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)

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)