Roots of British electronica defined on 4-disc compilation Close to the Noise Floor
by Andrew Mason
In May of 1983, a column written by journalist Dave Henderson appeared in the U.K. rock newspaper Sounds. “Henderson,” the intro announced, “bored with the clap-trap rat pack, takes a journey around the world and unearths all manner of difficult music.” There followed an alphabetized list of 100+ artists, ‘zines and record labels (some of whom were more accurately cassette labels) who might, in retrospect, be classified as “minimal synth,” “industrial,” “noise,” “techno,” “dark wave,” “ambient,” or “electro-pop,” each with a breezy, typically tangential or abtruse summation of their sound and/or philosophy (both, in those heady times, often being of equal significance). Ranging from established scenesters Cabaret Voltaire, Nurse With Wound, and Einstürzende Neubauten to forefathers like Philip Glass and John Cage, to up-and-comers Laibach and Merzbow, to other utterly obscure blips on the cultural radar, the list is a fascinating glimpse into a rarely explored underbelly of modern music where pop and the experimental freely mingled.
In May of 2016, a four-CD set was released by U.K. label Cherry Red that took Henderson’s column as a starting point to delve into the birth of electronic music in the British Isles, the formative years of the late ’70s and early ’80s when disaffected youths discovered that, even easier than acquiring a guitar and amplifier, learning three chords and starting a punk band, you could sit in your bedroom with a keyboard and a drum machine and record angular angst straight to a TDK C-60. As an overview of an incredibly influential scene, one that ultimately gave rise to British electronica as we know it today, this compilation, titled Close to the Noise Floor, is essential. But even taken simply as an entertaining listen, the scope of sound covered over the extensive set is fantastic. Alternately funky, atonal, aggressive and ambient (sometimes within a single song), but always with a strong underpinning of the drum machines and synths that today have aged unexpectedly gracefully into tones usually described as “vintage,” “classic,” and entirely en vogue, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine these songs as sources for Kanye West samples or a Grimes bass line.
In addition to landmark proto-electronica like the Human League’s first single, “Being Boiled,” pop non-hits like Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s “Almost” and ethereal instrumentals like Blancmange’s “Holiday Camp” share space with the ambient noise of Alien Brains “Menial Disorder,” cosmic proto-techno (British Electric Foundation’s dubbed out “Optimum Chant“) and almost unclassifiable but terrific one-offs like Thomas Leer’s “Tight as a Drum.”
The four discs of music bookend (literally) 48-pages of detailed tracknotes by the compiler Richard Anderson, label scans and an introductory essay by the venerable instigator, Henderson himself.
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