Current 93 & Nurse With Wound: Bright Yellow Moon

In August 2000 Current 93’s David Tibet was rushed to hospital suffering from peritonitis. He was operated on that night and nearly died. Bright Yellow Moon is his public articulation of this life-threatening and presumably life-changing experience. Although Tibet and Nurse With Wound’s Steven Stapleton are full members of each other’s groups, and have also released two albums as Tibet & Stapleton, this is the first (and, one suspects, the last) full collaboration between Current 93 and Nurse With Wound. The discographical accuracy is appropriate, since Bright Yellow Moon sounds like no previous release involving either party. It sounds, in fact, like a C93 & NWW album ought to sound, with Tibet’s hallucinatory lyrical visions and Michael Cashmore’s ominous threads of acoustic guitar swathed in the livid attack of Stapleton’s hyperreal studio collages.

The album begins with a brief sung fragment, before opening out into the epic ‘Disintegrate Blur 36 Page 03’. This vast dreamscape is both the record’s creative apex and its clearest statement of intent. It depicts Tibet’s fragile state as he drifts in and out of consciousness, pumped full of drugs and experiencing severe mental disorientation. The glacially shifting guitar and doomstruck percussion frame Tibet’s debilitated attempts to come to terms with his condition: “The fault isn’t mine, it was given to me in a red house, in a dead house…”

The next piece, ‘Mothering Sunday (Legion Legion)’, is quite simply one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever heard. In barely three minutes Stapleton piles horror upon unspeakable horror, tracing a confrontation with death when the dying man is not ready or willing to abandon life. Tibet writes in his sleevenotes, “I could already see helicopters chattering over me, and they followed me to the ward.” They follow the listener too, swooping malevolently like those in Apocalypse Now and merging with insane laughter, sirens, marching, distant choirs and the crying of a baby. This is a vision of hell as disturbing in its way as anything imagined by Dante or Goya.

Stapleton and Tibet broaden the sonic palette on ‘Nichts’, acknowledging NWW’s recent turn to rhythm with an infectious bass line and a delirious percussive attack. ‘Die, Flip Or Go To India’ is another long, spacey aural collage, with Tibet’s nightmarishly treated vocal suggesting imminent collapse. The album ends softly with ‘Walking Like Shadow’, its sad text and gentle minor chords hinting at impermanence and recovery.

TS Eliot wrote: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” David Tibet came closer to ruin than most have, and Bright Yellow Moon is a moving collection of fragments attesting to his survival.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 11, 2003)

Current 93: Sleep Has His House, Faust

With Sleep Has His House David Tibet retreats even further into a hermetic zone of extreme introspection. Mortality has been a recurrent theme in Current 93’s work from the beginning, addressing this most unthinkable of subjects with a livid intensity. Now Tibet has written a moving song cycle in memory of his late father, and the private cosmology of the Current has never been more personally or painfully expressed.

The opening instrumental, ‘Love’s Young Dream’, sets the tone musically: plangent guitar chords that hang in the air unresolved, while the organic tones of the harmonium breathe heavily and sadly. This ominous overture slides into a brief burst of highly charged poetic imagery, with Tibet’s hypnotic half-sung, half-spoken delivery forming a slow, deadly incantation. The guitar and harmonium patterns recur here and throughout the album, giving the music a relentlessly sinister atmosphere.

Tibet’s voice continues the development begun on 1998’s Soft Black Stars, losing some of the manic quality expressed in earlier work and finding instead a lilting, lyrical tenderness in keeping with the sombre subject matter. The third song, ‘The Magical Bird in the Magical Woods’, is shot through with intricate shafts of recollected detail, while the voice fleetingly sounds a note of reproachful, reined-in anger: “But your gods made no sound…” Steven Stapleton, otherwise fairly restrained here, provides a typically haunted coda of treated sounds and tape manipulation.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of Michael Cashmore to the album. He wrote all the music, except that of the long title track, and plays all instruments except for the harmonium (on which Tibet accompanies himself). As Tibet stated in an interview with The Wire, their meeting was a pivotal moment in the development of the Current’s sound, since Cashmore is able to enunciate on the guitar exactly the emotions that Tibet wishes to express in his lyrics. Here, his resonant strums and simple, restrained plucking provide the perfect backdrop for the sense of loss and regret that permeates the text.

The album’s terrorstruck centrepiece is ‘Niemandswasser’, in which the imagery approaches the delirious: corpses piled up almost to heaven, cottages covered in honeysuckle, trails of screaming horseflies. As the voice insists “we’re all dust”, a scouring wind blows. A short lullaby segues into the dreamlike, 24-minute title track, with its mantric refrain of “Have pity for the dead, sleep has his house” intoned endlessly into oblivion.

Faust is something else entirely, a single 35-minute piece inspired by a story of the same name (reprinted in the CD booklet) by Count Eric Stenbock. Stenbock, a member of the Estonian branch of a noble Swedish family, was a decadent writer in London at the end of the nineteenth century. Towards the end of his brief life – he died at the age of 35 from drug addiction and alcoholism – he was accompanied everywhere he went by a lifesize wooden doll that he believed to be his son.

The piece marks a return to the Current’s pre-Swastikas for Noddy mode: dark, mangled slabs of sound that form a genuinely disturbing picture of a mind in the throes of collapse. Steven Stapleton is a malign presence throughout, from the unearthly child’s voice that haunts many Nurse With Wound recordings to the endlessly vital and creative layering of sounds and textures. Tibet himself recites Stenbock’s secret history in a devilish, chattering whisper, bells chime softly and human souls wail and moan in a nightmarish chorale of agony and helplessness.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 8, 2000)

Current 93: An Introduction to Suffering, Calling for Vanished Faces

Two more additions to the ever-expanding Durtro catalogue. The untitled C93/Cashmore/Heemann CD is a compilation of out-takes and alternate versions from the last two C93 studio albums, previously unreleased demos, and solo pieces from Tibet’s regular collaborators. The alternate versions make compelling listening; highlights include a sung vocal take of ‘All The Pretty Little Horses’ and the sepulchral ‘Judas As Black Moth’, a long meditative drift from the Soft Black Stars sessions that is the equal of anything on that twilit masterpiece. What makes the disc essential, though, are Christoph Heemann’s two contributions, wherein silvery drones ripple menacingly around everyday sounds to startling effect.

Calling For Vanished Faces is an exhaustive 2CD compilation tracing C93’s development from Dogs Blood Rising to Soft Black Stars. As such it represents a useful update of the 1993 Emblems collection, with only three pieces being duplicated from the earlier set.

The diversity of musical styles on the first disc is startling, from nightmarish looped onslaughts to demented rhythmic freakouts, but they are unified by the tragic quality of Tibet’s voice and the hallucinatory imagism of his lyrics. The disc ends memorably, with three songs from 1992’s epochal Thunder Perfect Mind album and Nick Cave’s sublime reading of ‘All The Pretty Little Horses’ showing how Michael Cashmore’s mournful guitar sound has served to focus and intensify Tibet’s obsessions.

The second disc, for all its emphasis on the fragility and resignation in C93’s recent work, also demonstrates something that is often overlooked, namely that Tibet is the possessor of a great, warped pop/rock sensibility. ‘Lucifer Over London’ is driven unstoppably by a grinding guitar riff; ‘The Dead Side Of The Moon’ has Tibet stepping nimbly through a minefield of bass, drums and the full panoply of Stapleton weirdness; while the epic ‘The Seven Seals…’ attains pure grace and fluency through its endless, achingly sad guitar and glockenspiel figure.

The collection as a whole is further proof, if any were needed, of Tibet’s unfailing ability to disconcert and overwhelm the listener through the precise evocation of atmospheres of fear, despair and terror. Newcomers, start here.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 6, 1999)

Current 93: Black Ships Ate The Sky

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.

Ether column, April 2007

This month’s column is devoted to the Donaufestival, a series of concerts taking place in Krems over the last two weekends in April. The festival has established itself over the past few years as a reliable showcase for avant rock, free jazz and contemporary classical musics, but it has excelled itself in 2007 with a scarcely believable line-up of performers from the dark heart of underground music.

The first weekend is curated by the British “apocalyptic folk” singer and lyricist David Tibet. As the leader and sole constant member of the band Current 93, who are of course playing at the festival, Tibet has been a vital presence in the English post-industrial scene for over 20 years. Birthed in the mire of fallout from the late ‘70s electronic experiments of Throbbing Gristle, C93 pursued a similar path of tape loops and livid noise over several albums before Tibet fell under the spell of English folk spirit Shirley Collins and introduced a beguiling acoustic simplicity to his music. Lyrically, Tibet explores religious and mythological obsessions with texts rich in hallucinogenic imagery. Along the way he has formed networks and alliances with numerous like-minded souls, many of whom are also playing at the festival. The most notable of these is Steven Stapleton, the driving force behind the formidably strange Surrealist musical project Nurse With Wound. NWW make a rare live appearance at the festival, and the weekend also includes unmissable performances from fellow travellers Bonnie Prince Billy, Larsen, Six Organs of Admittance and many more.

The following weekend sees an equally astonishing coup for the festival – a pair of appearances by the legendary Throbbing Gristle themselves. Active between 1976 and 1981, TG were the originators of the style of music that came to be known as industrial. They were the fearsome product of Genesis P-Orridge’s Dada-influenced pranksterism, Cosey Fanni Tutti’s provocative sexuality and the electronic skills of Chris Carter and Peter Christopherson. Their records and performances were brutal and disturbing, mixing slabs of electronic noise and sinister pop atmospheres with an unheimlich morbidity that made them unlikely heroes of the British underground scene. They reformed in 2004 after 23 years, and since then have played only a handful of concerts. Their two performances in Krems will be radically different – the first a set of old and new material in quadrophonic sound, the second a live soundtrack to Derek Jarman’s film In the Shadow of the Sun. Elsewhere, Weekend 2 of the festival bulges with attractions such as Alan Vega, the Boredoms and the reformed Gang of Four.

Krems is just over an hour away from Vienna by car, or there are buses back to Vienna after the last act every night. So there’s no excuse for not heading out along the Donau for an evening (or two, or three, or four) of unparalleled sonic rush.

Letter to The Wire, August 2006

Keith Moliné, in his article on Current 93, makes the sweeping statement that “within a year [of Swastikas for Noddy], a whole host of copyists had sprung up, strumming on acoustic guitars and intoning doomily about runes”. This is presumably a dismissal of Death In June, since it is, in fact, hard to think of any other post-Industrial outfits who were adopting similar strategies at that time. Moliné’s grasp of history is dubious, since DIJ were active well before the release of Swastikas for Noddy. Even David Keenan, no admirer of DIJ, had the good grace to acknowledge in England’s Hidden Reverse that Douglas P was the first member of Tibet’s circle who could actually play an instrument and that he wrote most, if not all, of the music for C93’s most enduring album. Moliné’s article is deficient in failing to recognise the crucial role of Pearce in C93’s move towards a folk-based idiom.

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)

Donaufestival 2007

Wow, what a couple of weekends that was. Too much drinking, not enough sleep, a bit of sickness on the last night, but most importantly a whole load of incredible music at the Donaufestival.

Week one kicked off, for me at least, with the Friday evening show in Hall 1. Matmos held no interest for me, far too tricksy and glitchy, and Om didn’t really engage my attention either. But the rather sterile non-atmosphere of the hall was broken awesomely by Current 93, who gave a formidable performance with an extended line-up of the band (I think I counted sixteen people on stage). Musically, the thing swelled beautifully, with the deathly pace of the strings and guitars giving a veiled, doomy ambience.

The next day’s curtain-raiser at the Minoritenkirche was a quartet of C93-related acts: two hits and two misses. Pantaleimon bored me rigid, and “Little” Annie was just an irritant. But Simon Finn impressed with his powerful, committed songwriting, and Julia Kent‘s performance on the cello and loops was serpentine and gorgeous.

Everything fell perfectly into place back at the Halle later that night. Fovea Hex were lorn and lovely, Larsen were driven and compelling. Six Organs of Admittance – featuring Ben Chasny and a very cool girl in a very short skirt – abused their guitars effectively out in the lounge. Nurse With Wound – a band I never thought I’d see live – created haunting, massive structures, and their two songs with Tibet on vox were shuddering, berserk blasts of energy. Will Oldham rounded off this superb evening with a set of pure tunefulness and white-hot wisdom.

My first night of Week Two saw a set of uncanny, bruising atmospheres being created by Throbbing Gristle. I simply needed to see these four unassuming people onstage – well, three unassuming people and one unashamed exhibitionist – and acknowledge the immeasurability of my debt to them. The infinitude of their influence on so much I have thought, done, heard and written over the last twenty years of my life.

Preceding their livid set, Alan Vega was a tiresome nuisance, looking for all the world like a confused pensioner as he wandered cantankerously around the stage, hollering useless drivel in our direction. Bookending the evening, Zeitkratzer and Rechenzentrum were rather ho-hum.

Things came to a spectacular end on Monday, with the Boredoms making a holy and riveting percussion-driven performance. Phill Niblock was a necessary interlude (by this stage I was feeling decidedly queasy), before Haswell & Hecker bawled out the place with a set of juddering noise, hypnotically lit by a constantly flickering green laser beam. TG returned for their Derek Jarman performance, and this was a revelation. The film (In The Shadow Of The Sun) was a slow and infinitely sad dream piece, saturated with deeply resonant imagery. And TG’s soundtrack, including a dark and mournful choir, was suitably plangent and sweeping. last of all, KTL (Peter Rehberg and the bloke out of Sunn o) played a set of deep, pulverising drones.

A word about the Esel guys, whose amiable performances I witnessed at odd moments in the lounge. They were very funny, I have to say. The stuff about auctioning off artists’ relics (sample riff: “here is a pill from Fabrizio of Larsen. Fabrizio will suffer pain because he will not take his pill”) appealed directly to my sense of humour.

It’s still scarcely believable how this all happened so close to me, here in Austria this year. Never again am I likely to witness such an extensive and concentrated pile-up of musical moods and experiences. It was, well, life-affirming.