For a brief period in the early 90s, Cubanate rode the crest of the breaking technoindustral wave. Their gnarly amalgamation of aggressive drum-machine propelled electronica and gritty guitars, coupled with misanthropic, nihilistic lyrics that honed in on ultraviolence and self-annihilation reflected a short-lived zeitgeist as represented almost in its entirety by Chicago’s Wax Trax! label – a label Cubante would sign to in the later stages of their career.
From the vantage of 2017, it seems hard to conceive just how different things were in the early 90s, how different the musical landscape was. Look around when walking down your local high street or supermarket. It still looks like it’s 2003. Despite technological advancements and an almost unprecedented shift in global politics in recent years, culturally, there has been a depressing stasis which has endured for over a decade now. Nu-Metal may not be all the rage any more, but ‘alternative’ music has slipped into a safe torpor that’s about as challenging as the slick commercial r’n’b and shit-hop that’s dominated the mainstream since the turn of the millennium.
All of this makes Cubanate’s story seem even more incredible. Their bio reads like the plot of a second-rate novel about a rock band: ‘At their peak, Cubanate’s techno-rock crossover was controversial and influential, with their importance still resonating today. They were one of the few UK bands tagged as ‘Industrial’ to cross over to a mainstream audience and were regular fixtures in publications as diverse as Kerrang! and Melody Maker (receiving several Single of the Week accolades in both), as well as on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball. They also toured with stalwarts such as Front 242, Gary Numan, The Sisters of Mercy and Front Line Assembly.’ Along the way, in 1994 at the height of grunge, Cubanate were paired with extreme metal outfit Carcass for what turned out to be a notoriously violent UK tour. Heal’s antagonistic on-stage style resulted in death threats and an on-air confrontation on the Radio 1 Rock Show with Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson. Truth is, you couldn’t make this shit up.
Marc Heal’s liner notes are imbued with a certain sense of incredulity at how the band managed to forge a career, however fleeting, from generating such antagonistic noise. And so, in many respects, the context really matters when listening to ‘Brutalism’. The album’s 14 tracks, selected from the long out-of-print albums released by the now-defunct Dynamica label.
The first thing that’s striking from the outset is just how aggressive every aspect of Cubanate’s music is. Melding the grating guitars and distorted vocals favoured by Ministry – who also smashed into the mainstream in ’92 with ‘Psalm 69’ with pounding techno rhythms, they do slot neatly alongside the likes of KMFDM in many respects, but at the same time, the raw violence which radiates from every bar of Cubanate’s output places them in another bracket.
‘I’m gonna hurt you if I can’, Heal barks on ‘Autonomy’. ‘Hey fatboy! I don’t think I like you!’ he bullies brutally on ‘Kill or Cure’, and ‘Body Burn’ is an overloading frenzy of fury in which Heal details his desire to witness the immolation of his adversary. ‘Angeldust’ contains barrage of violent threats against a pounding backing. You get the idea: there isn’t anything cuddly or fluffy about anything in Cubanate’s repertoire. ‘Oxyacetaline’ encapsulates the hard-edged abrasion that defined the band, amped up loud and exploding with violent venom.
The percussion becomes increasingly dominant on the later tracks, as do the guitars and extraneous noise, with ‘Why Are You Here?’ and ‘Joy’ standing up alongside contemporaneous cuts from Nine Inch Nails, whose ‘Broken’ was contemporaneous.
‘Brutalism’ is appropriately titled. There’s no let-up. Screeching, howling electronica and pulverising beats collide with the most serrated guitar noise to forge a sound that even now, in 2017 has the capacity to take the top off your head. The fact they managed to break through, and have tracks featured here there, and everywhere, including film, TV and game soundtracks (‘The Sopranos’ and ‘Gran Turismo’ among them) marks the ultimate subversion, while also highlighting just how much times have changed. ‘Brutalism’ is a banging behemoth of an album, that evokes a painful nostalgia for more exciting times. It’s also an essential document of a killer band’s career.