Cabaret Voltaire
Red Mecca

Released 1981 on Rough Trade
Reviewed by Thom Kurotenshi, 17/04/2003ce

If you’re looking for the perfect disc to validate all your gnawing fears about life in Western urbania, while simultaneously feeling kind of cool about ‘knowing the facts’, there’s no need to bother with anything released this year. Cabaret Voltaire already tapped this vein in the late ‘70s-early ‘80s. Actually, it’s a major disappointment that, with the world on the brink of unspeakable catastrophes and new colonization of territory (both geographical and mental), there is such a small culture of direct opposition in music right now. But leave it to those sly, tactical Industrialists to figure it out decades before the political pundits can wrap their tentacles around an issue. Hell, Skinny Puppy attacked Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons program on vinyl way back in 1988, and without using it as a pretext for an all out war!

It’s been noted that aforementioned band, and many others who traded in the dual currencies of danceable psych/dada and paranoid audio-journalism, wouldn’t have got very far without designs drafted up by Cabaret Voltaire. ‘Red Mecca’ is one of many high points for the Cabs, who also beat their contemporaries to the punch in the fields of ‘futuristic atavism’ (see especially ‘Three Mantras’ album) and releasing long-form home videos. The record is propelled by Stephen Mallinder’s wide-eyed and convulsing vocal delivery (sometimes through audibly clenched teeth), and Richard H. Kirk’s machete guitar riffing and feverish sax, with a warehouse of incidental sounds filling the gaps. While there are slight acknowledgements of a psychedelic upbringing (vibrato-soaked organ fills etc.), ‘Red Mecca’ mostly stays out of the sunshine; favoring songs and texts crafted from cold, clear beatnik skepticism. Production-wise, there is some Rasta feel in the grooves as well- flanged drums and cymbals and up-front creeping bass on several tracks. Whereas previous Cabs songs, like those on ‘Mix Up’ and ‘Voice of America’ grooved through relentless determination to bludgeon a single riff into the ground, this album shows a new comfortability with jazz-punk improv (see the weird whorls of ‘Touch of Evil’ which open and close the album) and a more loose-limbed approach to music in general. It’s more colorful than much of what the Cabs did before, both in the sleeve graphics (a departure from the tried and true Xerox-collage aesthetic) and in the sonics themselves.

The sound of analog synth whizzing in and out of earshot is conspicuously absent from ‘Red Mecca’, as is much of the interference from extraneous radio conversations and samples. But the atmosphere, one in which the listener might feel compelled to shiver and sweat simultaneously, remains a distinct Cabaret Voltaire creation. Songs like ‘Landslide’ and ‘Spread the Virus’ conjure perfectly the paranoia of late night taxi travel, all blurred neon and restlessness. Lyrically, Mallinder remains pretty unintelligible (a point flogged over and over by music weeklies of the time), but his voice compliments the excited tension just as any passing bystander’s overheard conversations might add to the alien feel of unexplored streets. He shouts monosyllabic orders like a cybernetic James Brown, while circular percussion enforces the threat (or seductiveness, depending on your personal interpretation.)

So, as far as singular statements go, ‘Red Mecca’ is a pretty good one, not shackled to the expectations of either the industrial noise fiends or some perpetually cynical and provincial music journalists, who wrote off Cabaret Voltaire as dour nihilists just a little too soon.

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