As Nurse With Wound approach their 30th year of activity, their public profile is higher than ever. A slew of new releases and reissues, a series of well received live performances and a collaboration with Faust have all served to raise awareness of Steven Stapleton’s formidably strange life’s work, once shrouded in mystery and anonymity. The famously eremitic Stapleton, who lives with his family in a remote farmhouse in Ireland, has even dipped his toe into the fetid waters of internet commerce, selling limited edition prints through his official Website.
Time was when Nurse With Wound consisted of Steven Stapleton plus whoever he chose to gather around him to help realise his surreal musical imaginings. In recent years, though, and coinciding with their emergence blinking into the realm of live performance, NWW have begun to take on the properties of a group. Long-time Stapleton collaborator Colin Potter, who releases NWW’s albums on his ICR label, is the other core member, augmented for live work by Andrew Liles, Matt Waldron and David Tibet of Current 93, whose musical journey is in many respects inseparable from Stapleton’s.
Throughout this period of increased activity, however, the music of Nurse With Wound has retained an enviable air of self-effacement and mystique. This aura of detachment stems from a willed refusal on the part of the music’s authors to allow their individuality to be imprinted upon it. It’s music that rigorously avoids the facile imparting of meaning through personality and association. Instead it communicates with the listener through a system of atavistic codes and signifiers, leaving a disquieting impression of dislocation and wrongness.
The two double albums comprising volumes 1 and 2 of Shipwreck Radio (a third volume was not received for review) are prime examples of this scrupulous working through of the alien and strange. Casting themselves in the role of sonic explorers, Stapleton and Potter ventured north to the Lofoten Islands in the Norwegian Arctic, winding up in the small village of Svolvaer, where they remained for two months. During that time they made regular broadcasts on local radio, some of which now form the music on these albums. Clocking in (with one double-length exception) at 15 minutes each, the predominant mode of these tracks is Isolationist soundscaping, with multilayered drones and frequencies piling up and shifting restlessly around each other. This being Nurse With Wound, however, there’s far more going on here than just ambient hum and flutter. Central to the concept of the piece was that Potter and Stapleton had to take all the sounds they used from objects and environments they found in and around Lofoten. The resulting source material is presented in various ways, from untreated field recordings to heavily processed interventions.
Volume 1 opens with a dose of just such heaviosity, “June 15”, as a tumbling rock riff locks itself inside your skull and refuses to leave. Distorted, looped and heavily percussive, this juggernaut opening is a fearsome statement of intent. When the onslaught subsides, some local colour is added in the form of cut up and looped spoken voices. These are familiar Stapleton tropes, and they act rather as filler here. It’s a relief when “June 17” arrives, a beautifully paced 30-minute chorale of birdsong, rainfall, running water and distant voices. Slowly, imperceptibly, electronic treatments are added to these atmospheric sounds, infecting them with strangeness. Finally, we hear the sounds of local festivities, including a brass band, mangled and pitch-shifted to the point of unrecognisability.
The remaining pieces on both volumes amplify and extend the sense of inhospitability that permeates the project. Stapleton and Potter turn for inspiration away from the village and its people, and towards the harshness of the sea that surrounds them. The sound sources move outwards and downwards, becoming deep, murky and clanky and recalling NWW’s earlier Salt Marie Celeste, a particularly sinister evocation of oceanic dread. On the closing piece of volume 1, “June 20”, a thick musical fog descends slowly around a succession of indistinct rattles and thuds.
Volume 2 is more varied musically, with “June 19” being especially enjoyable. Until the appearance of the long-promised NWW hip-hop album, this may be the most danceable thing Stapleton has ever done. Although it wasn’t the last to be broadcast, its placing at the end of volume 2 makes perfect sense, with its insistent percussive throb and its movement away from the hardships conjured earlier and towards some kind of resolution and farewell.
In a further indication of NWW’s reconstitution as a group, they have also dropped that most rockist of manoeuvres, the live album. Soundpooling is rather special, however – a document of the first NWW concerts in 21 years, which took place in 2005. Conceived and organised by Walter Robotka of Vienna electronic label Klanggalerie, the three gigs were held at the Narrenturm pathological museum in Vienna and were not actually billed as NWW concerts (advance publicity just listed the names of the group members). Wearing white lab coats in keeping with the medical setting, the group performed improvisations on the aforementioned Salt Marie Celeste, of which the recording here is the third. Another NWW piece, Echo Poème, is also blended into the mix, resulting in an hour-long, distinctly filmic narrative of disorientation. The looming drones and watery creaks that made the original Salt Marie Celeste a work of such ominous foreboding recur in abundance here, along with enough disembodied cries, moans and cackles to soundtrack any number of nightmares. A bonus studio track, “In Swollen Silence”, rounds things off in grandstanding style with calm instrumental textures and a brief, surreal song, punctuated by crazed vocal and electronic interjections. In the world of Nurse With Wound, something nasty is never far away.
(Originally published in The Sound Projector 16, 2008)