La Contra Ola (Essay)

From Unearthing The Music

LA CONTRA OLA is a compilation released by Bongo Joe Records, dedicated to the Spanish Synth Wave and Post Punk scene of the early 80’s, exploring the electronic side of the independent music produced in Spain at the time: Synthetic pop music with industrial sounds including futurist Art Rock, dance-floor productions and lo-fi experiments on cassettes. The following introductory essay, written by the compilation director Loïc Diaz Ronda and translated to English for the first time by the UNEARTHING THE MUSIC team, is shared here with the kind permission of the author and the label. You can visit the Bandcamp page for this compilation by clicking here.

La Contra Ola - Spanish Synth Wave & Post Punk. 1980-86.

From the post-Franco New Wave to the independent Counter Wave

Punks in front of the Madrid concert hall Rock-Ola, 1981, Miguel Trillo

At the end of the 70s, a wind of freedom blew over the large Spanish cities. After 35 years of dictatorship, General Franco died in November 1975, making room for a change of generations and ways of life. In Madrid, artistic activity began to feverishly take place in the Rastro, in the bars of the Malasaña neighborhood and in concert halls such as Rock-Ola. This cultural renewal, which also reached the graphic arts (such as fashion and cinema) would soon be celebrated and announced under the name of Movida.

For all those who then intended to break with the old values of Spain, the spirit of punk appeared as a sign of reunion that favoured the emergence, starting in 1979, of a New Wave of Spanish bands. Supported by the press, radio and television, which in those days had numerous musical programs, this Iberian new wave went on to revolutionize the music scene in a few years. Quickly, however, many of the representatives of the new scene went to sign for large labels and the Spanish garage played by the main groups of the Nueva Ola became a pop revival. By 1981, it seemed clear that the movement was being digested by the industry.

Faced with that move towards commercialism, new bands began to choose to travel more independent paths and eventually built a true Counter Wave. Receptive to the influences of continental post-punk and synth wave this counter wave was based on a handful of exacting labels such as Discos Radioactivos Organizados (DRO), Grabaciones Accidentales (GASA), Nuevos Medios and Tres Cipreses. As in other places, the scene was divided in two different but not exclusive trends: a cold wave current on one hand, and a more technologically and sound-machine inclined current on the other.

The electronic constellation

El Aviador Dro, concert at the Rock-Ola

In the beginning of the 80s, a Spanish generation of musicians began to consider electronics, as an aesthetic and a tool for autonomous creation for the first time. This movement would take shape, first of all, through the techno-pop faction (the term used in Spain), of the New Wave.

A specific event is generally regarded as the birth of that faction. On March 9, 1981, El Aviador Dro y sus Obreros Especializados, El Humano Mecano, Los Iniciados, Oviformia Sci and La Terapia Humana performed live at the Marquee venue in Madrid to mark the 1st Techno Symposium. The Civil Guard burst into the premises, taking several musicians and spectators to the police station. The activity of these groups continued to be considered, in democratic Spain, as semi-clandestine.

Although large events and the attention of the media were focused on Madrid, techno-oriented synth wave and post-punk bands appeared in all corners of the country. At the scale of the peninsula, the electronic expansion of the beginning of the decade was a global phenomenon. A constellation of local micro-scenes then unfolded in places like Alicante, Barcelona, Getxo, Granada, San Sebastián, Zaragoza, Tenerife and Valencia.

Flyer for the 1st Techno Symposium

Many of the first Spanish techno bands’ attempts to create were made in very precarious conditions. Engaging in pre-recorded rhythms and electronic sounds could often lead to rejection and was even dangerous. As Clara Morán from Oviformia Sci recalls: “we played with a drum machine and not with drums It’s something that doesn't seem like much now but which back then aroused the anger of the public, who often threw everything at the stage.” In the early 1980s, electronic culture was, in fact, almost non-existent on the peninsula. Perhaps you could find Kraftwerk or Yazoo records, but getting vinyl records from Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle or Suicide depended solely on the ability to travel abroad. In one of the least “modern” countries in Europe, producing music with machines, also aspiring to a certain creative freedom, meant buying a ticket headed towards doubt and frustration.


Linea Vienesa concert at Rock-Ola, 1981

For a whole contingent of punk musicians, the integration of analog synthesizers, sequencers and drum machines allowed for the exploration of new creative paths.

Using mainly machines to renew identifiable styles, various groups then strove to develop, within the New Wave, a kind of pop adorned with electronic sounds. Two bands in La Contra Ola attest to these attempts to hybridize the pop tradition and the electronic future. During its brief existence, the Madrilenians of Línea Vienesa tried to create music with cold and elegant sounds, impregnated with neoclassical references. Zombies found in surf music, science fiction and b-movies a sound material that they recycled in their saturated pop songs.

A series of bands, curiously, all connected with the Basque Country, would also use machines to multiply the nods to funk, dub, hip-hop or extra-western music. Originally from San Sebastián, Derribos Arias produced an unstable electronic dub, whose dark impulses were sublimated by an absurd sense of humor and an extraordinary capacity for improvisation. More frantic, Lavabos Iturriaga invented a sinister techno that celebrated the confusion of languages, continents and sound planes. Finally, the unclassifiable Domi Delgado, through his projects El Humano Marrano and DePicnic, produced low fi music at the crossroads of various influences such as pop and reggae, through hip hop and minimal synth.

Futurists Vs. Industrial Primitives

Las Robotijas (from the Aviador Dro group), Madrid, 1982, Miguel Trillo

To many other bands, electronics were not only a set of instruments, but also a philosophy. Taking its inspiration from science fiction and the avant-garde of the early twentieth century, a futuristic current brought together musicians fascinated by technology. Celebrating the fusion between man and machine, these artists gave a central place to aesthetics, be it laboratory or robotics, and exhibited spacesuits, overalls, lamé fabrics, metal or Plexiglass accessories, ideograms and slogans.

The main representative of this trend is undoubtedly the Madrid collective El Aviador Dro, which, through its performances, conceptual records and manifestos, originally produced an art rock tinged with anarcho-cybernetic ideas close to Devo. More marked by Kraftwerk and Brian Eno, the Alicante techno-orchestra TodoTodo produced a machine disco-house clearly oriented towards the dance floor. Resembling the current European minimal synth trend, Madrid’s Oviformia Sci conceived a synth pop with a clear line, wisely structured.

Conversely, a series of bands went looking for a rawer form of energy through machinery. Those primitive industrialists resorted to a mixture of experimentation, black humor and violent provocation. It was primarily a matter of shaking the listener, of immersing him in a bath of primordial sensations such as fear, trance or strangeness.

Automatic, machine designed by La Fura dels Baus for the show Suz / o / Suz, 1985

Considered an essential industrial music group, Esplendor Geométrico developed at first a Spartan synth wave style based on topics related to totalitarianism, mass crimes or organic malformations. In a more tribal current, the Barcelona-based performance troupe La Fura dels Baus used a mixture of Ethnic and Electronic Body Music in their shows as one more element of aggression against the public. Forged in the image of a secret society, Los Iniciados investigated, in the key of esoterica, a theatrical universe loaded with mythological references.

To end this short journey, some groups proceeded towards a kind of synthesis between these two currents and signalled the appearance of a more experimental electronic music current in Spain. Originally from Granada, the duo Diseño Corbusier invented a kind of electronica with a clear modernist affiliation, fueled by noise experiences and sound collages. With an atypical approach, alone or in a trio with La T, the activities of the Barcelona-based performer Tres attempted to combine ambient music post-punk and experimental music.

Reverse posterity

All the experiences collected in La Contra Ola take place in a relatively short period, in an age of innocence for Spanish electronic music, both exciting and full of charm. These attempts were made possible by the democratization of electronic instruments, whose technology was often rudimentary. Spontaneity and ingenuity were the key words between the years of 1980-86. The use of electronic instruments fit in with the urgency and taste for risk-taking characteristic of the time. Several of these bands did not hesitate to try new techniques (circuit bending, sampling, open field) or to invent new instruments, such as the ruidófono, a handmade sound generator conceived by Diseño Corbusier.

Diseño Corbusier

During the middle of the decade, a series of evolutions, beginning with the arrival of computers and the MIDI system, precipitated electronic music into a new digital age. The fate of the peninsula's techno bands was split in opposite directions. According to the curve described by the New Wave, the current synth pop was recycled in the industry as the sweetened electronic sounds of bands like Mecano invaded the national mainstream. Even the original futurists: Aviator Dro, Oviformia Sci (who became Heroica), TodoTodo (who became Muzak), would try to make themselves more accessible to the mainstream audience.

On the opposite end, the survivors of the more radical currents would continue to lead an underground existence. Experimental electronics would have an important development during the second half of the 80s. Authentic and pioneering social networks such as mail art and cassette circuits would take over from independent labels. Paradoxically, it is through these alternative channels that bands like Diseño Corbusier or Esplendor Geométrico would acquire a certain prestige outside the country's borders.

Music for subnormals, Original cassette, 1983, Superproducciones Manolito, Jose Mesa archive

That said, most of the musical experiences compiled in La Contra Ola were limited to minority audiences in the Spain of the 80s. Faced with lack of touring and concert opportunities, almost every band was forced to play to fan audiences or to migrate to Madrid. Many parted ways without releasing a single album, leaving behind only a few demos as the only trace of their existence. Only a few projects had some sort of continuity in time. Repeated over dozens of nostalgic compilations, the official history of the Movida has only remembered the most popular groups and the skilled exploiters of legend. Fortunately, for several years now, this vision has been contested in Spain by music blogs and independent labels engaged in patient reissue work. Thus, a new cartography is being established today, in which obscure home recordings can eventually join the ranks of masterpieces. La Contra Ola is a humble contribution to this work of sound archaeology.

And now, turn up the volume!