TUNNELS Blackout LP

The media is making a big deal about the lack of progress being made by young musicians and the prevalence of nostalgia as the foundation of most artists’ aesthetic. Tunnels certainly fit the bill.

Their latest offering, Blackout, is a straightforward recreation of English pre-Electro Pop and some of the variations thereon. Certainly that’s an interesting moment in music history to revisit; a point when a group of young artists decided to apply punk rock’s minimalism, affection for the crude and jarring, and rejection of convention, and applied that to keyboards. These keyboards were some of the first inexpensive synthesizers (often monophonic) on the market and, along with drum machines, they then borrowed vocabulary from Krautrock, especially the band Kraftwerk, and other avant garde forms. Outfits like early Human League (circa “Being Boiled”), The Normal, Vice Versa (who eventually morphed into ABC), Fad Gadget and others followed in the footsteps of Sheffield’s Cabaret Voltaire creating a novel and puissant new genre.

Tunnels has done their homework and brought this curious genre back to vivid life. You can easily imagine a dank, brick-lined basement lit by one naked, dangling light bulb, occupied by pallid young men, dressed in black and grey hunched over battered instruments held together with duct-tape, occasionally sipping flat, lukewarm bottles of lager. OY!

Most of the songs here are constructed out of a wheezing rhythm machine playing back a stiff beat, a few pulsing, icy keyboard lines delivering simple minor-keyed tunes and a highly distorted gargoyle-ish vocal. Occasionally a simple stuttering guitar or bass lick may be added to the mix. It’s all very austere, atmospheric, mock-Teutonic. It’s the same basic vocabulary that Joy Division would transliterate for guitar and expand into glorious, dolorous works of genius.

Back in the 80s, musicians eventually appeared who looked at this basically very simple and easy to master format and injected brighter melodies, more upbeat rhythms and cheerier lyrics and Electro-pop proper was born. Some of the old guard changed with the times and went on to have massive hits in the U.K. as well as in new wave-oriented clubs in the U.S. Eventually, some of the stylistic conventions of the earlier scene were adopted and adapted by more accomplished players with backgrounds in punk and metal producing Industrial Rock—which certainly had its moments and some major commercial successes.

Tunnels are doing us a great service revisiting that point in rock music’s evolution when artists were breaking fresh ground, the results were unpredictable and there the aesthetic horizons appeared infinite. [Thrill Jockey]

-Howard Wuelfing

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