Saturday, April 24, 2004

Here's a preview of an article I've slaved over for a long time now for the upcoming issue of the most excellent Dream Magazine, detailing 13 of my favorite scary/freaky nightmare rock records. Enjoy:

1. Current 93 Dog’s Blood Rising LP (Laylah) 1984. This charbroiled filet of aural pestilence is the crown jewel in the first half of Current 93’s existence, when some fairly cursed demons gnawed at the core of David Tibet and collaborators (including, as always, Steven Stapleton), leaving gaping wounds of black bile spraying at truly oblique angles. From the opening drone of “Christus Christus” we’re left sinking in a morass of cycling doom, heavily phased chants stolen from an lsd-fueled black mass repeating the same effected phrase against warped machine noise, but this is only the intro to this gate of hell. More effective, the extended spoken word/noise battle of “Falling Back in Fields of Rape,” as rabid vocals from Steve Ignorant spit out images of war, rape and pestilence in a cockney accent against a scabrous bed of distorted wind, damaged tape noise and metallic whip-cracks that all eventually melts into excoriating white noise. By the time Tibet breaks out his own twisted version of Simon and Garfunkle’s “Sounds of Silence,” our minds have officially left our skulls and hundreds of little baby spiders have moved in.

2. Godflesh Streetcleaner (Earache) CD, 1989. Here’s an album that plays like history unfolding before your ears. Streetcleaner remains a massive disk arriving at the industrial/drone crossroads where jerky bass grind, expansive guitar drones and crushing robotic percussion merge into one monolithic tidal wave of distortion. From start to finish, this is a masterpiece of carefully (de)constructed atonal resignation with pulverizing, often layered, vocals and a guitar sound that owes as much to UK drone rock innovators like Wire and Loop as American guitar-trance maestros Big Black and Sonic Youth. It’s a churning repetitive noise maelstrom that to my ears is probably the ultimate realization of the term industrial, and hugely influential in the larger world of extreme music—more than a few of Kurt Cobain’s heavier solos circa 92 bare a striking resemblance to what’s going on here. The combination of brilliantly sculpted feedback, pummeling rhythms and tape noise knocks you over the head like a pile of bricks from opener “Like Rats” and builds till we reach the three time punch of “Devastator/Mighty Trust Krusher,” “Life is Easy” and the incredible title track. Justin Broadrick probably wishes he’d recorded it in a decent studio now, but turned up to 11, there is not a more unholy, soul-crushing noise fury. Aside from Sabbath and the Swans, no one else explores such extreme hypnotic realms as perfectly.

3. Nurse With Wound Homotopy to Marie (United Dairies) CD, 1982. If you were looking for a bad-trip record, almost anything by Nurse With Wound would satisfy. Given the “band’s” tendency for dream imagery, I figured they’d end up on this list. But what is the ultimate NWW nightmare? The acid-fried psych of Chance Meeting on a Dissecting Table? The industrial black magic of Thunder Perfect Mind? The ambient elegy of Salt Marie Celeste? Ultimately the music of Nurse With Wound is so varied and consistently weird that only a choice mix would give one a real inkling as to what this experiment in sound is all about. In terms of paranoid mood though, it doesn’t get any better than 1982’s Homotopy to Marie. Across five tracks, just over an hour, Stephen Stapleton makes the studio his own broken instrument as he explores practically every facet of patiently arranged sonic dementia. There’s something deathly unnerving going on here, but also compelling—that is if you actually enjoy hearing the things that go bump in the night. Low, mumbled voices moan beneath primitive metal gears cranked with a rusty knife lodged in the workings. An emaciated frame huddles in a corner chattering to no one in particular. Faceless masses groan as they shuffle across stone floors; a water faucet dripping somewhere gets swallowed by the blistering shriek of pain. And that’s just the first track. The title track is a stark chiller of phased gongs and cut up tape loops of the most innocent phrases repeated by a little girl, matched with the cold refrain from a stern mother’s voice, “don’t be naive, dahling,” slowly hinting at something more perverse with each repetition, creating a palpable sense of hypnotic menace. “Astral Dustbin Dirge” is a 15 minute voyage through phase-shifting deep headphone mind tripping, but it’s the looped drone madness of “The Shmurz” that pushes everything into a different kind of minimal hell where totalitarian war chants melt into ethereal choirs and sprawling musical collisions of drone, free jazz and show tunes, all spread out over 25 minutes.

4. Comus First Utterance (Get Back) 2LP, 1971. An aural incantation of the more ethereal variety, First Utterance is one of those albums that get name-dropped regularly in the same breath as the Incredible String Band’s Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter or Pentangle’s Basket of Light, experimental folkies who had a broad influence on all sorts of strange free and post industrial things today. This album is an enigma of ambiguous moods and ethereal presentation that suggests that the trees of some ancient forests have shaded more than their share of brutal atrocities and pagan rituals in a barrage of ethnic instrumentation, violin, flute and more trad prog folk flavors. The vocals might catch you off guard, as they do have the same reedy, high quality of Alvin and his rodentia brethren, but there’s a definite method and ominous appeal in tracks like the forlorn little-red-robin-hood-gets-raped epic “Diana” with its tribal percussive breakdown and infectious, forlorn violin work, where the more expansive “The Herald” paints a wispier, but somehow still sinister picture of hypnotic witchery and naked frolicking in the misting predawn.

5. Nico The End (Island) CD, 1974. This is proof that a disturbing album can move you to tears. You can hear the seeds of so many avant-pop singers here, and even though she’s backed by a dream lineup of art-rock Gods in corpus and spirit (Eno, Phil Manzanera, John Cale, Jim MojoRisin), this is entirely Nico’s show on vocals and harmonium from beginning to, yes, the end. By the time she lays into the title track, reaching the oedipal spoken word, all the guffaws and eye-rolling memories of the classic original swirl down a drainpipe of corroded despair. This is “The End” as it was meant to be performed, naked with bleak honesty. A stunning work that proves beyond any doubt that Nico easily held her on next to her more popular former band-mates in the 70s, and maintains an unparalleled hypnotic aura throughout.

6. The Renderers Dream of the Sea (Siltbreeze) CD, 1998. This album is included here, if for nothing else, its unflinching gaze towards the black hole of human relationships. The vivid and painfully obscure imagery of Brian and Maryrose Crook’s songs will stick with you long after you hear them, and given that repeated listening is a guaranteed must for anyone with a penchant for the dire and surreal, you may never view the phrase “noise pop” the same way again. This is a nightmare dreamt with a just enough hope and genuine emotion to have real meaning. A gritty realism captured in the raw production (the first three tracks were recorded live at a sound check before a show) merges with a dark noise/jazz surrealism pretty much unparalleled in the larger rock world. These are fatalistic rock journeymen and woman at their experimental best, with Crook’s consistently striking guitar work the perfect crackling foil to Maryrose’s haunting vocal performance. Though other Renderers albums bear a more obvious trad country flavor, Dream of the Sea is the husband/wife combo at their lysergic noise folk best. A reverb drenched beast flailing in an ocean populated with regret and primordial life.

7. 150 Murderous Passions The 150 Murderous Passions (United Dairies) CD, 1981. Whitehouse is always a fun band to throw in the mix. In a way similar to say, Mel Gibson’s The Passion or Pasolini’s Salo, William Bennett purposely pushes the boundaries of moral perception, exploring a wide spectrum of subjective reactions. As sick as they come humanely speaking, Bennett has made a name for himself over the last 25 years by exploring the extreme side of life, being a scholar on all things decadent and amoral and as the sculptor of ultra-distorted/discordant electro noise which often blurs the boundary between art and obscenity with albums like Cruise and Mummy and Daddy—the aural equivalents to an extended barbed-wire rack in the face—both on his Susan Lawly imprint. The 150 Murderous Passions is not a Whitehouse album though, yet it is, along with the collaborative help of none other than Steven Stapleton, who hopefully is no stranger to you by now. Both have since disowned the piece and blame the other for its seeming failure, but the reality is this aptly named cavern of macabre drone offers two tracks of mind-flaying discord that combines high pitched metallic noise with gongs, phased samples and other surreal ephemera into just over 30 minutes of primo distorted maximal minimalism that sounds awfully contemporary in this day and age (a beat-less Wolf Eyes comes to mind).

8. Khanate Khanate (Southern Lord) CD, 2001. Khanate is black doom noise born from a fissure at the bottom of the ocean that’s actually what Art Bell would call “the true gate to hell” complete with mass moans of a million doomed souls, but here we just get one mightily fucked up voice instead. This is music obsessed with death and the process of decay, delivered with a broken intensity that is suffered through more than enjoyed. But this is one of the most hypnotic death dirges I’ve ever come across anyway, and despite a malformed sensibility to the “songs,” it’s all surprisingly listenable. There are precursors (Sleep, Boris, Sunnn0))), Fushitsusha), but Khanate hits the mother lode here of creeping aural lurch, with a guitar howl that blankets the room in ash when it needs to but mostly contorts in deformed knots of past-the-breaking-point tension, gut churning bass rumbles that cause tectonic ripples, hell hammer percussion and some truly over the top vokills, courtesy of the voice responsible for the mad squiggles on those early 90s Old albums. Rarely does such an album have this much texture and meditative allure combined with an unyielding sense of eternal damnation—the kind that comes with the repetition of a slave’s life, always shrinking from the sun’s glare. This grim beast prefers the darkness, digging through the earth’s viscera, hoping to return to the tomb of its inborn demise.

9. Omit Interior Desolation (Corpus Hermeticum) CD, 1999. A journey through domestic claustrophobia. This is an album that captures that moment when the familiar becomes surreal and your backyard turns into a swirling vortex to the void. Interior Desolation is one of the most unsettling pieces of drone I’ve come across, but it’s also one of the most entrancing. It’s all drawn from recordings made in and around Clint Wilson’s home of various tape loops, guitars, moved furniture, broken stereo equipment, squealing pigs, etc—you get the idea. Virtually no stone is left unturned in this pervasive atmospheric haze, but I’m not sure I’d want to stay on Wilson’s farm longer than a weekend or so. Take too many wrong turns and you might end up slipping through an inter-dimensional wormhole.

10. Kato Hideki, Ikue Mori, Fred Frith Death Ambient (Tzadik) CD, 1999. An aptly titled mood masterpiece. I’m still not exactly sure what this trio is going for here, as a wide variety of post-jazz soundscapes are explored across fifteen tracks, but this a powerful journey through disturbing sonic textures all the same. From start to finish, these instrumentals walk the line between cohesive momentum and genuine hair-splitting noise terror, but this is achieved as much through what’s not revealed than what is. A disturbing since of restraint pervades. I guess that fulfills the latter promise of the title, but it’s the skeletal structure which occasionally grows mass and spits venom that qualifies this record for nightmare status. Mori’s lopsided drum programming (no live drums are used) barely supports Hideki’s chopped up bass tones of cavernous squelches and rumbles with Frith coaxing just about every sound possible from his guitar, and a few others too. A dense, expressionistic journey through anti-structure that covers a wide range of emotional possibility, yet maintains a constant state of handmade mechanical menace.

11. Simon Finn Pass the Distance (Mushroom-bootleg) CD, 197?. Somewhere between the prog-folk virtuosity of Mark Fry and the solitary terror of Jandek, the juxtaposition of the front and back cover pictures says it all. Pass the Distance is the return call from the other side. Plenty of albums come to mind that cover a similar post-personal-apocalypse terrain, but Finn’s song cycle of fractured love and Dylan meets Milton mordancy is one of the best and simultaneously least heard of the group. This is a surreal, magnetic feast of primitive folk strums and trilling electric leads, clattery percussion, haunting reverb-drenched/ cracked production and Finn’s alternately blissful, mournful and inflammatory delivery. It’s hard to imagine groups like the Tower Recordings or later Current 93 existing without it, but there’s a sense of cloistered beauty here entirely of Finn’s own making.

12. Boris AbsoluteGo (Southern Lord) CD, 1997. AbsoluteGo, Boris’s debut on the doom/drone scene, remains a crushing statement of purpose and one hell of way to make an entrance. Originally released as one hour long trek in the Earth/Sleep tradition of massed distortion and amp buzz, this reissue tacks on the equally enveloping “Drone Evil” as a minimal-noise bonus to the incredible title opus. The first 30 minutes is bass/guitar noise and demonic howls massed into one seething beast with random cymbal clatter that resembles a crawling loop of a steam locomotive slowly gaining momentum on its trip to hell, but it’s when the actual riffs come pounding to the fore, and the drummer starts smashing like an epileptic troglodyte who didn’t take his meds, and a growling voice starts exorcising old demons, that we’re confronted with an ultimate tidal wave of doom fury unlike anything ever before heard, though there are certainly precursors. The subtitle Special Low Frequency is a nod to one of them, but where Earth was usually more interested in time-killing trance states, Boris evinces a chaotic rumble that’s both darker and more hypnotic at the same time. One seriously cracked and indispensable slab of primordial ooze is the end result.

13. Swans Cop (Third Ear), 2CD 1984. With this album, originally released in a genuinely creepy year on K.422 (and currently available as part of a 2CD reissue along with the equally pummeling but more varied Greed and Holy Money LP’s and the Young God EP), Michael Gira and his band, then a quartet, unleashed an aural hell different from most of what was rumbling up from the lower depths at the time. Where so many extreme noise rockers and metallers were getting lost in satanic hokum and extreme velocity, Swans always respected the swelling majesty of the power riff and knew that reality was plenty hellish enough already. One merely needs to channel the collective hatred of a crumbling society, and nightmares are sure to flow like blood. Over a primitive, distorted guitar racket that’s equal parts early Sabbath doom and NYC no wave, and bone-crushing percussive crash, Gira bellows and howls the most punishing, repetitive lyrics ever vomited forth from the internal void, resulting in an musical conveyor belt of hate, despair and ultimate catharsis where everyone serves his time. Later Swans albums would cover much more varied ground with mostly stunning results, but Cop remains an all time high and the very rock bottom all crushed into the same imposing mass.

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