come close in the Charlie Manson-focused The Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord which, at this point, is still three years away. Instead, “Breath Deep” spirals around a feeling, a set of gritty sensations, the song itself breathing into the harsh fuzzy noises that suggest a mutant Detroit funk, and then breathing out into a brief pause, a tinkle of percussion. When it comes, the end of the song is a relief, a moment of silence before the famous sample from “The Outer Limits” episode “Demon with a Glass Hand,” “the seventy billion people of Earth/ where are they hiding?,” the droning synth notes and the stutter of Eastern-inspired percussion that is “Yashar.”
“Yashar” remains a startling composition, layers of modulated percussion over an Orientalist synth scale, giving the track an uneasy ambiguity; one is never sure here (and equally with the Three Mantras EP from 1980) whether these tones and scales are present in order to exploit general Western misunderstandings of the East or to highlight that ignorance. A remix of “Yashar” by John Robie would be released on Factory Records and gain no small amount of dance floor time and, in 2003, further remixes would be released by Mute Records on their NovaMute imprint.
“Protection” again utilizes the “droning intro” motif and shuffling militaristic drums, adding Chris Watson’s delicate organ chords while differently tuned guitar chords counterpoint Richard H. Kirk’s clarinet being pushed to its limits. Mallinder’s voice here is as distorted as the other instruments, all hissing sibilants and whispers, another sound source to add to the mix. There are further references to military force with the shout that starts the song and the sound of a parade ground whistle that punctuates randomly. If there’s an overarching thesis to the first disc, it might be in the relationship between rhythm and power, something Mallinder would return to his first solo album Pow Wow and Kirk in Time High Fiction, both in 1983.
“War of Nerves (T.E.S)” opens the second disc with an ambient soundscape drifting over sampled voices lifted from some anonymous C-grade film, two voices discussing the use of rats in torture. The bass guitar has work to do instead of merely making time with single note repetitions, a motif that it moves with precision, playing with and against the track’s expert percussion. The effect of “War of Nerves (T.E.S)” might very well be familiar these days; the unsettling soundscape, found voices, distorted noises that offer images of wet brickwork and bleak skies. Here, though and in the context of the rest of the album, it feels fresh, the architecture of the album giving it room to make sense and threaten anew. “Wait and Shuffle” marries rockist guitar wailing with more mutant funk, Kirk’s saxophone and clarinet squeals matching Mallinder’s still-distorted vocals. There’s a sense here of the elements coalescing, a new sound of compositional mastery and of more sonic elements being utilized, the song’s ebbs and flows evidencing an attention to song-writing detail markedly different to what had been written before. Finally, “Get Out of My Face” perfectly returns us to the themes of the first disc. Samples of a drill sergeant and cadets sounding off add to the song’s unnerving atmosphere, while a skittering synth offers arpeggios that tumble down octaves in waves. Driving it all is a lolloping synth bass under which Mallinder’s bass guitar keeps time, weaving around the bass drum and clattering percussion. The song rolls on and on, never boring but absolutely an experiment in rhythm and repetition, a fitting track to end with.
While it might be moot to discuss whether 2X45 has dated or not, close listening with the benefit of hindsight can detect threads that would play out across independent and experimental music for years; the Eastern influences of “Yashar” in the work of Bryn Jones and Muslimgauze; the stolen movie samples in practically every industrial act since; the mutant funk in Tuxedomoon and endless others. More than that, the double EP set arrived with a sonic architecture that was ahead of the curve and was then left behind by the band themselves, only for both Kirk and Mallinder to discover, at different points in their careers, that much of what they brought to these two discs remains powerfully part of their compositional toolbox. In 2×45 one can hear the germinal forms of tracks on both Kirk’s Dasein and Mallinder’s Um Dada, experiments with repetition being explored still and nowhere near exhausted. Ultimately, a return to 2X45 is a return to a moment where the work of Cabaret Voltaire clarified, coalesced and, after shifting a gear (and record labels), powerfully continued.