Mechanical Cabaret


[Ortonesque sleeve]"Ortonesque" (Album, 2016) !Recommended!

WTII Records

When I heard that, for their next long player, Mechanical Cabaret instigator Roi Robertson was committed to writing purely from within, paying no concern as to how followers might respond or view his creations, I got very excited. Very excited indeed.

Now, for clarity, it's worth putting that statement into some sort of context for anyone not overly familiar with their work.

Mechanical Cabaret have always been on the fringes, and done things their own way. As I said in my review of their first album We Have An Agenda, they're "not the ideal first date to take home to meet your Mum". They've hardly pandered to the hit parade or mass music media. But still, like most musical artists who can claim any sense of longevity, it's hard not to let the views and then the expectations of others, especially fans, to seep into and thereby influence their writing.

Therefore, I think most authentic Mechanical Cabaret fans would not just welcome Robertson's single-minded approach, but celebrate it.

The title Ortonesque is inspired by the playwright Joe Orton. The adjective Ortonesque is sometimes used to refer to work characterised by a dark yet farcical cynicism. Which accurately describes much of Mechanical Cabaret's output. Orton and his partner created a photo collage on a wall in his bedsit of the things that meant a lot to him. Similarly, Robertson has done the same in his own Highgate flat. In which, of course, Orton himself appears.

That collage is used as the basis for the cover artwork. But, in many ways, it and more specifically the people it includes (and the things they represent) provides the spine of the album's narrative. In spite of pushing their own boundaires, this is still Mechanical Cabaret at their kitchen sink drama finest.

The memorable Astral Rejection which opens proceedings, suitably takes us onto another plane. It's a shame this wasn't released as a single. It's unquestionably Mechanical Cabaret, but firmly sets out an evolution of their sound, and one that I suspect could have gotten a wider audience into new hearts and minds had it received more exposure.

Illegal Alien is a self-reflective meditation on not fitting in. As uncomfortable as that may be for Robertson, it makes for an engaging narrative, with some fine lyrical flourishes and a near-perfect interweaving of lyrics, vocals and music. There are few acts I listen so intently to the lyrics by. And on that level this recording contains some of Robertson's very finest writing ever.

And they tackle some major themes too. Living Things: "These sins were here before me, they'll continue once I'm gone. To exist in three dimensions, when I am less than one. When I'm no longer here, to sing my little song. Remember I was flesh and blood, we're never here for long."

Whilst not a 'concept' album, Ortonesque is unquestionably the album most consistently reflective of the life of and world view of Robertson. And, like many of us, it isn't always a bed of sweet-smelling roses.

Robertson, it seems, is still struggling with internal demons. Whilst this could clearly be a challenge for Robertson, it means on some tracks, the youthful cheekiness of old has been replaced by adult anxieties. But the edgy, borderline dangerous tension that has always run through Mechanical Cabaret's work is as prevalent - and cutting - as ever.

This is most blatant and brutal on Guilty In Advance where Robertson publicly berates himself for his addiction to sexual encounters. The deliberate crudeness of the lyrics ("Bang, there goes another... Bang, there goes another" in the chorus) sounds like the author is verbally punishing himself because he has either yet to come to terms with aspects of his personality, or have a strategy that can overcome them. Of course, I don't wish to cast dispertions on Robertson's character, and this could all be writing 'in character'.

Creative highlights are multifarious, but Without Wonder's glacial yearning is Mechanical Cabaret at their most heart-wrenchingly beautiful. I had tears in my eyes the first time I heard it, and have several times since. This kind of soul-bearing is what elevates good songwriting into great songwriting. It is one of the finest things Robertson and Bellamy have created. With lyrics to die for: "The preposterous perambulate, from bed to work via garden gate. Ignoring beauty, sadness grows inside." evoking memories of David Nobbs' The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin.

Two songs were created outside of the album. Both blend in well. The cover of Einsturzende Neubauten's Sabrina was a single prior to the album's release, and is - brace yourself for potentially sacriligeous statement - better than the original (at least for me). And Ripped Red Sails was written as the theme to the play Jack's Women (about the horrendous crimes of Jack The Ripper) which Robertson scored.

And I love the playfulness of Protect & Survive - one of the album's most dancefloor-friendly tracks. But also one of its cleverist. It's an inspired mash up of two themes: the UK government public safety warnings about what to do in the event of a nuclear attack, and the modern era obsession with health and safety 'culture' that is as ludicrous as it is ill-concieved.

The fusion offering up some of the album's choicest lyrical flourishes, that impressively work on multiple levels: "Surrounded by soft furnishings to cushion our fall. We protect our loved-ones daily from the pain of it all." ... "Cover all sharp edges, naughty corners, points and spikes. Smooth over the rough surfaces, wrap added stuff from pipes. Clean away the dirt, spray things at bad smells. Eliminate those stubborn stains and unseen germs as well."

Tracks seem to have been assembled from their basic ideas into intricately crafted pieces, with extensive use of original samples (something Robertson thankfully still has plenty of taste for). The production is top notch too. Not surprising when you have the combination of Robertson's single-minded creativity with Bellamy's technical and studio wizardry working in unison. The bar is raised further still here, making this such a rounded and fully-realised collection.

Compelling, emotional, poignant, witty, essential. Ortonesque is Mechanical Cabaret shining the brightest they have ever. It's an absolute gem. The most accomplished, and finest, album they've ever released, and a total work of art. 9/10

Rob Dyer (May 2017)

Video interviews with Roi Robertson discussing every track on Ortonesque


[I Lost My Friend To A Video Game sleeve]"I Lost My Friend To A Video Game" (EP, 2014)

Soiled Records

Rocking up in a DVD-sized art box, this limited edition EP release of just 100 highly collectable pieces features no less than eight interpretations of the title track, backed up with two takes on a new song, Sex, Violence & Death (which extrapolates lyrics of ILMFTAVG to explore hyperbolic tabloid journalism in more depth). The anarchic packaging is properly deserving of the often over-used 'Limited Edition' label. Each one comes in its own hand-crafted highjacked/vandalised video game packaging with graphics by Adam Cavill, the guy behind the sumptuous artwork to last year's Beyond Science And Superstition, from which the title track here is taken. Inside the box, as well as a manufactured CD (no disintegrating CD-Rs here - thank you very much!), is a high-gloss printed insert, folding out to feature more Cavill art, with production info for every track and the full lyrics to the song. 

I Lost My Friend To A Video Game was chosen on account of it being (apparently by some margin) the most popular track on the album. Interesting, as it wasn't mine, albeit I did appreciate its charm. The spectrum of versions (for the simple phrase 'remix' would be to do a disservice to the extent of work and creativity involved in this enterprise) are as varied as they are numerous. Our hosts Mechanical Cabaret serve up their own elite variants and, as ever, these extended play entries expand the idea convincingly. The 1980s-inspired Mesh have coded a couple and do a grand job with their 'Mesh Mix', paring back the layers of music, giving Roi's vocals space to breathe fully and the result is remarkable. I'm unsure if the vocal track is from the original recording or not, but the clarity of it, thanks to Mesh's delicate handling, reveals just how nuanced the vocal performance given by Roi is. That's my favourite of their two contributions, but I prefer the geeky title of their “RISCy ANTICs Mix” :-). 

Long-standing fans will appreciate a dark turn loaded with chugging guitars, by one (Martin) Katscan – a former live member of the band many cycles ago. And, in a world exclusive coup, John Parkin author of F**k It, and functioning here as Fuck It Music, turns his hand to reconfiguring another's music for the very first time. Starting with a piano, cello and strings, an air of menace looms large, turning what was originally a whimsical pop song into a horror film soundtrack. Meanwhile, Mute's Komputer peek and poke their way to a typically circuit-bent experiment that displays many of their distinctive touches in what is a substantially re-engineered entry. (I'm surprised they weren't tempted to call theirs the 'Fortran Mix'.) 

Stats fans might like to know all of this clocks in at a substantial 50:43 minutes. Whereas the rest of us will just want to hear that the full program is of a uniformally high resolution and that for eight of your English pounds, boys and girls, you shan’t a find better musical EP about the perils of video game addiction and its potential impact on friendships this side of Christmas. 7/10

Rob Dyer (September 2014)

[Beyond Science and Superstition sleeve]"Beyond Science and Superstition" (Album, 2013) !Recommended!

WTII Records

This fourth (original material) album from London’s finest purveyors of dark electronic pop is their second on US-based label WTII (following last year’s introductory ‘best of’ compilation Selective Hearing) which ought to see them garner wider global exposure and, one hopes, acclaim. How they are not bigger than they are is somewhat beyond me at least – if not science. 

Beyond Science and Superstition features ten tracks of classic Mechanical Cabaret, but one that sees them continue to develop and evolve. Develop both in terms of song writing and technical production. This is the best-looking and best-sounding Mechanical Cabaret album to date. It also sees Roi Robertson and Steve Bellamy at the top of their combined song writing game. The more overtly sleazy, dirty MC of old is fading. Such trademark brashness has been, at least partially, superseded by a sophisticated wit and poetic (but still biting) social commentary that seemingly only Robertson can muster. Both musically and lyrically, here then are some of Mechanical Cabaret’s finest works. 

Bellamy’s continued involvement seems to have given Robertson the opportunity to pause, reflect, and create a distilled essence of all the previous releases. The result is an album that is both unmistakably them but is pushing at the boundaries of all earlier output. Each album has seen a steady progression in concept. Here is has reached its pinnacle to date. This is as polished and melodic as they’ve ever been. Meaning you could probably get away with playing this in the background in the office or at your mum’s house which, providing sometimes driving beats and the occasional F word don’t unsettle either environment, would be a nice way to subvert everyday life. Which is what Mechanical Cabaret have always stood for really. 

Death of The Porn Queen’s lyrics are as unapologetically in-you-face as ever, and Detox/Retox sounds like it might have been the fruition of an idea seeded a decade before. Musically Nothing To Hide could be a Martin Gore-penned b-side for Some Great Reward era Depeche Mode (and makes me think back to Only Ever Now from 2009’s Damaged Goods). And there’s still fun to be had on the likes of I Lost My Best Friend To A Video Game – which delivers exactly what it implies on the label. Hold On For Dear Life brings the proceedings to a conclusion in a miraculous five minutes of emotionally wrenching sumptuousness. A contender for the finest Mechanical Cabaret song ever. Simply wonderful. [Worth purchasing in the Limited Edition version with four extra tracks – all quality variations of existing songs.] 8/10

Rob Dyer (August 2014)

[Disco Vandalism sleeve]"Disco Vandalism" (Album, 2011) !DSO Recommended!

Major Records

Remixes have always been a strong suit of Mechanical Cabaret - whether that be commissioned or self-produced. Only my previous MC review expoused the virtues. It is entirely logical then that for their next long-player Roi Robertson and Steve Bellamy chose to release a remix album. Ever since Mechanical Cabaret expanded from essentially a Robertson solo outfit, to take on board musical polymath Bellamy, the transcendent potential was immediately apparent. If, like me, you’d wondered what those older, rougher, scabbier songs would sound like through a contemporary perspective then you, my friend, have just hit Mechanical Cabaret manna. 

The remixes included are no mere cosmetic re-workings, this is full-on re-constructive surgery. But unlike Pete Burns, the transformation is more like that from pupae to butterfly - into a thing of beauty – thirteen times over. To work through each of the entries would take a very long time and end up being something more like an essay than a review, so I'll keep this brief. “It Will All Come Back 2 U” is a powerfully angry and poignant transformation. It both starts and ends in glorious fashion, but the middle section that redoes the pivotal “Planting a bomb in a gay pub in London” lyrics seethes with vitriol but channels that negative energy into a moving and fitting tribute to those lost in the blast-damaged Admiral Duncan public house. 

Rare for an album with this amount of guest remixes, the quality threshold is uncommonly high. The selection for inclusion is choice right across the board, meaning there are no duds. Even the titles in themselves are works of art, perfectly reflecting the Mechanical Cabaret view of the world around us all. 

In the sphere of the major labels, remix albums are often a lazy piece of marketing, designed to cynically extract additional money from the hands of faithful fans and serving them up transient, sub-par material in exchange. “Disco Vandalism” couldn’t be further from that. It single-handedly re-writes the rule book on remix albums, making it not only a worthy entry into the expanding Mechanical Cabaret canon, but an essential purchase in its own right. Simply delightful.  8/10

Rob Dyer (March 2012)

[Ne Plus Ultra sleeve]"Ne Plus Ultra" (Single, 2010) !DSO Recommended!

Major Records

Somebody at Major Records must love Mechanical Cabaret almost as much as I do. This is the second digital single released in recent months by the label from Roi Robertson’s third (and so far best) album Damaged Goods. The six-track EP leads with the already memorable Ne Plus Ultra a wise choice for a single. One’s appreciation for which has only been boosted in the past year by some cracking live renditions. This is fantastic and easily the best single Mechanical Cabaret have released to date.

The various versions of the title track are all top notch, reminding me of those classic Depeche Mode 12” Mute released back in the late 1980s early 90s with diverse and inspired interpretations either by the Essex boys themselves or guest remixers. Kunt and the Gang’s insanely plinky plonky Castlemayne Remix of Pretty Fucked Up with its added squeaky voice asking “Will you help me spunk up? Chicken oriental.” (I kid you not!) just has to be heard to be believed. Robertson’s own Exquisitely Extended Mix of Ne Plus Ultra is accurately labelled being one of those longer remixes sounding so natural that you forget how the album version could be shorter and still be as good. Finally, there’s the out there Lowpulse Rework and its even more successful instrumental counterpart the thrillingly experimental Lowpulse Rework Dub – just superb.

Then there’s a sublime cover of (live favourite) Fun Boy Three’s The Lunatics Have Taken Over The Asylum which, for my money is actually better than the original. Roi’s uncannily Terry Hall-like vocals are spot-on and the tweaked music is ingenious. Exhilarating stuff thoroughly recommended to fans and newcomers alike. If you still haven’t purchased a Mechanical Cabaret release and have been toying with doing so, this is the ideal place to begin your adventure. 8/10

Rob Dyer (December 2010)

[Careful Careless sleeve]"Careful Careless" (Single, 2010)

Major Records

Sadly, this latest single from the increasingly wonderful Mechanical Cabaret is only available as a digital download. I say ‘sadly’, because although digital music is as legitimate as that fixed in a physical form (e.g. vinyl or compact disc), it does seem to be more disposable, transient, even throwaway when you can only get hold of it by logging on. This often doesn’t actually matter, as the overwhelming majority of digital only music is rubbish. However, this six-track single (in spite of the decidedly cheap and rushed-looking ‘cover’ art) is rather good and I’d quite like to have the satisfaction of being able to place a CD alongside all the previous Mechanical Cabaret releases.

In among the remixes is the vocal and piano only GBH (Melodramatic Version). Not since the untitled hidden track on the 2005 Cheap and Nasty single has MC delivered such a beautiful work and only begs the question why won’t Roi Robertson enable his followers to hear a collection of minimalist versions, instead of teasing us so temptingly every few years? Roi, please seriously consider this. Major records, back Roi’s talents on this idea and release it physically. 7/10

Rob Dyer (October 2010)

[Damaged Goods sleeve]"Damaged Goods" (Album, 2009) !DSO Recommended!

Major Records

I can't tell you just how excited I was upon hearing Mechanical Cabaret's third album. I've always had an unclear but deep connection with Roi Robertson's alter ego project and found much to like in the 2002 debut We Have An Agenda and its follow-up Product For Your Insecurity. After both of those, Robertson faced a major artistic challenge - did he have the muster to take his talents onto the next level and really deliver on the promise he's clearly shown so far; or was my faith misguided and Mechanical Cabaret destined to a workmanlike circuit of London club nights and cult-only following? It's with a heady mixture of elation and relief that Damaged Goods confirms the first of the two postulations was correct. One can now just recommend an album to anyone with a taste for the sardonic, darker side of life.

Having replaced the modern instrumentation with a raft of analogue synths, a short-wave radio, and other more old-school paraphernalia was the first inspired step forward. Then ratchet up the hard work on the songwriting side using ambition and risk, and combine those with a voice that has now reached a whole new standard and a potentially potent mix is achieved. On Only Ever Now we get to hear just how far Robertson has come in terms of vocal agility and delivery. Suddenly the similarities with Depeche Mode's Martin Gore are startling. Think I Want You Now from the Mode's classic 1998 album Music For The Masses and you won't be far off. There's the deranged hurdy gurdy stomp of Tabloid Species, the early Front 242 melody of Lost And Found, and the satisfying wordsmithing on Ne Plus Ultra and more. Lyrically this is undoubtedly the best we've yet heard - what was at times unsubtle has matured into a more biting delivery.

The thumping bass synths and cracking higher melodies have all the qualities of early Mute 7" but there is a weightier sound to many of the tracks, and although the compositions are universally more mature and complex this is never at the expense of the characteristic Mechanical Cabaret style or wit. More than anything though, this time it's how Robertson has brought together all the skills necessary to produce a work that really stands up to detailed scrutiny. (One suspects a proud Fad Gadget is looking down on Robertson with knowing affection.) There's still room for further development, but until the next time, this will do very nicely thank you. 8/10

Rob Dyer (May 2009)

[Product For Your Insecurity sleeve]"Product For Your Insecurity" (Album, 2006)

Soiled Records

I have an irrepressible liking for Mechanical Cabaret's Roi Robertson. He often appears as a parallel universe version of myself. Sort of what I might have been if only circumstances had taken a fateful different tangent at some point. That's the only way I can explain how his songwriting gets inside my head the way it does. Even from his Nekromantik days I picked up on his unique combination of styles and influences. The resulting sound occupies a peculiar space between real darkness and emotion crushing despair and a joy for life and optimism that suggests no boundaries. It can be a slightly schizophrenic affair.

This duality is ever more present in Mechanical Cabaret's work and this second album showcases that spectrum in exciting style. The album balances dancefloor stompers like Blank Canvas with more reflective pieces like It Will All Come Back To You; and whilst the balance is often a little too uneasy it does mean there's plenty of unpredictable variety. Lyrically, this is as witty, wry and poetic as ever; Robertson just gets better and better on that front. Steve (Greenhaus) Bellamy's co-production on Disbehave bears the distinctive touch of his main project, whilst reworked, stronger versions of the last A-A side single tracks Cheap and Nasty and See Her Smile both get a reprise here, but already they feel quite distant from some of the newer material.

Songs like the clever John Barry-isms of Don't Murder Me I'm Drowning and the brilliant, exhilirating Each Day You Die A Little Bit More convincingly rise above expectations, firmly establishing Robertson as a thrilling and passionate songwriter with a range beyond the reach of many of his contemporaries. They prove there's a lot more to Mechanical Cabaret than immediately meets the eye. If the style could be honed more towards these two songs then this would be unreservedly essential (and could see Robertson's star really rocket). 7/10

Rob Dyer (July 2006)

[Cheap and Nasty sleeve]"Cheap and Nasty/See Her Smile" (Maxi Single, 2005)

Umami

It's been three years since Mechanical Cabaret's sleazy debut album We Have an Agenda. Three long years. Thankfully, the wait for more material is over with the release of this terrific six-track maxi single.

The basic electronics return but the production has certainly improved in the intervening years. There are two versions of the two title tracks and, unusually, the extended versions are as good as if not better than the original shorter cuts. Proving that there's more than meets the eye to their writing ability, Nothing In Life That's Worth Having Will Not Be Taken Away sounds vaguely like Babyland but the Mecab trademark theatricality remains distinctive throughout. Whilst the euphoric Berliner Mix of Siegessaule is tailor made for some dark and dingy Berlin dive. Oh yeah, and you must let that track six run for while after its finished. If you do you'll be treated to a hidden desert: the most wonderful and heart-rending piece of music Mechanical Cabaret have ever written. Imagine Danny Elfman's score for Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands, feel the lump rise in your throat and the tears well up in your eyes. Beautiful. 7/10

Rob Dyer (April 2005)

 

[We Have An Agenda sleeve]"We Have An Agenda" (Album, 2002)

Soiled Records

Take a dash of Punk ethic, chuck in a substantial measure of odd pop glamour, a sprinkling of bleeping electronics and shake vigorously in the style of the late Fad Gadget and the resulting saucy cocktail is called Mechanical Cabaret. Based around singer, songwriter (and former Nekromantik member) Roi and accompanied by percussionist and bleep controller Tobi, and stained panties image maker Bruce, Mechanical Cabaret are not the ideal first date to take home to meet your Mum.

Roi's south London delivery gives the brilliant lyrics a heartfelt and honest personal dimension that transcends cliche and predictability and results instead in some of the finest gender-bending dark pop the planet has seen in years. Unlike so many that take to music these days simply because they've got an ego and some equipment through which they inflict it on an unsuspecting public, Mechanical Cabaret has, as the title to this debut album suggests, something worth saying. What's more, they deliver it with a blend of brutally frank and decidedly English black humour that (despite passing similarities to early Soft Cell) sets this apart from any potential contenders.

Sometimes unnerving, this experience staggers from simple dancefloor fillers to more contemplative ballads. The more enterprising stuff tends to appear in the slower tracks like Horripilations, yet the superb melody line found on Devoid recalls those moving instrumentals of early Depeche Mode, whilst Mein Fuhrer and Sterili Zed are influenced by EBM, and Let's Have Some Fun chucks in a "You're gonna get your fuckin' head kicked in." Quadrophenia sample into a song that sounds like an outtake from the heavy side of Ministry's Twitch album. The sinister fairground whirlings of Meat Closet and the brilliant A Slapdash Affair are simultaneously evocative and affecting; and the stunning opening twenty seconds of Is Normal Abnormal prove that there is still plenty to get excited about in English electronic music.

The entire thing is done with (deliberately) rudimentary sounding but effective electronics that not only suit the sensibilities at work but seem entirely appropriate for an album shot through with British electronic music history whilst simultaneously and ingeniously injecting a contemporary experimentalism. The deeper, more serious currents, both musically and conceptually, are especially inventive and rewarding and what really define this album. Though I suspect many will simply take We Have An Agenda on face value which would be a shame. Delightfully tasteful artwork too. An exciting and intelligent, talent-driven debut that should, if there is any adventurous taste left amongst the buying public, put Mechanical Cabaret distinctively on the world musical map. I look forward to wearing the distasteful merchandise that I hope is due to follow. 7/10

Rob Dyer

Official Mechanical Cabaret website: http://www.mechanicalcabaret.com

 


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