Whenever a band of Cabaret Voltaire’s sizable influence returns after a long period of inactivity, there are sure to arise certain questions as to whether the new output will live up to past accomplishments as well as those that followed in the wake of the initial impact. Fortunately, most of those bands tend not to concern themselves with such matters, preferring simply to revel in the thrill of creation; such is the case on Shadow of Fear, the first album of new material from Cabaret Voltaire in 26 years. Although consisting now only of founding member Richard H. Kirk, the record continues in the vein of the band’s legacy as one of the progenitors of exploratory proto-techno and electro/industrial, each of its eight tracks taking the listener on a retro-futuristic journey through sound and rhythm.
There is a cyclical feel to the album as a whole, the opening “Be Free” making its declarations of the title and “Where is your place in the world?” firmly over deeply resonant swells of synthesized bass, dub beats, funky guitars, and sampled horns that sound right out of 1983, while the closing “What’s Goin’ On” asks the question fervently over a rocking guitar loop and slithering synth leads, the bursts of horns bringing things full circle. Throughout Shadow of Fear is a refined sense of arrangement while keeping a somewhat restrained tonal palette; from the steady 808 house beats of “Night of the Jackal,” the pulsing bass juxtaposed with slightly offbeat loops as bursts of static and electronic distortion swell amid echoing snippets of dialogue, along with the vaguely ‘90s vibe of “Vasto” with an impassioned ethnic vocal loop adding body to the gradual rise of percussion leading to a powerful climax, to the almost jazzy interplay of drum loops on “Microscopic Flesh Fragment” creating a sharply frenetic sense of rhythm upon which a shrill drone and spatters of bass, pads, and mangled samples evoke a frigid soundscape, the scratchy rhythmic synth both percussive and almost melodic despite its lack of tonality. And then there is “Universal Energy” with its immediacy and urgency as the pulse of bass, beats, stabs of electronic noise, samples, and percussive fills all build steadily over the course of nearly 11 minutes to a fever pitch that finally and very satisfyingly relents.
Is it an essential entry in the group’s discography? Perhaps, or perhaps not… but does it need to be? No, and the confidence with which Kirk brings this first in a series of four under the mantle of Cabaret Voltaire is quite admirable. Despite the absence of Kirk’s past compatriots, along with the fact that all of Shadow of Fear was newly written since he resumed the band’s activities in 2014, the album shows Cabaret Voltaire returning in fine form and showing little-to-no reservations about living up to any expectations.