Vice Versa8 Aspects Of
Released 1980 on Private edition cassette
Reviewed by Solist, 24/07/2009ce
Cassette as a medium has never been that grateful - barely practical regarding sound reproduction on standard players, the tape rarely preserves the recording's worth. So now, we are panically saving it all onto hard disks to keep as memory, hoping maybe someday these master tapes will appear after all...
Despite the charm (and the aesthetic) of its own, compact cassettes' main characteristic is unreliability - tape hiss to start with and tape chewed up to end it. Copy-to-copy recording is another problem - loss of sound quality per copy might add to the charm of such analogue treatment but once we discover great stuff that never made it onto vinyl or CD for our personal listening pleasure, the obsession (not to mention frustration) becomes greater.
Vice Versa's cassette release to me became such - call it sacred - object of both, obsession and frustration. Since I first heard it, still cannot stop listening. Also I cannot stop from trying to master it more properly. Hoping to save this superb collection of fascinating, edgy electronic-pop songs from their tape obscurity; an amazingly restless collection, '8 Aspects' ultimate appeal lies in its abrasiveness. A bit 'work in progress', these remain practically sketches to something planned either as a mini album or further collection of singles, most of which sadly didn't reflect beyond their demo potential. In an excellent article done on the group by Andrew Darlington in 1980, covering their tour dates with Clock DVA, there is also a mention of the mysterious song called 'Modern As In Mary Quant' - being performed live but (probably) never recorded.
The opening track 'Democratic Dancebeat' is immediately energetic and mercilessly improvised percussive track, showing departure from the trio's earlier catalogue. The sound is warmer but don't be fooled by the suggestion - this warmth is explosive. Also notable is the line-up change; by the time of this release, original synthesist David Sydenham was already replaced by Martin Fry (now more consistent personnel, with two other original members, Mark White and Stephen Singleton). Although cannot tell for sure, I believe high-pitched backing vocals on '8 Aspects' are actually Martin's - on the other hand, Mark and Stephen in some of their rare interviews during Vice Versa days stated Martin never sang until that famous Rotterdam studio jam session of theirs.
Dirtier, sparser sound adds to the effect, now complimented by Mark White's impressively full frontal, more brutal singing.; 'Industrial music back to back!' is the phrase quite characteristic for many bands of the time - Vice Versa were no exception; equally, a celebratory 'call to arms' and ironic take on matters 'industrial', who is it for or against, and desire to change. Here the group were more frustrated with their manifesto - it was no longer relevant, it served a purpose. Now it was time to kill it - rumbling random percussion marks the revolutionary nature of the song. Merciless march towards the dance floor (in similar pace come 'Eyes of Christ', a frightening-by-title piece of electro-pop mixing surrealist attitude with a hint at religious fanaticism, or so it seems).
'Stilyagi' (some cassette copies also note the song as 'Stilyargi') is a stunning 'stop-start' disco-esque, stripped down to its avant-garde groove. As an ode to Russian Teddy-Boys, it's a menacing rebellious piece with little (if none) actual space left for emotions - just the cruelty of arrogance within fashion circles informing the punk-era; 'Youth movement, rebel gang!' On the other hand, 'Stilyagi' is appealing for its brutal attack at disco while at the same time it is fascinated by exploring it; a threatening synthdrum subverts Amii Stewart (most notably her rendition of 'Knock on Wood'). It's an underground disco-hit of smash-proportions, which in remixed form even saw its proper release on vinyl (paired with 'Eyes of Christ').
Fashion and identity crisis continue to inspire - now as the problem of repetition; the excellent 'Artists At War' expresses this, according to Mark White, as a problem of fashions' cyclical comebacks. The song is a combination of sinister manic screams and confronting abstract social messages - 'slash your wrists!', 'always forward!', 'antiage', 'be dynamic!'... Pure, running-round-in-circles frenzy!
'Jazz Drugs' sarcastically ticks off everything marked as 'jazz' being ultimately 'cool'; 'jazz drugs, jazz look, jazz age, jazz mambo, jazz waltz, jazz damn thing to love...'. More like a comment against any self-declared 'elite' insisting their definition of good taste being the only norm, 'Jazz Drugs' is openly disgusted with snobbery. The phrases repeat themselves over and over, sliding into rhythmically brutal, disciplined noise which provides the scary image of violence culture.
'Body Sculpture', with its overtones of artistic self-importance, addresses the problem of exhibitionism. Musically more hermetic and restrained than the rest of the material, perverse melody creeps up and grows on the listener; the bass line is accompanied with a tiny synthetic hiss which distracts and intimidates. The vocals are quite distant and splintered - feels like being lost in someone's confusing state of mind, with frightening results; at the same time it's motivation and paralysis ('... there's nothing you can do...').
In terms of 'pop', 'Trapped In Celluloid' is the most accessible piece here - more emotional, atmospheric and catchy, although lyrically no less disturbing, it tells a story by a person caught up in an elevator of a burning skyscraper - a song that openly epitomizes the atmosphere from John Guillermin's disaster movie 'The Towering Inferno' (with a direct dedication from 'the fall guy' character). In somewhat similar fashion, 'Idol' (somewhere also refered to as 'My Idol') is a tour-de-force assault on the cult of personality ('What if it's six million dollars? What if it looks like Che Guevarra?) - depicting JFK assassination in a rudimentary wordplay of sheer indifference to political and social unrest. Stunning minimal arrangement of raging power to bring '8 Aspects' to a close.
Of course, one notable thing about Vice Versa (especially according to information from Martin Lilleker's excellent book 'Beats Working For a Living' that covers Sheffield's post-punk underground of the late 70s/early 80s), is that they were more ridiculed at the time than being explored and/or adored. Cannot tell how I would react at the time, hearing someone trying to pull on the same blueprint Cabaret Voltaire already established by the year 1977.
However, Vice Versa were alone and honestly inspired (and lost) in Sheffield's industrial sea of bliss. Unlike The Human League (with all due respect for all they provided for future generations), Vice Versa weren't trying to be a rock band with synths - combining childish enthusiasm and punk attitude with sinister electronic bleep, they were openly proud to be that sterile. Listening to it now, it is amazing that such nihilism transformed into (equally respectful) pop music of ABC.
Of course, they admitted to exhaust their electronic pattern - punk and post-punk brought its fair share of ambition, competition and commercial appeal. Vice Versa were fighting in their tiny field using strict audio-visual aesthetic. Observing their Neutron Records' releases, they knew exactly where to go and at least try to manipulate this so-called indie music business right from the start; intriguing fold-out sleeves, additional correspondence cards and a manifesto work perfect when you're an enthusiast enough to shape up your own identity - in Vice Versa's case, all of these were more focused on corporate image. Here the obvious reference was Throbbing Gristle. Their Industrial Records blueprint provided a pattern for many in the post-punk era to continue subverting and parodying standard music business principles.
Sadly, many - Neutron Records included - failed to reach that impact. Despite healthy attitude of DIY ethics, post-punk independent scene mostly turned into a two-faced, selective market where standard business schemes interfered and corrupted the vital side of what it could have remained. In the end, many got lost and many others turned to what they were fighting against in the first place - the majors!