The Rearview Mirror: 010: Curve – Doppelgänger / Cuckoo

Shoegaze, while it has had something of a critical renaissance in recent years, didn’t half fall off the map quickly initially. Aside from the sheer technical prowess, sonic violence and beauty of My Bloody Valentine, most bands came and went, with sneering jibes in the press about them in the following years.

What has been remarkable has been what has happened since. MBV reunited in 2007, and although it took another (!) six years for them to finally follow-up Loveless, their peers soon started getting a look-in, too, and music critics seemed to finally realise that there was something interesting in all of this, particularly as the more recent glut of “noise-rock” bands in particular owe an awful lot to what came before.

Bizarrely, though, Curve seemed to have been outside of this renewal of the past, until now, with the long-overdue release and remasters of their early-period material (basically the early EPs, remixes, Doppelgänger and Cuckoo all brought together in two 2CD sets) with the full involvement of the band, as their first album turned twenty-five years old earlier this year.

I’ve long wondered why they weren’t reappraised earlier. Their unfashionable – to the snobbish alternative press, anyway – origins may have had a hand in that. The core of Curve was Dean Garcia and Toni Halliday, and they both originally spun out of the orbit of Eurythmics, forming their own band State of Play, whose funk edge on songs like Natural Colour is, well, very much of it’s time. But in hindsight, there are elements that would make it into Curve, particularly the programmed rhythms and synths – but there are no guitars discernable.

The musical landscape had changed enormously in just four years between State of Play and Curve’s formation in 1990, though. The rave revolution, as it was in the UK at least, meant that dance music and rock music were no longer isolated from each other, and there was a stampede to begin merging the two – but aside from the odd programmed beats, shoegaze broadly remained aside from this.

At least, until Curve. They dragged electronics kicking and screaming into their multi-layered guitars, but there was no ravey happiness, ecstasy love-in here. These were, to put no finer point on it, electro-industrial rhythms, providing a rolling, pliable backdrop for guitars that were more used as dense textures than as melodies. Then there was Toni’s voice.

Since State of Play, her style had clearly changed, they had that now trademark, cold detachment, with occasional lashes of controlled fury that made it clear that she meant every bitter, spiteful word.

Not only that, but perhaps uniquely among their peers (I’d love to hear someone tell me otherwise), they had a rapping interlude amid the otherwise blistering power of their first single Ten Little Girls (the rap provided by JC-001, remarkably still active and once the official “fastest rapper in the world”), and it didn’t sound contrived – it actually sounded like it should be there.

Of that early material, the lead single for their debut album Doppelgänger is where things snap into thrilling focus. Faît Accompli tweaks the balance of the mix, pushing the guitars deeper into the mix, and thrusting Toni forward as she sneers and snarls a terrifying revenge fantasy. This track was my first taste of Curve as a young teenager (I was thirteen or so when this was released), and I was immediately hooked by this unusual – to my ears – sound and unremitting fury.

Listening to this remaster of Doppelgänger is is a little jarring now. As it turns out, the original production by the band along with Flood (and mixed by his often-working partner Alan Moulder, who I’d never noticed until recently ended up marrying Toni Halliday) has held up well, but this remaster adds additional volume and space in the mix, the result being a clear and punchy sound that loses none of the exquisite detail (the vocal overdubs, the effects, the squalling guitars often fighting among themselves), but perhaps one thing that it does reveal more than ever is that at points, in these early times, Curve found a tempo and stuck with it.

But the tempo doesn’t matter so much when the songs are so good. The singles from this album are so memorable that sometimes the other songs get forgotten somewhat, but the title track bristles with ethereal backing vocals and a brooding bassline, later bursting out of the dark corners with a thundering drum pattern and a chorus of simmering self-hatred, while Ice That Melts The Tips is a riot of guitars (I can discern at least four separate guitars at once, I think?) and a brighter sound which Toni tempers by dropping her vocals further down the scale.

What’s also remarkable on this release is the consistency. Across the two CDs here, in addition to the album, is the whole of the Pubic Fruit release (the three early EPs, including the epic, seven minute ExtendedExtendedExtended take on Faît Accompli that strips away the guitars at points to spectacular effect), plus the other two singles as well as various other odds and ends, including their cover of I Feel Love, a couple of live tracks, and an Aphex Twin “remix” of Falling Free. No less than thirty-six tracks, covering a period of just two years or so, from late 1990 until into 1992.

That remix is, predictably enough, part of the 26 Mixes for Cash that Aphex Twin eventually brought together in one place – honest enough to admit he did the remixes for cash, few of them bear any relation to the originals (famously the NIN remixes were apparently just offcuts he had hanging around, and he never touched the NIN files he was sent), and at least here there are Toni’s vocals in their somewhere, but the rest of it is Aphex bleeps and bloops.

One regret is that I never got to see Curve live, and that’s a regret I’ll hold until I give up listening to music, I suspect. Live recordings of them are pretty rare, too, surprisingly, so two top-quality recordings from a show in Manchester in 1991 are very welcome, and suggest that they were a very loud band indeed live.

Signs of their future direction – Cuckoo was quite the change – became obvious with the release of the Horror Head single in 1992. While Horror Head fitted in nicely on Doppelgänger, Falling Free is the point where things change drastically. The shoegaze feel is abruptly dropped, the beats have a straight-up, industrial-dancefloor tempo, and the guitars are thinner, and this huge change is made all the more surprising by it being followed on that single release by Mission From God, where the band never sounded closer to MBV (there are even the woozy tremolo sounds lifted straight from there).

Just a year later, Curve had already pushed on. The musical landscape was changing yet again, with bands like Nine Inch Nails and Ministry leading a charge for industrial rock/industrial metal into the mainstream, and soon enough there was a rush from the major labels to sign up every band they could.

But that was in North America. Sure, it made it over here – and I was one of many, many teenagers to lap up this music and still be listening to that style, even as it has evolved, ever since – but the British musical landscape was going another way entirely. The first stirrings of what became known as Britpop had already begun, with the early successes of Suede and The Auteurs (Blur and Oasis would change everything the following year), and so Curve moving in an altogether heavier direction was in hindsight a risky one, and so it proved.

Cuckoo was an album altogether darker than it’s predecessor, both in tone and sound, and Falling Free had to a point proved to be an accurate signpost.

That said, even that track didn’t quite prepare for us the almighty hit of the first single from Cuckoo. Missing Link had stadium-sized industrial drum rhythms and snarling, mechanized guitars that shed any part of the shoegaze angle entirely, and Toni switched into a surprisingly tender, melodic chorus amid the electronic fury of the track. The rain-drenched, apocalyptic video only rammed home the change in style further.

It was perhaps obvious that things were not well in the personal worlds of the creators of this album. Lyrically, Toni had moved more overtly to the tensions inherent in relationships. Both Crystal and Superblaster see things at rock bottom, the former dealing starkly with domestic abuse, and the latter the despair as a relationship disintegrates, the most striking line being the kiss-off in the chorus: “Have you got anything left to say / Before I shoot myself“.

Elsewhere, communication between the sexes is also addressed, in the clanking, heavily treated industrial electronics of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (John Gray’s popular – but also much discussed and critiqued – book had only been released the previous year), and perhaps even better in the brooding Unreadable Communication that sits at the heart of the album, a slow-burn drip of electronics that eventually bursts into a dense, guitar-led roar of a chorus that is a stupefying howl of regret and fear.

The thing is, despite the album having a reputation for being an angry, industrial rock outburst, it does have some surprisingly relaxed moments, and it could be said that the album is rather more varied than Doppelgänger in pacing, particularly. The second half of the album only really has one out-and-out “heavy” track, the wheezing, out-of-breath resignation of Turkey Crossing, and after the aforementioned Superblaster‘s shock-and-awe is over, it’s still something of a surprise to find the more tender Left of Mother dominated by acoustic guitars and violins.

I was never entirely taken by the downbeat The Sweetest Pie, for reasons I could never put my finger on, and twenty years and more of familiarity with it hasn’t changed my mind, although the a capella close-out to the song is still a striking, lovely touch. The closing title track, much like Sandpit on Doppelgänger, though, has a more relaxed, blissed-out feel with a vocal that sounds like Toni is whispering it directly into your ear.

The additional material on the Cuckoo re-issue doesn’t have the depth of Doppelgänger, but then they didn’t have a slew of EPs and other odds and ends to pick from. It does feature the entirety of the Blackerthreetracker and accompanying Blackerthreetrackertwo remix release, which means that for the first time in a long time, the staggering Trent Reznor/Flood rebuild of Missing Link (the Screaming Bird Mix) is actually available in a decent quality CD release again. They slow down the vocals and beats, stretching out the song, and holding back the guitar riffs, replacing them with similar distorted effects and samples that would later appear on The Downward Spiral – the guitars burst into the mix later on like they are being hacked through the walls. The jagged, dirty feel suits both the mindsets and sounds of both bands at the time, that’s for sure.

Other B-sides are of note, though. On The Wheel sounds like it should be appearing on a WaxTrax! release of the time (really, it’s that good), and Nothing Without Me is a touching, guitar-based lament. The final two tracks on the release, too, are interesting, as Rising and Half the Time were only ever released until now – as far as I can tell – in their remixed form, and the originals make for tantalising glimpses of where the band might have been looking next, and interestingly their move towards the dense electro-industrial of Come Clean was already well underway.

But the reality was, in 1993, Cuckoo was ahead of it’s time, and as the band took a break from each other in the aftermath of the relative failure of it, other bands took up the baton and took the plaudits. Most notably Garbage, whose first album sold four million copies and was something of a worldwide smash hit, and the single that got them noticed in the first place was the shimmering guitars and spitting fury of Vow, which owed an awful lot in concept, sound and delivery to Curve on Cuckoo. Needless to say, I love Garbage, and did from the first moment I heard Vow, but it’s important to keep in mind where that sound came from.

So it’s easy to think of it as an opportunity missed, a “what if”. “What if” Curve had released lead single Missing Link a year later, “what if” they’d taken a different approach?

Toni, especially, was a visible force while Curve were inactive. She made memorable appearances elsewhere for a while, on Future Sound of London’s Cerebral and Leftfield’s extraordinary Original in particular, before Curve returned with a short-form EP (led by the pulverising industrial punch of Pink Girl With The Blues, but best remembered for the smouldering Recovery) that made little impression.

The following year, though, Curve returned with a bigger splash, like a boulder in a pond. Chinese Burn sounded like the band had been re-armed, re-tooled with better weaponry, and had advanced their techniques accordingly. There was a subtle skitter of drum’n’bass amid the maelstrom, but even the drums were overshadowed by the monstrous, depth-charge bass and litany of synths. Heavier than anything the band had put out before (or since), it finally put the band on the map in a big way in the US – it was used in an infamous club scene in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as well as in the trailer for the smash-hit film X-Men and a few other places besides – not to mention getting a string of remixes from dance-scene luminaries of the time – but once again, the band were unlucky in their timing.

Come Clean was an impressive album, but the material after that – continuing with the more industrial sound that they had by then become known for – suffered from the law of diminishing returns, even if they were early pioneers in releasing later material by themselves on the internet, and it perhaps was no surprise that they called it a day after a best-of collection The Way of Curve: 1990/2004 wrapped up their career in one handy 2CD package.

There have been murmurs of potential reunions since, but nothing has come of it, Toni having retreated away from the public glare and, apparently, music entirely. Dean has moved on, too, recruiting his daughter Rose Berlin for vocals on his now ten-year old project SPC ECO, with another punishing release schedule – almost annual releases – and perhaps a return at points to his earlier sound with Curve. Especially on his latest album Calm, which is to my ears his best album under the SPC ECO name, and I’ll be talking more about that on here soon. Touring members of the band kept the flame burning in other ways, too, with touring drummer Monti forming Sulpher (with a long-promised second album finally, honestly, nearly due), and touring guitarist Debbie Smith, among various other pursuits in music, being part of the much-covered-on-this-site Blindness, another band who owed more than a little in sound to Curve.

But back to Curve. A band that are long-overdue recognition for their trailblazing sound, and crossover stylings, perhaps these two exceptional re-issues will help to do that. Both are essential purchases.

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