After two decades away, Richard H. Kirk’s decision to reboot industrial pioneers Cabaret Voltaire was fraught with risk. Yet “Shadow of Fear”, the first Cab Vol album since 1994 (!), is a triumph, as Kirk calls out state-sanctioned cruelty and stomps through the shadows with impish defiance.
Success was by no means assured. After all, the Sheffield band’s trailblazing in the 1970s and 1980s was intractably married to their youthful vim and ability to procure beauty out of ‘orrible noise. More pressing, the present-day Cabaret Voltaire are a band in name only: co-founder Stephen Mallinder absconded when Kirk began touring again in 2014. Rock history is pockmarked with egotists going it alone to severely diminished returns. There was a fair chance that “Shadow of Fear” might have bricked – or simply been anonymous.
Yet the album feels alarmingly in tune with the unrelenting grimness of 2020. In a press blast for “Shadow”’s announcement, Kirk was keen to establish distance with Cab Vol mk.I and double-underline how he wishes his art to be perceived today: “It's nice that people appreciate what you've done in the past, but it's a dangerous place to dwell.”
The conditions into which the ostensibly final Cab Vol album, “The Conversation”, was released are markedly different to today – and this is key to grapple with. The soot-and-sleaze of Thatcher’s day was fading and the seeds of Cool Britannia, Britpop and Girl Power had either been planted or were beginning to bloom. Had “Shadow of Fear” been released in that climate, it would have been comically dissonant. Instead, Kirk feels like a critical envoy from the last time society was this profoundly mangled by poverty, loss of industry, disharmony and the iron first of Conversative perma-rule.
So when Kirk gives us all 64 years of his experience, we listen intently. He possesses the authority to tally the Tories’ body count without blinking, or to command jet-black clouds of paranoia and doom. He sounds almost gleeful doing so: ‘Vasto’’s interpolation of the iconic riff from Bronski Beat’s ‘Smalltown Boy’ is an unexpected treat, and you can imagine Kirk flashing a wry grin while pairing such a well-loved jewel of synthpop to clangorous percussive assault.
Some songs on the album keep their foot on the neck of tension throughout; no resolution, just alternating shades of purple and puce. Elsewhere we’re allowed to breathe, and perhaps even wiggle – see the beat and bassline on ‘Papa Nine Zero Delta United’, which throb in a manner not wildly dissimilar from The Cure circa ‘A Forest’.
“Shadow of Fear” is full of moments where Kirk drags the past into the present, updating a template he is primarily responsible for building in the first place. It’s akin to a long-dormant volcano shooting out a mix of choking pyroclastic flows and luridly bright lava: fascinating to observe from a distance, pretty terrifying the closer you get. Which makes “Shadow of Fear” one of the most welcome surprises of the year. Go ahead and mark your calendar for 2046 already.