Thighpaulsandra, Vienna Rhiz, 1 April 2017

Although I didn’t know it at the time, I must have seen Thighpaulsandra live a few times around the turn of the millennium, during his tenure as a member of Coil. My recollection is hazy, but I definitely saw them at least twice at the Royal Festival Hall in London, the first time as headliners, the second time as support act to Icelandic also-rans Sigur Rós. According to Brainwashed, those concerts took place in 2000 and 2002 respectively. On the second occasion, I watched Coil’s excellent performance (which included the spectacle of two naked men covered in body paint walking up and down the aisles, handing out apples to the audience), but naturally had no interest in Sigur Rós. So I swiftly adjourned to the bar, where I remained for the entirety of the headliners’ set.

Fifteen years later, it was high time to check out Thighpaulsandra once again, this time in a solo capacity. Responsibility for the evening lay with Walter Robotka of Klanggalerie, a label and mail order operation that has been a constant fugitive presence during my years in Vienna. The consistently underrated Klanggalerie has been responsible for a long series of excellently produced CDs of electronica, industrial, way out rock and the just plain weird. While much of it is new music, the label really comes into its own with its reissues of often rare albums from the 1980s and earlier, many of an important archival nature. What’s more, Robotka organizes occasional concerts in Vienna, many of which I’ve wished to attend but been unable to for one reason or another. I would certainly have been at concerts by Robin Storey, Roma Amor, Farbfelde and Eric Random, for example, if work, illness and other domestic commitments hadn’t prevented me from doing so.

Anyway, Thighpaulsandra, whose real name is Tim Lewis, put on a fine show in Vienna to a gratifyingly large audience (the Rhiz seeming nicely packed on this occasion). The performance confirmed my suspicion that Lewis had more than a passing hand in the beguiling shift in Coil’s music that occurred around the time of the Musick to Play In the Dark Vols 1 and 2 albums. Of the whole post-Industrial scene that was so important to me in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Coil initially affected me the least. That all began to change around the turn of the millennium, as both Current 93 and Nurse With Wound began to run out of inspiration, while the music of Coil became ever stranger and more seductive. As another auxiliary Coil member, Drew McDowall, said:

“[Thighpaulsandra] was very important… he brought this whole other dimension to Coil, a much more musical dimension. He also gave the whole thing a Prog rock sensibility, which was really good.”1

Bearing out the truth of McDowall’s words, Lewis used some kind of modular synth set-up to deliver a performance that was rich in arresting moments, uncanny atmospheres and vast sheets of noise. Glowing synth textures and fragmented, twinkling melodies evoked Coil at their most lunar, while occasional resonant vocals added drama and gusto to the mix. The only jarring note was struck by Lewis’s onstage get-up, a completely unnecessary sparkly thing topped off by a pair of ridiculous shoulder pads. But given his single-minded pursuit of the perfect sound, I’m more than willing to forgive him this dire sartorial faux pas.

On the other hand, it would be remiss of me not to mention the fact that Cosey Fanni Tutti, formerly of Throbbing Gristle, publicly took Lewis to task on Twitter a couple of years ago for apparently selling the archive of another former TG (and Coil) member, Peter Christopherson, for personal gain:

It would be interesting to hear Lewis’s side of the story, but as far as I’m aware he has made no public statement on the subject. All I will say is that, in matters relating to TG, the positions of people who were in the group clearly outweigh those of people who weren’t.

Earlier in the evening, I broke one of my cardinal gig-going rules by turning up at the venue in time to see the support act. I soon wished I hadn’t, as I endured forty-odd minutes of join-the-dots industrial music courtesy of Michael Everett. Everett’s set was everything that Thighpaulsandra’s wasn’t – meretricious, irritating and shockingly rote. Consisting of dreary, flatulent rhythms interspersed with drones, frequencies and sampled voices, the set was accompanied by garish and uninspired visuals. The video projection came to a standstill after twenty minutes or so, although whether this was by accident or design remained unclear. Whatever the truth of the matter, the stoppage provided a handy metaphor for the paucity of ideas in Everett’s music, which stubbornly recapitulated without development, reaching a point of stasis from which it was fatally unable to recover.

Note

1. Quoted in David Keenan, England’s Hidden Reverse (first edition, SAF Publishing, 2003), p.278.

Letter to The Wire, December 2004

[Just unearthed this old letter to The Wire which I wrote after the death of John Balance.   It was never published, but I feel like putting it up here anyway.]

My enjoyment of Chris Bohn’s account of John Balance’s funeral (The Masthead, The Wire 251) was marred by the rank theorising with which the piece concluded.  I read with disbelief Bohn’s comment that “Balance’s commitment to such exacting creative methods inevitably took its toll.”  Balance was a sick man, an alcoholic, and the alcohol coursing through his body was not a life force but a death force.  It ill behoves The Wire to imply that there is something creatively important about the alcoholism of Balance and other artists that sets them apart from the great mass of people suffering from this addiction.  The suggestion that Balance drank in order to “experiment with [his] own and [his] audience’s senses” is as gratuitous as it is offensive to the thousands who, in their daily struggles with alcoholism, don’t have the benefit of cutting-edge magazine editors giving them the respectability conferred by the notion that it is all heroically being done in the name of Art.

Cultural Amnesia: Enormous Savages

The appearance of this record is a remarkable piece of musical archaeology and certainly one of the reissues of the year. Active between 1980 and 1983, Cultural Amnesia were a deeply submerged part of the British post-punk underground scene, dispensing experimental synth pop with an Industrial edge. Their milieu was the cassette culture, a many-tentacled network of like-minded souls which took full advantage of the ubiquity of the compact cassette and the affordability of multi-track recording equipment, recording their music at home and distributing it principally by mail order. Into this vibrant scene, Cultural Amnesia launched three full-length albums and numerous tracks on compilations; this new album contains a tantalisingly small, nine-song selection of these.

The connections between Cultural Amnesia and the early Industrial scene are more than just stylistic, and the echoes of Throbbing Gristle present in both the title and the music of a song like “Scars For E” not just coincidental. The band were unofficially managed by the late John Balance of Coil, who also wrote lyrics for them (“Scars For E” being one of three Balance-penned tracks on this album). Balance was intimately connected to TG through his musical and personal partnership with Peter Christopherson, and Cultural Amnesia recall the later work of TG in their warped pop sensibility and often unsavoury lyrical content.

Closer antecedents, however, would be the gaunt yet lyrical early work of Ultravox, Gary Numan and the Human League. The record opens with “Kingdom Come”, which sounds like nothing so much as an electronic folk song. In a mannered yet arresting vocal style, Gerard Greenway delivers a wordy, baroque text: “I spend my morning planning the afternoon’s regrets/I’ve elements and destiny to light me on my way/O happy days I hope to keep my relatives and pets/You can laugh or you can cry/It’s the same salt water in your eye…” This level of lyrical verbosity recurs throughout the album, but it is done with so much flair and self-confidence that they get away with it easily. Greenway’s voice is strangely affecting, while the wordiness of the songs, coupled with the skeletal melody lines, create an utterly distinctive atmosphere of blank austerity.

Other highlights include “Repetition For This World”, in which choppy guitars enter the mix alongside the band’s trademark synthesisers. Those guitars stretch themselves out over an extended synth outro, while the fitful vocals and propulsive drumming evoke the churning angularity of This Heat and early Joy Division. Elsewhere, the synths and percussion on “Blind Rag” uncoil powerfully around an unnerving tale of social and romantic awkwardness, while “Here To Go” takes Balance’s powerful, existential lyric (“I am a resultant, a coincidence of fields/When the magnetic fields shift there is no here/I am gone, I am thought in action”) and turns it into a song that more than compensates for a lack of finesse with its barked, urgent vigour. The whole album, in fact, is alive with such atmospheres. Cultural Amnesia have recently reformed and are working on new material; it’s hard, though, to see them bettering Enormous Savages, a set of intricate electronic ballads that honestly and evocatively reflect the time and place of their creation.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 16, 2008)