Industrial house pioneers fall a bit flat on first release in 26 years
In early 20th century Switzerland, a radical artistic movement was just getting underway. Dadaism came to fruition at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich in 1916 as patrons began experimenting with a new style of art and music that de-emphasized logic, reason and capitalistic aestheticism in favor of nonsense, irrationality and resistance to the bourgeois class. The nightclub closed that same year, but the movement it spawned stuck around.
Fast forward more than 50 years, and the industrial house outfit Cabaret Voltaire, named after the Swiss soiree site, were getting their start in Sheffield, England. Over a two-decade run, Cabaret Voltaire introduced Dada culture to a wider audience. The group, formed by Stephen Mallinder, Richard H. Kirk and Chris Watson, is credited as being a catalyst for experimental electronic music, with a penchant for inventive sound engineering.
Cabaret Voltaire were ahead of their time, influencing a new era of industrial dance and pop. Now, the band–composed solely of Kirk–is reviving its experimental sound on 2020’s Shadow of Fear, its first studio album in 26 years. Grimy and dystopian, the record resurrects the cleanly chaotic production of past Voltaire projects with a series of lengthy instrumentals; think Demon Days, but progressive house.
The problem is, Kirk’s musical soundscape is itself desolate to the point of monotony. Wacky sounds and risky instrumentation give way to extreme boredom on most of the album’s lengthy offerings. The Dada influence is palpable across the record, with strange, muddled vocal samples and chaotic beats aplenty, but it’s Dada for the sake of Dada; Kirk doesn’t do much to push the band’s previous ideas forward, instead finding himself caught in a mire of interesting but lethargic music.
The track “Be Free” sets the stage for the record’s dominant moods and themes, with dystopian vocal snippets (“The city is falling apart”), a jangly percussive beat and a heavy dose of womping synthesizers combining to create a strikingly gloomy house cut. The tune has a nice bit of Latin flair owing to Agogo drums and clangs, but Kirk doesn’t tinker with the beat much over its 6-and-a-half minute runtime, resulting in a listless and overdone opener.
The gloom and doom carry over into “The Power (Of Their Knowledge),” a darkly intense song with a stuttering beat and a wonky techno synth sound. Kirk infuses plenty of nuance into the track, with lots of little bleeps, clicks and muddled vocals lurking in the background, but again, the main instrumental doesn’t do enough on its own to justify the tune’s runtime. “Night of the Jackal” is a similar story. The track is smoother, dancier and more energetic than its predecessors, with clean production and some techno elements. But once again, it’s a progressive house beat without much substance–there’s nothing really original or gamebreaking about it.
Things pick up a little with “Microscopic Flesh Fragment” and “Papa Nine Zero Delta United,” two tracks that succeed in creating a compelling industrial sound. On the former, a heavily stuttering beat gives way to hissing, grimy percussion while synths creep in and out of the mix to add color. On the latter, the hissing and clanging industrial percussion provides a sense of real urgency, creating the sinking feeling that someone or something is lurking in the nearby shadows.
However, things again hit a wall with the ten-minute odyssey “Universal Energy.” A driving techno bass is joined by some metallic percussion and tambourine, but the beat just plods along without much in the way of variety. “Vasto” suffers from the same lethargy, bringing a nice industrial sound, but failing to capitalize on it or steer it in a compelling direction.
The listener then finally arrives at closer “What’s Goin’ On,” which slyly takes a snippet from the Marvin Gaye song of the same title and contextualizes it as an exclamation of confusion. The track itself sounds like a psychedelic stew molded primarily by different trumpet sounds, as Kirk creates echoing tones, bombastic fanfares and delicate trilling with the brass instrument. The laidback beat again has somewhat of a Latin flair, but it gets old after a few minutes.
Shadow of Fear is certainly consistent, a batch of progressive house tracks with a downtrodden and intense mood. But for all of Cabaret Voltaire’s plaudits and groundbreaking sonic innovations, Shadow of Fear feels a little stale. Kirk’s decision to draw upon the band’s previous work isn’t inherently a bad one, but his lack of creative flair and dynamism digs the record into a hole from which it never escapes.