I have an ever-growing fascination with music made in Belgium, mainly because of a certain je-ne-sais-quoi that makes it so captivating. This column documents my quest to find out what, exactly, that certain something is.
The first step towards this goal will be to examine a genre I’ve grown to like called Wave (often accompanied by a prefix, like No, New, Minimal or Synth). My first encounters with it were as a teenager when it was the music of choice of DJs far past their prime but still heavily in demand – a sure-fire way to an instant dislike. My incessant thirst for ever more obscure and wayward dance music drove me back to Wave eventually, though, and I discovered it was far more than a few overplayed radio hits by Yazoo, Human League or Visage. Instead, it turned out to be an exciting period in music with a DIY ethos not unlike Punk, except with electronic instruments and melodies. The turning point was the excellent Minimal Wave compilation, released by a label with the same name and the always fresh and once underground hip-hop stronghold but now all-round source of supreme sounds, Stones Throw records.
The Minimal Wave label, headed by Brooklyn- based Veronica Vasicka, has built up a catalogue of well-packaged vinyl compiling obscurities from long forgotten groups who released their music in the 80s in a very low-key way (often only on cassette). Through this, she got picked up by the hip media and became a standard-bearer for revived interest in this genre.
What intrigued me was that, certainly in the beginning, the bulk of the music she pressed onto wax was made in Belgium. My country seemed to play a major role in this scene, which was heavily centred around fanzines, and gained momentum thanks to the rise of affordable electronic instruments. The similarities between this close-knit yet very diverse scene, plus the current beatmaker-scene I was involved in, created a need to know more.
These were the “années de plomb” (years of lead) when the “tueries du Brabant” put a nation in fear, the USSR was an ubiquitous threat and Brussels reached the depths of its reputation. They were times of plenty for our artists.
Thanks to the inexhaustible wisdom of Belgian record store chieftains Geert and Koenie I got in touch with Lieven Deridder. A man who seems to know everything about the world of Wave, knows virtually everyone involved, past to present, and who has that urge to share it with the world that I know all too well. He releases compilations (like the ‘Underground (Belgian) Wave’ series) and reissues through his own Walhalla records imprint, selected the tracks for the ‘Belgian Wave & Pop Songs From The 1980’s’ on Rush Hour and compiled one of the first releases on Minimal Wave called ‘Lost Tapes’ which is “a compilation of European Minimal Wave ’81-’86 (with an emphasis on Belgium)”, according to the liner notes.
As diverse as they are, the tracks often match my own feeling about Belgium in the 80s. A bit cold, dark and unheimlich. These were the “années de plomb” (years of lead) when the “tueries du Brabant” put a nation in fear, the USSR was an ubiquitous threat and Brussels reached the depths of its reputation. They were times of plenty for our artists, though, and a time our nation contributed to the international musical canon – with Front 242 helping to give birth to Electronic Body Music and New Beat ruling the roost at the clubs. Both late 80s genres have their roots in the Wave movement from the decade’s earlier years. Front 242’s early recordings were distinctively more Wave than the harder edged EBM and Autumn and Linear Movement member Peter Bonne writing A Split-Second’s “Flesh”, which as myth has it is in a slowed down version (put on 33rpm instead of 45rpm) the first New Beat hit.
The vastness of Lieven Deridder’s musical knowledge, however, isn’t matched by a sense of commerciality and opportunism. Which means that Veronica went to ride the wave (being witty here), while he is known only to the in-crowd. Which is a damn shame and something I will gladly try to rectify. I can firmly recommend his DJ sets (he recently played as Aimé Le Chevalier at Beursschouwburg) or the lively scene around Antwerp he sort of curates. Some of the key figures of old, like Twilight Ritual or Somnambulist, still perform live and there is a whole new generation of bands standing up. Bands like Tetra Plok, :codes or SOL 19.
Lieven’s story features many of the elements that seem to crop up throughout Belgian music history. Stubbornly doing your own thing, not being able to sell well, not getting the credit you deserve, all while influencing the rest of the world. Not getting recognition in your own country is another sign. Meanwhile, international DJs like Ame pay ridiculous amounts for original Snowy Red albums while labels all over the world package far inferior music to cash in on the hype. Blowing our own trumpet has never been our forte as a nation.