With Black Ships Ate the Sky, David Tibet breaks a six-year silence since the last Current 93 studio album, Sleep Has His House. That album was a highly personal, autobiographical work inspired by the death of Tibet’s father. This new record is a far more grandiose statement, focusing on Tibet’s obsessions with eschatology and the apocalypse. Tibet has stated that the imagery of black ships underpinning the record came from a recurring nightmare of his. Structurally, too, the album emphasizes notions of recurrence. Eight guest vocalists, plus Tibet himself, deliver versions of “Idumea,” an 18th-century Methodist hymn. Interspersed with these renditions are Tibet’s own apocalyptic ballads, each one tenser than the last, until the nightmare is finally realized on the terror-struck title track.
Of the guest singers, Will Oldham impresses most with his unassuming, sepia-tinted reading, sounding like a kindly preacher in counterpoint to Tibet’s feverish declamations. Clodagh Simonds strikes a note of glacial stillness with her harmonium-backed setting, while Cosey Fanni Tutti shimmers through a fog of harsh soundscapes (courtesy of Nurse With Wound’s Steven Stapleton) to deliver a version replete with seductive enticement. Tibet, however, makes a tactical error in opening the album with Marc Almond, whose queasy voice (recorded before Almond’s near-fatal motorcycle accident) tries but fails to reach the required heights of grandeur. Baby Dee’s cod-operatic rendition singularly fails to ignite, and Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons) continues the downward trend signaled by his recent solo work with a similarly overwrought reading.
Accompanied by the rich guitar work of Michael Cashmore and Ben Chasny, and the doomy cello of John Contreras, Tibet’s own ballads resonate with enormous power, each one edging the listener towards a clearer picture of Tibet’s haunted visions. Tibet delivers his texts in an eerie, half-spoken, half-sung recitative, its tone ranging from hushed and reverent to possessed and delirious. Musical highlights include the lovely, tumbling guitar motif of “Bind Your Tortoise Mouth,” the ominous drone of “This Autistic Imperium Is Nihil Reich,” and the barely discernible pulse threading its way through “Black Ships in the Sky.” The deranged chordal attack of the title track—reverberating around Tibet’s anguished plea “Who will deliver me from myself?”—resolves into the beatific quiescence of “Why Caesar Is Burning Pt II” and English folk-singing legend Shirley Collins’ hesitant, quavering but deeply affecting rendition of “Idumea.”
Ultimately, though, Black Ships Ate the Sky is a Gestalt in which the overall effect of the work is far greater than the sum of its parts. It’s anyone’s guess how Tibet will manage to top this, as he and his distinguished collaborators have created a kaleidoscopic and endlessly mesmerizing theatre of dreams.