Review: Rational Youth Box Set

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Canadian electro-pioneers, Rational Youth, recently wrapped up a successful tour of the Nordics. Their visit to Europe coincided, not only with a new Cold War, but also the release of a box set from the German artisan label, Vinyl-on-Demand. VOD have a reputation for careful and detailed craftsmanship, and the Rational Youth box has clearly been assembled with a designer’s eyes and a studio engineer’s ears. There is no other label producing material of this quality, which makes the compilation of Rational Youth’s recordings even more special. For those who missed the Nordic dates, admiring the VOD box is the best way to pass time until the band return to Europe for German shows in October.

There are five albums in the set, focused mainly on the band’s early years, when they produced their most influential work.

LP1: COLD WAR NIGHT LIFE

The original version of the Cold War Night Life album was released on Montreal’s YUL Records in 1982. It fused the edgy, shadows-and-fog atmosphere of Berlin in the Smiley and Harry Palmer films with a Kraftwerkian pulse. Canada’s first synth band, Rational Youth created a collection of world-class electronic pop that easily sits alongside Depeche Mode’s Speak and Spell or Human League’s Reproduction in the pantheon of classic synthesizer albums. Every one of the songs is a gem, from the opening click-track of “Close to Nature” to the politically prescient underground hit, “Dancing on the Berlin Wall.”

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LP2: YUL RECORDS 1981-1983

YUL Records was named for Montreal’s airport, which has the international aviation code, YUL. The label was founded by Marc De Mouy, who also provided a platform for artists Cham-pang and Monty Cantsin. Besides the Cold War Night Life album, Rational Youth released a number of singles on YUL, which are collected on this volume with an emphasis on different versions from those previously included in other releases. From the initial 16-step sequence of “I Want to See the Light” to the masterful instrumental, “Pile ou Face,” the songs assembled here showcase the original path followed by Rational Youth, which went much further than anything else coming from North America at the time.

Interesting fact: there is no American equivalent to Rational Youth.

LP3: DEMOS, OBSCURE, LIVE & RARE

The Rational Youth archives have been properly raided for this album. Of fourteen tracks, seven are previously unreleased; two come from a cassette-only release; while the balance previously featured on the recent releases of live shows from 1983. There are demo versions of “Saturdays in Silesia,” “Just a Sound in the Night,” “Dancing on the Berlin Wall,” “In Your Eyes” and “Holiday in Bangkok,” as well as solos or duos by the original members, Tracy Howe, Bill Vorn and Kevin Komoda.

The question many fans have is, “What would have happened to Rational Youth if Bill Vorn hadn’t left before the 1983 tour?” We’ll never know, but these tracks give us a window into the Tesla-like creative energy that Vorn, Howe and Komoda were all discharging at the time. The demo of “Holiday in Bangkok,” in particular, shows off the way that sines, squares, triangles and saws could be combined by them to devastating effect, underpinning Tracy Howe’s distinctive vocal lines and innate sense of melody. The live tracks show that the band found a way to remain innovative and compelling even without Vorn to accompany them; but, without the rigid sense of electronic purity that Vorn took with him into the studio, many of the songs have a different feeling in live performance. It’s exciting to hear these recordings from the 1980s – and interesting to contemplate the immense creative distance that each version of the band could cover.

LP4: LIVE IN WINNIPEG, 1983

When Kevin Komoda looked into a box in his attic one day in 2013, he discovered two tape recordings from Rational Youth’s Vorn-less 1983 tour of Canada. The sound man had taken recordings straight from the board, and they lay for three decades forgotten in a box under some black-and-white pictures from Kraftwerk’s first performance in Montreal. A copy must have been made for a friend, at one point, because a bootleg tape of the Winnipeg show circulated as far afield as Sweden, but the master recordings sat in a lonely place until Nachos! Records released both the Winnipeg and Ottawa shows as cassettes. Artoffact Records then picked up the recordings for a CD release.

The Winnipeg show took place close to the famous intersection of Portage and Main, practically in the middle of North America. The venue, Wellingtons, closed down recently, but in 1983 it was a subterranean safe-harbour for alternative music. A local import record store organised the show, which was opened by local band, New Man Celebration. The warm reception given to Rational Youth comes through in the informal and friendly banter between Howe and unknown off-stage voices, but the legacy of their visit was to send synthesizer sales skyward at the local instrument shop. This record captures the energy and influence of Rational Youth, which sent prairie youths in double-breasted shirts and Phil Oakey haircuts in search of their own Moogs.

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LP5: THE CAPITOL YEARS

It was probably inevitable that, given Rational Youth’s underground success, the major labels would eventually move in, looking for a host organism. Capitol Records was able to latch on, but had no clue how to develop and promote the band. Instead of taking them to the Pasadena Rose Bowl – as Mute and Sire did for Depeche Mode – Capitol led Rational Youth on a merry dance and eventually lost interest. It’s too bad, because while signed to Capitol Tracy Howe wrote and recorded some of his best material, including “In Your Eyes” and “Holiday in Bangkok.” The last volume of the box set draws on some of this great store of music, which set venues alight during the band’s recent Nordic adventure.

As with many other VOD releases, the box set includes a beautiful booklet, reproducing rare photographs, gig posters, lyric sheets and recollections from Howe. It’s a fascinating read and a compelling view of one of the most dynamic electronic artists from the early 1980s.

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