The Attic Tapes 1974-1978

By Howard Slater, 12 January 2004

Slipstreamed out a little by the recent art world worship of Throbbing Gristle, this 3CD release of early Cabaret Voltaire material is something of a crucial release. Never ones for the limelight and shying away from the exhibitionist excesses of performance art that propelled TG into public view, CV got on with making experiments in their early years that are as provocative if not ‘better’ produced than the tracks they began to commit to vinyl from 1978. This collection of tracks highlights what’s missing in musicpractice these days: a blissful lack of conceited self-consciousness and a determination to use the force of sound as a means to change consciousness rather than to trade in ‘sign value’. At times there is almost a fourth member to the trio, a quite corporeal sense of a collective unconscious space into which anything doesn’t quite go, but, if you half try, will fit because incongruity and chance and alter-egos and hope-in-the- Aks have to have their space made. Beginning with test-tapes of ‘treated voice’ and ‘treated clarinet’ etc., the elements come together in a kind of form riven from intimacy; a kind of abreacted openness that relies on the strength of relation between the members to allow for an unembarrassed and improvisational approach bounded by the solitary beats of a drum box; beats that seem to demand that space be pointillistically filled rather than destrudo’d out (cf. ‘Capsules, Oh Roger’). Add to this conspiracy-thriller tape-cut up tracks like ‘Calling Moscow’ as well as the surrealist sci-fi stories read out in distorted northern tones on ‘Bedtime Stories’ and ‘Photophobia’, and we can’t avoid hearing in The Attic Tapes, which aren’t just plunderphonics but antipara- state propaganda too, harbingers of a future yet to come; unleashers, along with many others, of transformative productive forces that, in producing new listeners, produce new subjects and new modes of feeling.

This is Cabaret Voltaire’s avant-popism: the sound forms are at times recognisable as ‘songs’ but the treatment of them, the discontented content, makes them unlyrical. At other times, when they leave the ‘song’ alone, the content becomes the form. Running through both is a use of language that, in the cut-ups, is clearly audible, but with the ‘songs’ is deformed yet intelligible, as with dub. There is, then, a meeting point between the quoted language of the cut-up (mostly clearly presented) and the invented language of the narratives (mostly distorted) which has the effect of communicating a reluctance, a faltering of the powers of communication that are overcome by the use of, at least back then, unfamiliar sounds (treated guitar, treated clarinet). This aspect of avantgardism, the self-critique of expression as power, not only accounts for the discrete aspect of Cabaret Voltaire at this time (one impending cassette release on TG’s Industrial Records), it also informs their ‘choice’ to make electronic music. The most overpowering technology is made unsure of itself; a threatening prop. If we contrast this to the persistently hopeless state of institutionalised avantgarde music, a music in thrall to the technics of form that reduces musical practice to the pinprick of opus, then with Cabaret Voltaire, the fear and attraction of expression leads to an unfiltered heterogeneity and a projective participation from us listeners. Whilst the dabs of historic reference abound, the melting pot that is The Attic Tapes assures us that, beyond nostalgia, there can be a collision of idea-times, expressive residues, that don’t obey the times, don’t adapt to the usual catagorical chronologies: split second feelings.

Howard Slater

The Attic Tapes 1974-1978 // Cabaret Voltaire // Mute – Grey Area // 2003