As far as genre names go, “minimal wave” has been one of the more contentious of the last couple of years. The term was coined by NYC-based DJ Veronica Vasicka as a kind of umbrella term for a bunch of bands who’d in the past been known by a variety of labels but shared a similar aesthetic based around icy DIY synth sounds and, well, minimalism. Vasicka’s Minimal Wave label has released a whole bunch of music based around this sound, both re-releases of vintage ’80s tracks and new bands inspired by that era. But in any case, whatever you think of the validity of defining genre labels retrospectively, it refers to some pretty fantastic music. So with the new album by genre luminaries The Soft Moon out this week, we thought we’d take a look at some of our favorite minimal wave bands both past and present. As ever, let us know if you have any favorites we missed!
The Soft Moon
Icy synth sounds? Check. Lots of portentous atmosphere? Check. Echoing vocals that sound like they were recorded in a seedy Berlin nightclub circa 1985? Check. The Soft Moon satisfy pretty much every minimal wave criterion, and their 2010 self-titled album and last year’s Total Decay EP have been amongst our genre favorites, so we’re happy to report that their new record Zeros is also most excellent indeed.
Xeno and Oaklander
Pieter Schoolwerth’s NYC-based Wierd parties — and the label that eventually grew out of them — have been a breeding ground for some of the 2000s’ best minimal wave bands (it was at Wierd, for instance, that we first saw The Soft Moon). Perhaps the best-known product of the scene are Brooklyn-based duo Liz Wendelbo and Sean McBride, aka Xeno and Oaklander, who’ve released three fantastic albums, along with a slew of EPs, singles, etc. (McBride’s side project Martial Canterel is also worth checking out, by the way — and Xeno and Oaklander’s FACT mix is a great genre primer if you can lay your hands on it.)
Led Er Est
Another set of Wierd alumni, and now signed to Flavorpill fave Sacred Bones, NYC trio Led Er Est’s third album The Diver, which was released in May, is right up there with Zeros as our favorite minimal synth-y album of the year, all arctic atmospherics and somber lyricism. It’s also been one of the more overlooked records of 2012 thus far, so we’re hoping to see it get some love in the inevitable end-of-year best-of lists.
Say what you like about Wes Eisold — and he does seem to attract some pretty vituperative critical reactions — but his Cold Cave project is probably the single most successful neo-minimal wave venture of the last few years. We’re not always fans of his ultra-emotive take on the genre, but when Cold Cave are good, they’re great. He’s apparently got a new lineup for the band since Cherish the Light Years dropped last year, which includes former members of AFI and Blood Brothers, so god only knows how whatever he releases next will sound.
Absolute Body Control
Perhaps the best aspect of Veronica Vasicka’s whole minimal wave community idea has been the fact that it’s resurrected some pretty great bands from coldwave/darkwave/etc’s ’80s heyday. Belgian duo Absolute Body Control, for instance, bridge the gap between past and present — they made five records in the 1980s, and they’re still making music today, having reunited in 2006 after a 22-year hiatus. Their 2010 album Shattered Illusion was their first “proper” full-length release — all their ’80s output was released on DIY cassettes — and they’ve been rather prolific since getting back together, releasing three records in six years.
Where else would a seminal synthpop band meet apart from at a sci-fi festival? The aforementioned Vasicka picked Brighton duo Oppenheimer Analysis’s self-titled debut album as the single best minimal record ever made in a feature for FACT magazine a couple of years back, and even though the re-release was, y’know, put out through her label, she does know her shit.
Coldwave was a Gallic take on what would come to be called minimal wave, taking inspiration from the sounds of UK-based bands like The Normal and adding a distinctly continental twist. The sound sank into relative obscurity during the 1990s, but the world’s interest was resurrected in 2004 by a fantastic compilation of the era’s best music. The anthology took its name from the above song by French duo Kas Product, who reunited shortly after its release (and are still together).
The coldwave sound has since proven hugely influential on today’s minimal wave bands. Perhaps the single most influential track is French band Stereo’s 1982 anthem “Somewhere in the Night,” which manages to be both coldly atmospheric and hugely catchy (and danceable, for that matter).
BEST BAND NAME EVER.
And finally, back to where it all began: there’s an argument to be made that minimal wave started right here, with the first single from Mute Records founder Daniel Miller. Miller only released a very small amount of music himself before devoting his full attention to his role as supremo of one of the 1980s’ more iconic labels, but what he did release proved hugely influential. His songs employed rough, minimal synth tones that were a departure from the great sweeping sounds with which synths had been hitherto identified — in a way, you could argue that his aesthetic was a return to the very earliest days of electronic music — and combined them with nightmarish, Ballardian tales of car crashes and dystopian TV addiction.