Thursday, January 30, 2020

"Song to the Siren: The Beacon Guide to 4AD" at The Beacon Cinema Jan 30 & Feb 16 | "Lost Worlds of Sex and Magic: Vaughan Oliver's Album Sleeves for 4AD"


The history of British label 4AD can be seen as a succession of distinct phases. From it's genesis in 1980 by label founders Ivo Watts-Russell and Peter Kent, begun under the distribution umbrella of the larger and successful post-punk label Beggars Banquet. Detailed by Martin Aston in his biography of the label, "Facing The Other Way: The Story of 4AD", Watts-Russell and graphic designer Vaughan Oliver in the succession of a few short years, created one of the most coherent, ageless audio-visual identities to be born anywhere in underground music that decade. This identity would spill over into striking video productions, live sets and off-kilter interviews and brushes with the often-bemused British music press, who struggled to reconcile the unquantifiable nature of the label's sound and visual identity. This month, The Beacon Cinema's Casey Moore and Tommy Swenson have curated a full two hour set of selections honoring the anomalous and rich audio-visual vanguard produced during what are considered the label's classic years, spanning the earliest 1980s to mid-1990s as, "Song to the Siren: The Beacon Guide to 4AD". Acting as a primer for entry into this world, The Quietus' "Facing the Other Way: Ivo Watts-Russell and Vaughan Oliver on 4AD Records" explored the first years of Watts-Russell's curatorial program, Vaughan Oliver's in-house design team 23 Envelope, and contributions from compatriots in the British scene like John Fryer's Blackwing Studios. The body of work released on 4AD in this first phase have proven so seminal that single albums can be credited as spawning whole subgenres in the decades to follow. Wrapped in the enveloping mystique, cryptic fonts and atavistic allusions to artifacts from a lost past that was the haute couture of Vaughan Oliver's work with Nigel Grierson, Paul McMenamin and photographer Chris Bigg. They created sculptural landscapes of photography, typeface, decoupage and decors, framing the musical inner worlds of the label's roster, The Guardian revealing "4AD: The Inside Story" of this distinctly British, European, antidote to the popular culture of the time. More than fine points in the label's chronology, The Wire's 4AD Primer is populated by the artists that most marked the label's first half-decade. Beginning their first year with singles from the mascara'd children of punk's violent sprawl. Peter Murphy, Daniel Ash, Kevin Haskins and David J launched the ships of a thousand goth imitators as Bauhaus, and from across the world came the defiant rancor and country-rock doom of Australia's The Birthday Party. The label's roster blossomed into it's own the following year with the new wave stylings of Modern English and the ethereal dream pop of Robin Guthrie's coruscating guitar and Elizabeth Fraser's vocal incantations as Cocteau Twins.


Much in the way of Bauhaus, The Quietus' "The Strange World Of… Cocteau Twins" feature rightly credits the band as being so influential as to give genesis to whole genres from their sound in the following decade. In rapid consecution 4AD released the earliest experimental solo work from bands that would later come to define the era, The The's Matt Johnson produced a series of largely instrumental, experimental works and Wire's Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis released their first forays into the uncassifiable outside the setting of their rocking post-punk quartet. Soon after the floodgates opened, rapidfire singles, EPs and albums appeared from a new subset of artists influenced as much by the groundbreaking late 1970s ambient works of Kluster and Brian Eno as the edginess of punk and the growing UK gothic music scene. This stretch of years in the mid-to-late 1980's saw the label's identity achieve global recognition with the arrival of the post-punk blues, dub, funk and soul mashup of The Wolfgang Press, the grandiose neoclassical, folk and world music fusion of Dead Can Dance, Germany's edgy all-female post punk rockers, Xmal Deutschland, the gothic neo-romantic synthpop of Dutch trio, Clan of Xymox and the instrumental free-jazz wanderings of Dif Juz. 4AD's reach extending as far as to embrace traditional choral music from the Bulgarian State Radio Female Vocal Choir and their spectral Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares. Sensing that more than a label identity had been generated within their shared spheres, This Mortal Coil was assembles as a collective in-house covers band led by Watts and Fryer, with a rotating cast of contributing artists both from within the label and without. The Quietus "The Strange World Of… This Mortal Coil", touches on the shared cultural intersection, yet cloistered and liminal world from which these albums emerged. Reaching beyond the sphere of underground UK and Euro-centric sounds came the label's first American undergound indies, like Kristin Hersh, and Tanya Donelly's folkic girl-rock band, Throwing Muses and the punk, surf and garage rock inspired sound of the Pixies. A culmination of every aspect of the label's aesthetic and conceptual concerns, 1987’s "Lonely Is An Eyesore" was released an a triple format media experience and still stands as the only time that Watts-Russell commissioned video work. To accompany the collection of exclusive tracks from the label's roster, 23 Envelope’s Nigel Grierson direction of the videos reflecting his love of the work of Andrei Tarkovsky, particularly his later metaphysical films, "Stalker" and "The Sacrifice". Translating to the music video format the nubilous water, grainy monochrome, natural light, motion and abstract textures associated with the photographic subjects and treatments seen on Grierson’s Cocteau Twins covers. The compilation's combined mastery of typeface, printing techniques and material decors are testament to the gesamtkunstwerk that was 23 Envelope's half-decade of graphic realizations in the unified visual identity of 4AD.


Coinciding with what could be seen as the second phase of the label's lifespan, Nigel Grierson left 23 Envelope in 1988, with Vaughan Oliver and Chris Bigg continuing to work in close partnership with 4AD under the studio name v23. Commencing a aligned yet amplified graphical temperament, the releases retained their advanced fusion of font and materials, but now expressed through a sun-blasted color palette of suggestive pop-art and neon futurism. The sound was to follow, with new signings Ultra Vivid Scene, Pale Saints and Primal Scream's Jim Beattie delivering spiraling guitar work under the Spirea X moniker. The label fast aligning itself with the burgeoning UK shoegaze, dream pop and britpop scenes of the time. The fallout of the Pixies disbanding in 1992 and linuep changes within Throwing Muses, generated their own offshoots like The Breeders and Belly. Other American acts were taken into the fold, Mark Kozelek's insular, nocturnally folkic songwriting with Red House Painters saw it's debut on the label and the equally hermetic worlds of Warren Defever's experimental His Name Is Alive made for fitting companions. The latter confirming v23's influence in cinema and visual art with a series of striking miniature worlds titled "Stille Nacht" created by The Brothers Quay to accompany a set of tracks from their sophomore album. In this time the duo A.R. Kane effortlessly carved out new musical spaces from the intersection of dub, noise rock and neo-soul, quite possibly also "Inventing Shoegaze Without Really Trying" as The Guardian puts it. Yet there is perhaps no band more reflective of the altered trajectory of 4AD's second decade than Lush. As one of the first acts ascribed with the shoegaze and dream pop labels by the British press for their profusion of bright melodic distortion and vibrantly overdriven live guitar sound, their pedigree was confirmed with their 1989 signing to the label and production work by Robin Guthrie. Journeying with the label over the course of these two perceptible phases, Vaughan Oliver and his collaborators at 23 Envelope and later v23, were a constant in the development of both 4AD and the era's independent and underground music culture as a whole. With his passing last month, pieces like The New York Times, “Vaughan Oliver, 62, Dies; His Designs Gave Indie Rock ‘Physical Dimension", and The Guardian's "Lost Worlds of Sex and Magic: Vaughan Oliver's Album Sleeves for 4AD", go some way to recognize his, and the label's unmistakable contribution to the sound and aesthetic of the zeitgeist. We can be thankful for Oliver revisiting the decade from his intimate vantage in two lengthy interviews for Print and Interview Magazine, just years before the shuffling off of his own mortal coil.