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The Collector – (C is for) Cabaret Voltaire – Code (EMI/Parlophone 1987)

October 25, 2009

I bought this at a market stall a few years ago because Cabaret Voltaire is an important band. Or at least important in the fact they are often name-checked by The Wire magazine. I’ve been reading the Wire on and off for about a decade – long enough to know being mentioned often in the Wire doesn’t necessarily mean the music is any good (or else Keiji Haino would be the single best musician of the early Noughties) but I’m happy to give most Wire artist a go if I see their music for cheap.
In this case I’m glad I did not pay top dollar for this album. Cabaret Voltaire fit into that broad set of genres called Industrial. I’ve heard Industrial before, though exclusively from the late 80s and all of it clunky. Code is no exception, because it is ultimately flat electronic pop with flatter machismo and flat samples thrown in for good measure. I’m all or electronic pop with synth beats and samples, but as Code is post-Rockit, and post-the first Big Audio Dynamite album (my own points of comparison) it seems like it should sound dated on release. On the other hand The Wire’s points of comparison would be earlier Industrial bands such as Throbbing Gristle and Coil, plus Cabaret Voltaire’s earlier more experimental work, giving Code a whole different perspective. I’ve heard none of these, though might if I see their albums in a market stall.
Or possibly not, or at least not to decode Code. Coming to an album or genre two decades after its release is not having listened through the continuity of music and influence in real time means my assumptions are based on my personal listening history. Conversely many of The Wire writers either listened at the time or have access to back catalogues, meaning they may write from a different, more specialised perspective. To me late 80s Industrial sounds dated, but I have no idea what I would have thought it sounded like had I heard it when it was released.
The Wire may give a picture of those times plus some background. But the magazine may not necessarily present the wider musical landscape of the times which I do remember, such the increasingly dancier 80s pop which falls outside the Wire’s remit, but explains why a major label like EMI decided to signed Cabaret Voltaire, (and also explains why Code sounds so dated).
Of course, being on EMI makes Code the Cabaret Voltaire album I was most likely to stumble across. In fact, one weighty musical field-guide on my shelves – the Virgin Encyclopedia of 80s Music – considers Code to be Cabaret Voltaire’s best album. I can’t possibly comment, bar to doubt this is the album The Wire had in mind when they keep name-checking the band.

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