I Am Curious (Yello)
Photo: EISENBERG edition musicale
By Darren BergsteinWhat hath punk wrought? Well, post-punk for one, new wave for another. Take those terms at face value and you'll be plumbing the depths looking for great meanings; in actuality, the emperor had no clothes, jack. Hell, everything is post-something or other once the lights have faded, the doors shut, the crowd's gone home, and the movement's fizzled out. Finally, what's left is but the carcass of genre gone by, reimagined in skinnier ties by corporate comptrollers in expanding waistlines dreaming of expanding bottom lines. So, to the rescue comes... the staunch indie. In the early '80's, punk having heaved its last ho, new wave fast turning into the modern dance for hypocritical rockers short of hair but long on hyperbole, there arose an underground of experimentalists to whom technology and its attendant equipment were hardly strange bedfellows.
Swiss trio Boris Blank, Dieter Meier and Carlos Perón, who traded under the name Yello, were a motley crew indeed to those surfing the crest of the new wave 1980 to 81-ish. Signed to the fledgling Ralph Records, the record label founded by rock-deconstruction troupe The Residents, a combo already carving out its own anarchic niche in the musical landscape, anti-rock, anti-corporatist, possibly even anti-music, Yello turned heads in those DIY days--at least those savvy enough to have drunk deep of the steadfastedly original and downright weird electronic tableaux of their debut Solid Pleasure. Blank and Perón, both master dial-manipulators, were the pigment constituting Yello's garish hue, daubing sinister beatscapes in and out of lo-fi bass sequencers that convulsed under a prickly canvas of obtuse effects and a wild-eyed kaleidoscope of indescribable electronics. Preceding what would eventually be labeled intelligent dance music (an oxymoron on all fronts, later shortened to IDM), the trio's panoply of wholly arresting rhythms and collagist tapestries, stitching together aspects of salsa, disco, pre-Eno ambience and krautrock's most out-there, left-field affectations, twirled the lobes of many who first experienced it, this writer included. The lucky few who fell hard for Solid Pleasure's grooves of Dali-esque ecstasy realized there were some new kids on the block who played by different rules, rules that would beggar future trends to future ends.
Carlos Perón might very well have been the sinew binding Yello's connective tissue. He took his leave of the group after their fifth album, 1985's You Gotta Say Yes to Another Excess, pretty much the point where Yello began to lose both its cultural significance and sonically adventurous edge (though it would reclaim both, to some degree, at the dawn of the aughts). Nevertheless, Perón brought much to Yello's table, his solo career having run concurrently with his parent band thanks to the 1980 bow of Impersonator I. Never has a title been so apt in describing both art and artist. Perón's music appears to slavishly reference, if not outright imitate, his former colleagues', yet simultaneously, with state-of-the-art studio in tow, he has expounded on and worked a furiously singular mode of EBM (aka Electronic Body Music- a mix of dance, industrial and punk) industrialism shot through with fanciful erotica, grafted onto performance art, soundtrack music and sprawling audio sculptures that for some inexplicable reason remain, for the most part, tantalizingly obscure. However, Perón devotees have reason to rejoice, courtesy of the fine folks at Revisited/Inside Out Records, who, in their already proven tradition of resurrecting the stalwart if hard-to-find recorded legacies of Klaus Schulze, Guru Guru, and Amon Düül II, have embarked on a massive campaign of reissuing Perón's esteemed work, a mission which has thus far yielded eight releases out of a nearly forty-album-large canon.
It's easy to say, so let it be said: Perón's discography is one that is vastly underrated. Oddly enough, this is not because his recordings are particularly innovative (they're not) or progressive in nature (ditto); he's a man with a rich geographical as well as aural history that is strongly-tied to its ethnic German heritage so much so that only when he shucks his upbringing and mines a more "generic” sonic vein does he gain a foothold in the broader electronic community. A recording such as Die Schopfung der Welt, done in collaboration with Swiss actor Peter Ehrlich, exemplifies this. Perón considers his myriad audio projects from a film director's p.o.v., his synths and additional instruments mere "moviolas” rather than sound-producers. Schopfung is one of Perón's most literal translations of this philosophy, and though realized in the grandest of schemes (he assumes the classical mantle of a Beethoven poised behind banks of electronic keyboards), overall its arch result is one of symphonic pretention. Yet, one must also applaud Perón's sheer audacity in even broaching such a project: certainly Ehrlich's Germanic readings detract from a music that remains stuffy and preening, the electronic strings and strident keyboard "rhythms” hopelessly unable to form righteous shapes. It's not an unattractive music, but remains one of Perón's slighter works yet, distanced from his hardbeat roots, it manages to exude a bizarrely unique, elaborate "charm.”
Perón is not one to shirk away from experimentalism (the album noted above notwithstanding), but his true forté lies in the proto-industrial (EBM-inflected) circuit-clash he's perfected in his humble abode these last two decades. The first two volumes in the reissued Impersonator series started things off on the right foot, largely jettisoning his old mates' poppier tendencies for some outright in-yer-face punk electronix. Impersonator I is the real deal, adapting Yello's spunkier beatstuffs and marrying them to equally randy experiments in ear-bending noises. Recalling some of the more outré moments from Solid Pleasure, Impersonator's pleasures are every bit as insidious and edgy, if not confrontational: sometimes there's a clarity of purpose in the tighter rhythmic exercises, but often Perón appears to just get down and dirty with his machines, ripping out of them bolts of raw electro power that nicely dovetails with the outer-space special f.x. of the many cuckolded vignettes sprinkled throughout (see "Méthode” for the schizophrenic proof). On Impersonator II however, all bets are off. Perón presides over ten slices of distorted punk-techno that whips about the stereofield. "The Hate Song” is exactly what you think, something the Sex Pistols might have done had they mauled drum machines instead of snares, Junos instead of Stratocasters. This is the "electroclash” sound that never happened (or maybe it did); regardless, on evidence of Impersonator II, many a wanker of that late "movement” owes Perón a helluva debt, if not an apology. No matter--it's wonderfully deranged stuff, brutal but clean, and by dearth erasing whatever last vestige Perón shared with his prior bunkmates.
As the '80's progressed, Perón's M.O. didn't veer radically off the established course, but there were surprises in store. Gold For Iron banged on the drum all day, but sought to broaden the palette: Perón's decision to incorporate African and Brazilian percussion into the staunchly Eastern European bodybeat armor demonstrated he wasn't content to rest on his laurels. Guitars re-entered the fray, too. Their effect was, frankly, galvanic and felt right in the loins--who else in the day wasn't afraid to shake the foundations of dance music in such a Westernized, rock 'n' roll manner? Yet, a track such as "Los Alamos” marked a return to the sequencer mainframe Perón no doubt loved, and rivalled anything being done by Anglo counterparts such as the similar-minded but monodimensional Nitzer Ebb, or even later Ministry.
Then along came the '90's and Terminatrix, where Perón decided to full-on intertwine with the body politic in a more lascivious way than that phrase connotes. Making analogous in music his longtime fascination with erotica, decked out in sundry gothic underpinnings, Perón's compositional predilections finally eclipsed his loftier conceptual ambitions. Thankfully devoid of vocals that would have otherwise marred the record, Terminatrix obviously mimics Berlin techno and late '80's New York-flexed electro to a tee, yet it benefits from Perón's advanced pedigree and doesn't succumb to tried-and-tested dance music tropes. Alternating between bloated drumbeats, dark, creepy passages and machinized atmospheres that feel like they're coated in fibreglass, Terminatrix is Perón's first wholly-successful, fully-realized recording, and quite possibly his piéce de résistance.
Of the remaining two reissues, one returns the artist to the theatre hall, while the other is a signifier beckoning towards new directions. Ritter Und Unholde finds Perón back in the company of Peter Ehrlich, and, truth be told, he's better off in new boots and panties than in the self-important pomposity of the orchestral mosh pit. Practically a sequel in all but name to their previous outing, Ritter allows Perón the time to indulge his classical, onanistic desires, but unless you speak German, Ehrlich's blank narration renders the whole enterprise inert, and Perón's minimal electronic backing, spiritless and uninspired, leaves you cold--for die-hards only. Perón instantly redeems himself, however, with the two-disc set La Salle Violette, which should automatically dissuade anyone from the notion that the man isn't out of touch with either his talent or the times. Two lengthy tracks (one on each disc) trawl the night sky as electronics spell out the coming Armageddeon in chugging arpeggios of grey pulse. In a perfect world, this would soundtrack Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in an audiophile's lambent paradise. Marrying the sordid musical phraseology of his aural erotica in a shimmering electronic mindscape of epic proportions, La Salle Violette remains the pinnacle of Perón's work for the new millennium, where the dawn sun rises not in flecks of fading Yello but in explosions of atomic orange.
For more on Peron, see these sites:
Darren Bergstein is editor & publisher of e/i Magazine, the foremost source for musics electronic, experimental, avant-garde & otherwise. Once a print periodical, the magazine can now be found online at: www.ei-mag.com.
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