Whitehouse: Bird Seed

In early 2003 Whitehouse, now down to the core duo of William Bennett and Philip Best played a series of concerts in London to celebrate the release of this new album. At the Conway Hall in Red Lion Square – a long-time rallying point for the angry and the dispossessed – the two men marked out new territory for the band by playing nothing but material from this album. It was as if the departure of Peter Sotos – an American noted for his unsparing documentation of child abuse, kiddie porn and sexual sadism – had spurred Whitehouse to rid themselves of their more bluntly transgressive elements and move towards a more forensic, but no less arresting, form of enquiry. For there has long been an element of investigation in Whitehouse’s art – a sense that, however deeply felt and personally expressed, it has also been aimed at provocation, at goading the listener into a response and measuring the nature of that response. Hence, perhaps, the lengthy recording of fans’ reactions to each new release on the Whitehouse website.

Such reaction so far to Bird Seed has been decidedly mixed, no doubt in part because it represents a distinct move away from the bludgeoning force of the earlier records with which Whitehouse cemented their fearsome reputation. I was regrettably, too young to be aware of their now impossibly rare ’80s albums (including the notorious Right To Kill, of which only 300 copies were made and which, alone among Whitehouse albums, has never been reissued due to Bennett’s admirable insisitence that it be allowed to retain its clandestine quality), but I lapped up the CD reissues and each album up to and including 1992’s blistering Never Forget Death. They dropped off my radar for the rest of the ’90s, but on the evidence of Bird Seed they have not lost any of their creative energy since that time.

The first thing you notice about Bird Seed, from the cover inwards, is how many words there are on it. They flow unchecked like a particularly noxious river, haranguing a nameless ‘you’ with a dense and unforgiving blend of vitiriolic abuse, virulent symbolism and jarring metaphoric imagery. Targets for the abuse may or may not include the tabloid press (‘Why You Never Became A Dancer’), victims of self-harm (‘Cut Hands Has The Solution’) and even Stuart Lubbock, the unfortunate party guest who drowned in Michael Barrymore’s swimming pool (‘Wriggle Like A Fucking Eel’). The words of these three long tracks are spat out by Bennett with demented hysteria, or by the workaday and less compelling voice of Best. Whereas the old Whitehouse would punctuate their assault of noise and feedback with well chosed blasts of verbal obscenity, the new sound is driven by vocals, around which the music swirls in a barrage of uncanny, pulsating rhythms.

The album’s three other pieces take different approaches. The title track ‘Bird Seed’ is Sotos’ farewell to Whitehouse, a harrowing 15-minute collage of spoken word testimonies from rape victims, prostitutes and sexually abused girls. It’s deliberately, calculatedly unpleasant, but not without moments of black humour, as in the following exchange:

Interviewer: “Do you use condoms?”

Woman: “Oh, my God, yes, I’ve got them right now, I don’t want no AIDS, I’m clean.”

Interviewer: “How many months are you pregnant?”

Woman: “Seven…”

Those who would like to hear more of this kind of thing would do well to seek out Sotos’ Buyer’s Market CD which contains an album length’s worth of the stuff. Others will probably not wish to sit through this more than once.

The closing track ‘Munkisi Munkondi’ is an intriguing accretion of lurching, queasy rhythms. Best of all, though, is the chilling ‘Philosophy’. Bennett is restrained, almost conversational, as he lays bare the contents of a mind riven with aggression and confusion: “A terrible thing happened/My friend was stabbed in the street by some drunk/Dead before he arrived at the hospital/Wouldn’t it be horrible?/Think about it/Even if you could get that door opened/And you were to search/You would never find me again…” The softly spoken vocals just about maintain their presence against a complex layering of drones and feedback. The song burns with wounded regret and is the remarkable centrepiece of an album that sees Whitehouse effortlessly reinventing themselves as noise terrorists for the 21st century.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 12, 2004)

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