Minimal wave is that rare example of a genre formulated in hindsight. Influenced by Martin Hannett’s productions for Factory Records, as well as by future-facing fellow travellers such as J.G. Ballard and Kraftwerk, this DIY electronic music has its roots in late-1970s France and Belgium (minimal wave is the dancier version of what the French press called la vague froide, or cold wave). ‘DIY’ is usually shorthand for home-fashioned authenticity, but, in the case of minimal wave, the music is intent on artificiality, with goth-inflected industrial pop songs played on mechanized drum machines and glassy synths. Haunted by the Cold War, this decentralized scene was situated in suburbs and small towns across Western Europe, though the term now stretches to like-minded British industrial bands, American minimalists and a contingent of Eastern Europeans. This was an era of mail-order handmade electronics (as favoured by Throbbing Gristle), and more affordable synths, such as Korg’s popular MS-20 – the production of which, 1978–83, roughly bookends the cold-wave era as we now look back on it.
Though by no means ignored at the time, this scattered network of musicians and labels – maintained, in those pre-Internet days, by Canadian fanzine CLEM (Contact List of Electronic Music) – left little physical trace, tending to release small runs of vinyl or cassette of around 200 copies. As a loose genre, minimal wave was retrospectively formulated halfway through the last decade, supported initially with New York-based ventures such as Pieter Schoolwerth’s Wierd – which began as a weekly Brooklyn club night in 2003 and evolved to a record label a few years later – and labels like Angular and Minimal Wave Records. In the last couple of years, the cold wave sound and aesthetic has been commandeered by Wierd signings Xeno & Oaklander and Led Er Est, while Cold Cave’s acclaimed 2009 album Love Comes Close is the closest to a crossover hit this small-scale revival has so far produced.
Compiled by Minimal Wave Records founder Veronica Vasicka and Stones Throw Records label boss Peanut Butter Wolf, The Minimal Wave Tapes Volume One gathers 14 previously impossible-to-find gems, most of which are available digitally here for the first time. Among the highlights are the warm, analogue disco groove of Belgian band Linear Movement’s ‘Way Out of Living’ and the ice-cold synth-pop of ‘Game & Performance’ by Deux. Though the songs are by no means all dystopian nightmares, the Cold War is a palpable presence: ‘Radiance’, by British band Oppenheimer Analysis (who, charmingly, met at a sci-fi convention in Brighton), begins with Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, intoning his infamous line taken from the Bhagavad Gita: ‘I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ A similarly minded collection, co-compiled by Wierd Records’ Schoolwerth, Cold-Waves and Minimal Electronics Vol.1, was released on Angular last month. If the ‘volume one’ of both compilation titles is anything to go by, the future for these almost-forgotten bands is brighter than they imagined.