Some of you won’t believe me, but there was a time when “cold wave” 80s-style electro music wasn’t very popular at all. No one was trying to sound like a flexipop single once released with a magazine that stopped publishing in 1984. And in that bygone era, a band like Pure Ground, channeling that sort of icy remoteness, would have been doing something shocking. But over the last several years, it seems like all the kids have gone cold wave, and it becomes a little more difficult to distinguish one of these electro-magicians from another. As happens with many genres, the proscribed elements form a tight enough straightjacket that true distinctiveness (to say nothing of originality) can be difficult; the rigid 4/4 rhythms, bleached of any hint of syncopation, the keyboards that are so proud to not approximate the sound of any acoustic instrument, and the disinterested vocals are mainstays of the majority of releases. Success, then, becomes a matter of whether a band can harness some original element that makes them stand out and whether or not they can write good songs.
Daylight & Protection, released by Chondritic Sound in 2014, contains the first two Pure Ground EPs, remastered for vinyl release (although the vinyl has long since sold out), but it doesn’t sound like the band were finding their legs at all. There’s a confidence in what they’re doing- consistency without repetitiveness- that’s often missing in a band’s first recordings. Their sound is on the chilliest, darkest end of the minimal cold wave spectrum. Without stooping to imitation, Pure Ground show influences from the 80s for all to see- think Jon Foxx, Fad Gadget, or even the atmosphere of early to mid-eighties Die Form.
One of the things that works in favour of the release is that the band can write a good song- the hooks, as devoid of humanity as they may seem- are catchy, although with a hard edge. “Atlantic Wall” is a particularly good example of this effective simplicity, and it stands out as my favourite track on the album.
Working against them is that Pure Ground have just one trick in their magic act. They do it well, but even within a genre that has some considerable restrictions, there is a sameness to a lot of what they do. The keyboard and drum machine sounds vary little through the album’s eight tracks and the vocals even less so. The debate about whether ‘tis better to suffer the slings and arrows of criticism but stick to your sonic guns is a perpetual issue: would you rather see a band continue to do something they do really well, or have them risk alienating you by trying something different? Even I’m undecided on where I fall on that debate, but in this case, changing things up a little might have raised the album from “good” to “exciting” in my estimation.
Giftgarten is Pure Ground’s most recent release and sees them sticking pretty much to the script their early recordings established. The sound is a bit cleaner, but the elements are much the same. There is a slight shift, in that the new tracks bear a strong resemblance to the early work of Portion Control (you could also say very early Skinny Puppy, who themselves were heavily influenced by Portion Control). The vocals are a little angrier, and feature a pronounced echo effect. The melodies seem even colder and, while they’re still infectious, they’re a little gloomier, more remote. The rhythms, which weren’t exactly sprightly to begin with, have a heavier footfall.
Having just criticized the band for being a little too reliant on the same elements, I feel badly saying that “By the Grace of God”, with its sharply different, almost anthemic, emotional lead and vocals that could almost qualify as singing, is, for me, the weakest track on the album. The simplicity that serves them so well in other cases makes this track feel clumsy and plodding. It’s not dramatic enough to qualify as cheesy, but warming their sound up strips it of some of its power. So you see what happens? You try to mix things up a bit and the nasty critic still isn’t satisfied.
The bottom line is that if the current minimal cold wave revival thrills you, Pure Ground is a band that deserves your attention. If you find yourself rolling your eyes at the tinny ripples of vintage keyboards, then neither of these releases is going to change your mind. Judge yourselves accordingly.
Written by: Kate MacDonald
Label: Chondritic Sound
Daylight & Protection
After The Fall
Going Under The Wire
With The Old Ways
Sacrificed To Purpose
CH-288/ Vinyl (sold out)/ digital download
The Great Becoming
The Silent Age
No Voice Of Angels
Meager Arms Of Sleep
By The Grace Of God
CH-333/ Vinyl/ digital download