Pre-Millennial 4AD

Over forty years after its founding, London-based 4AD still thrives as an imprint in the 21st century thanks to a number of artists who have released highly praised work through it in recent years, including Tune-Yards, TV on the Radio, the Mountain Goats, St. Vincent and Dry Cleaning. But it was the 20th century which made the label legendary, at once a home for myriad unusual musical spirits, a center for design aesthetics driven by often breathtaking album sleeves, and something close to a wider general ethos that really did pursue art for art’s sake. Cofounded by Ivo Watts-Russell and Peter Kent in 1980 as a feeder for the Beggars Banquet label and initially named Axis as a Jimi Hendrix reference before it was discovered another company had claimed the name, 4AD gained a quiet but increasingly well known profile at home while rapidly becoming a focus of numerous music obsessives around the world. Its roster and sound, generally but not exclusively Anglophonic, was never one exact thing, but in its quiet variety 4AD found a resonant, still influential strength.

Kent sold Watts-Russell his share of the company in 1981, and from that point forward the latter became an almost totemic figure, both exploring his own particular obsessions with music via landmark acts and encouraging visual artistic exploration in turn. In-house designer Vaughan Oliver’s work with various collaborators over time, among them photographer Nigel Grierson and later calligrapher Chris Bigg, created a striking aesthetic for the label as a whole. Oliver also designed the famed and still extant three-block label logo. Musically, meanwhile, inadvertent goth-rock founders Bauhaus released their first full album on the label, while Modern English created a classic thanks to the unexpected American breakout of “I Melt With You.” Two relocated Australian powerhouses turned up in the Birthday Party and, a couple of years later, Dead Can Dance. But it was the Scottish group the Cocteau Twins who defined the label more broadly, and when Ivo Watts-Russell got its core members Robin Guthrie and Elizabeth Fraser to record the Tim Buckley song “Song to the Siren” for his own project This Mortal Coil, the result became a new standard.

The middle and latter half of the eighties found 4AD building on a growing reputation outside of the UK, reflected in part by such European acts as Germany’s Xmal Deutschland and the Dutch group Clan of Xymox, with a growing roster that reflected its increasing popularity and reach. Their inspired presentation of Bulgarian state choir recordings under the Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares name became a sensation, while the one-off combination of dance experimentalists Colourbox and proto-shoegazers A.R. Kane as M/A/R/R/S led to the worldwide smash “Pump Up the Volume.” It was their first two American signings from New England in particular, however – the chaotic and empathetic energy of Rhode Island’s Throwing Muses and the fractured dynamics and entertaining rampages of the Boston-based Pixies – which both gained them further fans as well as an expanded sonic approach. Not even the departure of the Cocteau Twins following their Heaven or Las Vegas album slowed things down.

The early to mid-nineties showcased a variety of changes for 4AD, not least of which, following individual album and act licensing in previous years to Stateside companies, was a full expansion as a stand-alone label in America, where Watts-Russell had relocated. The London-based Lush proved to be a notable new signing in those years as did the US act His Name Is Alive, but it was a series of collaborative and side projects from the Throwing Muses and Pixies wings, most notably the Tanya Donelly-led Belly and the Kim and Kelley Deal-fronted Breeders, that were among the most successful acts of a time in the wider world of alternative rock that the Pixies in particular had helped to inspire. Various anniversary festival events and artistic exhibitions helped to showcase the label’s profile, though by the middle of the decade Watts-Russell had privately suffered a nervous breakdown and begun to distance himself from 4AD as a result.

The last years of the nineties found 4AD increasingly reliant on its back catalog and general reputation, with Watts-Russell’s disinterest in the day to day doings leading to growing internal dysfunction as others began signing acts in his stead. Numerous groups and artists did produce some excellent work, either for the label directly or via licensing, including Gus Gus, Tarnation and Mojave 3. But the shifting musical scenes and focus in the UK were leaving the label behind, something not fully made up for elsewhere in the world, and in 1999 Martin Mills’s Beggars Group, 4AD’s original founding company, purchased the label back from Watts-Russell, who has lived quietly in the US since. Still, the impact of 4AD’s first two decades remains readily felt, both in new and reissued work from its many veterans from that time and the younger acts and scenes that have emerged in their wake.

Medusa cover

Clan of Xymox’s second album was also their last full length for 4AD, but they ended their short run there with one of their strongest releases, an elegant combination of the talents of its three original creative forces in Ronny Moorings, Anke Wolbert and Pieter Nooten. The gloom-shrouded intensity of the debut returns with greater sonic variety, from haunting synth textures to appropriately moody bass lines to industrial-dance rhythms, often tinged with a more forthright melodicism, as on “Agonised by Love,” “Masquerade” and the stirring “Michelle.”

Rev cover

Kurt Ralske’s final album as Ultra Vivid Scene was also that artistic guise’s creative high point, with him leading a trio lineup to produce an elegant, powerful and still underappreciated release that was in its own world, a glam/art rock/psychedelic beauty. Kicking in with one of his twisted odes in the form of “Candida” and building to longer tracks like “The Portion of Delight” and the penultimate slow burn epic “Blood and Thunder,” Rev found Ralske able to embrace a bit of easy swagger and demonstrate some of his best guitar heroics along the way with ease.

Last Splash cover

The Breeders followed Pod and the Safari EP with a slightly rejigged lineup and an absolute monster of a track, the near era-defining “Cannonball,” a song which felt like a band playing a perfect collage of samples that was never not addictively catchy, chopping, pausing and blasting away over Josephine Hooks’s iconic bass parts. Kim and Kelley Deal stepped to the fore with vocals and guitars in sharp command, and the sheer amount of keepers simply amazes: “Divine Hammer,” “I Just Want To Get Along,” “Saints,” “No Aloha,” a cornucopia of sonic delights.

Spooky cover

Lush’s first full album proper was a remarkable effort, building on the success of the EPs contained in the Gala compilation to create a slew of engaging rock numbers deftly maintaining a balance between full crunch, a bit of shoegaze swirl (certainly accentuated by producer Robin Guthrie) and the both pointed and dreamy lyrical approach by bandleaders Miki Berenyi and Emma Anderson. “Nothing Natural” and “For Love” made for striking singles, but the deeper cuts were often just as stellar, from the self-explanatory kick of “Superblast!” to the engaging and emotional album closer “Monochrome.”

Geek the Girl cover

Lisa Germano’s full original debut for 4AD after they presented the reworked Happiness made it clear why the label was a much better home for her than Capitol; her tense, often harrowing songs, created mostly via home recordings, seemed almost tailormade for a label with an emphasis on interior feelings. While snippets of a folk song provide lighter relief at various points on Geek the Girl, her close-miked vocals, murky layers of sound and sometimes abrasive guitar suit suit songs often about horrifying situations, as on “Cry Wolf” and “…A Psychopath.”

Soundpool cover

Collecting the London quartet’s first two EPs as well as their later contribution to the 4AD compilation Lonely Is An Eyesore, Soundpool is an excellent documentation of a still underrated band, whose forceful, often elegant version of instrumental rock had definite afterechoes among many future bands. Possibly only the Durutti Column matched their general goals at points, with a similar sense of postpunk’s mood and exploration, but songs like “Re,” the dub leaning “Heset” and especially the striking conclusion “No Motion” are their own remarkable creations.

Bird Wood Cage cover

Wolfgang Press’s dark moods had long since been established in earlier work but Bird Wood Cage brought a new level of command; without sounding like either an industrial album or a dance one, the album burned with the intensity of the fusion, all driving rhythms, shaded textures and vocals that weren’t barked or shouted but were coolly sung-spoken or sinuously commanding. “King of Soul” started things off with a twisted salute to the concept and the trio were off from there from the hard funk kick of “Kansas” to the raucous roil of “Shut That Door.”

Home Is in Your Head cover

Warren Defever’s second His Name Is Alive album for 4AD was one of his loveliest, with Ivo Watts-Russell’s remixing and organizing of the tracks resulting in a strange and compelling portrait of fractured musical moods. Karin Oliver’s steady and sweet singing added to the melancholy and slightly haunted air, but whether it was the many short, almost fragmentary songs. the sudden rock-out break on “Hope Called In Sick” or just song titles like “My Feathers Needed Cleaning,” it was its own self-contained universe of musical exploration.

House Tornado cover

For their second full album, Throwing Muses worked with Gary Smith as producer, a simpatico combination that resulted in the original lineup’s strongest album, vividly unusual and striking on the one hand and intensely and immediately catchy on the other, a triumph of 80s left of center rock as such. Kristen Hersh’s exploratory vocals and lyrics remained the core while the rough shimmer of her and Tanya Donelly’s guitars continued the feeling of something unexpected, even as Donelly’s songs found ways to be comparatively straightforward and just as strong.

The Serpent's Egg cover

By the time of their fourth studio album Dead Can Dance had reached a remarkable high point with their moodily dramatic combination of dark singer/songwriter feelings and melanges of worldwide musical instrumentation and approaches, creating a never-never land that wasn’t quite medieval or ritualistic but wasn’t anything else either. “The Host of Seraphim” started the album with shocking command, while further songs like “Severance” and “Ullyses” further underscore their abilities with their fusions.

Star cover

Tanya Donelly’s initial full-length effort leading a band away from the collaborative worlds of the Throwing Muses and the Breeders turned out to be a real treat when Belly’s Star scored a major alt-rock radio hit in the form of the cool twangy kick of “Feed the Tree,” a perfect showcase for her warm vibes and ear for hooks. Star drew on various singles that had already been released over the previous few months like “Gepetto” and “Slow Dog” and the whole was a sparkling, charging showcase with striking moments of subtle mood and melancholia surfacing throughout.

After the Snow cover

Modern English’s second album will always be known first and foremost for the group’s signature song, the legendary “I Melt With You,” an ur-Eighties combination of acoustic and electronic elements celebrating love and desire in the shadow of the bomb. But the album as a whole was an elegant progression from their debut Mesh and Lace, with songs like “Life in the Gladhouse,” “Someone’s Calling” and the delicately tense title track capturing sweeping postpunk guitar and synth energy with elegance, Robbie Gray’s yearning vocals the killer touch.

Colourbox cover

Colourbox’s one full album was a bit of a slumgullion of previously released singles plus new tracks, but as a portrait of the band’s experimenting with sonic possibilities in the art/dance worlds of the mid-1980s it’s a remarkable, sometimes affecting listen. With Lorita Grahame adding her strong singing on tracks like “Arena” and “Punch,” plus various cover versions and frenetic sample fests such as “Just Give ‘Em Whiskey,” brothers Steven and Martyn Young created a snapshot of a time and place leading into the late eighties UK dance explosion.

Hips and Makers cover

Kristin Hersh’s solo debut grew out of private sessions never intended to be a record, but the jaw-dropping excellence of Hips and Makers almost sounds like it was always meant to be the way it is, with excellent production by Lenny Kaye, refocusing her singular musical and lyrical aesthetic into intimate acoustic guitar-led songs with occasional cello by Jane Scarpantoni. “Your Ghost,” with guest vocals from Michael Stipe, made for a powerful start, but many striking songs as “Me and My Charms,” “A Loon,” “Sundrops” and “The Letter” appeared throughout.

Ask Me Tomorrow cover

When Neil Halstead, Rachel Goswell and Ian McCutcheon from Slowdive regrouped as Mojave 3 following the stark beauty of Pygmalion, Halsted had taken a turn towards a drowsy and elegant form of country-tinged psych in the vein of David Roback’s work in Opal and Mazzy Star. Add in some of Nick Drake’s understated folk leanings and the result was a strong debut in Ask Me Tomorrow, ranging from the opening sway and soothe of “Love Songs On The Radio” to the building drama of the closer “Mercy” which rightfully bookended this new sonic approach.

Surfer Rosa cover

At the time simply the Pixies’s full length debut after a promising EP, Surfer Rosa became an underground sensation and then legitimately iconic, a 1987 prediction of where so much rock music of later years would end up exploring. Shaped by Steve Albini’s famed engineering work, immediate and almost tactile, the quartet’s exploration of loud/soft/loud dynamics, often bemusing but always energetically delivered lyrics and general joy in noise resulted in a hell of a listen and utterly legendary songs like “Gigantic,” “Where Is My Mind?” and “Cactus.”

It’ll End in Tears cover

The closest thing that the 4AD label had to a jam super session effort — even though the albums were anything but a jam, being so thoroughly and carefully arranged and produced — This Mortal Coil arguably achieved its apex out of the gate with the Robin Guthrie-performed/Elizabeth Fraser-sung cover of Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren.” But the album that followed, It’ll End in Tears, was its own dark beauty, with participants from Dead Can Dance, Modern English, Cindytalk and others blending covers and originals throughout.

Junkyard cover

When Junkyard hit, the Birthday Party’s early days as squirrelly Australian schoolboys must have seemed a lifetime ago rather than just a few years (and admittedly a move halfway around the world). Moments aside, the explosive manias evident on the previous Prayers on Fire became the group’s reason for being, with Nick Cave’s bellowing howl and snarl cutting across the roaring din of everyone else, Rowland Howard’s guitar literally sounding like metal shards and Tracy Pew’s bass a near obscene rumble on songs like “Big-Jesus-Trash-Can” and “Dead Joe.”

Perfect Teeth cover

The final formal Unrest album as such was also the act’s first full turn on 4AD, an appropriate meeting of the minds given Mark Robinson’s own artistic and design goals with the Teen-Beat label. Happily ignoring the alternative rock explosion for their own goals, the trio of Robinson, Bridget Cross and Phil Knauth bowed out with a stellar set of focused, brisk indie-pop, sometimes with spare restraint and sometimes going in a fast giddy rush, as with “Make Out Club” and “Cath Carroll,” an ode to the musician and critic who also featured on the cover art.

Treasure cover

With Simon Raymonde now fully part of the band on bass and the exultant “Pearly-Dewdrops’ Drop” single under their belt, the Cocteaus approached their third full-length album hoping to make as strong a mark as Head Over Heels did — a goal that was achieved and then some. One of the absolute highlights of the band’s entire career, Treasure gained near instant classic status, a perfect showcase of Robin Guthrie’s heavily treated guitar feedback waves, Elizabeth Fraser’s just-beyond-comprehension vocals and a beautiful sense of audio drama all around.