This is a paean to the power of subtractive synthesis, a pure transformation of blistering electricity into new waveforms never before heard in nature. The sawtooth, with its sizzling geometry, snakes its way through a landscape of muted horns and buzzing hives. The square wave rings clear and full, or as though heard down a tubular bell. The triangle charts the far-off peaks and dark streams of an ancient way of knowing. And the sine wave, so often heard simply in the variation of another sound, its gentle lapping barely within noticing distance.
In 1978, Korg released the MS-20. This instrument used electricity as its substrate, generating time-variant voltages that when played through a speaker could sound unlike anything reproducible by mechanical means. The next year Korg released the SQ-10, which was designed to emit timed voltage pulses directly to the MS-20, thus allowing musicians to sequence notes to be played back at a later point in time – with only minimal involvement from the “player”. In 1980, Deutsche-Amerikanische Freundschaft released the hellish Deutsche Neue Welle classic “Kebabträume” on Mute Records, in which we find the Freundschaft exacting their alienation and detachment upon their MS-20 via their SQ-10 and thus slotting into a growing underground of synthetic troubadors.
These conjuring machines and their operators locked in some wavering union of imperfection, dotted across Europe, tucked away in remote corners of the Low Countries or the tenements of Marseille, scouring CLEM – the Contact List of Electronic Musicians – for prospective collaborators, some voice to articulate the “isolation, urban anomie, and feelings of being emotionally cold and hollow” that Wikipedia claims these musicians were afflicted by, stark beats recorded magnetically to tape and sent back dubbed with that aloofness so common to vocal delivery in synth music, earnest but somehow reticent, alone in its own fiefdom, not yet dance music.
And it had to be synthesizers. How else to articulate the confusion and isolation of the Continent in the early-80s but with a blistering donkey-punch bassline like that of “Je Ne Sais Rien” by In Aeternam Vale, complete with leering guitar and sneering delivery. Take “Blurred” by Turquoise Days, bassline gunning the highway, piercing lead all careening semiotics and runaway spectacle, our protagonist gurning with the sheer G-forces. “H.S.T.A.” by Das Ding, with its almost Drexciyan devotion to the beat, dystopia at street level. Minimal Wave Records have done a fine job in cataloguing these country roads in the cartography of electronic music.
Some common thread unites post-punk, new wave, industrial music, and this outsider synthpop. What is it about these elegiac electronics that attracts such tortured souls, only able to confess their darkest secrets to machines? The full gamut of sound achievable with a garden-variety subtractive synth mirrors the breadths and depths of human emotion itself. Wild and untameable one moment, soft and intimate the next, leaping out from behind a curtain and bouncing back up to the rafters, floating untethered for a moment in pure resonance. Perhaps this is why these incredible sounds are still so relevant today: they are able to express very precisely what it is to be young, dumbstruck at and apart from the adult world, lost in a world of oblique strategies and unknown intentions.
Whenever modernity went out of fashion it took with it a brutal kind of synthpop that placed intensity above complexity, bristled with the thrill of live electricity and provided a cathartic counterpoint to the glossy (but no less innovative) British new wave of Depeche Mode and the Human League. We see excellent modern examples in the crushing mania of a Light Asylum track, the overpowering insouciance of a Dylan Ettinger ballad, the ethereal pop of Group Rhoda. “The Inheritors”, James Holden’s staggering journey into rustic synth psychedelia, breaks free of the confines of subtractive synthesis to invent a new shamanic tradition. They’ve all stumbled upon the ur-sound, and how marvellous that it took us 13.8 billion years to recreate it.
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