Stones Throw Records (home to artists like Madlib, DOOM and Aloe Blacc) release excellent compilation albums. These records are mostly collections of tracks from relatively unknown musical subgenres or locations that previously haven’t been thought of as musically significant. For example its 2004 compilation ‘The Third Unheard’, showcased the surprisingly fertile Connecticut hip-hop scene of the late 70s and early 80s. Another example of this is ‘The Minimal Wave Tapes Vol. 1’, which collects together fourteen tracks of what was, until recently, relatively unknown synth-pop. These tracks, largely produced in the late 70s and 80s, are characterised by mechanical programmed beats, high-pitched synth lines and extensive repetition of musical ideas. The latter feature in particular has led the artists in question to be grouped under the genre heading ‘Minimal Wave’.
Unlike much mainstream synth-pop produced at the time, Minimal Wave artists didn’t attempt to use synthesizers to emulate other, non-electronic instruments. Instead they deliberately emphasized the artificiality of their synth sounds and in doing so created a body of music that was stark and cold but at times, supremely danceable. A perfect example of this is ‘The Devil’s Dancers’ by British duo Oppenheimer Analysis:
Influenced by the DIY culture that flourished with Punk, most Minimal Wave artists recorded in home studios and distributed their own music in small batches of cassette tapes or vinyl, often with homemade album art. In spite of this limited distribution, it is fair to say that many Minimal Wave artists were part of an international community of musicians. This was largely due to the work of the Canadian fanzine CLEM (Contact List of Electronic Musicians).
CLEM served as a directory for artists, record labels and magazines interested in contemporary electronic music and allowed geographically disconnected artists to communicate and collaborate with each other by mail. An example of such a mail-based collaboration is ‘Like I am, Comme Je Suis’ by New York based Tara Cross and Belgium national Henk Wallays, otherwise known as Unovidual.
One of the leading influences on the lyrics and imagery of Minimal Wave was Science Fiction, which was also going through a resurgence in the early 80s with the release of Blade Runner and William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Nowhere is this influence more clearly seen than in the work of Belgian duo Bene Gesserit. Named after a mysterious sisterhood in Frank Herbert’s Dune, the duo produced dark, menacing synth-pop that clearly took influence from the burgeoning industrial scene. Here’s their wonderful track ‘Mickey, Please’:
Anyone interested in finding out more about Minimal Wave should check out Veronica Vasicka’s article on the FACT magazine website (on which this article was based). You can find it here.