William Bennett/Cut Hands, Vienna Rhiz, 19 January 2012

When I organized a concert by Whitehouse at the Rhiz in 2008, I already knew that it would be one of the last given by the group (it was the last but two, as it turned out). By that stage Whitehouse had evolved into a snarling and ferocious beast, with the duo of William Bennett and Philip Best out to crush everything in range with their lacerating blasts of noise and rhythms. On their last few studio outings, the group had begun to incorporate elements of African percussion and imagery into their songs, reflecting Bennett’s growing interest not only in African tribal sounds but also in the continent’s murky depths of tyranny, mutilation and death. Four years on, and with Whitehouse on indefinite hiatus, Bennett’s new solo instrumental project Cut Hands finally brings his fascination with Africa to the fore. The Rhiz was the first stopping-off point on a short tour of Europe; where better to begin?

Although the Cut Hands project may lack some of the visceral pleasure of Whitehouse, there was certainly no shortage of impact or aggression in this live deconstruction of the first Cut Hands album, Afro Noise I.  Standing coolly behind not one but two laptops, Bennett was a model of concentration as he issued wave after wave of scouring noise and fiendishly interwoven polyrhythms. These surging, clattering beats were as tight as the skin stretched across one of Bennett’s African drums, their dry jolts and rattles leading to an unearthly sense of disconnection in this listener.

The sense of formless dread was compounded by the eerie black and white visuals projected onto a screen above the stage. Interspersing ghostly human forms with uncanny symbolism, the visuals included archive footage that made glancing allusion to the cruelty and terror that lie at the dark heart of Cut Hands. Occasionally Bennett seemed to lose himself in the pulsating totality of sound, his head caught in manic agitation before returning to a state of relative composure. Harsh and malevolent to the core, Cut Hands is a mercilessly forensic probing of the space where public corruption meets private nightmares.

Whitehouse, Vienna Rhiz, 8 May 2008

Over to the Rhiz for the second night in a row to witness one of the last ever concerts by Whitehouse. If KTL represent one facet of contemporary noise – murky, lowering and insidious – then Whitehouse represent its obverse – seething, ferocious and even celebratory. And if the end of Whitehouse is also the end of the power electronics genre they singlehandedly birthed, then there is no finer way to mark those passings than with the kind of blistering performance they gave last Thursday.

Whitehouse have been an important part of my musical journey for around fifteen years. Unlike some of the other groups I met along the same path, such as Einstürzende Neubauten, Swans and Current 93, I can’t pinpoint exactly how I first made their acquaintance. I do remember going into the old Vinyl Experience shop on Hanway Street sometime in the early ’90s and asking if they had any Whitehouse albums in stock. The assistant reached under the counter and handed me a copy of the Another Crack of the White Whip compilation. Holding my nerve, I bought it and took it home. The furtive manner of this purchase, together with the rather unsettling Trevor Brown cover art and the sinister aura that I realised surrounded Whitehouse, led me to believe that I was now in possession of something unutterably clandestine. I wasn’t, of course; it was just a compilation album. And yet hearing the album for the first time, I found that its boldness and explicitness undermined the surface ugliness and brutality of the music. The music kept calling me back, seduced as I was by the sheer audacity of it and by the realisation that I was caught up in something I only wanted to experience, not to justify or explain.

To a greater or lesser extent, that wish for immersive, unmediated experience has governed much of my personal response to music over the years. In the case of Whitehouse, however, it’s always been the primary impulse. As if to illustrate the dichotomies at work, last week’s concert was frenetic, disorientating and above all highly entertaining. William Bennett spent most of the time staring impassively at his Vaio, a picture of “don’t f*** with me” serenity with his dark glasses and expression of scowling menace. Occasionally he would abandon his workstation to deliver a charged, suggestive lyric, his voice ramped up to peak levels and his microphone lead coiled around his neck like a noose.

The star of the show from a performance point of view, however, was Philip Best. In marked contrast to Bennett, Best seemed to want to spend as little time as possible behind his laptop. His array of movements and gestures was great fun to watch, from pinching his nipples to drenching them with saliva, from salaciously stroking the collaged pages of his lyric book to humping the amps at the back of the stage (which looked in grave danger of toppling over as a result). The overall impression was of a kind of deranged sexuality wholly in keeping with the graphic outpourings of Best’s lyrics. On Bennett’s rare excursions to centre stage, he and Best would interact hilariously, caressing each other and holding their arms aloft in a gleeful posture of rock-star triumphalism.

As for the music, it was exceptionally livid and abrasive. Surging treacherously from the speakers, the layered drones, rhythms and frequencies merged into a sublime totality of noise. What came over most strongly was how carefully orchestrated it all was. No improvisation, no taking chances; Whitehouse know how to manipulate an audience for maximum effect. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any louder and more delirious, they would make the merest adjustment and the whole edifice would become yet more frenzied and euphoric. It’s dangerously addictive stuff, the kind of live experience you don’t want to end. But end it now has, and whatever William Bennett and Philip Best decide to do in the future, music is a duller and more predictable thing now that Whitehouse aren’t around any more.

Photos by David Murobi here.

Letter to The Wire, September 2007

Many thanks for David Keenan’s commendably demystifying article on Whitehouse (The Wire 282). Keenan correctly identifies the two main developments in Whitehouse’s work since Cruise: a new focus on the lyrics, and an attention to African culture and society. More could have been said, however, on both these threads. The lyrical focus arises from William Bennett’s interest in neuro-linguistic programming, a set of techniques that seek to influence behaviour through patterns of language. The synthesis of everyday conversational tics and unsettling philosophical inquiry in Bennett’s recent lyrics is a clear outgrowth of this interest.

References to Africa include the 2003 song “Cut Hands Has The Solution”, which alludes to a deranged Sierra Leone commando squad; 2006’s “Nzambi Ia Lufua” (“god of death” in the Kikongo language); and the pan-African coloured lettering on the cover of 2006’s Asceticists. With these glancing allusions, Whitehouse summon up a world of unimaginable cruelty; and with their skilful manipulation and interrogation of language, they refract it onto ourselves.

Whitehouse: Asceticists

Whitehouse follow up 2003’s Bird Seed with another set of songs notable for their scouring, attack-dog energy and relentlessly hectoring lyrical style. It’s their first album since the departure from the band of taboo-tickling American Peter Sotos, but his absence is noticeable only in that the album lacks one of the bleak spoken-word collages of sexual abuse victims’ testimonies that were his stock-in-trade and that disrupted the flow of Bird Seed and 2001’s Cruise. Otherwise, the record is of a piece with its predecessors, evincing a scalpel-sharp intelligence and a harmonic complexity that belie Whitehouse’s reputation as thuggish purveyors of bludgeoning aural assaults.

Asceticists is less than half an hour long, but its righteous anger and splenetic delivery mean that the listener never feels remotely short-changed. With Whitehouse down to a duo, William Bennett and Philip Best share vocal and compositional duties between them, and their respective approaches are revealingly different. Best delivers most of the bilious, obscenity-fuelled rants in the snarling, barking tone of a psychotic rap artist. If “Language Recovery” and “Ruthless Babysitting” come over as vicious condemnations of Best’s former bandmate Sotos, on “Dans” it is practically impossible to discern the object of his anger. The lyric contains enough moments of directness (“Legs give way outside Asda… Picture a ballet at Sadler’s Wells… Remember creeping out the Arab bookstore”) to imply that Best has a definite target in mind, but specificity is held tantalisingly out of reach and finally crushed under an avalanche of seething hatred.

Bennett’s own lyrical contributions on “Guru” and “Killing Hurts Give You The Secrets” take the form of a synthesis of everyday conversational tics with invasive philosophical inquiry. As one familiar with neurolinguistic programming, a set of techniques that aims to influence behaviour through patterns of language, Bennett is well aware of the ability of language to suggest and unsettle. Here, he exchanges his trademark guttural howl for a sober, almost hesitant form of delivery, instilling deep regret and reproachfulness into lines like “you’ll be left holding only thoughts of what could have, might have, should have been”. Only on the closing “Dumping The Fucking Rubbish” does Bennett give full vent to his voice, with a fearsome invocation to “rise up now… kill this fucking nightmare that is inside you.”

Musically, Asceticists continues Whitehouse’s movement away from the crushing use of drones and frequencies, towards a compelling and highly original form of electronic harshness. The Whitehouse sound is livid and dangerous, with monstrously birthed synth noises and deranged, clattering percussion. Only on “Guru’’ do the disorientating frequencies of ‘classic’ Whitehouse appear, forming nasty aural slaps around the head as Bennett insidiously asks “Would you feel others would be better off without you?” Elsewhere, the heavily processed and mangled sounds shore up the brutality of the texts to perfection.

There’s one final, troubling element to all of this. Bennett has written about the torture and mutilation that takes place in some parts of present-day Africa, and the Bird Seed track “Cut Hands Has The Solution” made direct reference to some of these chilling practices. In the similarly fractured almost-English of this album’s “Killing Hurts Gives You The Secrets”, in the African-inflected title of the instrumental piece “Nzambi Ia Lufua” and in the cover lettering which picks out the artist and title in the pan-African colours of red, yellow and gold, Whitehouse make glancing, almost subliminal reference to this unimaginable cruelty. (“Nzambi Ia Lufua” itself is a brief, stricken instrumental, mingling disquieting percussive stabs with ghostly, metallic shards of noise.) Stalking malevolently between interiorised psychodrama and uncomfortable misanthropy, Whitehouse have once again demonstrated their mastery of the aesthetics of conflict.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 15, 2007)

Whitehouse: Bird Seed

In early 2003 Whitehouse, now down to the core duo of William Bennett and Philip Best played a series of concerts in London to celebrate the release of this new album. At the Conway Hall in Red Lion Square – a long-time rallying point for the angry and the dispossessed – the two men marked out new territory for the band by playing nothing but material from this album. It was as if the departure of Peter Sotos – an American noted for his unsparing documentation of child abuse, kiddie porn and sexual sadism – had spurred Whitehouse to rid themselves of their more bluntly transgressive elements and move towards a more forensic, but no less arresting, form of enquiry. For there has long been an element of investigation in Whitehouse’s art – a sense that, however deeply felt and personally expressed, it has also been aimed at provocation, at goading the listener into a response and measuring the nature of that response. Hence, perhaps, the lengthy recording of fans’ reactions to each new release on the Whitehouse website.

Such reaction so far to Bird Seed has been decidedly mixed, no doubt in part because it represents a distinct move away from the bludgeoning force of the earlier records with which Whitehouse cemented their fearsome reputation. I was regrettably, too young to be aware of their now impossibly rare ’80s albums (including the notorious Right To Kill, of which only 300 copies were made and which, alone among Whitehouse albums, has never been reissued due to Bennett’s admirable insisitence that it be allowed to retain its clandestine quality), but I lapped up the CD reissues and each album up to and including 1992’s blistering Never Forget Death. They dropped off my radar for the rest of the ’90s, but on the evidence of Bird Seed they have not lost any of their creative energy since that time.

The first thing you notice about Bird Seed, from the cover inwards, is how many words there are on it. They flow unchecked like a particularly noxious river, haranguing a nameless ‘you’ with a dense and unforgiving blend of vitiriolic abuse, virulent symbolism and jarring metaphoric imagery. Targets for the abuse may or may not include the tabloid press (‘Why You Never Became A Dancer’), victims of self-harm (‘Cut Hands Has The Solution’) and even Stuart Lubbock, the unfortunate party guest who drowned in Michael Barrymore’s swimming pool (‘Wriggle Like A Fucking Eel’). The words of these three long tracks are spat out by Bennett with demented hysteria, or by the workaday and less compelling voice of Best. Whereas the old Whitehouse would punctuate their assault of noise and feedback with well chosed blasts of verbal obscenity, the new sound is driven by vocals, around which the music swirls in a barrage of uncanny, pulsating rhythms.

The album’s three other pieces take different approaches. The title track ‘Bird Seed’ is Sotos’ farewell to Whitehouse, a harrowing 15-minute collage of spoken word testimonies from rape victims, prostitutes and sexually abused girls. It’s deliberately, calculatedly unpleasant, but not without moments of black humour, as in the following exchange:

Interviewer: “Do you use condoms?”

Woman: “Oh, my God, yes, I’ve got them right now, I don’t want no AIDS, I’m clean.”

Interviewer: “How many months are you pregnant?”

Woman: “Seven…”

Those who would like to hear more of this kind of thing would do well to seek out Sotos’ Buyer’s Market CD which contains an album length’s worth of the stuff. Others will probably not wish to sit through this more than once.

The closing track ‘Munkisi Munkondi’ is an intriguing accretion of lurching, queasy rhythms. Best of all, though, is the chilling ‘Philosophy’. Bennett is restrained, almost conversational, as he lays bare the contents of a mind riven with aggression and confusion: “A terrible thing happened/My friend was stabbed in the street by some drunk/Dead before he arrived at the hospital/Wouldn’t it be horrible?/Think about it/Even if you could get that door opened/And you were to search/You would never find me again…” The softly spoken vocals just about maintain their presence against a complex layering of drones and feedback. The song burns with wounded regret and is the remarkable centrepiece of an album that sees Whitehouse effortlessly reinventing themselves as noise terrorists for the 21st century.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 12, 2004)