Early 80s cassette-only electronic jazz experiments for the more adventurous listener
“Rock was clearly developing into a soundtrack for squares… and there were jazz musicians who wanted away from the entertainment circuit for sophisticates.”
In those two statements, you have almost everything you need to get a handle on Populäre Mechanik, a short-lived early 80s electronic-jazz-post-punk collective who released just two albums, both on their own cassette label. The project revolved around Wolfgang Seidel, who made the above comments, a one-time cohort of Conrad Schnitzler at the Zodiak Free Arts Lab in Berlin. The pair recorded together, Seidel using a synthesiser to hack out rudimentary rhythms. When the late 70s rolled around, Seidel was attracted to punk’s attitude, but it was the likes of Devo and XTC that really interested him. ‘Kollektion 03: Populäre Mechanik’, a compilation put together by Holger Hiller, another bright light of the 1970s and 80s German experimental music scene, is the first time the material has appeared on CD.
Tape hiss is evident throughout, but it enhances the sense of adventure in these recordings. Populäre Mechanik might have been putting out relatively lo-fidelity product, but the performances and sounds they captured are anything but. There are elements of systems music at play here, pieces made up of musicians being assigned repeating parts, collaging them in a live context, devoid of the usual concerns for traditional harmony, but allowing individual expression to gradually twist the track into new shapes.
There are trumpet squiggles at the top end and sometimes the brass is processed and sounds like a huffing great elephant rampaging around the place. Electronics burst and fizz, like on the transmuted reggae of ‘Scharfer Schitt No 1’, where you can hear that Wolfgang Seidel’s rejection of boring rock music led to an interest in the Jamaican dub masters and their studio experiments with tape echo and sound manipulation. Much of the material here seems to rely on splicing avant garde jazz techniques with dub studio mangling and Eno-esque simplicity and electronics, as on ‘Für Ein Paar Deutschmark Mehr’, which evokes a pleasantly sinister atmosphere.
It’s occasionally reminiscent of The Residents, with the jazz dial turned up and the rock deconstruction switched off. It might also put you in mind of the path that Tom Waits took with ‘Bone Machine’ 10 years later; jazz filtered through the rhythmic clockworks of post-punk. There is the odd squall of electric guitar, as on ‘Wiedereingegliedert’, but its manic flourishes are from the more deranged end of the Robert Fripp school of guitar danger, accentuating noise and texture over melody.
Like the sonic archeology undertaken by the likes of Veronica Vasicka’s Minimal Wave label, this album is further proof that a lot of the music that never came within a million miles of the radar, much less flew in under it, has a more compelling story to tell than most of the stuff that was more successful. And while we’re on the subject, isn’t it about time that Holger Hiller’s own oeuvre got the decent re-release treatment?