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French fried
The electroclash punk of Robotnícka and Metal Urbain

John Kerry, according to a recent New Yorker item, has taken to playing down his fluency in French while dealing with European reporters on the campaign trail, presumably to avoid the undesirable impression that he knows something about the world outside our borders. Most Americans don’t share Kerry’s problem. Which is why it’s gracious of Dijon-based synth-punks Robotn’cka to include a bi-lingual lyric sheet with Spectre en Vue . . . (Bloodlink/Irrksome/Maloka). Even their fellow citizens may need a boost over the language barrier in places: one song is in Japanese, several titles are in English ("Double Dragon IV" and "Axes of Evil"), one is in German, and "01000101011101" appears to be a binary code.

Staking out the dystopian, are-we-not-hommes? territory that means "new wave" in any language, Spectre en Vue . . . is a concept album, sung as though by various mechanical devices banding together in pursuit of what the final song calls "Object Liberation Go!" Some, like the car in "Highway to La Costa del Sol," sacrifice themselves for the struggle ("Her supposed ‘driver’ was broken beyond repair"). Others wonder whether to fraternize with humans who prefer the exclusive company of commodities. It all amounts to a barely veiled metaphor for human liberation, most obviously on "Discowgirlz (Il ˇtait une fois dans l’Est)," in which a few guns decide to ally themselves with little girls "Viciously oppressed by their human-mother/father beings."

The disc’s narrative conceit is clever, even pointed, but it wouldn’t amount to a hill of vacuum tubes if not for the all-too-human performances, which are no less rousing for being guitar-free. In fact, the absence is hardly noticeable until a banjo enters two songs before the end, as a reminder of the existence of stringed instruments. The most prominent elements are dirty analog synth lines — the keyboardist, credited as Brain Disorder, lays a heavy hand on the portamento knob — and an onrushing, just-loose-enough rhythm section. The stylistic range is wider than the instrumentation suggests. "Banana," the poppiest track, is as cheesed out as Blondie’s first two albums; "L’Avion" and "Relief (Doomed to a Violent Mummyfication)" owe an obvious rhythmic debt to good old US hardcore punk. Vocalist Zeseal is much too excitable to be an inanimate object; she’s a piercing yelper in the manner of Erase Errata’s Jenny Hoyston and Melt-Banana’s Yasuko O. In a word, Robotn’cka do exactly what the French, not to mention inorganic matter, are conventionally thought incapable of: they rock.

But then, so did Metal Urbain, and they still do — they just completed the US leg of a reunion tour. Formed by singer Clode Panik and electronic music buff Eric Debris in 1976, the group are generally considered France’s first punks, since they hurled blocks of overdriven guitar against programmed rhythms. Their early releases amounted to an instruction manual for what Big Black would become. Last year’s Anarchy in Paris! (Acute) collected their classic ’77–’79 material ("Panik," "Lady Coca-Cola"). Now, Acute’s Tokio Airport, credited to Metal Boys, continues the story: after Panik split in 1980, Debris and guitarist Charlie H. regrouped under the new name to record the full-length that the original incarnation never managed. (A third volume, compiling Debris’s solo work as "Dr Mix," is due later this year.)

Everything on Tokio Airport has been digitally remixed and remastered, which is something like using silver polish on shrapnel. The material isn’t so aggressive in the context of Metal Urbain’s ceaseless jackhammering, but the sonic choices are harsh and confrontational, with synths and guitars sounding less like instruments than like tape damage. Similarities to Martin Hannett’s work with Joy Division are hard to miss: "He’s Shaken Up" resembles "She’s Lost Control" in more than title. The original album’s apex of alienation is "Suspenders in the Park," a staticky loop over which a male voice — the credits are vague — stage-whispers a paean to apocalyptic sex: "Ooh . . . napalm, you’re so good in bed."

The tracks that cohere best do so around the warm-leatherette vocals of one China, a female Metal Boy whom even the well-researched liner notes simply call "mysterious." As far as expressiveness is concerned, she makes Black Box Recorder’s Sara Nixey sound like Edith Piaf, but she’s well equipped to recite Japanese on the title track (backed by keyboard kotos), or to intone the denatured rockabilly of "Wah Lee Bomp Dee Bomp." It’s thanks to her that the never-before-issued "Disco Future" is both the purest track here and the hardest to tolerate: a virtual heartbeat, various layers of sine-wave torture, and the title, repeated without discernible variation for seven and a half minutes. It’s just the sort of music the objects that Robotn’cka sing about might make, especially when you take into account the spoken introduction that kicks it off: "This is your future speaking."

Issue Date: June 4 - 10, 2004
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