Hot on the heels of Enormous Savages, the first album of reissued Cultural Amnesia material, comes this second collection, a lavish double LP from the German Vinyl on Demand label. Enormous Savages was reviewed, and the group interviewed, in SP16, but in case you weren’t paying attention here’s a quick recap. Cultural Amnesia were a British post-punk/early industrial group, originally active between 1980 and 1983 (they have recently reformed). They were part of the underground cassette culture that thrived in the early 80s, releasing three albums on cassette and making several appearances on compilations. They were connected to the early industrial scene through their association with the late John Balance, who, prior to forming his group Coil, acted as CA’s unofficial manager and wrote a handful of lyrics for them.
Both Enormous Savages and Press My Hungry Button contain selections from the Cultural Amnesia back catalogue, but where the first collection was a tantalising glimpse, just nine songs long, the present collection weighs in with a whopping 30 tracks. Clearly CA are as serious about preserving their past as they are about working in the present, and why not? It’s their past, after all, and an artist has the right to establish his own canon. There’s something rather touching about the sheer enthusiasm and self-belief with which CA are going about this reissue programme of 25-year-old music that was only ever heard by a handful of people when it was first released.
Is it worth it, though? On the evidence of Press My Hungry Button, the answer is an unqualified yes. More varied than the earlier collection, this album shows what a daring, innovative and smart unit Cultural Amnesia were. Necessity breeding invention, they utilised the technology available at the time to its fullest capacity, and emerged sounding like a primitivist take on Tubeway Army, Throbbing Gristle and John Foxx-era Ultravox. Gerard Greenway’s vocals are arresting in the extreme; he sounds menacing yet wise, like an eccentric teacher convinced of his own rightness. It would have been good to hear him inject a little looseness, some light and shade, into his singing, but that would have lessened the impact of the lyrics’ dense, allusive verbosity.
Musically, the default CA position was a rickety synthesiser line hammered out against a skeletal rhythm track, often in the company of scratchy buzz-saw guitars. The ‘industrial’ tag is justified, though, not only because of the Balance connection but also because CA shared something of TG’s perverse pleasure in combining distinctively atonal vocals with uneasy electronic textures. Songs like “Hot in the House” and “Shiny Guitar Music” evoke a disconnected, dystopian aura that is as powerful as TG’s nightmarish visions of urban hostility and decay:
“Go down to the town, down to the town
where they never work all their lives
so they just lie about
lost until knives cut the skin from their backs”
Yet CA had more up their sleeves than that. “The Media Funk” sounds, well, funky, while “For All Your Needs” is a bright and perky slip of a thing, all the more striking for being sequenced after the distinctly queasy and primitive “Dialogue of Skull and Soul.” Another stand-out track, “Magic Theatre,” starts out with glistening Philip Glass-style arpeggiations before allowing warm and inviting reeds to kick in.
Elsewhere, there’s a bizarre deconstruction of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” and a more faithful, but still distinctive, cover of the Human League’s “Being Boiled.” Interesting to note that by the time CA recorded their version of this song, Phil Oakey & Co. had ditched their early electronic experimental tendencies and had gone all out to conquer the pop world with Dare. Cultural Amnesia, on the other hand, never lost that sense of quest – their approach, like that of the early League, was marked out by an academic rigour that concealed a feeling of pure joy and a pleasure in experimentation for its own sake. It’s not a bad legacy, as legacies go, and it’s one that is amply illustrated by this beautifully made and lovingly compiled record.
(originally published in The Sound Projector 17, 2008)