Graded on a Curve:
Nine from Mute Records

Formed in 1978 by Daniel Miller, Mute Records has prospered in the decades since and continues flourishing right up to the present, as is made clear by the 2020 releases reviewed below by Daniel Avery, Apparat, Nicolas Bougaïeff, HAAi, Pole, and Cabaret Voltaire. With the exception of the digital-only material by Apparat, everything is available on vinyl and CD, and it’s all out now, except for Shadow of Fear by Cabaret Voltaire, which arrives on November 20.

Daniel Avery made his initial splash back in 2013 with his full-length debut Drone Logic, but more recently, as in earlier this year, he issued Illusion of Time, a collab with Alessandro Cortini (he of Nine Inch Nails). Love + Light is described as a surprise release on Mute/Phantasy in the US and Canada and on Phantasy alone throughout the rest of the world. No longer a surprise: the digital has been out since June, but the CD and vinyl have belatedly shipped earlier in November.

While Illusion of Time is notable for the absence of rhythm, Love + Light is drenched in club-thump underscoring its maker’s beginnings in techno. Some might wonder if Avery’s backsliding, but it’s really more a case of his undiminished interest in the style. I’ll add that the record effectively branches out, and right away with a slice of ambient in “London Island.” He also ratchets up the racket in “Searing Light, Forward Motion.”  Note that the vinyl offers 12 tracks and the full release features 14 for a total just a smidge over one hour, as Avery’s individual selections are largely concise. B+

Apparat, aka Berlin-based electronic musician Sascha Ring, has also moved away from dancefloor-ready techno, heading toward the ambient but more recently soundtrack works as documented in an aptly named series of digital releases. The first, Soundtracks: Capri-Revolution, was review in TVD’s New in Stores column on May 1. We consider the subsequent three here.

Soundtracks: Stay Still, recorded for a German feature directed by Elisa Mishto, came out in May, and it blends hovering, glistening ambience with melodic touches, but with the synth-poppish “BK LULU,” complete with gal vocals, dropped roughly in the middle. Released in June, Soundtracks: Dämonen provides the music for a theatrical play by Sebastian Hartmann adapting Dostoevsky’s Demons, with an emphasis on chamber strings (at times heavily bowed, very nice), a little spare pluck-strum, and even some cathedral-style organ.

But it’s not like he lost touch with his electronic side. The same is true of Soundtracks: Equals Sessions, which was issued in July as the final entry in the series, featuring work from Ring and Dustin O´Halloran for the 2015 feature by Drake Doremus. As a dystopian sci-fi romance starring Kristen Stewart, Equals the film is a higher-profile and bigger-budget affair than either Stay Still and Dämonen, a reality that’s absorbable as Equals Sessions plays, though there is stylistic unity, including some churchy keyboard and some singing (guy vocals this time out). B+/ A-/ A-

Nicolas Bougaïeff was born in Quebec but resides in Berlin, a factoid that just might serve as a tipoff to the style that shapes his full-length debut The Upward Spiral. Yes indeed, it’s club-style techno (another clue: his 2017 EP “Cognitive Resonance” came out on Mute’s techno sublabel novamute). Bougaïeff’s dancefloor burners are so intense that he occasionally walks a tightrope across these nine tracks. On one side is an inspired approach to form, while on the other is pure functionality. His ace in the hole is bass drum thump bordering on the thunderous. Additionally, the aura can get downright menacing. B+

HAAi is the performance handle of Aussie Teneil Throssell, with “Put Your Head Above the Parakeets” her second EP (she debuted last year with “Systems Up, Windows Down” for Mute). Techno is also her forte, and with a few nods to the club, though the four tracks here feature warpage that can be tagged as psychedelic. However, the general mood is incessant rather than laidback or chill. Finale “Bass is the Place” attains bad trip levels of cyclical distortion that momentarily brough Kid 606 to mind, and that’s sweet. Throssell’s attention to buzz and static is even sweeter. A smart, invigorating release. A-  

Pole, aka Stefan Betke, has a new album out, but don’t let’s overlook that Mute has also recently reissued as a box set the glitch-minimal-dub electronica specialist’s first three full-length releases, the trilogy 1, 2 and 3, which dates from 1998-2000. It’s long established that Betke’s choice of moniker comes from the analog Waldorf 4-Pole filter, a device he dropped and rendered defective, though not unusable, as he fancied the crackles and hissing it made when in operation.

These sounds as heard on 1, 2 and 3 help to unify the records as a trilogy, as Betke set the device aside soon thereafter. These sounds are especially prevalent on 1, which is also the least dubby of the bunch, though Betke has stated that was intentional, with the dub simply “less hidden” on 2 and 3. Spending time with the contents as a whole reinforces the astuteness of his statement. And yet each record has distinguishing elements; by the end of 3, the dub atmosphere takes on an almost On-U Sound vibe. A-

The new Pole record Fading establishes Betke’s considerable growth in the two decades since 1, 2 and 3, though the artist’s early work is still impacting his current endeavors (especially this album’s successive tracks “Tolpel” and “Röschen”), and deliberately so, as his latest is concerned with memory, specifically what is lost (directly pertaining to Betke’s mother’s recent struggle with dementia) and what we hold onto. And additionally, what we leave behind, as Betke’s engagement with this topic lends depth to an already multidimensional work. A-

Cabaret Voltaire stand as a cornerstone of the Industrial genre, formed in 1973 By Richard H. Kirk, Stephen Mallinder, and Chris Watson and enduring through a series of distinct phases. They were also one of the very few who made a transition into danceable environments without floundering or downright fouling matters up.

Shadow of Fear, the first Cabaret Voltaire record in 26 years and the first to feature Kirk as sole member (Watson left in ’81, Mallinder stuck around until ’94), doesn’t abandon the Industrial Dance template, but more importantly, the 59 minutes establish a disinterest in recapturing the essence of any specific era of Cabaret Voltaire. If anything, the rhythmic drive, complete with vocal samples, is reminiscent of ’90s techno.

Perceptible across Shadow of Fear are elements of darkness, paranoia and encroaching dread, characteristics that indeed had a profound impact on Cabaret Voltaire’s early sound. But again, Kirk isn’t throwing back to the harsher sensibilities heard on the outfit’s string of Rough Trade releases as a commentary on a present plagued by Coronavirus and flailing wannabee authoritarianism.

Kirk has stated the record was finished “just as all the weirdness was starting to kick in,” which means there are no grand statements here. And that’s refreshing, as Shadow of Fear’s level of quality is a statement in itself. A-

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