Current 93: All Dolled Up Like Christ, Death In June: Heilige!

Live performances by these two heavyweights of the World Serpent roster are frustratingly rare these days, in the UK at least, so the appearance of this batch of concert documents is to be welcomed. The Current 93 double CD was recorded at two concerts in New York in 1996, and sees an extended line-up of the group perform many songs from the back catalogue, including some rarely heard live. These concerts were clearly major events; the performances are lyrical and passionate, and the audiences respond with unbridled enthusiasm.

It’s strange how such simple songs can express so much. “The Blue Gates of Death” consists of nothing more than a voice, a simple strummed guitar figure and la-la backing vocals, yet it evokes unfathomable depths of anguish and sorrow. Elsewhere, restrained touches of violin and woodwind add colour and heighten the elegiac tone. A triad of nocturnes from the bleak Of Ruine Or Some Blazing Starre album is followed on the first disc by the exquisitely lilting A Sadness Song, and on the second by the manic pirouette of “Oh Coal Black Smith”.

Central to all of this is David Tibet’s remarkable voice, in which he delivers his mystical texts in tones ranging from the purest caress to the most fevered howl: an insidious, discomforting encroachment.

Tibet’s one-time ally Douglas P. has released Heilige!, his first peek over the parapet since being expelled from World Serpent. The military metaphor is appropriate, since Death in June seem to be abandoning their formerly ambivalent aesthetic in favour of an ever less equivocal stance. Unusually, Pearce appears unmasked on the front cover, sporting a soldier’s helmet and brandishing a wineglass engraved with the Totenkopf symbol. The inside picture has him wearing a gasmask and holding the wineglass waggishly aloft, toasting the album’s dedicatees: “to all those who fight in isolation.” It’s an empty slogan and a faintly ridiculous image, far removed from the seductive anonymity of earlier DIJ cover art.

A statement posted on the World Serpent website gave their side of the story: that the split was mostly over business conflicts, but that “there were also personal reasons, including political reasons.” The exact nature of these reasons is likely to remain a mystery, but World Serpent could with equal justification have cited musical reasons. Heilige!, a recording of a concert in Melbourne last year, is sadly lacking in imagination and creativity. Pearce and his cohorts Albin Julius and John Murphy appear content to trot out perfunctory readings of acoustic-based material, with barely a pause as one indifferently delivered ballad follows another.

The noisier, more martial pieces fare somewhat better. The massed percussive attack is still impressive, and the sound samples rich and evocative; but they are interspersed with insipid orchestral flourishes and Pearce’s doggedly artless phrasing. As the inevitable, over-familiar and quite possibly offensive “C’est Un Rêve” closes proceedings, the overall impression is one of stagnation and routine.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 7, 2000)

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