Timecop1983 – Running in the Dark

bandcamp, 2016

We live in an age that seems to suffer from an identity crisis. The cause of this is certainly debatable, but it’s likely due to many factors: the splintering of culture, the breakneck speed of modern life, the constant search for immediate meaning, the constantly growing population…..we can go on and on. Whatever the cause, more people are looking backward than ever before, and there comes a point when you wonder why.

The Eighties are a popular target, and it’s not just for nostalgic purposes (though I freely confess this is certainly a factor for me). Many people exist who are drawn to the 1980s of the United States in spite of the fact they were born in the following decades. Clearly, there is a reason.

Beyond the decadence of shows like Miami Vice, which exhibits indulgent materialism and the perceived cool that came with it, were a wide range of movies that were personal and deeply genuine, with an emotional spectrum created by the emerging sound of synth-based new wave music. The music has become to symbolize the coming-of-age angst of the films, while also recalling open white linen jackets and neon-streaked lines of slick Ferraris cruising the downtown strip. These are powerful connections, regardless of their origin.

Jordy Leenaerts has no doubt felt these effects. It’s tough to determine whether the Dutch artist, who records as Timecop1983, encountered the Eighties first-hand or through the ever-expanding retro scene lead by works such as Mitch Murder’s musical discography and Nicolas Winding Refn’s film Drive. We must remember, however, that examples such as these are undoubtedly modern works which are inspired by the Eighties rather than simply mimicking them.

Timecop1983 has carved its own corner into this burgeoning scene by focusing on what Leenaerts calls “a melancholic and romantic feeling” perhaps best expressed by the filmography of John Hughes (The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). In Hughes’ films, there’s a good deal of idealistic longing expressed by the main characters, who struggle to find themselves while caught in a web of social expectation, among other stresses of the industrialized West. Hughes’ films are noted for their soundtracks, often brought to fierce emotive life by bands of the time, and Timecop1983 aims to recapture this fiery vulnerability that has likely been experienced by every modern young person in some manner or other.

Running in the Dark is a seven-track EP of instrumental songs that Leenaerts composed for his live performances. What’s remarkable is how well these tracks fit together; they are inspired, infectious, and cleverly assembled. The 80s synths are deliciously airy, drifting through simple but affecting melodies within a pop framework; sometimes Timecop1983 teams with synthwave vocalists, and while these instances are remarkable indeed, the project’s strength lies in its instrumentation, as it is here. The keyboards are anchored by thudding 4/4 beats that powerfully offset the music’s grace; these are delicate but potent emotions, and the music portrays this perfectly. While retro/modern acts like Perturbator and, at times, Mitch Murder himself, focus on the sci-fi or action-film culture of the Eighties, Timecop1983 is concerned with the battleground inside, always restraining aggression in favor of mood.

“Come With Me” is both anthemic and hopeful, “Running in the Dark” swells with escapist drama, and “Dimensions” inspires and thrills with its glittering yet introspective refrain. And yet, the EP is not simply a tribute to the 80s, but also a product of the times that have passed since. Leenaerts keeps the listener guessing with percussive shifts, filtering effects, techno-inspired loops (“Somewhere We Can Go”) and a refined cinematic angle (“Visions”). But Timecop1983 is in no way defined by studio trickery. Regardless of the modern stylistic touches, the music’s heart thumps strong and clear: this is music about emerging and discovering, about recalling past loves, about dreaming of and reaching for the ideal. It is about the realization of genuine emotion, and the exploration that follows. These are timeless and transforming themes, which explains, perhaps, the project’s popularity among young and old throughout the world.

Regardless of the level of your attachment to the 80s, Timecop1983’s music is still noteworthy. Its singular identity, meticulous craftsmanship, and wistful energy combine to provide a listening experience that satisfies through its rhythms and lifts through its complex but powerful emotions. Add the retro layer, however, and Running in the Dark, along with the rest of the project’s discography, moves into another space entirely. This is music created with deep respect for a particular era in history, and while it certainly succeeds at engaging multiple eras at once, Leenaerts is careful to keep the blood of the Eighties pulsing and vital. Somewhere, John Hughes is surely smiling.


Ten Best Post-Industrial/EBM Albums

After making my Top Ten Dark Ambient list in October, I knew I had to make a list for my other longtime favorite genre: post-industrial EBM.  I’m choosing to define this genre as electronic music that has the dancefloor as its foundation, bowing at the twin altars of sequenced rhythms and synthetic percussion, with a bleeding sci-fi heart of darkness.  Born from the angst of punk and the clinical electronica of pioneering acts like Kraftwerk, the actual identity of this genre is still debated to this day.

What you’ll find here are my favorite albums from my days of clubbing, which imparted a love of this type of music that still endures.  I’m an album fan before I’m a fan of singles, so while many of the bands below have done better songs, these are what I consider to be their best complete albums.  These aren’t mere remnants of nostalgia, either; each of these albums are finely crafted examples of why I find the genre so compelling.

I’d like to say, too, that I thought long and hard about this list.  It wasn’t as easy as I initially thought.  There are seven or eight albums I omitted that barely missed the mark, and any of them would slot alongside these ten comfortably….but ultimately, they were left off for distinct reasons.

Without further delay, then:

10.  Heimataerde – Gotteskrieger (Infacted Recordings, 2005)

Here’s an example of how my album-based philosophy trumps individual songs.  Heimataerde is a hybrid conceptual project, blending modern EBM with traditional medieval instrumentation – most notably bagpipes and flutes – to tell the saga of the immortal Templar Ash, who roams Crusades-era Europe seeking undead soldiers for his own army.  Few bands have such a powerful identity and mythology, and the music here creates a unique and powerful aura that’s both modern and historical; this is not just amped-up dark dance music.  Listen to “Die Offenbarung” to get a taste of what makes Heimataerde great, but that’s just a small part of the project’s versatility and talent.

9.  Massiv in Mensch – Belastendes Material (Wire Productions, 2003)

Before MiM went full-on techno, they released Belastendes Material, one of the most energetic electronic dance albums ever made.  Beyond the mind-boggling programming expertise, they infused a healthy dose of light-heartedness, and even humor.  There’s a track called “Hans Gruber.”  They sample German polka.  The vocals are often purposefully overdone (“Strecket”) and move between filters with ease, with many tracks containing untreated female German vocals that are quite beautiful.  MiM isn’t afraid to be quirky, but they go about their strict EBM business with panache and confidence that’s nearly unrivaled.  This album is built to make you move, daring you to remain stationary.  The genre can be faulted for taking itself too seriously, but MiM is one very noted exception.  And “Offensivschock” is still one of the best dance tracks ever recorded.

8.  Negative Format – Cipher Method (Sector 9 Studios, 2003)

Yeah, so it’s trance-influenced.  Big freakin deal.  If there’s one thing Alex Matheu knows, it’s how to channel his cyberpunk muse to produce hyperactive EBM that manages to follow an almost chilled-out groove.  Cipher Method’s lyrics are culturally cynical and even technologically critical – the project is well-named – and shifts between warm, almost ambient keyboards to delicately dancing sequencing that sparkles like a full-powered circuit-board, all driven by head-nodding beats.  “Encryption” is the highlight in this tightly cohesive package, with minimal lyrics wrapped around some of the best sequencing there is.  If there’s ever been a relaxing industrial-dance record, this is it.

7.  The Retrosic – God of Hell (Tribune Records, 2004)

Evocative in a way similar to Heimataerde , The Retrosic reached strange heights with God of Hell.  Oddly organic in its sound design, the album is steampunk heaven, full of crunching energy, snarling vocals, and surprisingly strong songwriting.  Shifting from themes of war (“New World Order,” “Total War”) to introspective despair (“Tale of Woe”) to cinematic instrumentals (“Dragonfire,” “Sphere”) to female-voiced chants that recall Dead Can Dance (“Elysium”), the album retains a common thread from its cathartic beginning to its smoking burning conclusion.  And then there are “The Storm” and “Maneater,” two of the most visceral anthems to ever come from the post-industrial camp.  There’s a lot of so-called “terror EBM” out there, but none of it can hold a candle to this broken retro-future masterpiece.

6.  Headscan – Pattern Recognition (Alfa Matrix, 2005)

I’ve heard that Headscan are some of the best electronic music producers in existence, and when listening to their magnum opus, Pattern Recognition, it’s easy to understand why.  There’s a ton going on in every track, with reams of effects whizzing and whooshing past classic EBM cores.  It’s cold and clinical, but also completely enthralling.  Inspired by authors such as Bruce Sterling and William Gibson, Pattern Recognition is a dark ode to the joys of tech.  Moving from the downtempo ambiance of “Terra Incognita” to the invigorating “Permafrost” and the empowering “Lolife” with enviable deftness, all voiced by chanted lines of cyberpunk poetry, Pattern Recognition flows from track to track like a computer-generated sonnet.  This album, and this band, are both criminally underrated.

5.  Mentallo & the Fixer – Where Angels Fear To Tread (Zoth Ommog, 1994)

There was a time when Texas brothers Gary and Dwayne Dassing ruled the American electro underground scene.  Their debut, Revelations 23, was a triumph of twisted vocals and brutalized energy, but the follow-up, Where Angels Fear To Tread, is a gothic opera.  Exploding with inspired creativity at every turn, the album is one of the few here that isn’t always comfortable on the dancefloor; beyond the staple “Decomposed (Trampled),” you’d be hard-pressed to move to this album in general.  M&TF has never bowed to 4×4 convention, but Angels is still one of the best albums the genre has ever birthed.  Gary Dassing’s classically distorted vox (“Sacrilege”, “Bring to a Boil”) move out of their comfort zone; tracks like “Coward (Submerged)” and “Afterglow” unveil his snarls and croaks for their true self, while the synths soar, pulse, and shift through often-beautiful chords like a darkly tinted stained-glass window.  And the instrumentals – “Virtually Hopeless,” “Battered States of Euphoria” – are soul-stirring works of profound beauty.  Revelations 23 has its supporters, and it is a classic in its own right, but the craft and variety of the operatic Where Angels Fear To Tread is light-years beyond.

4.  Forma Tadre – Navigator (Off Beat, 1996)

Talk about underrated.  Andrea Meyer’s Forma Tadre project is the only one to make both my EBM and dark ambient lists, and with good reason: the guy is a hidden genius.  While Automate is majestically sparse dark ambient, Navigator is beautifully wrought EBM with a Lovecraftian soul.  Meyer is a musician before a programmer, and Navigator is overflowing with songwriting prowess.  The lovely-yet-unnerving opener “Navigator (Part One)” provides not just a glimpse for the ambient direction Meyer would eventually take, but announced Forma Tadre as post-industrial with a classical bent.  And you can dance to it.  After the awesomely provocative “FX on a Human Subject,” with its brilliant sequencing and plaintive whispers, we’re hit between the eyes by the twin salvos of “Plasmasleep” and “Date Unknown,” which take Meyer’s curious take on the genre straight to the dancefloor with staggering power and grace.  On one hand, it’s hard to grasp this is the same guy who would make Automate, but on a subtle level, it couldn’t be anyone else.  Add the grandeur of “Gates,” the floating “Mezoic Tree Ferns,” and the club hits “Looking Glass Men” and “Celebrate the Cult,” and you have one of the most enduring and timeless EBM albums on this planet, or any other.

3.  Nitzer Ebb – Belief  (Mute, 1988)

Nitzer Ebb is a prime example of the single-versus-album criteria I mentioned at the outset.  The band has made a handful of undeniable works of EBM classics – “Join in the Chant,” “Warsaw Ghetto,” “Getting Closer,” “Fun to be Had,” and even “Promises” – but their albums don’t match the sum of their parts….except for Belief.  It’s short, but consistent; even the slow-paced “T.W.A.” fits the mood established by “Hearts and Minds” and “For Fun.”  And it’s got its bits of dancefloor genius itself – the seething “Control I’m Here,” the brash and bellowing “Blood Money,” the chanting anthem “Shame” – among the off-tempo but still excellent “Captivate” and “Drive.”  Douglas McCarthy’s punk-inspired growls, barks, yells, and shouts are in fine form, and Bon Harris’ cool and measured programming belies the apparent basic structure.  I find Ebb’s career to be a series of peaks and valleys, but years down the road, Belief has seen the most full plays for me, by far.

2.  Front 242 – Official Version (RRE/Wax Trax! Records, 1987)

Front 242 electrified dancefloors around the world with its bristling, restless layers, hypnotic vocals, beguiling lyrics, and militaristic sensibility.  It was Kraftwerk, minus the quirk and adding aggression.  Renowned for classic tracks such as “Headhunter,” “Welcome to Paradise,” and “Tragedy >For You<“, the Belgian outfit forever cemented their place in history by coining the term Electronic Body Music.  While their lengthy discography is rife with songs of soaring excellence, it’s the rhythmic experimentation and slick finesse of Official Version that makes this album their masterpiece.  From the incredible energy and burgeoning creativity of “W.Y.H.I.W.Y.G.” and “Masterhit” to the deeply strange hymn-like slow-motion “Rerun Time” and “Slaughter,” the album is a testament to what makes 242 one of the most influential bands in the history of electronic music.  And the album did spawn a dancefloor hit of its own, “Quite Unusual,” which describes an apocalypse like no other.  Official Version is twenty-seven years old at this writing, but it still sounds light-years ahead of the current age.  I can’t imagine any further evidence for classic status.  Not many bands ever create a genre on their own.

1.  Front Line Assembly – Tactical Neural Implant (Third Mind Records, 1992)

It’s really a toss-up between TNI and Official Version for the top spot.  The only reason I give FLA’s epic masterpiece the edge was that for me, it came first.  Without Tactical Neural Implant, which I bought blind at Music Plus because I liked the cover art and title (I still have the cardboard long box), I would never have discovered or traveled the road of underground electronic music.  Did it change my life?  In retrospect, I guess it did.  I was always drawn to the synthpop of the 80s, but I didn’t know I craved more of an edge until I slotted Bill Leeb and Rhys Fulber’s electronic bible.  Two minutes into “The Final Impact,” with its die-hard sci-fi aura, looped bass line, filtered vocals, and slickly produced layers, and I turned my back on mainstream music forever.  Thing is, years later, TNI is still as impressive now as it was then.  “The Blade” has one of the best bass synths you’ll ever hear.  “Mindphaser” is what I play for people who have never heard of industrial music.  “Remorse” is dark introspection.  “Bio-Mechanic” fits its Giger muse perfectly.  “Outcast” is still one of the best anthems FLA has ever made (and they’re still going strong as of this writing).  The midway tempo shift of “Gun” gives me the same thrill hundreds of listens later.  “Lifeline” is a sparse glittering hymn lost in the distant reaches of the matrix.  Fault the band for its shaky lyrics and vocals if you must, but they never fit together better than they did here.  Caustic Grip is phenomenal in its own right (so is Gashed Senses and Crossfire), but with Tactical Neural Implant, Front Line Assembly released an album so full of refined excellence and lasting power, most bands don’t come close to such a level over their entire cumulative careers.

Frontier Guards – Predestination

Aliens Production (AP 18), 2008

I find Aliens Production to be a fascinating label. Based in Slovakia, its releases are often staunchly old-school in philosophy, but with modern influences. More often than not, this hybrid approach results in a unique electronic sound, and one that I consider quite appealing. Not all of AP’s discography is successful on the same level, but when the label’s formula really works, the results are definitely notable.

One such release is Predestination, the first album by the duo Frontier Guards. Composed of Martin Pavlik and Tom Galle, both late of the latent EBM project H.E.E.L., Frontier Guards’ debut is an attempt to marry 80s-era EBM with 21st-century IDM. The album is heavily rhythm-based, but isn’t aimed for the dancefloor; you won’t find many instances of 4/4 beats. Neither is Predestination introspective IDM; it’s clearly sourced from classic science fiction, horror, and cyberpunk. It’s largely instrumental, heavily laden with voice samples from recognizable movies, full of retro-style analog sequencing, and is just dark enough to maintain an edge of uncertainty.

“Visitors” embodies the goal of Pavlik and Galle. It begins with a looped siren from the film version of Silent Hill (if you’ve seen it, you know what it announces) before sliding into a heavy muted percussion sequence that falls just short of achieving 4/4 inertia. All of these then drop away to reveal a floating core of dark ambiance, with chopped samples and drifting keys. The rhythms come out of hiding, one at a time, before heavily distorted vocals make a brief appearance (one of two such incidents; the other being “Reconciliation”). The tempo stays unsure, the ambiance is always a breath away, and the atmosphere remains steady as the variety of rhythms and filtered effects progress. As the track ends, we hear a sampled voice announce “primary function complete” in what I find to be a pleasing tribute to classic EBM acts like Front 242, Skinny Puppy and Front Line Assembly.

Other tracks follow a similar vein, but with enough variety to keep Predestination from getting repetitive. I find the off-kilter drums of “Betrayed by Light” to be particularly satisfying, especially when accompanied by skeletal sequences and yet more vocal snippets lifted from film. The title track features a provocative piano melody as its heart – many AP albums utilize unfiltered piano as another classic component – while the electronics whir, buzz, and thud around it like a swarm of orbiting robot bees. It’s not overly complex – Frontier Guards never overdoes its layering – but flows from one clearly marked section to the next with a combination of homage and experimentation. “Touch of Divinity” increases the atmosphere, veering closely to the territory of label-mates Oxyd via a melodic synth threaded by a flickering network of clicks and cuts, and with the inevitable voice samples making the required appearance. The delicate piano of “Screaming” fits very well with the buried drum programming, old-school analog bass, and lightly noisy loops

Add three remixes – one each by AP stalwarts Oxyd and Anhedonia, and one by the celebrated Subheim – and a visual track exhibiting Galle’s talent with images, and Predestination has a hefty amount of content. It does move sluggishly in parts – “Abandoned Mind” relies too much on the voice samples and doesn’t have the mid-track shifts of the rest of the album, and “Transcendental Experiment” uses too-harsh metallic percussion and loops its primary sequence too often – and it seems to lose steam during its second half in general, but the overall package is an attractive one. I also think that the movie samples are too prevalent and often too recognizable; if I know where a sample is sourced from, it distracts me from the music. Despite this quibbles, Aliens Production has released yet another quality entry in their old/newschool discography, and Predestination is a prime example of the label’s retro-future vision. Frontier Guards may be too old-school for some, and perhaps even schizophrenic to others, but I consider their music to be an enjoyable and quirky ode to underground electronic days of yore with one foot set firmly in the modern age.

Flint Glass – Hierakonpolis

Brume Records (BRUME 03), 2002 / Funkwelten Records (FW 005), 2003

Gwenn Tremorin, the man behind the dark electronic instrumental project Flint Glass and the French label Brume Records, is the most talented producer of electronic music I’ve ever heard.  The sounds he comes up with are unlike anything else; I don’t know where this guy gets his stuff from.  It’s as if he’s drawing these bits of sonic bizarreness out of the air and experimenting with them however he sees fit.  The most admirable thing about Tremorin’s innovative productive talents is despite the wide range of creativity on display, his music always sounds like Flint Glass.

Hierakonpolis, Flint Glass’ debut, was released on Brume in 2002 with several remixes, then re-released in 2003 on Germany’s Funkwelten Records with the Dashur EP added in place of the mixes.  Tremorin has often stated that the work of horror author H.P. Lovecraft is a primary inspiration for his music (Flint Glass’ 2006 album was titled Nyarlathotep, and was full of tracks titled for Lovecraftiana), and his music is certainly reflective of Lovecraft’s cloying and amorphous atmosphere.  Flint Glass is formless and difficult to describe, but undeniably powerful; like Lovecraft’s writing, the music gets under your skin and leaves a lasting impression that sticks with you long after you remove your headphones….but it’s strangely detaching, like a half-remembered dream that vanishes upon waking, imparting only a vague but visceral echo.

From the dramatic looped echo and empowering distorted buzz of the title track, to the open spaces and baffling aquatics of “Heliotrop” and the muffled tribal pummeling of “Amenemhat,” and the amount of innovation on Hierankopolis is almost overwhelming.  There’s typically enough rhythm to head-nod (or even dance) to Flint Glass, but the tempo is off-kilter enough to produce a serious challenge.  On the other hand, Tremorin’s ambient sense is extremely keen; it’s deep, dark, and skewed enough to warrant description as the aural equivalent of Lovecraft.  Try on the warped metallic clangor of “Dust Particles,” the bent air of “Throw About,” the sand-choked “Middle Kingdom”, or the various short interlude pieces separating the longer tracks.  Tremorin is indeed a mad scientist of his trade; the best way to describe his music is rhythmical dark ambient, but even that doesn’t tell the whole tale.

My personal choice between the two versions is the Funkwelten release; the Dashur material outdoes the remixes on the Brume original.  Dashur provides a smooth transition, resulting in a 17-track album that’s really an extended Hierankopolis.  The vocal samples of “Al Hasard (Live)” segue smoothly into buzzing percussion and looming ambiance, while “Closer” and “Philae” both contain more strange percussion backed by backing waves and swaths.

Taken on a certain level, the music of Flint Glass is particularly schizophrenic and meandering, and resides within a very limited range of focus despite the range of styles on display.  I should point out it’s less music and more a collection of experimental sounds held together by a common elements; the actual chord progression is either minimal, or completely nonexistent.  Fortunately for Tremorin, the mood remains consistent; Hierakonpolis does have a certain flow and cohesion to it, but it comes from the overarching sound design rather than any narrative quality or sense of progression.  If you took all if Flint Glass’ work – album tracks, remixes, compilation tracks – and mashed them all into one big pile, then chose ten randomly, you’d likely have a listening experience very similar to any other random group.  Listened to attentively for extended periods, the music tends to blur together into one slickly produced mass of sound.

Not surprisingly for a man of his talents, Tremorin is a contributor and a collaborator to many dark electronic projects, most notably the Aztec-influenced project Tzolk’in where he teams with This Morn’ Omina member Nicolas Van Meirhaeghe.  Flint Glass is also an accomplished remixer; many of his best remixes have been released together as an album, titled Circumsounds.  I get the sense Tremorin works very well with the right people; his chaotic foundations are arguably more effective if given additional structure in collaborative projects, or if he applies his unique sense to preexisting material as a remixer.  What Tremorin may lack in direction and songwriting for his own work, he more than makes up for with pure style and awe-inspiring technique.

Die Sektor – To Be Fed Upon

NoiTekk Records (NTK 023), 2006

For all its psychoses, this is an album of splintered grace and razor-edged lace.  Die Sektor’s debut is electronic aggression scorched by beautiful flames.  With its relentless and frantic energies, wildly distorted vocals, and haunting melodies, To Be Fed Upon conveys dislocation, uncertainty, and power to an unnerving degree.  It’s heady stuff, catharsis that’s powerful to the point of exhaustion; an emotional deluge that is hard to resist.

Let’s get one thing out in the open: musicians and programmers Scott Denman and Alan Smith are ridiculously talented.  For every tortured hymn (“The Beating of Broken Wings”, “When Porcelain Bleeds”), there are moments of almost stunning beauty (“All Turns White”, “Revelation None”, “Through Glass”).  It’s these latter tracks that are the real showcase: they’re slow, delicately spaced instrumentals where the duo’s songwriting prowess is given full focus.  The piano of “All Turns White” is particularly heart-rending, providing much-needed solace from the whirling storm of needles characterizing most of the album.

This is not meant as a condemnation of the vocals.  John Gerteisen’s mangled delivery is something to hear.  Filtered to the edge of misinterpretation in the style of classic Mentallo & the Fixer, the vocals are both a juxtaposition and an enhancement to the music.  They are the bullets fired from the barrel of the music; the smoke rising from the inferno.  Thank goodness for the included lyrics, which might have otherwise been lost behind the veil of distortion.  Most of them fall under the topic of first-person serial-killer poetry; before you groan, here’s a sample from “When Porcelain Bleeds”:  her lips so sweet / every word cuts like knives / i feel the wounds as if self inflicted / broken porcelain beauty / i still long to touch / i prick my finger to paint her lips.  When Gerteisen delivers these mantras, fueled by the driving chord-shifting chaos produced by Denman and Smith, the effect is intoxicating to the point of overwhelming.

Some tracks (“Deathkill”, “To Be Fed Upon”) reduce the tempo to slow-motion intensity without compromising an ounce of the album’s mood.  When all systems are go, however, Die Sektor’s ash-choked wings spread to their fullest.  “Follow the Screams” is a particularly potent example, unfurling in its first few moments with a wonderfully evocative bass sequence that’s soon bordered by a high-pitched techno-inspired melody, crashing percussion, and fractured vocals.  As the track careens forward, elements fall away while others emerge, but the highlight comes around four minutes in:  the beats disappear and we’re left with an echo of the melody, only to have the energy return, one layer at a time, until all is on glorious broken display.  It’s the album’s prime example of what Die Sektor is, and what it’s capable of.

To Be Fed Upon is a draining listen for me.  Cathartic, but exhausting nonetheless.  The effect is like watching Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre:  it’s a film I love, but it makes me feel dirty, in need of something cleansing – a tribute to how well it works.  At eleven tracks, most over five and a half minutes, the album’s a lot to take in during one sitting (I find myself needing a break when watching Texas Chainsaw these days too).  The instrumentals ease the album’s grip, but not quite enough to allow me to catch my breath completely.  (I can only imagine what Die Sektor might be like when seen live.)  I also think the album’s quality drops a bit in the middle, as “Mother Hunger,” “In the Arms of Eternity,” and “Prey to the Razor” aren’t the equals of the rest, but “All Turns White” and the thundering closer “To Be Fed Upon” help bring it back to the rusted heights established by the opening moments.  A bit of lyrical and thematic variety would have helped ease the relentless atmosphere, but that’s my own subjectivity talking:  To Be Fed Upon is a grimly thematic work that just happens to be layered on very, very thickly.

The album’s artwork sums up the awaiting experience nicely: a trio of skulls pierced by spikes rest on a bed of roses, a human heart driven through by rusted nails and a knife, and razor blades and pills resting in the cracked palm of an offering hand.  To Be Fed Upon is an intense and uncompromising electro/EBM experience that surprises with its level of songwriting craft, but its strength really lies in how well it displays its tortured and complex core.  For me, it’s a bit too well.

The Retrosic – God of Hell

Tribune Records (TRIBUNE_003A), 2004

It’s always been a source of amazement for me that some electronic albums sound decidedly organic.  While many electro bands clearly embrace their synthetic sources – e.g. mind.in.a.box and Headscan – there are others that manage, somehow, to make their music not sound like the product of cybernetic intelligences.

The Retrosic is a prime example.  Yes, I’d still consider their music to be post-industrial electro/EBM, but the sound design is so far removed from others, it’s hard to believe that it’s part of the same genre (I would call it such, but others would surely disagree).  On paper, there’s little difference: the music is beat-driven, enhanced by twisting lines of sequences and chord-laden synths and keys.  You can dance to Headscan just as well as The Retrosic, but the feel is different; one is future-oriented slickness while the other is roughly hewn heaviness.

Not to imply that God of Hell, the third album from The Retrosic, is somehow lesser in execution or design; it is most certainly not, to my ears.  It’s crunchy, stompy, dark, heavy, and full of primal presence; just listen to the pounding beat, hypnotic bass line, snarling vocals, odd melody, and layered bell-like percussion of “Maneater” and try to avoid imagining some majestic creature stalking its prey under a smoking sky.  Like the best dark ambient, it’s incredibly evocative stuff.

God of Hell is overflowing with similar moments.  Despite its largely computerized sourcing, there’s a good deal of clearly acoustic instrumentation to be heard – pipes, wordless female vocals, Middle Eastern-style strings and horns – all of which serve to increase the album’s powerful mutated steampunk aura.  “Elysium” and “Passion (1st Sign)” evoke Dead Can Dance with their lamenting vocals, traditional percussion, and dramatic atmospheres; you don’t normally find creations like this in the realms of post-industrial.

Even tracks with a modern bent (“New World Order,” “Total War,” “Antichrist”) have a warped ancient sense about them, while the ode-like “Tale of Woe” and the bone-crushing instrumental “Dragonfire” could easily have been products of some alternate medieval dimension, a la Heimataerde.  Add the irresistible anthem “The Storm,” with its perfect barrage of bass, delicate pipe-like EBM sequencing, and fantastic vocals, and “Sphere,” a triumph of interlocking-gear vehicles steaming across an alien wasteland (it’s miles ahead of most like-minded cinematic pieces), and the album moves into a world all its own, carrying us along through its unique burnished landscape of rusted machinery, streaked by gouts of flame and boiling smoke, and populated with strange folk equally dangerous and artistic.

The album does fall prey to genre cliches.  Most of the vocal samples are unnecessary and disruptive in an album of such crafted power.  Similarly, some may find the band’s vocals – aggressive chants delivered in a rasping, delicately distorted fashion – to be at odds with the music.  I love the understated rage and menace in the vocals, however; they’re powerful without being overdone, and provides a human and thematic connection for us.  God of Hell contains a good number of songs, after all, and vocals are a vital element.  Without the vocals, ragged and growling as they are, God of Hell would lose something; they add to the primal blood coursing throughout the album.  The lyrics themselves aren’t as effective as the confident throaty delivery, mostly concerned with well-worn themes of apocalypse, war, suffering, and conspiracy, but the genre is home to far worse.  Even the slow-paced dirge “Tale of Woe” manages to avoid being completely embarrassing; in lesser hands, it would have been.  Also, the last two minimal tracks are completely throwaway, adding nothing but unnecessary length; God of Hell is better without them.

God of Hell seems to be the pinnacle for The Retrosic, as prior and following releases haven’t come close to its high level of potent creativity and aesthetic sense.  However, for this album, the band conjured a powerful and versatile vision of dark grandeur that also satisfies the high-octane demands of industrial dancefloors across the globe.  God of Hell is one of the few albums that is also able to move beyond the 4/4 foundation to provide a listening experience that surprises with its depth, variety, cohesion, and strength of songwriting.  Such albums are rare in general, but when you consider its genre, God of Hell becomes elevated to classic status.

[:SITD:] – Rot

Accession Records (A 117), 2009

The definition of “industrial music” has undergone many changes over the years.  Nine Inch Nails was the first exposure for many to the subgenre, but there are many who didn’t consider Trent Reznor’s work to be industrial music at all.  The punk-inspired theatrics of Einsturzende Neubaten and Skinny Puppy, among others, eventually seemed to overwhelm the music itself, and the genre itself proved extremely difficult to peg.  Beyond that, the music itself became increasingly predictable, losing the experimentation that marked the genre in its early days.  Subgenres such as noise, IDM, and synthpop began to influence it as well, as did a level of pretension that bordered on comical, with bands straining to present themes of sci-fi, horror, slasher films, and war that seemed more important than the music.

It would seem – at first, anyway – that the trendily named [:SITD:] typifies this 21st-century post-industrial faux-angst.  The titular acronym stands for “shadows in the dark.”  They hail from Germany and use German language in their lyrics and song titles.  But there’s something going on with their music that separates them from the ranks of pancake makeup- and gas mask-wearing contemporaries.

Francesco D’Angelo, Carsten Jacek, and Thomas Lesczenski are certainly guilty of treading paths already established by others, but they ride the edge of EBM, noise, and synthpop with a sense of reverence.  Describing their 2009 album Rot (German for “red,” not the English word for decay) would seem to do little to set them apart:  it’s a collection of 4/4 electronic dancefloor hymns with aggressive German and English vocals, and is their fourth such release.

However, Rot is an example of what makes post-industrial EBM such a potentially fulfilling style.  The beats are the focus, no doubt, and they’re thick and heavy and pummeling, with little distortion.  Wonderfully straightforward, rarely deviating from the martial power of the 4/4 framework, with a relentless mid-tempo speed that I found particularly effective.  The lower BPM also allows [:SITD:] to include all sorts of subtle details between the beats, from minimal techno-inspired sequencing, visceral EBM bass keys, and ambient chord-shifting keyboards.

The vocals, which are done by alternating band members, are also free of distortion, and are somewhat restrained, chanting in the classic style of Front 242 or DAF, with none of the screaming often present in the genre.  In some cases – “Redemption” and “Destination” – they’re sung with little of the manic self-indulgence of the re-emergent synthpop.

Take “Catharsis,” which is built with a magnetic unwavering beat and a fantastic off-beat bass line, and anthemic German vocals that never overwhelm, but enhance the track’s identity.  It’s aggressive, but not overly so, and doesn’t do too much; it’s not trying to overwhelm or impress.  It’s classic EBM, but isn’t just pumped-up beats for mindless clubbing; there’s a good amount of creative songwriting on display.  “Rot” increases the tempo just a bit, and uses a looped sonar tone to augment the turbo-charged bass-line, techno-ish melody, and driving percussion.  The vocals here remind me so much of Massiv in Mensch it’s almost criminal; in fact, Rot sounds very much like a heavier version of MiM’s early work (minus the tongue-in-cheek weirdness) merged with the goth-influenced sensibilities of Project Pitchfork.

Not that Rot is completely free of pretension.  The lyrics of “Stigmata of Jesus” and “Zodiac” are pretty cringe-worthy, but those wonderfully cathartic beats and precise programming do help take the edge off.  [:SITD:] dabbles with noise on these tracks as well, with very respectable results.  I do think, however, that Rot could jettison the vocals and still be exemplary; the near-instrumental “Pride” is proof, with its carefully merged and dramatic chords and piano, all studded by lovely thudding 4/4 magic.  However, the introspective lyrics of “Redemption” and the anti-drug “MK Ultra” help redeem the band’s lyric-writing a bit; these guys are no Project Pitchfork in the songwriting department, but they’re a level above their contemporaries, for certain.

Rot is nothing new, but it’s darn good at what it does.  It’s the most effective and consistent album in the band’s discography to date, changing things up just enough to keep from becoming repetitive or overwhelming.  [:SITD:] wears its influences proudly on its electronic sleeve, and isn’t ashamed of what it is: post-industrial EBM of particularly effective power.  For a prime example of what the genre is capable of – as limited as that might be – it doesn’t get much better than this.