Wednesday, 13 December 2017

SPK - Machine Age Sessions (2014)

I've seen SPK described in reverent terms defining them as untouchable pioneers of harsh electronic noise, and at the other end of the scale, as comical industrial chancers. On the one hand, those first two albums still take the paint off the walls like not much has done since, but on the other, SPK probably did more to inspire misuse of the letter k than even Porridge, and one of their early tracks was called Germanik, presumably on the grounds that Hitler had been German and that Germans like to march around and bark orders, so that's quite scary when you think about it. I suppose, there's also the fact of their signing to Elektra and turning into Level 42…

The way I heard it - as related by a friend who knew Graeme Revell through having spent his youth hanging out with Throbbing Gristle - was that Graeme Revell really, really, really, really wanted a sampler when they first came out, and thus reinvented himself as leather trousered metal-bashing popster so as to sign a ten album deal with Elektra for a ton of money, or something along those lines. He bought his sampler and recorded Machine Age Voodoo - which is the one that sounds like Level 42 - and then decided he wanted out of the contract; which he effected by recording the other nine albums in a couple of days. They were too shit to be released, and so Elektra let him go. That's what I heard anyway.

For what it's worth, I actually like Machine Age Voodoo. It's a bit too louche for its own good, could do with rougher edges, and is a lousy follow up to Leichenschrei, obviously; but aside from that, it's not a bad album on its own terms. In fact the worst thing about Machine Age Voodoo is that it failed to deliver on the promise of Metal Dance and those earlier forays into synthpop recorded for a John Peel session around the same time.

I've been waiting for that album for about thirty years, so it was a nice surprise to discover that it does actually exist, sort of, albeit as this bootleg - one side of Peel tracks, with a Kid Jensen session on the flip. The labels are black due to having been sneaked out of some naughty pressing plant in the dead of night, and the sleeve is minimal and underwhelming, but the quality of the pressing is wonderful.

This is the version of SPK which turned its metal-bashing to more musical ends, borrowed a sequencer from DAF, and pretty much invented all of those Front 242 types in the process. This was what Depeche Mode thought they sounded like, an adrenaline rush of frenetically grinding synth contrasting with Sinan's surprisingly beautiful, even ethereal voice while someone pounds seven shades of shit out of an oil drum. The Peel tracks are as electrifying as they were at the time of broadcast.

Then we flip over the disc to find the sessions recorded for David Jensen, or Kid as he liked to be known, the stuff which everyone seems to have forgotten. Jensen's show was broadcast exclusively on medium wave, and that's where these recordings come from, straight off the wireless - big fat muffled mono with a ton of hiss and Jensen talking over the fade out, channelling his inner Michael J. Fox like a good 'un. It would be a pain in the arse but the tracks are actually better quality here than on the thirty-year old cassette tape I still have somewhere or other, and they're also probably the worst thing Revell ever recorded so I'm not sure it matters. SPK seemed to be gearing themselves up for making a ton of money and were smoothing out their sound. The sequencers were a bit less frantic, more like something you would hear on a Karel Fialka song, the metal had been replaced with fashionable roto-toms; and yet somehow this material is difficult to dislike because it's the sound of SPK selling out as hard as they could, but not quite able to get there without sounding sarcastic. But, Can You Dance To It? - on which Revell raps like a jolly English master at a boy's school - resembles one of those local charity records which would occasionally garner five minutes coverage on a regional news show. The rest of the tracks patently represent a warm-up for Machine Age Voodoo, halting impersonations of bland synthpop hits, not quite achieving the balance and as such resembling some sort of Situationist appropriation which didn't quite work. The strangest thing is how, despite its peculiar blandness, the Jensen session is weirdly engrossing specifically because it's the very last thing you'd ever expect to hear from SPK. Strangest of all, despite its flaws, this album which never was is actually better than the soundtrack stuff he did later.

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