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Anatomy of a Tracklist: Cabaret Voltaire: The Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord

Anatomy of a Tracklist: Cabaret Voltaire: The Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord

The Crackdown is a significant shift in tone and musicality.

By the time of The Convenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord Cabaret Voltaire had moved, at least within the consciousness of the musical press of the time, from experimental noise-niks and critical commentators to, by 1985, established left-of-centre electronic musicians. The shift from Rough Trade to Some Bizarre, with a lucrative distribution deal through Virgin Records, coincided with Chris Watson’s departure, leaving Stephen Mallinder and Richard H. Kirk free to further foreground the musicality that had been there from the start but had previously been subsumed behind or beneath the realization of the band’s various obsessions: personal paranoia, state surveillance and the rise of the right in a United Kingdom that, as punk had shown, was anything but.

As their tape recorder and sampling practices strengthened, the voices of America would increasingly find their way into the Cab’s repertoire, sounds stolen from the mists of shortwave and local television to illustrate that, out there, things really were as bad as they seemed. In this Cabaret Voltaire increasingly faced towards the West and a grimly romanticized vision of America in a way that differed from others of the early Industrial stable, with Throbbing Gristle much more obviously interested in the rotten heart of Britain and Europe than in what was happening across the Atlantic. Of course, this isn’t a hard and fast categorization and Cabaret Voltaire’s soundtrack for Peter Care’s 1980 Sheffield-noir film Johnny Yesno owes as much to the decayed bricks and mortar of post-Industrial Revolution England as anything P-Orridge and Co. were producing.

But with Watson leaving the band in 1981, the change in record companies and resulting increase in production budgets provided an opportunity to refocus those growing fascinations, gain access to higher quality equipment and, as a result, 1983’s The Crackdown is a significant shift in tone and musicality, swapping the lo-fi electronics for a fully developed electro-funk workout, albeit one with hard edges and griding angles intact. 1984’s Micro-Phonies would further cement this methodology, Mallinder’s breathy vocals always a menacing narration over his and Kirk’s stripped back and bare-bones electronica. Out of this, and driven by record label pressure to start producing chart-friendly hits, the duo delivered The Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord, recorded quickly in the group’s Sheffield-based Western Works studio after time spent in the United States. Immediately the album collided with the American censors who reduced the title to The Arm of the Lord in order to avoid too-direct a reference to the heavily armed Christian survivalist organisation from whom the title was taken. But far from being a simplistic response to the growing pop-cultural influence of America, The Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord is an exercise in paranoia with anxiety coded into the jittery sample-heavy structures of the music itself. Unlike the consistency in song structure and widening genre exploration present in the previous two albums, here there is a granular attention to the structure of the music itself, playing the collision of media information against the ways in which new musical technologies might utilise and exploit these potential sound sources. And through it all, what links the 10 tracks of this album is a focus on the decay of popular culture that the United States had come to represent for Kirk and Mallinder, the anonymous voices, static and manipulated sounds coalescing around the figure of the album’s narrator, Charlie Manson, providing a fascinating insight into how the United States might reveal its underbelly to the rest of the world.

“L21st”

The album opens with clattering cowbells in one speaker while sampled voices pulse in another, a snatched field recording with a woman’s voice uttering “… you say you like New York so much …”. Add in a couple of sampled orchestral stabs and the song is off and pulsing, Mallinder’s plucked bass guitar running against Kirk’s synth bassline, random notes pulled out and emphasised with reverb and delay, the order of the song not emerging so much as settling into place like a stirred sediment. “L21st” is a harder, faster and sharper opening than any the Cab’s had previously delivered, the production upping both ends of the aural spectrum and the song’s fractured structure highlighting the fact that the band now owned (rather than rented) their samplers and so had greater freedom to luxuriate in sonic disassembly. Throughout, Mallinder advises that we “Work the vein and keep it up/ Keep it up” while the song plays out the template for the album, layers that don’t work in the same kind of accord that they did on Micro-Phonies but, instead, move in conflict, starting and pausing, onwards towards the point at which the song literally collapses under the weight of those bent samples and transforms into the album’s sole single.

“I Want You”

The difficult clatter of “I Want You” is only part of the song’s perversity. The album’s sole single is famously also a coded discussion about masturbation hiding in plain sight, a middle finger to a major label that demanded a hit and, kind of, got one. The single charted at 91 in the UK, enough to keep Branson’s wolf from the door, while the video was produced and directed by now long-time collaborator Peter Care. As singles go, it’s deliberately uncomfortable, the preacher’s voice a call-back to “Sensoria” but delivered here via a much faster and less forgiving beat-heavy sound while Mallinder’s breathless incantations remind us that “Make some time here, fingers free/ Keep your hands on your chemistry.” Here, as with Micro-Phonies’ “Sensoria” and its companion “Do Right,” the call uttered by the song is the opposite of the usual demands of popular music, the “I want you” of this track a demand to “bow your head” and resist desire, not satisfy it. On the album, the final 40 seconds of the track bring the song to a close with instructions from a firing range instructor on how to best ensure firearms accuracy, American gun culture providing the link between this track and the next.

“Hell’s Home”

It’s not until the album’s third song that there’s a break, however brief, in the attack of metronymic 4/4 rhythms. “Hell’s Home” warms into its robust flexing with a rolling noise and guitar soundscape that is stopped short by a sped-up sample of the album’s singular narrative presence, Charles Manson, before the drums kick off once more. We don’t know who the voice belongs to yet though, and that’s not unusual for a Cabaret Voltaire track where anonymous voices clutter the airwaves. Here though, Manson’s voice returns as a refrain telling us about “a good old man that I met on the road” while Mallinder intones “You got the fear/ You got the hole/ You don’t like it but/ Hell’s home ….” The drumbeat is a simple bass-heavy kick and snare with fluttering off-beats throughout, layered toms that roll in like a storm on the horizon before the song, like many moments on this album, is suspended for a few bars. In these pauses, other snippets of media pass by before the rhythm resumes, pieces of radio and television that flash past and are gone demonstrating that new musical technologies have the potential to make every sound an instrument, removed from its source and free to consume. Kirk’s processed guitar adds a bitter sheen at the song’s final third before more radio noise, static, truncated and blurred samples collide and decay. Musically, the song hovers close to a monotone but the greater point is the attention paid to the layers of sound and the ways in which Kirk and Mallinder set up and then fracture pop music formats and structures.

“Kickback”

The song’s sections are held firmly in place by the drum beat which is unashamedly aggressive, a far cry from the subtle militarism of earlier tracks like 1981’s “Black Mask” or 1982’s “Get Out of My Face.” Here the synth bass provides funky rejoinder to Mallinder’s “I got to break/ Out,” the middle section a collision of hand claps, stuttering snare hits and maniplated voices while Mallinder asks “How can you pick and choose/ When fate has got the drop on you.” There’s less media clutter here but the layers of manipulated voices that sit beneath the synth horns and other samples make this as uncomfortable as any of the other tracks, even as the song provides a template for the electronic body music that, at that moment, was percolating across Europe. The kickback is both payoff and recoil, both of those words opening up uncomfortably in the ways they link to the themes of the album and usher in the final track of Side One.

“The Arm of the Lord”

If anything, the relatively straightforward of “Kickback” is a set-up, a recognisible-if-fractured calm before the song’s transition, via another snatch of Manson’s dialogue, into the found-sound and soundscape of “The Arm of the Lord.” Soft breaths of white-noise wind and rounded bass notes alternately obscure and reveal dialogue lifted from a long-forgotten film about Barry Mayson, a reformed and redeemed ex-Hell’s Angel discussing a new identity as a result of his salvation. The figure of the gangster is the obscene underside of the American dream, popular because it reveals that only way to achive manifest destiny is to violate the laws that are meant to make it possible for all. It’s no accident that the gangster and the zealot are linked in this outro. We’re bought into this track with Manson telling us of the importance of not snitching, of “holding our mud,” and we leave this first side of the album with Barry Barry and Gypsy finding new life in Jesus Christ after selling out their biker buddies, the road to success or heaven paved with the lives of those exploited along the way.

“Warm”

The first track of Side Two collapses a woman’s porn-star groans and moans into a clatter of sampled horns and stabs, clicking percussion and, again, thumping drums and synth basslines as Mallinder’s vocals circle around the phrases “I work hard/ I get hard ….” The monotony of the pulses and stabs, the two-note bass line, the horns and overlaid collapsing rhythms all mimic the formulaic structures of mediated desire that give rise to the sampled voices in the first place. In keeping with the album’s themes, “Warm” links pornography and mass production through the idea of seriality, the use of repetition and minimal variation to satisfy desire as efficiently as possible. Mallinder’s lyrics allude to this by aligning labour and the body, playing on workaday repetition and reminding us that “You come again/ You come again” as the song, literally, repeats until fade, retreating back into the moaning and the grinding exhaustion of the motifs it emerged from.

“Golden Halos”

Following the fading desires of “Warm,” “Golden Halos” is immediately a much more complicated, more sonically diverse offering. The pounding industrial drums are absent, replaced by a skittering percussion track, stuttering bassline and lots of space, moments where the notes and drums hit pause to let the reverb die away a little and give room for more of Manson’s narration. Long phrases of his speech are cut up, manipulated and turned into unintelligible rhythmic elements in their own right until in a moment of clarity we hear him say “…and then they blamed it over on me and said ‘oh well Charlie Manson …’.” Suddenly the anonymous narration from Side One has a name, and the voice which sounds ordinary and banal is linked to history and a popular culture as decayed as anything the band had previously sought to reflect. This track, more than any other on the album, foregrounds the band’s continued experimentation with the forms of popular music, more professionally constructed than previous tracks but audibly of the same family as 1980’s “News from Nowhere,” where rhythms and arhythmic interruptions vie for structural control. Still, for all of the deliberate interruptions there remains a coherence in the cutting up of rhythm and every cut and pause strictly follows the song’s tempo. Here, the band continue their career-long chipping away at the very architecture of pop.

“Motion Rotation”

After the slower tempo and studied explorations, “Motion Rotation” returns to the sinewy bass and snare beats that dominate the album, here softened slightly with a hi-hat that patters along. The song’s intro turns the scalpel-like sampler to Mallinder’s own voice, offering only the vowels of the phrases that would later be the song’s chorus-like refrain, “ Yippie Yo/ Those easy ways/ Yippie Yay/ Some easy ways.” The song’s final section pauses the stuttering and pulsing verses, more space to breathe anxiously before the drums kick back in and Mallinder reminds us to “Give me money/ Give me rights/ Give me what is mine by right,” a further reference to the broken-but-still-worshiped American dream which links these songs together and whose prophet is Manson throughout.

“Whip Blow”

The album’s penultimate track calls back the complicated percussive layers of “Golden Halos,” adding a metallic snare that crashes into and out of frame. Unlike the album’s earlier harder-edged proto-industrial funk workouts, but keeping their crisp and unrelenting percussion, the song’s elements are layered into place and then disassembled, added to and then discarded while Mallinder whispers of “Soft skin/ Running through my fingers.” Although easy to miss, given the song’s structural complexity, the absence of a driving bass line serves to keep the overlapping sonic elements at some aural distance from each other. The song’s last word goes, once again, to Manson who explains that he was never a hippie as popularly represented but a beatnik, a futile call for authenticity and a recognition of the role of nostalgia both in Manson’s consideration of himself and, by the time he had come to be sampled for this album, his reworking within American media.

“The Web”

Finally the album circles back to its opening moments with its return to the song structures of “L21st” and “I Want You”, boasting a recognizable tune and with Mallinder’s lyrics asking us to “Pick me up/ Pin me down/ You’re big enough/ Shoot me down.” The heavy bass drum and crisp snare are back, supplemented with hand claps and nervous hi-hats while the synth bass explores up and down a single octave, circling away from and return obsessively to the same few phrases. Cunningly, the song’s lead break moment is a single sustained synth note before Mallinder breathes “Eat this/ Not me/ I’m a man’s/ Law,” a call for communion in a country where “The devil must have seen me pray/ I see temptation every way.” Finally the song moves to its conclusion with no fanfare or build to some kind of revelatory climax, just another circuit through the song’s chorus and Mallinder reminding us that “I pin my targets/ To my hopes ….” The song doesn’t fade – it stops, with minimal reverb and the last manipulated notes of Kirk’s processed guitar.

This album would be the band’s last for Some Bizarre/Virgin and they would shift to Parlophone/EMI for 1987’s Code, with Keith LeBlanc and Adrian Sherwood assuming production duties and, it’s fair to say, borrowing as much from Kirk and Mallinder as they bought to the job at hand, smoothing out the Cab’s sound and, in return, hauling the band’s muscular electro-thumping into their own respective practices. The aggressive utilisation of the sampler as a primary compositional tool on The Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord opened up a range of sonic possibilities for Cabaret Voltaire but, unlike many who would follow them, never as a means to shortcut the songwriting and experimenting. Voices are sampled and distorted, analogue instruments are digitally conjured and manipulated, noise itself is included as a musical element, but there’s none of the wholesale sampling of melodies or rhythms that would come to typify electronic dance music (and this album, for all its broken and splintered edges, is a largely an album to dance to). Instead, buried beneath the Virgin-funded production sheen and digital veneer, and hard at work behind the razor-sharp critique of American popular culture, this is an album that continued the band’s exploration of the abject edges of human experience and it remains today (perhaps even especially today) as pertinent as it ever was.

2 Comments on this Post

  1. nice job.

    Reply
  2. I am awfully fond of this album and really enjoyed your review. I think you described it very well. I look forward to reading your other work.

    Reply

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