4AD – the hidden gems

Cult classics and overlooked jams from the archive of the forward-thinking label

British label 4AD was founded in the white-hot light of the post-punk explosion, and for its four decades, has released some of the weirdest, funnest, coolest music in the world, ever. From its historic classics like Cocteau Twins, This Mortal Coil and Pixies to its recent revival thanks to Grimes, Ariel Pink, Zomby and Spaceghostpurrp, it's a label with one of the most impressive and deep archives around. With the deluxe edition of Martin Aston's exhaustive, fascinating biography of the label out soon, we asked him to pick out some of the hidden gems from the vaults:

Rema-Rema: Wheel In The Roses EP (1980)

4AD’s official debut (the preceding four singles were released under the label’s original name, Axis, before an already existing Aix complained) sounded something like a gang out of A Clockwork Orange expressing itself through music – a rush of gleeful howls and croons over menacing and eerie – yet equally joyous and liberating - post-punk abrasion. “Fond Affections” – later covered by This Mortal Coil - showed a startling tender, melodic streak.

Dance Chapter: “Anonymity” (1980)

4AD co-founders Ivo Watts-Russell and Peter Kent dispute the fact that the latter claimed Cyrus Bruton, frontman of new Leeds quartet Dance Chapter, could take Ian Curtis’ place. Either way, there’s a hint of someone fizzing with energy and strife, and worth believing in. Their debut single was closer to Joy Division’s first incarnation Warsaw than the finished article, but with Bruton’s palpably yearning delivery repeating the line, “a piece of recognition is all I ask, bring me flowers!”, “Anonymity” was a sublime start. Yet Dance Chapter only recorded a following EP, and Bruton later moved to Berlin, to a Bhagwan commune.

Matt Johnson: “Time Again For The Golden Sunset” (1981)

Only The The and 4AD fanatics know that the band’s debut album was an early 4AD release, probably because it was first issued under the name of its core member. Part-produced by Graham Lewis and Bruce Gilbert of post-punk icons (themselves responsible for some minimalist, ambient experiments on 4AD), Burning Blue Soul was raw and adventurous, bearing only traces of the sophisticated musicianship of subsequent The The records, with an unusual blend of British psychedelia, folk and Germany’s fractured krautrock imprint. Even calmer passages such as “Time Again For The Golden Sunset” sounded infested with dread.

Dif JuzHuremics EP (1981)

Peter Kent only worked at 4AD for a year, leaving Watts-Russell to fashion the label identity most people think of as “4AD”. From The Birthday Party to Cocteau Twins, Throwing Muses to Pixies, he generally preferred trailblazers over artists that were identifiably part of a trend, but no other 4AD signing more than instrumental quartet Dif Juz saw their pioneering efforts take so long to catch on (about 15 years in this case). Fronted by South Harrow brothers/guitarists David and Alan Curtis, and starting with the Huremics EP, the band laid the groundwork for post-rock, abandoning the recycling of rock’n’roll cliché for more unique, freeform approaches, including dub.

Dead Can Dance: “In Power We Entrust The Love Advocated”

Because they sold many more records once they’d mutated into something of a classically infused, hyper-ethereal ethno-fusion, Lisa Gerrard and Brenda Perry’s early years are barely considered. Dead Can Dance’s initial sepulchral gothic/Joy Division shiver (sometimes underpinned by percussive influences from Gerrard’s native Australia and her adoption of the yang ch’in (Chinese dulcimer) is best heard on this stone-cold gem, their very own “Atmosphere”, taken from the EP Garden Of The Arcane Delights that followed their debut album.

Richenel: “L’Esclave Endormi” (remix) (1986)

Personifying the nature of a “hidden gem” from 4AD’s past is this grand ballad, concerning a crush on a slave boy written by an operatic diva and sung by a man of Dutch-Suriname extraction considered the Netherlands’ version of Boy George. Soul-funk merchant Hubertus Richenel Baars had chanced upon “L’Esclave Endormi” (aka “The Sleeping Slave”), sung by sublimely camp French-Turkish singer/actress Armande Altaïm, and concocted his own exotic, precious version; Watts-Russell licensed the track before he and engineer John Fryer remixed it for the 12inch version, which sounded more Art Of Noise than Art of Goth. Richenel guested on This Mortal Coil’s next album Filigree & Shadow but never on 4AD again under his own name.

Pieter Nooten and Michael Brook: “These Waves” (1987)

One third of Xymox, The Netherlands’ answer to New Order, Nooten’s solo project turned into a collaboration with Canadian guitarist/ambient maestro Michael Brook, whose own records had featured Eno. The alluring effect of Sleeps With The Fishes was a descent into murky, oceanic depths, a world of luminescent fauna living in unquiet slumber alongside all those bodies tipped overboard, and as such, should be bracketed in that so-called “4AD sound” of the Eighties alongside Cocteau Twins, This Mortal Coil and Dead Can Dance.

Tarnation – “Game Of Broken Hearts” (1995)

In 1987, 4AD went overground with Pixies, Cocteau Twins began their imperious pop phase, and soon proto-shoegazers Lush went Top 10 and both Belly and The Breeders sold a million albums plus. 4AD releases got a lot more attention as a result, and it wasn’t until the mid-Nineties’ (hello grunge, industrial and big beat) that the label became marginalised as Watts-Russell began championing exquisite, melancholic roots music – soon to be categorised as Americana. San Francisco quartet Tarnation’s stark, haunting and blissful brand of C&W was just the ticket, such as the opening track from their 4AD debut Gentle Creatures, recorded by singer Paula Frazer, alone at home, with an ancient microphone.

Vinny Miller “Breaking Out Of Your Arms” (2004)

Watts-Russell’s last signing at 4AD before - disillusioned with a changing music industry and suffering from depression - he sold up and disappeared into the New Mexico desert was appositely someone similarly frail. Under the alias starry smooth hound, Vinny Miller had something of Van Morrison and Tim Buckley’s anguished folk-blues, but after one track on a 1998 sampler, he took another six years to release an album, On The Block, by when he’d roped in the effects of electronic glitch to mirror his fragmenting mind, his fevered voice couched in hushed and violent outbursts, such as this track rather pointlessly released as a single. Released too during 4AD’s relatively fallow recovery period, Miller barely got any attention and he too willingly disappeared into obscurity.

Unfortunately no song clips could be found online. 

The Late Cord: Lights From The Wheelhouse (2006)

Of the nine new acts that 4AD unveiled between 2005 and 2007, The Late Cord was the best, and most frustratingly, the shortest-lived. Texan duo John-Mark Lapham (studio wiz) and Micah P Hinson (deeply troubled singer) released this stunning mini-album serving of sad, restless mystery with long stretches of ambient darkness, etched by titles such as “My Most Meaningful Relationships Are With Dead People”. Hinson soon fell off the radar and kyboshed any chance of a proper album that might have given them the profile and longevity that this partnership deserved.

These tracks and more appear in the double CD that comes with the limited edition of the book, out at the end of the month.