Moody, slightly distorted vocals, a drum machine, and simple melodies played on an analogue synth – this is how one might sum up the aesthetics of Minimal Wave, a retroactively named musical style developed mainly between 1978 and 1985 in Europe, the United States and Japan. Its grey beauty exudes an iciness that smells of the Cold War and of economic crises. It has the saturated trance of the Velvet Underground, the coldness of Bowie’s Berlin period, the DIY ethic of punk, the crystal clear melodies of Kraftwerk, and the ‘motorik’ rhythm of Neu! But the genre’s major influence remains Suicide, the New York duo who laid the foundations of the style in 1975.
Unlike synth-pop, which had pretty wide mainstream success (Gary Numan, John Foxx, etc), Minimal Wave musicians released self-produced cassettes that were sold after concerts or in limited editions on private labels. Even today, gems of the genre are unearthed, such as the home recordings of John Bender, a German composer based in Cincinnati. Only a thousand copies of his first record “I Don't Remember Now/I Don’t Want to Talk About It” were in circulation, released on his own label Records Sluts. Add to that a handmade cover and you have the Holy Grail for any collector. Some persistent researchers have even managed to find the tapes of Rodion G.A., an obscure Romanian band formed in 1977. For the past fifteen years, reissues have multiplied, notably on the label Minimal Wave founded in 2005 by Veronica Vasicka. Amongst many other reissues, she is responsible for a masterpiece by Japanese composer Tomo Akibawabaya. The somewhat hidden and underground aspect of the style has not prevented it from having a great influence on a number of musicians. It’s impossible not hear the anaemic microhouse of Actress in Severed Heads and the sepulchral style of Ariel Pink in Das Kabinette.
The genre’s major strength lies in its avowed amateurism. You only have to listen to the frail voices of Cati Tete and Gérard Pelletier on “Golden Dreams” to be convinced. Without this fragility, the song would not express the subtle melancholy mixed with sensuality that makes the track so interesting. If Thomas Leer’s singing seems strange, it’s so as not to wake up his sleeping girlfriend. It’s hard to imagine that his first single “Private Plane” was recorded in three days in a small London flat. It’s like confining the genius of Brian Eno to two rooms. Perhaps the most surprising profile is that of Konrad Becker. First and foremost a brilliant researcher in hypermedia who defined the concept of cultural intelligence, this Austrian has recorded – under the name Monoton – some of the most out of this world music I’ve ever heard. Our feet are no longer on earth – we’ve gone to another planet.