Many have claimed in the 2020s that industrial music as we once knew it has died. Cut 989 are determined to prove that’s not the case. ‘Opinions’ is the Ōtautahi duo’s debut EP, but both members have respectable back catalogues, and elements from their respective projects are evident all over this release.
From the opening notes those industrial sounds are displayed front-and-centre, expertly capturing the traditional mechanical grime of the pioneers of the genre and giving it a modern flourish without dedicating themselves completely to the overblown, over-compressed style that has become so prevalent in today’s industrial scene. Distorted groans, vintage synths and machine-like clankings are accompanied by persistent, clattering percussion, adding a tribal ambience to the soundscape. This is what Henry Nicol who brings his distinctive voice and moody electronic ambience over from previous project Dog Power.
The album starts on its strongest track, the chaotic and angrily seething The Dominant Trough. After a discordant, discomforting vocal loop to introduce the track it launches into a single, omniscient, buzzing drone that persists. A collection of other layers fill out the sound: a relentless metallic rhythm; a synth (the Soma Lyra-8) simulating that familiar sound from early experimental electronic records; massive, distorted electronic drum hits regularly punctuating the noise; reverb-soaked deadpan snarls that James Barrett brings to the table with his background in industrial techno where he released music under the name Keepsakes.
It brings to mind legendary experimental band This Heat, who captured a similar atmosphere in the late ’70s – early ’80s, however Barrett’s proudly-displayed Kiwi accent brings a different flavour, and I’ve never heard a genre suit our accent better than this. The rough, aggressive audio barrage perfectly fits with the brash, informal vocal affectations, and inspires another comparison with Headless Chickens, who dabbled in this style (particularly on their eponymous 1986 debut) and put their Kiwi identity front-and-centre.
References to ’80s industrial and dark ambient crop up here and there, like the drum machines on Castle Of Doubt and synth in Skin. The result might be considered dated by some, but why should that be a bad thing?
The EP’s lead single TPOTT shows Cut 989 leaning even more heavily into the percussive side, almost completely abandoning any trace of melody. It’s also the first song on the EP to use a solid kick drum. Far from being a techno beat, however, it remains disjointed enough that it still keeps the ungrounded nature of the preceding two tracks. The only non-percussive elements here are distorted synth screeches, a female vocal sample and Barrett’s vocals, this time drenched in so much delay that the lyrics are indecipherable.
‘Opinions’ is a dense, dark listen, but is impeccably put together. The multitude of layers all sound authentic and unique – these definitely aren’t loops lazily lifted from a library and run through a few DAW effects. Everything is very well-mixed, in spite of the excessive reverb and distortion, and this elevates it above the members’ previous efforts – Nichol lacked Barrett’s unique compositional ideas and soundscapes, while Barrett lacked Nichol’s expert production and precise percussive approach.
The only let down is that the tracks don’t exactly complement each other or provide enough variation to create a cohesive project. Each of the four tracks is perfectly paced, neither too long or too short, but this feels very much like a collection of four songs, not an EP crafted from start to end.
It would be great to hear them branch out with more complex song structures, more of a relationship between tracks, more variation in musical style and ideas. Still, it’s a monumental achievement and one of Aotearoa’s most exciting and promising experimental releases of the last decade. A full album of tracks like these would be disappointing. As an EP, though, it’s perfect.