Cabaret Voltaire didn’t invent industrial, but they did help to shape its performance art chaos into music. Formed a few years after Throbbing Gristle’s early provocative art installations as COUM Transmissions, Cabaret Voltaire emerged with a formula of sorts, but an extremely effective one, filtering the simple, distorted pulse of punk rock through the cold, piercing sounds of machines. They eventually took that idea and allowed it to evolve into more cacophonous bursts of haunted noise and ultimately dancefloor-friendly EBM with occasional snuff film samples. The Sheffield duo of Richard H. Kirk and Stephen Mallinder never officially embraced the mainstream, even if they offered a reasonable facsimile on tracks such as “Sensoria.” Their music is littered with too many landmines and lit by the ominous glow of surveillance helicopters to ever sound comfortable enough in a pop setting.
There’s a certain irony in the fact that The Conversation, Cabaret Voltaire’s last album before a quarter-century hiatus, was released the same year as Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral, an album that wouldn’t exist without Voltaire’s influence but which represented a very different path forward for industrial music. Uncertain as Cabaret Voltaire’s place might have been among the ’90s-era wave of electronic and industrial acts, Shadow of Fear—Cabaret Voltaire’s first album in 26 years—feels like a natural product of a fraught modern era as it does the tense and chaotic era in which the UK group was born.
Now solely the work of founding member Richard H. Kirk, Cabaret Voltaire on Shadow of Fear reach back into the buzzing analog Wurlitzer beats of their early Suicide-like material on their debut album Mix-Up. The sputtering pulse of “The Power (of Their Knowledge)” feels strangely anachronistic and primitive, underscoring layers of fat synth bass and shimmering techno twinkles. It’s a kind of Frankenstein’s monster of CV parts past and present, stitched together in interesting ways. It’s not merely a technologically enhanced version of Kirk’s older compositions nor a complete overhaul—it’s the essence of Cabaret Voltaire, and some of the early production choices, expanded and given the gift of a much richer production.
There’s a purely fun sensibility that runs through Shadow of Fear, and “The Power (of Their Knowledge)” is one such example, but Kirk sabotages any purely hedonistic impulses with the paranoia and darkness that’s been a feature of his music since the late ’70s. “Microscopic Flesh Fragment” juxtaposes oozing industrial dread with clanging dub rhythms a la On-U Sound Records in the mid-’80s, while “Papa Nine Zero Delta United” skips and sputters with an energy that’s direct and urgent, as much a product of aggression as groove. Though it’s in moments like the 10-plus-minute “Universal Energy” where Kirk not only reminds us of Cabaret Voltaire’s tension and potency, but their continued penchant for pushing boundaries as well, catalyzing an elevated disco beat into a constant march toward violence and chaos.
It feels strangely appropriate for Cabaret Voltaire to rear its head once again in a year that’s felt more apocalyptic than any other in my lifetime. Their best tracks always felt like celebrations inside a fallout bunker or constantly looking over your shoulder in a seedy nightclub, so an hour of frantic Armageddon techno and dystopian synth-punk in a pandemic soft-coup year from the artist that more or less invented both. It’s strangely comforting to once again hear such a fitting soundtrack to a lingering dread.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.