Label Watch: 4AD
Trendsetting indie heavyweight 4AD turns 40 this year. Here's a snapshot of its many accomplishments, old and new.
It’s the label of damp, chorused, reverbed guitar, ‘gothic’ imagery, dark poetry and distinctive female vocalists. Of yearning, dreamy, fidgety and innovative rock music, and a UK acid house number one. It’s among the most influential independent labels in the galaxy, and it’s so old that it’s almost been around since the year 4 A.D. It’s 4AD, founded by Beggars Banquet employees Ivo Watts-Russell and Peter Kent in 1979 (as Axis Records). Kent left in 1981 to start Situation Two Records while Watts-Russell soldiered on. The rest, thanks to countless clever bands and the visual designs of Vaughan Oliver-led studios 23 Envelope and v23, is history.
Along with such others as Projekt in the US and Hyperium in Germany, 4AD’s keen involvement with the tandem trajectories of post-punk and new wave led to a slew of influential albums throughout the eighties and early nineties beneath the ‘gothic rock’, ‘darkwave’, ‘ethereal wave’ and ‘dream pop’ headings. This is the sound most cherished by the label’s old fans. The bands doing this stuff already had affectionate fringe followings at the time, and all these years later their reputations and influence linger on in the sounds of all sorts of artists: Esben and the Witch, Julianna Barwick, Worm Ouroboros, Cigarettes After Sex, Cruel Diagonals, Menace Ruine and even some recent Arca.
Yet there is so much more to 4AD than the ethereal sound. Its most enduring affinity has really been for alt-rock, especially of the US underground (Pixies, Throwing Muses, The Breeders, Unrest…) This is where it’s continued, if eclectically, to invest most of its energy; no less so after Watts-Russell himself relinquished the reins at the end of the nineties. The likes of indie rockers TV On The Radio and Blonde Redhead arrived in the early 2000s, although so did gorily avant-garde provocateur Scott Walker and Balkan folk-indie hitchhiker Zach “Beirut” Condon. Simon Halliday took the helm of 4AD in 2007 and remains head honcho to this day. Halliday’s curation has mostly continued to concentrate on US artists. Clearly, he knows a rising indie star when he hears one as well: grizzled heartstring strummer Bon Iver; affable art-indie yelper tUnE-YaRdS; deft rocksperimenter St. Vincent; sparkly electro-trip-pop duo Purity Ring; hatted UK alt-R&B crooner SOHN; ingeniously daft hyper-sensation Grimes and high-tech philosopop composer Holly Herndon – to name but a few – have all enjoyed success in the late 4AD roster. Even loudbient big boy Tim Hecker dropped by for an album in 2016. And remember post-jungle grime-em-up producer Zomby’s albums Dedication (2011) and With Love (2013)? Norwegian shoegazers Sereena-Maneesh’s second album? Sad dads The National? The Big Pink? The Big Ariel Pink? Deerhunter? Gang Gang Dance? M. Ward? Bing & Ruth? Future Islands? Your next favourite band? 4AD.
By the way. It’s well worth looking up 4AD’s Stanley Kubrick-directed release cataloguing system.
Among the best loved 4AD artists, aloof Scottish trio Cocteau Twins began in the early eighties at the gloomier, sometimes dreamier end of post-punk. Building around Robin Guthrie’s damp, spacious guitar sound and Elizabeth Fraser’s unrestrained, semi-intelligible singing, they pretty much found their signature sound with second album Head Over Heels and kept going from there. Fraser’s apparent disinterest in clear pronunciation was one factor that allowed her to widen her range of energetic singing techniques, secretively releasing her feelings into something succeeding more on grain than text for its expressiveness. This, mixing with the ethereal textures of the instrumentation and effects – even after tightening up in the early nineties – is how the Twins enjoyed the dream-like ambiguity of simultaneous distance and intimacy. Apart from their own albums, they worked with This Mortal Coil and released The Moon and the Melodies with good chum Harold Budd in 1986. It’s one of those collaborations that sounds exactly like an even split of every contributor’s skills. Did you know that Fraser sings a bit on the soundtrack for The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers?
Dead Can Dance
Largely the duo of Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry, Dead Can Dance were among 4AD’s earliest signings. And having returned from hiatus in 2011, they’re back at it; tenth album Dionysus surfaced last year. Their self-titled 1984 debut offered a post-punk template for the duo’s atypical interests, especially regarding percussion, exotic imagery and Gerrard’s powerful singing. But it wasn’t long before the post-punk gave way to something more steeped in dramatic, neoclassical darkness. Still later, 1990’s Aion found the duo up to their ears in Medieval and other eras of early music. From then on, their folk leanings have strayed further across and between cultural borders – it’s all gone a bit fourth-world gothic, really. A band of great majesty.
This Mortal Coil
One of the groups contributing the most to 4AD’s ethereal and gothic styles directly involved Ivo Watts-Russell himself. He and producer John Fryer were the only constant members of This Mortal Coil, but many 4AD and non-4AD guests joined in more than once over the course of its three albums. Among the most frequent contributors were Dead Can Dance, Cocteau Twins, Dominic Appleton, the sisters Deirdre and Louise Rutkowski, Alison Limerick and various members of Colourbox, Dif Juz, The Wolfgang Press and Cindytalk. The schtick was to mix ethereal wave/gothic originals with ethereal wave/gothic covers of songs that Watts-Russell liked (by folks such as Big Star, Tim Buckley, Roy Harper, Van Morrison, Gene Clark, Talking Heads and Syd Barrett). Altogether, the collective’s rotating members put together enough quality dream material to see the BFG to retirement, as well as follow a debut release with two bursting double-albums. Years later, Watts-Russell formed The Hope Blister, a similar project with a fixed line-up and more ambient leanings.
The Birthday Party
Before Nick Cave began making grizzly sleaze-rock with Grinderman, he made alt-rock, better sleaze-rock and a bit of post-punk with The Bad Seeds. Still earlier, he made ultra-scuzzy post-punk alongside Phill Calvert, Mick Harvey, Rowland S. Howard and Tracy Pew in The Birthday Party. Thanks to their intense volatility as a group, the Melbourne band wouldn’t last much longer than an actual birthday party, but their legacy of unpredictable on-stage catharsis, deliberately harsh studio techniques (such as EQ abuse) and brilliantly freakish songwriting leaves their brief reign regarded by many fans as a career peak for all involved. Their final album, Junkyard, is essential early 4AD grit.
Did you know that Pixies are one of Norman’s bestest favourites? We covered them in our guide to the best indie rock, and now we’ll cover them again. While an essential band in general, their context in 4AD is especially interesting for a few reasons. The Bostonians’ Albini-produced debut Surfer Rosa was an early stage of 4AD’s fidelity to US rock. The band shared the traits of trailblazing creativity and raw power with many 4AD artists, but their messy, surreal, pre-grunge alt-rock was nothing like the label’s post-punk, industrial or dreamy ethereal stuff. After the tensions of excess ideas and energy (among possibly other things) drove the band to creative differences and hiatus, bassist Kim Deal lingered on 4AD with new bands The Breeders and The Amps. Troubled they were and may be, but Pixies’ legacy is spectacular.
Red House Painters
These days, po-faced confessional songwriter Mark Kozelek occasionally challenges audiences to approve of him at all – his on-stage banter about journalist Laura Snapes in 2015 was particularly disgraceful. All the same, his career of hard-hitting, heartfelt music as Sun Kil Moon retains a history that reaches as far back as a 1989 demo from Red House Painters (Kozelek with then-bandmates Anthony Koutsos, Jerry Vessel and Gordon Mack). The gorgeously forlorn and dismally dreary debut Down Colorful Hill arrived in 1992, bunging a crawling Americana slant on what remained of the ethereal sound. Alongside the work of Codeine, Low, Bedhead and others, it remains a strong contribution to that superlative phenomenon that would become known as ‘slowcore’.
Scott “Walker” Engel’s commercial popularity soared as a member of heartthrob pop trio The Walker Brothers in the 1960s. Over fifty years ago. These days, he sounds more like a posh version of Xiu Xiu, with a tireless bookworm’s cut-up scrapbook lyrics and a taste for relaying the bizarre and the sinister through showy satire. Over the years, his gradual journey into obscurity and brooding, unhurried experimentation has led him into a singular and often ludicrous creative realm. Walker debuted on 4AD in 2006 with The Drift, an uncomfortable work of block-structured songs, sparse melody, concrète textures, pounding percussion and absurd impressions of donkeys and Donald Duck. Lyrical themes suggested a preoccupation with the gruesome and the heart-rending, from the executions of Benito Mussolini and Clara Petacci to Elvis Presley’s stillborn twin brother Jesse. The album’s subtextual instruction to listeners might as well be “make it difficult on yourself”.
Since then, 4AD has released Walker’s chamber-choking, staccato-frenzy dance commission And Who Shall Go to the Ball? And What Shall Go to the Ball? as well as the elegantly demented triumph Bish Bosch and, most recently, the smoggy, intense Sunn O))) collaboration Soused. Like or loathe the calculated awkwardness and tar-black humour of his music, there’s no other artist anything like Scott.
Bing & Ruth
David Moore-led ambient group Bing & Ruth is something of an outlet for creative themes that may have caused frowns in Moore’s place of education, New York’s New School for Jazz. Like fellow 4ADer Holly Herndon, he’s packed skills and ideas acquired in the academy and gone for a jaunt through more casual and accessible territory. In this case, the interacting references resemble blissful piano minimalism and wafting accompaniments. Less ambiguous than Ingram Marshall’s briny piano work (such as Fog Tropes) and less muscular than Lubomyr Melnyk’s plonktillism, the minimalism of the Bing & Ruth sound is cinematic: contemplative, plaintive and strongly evocative.
The band debuted on 4AD in 2017 with No Home of the Mind, a series of kindly, aching ensemble works. Its understatement – all low-fi, one-take recordings – directs your attention straight to its immediate beauty.
The bridges between popular music and ‘serious’ art music have gradually narrowed since the 1980s. Formerly, there was quite a lag: consider tape loops, which got avant-garde composers such as Pierre Schaeffer all excited as early as the 1940s but didn’t really appear in pop before The Beatles’ Revolver in 1966. Today radical composition and popular art are much closer together, occasionally converging or even swapping roles. And the two achieve a sort of simultaneity in Holly Herndon’s music, where her techniques, however methodologically structured, also directly service the simpler matter of pop songwriting. That’s the real trick, isn’t it? And very catchy, even quite moving pop songwriting it is too. Except for that ASMR track. Can’t be dealing with that stuff.
Herndon hopped from the dependable RVNG Intl. to 4AD before releasing her fifth album Platform in 2015. Her expertise with powerful sound-processing techniques in Max/MSP has led her to a characteristic style of crumbling digital textures, often combined with or derived from vocal performance. These tend to inhabit the narrative themes of new technology’s trajectories; both thrilling and disturbing. The potential with this stuff is practically endless. Presumably, as a Stanford University doctoral student Herndon is close to the forefront of research into computer-based composition including AI collaboration – see her weird ‘n’ cool latest single made with Jlin and an AI called Spawn.
Have you heard Grimes’s latest single (‘We Appreciate Power’)? It sounds like No Doubt covering Marilyn Manson. How did we get here? Claire Boucher joined 4AD in 2012, just in time for her third LP Visions. It’s well known she bashed that one out at breakneck speed using little more than a Juno-G, a sampler and some pedals with GarageBand. That somewhat explains the consistency of the album’s sound. Boucher also largely met the songwriting challenge of the quick turnaround, laying down big hits-to-be ‘Genesis’ and ‘Oblivion’. The video for the former, which portrayed Boucher larking about with her hip mates, even went viral.
The next album Art Angels vaulted in the direction of mainstream pop, as well as widening the sound palette to include Boucher on more instruments: guitar, drums, ukulele and violin. Moreover, the superb Janelle Monáe dropped in for standout track ‘Venus Fly’. The album received rave reviews across the board, boosting Grimes to new heights.
The Pepe-posting incels at 4chan’s music board, to whom Grimes had long been an object of fascination, were repulsed by all these changes (as well as by Boucher’s increasingly outspoken contempt for misogynistic tendencies in the representation of female musicians, both in media and in the studio environment). No doubt she’s awfully sad to have lost the support of these fine humans.
This Mortal Coil – It’ll End in Tears (1984)
There’s much to be said for the greater spotted double-albums that followed It’ll End in Tears. The vocal contributions from Alison Limerick are high on the list, particularly that incendiary cover of Talking Heads’ ‘Drugs’. Heavenly Bodies’ Caroline Seaman also makes a welcome appearance on Filigree & Shadow. But we might stick with the debut this time, for its standard length and more succinct representations of that ghostly, signature 4AD sound. Elizabeth Fraser’s disarming portrayal of Tim Buckley’s ‘Song to the Siren’, Cindytalk doing Alex Chilton’s ‘Kangaroo’, the churning instrumental original ‘Fyt’, Modern English’s Robbie Grey fronting a synthwave cover of Colin Newman’s ‘Not Me’… the album is a masterpiece.
M|A|R|R|S – Pump Up the Volume (1986)
The sole release by the collaboration of 4AD residents A.R. Kane and Colourbox, ‘Pump Up the Volume’ is notable both for its scampering departure from the label’s typical sound and its lasting influence on UK dance music. At this point in the late eighties, house music in Chicago and Detroit was finding its way over the ocean. In the UK, the A.R. Kane and Colourbox teams shared the urge to give it a go themselves. What ensued was an early acid house smash hit, led by an irresistible bass line and packed to the gills with samples, that would lead the way well into the next decade. Those who had hoped for a more predictable collaboration between the two bands had only to flip over to b-side ‘Anitina’ for satisfaction.
Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares - Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares (1986)
A rare if unsurprising indulgence by 4AD in choral folk music, this volume of modern iterations of traditional Bulgarian music was first released by ethnomusicologist Marcel Cellier in 1975. Ivo Watts-Russell borrowed Bauhaus singer Peter Murphy’s cassette and was moved enough to reissue the recording on 4AD in 1986. A Volume 2 followed not long after. This brought the performing ensemble, better known as The Bulgarian State Television Female Choir, to wide attention and acclaim. The choir’s mostly acapella style, with its heavy use of oft-dissonant parallel harmonies, is striking and often overwhelmingly beautiful. The recordings have subsequently been sampled by many artists: Leftfield, Drake, VAST, Micronaut and even the nineties’ most annoying dance group Doop. Elsewhere, German boffin Marcus Schmickler’s lovely choral piece ‘Rache ist Des Willen Widerwillen’ is a rearrangement of ‘Strati na Angelaki Doumasche’.
Dead Can Dance – Within the Realm of a Dying Sun (1987)
For a band who actively rejected the term ‘gothic’ in their early days, perhaps to avoid morbid connotations, DCD were certainly no strangers to gothic imagery by Album Three here. Just look at that cover: Raspail gravesite on the left, chilling black void on the right. And listen to the majestic cathedral flamboyance of ‘Summoning of the Muse’ - all marching bells, neoclassical strings and the multitracked, wailing chants of Lisa Gerrard. The pair divided these lead vocal duties down the middle for the album, meaning you get a side A of Perry and a side B of Gerrard. Together with Peter Ulrich and co-producer John A. Rivers, the sound of the reverberating, dramatic tunes is huge.
The strange third album by The Wolfgang Press. Its songs show clear post-punk and industrial lineage but, in various proportions, also embrace funk, dance, dub and even US country rock. Its brusque songs move to tight grooves while lead singer Michael Allen aims for some sort of Southern drawl. Not so far from The Birthday Party, but the sound here is a bit more elaborate, more relaxed, more awkwardly British, not preoccupied with utter filth. Opener ‘King of Soul’, enlists female backing singers to hammer in that title. It could be and really is a bit crass, but their impeccable timing and harmonisation produce such a fantastic accompaniment to Allen, who croons like a sloshed Sylvester Stallone. Then there are the pensive skank synths with industrial drums and harsh textures. It really is quite something, that song. So are the other standouts: ‘Bottom Drawer’, ‘See My Wife’, the cowboy-rocking ‘The Holey Man’ and ‘Shut That Door’. I think they enjoyed making it.
Cocteau Twins – Heaven or Las Vegas (1990)
Heaven or Las Vegas is interesting for a few reasons: it was the last Cocteau Twins album on 4AD and it was released on the first birthday of Guthrie’s and Fraser’s daughter. Most importantly, it’s the album on which the band met their dream pop destiny. They tidied their sound into something finer and more direct than ever before; you can hear that comforting early nineties production style of crisp, narrow guitar. They were depending less on the shelter of murk and reverb, Fraser’s lyrics clearer than ever. It isn’t a change that would delight every fan, but it was a natural step to take after dwelling in secrecy, and the band sound so confident and ready for it.
Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest (2010)
Fronted by tall rocksperimenter Bradford Cox (he of Atlas Sound), the acclaimed Deerhunter swapped Kranky/4AD for just 4AD in time for their fourth album Halcyon Digest. It’s an LP whose striking cover art looks like something you might as likely find adorning an Andy Stott or Type Records release. And its warm, psychedelic references to vintage rock and punk – and its sheer gentleness – were a bit surprising from a band treasured for noisier experimentation. But it’s definitely a labour of love for Cox & co., whether they’re channelling the summer of love or some saxy Rolling Stones.
The National – High Violet (2010)
With its big, melodramatic guitars and distilled style, High Violet is surely one of the finest sad dad indie rock albums. There’s more to it than that, but that’s where it really shines for me. It’s the sound of youthful preoccupations gently and inexorably nudged away by the quotidian emotional investments of parenthood, as well as the disheartening early realisations of a new phase of incremental bodily and mental change. It’s the sound of bringing nagging, stubborn old baggage with you to new places, within new structures of overwhelming anxiety for the future, and having nowhere to place it. The sound of deep love, dread and surrender.
Scott Walker – Bish Bosch (2012)
The sinister tone and obtuse absurdity of The Drift return on 2012’s Bish Bosch, and more successfully too. Among many other things, Walker clearly relishes the huge tensions that emerge from inserting shallow, swingin’ US big band pop glitz into situations that are simply viciously inappropriate. This peaks on ‘Epizootics!’, where boisterous brass and trundling rhythms constantly snag, refusing to lead where tradition begs them to go. Meanwhile, Walker’s deadpan, channel-surfing lyrics croon about “Gabriel’s gravy” and “Snappin’ their caps, slidin’ their jibs”. On ‘Dimple’, the incongruity of hearing him channel Jimmy Durante’s ‘Inka Dinka Doo’ in slow motion over horror strings is superb. Juxtaposing all these excessively referential observations is Walker’s speciality, and what makes Bish Bosch so satisfying is its aesthetic display of how hilarious, disturbing, awkward and embarrassing it can be.
Gang Gang Dance – Kazuashita (2018)
The brickwalled, postmodern psych haze of dance, hip hop and exotic collage that is New York’s Gang Gang Dance is very much neo-4AD – certainly on a similar wavelength to Grimes – but hardly as inconsistent with the label’s vintage stuff as it may first seem. Lizzi Bougatsos’s shrill voice, irresistibly flitting from powerful to dorky to ethereal, is most appropriate of all. Still warm from the oven, 2018’s Kazuashita ended a seven-year album gap with a sound largely unchanged. Owing to current events, there are, of course, dashes of political anxiety and melancholy running through ‘J-Tree’, ‘Kazuashita’, ‘Too Much, Too Soon’ and ‘Salve on the Sorrow’, but not enough to abate GGD’s pursuit of euphoria.