Electrically Possessed (Switched On Volume 4)
Warp Records /Duophonic UHF Disks
2CD | Vinyl | DL
Released 26 February 2021
A strange-looking creature with a finger gun pointing at an observer. The character from the ‘70s comic Der tödliche Finger (The Deadly Finger) is what visually encapsulates the arresting nature of Switched On and Refried Ectoplasm, the early compilations of Stereolab. Releasing their fourth volume, Stereolab once again emerge as storytellers, telling their own tale. Balancing between easy-listening and experimental work-in-progress, Electrically Possessed (Switched On Volume 4) reveals paths and trajectories the band undertook between 1999 and 2008.
Within their 20-year history, this period of nearly a decade was a time of turbulence, personal if not creative. The band lost Mary Hansen, who had been an asset to the Stereolab’s experimental spirit for years. Tim Gane and Lætitia Sadier split up yet maintained their creative union. Although the compilation lacks tracks from Margerine Eclipse, the album that has specific references to these events, it feels clear that this timeframe was a bumpy ride for them.
Saying farewell to the millennium with Cobra And Phases Group Play Voltage In The Milky Night, Stereolab clearly cited and paid homage to musical influences of the previous decades, e.g. The Free Design and Moondog.
Nevertheless, most of the tracks date from the early 2000s. The compilation opens with the full-length mini-album, welcoming the new century. First of the Microbe Hunters, a re-mastered EP, maintains an easy-listening vibe of the preceding Cobra…, yet lacks its hyperventilating mellifluousness. Funky rhythms, jazzy guitars and transparently-sounding keyboards are still in place. Fuzzy bass and subtle marimba in Intervals create a funny contrast like that one might see in political caricatures.
Overall, it feels soothing to re-appraise these tracks, remastered from the original tapes. Nuances come to the fore. The cyclical composition prevailing in most of the songs imposes a hypnotic effect. Featuring descending chords on psaltery, the first part of Retrograde Mirror Forms evokes the feeling of watching and listening to the waves, having calmed after a stormy night. Repeated seemingly ad infinitum, the lyrics sound like mantra: Fous moi la paix / Leave me alone. Something that, sadly, sounds topical these days.
Composed as a soundtrack for a documentary about Robert Moog, Variation One seems to celebrate the technical perks of the analogue synthesizer. One who watched the film might immediately recall the creator’s trembling voice (and hands) when he excitedly points at wires and connectors on the inside part of the box.
A long-term romance with analogue synth is what defines both the life of Moog and the music of Stereolab. Solar Throw Away, which appeared in 2006 as a 7-inch tour single, is present on the compilation in the original version. Bouncing keys of sci-fi-esque intro bleed into electropop texture. Jump Drive Shut-Out, a remastered instrumental B-side of the same single, blends IDM with retro-futuristic sound akin to Kraftwerk.
Futuristic and sci-fi endeavours are celebrated further on Dimension M2 which was released on the Disko Cabine CD compilation in 2005. Keeping up with the work-in-progress approach, the track has a multipart composition. The dancehall-inclined intro is led by driving beats and keyboard interspersed with flanging and phasing effects. It takes no longer than one and a half minutes before the lighthearted synth-pop with a party feel gives up for a retro-driven fragment with plonking keyboards and dreamy vocals sinking into the lo-fi sound.
Meanwhile obscure numbers are more appealing. Emerging for the first time, the progg-ish Pandora’s Box of Worms is one of the highlights of the compilation. The track was recorded during The Dots and Loops album sessions yet never released by now. The raw jam-like texture seems to pay homage to Swedish prog bands akin Träd, Gräs & Stenar. It also evokes the glowing feel and explosiveness of early band’s records such as Refried Ectoplasm. Similarly does Heavy Denim Loop Pt 2, with its drum machine soaked into the mild buzz and flanger effect of Gane’s guitar.
With their most prolific time in the 90s, Stereolab of the early 2000’s appeared somewhat sparser. This compilation is still precious as it triggers associative thinking to link to different aspects of Stereolab’s immersive sound and re-discover their creative path. This long-awaited work also proves that they still keep surprising. With the stamina to maintain romanticism, they recycle ideas that somehow come up as different patterns, like in a kaleidoscope.
Pre-order Electrically Possessed (Switched On Volume 4) now from Sister Ray.
All words by Irina Shtreis. More writing by Irina can be found at her author’s archive.