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)

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.