Whitehouse: Asceticists

Whitehouse follow up 2003’s Bird Seed with another set of songs notable for their scouring, attack-dog energy and relentlessly hectoring lyrical style. It’s their first album since the departure from the band of taboo-tickling American Peter Sotos, but his absence is noticeable only in that the album lacks one of the bleak spoken-word collages of sexual abuse victims’ testimonies that were his stock-in-trade and that disrupted the flow of Bird Seed and 2001’s Cruise. Otherwise, the record is of a piece with its predecessors, evincing a scalpel-sharp intelligence and a harmonic complexity that belie Whitehouse’s reputation as thuggish purveyors of bludgeoning aural assaults.

Asceticists is less than half an hour long, but its righteous anger and splenetic delivery mean that the listener never feels remotely short-changed. With Whitehouse down to a duo, William Bennett and Philip Best share vocal and compositional duties between them, and their respective approaches are revealingly different. Best delivers most of the bilious, obscenity-fuelled rants in the snarling, barking tone of a psychotic rap artist. If “Language Recovery” and “Ruthless Babysitting” come over as vicious condemnations of Best’s former bandmate Sotos, on “Dans” it is practically impossible to discern the object of his anger. The lyric contains enough moments of directness (“Legs give way outside Asda… Picture a ballet at Sadler’s Wells… Remember creeping out the Arab bookstore”) to imply that Best has a definite target in mind, but specificity is held tantalisingly out of reach and finally crushed under an avalanche of seething hatred.

Bennett’s own lyrical contributions on “Guru” and “Killing Hurts Give You The Secrets” take the form of a synthesis of everyday conversational tics with invasive philosophical inquiry. As one familiar with neurolinguistic programming, a set of techniques that aims to influence behaviour through patterns of language, Bennett is well aware of the ability of language to suggest and unsettle. Here, he exchanges his trademark guttural howl for a sober, almost hesitant form of delivery, instilling deep regret and reproachfulness into lines like “you’ll be left holding only thoughts of what could have, might have, should have been”. Only on the closing “Dumping The Fucking Rubbish” does Bennett give full vent to his voice, with a fearsome invocation to “rise up now… kill this fucking nightmare that is inside you.”

Musically, Asceticists continues Whitehouse’s movement away from the crushing use of drones and frequencies, towards a compelling and highly original form of electronic harshness. The Whitehouse sound is livid and dangerous, with monstrously birthed synth noises and deranged, clattering percussion. Only on “Guru’’ do the disorientating frequencies of ‘classic’ Whitehouse appear, forming nasty aural slaps around the head as Bennett insidiously asks “Would you feel others would be better off without you?” Elsewhere, the heavily processed and mangled sounds shore up the brutality of the texts to perfection.

There’s one final, troubling element to all of this. Bennett has written about the torture and mutilation that takes place in some parts of present-day Africa, and the Bird Seed track “Cut Hands Has The Solution” made direct reference to some of these chilling practices. In the similarly fractured almost-English of this album’s “Killing Hurts Gives You The Secrets”, in the African-inflected title of the instrumental piece “Nzambi Ia Lufua” and in the cover lettering which picks out the artist and title in the pan-African colours of red, yellow and gold, Whitehouse make glancing, almost subliminal reference to this unimaginable cruelty. (“Nzambi Ia Lufua” itself is a brief, stricken instrumental, mingling disquieting percussive stabs with ghostly, metallic shards of noise.) Stalking malevolently between interiorised psychodrama and uncomfortable misanthropy, Whitehouse have once again demonstrated their mastery of the aesthetics of conflict.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 15, 2007)