The more polished and capable our artistic tools become, the harder it becomes to go for the gut — or the throat. A black-and-white movie from the black-and-white era has a grit that isn't possible today, a grit that only comes from having no choice but to use black-and-white. Likewise, many of the albums from the early years of electronics in popular music somehow hit harder and cut deeper than their present-day contemporaries, by dint of being the most made from the least. Bit-depth-reduction plugins and analog-synth recreation modules are one kind of sound, but they always bulk tiny next to the epic hiss and rumble of a Farfisa organ and a low-end drum machine fed through a plate echo. (See: the first Suicide album.)
As The Veneer Of Democracy Starts To Fade might well be the absolute first and last word in the power of low-fi as an artistic statement. It's not low-fi because it sounds cool; it's low-fi because that was all they could get their hands on, and also because any record whose mission is to tell you that the earth has been sold out from under your own feet can't afford to sound like a studio confection. The second attribute may be no more than a by-product of the first, but such by-products are part of how art becomes more than a technical affair. Tape hiss, leakage, overloaded vocals, overloaded keyboards — overloaded everything, really; the meters probably all got stuck in the red the minute they hit PLAY — it's one of the best bad-sounding records you'll ever hear.
"Storm the studio," William S. Burroughs once declared — a line Meat Beat Manifesto not only sampled as a kickoff for one of their records but used as the very title — and Democracy sounds like an audio documentary of exactly that happening. The studio being stormed sounds like one that was loaded with the same tools used by the nascent electro and b-boy movements — drum machines, stabbing keyboards, a mixing desk tricked out with a whole arsenal of effects modules, and a tape delay system that could be called upon at any moment to bathe everything in a shimmering aura of reverb.
Given the people involved, that equipment roster shouldn't come as a surprise. This is (almost) the same crew that under the moniker Tackhead gave us the classic electro / funk attack of Tackhead Tape Time: producer Adrian Sherwood, singer Mark Stewart (as opposed to Tackhead's Gary Clail), drummer Keith Leblanc, bass player Doug Wimbush, and guitarist Skip Mcdonald. Democracy dates from roughly the same period, but it isn't even as tune- or song-oriented as that album. It's an attack, and even what few concessions there are to songwriting are there mostly for atmosphere.
You can't say you aren't warned. The first sound you hear is a relentless drill-press droning, like an alien air-raid siren. Then: "We are going to program you to take your place in society," intones a voice (my bet is it was sampled from some Doctor Who episode). And everything after that sounds like a street rally taking place in the studio — no, more like one taking place in the street outside the studio, with the wall getting battered down and the rioters plugging right into the console. The drum machines sputter like staple guns being fired into cinderblocks, the synths make the kinds of noises you'd expect to come out of a computer suffering from a BSOD, the bass and guitars rattle and groan like they were salvaged from a scrapheap, and Mark Stewart belts out slogans, demands, warnings ("Red alert", "This is a restricted area"), and ominous forewarnings about government surveillance and multi-national corporate power plays.
The best balance between songwriting and assault comes with the cut "Hypnotized" — specifically, its 12" mix, included on the CD as a bonus track, and the first cut from this particular mafia (or, rather, Maffia) that I encountered. "Hypnotized — distracted by desire," goes the chorus, a fitting lyric for an album all about the dangers of the state and the corporation getting a leg up over the individual. But it isn't the politics that make this record memorable; it's the sound. John Cale and Tony Conrad's Inside the Dream Syndicate was once described as a cruddy recording of some important music, and the only thing that keeps me from applying that description here is that the crud is deliberate, and not meant to be scraped off.
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