Review from the IDWAL FISHER Blog of the LP on Harbinger records.
Vintage analogue synths, especially the ones made in Britain, are the kind of machines that make men of a certain age go week at the knees. Not for them the cheap thrill provided by a Korg Kaossilator or some other made in Japan box of circuits, it has to be British, preferably thirty years old and covered in lots of bakealite knobs. I have to admit that despite being a fan of analogue synth generated sounds myself I’m a total Luddite when it comes to recognising anything more specific than a Stylophone. I am not, in other words, one of those men who goes week at the knees at the sight of a WASP synth going cheap on eBay. So long as it sounds good its provenience can remain a mystery to me.
This mindset has been changed somewhat by the Storm Bugs. After years of soaking up outfits as diverse as Tangerine Dream, Mother Mallard, early Whitehouse, anything on Sähkö and even Tomi-bloody-ta it has been The Storm Bugs who’ve got me taking notice of the instrumentation being employed. Appearing in the late 70’s the Storm Bugs made good use of the VCS3. This British made analogue synth was to be found in one of the few studios in England catering for the composition of electronic music at that time. This being the late 70’s the Storm Bugs were no doubt pulling influences from a variety of new and exciting directions and thus A Safe Substitute whilst not exactly a Holy Grail of the period is still a deservedly important release.
Both sides of Substitute show what fertile times these were for experimentation. Thanks to the detailed sleeve notes a track by track break down reveals the use of tape delay, loops, the re-routing of signals and the heavy use of low frequency oscillators as well as three synths [two VCS3’s and a Synthi A]. Side two is pure instrumentation and where the VCS3 is at its most prominent. On ‘Hodge’ a shortwave jamming signal is fed through the VCS3 with the LFO chopping up the remains. The result is a thudding beat in which radio waves float in and out of hearing range, the beat becoming louder as the signal fades. ‘Blackheath Episodes’ uses three synths to produce a rhythm track in which varies modes of the beat are tweaked whilst the two VCS3’s provide background drones. Over on side one is where we find the vocal treatments. On an eerie ‘Mesh of Wire’ vocals are fed through two reel to reels, with a background of plodding ritualistic thump. On ‘Objective’ the thump becomes a slowly sequenced funeral beat with the addition of a haunting cornet and a drifting voice extolling the virtues of beans. The hard to dislodge tape murk covers the whole release like a fine film of gauze but its not a distraction. Early 80’s cassette releases will always carry with them the aura of lo-fidelity and as such this gives Substitute a patina of dirt that the passing thirty years has failed to shift. Wiping the muck of this release would be like polishing up and old master. It doesn’t really need it.
This is the first time A Safe Substitute has been reissued in its entirety since its 1980 release [some tracks having appeared on compilations in the intervening period] and immensely worthwhile and important a venture it has been. This period of musical creativity is providing a rich seems for labels wishing to stick coloured drawing pins into the slowly filling wall chart that is the UK underground scene circa 76-84 and long may they do so. Snatch Tapes, on which ‘Substitute’ originally appeared has a few other goodies lying in the vault that labels would do well to investigate.
The Storm Bugs went to ground for the best part of twenty years but are now back in business. Their primitive experimental synth works are being seen as the building blocks for a generation of electronica merchants who were probably just being born around the time that Substitute came out.