:Retrowerks: Deadliner – Wardenclyffe
Review by John Courte
Let’s get in the mood. Turn the lights down, as low as they’ll go. If you can’t turn the lights down, turn them off. If you have some of those LED strip lights from IKEA, turn them on and dial them to red, like you’re in a missile silo or a submarine. Now, fire up Wardenclyffe and settle in.
First thing I’m going to say about this album is that it’s very, very good. You should acquire it. And you should pay for it. Why? Back when I worked the hell shift at a visual effects shop in Los Angeles, we had a VFX supervisor whose feedback, if you did something exceptionally good, was “this doesn’t suck.” Wardenclyffe goes way beyond “doesn’t suck,” judged on qualities in both artistic and technical areas. Yes, I said “technical.” Just because machines are involved, that doesn’t mean it’s easy, and if you take a run at electronic music these days you better get it right, because the world is full of hacks with hard drives full of cracked VST’s, making it harder for the good stuff to rise above the noise floor. This is not an issue for Wardenclyffe; a tight, coherent, consistent piece of work which actually stays true to its theme from one end to the other. It’s so far above the noise floor, it’s kicking shingles off the roof.
Plus, get this: it’s a real album. It’s like The Wall, or Moving Pictures or Purple Rain, with a design and a track arc. The cover art is a picture of the album’s namesake: Nikola Tesla’s facility in Shoreham, NY. You can’t hold digital cover art in your hand and angle it in your submarine-light, but you can image-search Tesla and Wardenclyffe, and you can imagine Tesla played by David Bowie in The Prestige while you listen.
Do that now. I’ll wait.
Deadliner is the nom de musique of Steve Christie, a childhood transplant from Mobile, AL to the Chicagoland area. A self-taught musician, he began experimenting with a Roland JP8 and a Moog Prodigy as a teenager, in the time of the ascendency of Wax Trax! and its orbital halo of Medusa/Smart Bar DJ-set contemporaries like Nitzer Ebb, Depeche Mode, and Red Flag. The darker influences came with the gift of Ministry’s Nature of Love remixes on cassette, and since then, through exposure to Jim Marcus, Gary Numan, Trent Reznor, Jared Louche, and others. He likes to keep a low profile and let his music speak for itself—a refreshing ethic in the age of 24/7 attention whoring with marketing judged as art.
Wardenclyffe contains 13 tracks ranging between two and five minutes in length. None have lyrics except for “Static Coupling,” which features UCNX on vocals. Each one relates to electricity or high-energy charged particles in some way, but like any good work of art, there’s a lot left open to interpretation.
“Eidetic” is a perfect intro track. It’s a dark, downtempo piece full of hard machinery, foreboding, powerful drums and a fat bass synth. It builds expectation of things to come, preparation for an experiment, or maybe it’s the cover sheet on a postmortem report of a wireless power run that plunged the Eastern Seaboard into an endless fog bank full of Lovecraftian horrors. This is the one you play when your DJ set starts and you want to let the crowd know you’re on.
In the next track, “Transmitter,” we’re fully switched on. If I was to guess at where it fits in the theme, I’d say it was a proof of concept, a dry run; Tesla’s shakedown. I liked this one a lot, but then again, I’m a sucker for 32nd-note synth fills. It has a retro-EBM feel, right at home alongside Leæther Strip or pre-Supercute Bigod 20, but would do nicely in any current hard-driving DJ set. The hi-hats are mixed a little loud for my taste, but that’s a small nit to pick and it didn’t take me out of the fiction at all.
“The Radiant” is a melancholy mix of lush strings and pads, with band-passed old-timey martial music samples, and another big buildup. The synth lead grates on me a little toward the end because it wanders around and doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the track at times, but I can forgive that, since the track is an excellent scene-setting piece and otherwise excellent.
Things speed up again with “World System,” and like “Transmitter,” it has a hard, driving pulse, accentuated by something like a crunchy guitar and Theremin-like synth melody.
“Remote Field” is one of my favorite tracks on the release. Too bad it’s only three minutes long. It’s killer dancefloor material, and a couple of hours with Ableton Live would yield you a longer remix you could work in a club for weeks. Thematically, it speaks of word getting out about the weird scientist out in the boonies, shooting lightning bolts across the sky.
The album just keeps on giving. “Polarized” is a return to very well-done string orchestration plus a piano melody, but it’s beautifully meshed with slamming drums, wide-field sawtooth synths and a wonderfully Numanesque vibrato synth line layered in. There’s also a trailing vocal sample at the end that’s like a goodbye kiss sending you off to the next track.
“Bremsstrahlung” means “braking radiation,” and proves once again that science sounds cooler in German. This track conveys an air of science under way, an experiment in progress with an occasional string pad to remind you of the dangerous high energies involved. It’s evocative, but just barely, of a film montage; various clips of scientists performing their work, an oilpunk rendition of Real Genius. The mixing is excellent and the arrangement is superb.
Moving on to “Stationary Waves,” we’re presented with tension built from very minimal percussion and slowly rolling deep synth pads, strings, and a piano line. This ends up in heavier downtempo drums, everything moving along together, then fading out.
“Near Field” is also a favorite. There’s a vocal sample—“I’m sorry”—repeated in different parts and from different sources, along with chaos/riot/disaster screaming kissed in for effect. After you hear that, the strings kick in for a measure or two, then you’re walking along with the drums and bassline at a brisk pace and with clear purpose. Woven into it, I can hear some of Nitzer Ebb’s Belief, a splash of Die Warzau’s Disco Rigido, and a tiny bit of FLA’s Tactical Neural Implant. Nothing wrong with influences, we all have them, and they give us context, but “Near Field” isn’t a tribute; it’s a solid, excellent, standalone work. Conceptually, to me, it’s like “holy fuck, something went wrong, something’s loose. It wasn’t our fault, we swear. Get your people below ground. Now.”
As the only track with vocals, you’d think “Static Coupling” wouldn’t fit, but it does, and UCNX does an excellent job. The instrumentation is a heavy mid-tempo stomp with 16th-note bass lines, gated drums, and that truly obese sustained bass wave heard in earlier tracks.
We slow down again for “The Decay,” which starts out with some very Euro-style plucked-and bowed-string synth work, then unfolds into a heartbeat of wavering Vangelis-like synth melody and some 808 percussion, anchored by low flanged synth and tight-decay bass. It’s very much a heartbeat, oscillation and counter-oscillation, rolling out into a single overdriven kick drum.
“Alternate” starts out slow and mellow, like waking up from a nap. Then it roars to life, a vast engine full of high-velocity moving parts. The full power of the album is on display at this point. There’s no wasted motion, nothing out of place, and the sequences hit you on 2’s, 4’s, 8’s, and 16’s, anchored by a relentless 4/4 kick. It’s a pair of large, ponderous flying machines, lifting off vertically and hurling lightning and fire at each other. It’s Tesla and Edison squaring off and settling the score once and for all, in dirigibles under dark purple pre-storm clouds.
“The Lichtenberg Figure” is a very pretty guitar melody wrapped in a beautiful coldwave orchestration, perfect for closing credits and transition from your submarine back to reality. A female vocal sample caps it perfectly. It’s bittersweet though. If you Google the title of the track, you get mostly two things: amazing, beautiful blue figures created by releasing a high-energy charge into a block of clear acrylic, or the winding, fractal scars of lightning strike victims.
To sum up: if you’re looking for a solid, no-nonsense, well-produced, good-sounding mostly-instrumental EBM album, you’ll do well with Wardenclyffe. I gave it several listens during the course of this review, and not once did I tire of it. I’m usually cranky and easily distracted, but this album held my attention and its charm throughout, and while I won’t give it anything as crass as a 1-10 score, I’ll say with confidence it’s one of the best things I’ve heard in several years.
01. The Eidetic
03. The Radiant
04. World System
05. Remote Field
08. Stationary Waves
09. Near Field
10. Static Coupling (Featuring UCNX)
11. The Decay
13. The Lichtenberg Figure