Really good comprehensive, scene-focused reissue compilations can have the effect of making you nostalgic for a very specific time and place that you were never a part of-- for instance, Nuggets’ mythopoeic postwar suburban ur-garage, or New York Noise’s rawkus downtown disco-punk-hip-hop soundclash. Strut’s new Mutazione: Italian Electronic & New Wave Underground 1980-1988 offers a unique location in space, time, and aesthetics to daydream about, namely a too-good-to-be-true music scene in 1980s Italy where Suicide and Throbbing Gristle made the same impact that the Ramones and Sex Pistols had elsewhere, and Foucault and Sartre were considered rock stars on the same level as David Bowie and Iggy Pop.
As appealing as Mutazione makes this particular place seem, it was actually fairly grim at the time. The 1968 student uprising that rocked society and politics across Europe reverberated in Italy longer than in other countries, and the nation was “on a war footing,” according to an essay in the compilation’s liner notes by Italian music journalist Alberto Campo: “on one side there is the extreme right wing and secret security’s degenreated fringes; on the other, the extreme left movements that had chosen the armed struggle.” In 1978 the leader of the country’s Christian Democratic party was kidnapped and assassinated by members of the Marxist-Leninist terrorist group Red Brigade; two years later the bombing of a rail station in Bologna that killed 85 people and wounded over 200 was attributed to the neo-fascist Nuclei Armati Rivoluzionari. In Italy this period was known as the Years of Lead.
According to recent interviews by journalist Andrea Pomini (who records electronic music under the name Repeater) with the members of the groups-- collected in an illuminating essay in the liner notes-- their music was a direct reaction to the hostile political atmosphere it was made in. The words “New Wave” and “electronic” might imply a certain brightly colored escapism, possibly with the Moroder-isms and discomania that defined most synth-based music being made in Europe at the time, but the material collected here is relentlessly dark, paranoid, and for the most part well out of bounds of even the most generously broad definitions of pop at the time.
The compilation begins the blurry, overdriven drum machine that introduces Die Form’s “Are You Before", which is quickly joined by reggae-esque guitar and bass lines, a squealing free jazz saxophone, and vocalist F. White sinisterly stage-whispering second-person lyrics-- "You are strange [...] you dislike everything"-- that implicate the listener in some sort of vague aesthetic thoughtcrime in between stridently barking the titular question. Listening to it on headphones feels like being in the center of a brainwashing session from a 70s political paranoia thriller.
Not every track on the collection is as harrowing of a listen. Neon, Carmody, and Pale TV are among the acts who contribute relatively upbeat cuts that you can actually dance to. But even the poppiest songs here are still deeply strange. Some of the musicians who played on the material collected here went on to mainstream pop success, but the most common musical references cited in Pomini’s interviews are such uncompromisingly harsh experimentalists as Suicide, Throbbing Gristle, the Residents, and Wire, and artists like Andy Warhol who are considered equally influential. It says a lot about how darkly intellectual the whole scene was that one of the members of Carmody, whose affably bleeping “Vulcani” is one of the most accessibly pop tracks on the compilation, says that the group as a whole was, “fascinated by the sensation of falling down deep into an abyss, a bottomless pit, an endless fall.”
The material collected on Mutazione was never meant for mass consumption. Not only was that built into the most basic elements of the music itself, which was as antagonistic towards mainstream tastes as the British crust punk of the time, much of it was originally released on cassette, a throwaway medium even during its heyday, and many of the members collaborated via tapes sent through the mail on projects that were never even intended for release. On top of that there was a whole multimedia facet to what many of these bands were up to-- visual art, performance art, video art-- that even the niche audience who digs up Mutazione isn’t going to get.
But even though the stuff on Mutazione never spread far out of its original territory, its creators offer a sometimes haunting prescience for musical ideas that popped up independently in other communities around the world, and which still have resonance today. They devised weird signal chains running through gear that was never meant for that kind of thing. They took personal computers meant for geeky hobbyist programmers and used them to make music. They used cheap, disposable media to transmit subversive ideas encased in something that closely resembled pop.
This isolated community of radical freaks in the 1980s predicted everything from power electronics to Tumblr’s avant garde fringe. Grappling with new technology by figuring out interesting ways to break it? A pervasive feeling that some kind of terrible new totalitarianism is lurking just offstage? Blood in the air and on our broadcast media? Mutazione might be the most right-now sounding record out there. (source)