Rational Youth Released The Ultimate Minimal Synth Album With “Cold War Nightlife” [part 3]

Rational Youth L-R: Kevin Komoda, Tracy Howe, Bill Vorn

[…continued from last post]

“Cité Phosphore” was a French language version of “City Of Night” available as a B-side on the 12″ single of that release. The mix seemed to be identical, but the French version came with an extended introduction that built up to to the levels of energy that the English version had straight out of the gate.

The 12″ remix of “Saturdays In Silesia” was graciously included here and the classic old school extended remix with a very different arrangement. The long buildup immediately made its differences known. Live drum overdubs by Angel Calvo did much to make the 7:17 12″ version be a whole new ballgame. the emphasis on drums instead of bass as on the LP mix minimized the “Rent” chord sequence that was still there, waiting to be discovered by Pet Shop Boys.

The interplay between the programmed and acoustic drums was a genius move here. The either/or paradigm was so limiting! The long buildup before vocalist Howe made his first appearance at the 1:30 mark was fully earned luxury. The pixilated melody benefited from the sometimes thunderous drum overdubs adding widescreen gravitas to the tale of rebellious teenagers struggling against the powers that be. The fills interjected in the climax as the leads got a little dubby were certainly unexpected. This mix was certainly advanced for 1982. I can remember many 12″ers which were much more tentative than this.

“City Of Night” also got a new arrangement for 12″ with the synth bass leading the intro buildup as the drumpulse faded up with the “string” leads and sequencers leading into the still wonderfully dinky lead hook. The groove here was given a lot of space to itself, with the vocal interjections being judiciously spaced apart to almost make one think this was a dub version… until a chorus manifests surprisingly every minute or so. Ultimately, there was not as much under the hood on this song as compared to “Saturdays In Silesia;” making the 7:10 12″ mix a little less nutritious than its counterpart.

rational youth i want to see the light cover art
The debut single from 1981 was truly amazing

The final track here was the band’s debut single, “I Want To See The Light.” The B-side, “Coboloid Race,” had been earlier in the program, but I can understand why this track was saved for the last. It’s incredible synthpop. It featured utterly yearning synth lines with low bass lines grounding the feeling of hope and optimism. The production on this track alone was by label head Marc Demouy and Pyer Desrochers. The latter only credited on this single in Discogs. It’s a pity that the album was not also helmed by this production team since the richness of the production took the vibe here from “minimal synth” to “maximal synth” aesthetics. As much as I fully enjoy this album, the pleasure centers of my brain got that much more stimulation by this song! This track took a back seat to nobody and I can only imagine how I would have crowed over this band like a new toy in 1981 had I been fortunate enough to have heard it 40 years ago!

The band quickly splintered after releasing this album with Bill Vorn exiting for acadmia. Tracy Howe formed a new lineup for a brief dalliance with Capitol records that saw their second album, “Heredity” actually get a release in The States, though I don’t recall seeing any video from it on MTV. This CD of “Cold War Nightlife” takes a good stab at being definitive, but there were some tracks missing in action:

  • I Want To See The Light [12″ ver. 4:23]
  • Plie Ou Face 5:40
  • Plie Ou Face 2:34
  • Saturdays In Silesia [7″ remix]
  • Light [inst.]

It looks like those tracks would overload the disc and maybe they were not available in any case. It did sound like a few of the bonus tracks were sourced from vinyl, due to the excessive sibilance on them, not to mention the diminished dynamic range. Thankfully, “I Want To See the Light” suffered none of these indignities. It sounded rich and vibrant.

For completists, there was a BSOG released in Germany in 2014 by Vinyl-On-Demand Recordings. Sadly, as the label name implies, the goods are on 5 LPs and a bonus 7″ single, but they capture a wide swath of the band’s activity from 1981 to 1984. The modestly priced set is € 59.00 and still appears to be in print for those interested in having everything neat and tidy. Well, as tidy as one can have with vinyl. And it’s true that the postage from Germany will not be cheap.

Vinyl-On-Demand | GER | 5xLP + 7″ | 2014 | VOD 124

I have to say at the end of the day I really enjoyed the album fully after all of the various buildup in the comments here and beyond. The last 20 years have seen the “minimal synth” marketplace rise up and make collector’s albums out of a great deal of material that didn’t have half the New Wave nous that this music did. This was the album that said “here is what Minimal Synth could aspire to.” An album of catchy, hook-laden songs made with a wide palette of analog synths and drum machine. The band could more than write their way out of a paper bag and if the production sounded like it only used ten out of the 24 tracks their board in the studio supported, then so be it.

The album actually had a thematic strength running through it as it really dealt with the “ten minutes to midnight” feel that the early 80s had courtesy of Reagan. The band themselves were a finely balanced unit with the logical Vorn programming and making soundscapes that the emotional Howe turned into songs. And they wisely added Kevin Komoda near the end of the project to provide the polish of playing that neither of them could do on their own. The most interesting this I can say about this album 39 years later is that I can listen to it and hear more music that it sounded like it influenced than vice versa. Quite an accomplishment for any young band.


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7 Responses to Rational Youth Released The Ultimate Minimal Synth Album With “Cold War Nightlife” [part 3]

  1. jordan says:

    Excellent review. Fabulous band. Was there from day one. I remember purchasing the “I want to see the light “ 12 inch when it first came out. Still my favourite song by them.

    Pyer become a well known lighting designer.

    Saw them live several times back then.

    The album still holds up 40 years later. If it was released today it would sound modern and relevant. Perhaps they had a larger influence then they or certainly I know of. Back then you were lucky to get out of Canada and have a worldwide following.

    Monk hit it with City of Night. That was the track to listen to while taking the bus to a club. Followed closely by Saturdays in Silesia.

    I will have to check out the Pet Shop Boys track for any similarities.


  2. Gavin says:

    Indeed an excellent review of a superb,influential album.
    I also have a great compilation CD by them called “All Our Saturdays(1981-1986)”


  3. Vlad says:

    Thank you for this sprawling review! Always great to read about Rational Youth (they are never written remotely enough about), especially their masterpiece. It’s one of my Top 5 favourite albums ever, in any genre. It has this irresistible atmosphere and songwriting is simply incredible! I feel some of the effects (especially on “City of night”) could have been better defined, but given the circumstances the band did their absolute best and came up with astonishing results. What warms me further is that next to Kraftwerk their biggest influence was Ultravox (by their own admission) and it shows on some songs pretty clearly, which is always a huge plus for me. Though thank you a great deal for spotting the sources of inspiration for other artists – I’m usually slower on the uptake, and it leads to some interesting conclusions.

    What is most interesting to me now is to read your take on another minimal-synth gem of an album – “Prototype” by Experimental Products. They were from the US and released it in 1982 too. I’m pretty sure they didn’t know about their Canadian peers, but I feel a certain likeness of approach, like both bands recorded if not in the same studio than on the same street at least :) I understand you have your limits money-wise and so on, but if you ever get a chance to check that album, please do so, hope you won’t be disappointed and will have things to say about it.

    Oh, and I don’t believe you covered Ceramic Hello on your blog – though I better shut up now :)


    • postpunkmonk says:

      Vlad – It’s always a pleasure to see your thoughts! As a fellow Ultravox obsessive your take on things is always interesting to me. As you might be aware by now, we’re not afraid of sprawling here at PPM! I’ve not heard of Experimental Products, but you must have missed my Ceramic Hello post ages ago! Spoiler alert: I hated it.


      • Vlad says:

        Thank you! Sadly I often have no time to comment due to various commitments, plus this summer’s punishingly hot here in snowy Russia (ten year’s worth of temperature peaks and sometimes even historical records), I seldom have a desire to lift a finger let alone type something :( Still, I check regularly!

        Re: Ceramic Hello – Yep, I missed it completely. Diving’ right in!


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