Sunday, October 28, 2012

Current 93 - Nature Unveiled (1984)

For me, at least, religious horror has always been a special kind of terrifying. Films like The Omen and The Exorcist were always far more frightening than simpler tales of hook-handed serial killers or more aggressive than average sharks. The kind of existential fear that comes from the unknown and unknowable realm of gods and the afterlife, utilized so effectively by Lovecraft and his contemporaries, taps into a far deeper level of the human psyche than more the more immediate and comprehensible threats of bodily harm.

It is appropriate, then, to round out our month of spooky records with one of Current 93's earliest efforts, a bleak and relentless patchwork of New Testament nightmares that could be described as an aural equivalent of the Book of Revelations. David Tibet, the creative force behind Current 93, has always had a fascination early Christianity and describes himself as a Gnostic, referring to the early sects of that religion that were shunned and quickly drummed out of existence by the Catholic Church in the first few centuries AD. Gnostic literature can get pretty wild, with a far greater penchant for the fantastic and otherworldly than the rest of the accepted Christian canon. Their somewhat darker outlook is perhaps understandable when one realizes that one of the central themes of Gnosticism is the idea of a wicked creator deity, the Demiurge (the Old Testament, vengeful God), who is separate from the pure and loving God of the New Testament.

With this little bit of backstory, we are at least a little more prepared for this noisy and disturbing record. A bed of sampled Gregorian chants floats eerily in the background, while discordant industrial noises clank and moan over them, punctuated by hellish growling and Tibet's strident vocals proclaiming that "Maldoror is dead" (a reference to Lautreamont's classic proto-surrealist, stream of consciousness novel that is itself quite unsettling.)

The album is broken up into two, side-long tracks, but it really sounds like a single piece of music. Tape manipulation stretches vocals out into deep bass groans. Christian themes are repeated throughout, with the title of side one referencing Golgotha, the place in which Christ was crucified. Although Nature Unveiled bears little resemblance musically to Current 93's later, folk-influenced work, thematically there is much in common, and the listener is always left feeling that the Apocalypse is just around the corner.

Towards the end of the album, the vocals fade away and are replaced by distant wailing and increasingly urgent sirens, a harbinger of imminent and inescapable doom. Then, suddenly, it's all over, the vision of the end of days complete.

Nature unveiled is a raw, powerful and extremely noisy record, and although Tibet and most of his collaborators drifted away from and ultimately rejected the "industrial" label, there is no doubt that this album remains one of the best and most effective examples of what industrial music was all about in the early eighties. Still, it will probably leave most people desperate to turn on all the lights and put on something a little more cheerful.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Andrew Liles & Daniel Menche - The Progeny of Flies (2008)

Andrew Liles and Daniel Menche are both influential and highly regarded members of the experimental music world, so naturally their team up raises high expectations. Faced with that kind of pressure, they chose to deliver an album about the life cycle of flies. Well, at least it's original.

The Progeny of Flies is a subtle, sinister record that is long on atmosphere and imagination. I've always said that a good ambient record allows room for the listener to insert his own thoughts and interpretations, and in this the record very admirably succeeds. It plays like the soundtrack to all the quiet, suspenseful bits at the beginnings of horror films, where you know something bad is going to happen but you're not sure what or when.

The album is divided up into four lengthy tracks named after various stages in the development of flies. The first of these, "Eggs," consists of a slowly shifting patchwork of electronic drones, low rumbles matched by higher, slowly unfolding synth melodies. It serves as a kind of warm up for what is yet to come, not giving away too much while offering considerable promise.

The second track builds o this, adding Liles' minimalist, Satie-like piano. Liles has an uncanny ability to extract an immense amount of atmosphere from just a couple of methodically repeated piano chords, and the supplemental bass thumpings and rumblings are more than sufficiently unsettling.

The third track, "Pupa," opens with the unexpected shriek of a horse's neigh, followed by the erratic plucking of some stringed instrument which I can't quite identify. Gradually, this fades away and is replaced by gentle metallic clangs and other acoustic sounds, heightened as ever by dark electronics.

The album concludes with the final stage, "Metamorphosis," in which the tensions builds to a climax , incorporating all that came before and more. Ghostly choirs, a repeated four-note piano motif, harrowing electronic groans and buzzes and finally the actual buzzing of the titular flies.

The album as a whole is very well structured, with each track building on the previous one for an ever increasing atmosphere of paranoia and menace, and while it certainly rewards close listening, it also works great as low background music to terrify any unwanted guests who have overstayed their welcome.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Coil - Musick to Play in the Dark Vol. 2 (2000)

Continuing our Halloween month theme, we turn to masters of post-industrial, electronic brilliance Coil and their Musick to Play in the Dark series. With these albums, Coil announced, they were leaving behind their old style of "sun music" and transitioning towards "moon music." I'm sure that makes sense to someone, but I will not worry too much about it because the music on both these albums,, solar or lunar, is among the strongest of their extremely impressive career.

There's definitely an atmosphere of the sinister here, and they spare no expense in creating spooky atmospherics throughout. The opener, "Something," is just the title word spoken in a whisper again and again, slowly fading in surrounded by wind sounds and subtle electronics. The second track is a full fledged electronic workout that bears all the hallmarks of later-day Coil hired gun and analog synth wizard Thighpaulsandra. His utterly unique approach to playing the synthesizer is endlessly entertaining and a regular feature on most Coil albums from this period. Think of a more demented Tangerine Dream and you get the basic idea.

Te showstopper on the album is the eleven minute "Ether." Its arcane references to the creepy, old-fashioned drug are chilling enough, but towards the end it becomes downright terrifying when John Balance intones the line "I'm going upstairs to turn my mind off... to turn my mind off... to turn my mind off" over a gradual fading backdrop of dark ambient sounds until only his desperate rasping remains. It's tremendously effective and one of the scariest songs I've ever heard.

The rest of the album remains strong throughout. Volume One of the series was a little uneven, and it's nice to see that that mistake has not been repeated here. The closer, another eleven minute track call ed"Batwings: A Limnal Hymn," is oddly the most sedate and straightforward track here, with no vocal processing for Balance and minimal instrumentation, yet it's strangely effective. It's unsettling without being over the top, and send the listener off into the night feeling just a little unnerved and eager to get home to a safe, warm bed.

No other band has ever really sounded like Coil, and it's wonderful that they have such a prodigious and varied discography. It's only a shame that the members died so young and were unable to leave us with even more great music.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Fields of the Nephilim - Elizium (1990)

Well, it's October again and in honor of my favorite month crowned gloriously by my favorite holiday, I'll be spending this months featuring albums with a decidedly spooky feel.

The first of these is by Fields of the Nephilim, a gothic rock group influenced by the occult and spaghetti westerns, fond of performing in black cowboy outfits. Elizium is their second album, showing dramatic advancement over their solid, but not outstanding debut. I'll go out on a limb and say that I personally consider this to be the finest goth rock album ever produced. It's a strong statement, I know, but allow me to elaborate.

Whereas the band's first album was song-oriented, Elizium is much more sweeping in scope. The first four tracks all flow together to form one fifteen minute suite ranging from somber atmospherics to uptempo, but still quite dark, rock, then back to brooding stillness. The guitars are drenched in reverb, the drums boom in the distance and the singer's voice croons in a deeply smooth, yet sinister drawl. There is even a grainy sample of infamous occultist Aleister Crowley to ratchet up the creepiness.

I should take a moment to comment on the production which, although the song writing is very strong, is the main reason the album succeeds to spectacularly. I'm not sure how they got the effect, but the whole thing sounds like it's being played on a bonfire-lit hilltop several miles away across a foggy moor. The effect is as eerie as it is exciting.

The opening suite, collectively known as "for Her Light," is followed by a more subdued eight-minute track called "Submission," which is essentially a bass guitar workout for the singer to talk ominously over. Various vocal effects sch as echo and elaborate panning keep things unsettling throughout.

What's striking is how catchy these songs manage to be, and how much they rock, without disturbing the uncanny atmosphere. The eleven-minute rocker "Sumerland (What Dreams May Come)" is relentlessly entertaining throughout, and for me is the highlight of the album, while the final two tracks wind things down in a dreamy, hallucinatory way that makes you wonder whether you imagined the whole thing.

Music that tries to be spooky is always of danger of stumbling into a great many treacherous pitfalls, but Fields of the Nephilim manage to simultaneously avoid being campy, contrived or overly abrasive, a feat for which they surely deserve a great deal of praise.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Fripp & Eno - No Pussyfooting (1973)

Robert Fripp and Brian Eno were two of the most interesting and innovative musical personalities of the 1970s, but it would also be hard to imagine two more divergent temperaments. Eno was a flashy, kinetic wild man who, during his tenure with Roxy Music managed to steal the show from one of the most dynamic frontmen ever, despite not really playing any instruments. Fripp was a cool intellectual who sat on stool on stage while playing his guitar and was notoriously standoffish to fans. The public may not have known what to expect when they decided to team up, but anyone could bet the result would be magical.

The driving force behind the album is a tape loop system developed by Eno which was capable of simultaneous playback and recording. This allowed a performer to hear a loop of his himself while continuing to play on top of it, adding new layers and rhythms in real time. This was not entirely a new idea-Terry Riley had been doing similar things for years-but Eno dubbed the process "Frippertronics" and the name stuck.

The record consists of two side-long tracks, each containing a subtly pulsing backdrop over which Fripp solos extensively. On "The Heavenly Music Corporation," the mood is serene and Fripp's guitar sweeps slowly around with his characteristic warm tones climbing and plunging like dive bombers in slow motion. The effect is lovely and captivating.

Side two, entitled "Swastika Girls," is more active, with heavier focus on Eno's electronics making up the rapidly swirling backdrop. There is a lot more going on here than o the first side, and it takes several listens to take it all in. One of the dangers of this type of recording technique is the tendency for things to become overly cluttered and aurally confusing. I'm not sure whether that quite happens here, but it certainly walks a fine line.

Fans of either Eno's solo work or Fripp's guitar playing (mainly in his capacity as a guest soloist for the likes of David Bowie; there's little resemblance to King Crimson) will find much to love here. The latest reissue is a 2-CD set of good quality and a couple of puzzling choices. First, they broke the side long tracks up into separate parts for the CD indexing, which is totally unnecessary and arbitrary to my way of thinking. Second, the bonus tracks consist of the entire record played backwards and a half speed version of "The Heavenly Music Corporation." The reasons for this remain obscure, but I am forced to admit that the different versions are interesting and enjoyable, if not essential.