However much we’re encouraged to separate a piece of art from the context of its creation, there are some works for which this is just impossible. Though it has retained a following that is modest yet enthusiastic, Ensemble Pittoresque’s debut album For This is Past
is not timeless in any way, shape or form. It is prototypically ’80s – a remark that would otherwise send up a red flag for a millennial such as myself. But this album reflects a darker element to this period that is all but obscured by garish stereotypes. After all, the early ‘80s were a turbulent time, what with economic strife not felt since The Depression and the looming threat of nuclear warfare, exacerbated by an increasingly sensationalist media. The natural consequences of this were anarchistic teenagers and jaded, cynical twenty-somethings like our subjects here. While the former demographic would opt for a more crass approach, Ensemble Pittoresque were perhaps a little too
wise to reality, and in 1983 produced one of the most chilling reflections of its respective era.
Stylistically, For This is Past
represents a time in which the human touch was in competition with newly affordable, “space-aged” electronic gismos. Synthesisers, tape loops and drum machines seldom complimented arrangements and instead formed the crux of them, leading to the false perception that the role of people in art and music was becoming secondary. For This is Past
, even with all the painstaking effort that was evidently poured into it, feels frigid and devoid of emotion. Richard Neumöller’s vocal style is about as deadpan as one can imagine. Combined with the bitter lyrics, grainy samples and minimalistic, glacial instrumentation, they work to create one of the most haunting yet curiously alluring atmospheres you’re likely to encounter. The opener “Better Life’s” consists of a simple kick-snare pattern with subtle hi-hat accents, plodding bass work and a solitary guitar line which has been heavily filtered in post-production. But something is just off
. The lingering synth pads feel like a monophonic recording etched to magnetic tape that has warped over time, rendering the sound uneven to the point where it becomes unignorably bothersome.
This kind of vexing nuance pervades just about every track, baiting your sense of curiosity and compelling you to pay more attention than you may realise. However, attentiveness may not necessarily provide closure, as Neumöller’s lyrics can be vague and cryptic. “Living with a mental strike is like flying around the bulb / expecting the escaping days in all the frequent frenzy ways” opens “The Art of Being”, for example. On its own, it’s a pretty clear cut metaphor in that he feels like a bug chasing what it thinks to be the moon, but how this ties into “concrete phrases of fishermen” and “copper mud[ding] the bloodstream vessel” I haven’t a clue. Fortunately, other cuts are much more straightforward. “Artificials” is a scathing number about conformity and conservatism in art, which in itself is emblematic of the cold wave revolt at the time. “Lovesong” is certainly not a love song. If anything, it’s a cynical jab at the idea of having to be thankful for so little. The line “I don’t like Thanksgiving / give me a living” could well be a statement for those left destitute during the worst of the recession, or it could just be contemptuous rambling. Who Knows?
Neumöller’s apathetic, bone-dry poetry has its place, obviously. For This is Past
wouldn’t be complete without it, but the age-old saying about a picture being worth a thousand words rings especially true here. Some of the most illustrative tracks on the album are those without words, relying entirely on their sonic make-up to forge a mental image. “Auditorium” is a sombre tune that makes extensive use of a gritty choral snippet, tonally deformed in a similar fashion to the synths on the aforementioned “Better Life’s”. Though open to interpretation, there is a theistic vibe to the track - a sense of a detachment. “Reichsdorf Room 6” is likewise nihilistic, but in a much more relatable sense. Machines buzz, grind, creak and clatter in a percussive embrace with a melancholy work tune, whistled in conjunction to depressive analogue synth lines. It paints the picture of a sweltering steel mill, as workers’ overalls and faces are blackened by carcinogenic soot. There is no chance for advancement – you’re a faceless, carbon-based appliance, fated to slave away until the day you are affluent enough to retire, but too broken to enjoy your own spoils.
This was the reality for many in the early ‘80s, often acknowledged in a hushed confession that this time wasn’t just roller skates, MTV and Olivia Newton-John sporting neon leg warmers. Poverty crept up unnoticed, strikes routinely filled the streets, and nuclear annihilation seemed a real possibility. All of this acrimony was the perfect breeding ground for a movement that has proven largely inimitable given the nature of today’s society. As such, For This is Past
is as good a relic as any, perfectly capturing the nihilism of one of history’s most confused eras.
Bless this intelligent mess.