The long-lost back catalogue of the cult darkwave duo is released on CD for the first time
JG Ballard’s ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’ was less a novel and more a compendium of random, interconnected thoughts strung together by the weighty themes that spun around the collective consciousness at the dawn of the 1970s – the space race, science, the tragedies of JFK and Marilyn Monroe, warnings about car safety, the Cold War, mass billboard advertising, sex.
The Burroughsian nature of Ballard’s book served as a muse for a number of artists that emerged from the post-punk escarpment of late 1970s Britain. Andrew Lagowski and Stephen Jarvis, school friends from Ipswich, took the name of their band – Namagatzu – from a minor character in the story, a nurse who makes only the most tangential of appearances. And like the fleeting role of the nurse, Nagamatzu’s career would prove to be something of a footnote in the annals of electronic music. They did release three cassette albums and a 12-inch single, though, all of the tracks from which are compiled on ‘Neural Interval’, itself a phrase borrowed from ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’.
Listening again now, you do wonder why Nagamatzu didn’t become better known. Stylistically, the duo were every bit as imaginative as Cabaret Voltaire, the tracks from both ‘Sacred Islands Of The Mad’ (1986) and ‘Igniting The Corpse’ (1991) blessed with the same jerky electro juxtapositions that dominated the Cabs’ releases back in the day. The cloud of noisy sonic interventions that littered the post-apocalyptic wastelands of early industrial music – grainy vocal snatches, looped samples, buzzing echoes and extra-terrestrial radio whines – can be found on the likes of ‘Carmine’ and ‘Watch And Waste’. Nagamatzu slotted neatly into the enthralling scene promoted by labels like Factory and Rough Trade. If only more people had noticed at the time.
Entirely instrumental, save for sampled snatches of vocals and occasional mic work from Andrew Fleck on the 1983 ‘Shatter Days’ album, Nagamatzu were darkwave before anyone bothered to give this strand of synth music its own identity. Their music was full of bleak urges and grey textures, yet it wasn’t all doom and gloom. At several points on ‘Shatter Days’ and ‘Sacred Islands Of The Mad’, you can hear the sort of emotional peaks and troughs that pre-‘Technique’ New Order specialised in, while some of the earliest material presented here has the same thwarted pop edge as OMD’s first album – all descending harmonies, icy synth sprinkles, minor symphonic swells, expressive bass hooks and intricate rhythm tracks.
‘Lift Off’, taken from the ‘Space Shuttle Shuffle’ 12-inch and ‘Sacred Island’ cassette, was perhaps Lagowski and Jarvis’ most overtly commercial moment. It arrived in 1986, the same year that Challenger fell from the sky, casting a long shadow over NASA’s space programme. The busy dancefloor groove and layers of control room dialogue create something between paranoid anxiety and nihilistic erotic anticipation, not dissimilar to the musings on the space race that Ballard obliquely assembled back in 1970.
But Nagamatzu were at their best when they stuck to the most economic of tools. Namely skeletal, fractured beats, sinewy but expressive bass melodies, whining electric guitars and uncluttered electronics. With those tools, the possibilities were arguably endless, stretching out far into the distance with no need for verse-chorus-verse conscription. It’s the fact that they abruptly stopped, despite the horizons they could have reached, that makes the collected synaptic gestures of ‘Neural Interval’ the perfect desert island disc for a nuclear-ravaged terminal beach.