Monday, July 16, 2007

Negative thoughts on C93

Here is a review I wrote for some webzine, complete with a silly cartoon I drew:

Current 93 - Low Voltage at Volksbühne

Hoo boy, this is going to be a hard review to write. The reasons for this are many. Firstly, while not directly an adherant of Current 93, I AM a fan of many of their cohorts and collaborators (and it’s a long list. Big breath now: Coil, Nurse with Wound, Death in June, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Nick Cave, Boyd Rice, Bonny Prince Billy, Marc Almond and on and on…) as well as digging some records from the past (“Nature Unveiled” is a real goodie… scary too). Nobody’s fault but my own…. I should have remembered that the “Industrial” Current 93 made way for the “Folkie” 93 more than a decade ago (the nomenclature is actually “Apocalyptic Folk”: they pretty much invented it and others took it under).

First seeing life in 1982, the early Current 93 was a sinsister emanation from the same marvelously infected pit which spawned TG, Coil, Nurse with Wound and such leperous company. Unabashedly creepy and blasphemous, their early recordings were the original “Music to Listen to in the Dark”. Tapeloops, treated vocals, ritual percussion and occultist (some would say satanic) obsessions defined a new industrial aesthetic, one already removed from the drum-machine throbs and synth squawks of, say, Cabaret Voltaire. In the course of their musical development (charted over more than 40!!! releases) the synthetic elements gradually submerged in favour of a more melodic, modal acoustic music… at least to exoteric scrutiny. Embedded amongst the pleasantries, an unswerving devotion to the long night of the soul, matching festering malaise with exstasis, as if William Blake and Lautreamont were writing the continuity… what the hell is this stuff? James Taylor it ain’t.

Our Planck Constant here is singer David Tibet, he of the domed skull and posessor of the largest orbits and most hooded eyes in the business… le Christ hydrocephalique. Tibet has a unique vocal style, frustrating to some but obviously beholden to many, pitched somewhere between Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff (sorry, description fails me at this time), which, depending on your mood or psychic state, can be spellbinding or simply annoying. This is the “acquired taste” necessary for persevering with this sometimes quandrous music. But if you’ve made it this far you may be allowed a peep into the Sanctum Seclorum (apologies for the archaisms in this text, but it seems appropriate considering the often Ex-Cathedra nature of 93’s texts and titles).

Studiously ignored by the mainstream for the last 24 years, Tibet and cohorts have built a mini-empire of production through their own organ, Durtro records, not only releasing albums by such colleagues in crime as Nurse With Wound (Steve Stapleton, a legend unto himself) but also branching into book publishing, imprinting little known classics of Victorian unease such as E and H Heron, Arthur Grey and Count Eric Stanislaus Stenbock. These boys have used their time and resources well (although one hopes enough money was left to purchase a haunted manor-house on the blasted heath of some wind-swept moor). Despite the greater public being unaware of this particular virus, it seems that C93 are a “musician’s band” and a creative nexus for some of YOUR fave raves: the Current served as a springboard for Antony and the Johnsons, Bonny “Prince” Billy doffed his cap and do check out Nick Cave’s collaboration on “All the Pretty Little Horses”, a beautiful appalachian folk song unearthed by Mr Tibet. So much for history, let’s plunge into the recent present and get down to reviewing the Beast in concert.

I actually saw them twice. Unaware that the promoter (thanks Enrico!) had placed me on the guest list for the first evening, I strolled in at 11 o’clock to watch the encore (doormen usually allowing free entry by this time) and was amused to see a quartet consisting of guitar, piano, recorder and vocals. An unplayed harp stood in a prominent position but wasn’t plucked (this was the encore, remember, even if it did last almost 50 minutes!). This was, I presume, the old favourites section of the concert, as “A Gothic Love Song” greeted my ears.

The (sold-out) audience were almost certainly hardcore fans (a polite ripple of applause greeting the beginning of every number, just like jazz audiences style their responses) and in between songs you could have heard a pin drop. Respectful silence, or genuflection? I’ll never know, because this public didn’t look like me and maybe doesn’t think like me… who’s alienated here? I plead the Fifth.. Onstage we had the following: Maya Elliot on piano, Michael Cashmore on accoustic guitar (an early C93 member and a very lyrical player to boot), Baby Dee on recorder (gender unspecified, Baby’s that is) and David Tibet vamping in his unique way. Sometimes very frail, sometimes almost beautiful and occasionally threatening to collapse under his own cultivation, Mr Tibet sure has balls of steel to do this stuff. A noise-monger such as myself was left almost totally baffo. Feeling very much like the negro who stumbles upon a KKK ceremony, I was in a blue funk that I would be outed at any moment. The next night would be even stranger…

This second evening I arrived in good time and caught supporting Folkie Simon Finn’s set. Simon has a pedigree stretching waaay back and has been living in Canada for decades. Nick Drake? Donovan? I don’t know, but when he started screeching “Jerusalem!” I knew it was time for a breather.

Returning for the C93 bigband, I saw a far more fleshed-out performance than the previous night. Three guitars hacking in unison, Ms. Elliots piano, cello and violin from William Breeze (sideman with Coil and Grand Caliph of a charitable religious movement… a quick Google or glance at the Wikipedia should tell you more about this topic than I wish to go into here…), Andria Degens (also known as Pantaleimon, and Tibet’s spouse) and perhaps others I didn’t check are all givin’ it half. What they gained in increased orchestration seemed to be somewhat to the detriment of the more spare and ghostly quartet of the previous evening. Again, the public where vigourously supportive to the point of hostility (I drew plenty of foul looks and admonishment… “SHH!”… when I tried to whisper a comment in my friends ear)… yep, this was a listening audience alright, fuck their eyes.

Imagine meeting a real C93 compleatist, with all 50 releases in his collection (not counting over 20 bootlegs, mostly from Russia where the Goths eat this stuff alive)… could be scary, no? I couldn’t be entranced. Too many songs sat in the same key, the emotional tonalities clustering in the midground between Kate Bush and “Totenkinderlieder”. Anarchy (and Chuck Berry) were formally retired for the evening, leaving only the love that seeps. The more spiritually filled the fans became, the more I entered that grey zone which can only be washed away by a good snort of whisky and “Metal Machine Music”, if you know what I mean. “It’s true,” I mused “I’m just a Rock’n’Noise philistine with the emotional latitude of black to grey. What am I doing here?” At least the concert posed these existential questions to me. Not a complete loss after all.


- said...

I started listening to C93 when "Dogs Blood Rising" came out. It was interesting but sort of self-absorbed. I didn't care enough for what Tibet was doing to religiously buy his records and when I tried to catch up on what he was doing, he was doing bad folk music so I decided to ignore his output.

terminaltoy said...

Many people share this view. That self-absorbtion phenomena seems to be just par for the course in a lot of avant stuff. The question is, does it absorb ME as well. Thanks for the comment.

- said...

Current 93 & Coil have always adored Aleister Crowley.

It's interesting to see someone else take a critical view of modern industrial music!

Something I've been thinking about these days is comedy in the industrial genre. Current 93 turned into a comedic group ("Swastika For Noddy") after NWW's "Sylvie & Babs" LP came out. But others have done the same thing; The Silicon Teens (Daniel Miller), Negativland have always been comedic ... there's an entire sub-genre of comedic industrial and nobody ever talks about it.

Thanks for maintaining your blog!

Anonymous said...

I find any of the current C93 releases to be fine in and of themselves. But as a body of work a bit redundant.
With the exception of a few off releases here and there (I have a special plan and Inerrant Rays of Infallible Sun, I have grown a bit bored.
ah remember Rose in leather...

mikala Dwyer said...

hey Jon
where are you? David T gave me away many moons ago
x Mikala

terminaltoy said...

Hello Mikala! I'm in Berlin, where I've basically been since 1991. Send me a message sometime: