Although I didn’t know it at the time, I must have seen Thighpaulsandra live a few times around the turn of the millennium, during his tenure as a member of Coil. My recollection is hazy, but I definitely saw them at least twice at the Royal Festival Hall in London, the first time as headliners, the second time as support act to Icelandic also-rans Sigur Rós. According to Brainwashed, those concerts took place in 2000 and 2002 respectively. On the second occasion, I watched Coil’s excellent performance (which included the spectacle of two naked men covered in body paint walking up and down the aisles, handing out apples to the audience), but naturally had no interest in Sigur Rós. So I swiftly adjourned to the bar, where I remained for the entirety of the headliners’ set.
[Just unearthed this old letter to The Wire which I wrote after the death of John Balance. It was never published, but I feel like putting it up here anyway.]
My enjoyment of Chris Bohn’s account of John Balance’s funeral (The Masthead, The Wire 251) was marred by the rank theorising with which the piece concluded. I read with disbelief Bohn’s comment that “Balance’s commitment to such exacting creative methods inevitably took its toll.” Balance was a sick man, an alcoholic, and the alcohol coursing through his body was not a life force but a death force. It ill behoves The Wire to imply that there is something creatively important about the alcoholism of Balance and other artists that sets them apart from the great mass of people suffering from this addiction. The suggestion that Balance drank in order to “experiment with [his] own and [his] audience’s senses” is as gratuitous as it is offensive to the thousands who, in their daily struggles with alcoholism, don’t have the benefit of cutting-edge magazine editors giving them the respectability conferred by the notion that it is all heroically being done in the name of Art.
The appearance of this record is a remarkable piece of musical archaeology and certainly one of the reissues of the year. Active between 1980 and 1983, Cultural Amnesia were a deeply submerged part of the British post-punk underground scene, dispensing experimental synth pop with an Industrial edge. Their milieu was the cassette culture, a many-tentacled network of like-minded souls which took full advantage of the ubiquity of the compact cassette and the affordability of multi-track recording equipment, recording their music at home and distributing it principally by mail order. Into this vibrant scene, Cultural Amnesia launched three full-length albums and numerous tracks on compilations; this new album contains a tantalisingly small, nine-song selection of these.
The connections between Cultural Amnesia and the early Industrial scene are more than just stylistic, and the echoes of Throbbing Gristle present in both the title and the music of a song like “Scars For E” not just coincidental. The band were unofficially managed by the late John Balance of Coil, who also wrote lyrics for them (“Scars For E” being one of three Balance-penned tracks on this album). Balance was intimately connected to TG through his musical and personal partnership with Peter Christopherson, and Cultural Amnesia recall the later work of TG in their warped pop sensibility and often unsavoury lyrical content.
Closer antecedents, however, would be the gaunt yet lyrical early work of Ultravox, Gary Numan and the Human League. The record opens with “Kingdom Come”, which sounds like nothing so much as an electronic folk song. In a mannered yet arresting vocal style, Gerard Greenway delivers a wordy, baroque text: “I spend my morning planning the afternoon’s regrets/I’ve elements and destiny to light me on my way/O happy days I hope to keep my relatives and pets/You can laugh or you can cry/It’s the same salt water in your eye…” This level of lyrical verbosity recurs throughout the album, but it is done with so much flair and self-confidence that they get away with it easily. Greenway’s voice is strangely affecting, while the wordiness of the songs, coupled with the skeletal melody lines, create an utterly distinctive atmosphere of blank austerity.
Other highlights include “Repetition For This World”, in which choppy guitars enter the mix alongside the band’s trademark synthesisers. Those guitars stretch themselves out over an extended synth outro, while the fitful vocals and propulsive drumming evoke the churning angularity of This Heat and early Joy Division. Elsewhere, the synths and percussion on “Blind Rag” uncoil powerfully around an unnerving tale of social and romantic awkwardness, while “Here To Go” takes Balance’s powerful, existential lyric (“I am a resultant, a coincidence of fields/When the magnetic fields shift there is no here/I am gone, I am thought in action”) and turns it into a song that more than compensates for a lack of finesse with its barked, urgent vigour. The whole album, in fact, is alive with such atmospheres. Cultural Amnesia have recently reformed and are working on new material; it’s hard, though, to see them bettering Enormous Savages, a set of intricate electronic ballads that honestly and evocatively reflect the time and place of their creation.
(Originally published in The Sound Projector 16, 2008)