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Cabaret Voltaire, "Red Mecca"

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cover imageHardcore CV fans and anyone who's a connoisseur of “classic” industrial are always quick to cite this as one of the zeniths of the genre, and it isn’t a claim that should be taken lightly.  One of the darkest records ever made, it acts as the Maggot Brain to The Conversation’s Mothership Connection:  it’s like when P-Funk were hanging with the Process Church and writing songs about finding decaying corpses of dead friends.

 

Rough Trade/Mute

Cabaret Voltaire - Red Mecca

Before Red Mecca, the full-length releases from the Cabs had been a bit less than cohesive.  Mix Up and Voice of America were both great albums, but had a lot of abstract tracks that felt more like experiments than fully fleshed out songs.  The band’s singles were great, but showed a band unsure of what they wanted to do.  For every chilling "Eddie’s Out" there was a snotty, punk-ish "Nag Nag Nag".  Three Mantras, with its two side-long tracks, was just as experimental on its own, but heralded some of the sounds that would gel here.  The amalgamation of rock tendencies in "Western Mantra" and use of tape manipulation in "Eastern Mantra" set the stage for this sinister, bleak album.

Titled due to the band’s interest in the growing issues in Afghanistan and Iran at the time (1981), it was the culmination of American Christian fundamentalism and Muslim extremism taken to its possibly apocalyptic end.  The material doesn’t overtly reference any of this though:  the Christian preacher samples that would characterize their later work are nowhere to be found.  The mood, however, is one of corrupt spirituality:  murky sounds that are symbolic of murder for the sake of religion.  Given how little things have changed politically in the near 30 years since this album's release though, I just wonder how the situation hasn’t inspired the same level of brilliance in other artists. 

Opening and closing with faithful covers of Henry Mancini’s "A Touch of Evil," the Hollywood bombast and grandeur of the original theme is reduced to sparse bongo drums and reptilian synths and horns slithering over a rudimentary bass line.  The chilling tone of the track foreshadows what’s to come:  unidentifiable bits of sound hiding amongst the familiar instrumentation. 

The "lighter" moments, or more appropriately the less dark ones are scattered throughout the album’s all too brief running time.  "Sly Doubt" ranks up there with the funkiest tracks the band ever recorded, with its up-front bass line and treated drums from Nik Allday casting an alien shadow.  Richard H. Kirk’s nauseous guitar stays low in the mix, as does Chris Watson’s organ drone, leaving the focus on Stephen Mallinder’s bass and vocals, the latter  delivered heavily treated and with a hiss to render the words nearly indecipherable.  For all its obtuseness, there is enough overt sleazy funk that would make it playable in a strip club…but more appropriately one run by the Order of the Solar Temple where all the girls try and hide the significant scars of ritualized abuse.

"Red Mask" opts more for the rock side of the band’s sound, with Kirk’s mangled guitar and Watson’s electronic organ leads functioning as some dark, mutated take on 1960s psychedelic rock, bolstered by the buzzing spring-reverbed metronome drums.  "Black Mask" on the other hand, pushes the sound more into modern dub territory, with Mal’s bass and the drums leading the charge, with electronics and voice samples acting as minor accents to the sound.  The swirling effects and damaged horns of "Spread The Virus" resemble a more song-based take on the "Eddie’s Out" single, though here it uses the same proto-techno drum machine beat from that single’s flip side, "Walls of Jericho."  Rather than the pure demented tape manipulations of "Eddie’s Out," the sound here is one of schizophrenic mania, with the treated drums and rhythmic bass clashing with the spastic horns and Mal’s hateful ranting.

The remaining tracks are more restrained; yet still ooze that same red-lit murky darkness of the rest of the album, perhaps even more so.  The short instrumental "Landslide" showcases Kirk’s vaguely Middle Eastern surf guitar playing over heavily treated drums and Watson’s organ set on "horror movie" that comes off as wonderfully sinister, but not ham-handed or forced.  So many bands try and be "scary" with their sound, but it always sounds so cliché or trite.  Here it just IS dark.  

"Split Second Feeling" matches the same guitar sound with more conventional organ and Mal’s heavily echoed and delayed vocals that actually sound far less agitated than on the rest of the album, but still have a sense of unease and sickness about them that puts it squarely in league with the remainder of the disc.  Rather than the lurking menace, there is more of a sense of despair and fear conveyed.

The album’s centerpiece, and highlight, is the ten minute dirge "A Thousand Ways" that slowly begins with funeral church organ tones rising out of dark reverberated passageways.  Mal’s bass keeps the track moving, as does the simple, whip-lashed rhythm.  The vocals, which mostly consist of angered ranting a bit too far behind the microphone, are met with Kirk’s positively anemic guitar sound, sounding like the audio equivalent of malaria, pushing the track even further into the bowels of hell.

Even the full package of album art furthers this image:  the multicolored, melting abstract image on the front is coupled with stoic looking portraits of the band inside, posing with large, ritualistic cymbals in front of them as if preparing for some blasphemous incantation.  The fez-wearing statue head in the final page of the CD booklet is far beyond creepy, to say the least.

After this album the Cabs would go on to create the also-brilliant 2x45, which added a healthy dose of jazz to this formula, which I feel diluted some of the force and darkness that’s here.  After that, Watson departed for the Hafler Trio and the remaining duo of Mal and Kirk began mining their own paranoid, survivalist form of funk influenced synth pop, and quite successfully so.  I’d be remiss to not consider the trio of Virgin albums (The Crackdown, Microphonies, and The Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord) amongst the most brilliant electronic pop recordings ever, but the band was never as dark and frightening as they were here.  While the greedy side of me is of course upset that there were no other albums like this, the rational side knows that such a situation would have diluted the impact of Red Mecca.

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Last Updated on Sunday, 21 February 2010 16:16  


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