Review Summary: A history of Ramleh part 1: Early tape recordings and Broken Flag Records
Ramleh is a seminal British noise project founded in 1982 by its only constant member Gary Mundy. Mundy was a pioneer in the power electronics genre and an important figure in the development of noise music. He created the legendary cult label Broken Flag Records as a means of spreading the bizarre atonal audial perversities of a handful of whackos from around the world, including the likes of Controlled Bleeding, Consumer Electronics, Con-Dom, Maurizio Bianchi and Matthew Bower projects Skullflower and Total. Ramleh also worked primarily through Broken Flag at this time, releasing almost exclusively on cassette format for their initial run of 1982-84. Based on recordings of live improvisational performances, early Ramleh was extremely influential in the development of power electronics and harsh noise, setting the standards for many groups and artists to come. While it's obvious that there was little to no musicianship or songcraft involved in the making of this material, its abrasiveness and fierce DIY ethic created a strange and fascinating aesthetic. The "Awake" 6 tape set (originally released in 1985 but recently reissued as part of a Broken Flag retrospective) covers virtually everything recorded in Ramleh's initial power electronics phase. It's quite a lot of material to sift through, but has an interesting allure and atmosphere and for some fanatics is worth listening to in its entirety.
As with the majority of 80s power electronics (most of which had some association with Broken Flag), the recording here is incredibly dull and buried in tape hiss. Also, most of the material was recorded in live performances, so nothing sounds in the least bit polished. The music is made up of little more than distortion, feedback and vocals running through effects. These sounds may be used to create a low rumbling pulse, spasms of piercing noise, waves of screeching feedback, and everything in between. The vocals are never without effects, and are usually barbaric (albeit muffled) yells. The vocals may be used in pulsating repetitive sections or chaotic spastic sections, but usually don't appear in the more ambient rumblings. Pulses of sound sometimes create a rhythm-like backbone, which along with the dull analog production makes the link between early Ramleh and early industrial (such as the live recordings of the mighty Throbbing Gristle) pretty clear. In fact, it wouldn't be a great leap to say early Ramleh and many of their contemporaries simply were industrial music. However, later on the term power electronics came into common usage, and the harsher groups got the larger the distinction from industrial music became, especially considering the modern connotations of the genre (*cough* goth wimps and fags like Trent Reznor *cough*).
"Awake!" covers hours of material across 6 tapes, and is more like a historical record than a release to be taken in all at once (much like Throbbing Gristle's excellent TG24 live collection). However, eventually scaling all its material may be rewarding for the noise freak or curious party (myself fitting in more with the latter). Broken Flag Records put out a good deal of interesting material, but it is perhaps their dark, grimy, dingy DIY aesthetic and cult status more than the music associated with them that draws in the weirdos like flies. 80s power electronics represented a polar extreme; while industrial was created essentially to strip down aggressive music to purely mechanical components, bands like Ramleh sought to degenerate that notion to the level of non-music. It is indeed a fascinating idea, and the harshness and dull, atonal textures found here may tickle the fancy of a few strange folks. It's highly unlikely that many will enjoy this material or anything out of the Broken Flag catalogue, but there are those fanatics who will investigate it with a keen ear and maybe find something they dig.
As for Ramleh's career after 1984, Mundy would embark on a turbulent journey and change his style pretty drastically with the help of a few guest musicians such as Phillip Best (of Consumer Electronics and Whitehouse) and the high and mighty drummer Stuart Dennison (of Skullflower fame). In fact, in Ramleh's second incarnation in 1987, they would play what would become the precursor to Skullfower's dull, hazy repetitive stoner rock/noise-ish sound (*see my review of Skullflower - Birthdeath for more info on that). And by the '90-'98 era there was little distinction between Ramleh and Skullflower. So stay tuned for more on Ramleh's legacy. Next stop, the transition from noise to guitar-based music.