Boxsets Review
Words: Dominic Valvona

Monolith Cocktail - Richard H. Kirk

Richard H. Kirk   ‘#7489 (Collected Works 1974 – 1989)’
Sandoz   ‘#9294 (Collected Works 1992 – 1994)’
Both boxsets released by Mute Records,  2nd December 2016

Following the career of the much-lauded and highly influential Richard H. Kirk is akin to tracing the progress of synthesizer and electronic music in the UK over the last thirty odd years. Either ahead of the game or at least loitering at the vanguard of many developments in the genre, Kirk is rightly cited as a leading light and even pioneering seer. Personally a decade too late for the Dadaist inspired Cabaret Voltaire; the early adopters of synth, tape machine and what would later be coined industrial music Sheffield trio that Kirk formed with Stephen Mallinder and Chris Watson in 1973. My introduction to his varied catalogue of explorations would be through a sporadic string of individual 12” acid house, techno and trance records in the early 90s, under a number of guises, though namely through Warp Records’ Artificial Intelligence series of compilations.

Though in recent years he’s resurrected a lone wolf version of the Cabaret, officially dissolved in 1994, Kirk’s solo career began proper with the 1980 ‘ghost-in-the-machine’ post-punk fueled Disposable Half-Truths. That album, in a remastered condition, appears on Mute Records behemoth Kirk survey #7489; a collation of his official solo output and unreleased material from a timespan of fifteen years. A congruous companion and in tandem with this grand appraisal, Mute have also boxed-up the entire early output of one of Kirk’s most successful and enduring alter-egos, Sandoz, in an equally impressive package, entitled #9294.

The first edition in this 8 x CD sprawl is a continuation of the funneled lo fi haunting and industrial menace of the Cabaret Voltaire vision. Disposable Half-Truths, originally released on cassette by Industrial Records in 1980, mixes the reverberations and gargles of Cluster (more their early incarnation Kluster than later period material) and Faust with emanations from ‘planet dub’; squelching, burbling and chattering through a spooky and primordial soup. Titles offer a glimpse into the themes that motivate Kirk (Information Therapy, Synesthesia) whilst others go some way in describing the sonic assault – Insect Friends Of Allah is a great description of what is a lush Arabian expanse infested by a busy, twitching shimmery of synthesized insect percussion.

Already balancing the possibilities and connective positives of technology with the scarier prospects of a bad robot ‘dystopian future’, Kirk’s science fiction would become science fact just decades later. Not the first artist to compose an equally dark vision, the augurs of a misused technology and A.I. troubling legions of writers, the electronic auteur escapes the repressive atmosphere of a changing political landscape, one that on the cusp of the new decade moved ominously towards the right, adopting the policies of a rampant free-market. Kraftwerk may have celebrated the advent of a digital immersed automated utopia; Kirk on the other hand offers darker prophesies.

Cut from the same fabric so to speak though released later, Time High Fiction features a similar cornucopia of influences and sounds; from the resonating metallic interstellar dub of Force Of Habit and the Tangerine Dream(ing) Day Of Waiting to the Sun Ra on mescaline opus Dead Relatives Part One.

The first of Kirk’s Rough Trade albums, both released in 1986, Black Jesus Voice makes good use of the burgeoning hip-hop phenomena. The opening Streetgang (It Really Hurts) is a blitz of Herbie Hancock’s Headhunter style keyboards – sampled to shit by a litany of rap artists, with even Herbie himself, via tracks like Rockit, fully embracing it -, electro, the Art Of Noise and street gang armoury jive talk. Elsewhere the Roland T-303 squelches and the pre-set tight delay percussion is woven into a Max Headroom style cut-up stutter of samples.

Using a far more Teutonic cinematic tone, the second of those Rough Trade albums, Ugly Spirit, prowls the buzz flickering strip light underpass glom of an esoteric industrial landscape. Shades of Throbbing Gristle, Einstürzende Neubauten and a speedball version of Japan permeate a harassed and shivered pitch/speed shift nightmare.

Sprawling across two discs the Earlier/Later anthology style compilation of previously unreleased material features a surreptitious choice of tracks stretching back to 1974; featuring such early obscurities as the primal experimental radio waves frazzled Hell In Here and frayed trembled Concerto For Damaged Piano (Extract 1). Part two of this collection, originally released in 2000, contains the most raw material; a stripped and exploratory window on Kirk’s early workings at the advent of electronic music. Part one is more 80s centric and features a Farley Jackmaster Funk house transmogrified version of Can’s flirtatious disco pop hit I Want More, a 12” version of the “blind-leading-the-blind-leading-the-blind” mantra anthem Never Lose Your Shadow, and the Planet Rock future shock On Fire.

A second volume of rare cuts, promising more previously unreleased to the masses nuggets (though this time they mean it) Super Duper Soul offers diehards alternative, often reconstructed and cut-up, 12” and album tracks –a Newcleus style Jam On It 7” mix of Streetgang; the second of two mixes of this track – plus a string of 808 house exotica and techno workouts (Latino #3 and Dead Tango being just two highlights of note). The most warped sound clashes on this album; Afternoon Weather – a zapping static storm of thrashing lightning – and War Machine – an apocalyptic requiem – are just two of the more quirky examples plucked from the archives. Considering Super Duper Soul in isolation the depth and range of influences that Kirk fashions into dance music seem truly staggering. He charts a course through Nihilism, kosmische, industrial, tape and radio dial manipulation, house, ambient, electro, hip-hop, trance, acid and techno almost amorphously.

Monolith Cocktail - Sandoz/ Richard H.Kirk

Where this, the first of a two-part appraisal, boxset finishes, the second Mute homage begins; celebrating one of Kirk’s most notable alter-egos, Sandoz. Continuing to masquerade in tandem with numerous identities (including Agents With False Memories, Dr. Xavier, The Silent Age and of course under his own name), it was with the LSD loaded Sandoz that Kirk would explore his love for Jamaican music. Plotting a very alternative course for dancehall, reggae and dub, the reverberations are often obscured and in most cases almost entirely absent or, at least abstract. Honing in on a short but fruitful productive period between 1992 and 1994 the first album of this 5 x CD survey is the ‘redux’ Digital Lifeforms. Split into two, the first part featuring a straight run-through of the original is a mix of Chicago House, Damon Wild’s Synewave imprint and vaguely mystical, often Tibetan, trance. It is an encapsulation of the rave culture, then at its peak, featuring all the elements that crept into the scene during those burgeoning years of dance music culture. The second part is made up of curiosities, cutting room floor and in some cases extended or shortened versions of those tracks that made the finished album; a sort of amalgamated version of White Darkness and Steel Tabernacle, but with more oomph, makes an appearance and there is the liquid-y topographic ocean uplift of Ocean Refraction, the African tribal percussive meets early Aphex Twin Medium Cool and the almost jazzy kinetic beats of Zombie Savane to savour. An additional spread of bonus material includes more alternative versions of those same album tracks, with a transcendental tripping techno variant of Chocolate Machine, an astral traveller 808 tapping Steel Tabernacle and a very in-vogue for the times Orb tinged White Darkness, alongside the odd transmogrified cut from another of his albums, Dark Continent, all appearing on the “previously unreleased” Runs The Voodoo Down compilation.

Apparently unavailable for a while now Intensely Radioactive, which preceded Digital Lifeforms, is a sophisticated extension of the cerebral techno sound. The dub influences are as ever subtle, lingering and echoing off the crater moons of Kirk’s imagination but the album’s tight beats, flows and synthesized percussion evoke (and of course influenced in equal measure) Warp, Harthouse, Air liquid and The Future Sound Of London. With more space, quite literally, tracks float and have a loose quality, epically the exotic otherworldly trance-y Luminous. Generally suffused, taking time to release the beats, the album’s eight tracks of various atmospheric languidness and attentive interplay offer both cosmic futuristic expanses and paranoia in equal measure.

The last album proper of the Sandoz trio, Dark Continent is likewise from a similar sound palette and exploring the same themes. With virtual realities most vocal advocates promising so much, and on the cusp of the Internet world we’ve all now become so dependent upon in just a short time, Kirk’s track titles reflect an obsession with cybernetic tech speak and science fiction; a human/A.I. hybrid fusion if you like, alluded to through titles such as Biosynthetic, Neon Soul and Orgasmatron. With trepidation rather than utopian joy, the album throws down the Roland T-303 gauntlet (again!) and appears to embrace the funky jack-the-house club vibe, and even its soul/gospel roots.

The most prized addition to this overview is the already mentioned Runs The Voodoo Down collection of previously left lain dormant material, which includes early adaptations and various takes on tracks from the first two Sandoz albums. However, there’s also a duo of soul affixed acid-gurgler house shimmies, Soul Shakedown and Soul Insurgency, and the funky world music burbler 12” only track, Mapou for the completist.

Still going strong, even reviving the Cabaret Voltaire name (though as the only sole member from the original lineup and performing material more in keeping with his solo material), Richard H. Kirk’s back catalogue is seeing a revival; mainly through a re-release schedule sanctioned by Mute. Far from lingering on memories and the past, still an omnipresence and constantly creating new music all the time (in fact often labelled the “busiest man in techno”), this dual boxset extravaganza is nevertheless a brilliant survey of not only Kirk’s creative genius but also the UK dance music scene’s burgeoning first three decades of invention and creativity.

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