It’s a recognised truth that constraint breeds creativity. What we may lack in assets or necessities, we usually make up for in resourcefulness. Art, for the most part, adheres to this rule too. Some of the most radical collectives have scored their mark on history not through cultural and social immunity but through oppression and coercion. And yet there’s a dualism at play here. While art movements and micro scenes prosper out of their own limitations, both political and financial restraints can forcibly lead to their demise, or worse, erasure from their critics’ shared memories.
This was quite nearly the fate for cold wave; a movement so ambitious in scope yet so alien and uncharted in its public esteem. Had it not been for the efforts of revisionist labels such as New York’s Minimal Wave, Angular Recordings, Wierd Records and Ghostly International, who resuscitated the genre back to life in the early to mid 2000s, the genre may have been condemned to obscurity.
Cold wave (or coldwave)’s origins bloom from the imminent death of punk’s first wave of artists between 1976 and 1978. The collective sound was controlled yet ‘colder’ than that of their snotty predecessors – punk, with a depressive groove. The development of home-based modular synthesisers, while primitive in their functionality, added another dimension to what was, for the better part of a decade, guitar-led music. These prototypical acts consumed Europe from the late 70s and throughout the 80s. During this period France, Belgium, and Poland were overcome with synth-driven punk steered by gnarling bass lines and wayward vocals. Many bands claimed their barbed dancefloor punk as native to the harsh environments they lived in and in return frequently opposed singing in any other language than their own. But cold wave also signified a shared ideology; less guitar work, more analogue experimentation, militant rhythm sections and, above all else, a vehemently do-it-yourself attitude.
Most artistic endeavours were short-lived either due to a lack of funds or a lack of interest. What was left of the scene has been cryptically chronicled in grainy photographs, nondescript foreign bios and a pantheon of forgotten self-released cassettes, hand-numbered 7” and granular music videos. However, aided by a string of compilations and sampler discs paying homage to this bygone era in the early 21st century, cold wave, dark wave, minimal synth and all of its repressed sub-genres has experienced something of a second wind. Today, a great swathe of cold wave acts have reformed, owing to this renewed interest from a younger generation. Allow yourself to become acquainted with a movement that didn’t get the chance it originally deserved and trace the below artists’ influence on future genres such as EBM, electronica, house and techno.
Marquis de Sade
There was a mirthful peculiarity to Brittany’s Marquis de Sade owing to their convoluted polysemy of opposing sounds. And yet, despite their irregular convulsion of post-punk, minimal wave and funk, the band were fundamentally defined as pioneers of the cold wave sound. Active between 1977 and 1981, they released two studio albums, Dantzig Twist (1979) and Rue de Siam (1981), which have been widely regarded by the underground music press as two of the most influential albums to be released during cold wave’s embryonic beginnings. Impressions of Howard Devoto’s Magazine buzzes throughout their recordings, yet their rudimentary utilisation of synths galvanised cold wave’s impending inception. And despite falling victim to a lack of media attention during their active years, Marquis de Sade are an example of 80s synth acts who owe a debt to the new wave revivalists of the late 2000s, whose interest has gifted the group another opportunity for mass notoriety.
One of the foremost innovators of minimal synth and new wave, Jacno aka Denis Quilliard’s inauguration to music stemmed from his time as rhythm guitarist for French punk band The Stinky Toys in 1976. Yet it wasn’t until the seminal group had disbanded that the singer and producer released his first solo single Rectangle in 1979. It has since manifested as a paragon of minimal synth during the transition period between punk and new wave. And while Janco may not explicitly be classified as cold wave’s originator, Rectangle remains a heavily debated archetype for the scene’s future sounds.
With restrained guitar work, domineering electronics, brass experimentation and heavily reverberated vocal lines, Norma Loy were the sonic paradigm to which many cold wave artists adhered in the early 80s. But despite this accolade, the band’s output deviated from the familiar standards of their peers due to vocalist Chelsea Reed’s desire to sing in English. This was, for the most part, irregular for the majority of cold wave artists emerging from France, Belgium and beyond; many of whom overtly refused to perform in any other language but their own. It could be argued that this lyrical accessibility is an axiom for the group’s longevity. Their latest album, Baphomet, was released last year on Unknown Pleasures Records.
Another Infrastition label renaissance act, Asylum Party were originally formed in Courbevoie, France by guitarist-vocalist Phillips Planchon and bassist-vocalist Thierry Sobézyk in 1985. By this period, cold wave began appropriating the stylistic mien of British dream pop, goth rock and dub, while further embracing common aspects of wayward disco. All of these outside influences, coupled with France’s impenetrably productive cold wave movement, aided in the formation of Asylum Party. Nonetheless, at the turn of the 20th century’s closing decade, the group disbanded due to a lack of financial support.
Parisian cold wavers Little Nemo were closely affiliated with Asylum Party and Mary Goes Round as founders of the Touching Pop movement (later to include Babel 17). The term was loosely expressed to represent a makeshift label for bands with strong cold wave beginnings. Unfortunately, the ‘movement’ itself was intangible and merely represented the shared ethos between each group; many of whom were signed to France’s largest independent label, Lively Art. What Touching Pop did seem to embody, however, was a greater emphasis on soundscaping. Asylum Party’s sound frequently typified the washed out lushness of early shoegaze, providing yet another audible facet to cold wave’s framework.
Initially formed in 1984 as a quartet, archival documentation on the evasive Excès Nocturne from Lens, Pas-de-Calais, is rather illusory. Re-recordings of the group’s back catalogue are intermittently pocketed with abstract clods of background information; predominantly in the group’s native tongue. However, according to the eventual five-piece’s singer and Baudelaire fanatic Corine Zimy, who joined under the pseudonym Ariane during their most creatively fertile period in 1986, the band’s modestly suggestive name was lifted from a low budget porn flick. Habitually likened to Bauhaus, Excès Nocturne’s success was only actualised following their demise in 1989 (reportedly due to ‘ego problems’ and the interference of side-projects). Their typically angular, polyrhythmic sound found a second life thanks to a reissue deal struck with Infrastition Records in 2006, which inevitably led to the band reuniting. Tragically, Zimy died in 2015, yet thanks to Infrastition, Excès Nocturne’s fleeting reprise has been preserved indefinitely.
Polaroid/Roman/Photo was the first and last record released by this conceptual dance rock project. Formed by rock experimentalist Thierry Müller in 1985, the sole intention behind Ruth’s existence was to ‘make something that people could dance to.’ Aiding to this mission statement, the record is saturated in sax, synth and off-kilter sampling of camera clicks. On its initial release, the album failed tremendously, reputedly selling a pathetic 50 copies. Yet, as with the majority of cold wave’s vanguards, their notoriety blossomed through the maturation of social media in the early 2000s, with original copies of Polaroid/Roman/Photo selling for upwards of £300 on record auction sites. the title track also appeared on Angular Recordings’ crucial cold wave compilation Cold Waves and Minimal Electronics. “France was still the country of our parents,” Müller explained in a recent interview for The Quietus, “But since the ‘80s there has been a huge change in the culture and the politics… Looking back, it was really a junction.”
Museum of Devotion
Dubiously defined as electro-industrial, Museum of Devotion were a late cold wave act to manifest outside of Europe. Habitually performing as a duo, these multi-instrumentalists from Michigan were close affiliates of the Lively Arts label and released their debut, …To the Pink Period on Paris’ New Rose Records. Yet unlike their European contemporaries, Museum of Devotion experienced a moderate swell of commercial success and remain active today. Of all of cold wave’s established traits, the band tended to flourish when their music concentrated on the dance and electronic spectrum. However 2014’s Another Cold Wave saw a return to the group’s ‘darkwave’ roots proving that Museum of Devotion’s goth rock origins were still engrained in their sonic DNA.
While Britain possessed a certain magnetism to the early minimal synth bands of France and beyond, that is not to suggest that British acts in turn were not influenced by what was being relayed back to them. The UK’s Oppenheimer Analysis, aka Andy Oppenheimer and Martin Lloyd, were equally as inspiring as they were inspired by early cold wave. They were responsible for the burgeoning new romantic and futurist subcultures emanating out of Studio 21 in Oxford Street before releasing their first single Surface Tension / Connections in 1981. Their work symbolised the DIY acumen of many home-based musicians of the era. Again, notwithstanding a review in Melody Maker for their first album New Mexico, Oppenheimer Analysis only reached their full potential upon reformation in the mid 2000’s after releasing on New York-based label Minimal Wave. Sadly, following years of performing together, Martin Lloyd died in 2013. Oppenheimer continues to perform and release music today with all work dedicated in memory to his music partner.
Charles de Goal
Assumedly presented as a form of artistic protest in defence of cold wave’s lack of commercial appeal, Patrick Blain, the founding member of Charles de Goal, refused to perform in front of a live audience before 1985 in order to maintain his anonymity. However, Blain’s elusiveness has since faded and the band’s 1980 debut release on New Rose Records, Alogrythmes, is now regarded as one of the greatest French minimal electronic punk records of all time. It has since been reissued and repackaged leaving Blain with no other option but to publicly embrace his eulogised past.
If France was the native homeland of cold wave then Lyon was its birthplace. Of all the locations cited as hubs for minimal synth artists the capital city of the Auvergne-Rhône-Aples region was ubiquitous for its post-punk inventiveness. Formed in 1982, Gestalt were just one product of Lyon’s cold wave spell. Still relatively unknown, the band appeared on Infrastition’s truly illuminative 18-track cold and dark wave sampler Transmissions back in 2005 alongside the likes of Opera Multi Steel, Baroque Bordello and End of Data.
End of Data
This quartet from Rennes scored something of a club hit with their 1984 track Sahrah. Predating Depeche Mode’s Black Celebration by two years, End of Data’s grisly guitar manipulation and drone-like keyboard refrains defined them as proto-industrial doyens cresting on narcotic disco and shoegaze pop. Physical copies of the group’s 1984 debut are next to impossible to find and have only heightened in demand since their disbandment in 1986. However, their inclusion on Angular Recordings’ compilation means you can own a piece of this band’s fleeting history at a fraction of the price.
This is cold wave as birthed from the USSR. Formed in Moscow in 1985 by Alexei Borisov and Ivan Sokolovski, Notchnoi Prospect began their lives as a convivial hodgepodge of sounds ranging from electropop, rockabilly, post-punk, industrial and, most bizarrely, ska. It wasn’t until further band members were recruited in 1987 that the group’s darker elements developed. Their absurdist freeform noise and psych rock was almost too much for cold wave purists. But the band’s distinctive playing married with the raw hostility of modular synths garnered intrigue from their European counterparts and – conversely, Acids, arguably the group’s most famed song, is a cold wave classic. Gnarled bass distortion, jogging drums and synth reverberations dominate the track, sounding just as glacial today as it was on initial release.
Clan of Xymox
Also referred to simply as Xymox, this Dutch goth rock band, formed in 1981, were signed to the illustrious indie label 4AD following a string of tour dates with Dead Can Dance and the release of their mini-album Subsequent Pleasures. Their eponymous debut came out in 1985 and the band were invited by John Peel to record two Peel Sessions. A year later, Xymox departed from 4AD and signed to PolyGram where they garnered a number of chart hits. The industrial resurgence of the mid to late 80s led by bands such as Nine Inch Nails and Rammstein aided a minor reawakening and the band are still active today.
Absolute Body Control
Influenced by proto synth punk bands such as Suicide and D.A.F., Belgium’s Absolute Body Control have been cited as the first music project of duo Dirk Ivens (ex-guitarist of punk group Slaughterhouse) and Eric Van Wonterghem. Their activity as a band originates in 1979 when they began locally distributing cassettes of their music. Their first single Is There An Exit? has since heralded as an underground cult hit. Variations of the group’s name and members augmented Ivens and Wonterghem’s synth-laden project and shaped the conceptual electronic arc of each record. Figures is Absolute Body Control’s most time-honoured example of prototypical EBM.
Released on their self-established synthwave imprint Bas Relief, America’s Eleven Pond forged an early kinship for artists on 4AD and Factory Records. Their autonomy from imperial indie labels made the group all the more alluring to niche collectors and cold wave enthusiasts. Aside from the strong likeness to typical French bands of the time, Eleven Pond also drew influence from Echo and the Bunnymen, Fad Gadget and early New Order. Bas Relief, their debut, was limited to 500 hand-numbered copies; many of which have either been lost or have perished overtime. In 2009, Bas Relief was re-released as another limited edition with only 500 hand-numbered / silk-screened copies currently in circulation.
Poland’s Siekiera, meaning axe, initially began their careers as a U.K. Subs and Exploited influenced punk band playing under the name Trafo. By 1983, they reviewed their sound and changed their name to what it remained to be until their demise. The name change, it’s been claimed, originates from a fan comparing their music to the sound of an axe. Whether this is accurate or not, Siekiera’s unapologetic post-punk veers closer towards the darker, more aggressive end of cold wave’s sonic palette, however the boreal electronic experimentalism steams out of their 1985 demo Jest Bezpiecznie, while their album Nowa Aleksandria is a mesmeric entrancing of bass and drums. Even by cold wave standards, this is a genuinely under-credited band.
Time has aided in defining Martin DuPont as one of the most important cult bands of French new wave. Originally formed in 1981, their accessibility saw them excel through cold wave’s ranks and eventually support Siouxsie and the Banshees amongst other goth rock and art punk luminaries. Incessantly compared to New Order, their minimal synth sound coupled with a boy/girl vocal braiding willingly coaxed audiences to the dancefloor until their disbandment in 1987. Following a string of appearances on Minimal Wave compilations, Infrastition reissued the band’s entire back catalogue in 2009.
The second coming of cold wave is rooted not only in the fibres of a bygone scene but in the backward glancing artistry of contemporary musicians. Berlin-by-England’s Lebanon Hanover are one of these newfangled creations. The pair’s bleak yet emotionally celebratory dark wave sounds was inspired by the likes of Kraftwerk, DAF and Malaria!, but Lebanon Hanover reapply cold wave’s post-punk ideology and merge it with a multi-sensory seductiveness. The result is equally as nostalgic as it is excitingly reformist.
Xeno & Oaklander
Nostalgic without being entirely reductive, cold wave’s underground lineage pulses on through the 21st century with labels including the UK’s Angular Recordings, Ghostly International and New York’s Wierd Records. Brooklyn minimal synth duo Xeno & Oaklander in particular showcase a distinctly esoteric approach to modular synthesisers and step sequencers. Taking influence from Front 242, The Human League and the grossly melancholic Norwegian compilation Burning The Midnight Sun, their zeal for all things analogue mimics that of their cold wave predecessors. Xeno and Oaklander put it best; “Many groups of the 80s provide a glimpse of the possibility for a certain kind of craft and approach – one synth, one basic rhythm machine, once voice capable of conveying so much, yearning for so much, utilising so little.”