Cultural Amnesia, Press My Hungry Button

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)

Cultural Amnesia: Enormous Savages

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)