NEW MUSICAL EXPRESS : 30 January 1988

Digitalis Ambigua, Gold And Poison (Capitol/Newttwerk LP)

El Salvador! Nicaragua! Ethiopia! and South Africa! /
The sheer frustration / Of an arrogant nation /
It's Shee-aagh, ney-ked aggrrrrression!!!
(Sheer, Naked Aggression')

It's the splendid isolation of this Sino-Australian duo - well, they're actually a trio again, with the addition of Karina Hayes on 'additional' vocals - that allows SPK to retain their artistic dignity when perpetrating the otherwise unforgivable: the bellowing of political tract over a modishly-syncopating drum machine and sequencer.
From being torchbearers in the metal dance renaissance in the early '80s, they managed to alienate their self-conscious noise disciples by redefining their work along clean lines and writing state-of-the-art pop/dance songs. It was their candid eccentricity and under-or-overstated irony which also kept them from a life of popular-designer-acceptance.
'Digitalis Ambigua...' finds them still in a state of magnificent exile. Strains of the 'Machine Age Voodoo' era still cling - the carefree, electro-simplicity of 'Breathless' is a detached affair with conventional western pop melodiousness and rushing-headlong choruses. You get the feeling they just did it to show how easy it is. 'Hand To Mouth' which follows it is also a reflection of bygone days but it's one where the message strains too much to complement the medium.
The side is the theme setter and stakes out new textures in their work. The sounds are created by - or at least emulate - what I fondly believe to be Oriental/Pacific Islands type woodwind and xylophonic instruments, backed up by field recordings of non-Western human chants. These pieces are then set into a political context by use of spoken cut-ups (thankfully, used minimally and therefore to best effect). 'White Island' illustrates the destruction of Bikini Atoll, with a poignant over-vocal from Sinan making the whole concept commercially hum-able. Graeme Revell's talent for making grandiose yet basic sound (viz the other-worldly sampled orchestras on 'Sheer, Naked Aggression') is actually outweighed by his under-used gift for setting out crystalline melodies.
The most endearing aspect of SPK is their humanity and freedom from dogma (artistic and political). They are neither overtly male (often a fault in this field) nor obviously female in their approach - even when Graeme bellows his discontent with the world really loudly, he sounds like a merging of Baden-Powell and a piqued Mysteron. They're in a world of their own.

Myrna Minkoff

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