Monday, November 19, 2007


Even now it's hard to get a handle on Wolfgang Press, but I think I respect them more for that. They demonstrated more than a little conviction and confidence to morph their style as significantly as they did over time. That's not to say they didn't maintain a singular identity, but they did it in the same manner as their label, 4AD: through patterns of heterodoxy, experimentation and stylistic rigor, but not through a consistent or easily categorized sound.

Wolfgang Press didn't seem to rule anything out, whether it was Motown or goth, but they made a definite progression towards dance music over time. Listening to 'Cut the tree', the brooding, Joy Division meets Bauhaus track they contributed to 4AD sampler Lonely Is An Eyesore in 1987, it's hard to imagine that a few years later they would take De La Soul's 3 Feet High And Rising as the primary inspiration for their album Queer. (Shriekback would seem to be the other main influence.)

While De La Soul's influence on Queer is obvious, apparently it is even more obvious in the original version of that album, released abroad, which I haven't heard. Like De La Soul, Wolfgang Press utilized a great deal of musical and spoken samples for the original versions of these songs. Unlike De La Soul, just two years after 3 Feet High they had to contend with considerable hurdles regarding copyright infringement and sample clearing (thanks, Vanilla Ice.) Wolfgang Press's solution was to re-record much of the album, replacing the sounds from the samples they had used with original sounds, and even recreating sampled dialogue from movies; that's the version of that was released in the United States.

Queer is largely dance oriented, but some of the lyrics are characteristic of Wolfgang Press's earlier, less accessible days. The 'Say no go' of the album, 'Question of time' is sleek and groovy, but I ponder its meaning to this day. It is the kind of text that feels significant and comprehensive, but remains stubbornly opaque. In choosing to write about this track, I am committing to an interpretation of it, but I admit to some ambivalence in taking on that task. Somehow I feel like there is a world view, a summation of modern times in 'Question of time', but it could be a buck naked emperor, for all I know.

Like a Finnegans Wake lite (okay, that's a stretch), this song aspires to encapsulate the modern condition. Faith, crime, speed, sex, loopholes, neutrons, produce, finance: they all flash by in single references, without many clues to how they're related, other than the recurring chorus, 'Time, it's all a question of time.' Our narrator knows quite a bit for sure; his tone is declarative and assured, even bemused. Much of the song is written in linguistic equations. 'Her tricks you.' 'It's proof and it's blind.' 'I follow time.' 'I need to solve these problems.' 'And solutions keep coming forward.' But for all he does know, he also knows it's not cohering. Time is both the determiner of the known, and the key to apprehending the unknown. But at bottom, the modern condition is uncertainty, only some of it Heisenbergian. 'My life is untimely...'

Somehow, as weighty as the subject matter is, the tone remains light, to match the groove of the rhythm section. He sings, 'Yeah sex / It's all a question of lies' but what stays with us is him growling, 'Yeah, SEX' as the downbeat hits. The only real misstep is the completely unexpected line 'Jews, they're fine'; it's the only land mine in this risky terrain that explodes a little, and jars for a moment. I suppose no overview of the modern condition would be complete without the Jews, but it's unsettling, left hanging like it is.

I like 'Question of time' actually because of its opacity; the funk-sampling hip hop it references is story- and polemic-oriented, but this is abstract and oblique, which gives it an exotic nature not found on its De La Soul counterpart. There's more at stake here than a good dance track; there's an epistemology, and even if its impenetrable, it's evocative.

Wolfgang Press page at 4AD