Nurse With Wound: Shipwreck Radio Vols. 1 & 2, Soundpooling

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)

Colin Potter: And Then; Colin Potter & Paul Bradley: Behind Your Very Eyes; Jonathan Coleclough/Bass Communion/Colin Potter: s/t

Here’s a trio of droney CDs featuring Colin Potter, best known as the principal co-member (along with Steven Stapleton) of Nurse With Wound for studio work. Potter is also head honcho of the ICR label, and owns the IC Studio in Preston where many recent albums by NWW and other artists have been recorded.

On the solo release, Potter presents five longish tracks. The one-word track titles are taken from a cryptic utterance printed on the inlay and the CD itself: “Before it was inside… but now it is outside. Next will come examination and all will be revealed. Finally, however, nothing is certain, and then?” This frustrating riddle, reminiscent of the gnomic texts printed on the covers of Hafler Trio albums, is all Potter is prepared to extend to the listener by way of meaning or explication. Fortunately, however, there is plenty of textural variety to keep the listener interested. “Before” kicks off with a series of atmospheric windswept rattles and clatters, which are soon wiped away by a looming industrial-strength drone. This thing shifts and pulsates uncannily; it sounds organic and breathing, despite its electronic origin. Towards the end, the piece moves back outside where it began, to a hostile external environment.

This listener was utterly floored by the next piece, the stupidly titled “…”, which is a very different beast from anything else on these three albums. The track is infectiously rhythmic, sounding like a damaged music box as it arcs through 15 minutes of electronic restlessness. What makes it really special, though, is the sense of claustrophobia it conjures. As the beats pile up, they reinforce a palpable sense of tension and of a search for release. This is an object lesson in intelligent dance music. Elsewhere, “Next” has a woozy late-evening feel to it, with soft enveloping drones layered over night-time sounds and gradually becoming more and more grandiose and expansive over the course of its 20 minutes. There’s an immense architectural flair at work here, an intuitive understanding of shape and proportion, which only falters during the rather lumbering and tentative “And”. Rounding off the CD, “Finally” is another wispy, organic dronescape with a shimmering metallic heart.

The collaboration with Paul Bradley is a more homogeneous affair, with four lengthy drone-based pieces. Overwhelmingly dark and malevolent, the lack of tonal variety becomes oppressive after a while. “Cavity” is nightmarishly filmic, evoking images of hunt and pursuit, while the slightly less gloomy “Decline” sounds almost liturgical, as though striving to fill a cathedral with its resonant organ tones. This is music that demands to be played loud, engulfing the listener in its lowering sheets of sound.

The third album in this batch is something of a mixed bag. It’s essentially a remix CD, in which Potter, Jonathan Coleclough and Bass Communion (better known as Steven Wilson, the frontman of neo-progressive rock outfit Porcupine Tree) take turns to remodel material by each other. It’s curious, but very pleasing, to note that someone as deeply immersed in the genre of progressive rock as Wilson can also turn his hand, in a committed and convincing fashion, to the slow, Rothkoesque tropes of dark ambient music. On the opening track of the first disc, “Passed”, mournful percussive sighs float around disembodied organ sounds and skeletal beats, evoking a huge sense of loss in twelve unhurried minutes. At twice that length, on the other hand, “Yossaria” outstays its welcome with a queasy, repetitive brass figure and an extended sub-Floyd workout of clattering clock and typewriter effects (at least, that’s what they sound like to me). The insistent, nagging buzzes of “Raiser” begin to irritate, until they are carried away on a warm bed of silvery drones and warm, echoey beats.

The whole of the second disc is given over to “Epidural”, a vast canvas of delicately shifting patterns featuring celestial, Garbarek-esque saxophone from Theo Travis. This piece is a starkly beautiful, minimalist symphony, with the constantly shifting and pulsating vibrancy of the sax hovering ethereally over deep sub-bass drones. The sax bows out as the piece nears its end, leaving only low end rumbles and faint traces of static.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 16, 2008)

Nurse With Wound: Salt Marie Celeste

Driving home late one night, I was listening to Radio 4 when the shipping forecast came on. This evocative broadcast, which I had not heard for many years, immediately transported me back to the times when I would listen to the radio in bed at night, my insomnia soothed by the reassuring, quintessentially English tones of the BBC announcers. In those days, the nightly reading of the shipping forecast was preceded by an appropriately nautical tune, ‘Sailing By’, the playing of which acted as an aid to locating the station on the radio dial. The forecast itself sounded, and still sounds, like a strange litany or code. The mysterious names of the shipping regions – Malin Head, Rockall, German Bight – are followed by warnings of gales and cyclones, all numbered to indicate their severity. Intoned with impeccable Establishment gravitas, the shipping forecast outdoes the legendary ‘numbers stations’ broadcasts for sheer brooding atmosphere. It also recalls the isolated lives of its intended audience, the crews of ocean-going vessels on the high seas, as they huddle around the ship’s radio to await news of frequently treacherous weather conditions.

The decline and fall of one such vessel is evoked with glacial power on Salt Marie Celeste. The album is an expansion of an earlier piece, ‘Salt’, which was included on a limited edition CD released to accompany Steven Stapleton (who, for the uninitiated, is Nurse With Wound) and David Tibet’s art exhibition at the Horse Hospital gallery in London. This fully realised, hour-long version is one of NWW’s most radically minimalist pieces. It consists largely of a single, looming electronic figure, repeated endlessly like the motion of the waves. This incredibly dark and doom-laden sound is punctuated by regular bursts of eerie effects – first a lonely foghorn, then the breathing and creaking of wood, and finally the constant advance of water. Energised by relentless stereo panning, the piece describes a shipwreck as a giant arc of progression and descent.

There are distinct similarities with Gavin Bryars’ epochal The Sinking of the Titanic, although the differences are also clear. Bryars’ ’70s masterpiece takes as its starting point the poignant testimony of several Titanic survivors that the ship’s band continued to play as the ship went down, heroically refusing to abandon their positions and thereby providing the tragedy with a fitting soundtrack. The Titanic itself, meanwhile, was a mass of lively activity in the first days of its doomed maiden voyage, while its sinking was a monument to human folly and hubris. Stapleton’s ship cradles no such vitality, and its sinking tells of no heroism or ambition. This music speaks only of darkness, of isolation and of watery death.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 12, 2004)

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)

Nurse With Wound & Aranos: Santoor Lena Bicycle

This is Steven Stapleton’s second collaboration with the Czech violinist and multi-instrumentalist Aranos (Petr Vastl), following on from 1997’s Acts of Senseless Beauty. Whereas that album was a normal CD release, this is a limited edition artwork; in fact, its 500 copies may be sold out by the time you read this. Stapleton and Aranos painted huge, abstract designs on 8 ft by 4 ft sheets of hardwood and exhibited them for one day only at a gallery in Galway, with the CD on continuous play throughout the day. Afterwards the paintings were cut up into 1000 six-inch squares, which were then turned into the covers for the 500 CDs.

It may seem egregious, faced with such a perfectly executed conceptual art gesture, to discuss the actual music. Thankfully, however, Santoor Lena Bicycle is no mere installation piece, but a fully realised and welcome addition to the Nurse With Wound catalogue.

One of the most remarkable things about Stapleton has always been the way that his strategies of tape manipulation and studio trickery resist sounding like dry concrète experiments, being filled instead with consummate vitality and wicked humour. These gifts are well to the fore here, with Aranos’ skirling instrumentation adding fresh layers of acoustic energy.

The album differs from most NWW releases in that it consists of mostly short, concise tracks instead of extended, exploratory pieces. As a result, there is an unusually wide variety of sounds and textures. Some of these are more welcome than others: Stapleton ill-advisedly indulges his occasional fondness for conventional rhythmic patterns on the slow nightclub groove of ‘Mary Jane’ and the disastrous funk of ‘Sunset Baby Mother’. Elsewhere, the emphasis is on virulent percussion and complex, jarring shifts of tone. The mood is by turns playful and sinister, with stabbing piano and skittering violin colliding uneasily with deranged scrapings of wood and metal. This is the churning, discordant work of two gifted musicians: spaced-out, hypnotic and shudderingly creative.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 8, 2000)

Aranos: Bering Sea

Aranos’ latest disc tells the story of Jiri Prihoda, a Czech who travelled to northern Siberia to undergo training as a shaman with the Inuit people. As part of his education, he supposedly spent up to three weeks submerged in icy water. The CD is a musical approximation of this chilly experience.

It’s a beautifully sculpted, hour-long piece, immersing the listener in its grinding metallic scrapes and slow, indeterminate drones: The glacial textures recall recent work by Aranos’ occasional collaborators Nurse with Wound. As the piece progresses, the sounds become ever more delirious. The increasingly hostile environment comes to resemble an inhuman, infernal machine, ensnaring its victim in a network of frozen tentacles.

In a vivid, warming coda, Aranos sings a short, playful song about the experience. We hear it twice, the first time played through backwards, the second time normally. It’s a quirky, oddly soothing end to a disc that has, until then, delighted in depictions of the murky and hellish.

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.

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.