In Conversation is a feature in which the senior staff talk about a recent record we’re listening to. Not exactly a review, it’s pretty much exactly what it says on the tin: two music nerds having a conversation about an album with all the tangential nonsense, philosophical wanking, and hopefully insightful commentary that implies. This outing is one taken with a new album from an older band…
Fall of An Empire
Bruce: El Vomito Negro’s last full length, 2010’s Skull & Bones, offered blunt, roots-EBM structures, but wreathed in synth atmospheres of unease and claustrophobia that had more in common with dark ambient than their more dancefloor minded countrymen. It was a combination which almost recalled the darkest, mostly unexplored corners of Belgian EBM’s sister genre, new beat. Fall Of An Empire feels different out of the gate. There are a couple of exceptions which we’ll probably get to, but I felt as though the heavy, overdriven (overproduced?) keyboards had been reined in, with more traditional EBM and dark electro moods as well as forms taking over.
The record starts with the classic EBM trick of historical spoken sample being stabbed in on the 1-beat until the timbre and rhythm of the words supplant their message (FDR priming the pump to go to war in Europe). While the keyboards still have a thick buzz, they’re lower in the mix, and have to contend with more traditional, spartan drums, samples and vocals. Does that jibe with your first passes at Fall Of An Empire?
Alex: Yup, this is definitely a more classically Belgian EBM record than Skull & Bones or 2011’s Slave Nation EP. For one thing, those records were all about woozy Klinik-esque environments (or at least that’s what stuck with me from them), where Fall of an Empire is actually mixed pretty clean and clear. It’s dark and dense for sure, but not obscure if that makes sense. “Into Your Eyes” for example, that track has just a ton of effects all over it, reverb and delay and such but it’s never hard to make out the drums, vocals or bass sounds in it. The album has all kinds of textures that fill up space in the mix and create a kind of weight, but they don’t occlude anything and make way when new elements are ushered in.
I think it’s interesting that this record from a project that is a legitimate part of the history of body music has way less in common with most neo-oldschool EBM albums, and is much more akin to things like //TENSE// and White Car, at least in its focus on being really atmosphere driven. I mean, it’s totally in line with the history of VN but it’s a connection that is only really striking me now. You hear that at all?
Bruce: I don’t think I would’ve jumped to that otherwise, but yeah, I can hear it now that you mention it. Despite having just gone on about it being more “traditional”, there’s nothing of the rigorous purity of anhalt neo-classicism here. In fact, once you adjust to the more cleanly delineated production, Fall Of An Empire actually has a pretty wide range of moods and structures, à la some of those newer bands.
You’ve got the skronky, dirty, almost Suicide-like groove of “Factory Girl”, the polar opposite of the more sedate and pensive “Emerging Souls”, both of which we already heard some months back, prompting hopes for the sort of variety we’re seeing here. The minimal, scraping bounce of “Power On Demand” could be connected to the type of 242 loops Youth Code and //TENSE// rock, and I think there’s definitely still something of Klinik here, especially in the choppy clicks and smoldering tension of “In Your Eyes”.
Catching myself falling back on the terrible “sounds like” trope, I’m starting to wonder what’s at the core of Vomito Negro’s aesthetic. Certainly their sound is recognizable, instantly so for heads in the know, but how would you describe it (apart from “dark, even for Belgian EBM”)? What specifics would you point to if you said that a newer band was drawing from Vomito Negro? I feel like they have an uncommon mutability not shared by many of their peers, and that that’s serving them in good stead on this album.
Alex: Huh, that’s a tough one. Oppressive sort of works as a descriptor, although it’s not like they’re in your face yelling at you, more like they gear all their songs to be these very confined, claustrophobic experiences, on some “No Exit“, Jean-Paul Sartre type shit. Listen to some of the longer numbers on the record like “Machines of Hate” or “Into Your Eyes” at high volume or on headphones and it feels like you’re in an enclosed space of some kind, like an empty room where you can hear stuff going on outside but don’t have a window or door to get out of. Is that too florid?
I just went back and listened to their early 90s album Human a few days ago, and I think the throughline might also be in how acerbic they are, lyrically and sonically. They aren’t a cartoon “evil” band, but they’re quite caustic; all their material has that unpleasant mechanical edge to it, and their subject matter is universally pretty strong stuff. I mean, a song like “Power on Demand” could be taken a few ways, but the “Fist in the air/Face in the mud” lyrics coupled with the loping beat makes the whole thing come off as really sardonic: there’s no ambiguity about how they feel about the subject matter.
Okay, so moving on to a related topic, do you get the impression that Fall Of An Empire is about the US? You could easily read most of the songs that way, especially “Enemy of the State”, “Hollow Heads” and the title track, and the rest wouldn’t take much squinting to fit in with that. It’s always really interesting to me to see European bands address how totally effed American domestic and foreign policy is, especially as a Canadian who is totally inundated with news and opinion from south of the border. Any thoughts on that?
Bruce: Well, I think it has to be in part about that, especially when the album begins with samples from the speech that basically presaged the US’ emergence as a military superpower and Oppenheimer’s famous “now I am become Death” line. I’m not as sure about the closing two tracks that you mentioned, titles aside (as a quick aside, the title track totally reminds me of Ministry’s “Leper“: a plodding, slowly building mid-tempo closer). I’d think there’d be some reference to Chinese-owned debt or the US’ inability to rally a plurality of nations to war with Iraq if we were going to read the album as bookending the rise and fall of the American empire.
I am likewise fascinated by how European EBM acts react to US culture, whether it’s Tyske Ludder’s awesome militarized ramp-up of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” or Richard 23’s horribly misguided rape-excusing defense of Tyson (I think we might’ve earned ourselves a bit of a reputation as leftist critics of convenience here at ID:UD, so let’s make it plain: we love 242 and the music on the Holy Gang stuff is great, but the message there is so deplorable I just want to grab Richard by the jumpsuit and ask him what the hell he was thinking). I’m going to make a huge, huge, huge generalization and posit that in addition to the well known musical distinctions, a big difference in the American and European industrial traditions is the former’s thematic focus on the personal in comparison to the latter’s interest in socio-political affairs. Again: broad generalization, oodles of exceptions, blah, blah, blah.
Anyway, to get back to Vomito Negro, I’m very curious to find out what impact Fall Of An Empire will have over the course of 2013. The whole reunion album pressure isn’t on them as it was with Skull & Bones (but conversely it might not attract as much attention as a new 242 or Klinik record if either of those lurking behemoths decloak this year), and as we’ve said, it feels a bit looser sonically. I guess I’m wondering if it’ll just be presumed to be one of those “for old-school purists only” records, or if it’ll get some wider play. I feel it deserves the latter, though I can’t tell how much of that is based on VN updating their sound and how much is based on current sounds and bands circling back to where the band started. I don’t expect you to prognosticate how we’ll be talking about this record twelve months from now, but what are your thoughts as far as its place in the current milieu?
Alex: It’s a good time for an LP like this to come out for sure. EBM is more interesting to me personally right now than it has been in yonks, and I think there’s a general sense that this’ll be a year when a lot of “our” bands get their due from folks beyond the confines of Our Thing. Maybe that’s wishful thinking on my part, but at the very least having a straight up standard bearer like Vomito Negro put out something that speaks to their own history while not sounding dated sets a nice tone. You and I have been to a few “non-scene” events around Vancouver recently where people unexpectedly dropped a bunch of old DAF or Nitzer into their DJ sets, and that’s cool, but it’s equally cool to have something you can point to and say “If you like that stuff, check out this new record!” What I’m getting at is that I would hate to see EBM get a light shone onto it only to be pigeonholed as a historical curiosity, and albums like this one can work to prevent that, provided people get to hear it.
Which brings me to another point: how cool is it that Metropolis is releasing this in North America? I have no idea if anybody still buys records totally unheard on the strength of the label (and I think there’s a case to be made that doing so is kind of a bonehead move in 2013 considering how omnivorous Metro is), but it still ups the chances of the uninitiated getting a crack at it. And fuck it, VM is 20+ years along and finally have a domestic release on this side of the pond and that’s pretty neat.
So yeah, it’s a good album no doubt, and I haven’t any compunctions about giving it the thumbs up for a purchase. It’s the first 2013 release I’ve really dug into, but seeing as we’re in a bit of a lull for new releases right at this moment, I figure it’ll warrant some solid replays and consideration for context around mid-year. In the right now, I’m just happy to see Gin Devo and company still doing what they do, and still having it sound alive, ugly and urgent. Solid stuff, recommended.