The British Post-Industrial Underground

When industrial music took shape in the late 1970s, its aesthetic significance was quickly overshadowed by the sensationalising of its transgressive qualities, both by the media and by artists and fans themselves. The pre-history of industrial music pioneers Throbbing Gristle as, variously, founders and members of performance art collective COUM Transmissions, who achieved notoriety throughout Britain for their Prostitution exhibition of 1976, gave the artists and the music they made an added subversive edge, a frisson of extremity.

Nevermind that COUM were working clearly within a lineage of radical and critical performance and film that included predecessors like the bloodletting, ritualistic Viennese Aktionists and the queered intensities of film makers like Kenneth Anger and Jack Smith. To the moral arbiters of media and government, COUM were, in the words of conservative MP Nicholas Fairbairn, the “wreckers of civilisation.” When they crossed over into music, Throbbing Gristle approached the art form with a similarly confrontational, questioning stance. 

But perhaps their most significant interventions were in the approach they took to DIY art practice and documentation. Starting their own record label, Industrial Records, they released albums, singles, tape box sets of live recordings, and records by fellow travellers. This community would mutate as Throbbing Gristle fractured, and splinter off into several cliques. Nowadays, Throbbing Gristle and COUM Transmissions are canonical; key member Cosey Fanni Tutti is a well-respected author; and industrial as a genre is thoroughly incorporated into rock and pop’s body politic.

But another thread that unspooled from the liberations and refusals that industrial music offered to disaffected artists within Britain was the development of a particular strain of music that developed out of industrial and into ‘noise’ – and then far beyond. For want of a catchier genre name, the British Post-Industrial Underground captures the history of the thing, but we’d do well to remember that many of the artists involved have wandered far beyond industrial music as a genre.

Unshackled by many shifts that occurred in the late 1970s – punk’s politics; industrial’s critical-aesthetic interventions; noise music as a valid form of socio-cultural expression; regional networks of fanzine and cassette traders, self-releasing their own material – acts like The New Blockaders, whose Changez Les Blockeurs is this underground’s founding document, were sketching out a new approach to noise and experimental music. It helped that Changez Les Blockeurs felt like a major shift away from the socio-critical signification of groups like Throbbing Gristle, and the paranoiac surveillance-culture interests of Cabaret Voltaire, to more ambiguous terrain.

From there – and considering connected outfits like Bladder Flask, Metgumbnerbone, and Masstihadshu – a web of like-minded souls was slowly spun. There are connections to the bleak noise antics of legendary labels like Broken Flag and the fiercely reduced compositions of groups like Whitehouse, but one thing that has become evident over time is both the sly humour of releases like Mixed Band Philanthropist’s The Impossible Humane, that connects more with the surrealism of fellow travellers Nurse With Wound, and an embrace of environmental sound  (whether urban, suburban, regional, or rural).

The creative development of someone like Andrew Chalk is illuminating. His first albums from the mid-eighties, under the name Ferial Confine, were tonally dense noisescapes, abrasive and thick with tone, but still carefully constructed. But by the late 1990s, he was focused more on internal landscapes, embracing the suggestive and sonorous possibilities of drones and field recording. More recent material has played with micro-melodies and a kind of ‘quiet lushness’ to create deeply personal compositions.

Over time, one can observe a shift in those involved, focusing on a new and loosely aligned collective of musicians – names like Darren Tate, Paul Bradley, and Jonathan Coleclough, all of whom have worked with, or alongside, figures like Chalk and Colin Potter (the latter has a rich history that stretches back to the late 1970s, and has been a frequent collaborator with Nurse With Wound). There are other names here, too, whose music suggests a loosely homologous fit – Michael Prime and Morphogenesis; Philip Sanderson of Storm Bugs; and so on. But the key to this music? A quiet questing, a sense of place, and a desire to explore both subtleties and intensities.

Crescent cover

The music on the CD edition of Crescent is drawn predominantly from two cassettes released in the mid-to-late eighties. But the material’s been updated, and in one case – the gorgeous “Old Hive” – remixed by Chalk’s key collaborator in Mirror, Christoph Heemann. That track has Heemann entwining Chalk’s melancholy melodies with field recordings and raspy drones. Elsewhere, you can hear Chalk moving away from his noisier work as Ferial Confine, towards a more considered approach. He resists the desire to overwhelm these pensive drones with scuffed noises; the resulting tension is incredibly compelling. David Jackman’s flute adds lush counterpoint to “Harvest”.

Changez les Blockeurs cover

The first album by The New Blockaders, the duo of Richard and Philip Rupenus, is now firmly cemented in musical history as one of the first, and most significant, noise albums. Listening back, it’s not hard to see why, even as its relationship to what became noise can seem tangential. It’s a suburban ritual – recorded in a shed, it’s rife with the sounds of bowed metal, dragged junk, squeaking wheels, clanking tools – that perceptively joins the dots between noise and free improvisation. Forty years later, its combination of intense focus, Dadaist ‘anti-art’ ethos, and real-time responsiveness is still uniquely powerful.

Cake cover

Cake was Jonathan Coleclough’s debut album, and it introduced a significant new voice to British underground music. Coleclough’s specialty is the inter-weaving of luxuriant, radiant drones and beautifully captured field recordings, though he’s a flexible collaborator, and he’s also open to wilder things – one side of 2002’s Casino was just that, recordings of a casino. Cake itself was released in two different versions; the first announces his presence by slowly swarming a quiet, incident-free, everyday field recording with blue-hued electronic drones; the second inverts that structure, and adds more drama, opening with backwards piano, and ending with a vivid storm of resonating tones.

One Dimensional cover

One of the great lost voices of the British underground, the late Paul Kelday was a prolific explorer of the outer regions of analog synth, releasing countless cassettes between 1974 and 1986 that play out as deep and disturbed as the best Klaus Schulze or Conrad Schnitzler. He also was an occasional member of brother Phil’s free music outfit, New 7th Music. One Dimensional pulls together material from the mid-‘80s and it’s just gorgeous, a collection of distressed morse code signals chirping inside abandoned factories, fighting through wind tunnels of broken tone. It’s the best place to start with Kelday.

Liquid Sunset cover

Paul Bradley’s a quiet presence – there are no interviews with him readily to be found, and his digital footprint seems reduced, now, to a Bandcamp page. It’d be easy to interpret this as reticence or hermeticism, but it reads as both appropriate and sensitive to the music he makes, which prefers the understated and the micro-attentive, to making a grand gesture. On Liquid Sunset, a particularly glassy drone slowly swirls around itself, broken up by a passage of crackling foliage, under foot. Bradley’s music rewards not just patience and attention, but ‘steeping’ – to grasp it fully, give it all the time it needs.

Aquifers cover

One of the many members of improvising outfit Morphogenesis, Michael Prime is a quiet yet determined presence in the British underground. His recorded works all share a furious focus; describing himself as a ‘sound ecologist’, he tends toward intensive exploration of set parameters, whether he’s working with objects or, more often, natural phenomena. Released on iconic noise imprint RRR, Aquifers is a great introduction to Prime’s world. Drawing from various sources – a metal storage rack; environmental sounds, traffic, a toilet; a water machine - Prime rearranges the world outside of your head with thorough-going intensity. This is a most dislocating experience.

And Then cover

Colin Potter’s history stretches back to the early ‘80s, when he started his label ICR, and began releasing solo cassettes of experimental electronics. In this, he was far from alone, but from his early days, Potter has had a unique and surprisingly lyrical voice, no matter what he applies himself to. He’s a frequent collaborator with Nurse With Wound, was a member of Ora and Monos, and still runs ICR as label and distributor. And Then is one of his strongest albums: exploring broad terrain, from ever-spiralling, blackened electronics, to abstract mosaics of rhythm, it’s rich and teeming with incident.

The Full Use of Nothing cover

For a few years in the mid 1980s, Andrew Chalk made music under the project name Ferial Confine. While he only released three cassettes, all in 1985, this slim body of work is incredibly significant to the development of noise music, none more so than The Full Use Of Nothing, an album that was reissued on LP in 1999 and CD in 2013. The Full Use Of Nothing is an incredibly rich, tactile collection of instrumental pieces, most all sounds apparently sourced from contact mic’d plates of metal; the concomitant thunderstorm of harried texture is powerfully disorienting, a masterclass in tension.

The Nimply Power Sessions Parts I-VII: Audio Memoirs of a Gentelman Asthete cover

The solo moniker of John Mylotte, Sir Ashleigh Grove only made a few compilation contributions during the mid-‘80s, and guested live with New Blockaders. The appearance of The Nimply Power Sessions some three decades later sheds further light on Mylotte’s creative processes. There’s an umbilical relationship here with English industrial and power electronics, but Mylotte’s productions are, by turns more playful or more maddeningly repetitive: sometimes he lets a loop, or a frustrated pulse, circle around itself for minutes on end; elsewhere, plastic electronics bounce around in the air like a supercharged slinky, or scuffed tones gather as a hailstorm.

Rosea cover

On Rosea, the Ora line-up is close to a who’s-who of the British post-Industrial underground – Andrew Chalk, Darren Tate, Jonathan Coleclough and Colin Potter all contribute, along with free improvising saxophonist Lol Coxhill. It’s no surprise, then, that Rosea plays out like a rolodex of possibilities. There are itchy, tactile, textural improvisations; deep, sonorous bell-tones that shiver and shimmer; mysterious field recordings that can’t be pinned down, which gives them an uniquely evocative sense of ‘no place.’ The title track is where it all comes together, with clanks and clangs submerged under layers of moss and peat, a geological drift.

Anthropological Field Recordings For The Dispossessed cover

This double-disc set is a welcome collection of material from Metgumbnerbone, a project featuring John Mylotte, who was joined by his contemporaries: The New Blockaders’ Philip and Richard Rupenus, Sean Bredin, and Mike Watson. They only released two albums back in 1983, and excerpts from both feature here, along with plenty of previously unreleased material. Mylotte’s exploring something deeply ritualistic, with cycles of percussion, stately whispers of wind instruments, and vocal threnodies, played out in acoustically rich, resonant spaces – silos, railway tunnels, industrial ruins, etc.. It’s gorgeous stuff, spectral and evocative, most powerful when things are pared to their core.

Charivari Music cover

Formed in 1986 by the late Roger Sutherland, who was teaching a New Music course, and some of his students – the story goes, they ran out of material to listen to and discuss, so they decided to start making their own – Morphogenesis are still going strong, though their public appearances have become more elusive and less frequent. Charivari Music appeared during a relatively busy time for the group, and their septet line-up is in powerful form, essaying a rich, playfully serious, collective improvised electro-acoustic séance. They achieve that rare phenomenon of moving as one, subsuming individual thumbprints to the group mind.

Time Will Say Nothing cover

Robert Haigh, aka Sema, has covered a lot of ground over the years: post-punk in Fote Club; jungle as The Omni Trio; gentle, Satie-esque piano ambience under his own name. His albums as Sema, from the mid-‘80s, catch Haigh looking back to move forward; on 1982’s Notes From Underground, pensive piano interacts with hazed drones and sudden bursts of tape noise and found sound, but by 1984’s Three Seasons Only, he’s cleared a path for more melancholy, reflective piano melodies to play out, unaccompanied. Time Will Say Nothing traces this development beautifully, compiling all four albums and odd, stray tracks.

360º cover

In many ways, Monos is an extension from an earlier outfit, Ora: the duo of Darren Tate and Colin Potter, both of whom were core to many Ora albums. Monos albums like 360º pick up on the evocative use of field recordings embraced by Ora and intensify that drive to locate sonorous sensuality in material drawn from the field. Indeed, here, Tate’s contribution is solely field recordings, while Potter contributes electronics and mixing; the two sometimes merge, but more often they play alongside each other in tandem: on the gorgeous “Clouds,” deep, thrumming buzz is echoed by nature’s windy blur.

Seal Pool Sounds cover

Philip Sanderson was a key player in the UK DIY underground of the early 1980s, releasing a great run of cassettes on his Snatch Tapes imprint, including some excellent titles from his Storm Bugs duo with Steven Ball. He’s also worked with David Jackman of Organum, and appeared with Nigel Jacklin’s Alien Brains. But there’s something about Seal Pool Sounds, released two decades later, that’s definitive. Working with curiosity and wit, he shades these thirteen studies in multiple colours – some almost Kosmische-style electronics; beautiful pin-prick arpeggio patterns; woozy, psychedelic tone-floats. There’s plenty of play here, and beauty, too.

One Day I Was So Sad That The Corners Of My Mouth Met & Everybody Thought I Was Whistling cover

Recorded and released by the Rupenus brothers and friends back in 1981, One Day I Was So Sad… is wild, full of spiralling loops and sudden jump-cuts. It leans heavily into the cut-up / collage aesthetic that was prevalent at the time – see contemporary work by Nurse With Wound. But the most convincing moments on One Day I Was So Sad… are when Bladder Flask relax their hectic energy and allow things to spread out – there’s a beautiful passage for warbling, submerged piano around three minutes into “Musical Behind Head,” as though you’re hearing the instrument through gurgling, babbling water.

The Impossible Humane cover

There’s no other word for it – The Impossible Humane, the only album by Richard Rupenus of New Blockaders’ side project Mixed Band Philanthropist, is unrelenting. It’s a hectic, overwhelming swirl of contributed material, from a long list of names key to the ‘80s underground, assembled into a thick morass of sound by Rupenus. As musique concrete, it’s ungainly in a welcome way, with blankets of scratchy noise descending into détourned chunks of Janet Jackson and Tom Jones; as collage, it feels like an ultimate response to surrealism’s making-strange of the everyday, its desire to direct delirium. A phenomenally alien listen.

Youth In Mourning cover

Philip Johnson was one of many young artists likely liberated by the possibilities afforded by significant shifts in late ‘70s culture – punk and post-punk; DIY culture; industrial and noise; access to consumer electronics and cassette duplication. Most of Johnson’s releases were small-run cassettes, but Youth In Mourning was appeared on vinyl in 1982. It’s a scabrous set for urgent yet subliminal electronics, working away at intensely focused pulses and high-tension drones; there are also vocal sideswipes at ‘alternative music’ culture (a rant against the NME’s “C81” compilation), and the fever dream visions of “The Karate Kicking Girl of New Invention.”

Sometime Today cover

Sometime Today is the result of a fruitful collaboration between two of England’s most enduring ‘soundscape’ musicians, Darren Tate (of Ora and Monos) and Paul Bradley (who has also collaborated with Colin Potter, Adam Sonderberg and Cria Cuervos, among others). The album was released in the mid-noughties, during a productive phase for both artists, and you can hear the confidence with which their aesthetics merge through its near-forty-minute length. That extended time gives them enough space to explore their material in some detail, and there’s something particularly evocative about the work here, weaving a thread of submerged phenomenon, church bells chiming through arcs of irradiated feedback.

Submission cover

Organum is the long-running project of David Jackman, an artist with deep connections to the history of British experimental music – he was part of the Scratch Orchestra with Cornelius Cardew and a young Brian Eno. With Organum, he’s worked alongside musicians such as Jim O’Rourke, Eddie Prévost of AMM, Steven Stapleton of Nurse With Wound, and Robert Hampson of Loop and Main. His work is often conceptual; Submission, however, is one of his more open-ended collections, with rough, scratchy metallics, ringing through epic, cavernous spaces, slowly giving way to elemental, breathy wind instruments – perhaps shakuhachi – sounding out the infinite.