It's been a great year for reissues. The resurgence of interest in overlooked post-punk classics has led to the re-release of Cabaret Voltaire's entire back catalog, as well as Soul Jazz's In the Beginning There Was Rhythm, a collection of seminal recordings from such early Eighties artists as the Slits, Throbbing Gristle, and 23 Skidoo. Of all the names on that list, the latter is the most obscure, but a pair of archival recordings from the group's own Ronin label might change that.
Like Cabaret Voltaire, 23 Skidoo hailed from Sheffield, England, and favored a dark, oppressive merger of disco and industrial noise. While the Chemical Brothers' 1997 sampling of the group's "Coup" (for "Block Rockin' Beats") hints at 23 Skidoo's influence on contemporary dance music, these two albums reveal the musicians' restless experimentation, trying out voice after voice, wending through New Wave, dub, world beat, and eventually hip-hop.
The Gospel Comes to New Guinea, which collects fourteen tracks from singles released between 1980 and 1987, documents the band's quest for the ever-shifting stylistic Holy Grail. Although 1980's jangly "Ethics" sounds uncannily like the Cure's "Jumping Someone Else's Train," the title track and "Gregouka" (released only a year later) display a much more tribal influence, with primitive funk beats, astral guitars, and North African drones. 1984's "Coup" is an exuberant slap-bass banger embellished by serrated guitars, percussive chants, and rollicking steel drums; the itchy, morbid disco of "Last Words" and the ambient sprawl of "Healing/Fanfare" are just as intense, ground to a gleaming edge.
By 1987 drum machines and glassy synthesizers marked 23 Skidoo's progression toward electronic music, though the sampled ululations of "Magrhebi" nod to the earlier years' Fourth World leanings. Just Like Everybody Part Two picks up here, collecting outtakes and unreleased tracks up to 2000. The contrast between the two records couldn't be greater: Where Gospel conjures coal-mine claustrophobia and dusty spice markets, Everybody is a patchwork of hip-hop beats and peppy horns that seem oddly without reference to the world around them. "Roninstep" takes a page from Public Enemy's playbook, unfurling a curtain of breakbeats, sirens, and well-worn rap samples, with the following songs similarly oriented toward the groove. While occasionally sounding dated, the best of 23 Skidoo's later work approximates the big-beat funk of the Mo' Wax label, patching together rock-steady breaks, raucous horn stabs, and snatches of tabla. But at only two or so minutes apiece, many of these tracks feel like drafts, never quite achieving the completeness of those early, singular soundscapes.
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Over time, the members of 23 Skidoo learned their way around the recording studio, but the initial gutter funk and glacial drones ultimately trump the later, more polished romps, ably portraying England's uneasy balance of technology, exoticism, and alienation.