2020 marks the fortieth anniversary of the creation of one of the most influential and imaginative independent record labels, arguably of all time.
The year was 1980, the city London, and the punk movement had shaken the foundations of the music industry. Against a backdrop of economic difficulties, a new government, and the formation of the first ever UK Indie chart, Ivo Watts-Russell and Peter Kent, took £2000 seed capital from their employer, record store Beggars Banquet, and started their own record label, ostensibly with a mandate to sign potential talent and move them over to Beggars Banquet, who had struck gold having signed Gary Numan.
Beginning life as Axis, before a complaint of prior art demanded a change, it morphed ultimately into 4AD owing to some promotional material on which was written 1980 Forward, via 1980 FWD, and 1984 AD. In the four decades that have followed, the label has stewarded the creation of a huge array of exploratory, creative, and original music. Although its early artists were best known for goth rock, post punk, and ethereal pop, in genre, the imprint has also covered shoegaze, lo-fi rock, alt rock, and indy folk, and continues to produce engaging and original work today.
While the music was always of paramount important, the aesthetics of the records were also uniquely special to 4AD. Each release was accompanied by imaginative, artistic, striking album covers. The common thread was the commissioning of British graphic designer Vaughan Oliver and studio 23 Envelope, who sadly died this time last year. Influenced strongly by Salvador Dali, his designs often featured surrealist ideas, and conveyed a sense of mystery to some of the most revered covers in the alternative music scene.
The output of the label has been prodigious, and in all honesty one could make a truly random selection of releases, and strike gold the majority of the time, but by way of introduction, let me present to you some of the artists that I personally consider to be the most noteworthy and interesting, together with a recommended album for each.
The 4AD journey begins with Bauhaus - and their 1980 debut album "In the Flat Field". For many this record defined the start of goth as a genre. Although missing the truly seminal Bela Lugosi’s Dead, an extraordinary, atmospheric soundscape over some nine minutes, In the Flat Field is a landmark record in music history.
Blending world music with classical, and their own unique style, and with influences from every continent, Australian duo Lisa Gerard and Brendan Perry have built a corpus of work unsurpassed in creativity. It's impossible to pick a favourite from the studio albums, so varied are they in scope and flavour. The one I know best is Aion, their fifth.
Taking its cue from medieval and renaissance music, and including hurdy-gurdy and viol, it's a wonderful introduction to their work.
Cocteau Twins – Treasure (1984)
The band best exemplifying the 'ethereal' tag which became associated with 4AS, Cocteau Twins emerged from Grangemouth, Scotland, with an era-defining post-punk sound, a sound and style which was to lay the groundwork for much that followed in the world of dream pop and shoegaze, both on and off the 4AD label.
Elizabeth Fraser, like Lisa Gerard was a master of the art of using the voice as an abstract instrument. Described by John Peel as having "the voice of god", her haunting, often indecipherable lyrics made the Cocteau Twins sounds unique and recognisable.
Heaven or Las Vegas is a spectacular album, the last on 4AD, and the most accessible.
This Mortal Coil
The personal project of Ivo, This Mortal Coil could be considered an ever evolving dream pop super group. Over its life various 4AD artists collaborated to produce instrumentals, covers, and original work, with a wonderful introverted and melancholy feel. The albums are eclectic, with samples, collages of sounds and vocals, and well-programmed drum machines. A cover of Tim Buckley's ‘Song to the Siren’ became the first This Mortal Coil release in 1983, with Cocteau Twins support, and the list of collaborators is a who's who of 4AD stars including Colourbox, Dead Can Dance, Modern English, Xmal Deutschland and The Wolfgang Press.
Filigree And Shadow (1986) would be my pick, but you can't go wrong with Blood or It'll End in Tears - spectacular stuff.
Throwing Muses was the first US act signed to 4AD. Formed in Newport, Rhode Island, by step-sisters Kristin Hersh and Tanya Donelly, and produced by Gil Norton, the band and the personel weave their way through the history of 4AD, but where it all began is undeniably worth attention.
The contrast in vocal style between Hersh and Donelly provides a stunning counterpoint, and it will come as no surprise to discover the number of luminaries of later alternative rock bands who trace ancestry and influence from these ground-breaking Bostonians.
House Tornado (1988) showcases variety in tunes and rhythms, and offers a masterclass in the loud/quiet dynamics which were to become such a feature of later artists. There are also hints of folk and country hues which again were to become trade marks in later 4AD releases.
The signing of Throwing Muses marked a shift in the label's direction towards underground US rock music, and it was only a year later that 4AD would sign Pixies, partially on account of their connection to Throwing Muses.
It's almost impossible to overstate the importance of Pixies - a band without whom there would be no Nirvana, no Radiohead. In essence, they invented grunge. The male/female interaction of Kim Deal and Frank Black, the cryptic lyrics, expressive and noisy guitar sounds, and mastery of dynamics guarantees them a place in history despite (or perhaps because of) their relative lack of commercial success.
The closing scene of Fight Club is accompanied by Where Is My Mind, and it's a breathtaking juxtaposition.
Picking a "best" Pixies album is like picking a best child - they're all brilliant in their own ways, and some fans would suggest that the 7 song EP Come On Pilgrim has amongst the best material. However, if pushed, I'd say Doolittle is the most consistently superb.
In The Breeders we see a collaborartion of Pixes and Throwing Muses, with Kim Deal joining Tanya Donelly. Initally a side-project, it became a force to be reckoned with. The success of the single Cannonball was to confirm the band as a commercial success, without ever sounding commercial.
1993's Last Splash is a landmark record, and one that anyone with an interest in 1990s alternative rock should have in their collection.
Turning away from the alternative rock scene of the US, in Lush we see the development of themes that began in Cocteau Twins (with whom the band had a close connection), and which evolve into the genre which came to be known as shoegaze.
With airy vocals and melodies mingling with effect-saturated guitars, Lush deserve to be ranked alongside My Bloody Valentine and Ride in terms of significance and influence. Beyond anything else their ability to take a pair of guitars and a bass and make it sound like several dozen more, defining the "wall of sound" aesthetic, is a remarkable feat.
My recommendation would be Gala - an amalgamation of 3 EPs collected over 1989 and 1990. The opening track Sweetness and Light is a tour-de-force. Unmissable.
Belly merits a mention as the first 4AD band and record I owned; their debut album Star.
Star (1993) reached number 2 on the UK albums chart, and as an impressionable sociology student, I fell in love with the quirky, melodic sound of Tanya Donelly's voice. The singles Gepetto and Feed The Tree were indie night favourites, and while in retrospect the sound comes over as somewhat mainstream for 4AD, both Star and the band's only other album, King, are well worth a listen.
Ever defying the industry's attempt to pigeon-hole, 4AD has pioneered and influenced not just goth, shoegaze, and alternative rock but also the family of genres broadly describable as alt-country or alt-folk.
Led by Paula Frazer, originally from South Carolina, daughter of a preacher and his organist, who arrived in San Francisco via Georgia and Arkansas, Tarnation marked an important step in a country/folk direction. With smoky vocals, melodramatic yodelling and emotion-filled lyrics, the 1995 debut Gentle Creatures is powerful and moving.
Blonde Redhead started out life as discordant noise-rock, with Japanese art students Kazu Makino and Maki Takahashi joining Italian brothers Amedeo and Simone Pace. Over the course of their early albums the group developed from art punk into an poetic, beautifully emotional, and engaging outfit. Misery Is a Butterfly is the first record on 4AD, and is both dark and delicate in nature.
The production values are impeccable, the lush and mournful vocals, hand drums, strings, and even harpsicord coming through beautifully.
Bon Iver (Good Winter, in French) is the vehicle for the creative talents of singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Justin Vernon.
The debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago, (2007) was largely recorded while Vernon spent three months isolated in a wintry cabin in western Wisconsin, following the break-up of both his relationship and his former band. It's simple, haunting, and beautiful.
One of the joys of working in the hifi industry is the opportunity to learn about new bands and genres from customers. The National is one such band. High Violet (2010) was the first of their studio albums released on 4AD, but perhaps not the most accessible.
Sleep Well Beast from 2017 won the band a Grammy Award. It was also the sound track to a remarkable transformation as we upgraded the interconnects and speaker cable of one of our clients from Atlas cables to Van Den Hul The Magnum and The Rock. The third track "Walk It Back" has the most incredible bass, and is a true test for low level resolution.
4AD has travelled a long way from the ground breaking Bauhaus album of 1980, and continues to be hugely important contributor to the release and development of new independent and alternative music. If you want a place to begin to explore some new horizons, head over to 4AD, and take your pick!