ESSAYS & OTHER WRITING
Coil are one of the most revered underground groups of the last thirty years, with artists as diverse as Nine Inch Nails and Antony Hegerty citing them as an influence. Originally tagged as an Industrial group, Coil’s experimental bent quickly saw them moving far beyond the constraints of that particular genre.
Coil’s discography is enormous. Over 50 releases, innumerable bootlegs, alternate versions, collaborations and releases under alias such as ELpH, Black Light District and Sickness of Snakes.
Released in 1987, ’Gold Is The Metal With The Broadest Shoulders’ is Coil’s third studio album. It’s not a typical Coil album. But then no Coil album is typical. With their restless creative urges and commitment to sonic exploration, no one album can sum up their sound world. Between 1982 and 2004 Coil wilfully pin-balled from synth pop to atonal noise, delicate string arrangements to acid house club tracks, dronescapes, ritual music, sequencer driven kosmische, industrial dissonance, film soundtracks and beyond. Sometimes on the same album. Occasionally within the same track. Seldom was a group so unrestricted in the scope of its endeavours.
Conceived of as a way of clearing the decks before launching into their next album, GITMWTBS manages to combine many of the above tropes, yet comes across as a coherent and cohesive whole. Designed, in the words of its creators, as “a stop gap, a breathing space”, the album emerged as so much more. What could have been merely a compilation of offcuts and outcasts, developed through imaginative sequencing, artful segues and sensitive mixing into a fascinating and thrilling collage album akin in spirit to Faust’s ‘The Faust Tapes’ (1971).
A complex, multi headed beast, GITMWTBS points to many of the varied sonic landscapes Coil would inhabit over the following seventeen years.
A. HOW COIL UNCOILED.
Industrial Music. What does it mean? What does it sound like?
The first Industrial group were of course Throbbing Gristle, comprising Genesis P. Orridge, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Chris Carter and Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson (hereinafter referred to simply as Sleazy). They commenced operations in 1976, growing out of the confrontational performance art group Coum Transmissions. TG’s early sound was loud, abrasive and pugnacious, mixing heavily treated guitar, bass and violin with DIY electronics and prepared tapes. There was no drummer in their line up, yet their sound frequently used rhythmic pulses, whilst P. Orridge’s vocals were often spoken or chanted rather than sung.
Although they emerged at the same time as the punk movement, they were a world away from punk’s basic rock and roll orthodoxy. Whilst punk merely posed a threat, TG were the genuine article – natural and purposeful iconoclasts. Influenced by cultural extremists like beat author William S. Burroughs and ritualistic artists such as Hermann Nitsch, TG were interested in the limits of society’s control, initially choosing as their subject matter the most base and abject elements of humanity – murder, totalitarianism, sex crimes and so on. Yet, once these became perceived as Industrial music’s normative topics, TG quickly integrated other interests such as arcane magick, empowerment, musical exotica and disco tropes.
In general, the British music press of the 1970s and 80s treated TG with contempt, viewing them at best as arty poseurs, at worst as degenerate con artists. That’s if they bothered to write about them at all. For, despite regular record releases and live appearances, most of the time the group were positioned well beneath the mainstream radar. However, they faired significantly better in the world of fanzines. And, via newsletters from their company Industrial Records, they also encouraged direct contact with their fans and supporters.
In 1978, a 17 year old boy called Geoffrey Rushton (who would later adopt the name John Balance) contacted the group via a series of fan letters. Interested in the unusual, the magickal and the obscure from an early age, Balance first encountered TG via John Peel’s late night BBC Radio One show. He subsequently struck up a correspondence with P. Orridge and went on to heavily feature the group in his own fanzine Stabmental. He and Stabmental’s co-editor Tom Craig were members of a select invited audience who attended the live studio recording of TG’s ‘Heathen Earth’ album in February 1980. This was Balance’s first meeting with Sleazy and the start of a joint adventure which would last for the rest of Balance’s life.
Following the termination of Throbbing Gristle in 1981, P. Orridge, Sleazy and former Alternative TV guitarist Alex Fergusson went on to form the group Psychic TV. Initially PTV would retain some trace elements of the Industrial sound, but the group favoured a more expansive sound palette, incorporating conventional rock instrumentation, strings and more than a hint of 60’s psychedelia. In tandem with PTV, they also set up the Temple of Psychick Youth, an organisation dedicated to the investigation of magickal experimentation and what might be termed an open ended post-discordian philosophy. Aside from its UK base, the TOPY network included branches in North America, Australia and various points across mainland Europe, and, at its height, TOPY is said to have boasted over ten thousand members.
Having corralled the services of a diverse and unexpected range of collaborators – including minimalist composer Andrew Poppy, Soft Cell vocalist Marc Almond and jazz trumpeter Claude Deppa – PTV set about recording their debut album: ‘Force The Hand of Chance’ (1982). It was a bold start. Yet despite some high points, it nevertheless sounded a little tentative and half formed. However, with their second album, 1983’s ‘Dreams Less Sweet’, featuring an expanded line up including Balance alongside future Current 93 main man David Tibet and P. Orridge’s then wife Paula P. Orridge (aka Alaura O’Dell), PTV created what is arguably the most ambitious, diverse and fully realised album produced by the UK underground during the early 1980’s. Recorded using Zuccarelli Holophonics – a variant of binaural recording – it includes not only electric and electronic sounds but also acoustic instrumentation, lush orchestral and choral arrangements, early Emulator experiments, field recordings and exotic instruments such as Tibetan thigh bones.
Live however, the group were unable to replicate the variety and sophistication of their studio work and early concerts were a mixture of basic versions of a handful of album tracks and live jams.
“We had Alex playing, who is a good musician, in that he can play proper guitar.” Said Sleazy in 1987 interview published in the book ‘Tape Delay’. “But jams, even with good musicians, tend to sound like what their influences are. And so a lot of Psychic TV stuff ended up sounding like The Velvet Underground, which didn’t seem to me like it was advancing anything.”
This dissatisfaction with the group’s musical direction, was combined with a belief that P. Orridge was encouraging a cult of personality around himself, leading to PTV and TOPY mutating into exactly the kind of autocratic organisations they had set out to criticise and satirise. Sleazy and Balance – who were by now living together as lovers – left the ranks of PTV, following a less than inspired live performance at the Berlin Atonal Festival on December 2nd 1983. Balance had already been recording demos and experiments under the name Coil since 1982, but now, with his and Sleazy’s departure from PTV, the pair were free to concentrate on developing Coil’s musical journey together.
B. FROM SHIT TO GOLD
Whilst it definitely has a very solid reputation amongst Coil fans and Industrial music devotees, it’s probably fair to say that 1987’s ‘Gold is The Metal With The Broadest Shoulders’ is not generally revered as Coil’s greatest album. That honour is usually accorded to either ‘Horse Rotorvator’, ’Love’s Secret Domain’ or ‘Musick To Play In The Dark Vol.1’. So why did I choose to write about GITMWTBS rather than one of these more heralded albums? Well, to varying degrees, each of the above albums presents its own unified sound world, each one capturing the group in the very specific amber of their times.
‘Horse Rotorvator’ (1986)sees Coil in their mid-80’s Fairlight and Emulator pomp, harvesting global influences and commenting on the nascent AIDS epidemic. “A lot of our friends were beginning to die.” Said Sleazy. “We just didn’t feel it was appropriate to do anything too upbeat. We were in mourning, and actually still in shock from it all.”
‘Love’s Secret Domain’ (1991) is notable for unleashing the group’s characteristically perverse take on acid house. Although far from every track on that album has its sights set on the dance floor, the entire enterprise is unmistakably soaked in clubland Ecstasy and the LSD hidden (not so deeply) in the album’s title.
Meanwhile, ’Music To Play In The Dark Vol.1’ (1999) – thanks in part to the predilections of then new recruit Thighpaulsandra – sees Coil, mining a rich seam of Krautrock and Prog influences, especially Tangerine Dream and Cluster.
However, unlike those albums, GITMWTBS is far less rooted in one specific sound world. Due to the nature of its construction, it has a more wide angled perspective and takes in a broader range of Coil’s approaches and experiments. And because of this, it provides a perfect jumping off point to examine the various threads which made up the group’s musical and philosophical identity. These include arcane magickal practices, Catastrophe Theory, S&M, altered states, horror writing and horror cinema, esoteric fine art, the AIDS crisis, surrealism, hedonism, alchemy, film soundtracks, queer politics and so on. But in truth, the main reason I wanted to write about GITMWTBS is it happens to be my favourite Coil album.
Although Coil frequently called upon a wide range of collaborators in terms of additional musicians, producers, guest vocalists and arrangers, between 1984 and 1992, they were essentially a trio. Stephen Thrower had joined Sleazy and Balance when recordings for their debut album ‘Scatology’ were already under way and in retrospect it seems likely that his involvement helped pull the group into sharper focus.
Like Balance, Thrower had started out as a fan of Throbbing Gristle and in 1979, at the age of 16, he had also made contact via fan mail. Along with friends Victor Watkins and Andrew Wood, Thrower had already formed his own post punk band Possession – named after one of his favourite horror films by Polish director Andrzej Żuławski. But by 1984, he was also regularly travelling down to London from his home in Wakefield Yorkshire, to stay with Sleazy and Balance and contribute to Coil’s recordings.*
‘Scatology’ was released in 1984. Beautifully packaged and carefully constructed, ‘Scatology’ was nevertheless a decidedly mixed bag. There were moments of undeniable invention and ambition such as the deliriously spiralling ‘Ubu Noir’ and especially the slow moving, magisterial instrumental ‘At The Heart of It All’, which was the first of Coil’s brushes with the sublime. But there were also far less convincing pieces such as the pummelling noisy sprawl of the ‘The Spoiler’ or the single ‘Panic’ – an early stab at dance floor credibility, hampered by its stiff, awkward programming and lumpen chorus. Thrower’s contributions, especially his subtle reed playing, brought a human vulnerability to an album which was dominated by the machine tooled sheen of that most fetishisized item in the early 80’s recording studio: the Fairlight sampler.
From the mid 1970’s, Sleazy had been earning a good living in his day job, working as a partner in the Hipgnosis design team. In fact, it’s no exaggeration to say if he had never played a note of music he would still have made an indelible impact on musical and visual culture with his creation of striking and frequently unsettling album cover artwork for artists including Pink Floyd, Peter Gabriel and Led Zeppelin. Throughout his musical career, Sleazy kept up a prolific but low profile presence in the mainstream, directing numerous pop promos for a diverse range of clients, from Ministry to Cliff Richard, as well as television adverts for high end brands such as Nike. Consequently, due to Sleazy’s income stream, Coil had access to cutting edge studios and equipment such as Fairlights and Emulators, which would have been well beyond the reach of the average experimental musician. And of course, because of Sleazy’s professional expertise, the packaging of Coil’s releases displayed a sophistication and visual depth which once again set the group apart.
In a 1997 interview Balance told Jon Whitney “On ‘Scatology’, we hired a Fairlight 2 and we had a mixing desk upstairs in the middle of the room, and we said ‘We’re going to do an album’. We just went to work every day.” ‘Scatology’ was co-produced by Jim Thirwell (aka Clint Ruin/Jim Foetus/You’ve Got Foetus on Your Breath/Foetus Interruptus etc.) and at times, the album perhaps veers too close to sounding like a Foetus offshoot. A sound which Thrower refers to as “I’ve Got Foetus on Your Coil”. On several occasions, Coil’s inherently seductive ambiguity was sacrificed for the sake of big, brutal dynamics. What seemed clear at the time and seems even clearer listening to ‘Scatology’ today, is that Coil had yet to escape the long shadows of both Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV. Here was a group still finding their voice. Or to be more accurate, their voices. For Coil never had the intention of sticking with just the one sound pallet.
The three piece Coil (aided by the usual diverse assembly of collaborators) released their follow up album in 1986. ‘Horse Rotorvator’ managed to be both more wide ranging and more cohesive in its sound. Boasting a far more subtle and sensitive production, it is frequently cited as the group’s most sophisticated album and, alongside ‘Love’s Secret Domain’, quite possibly their most accessible. ‘Horse Rotorvator’ had a scope which set it well apart from the majority of so called alternative music of the mid-80s. The samples and machinery were more fully integrated with the acoustic and electric instrumentation and it seemed the group had soaked up numerous global influences which manifest themselves both via melodic and rhythmic inflections and direct samples.
Lyrically too Balance had evolved. Although many of the obsessions present on their debut resurfaced here – as they would again and again throughout Coil’s discography – on ‘Horse Rotorvator’ there’s a strong sense of looking outward as well as inward. ‘Scatology’ had seemed to exist in a realm ruled by ideas, historical example and thought-forms. With ‘Horse Rotorvator’, there is more of an engagement with what could loosely be termed the real world. Although as ever with Coil, it’s a vision of the world as seen in a distorting mirror. Even the inclusion of a cover version – a gentle and measured interpretation of Leonard Cohen’s 1974 song ‘Who By Fire’ – indicated that Coil were now working in a far wider context than the label Industrial would indicate.
However, by mid 1987, Coil had reached some kind of impasse. They had commenced work on their third album which had already been given the title ‘The Dark Age of Love’ – partly as a comment on an era in the shadow AIDS. With a couple of tracks completed and a few others at earlier stages of development, the ever restless group began to sense that the album they had intended to record wasn’t what was required. The trio were feeling the early effects of the so called ‘second summer of love’, both in terms of the acid house sounds emanating from London’s gay nightclubs and the increased availability of the raver’s drug of choice MDMA. Although Coil had no intention of recording party music, there was a distinct sense that once again outside musical influences were about to make their mark on their work.
At this point, Coil decided to press pause and reassess their situation. Which is where GITMWTBS comes in.
To quote the album’s disarmingly modest sleeve notes; “This release is not the follow-up to “Horse Rotorvator”. It is not “The Dark Age of Love”. But a completely separate package – a stopgap and a breathing space – the space between two twins. Presented here are thoroughbreds that escaped the Horse Rotorvator – discarded shards, distortions, disappointments, scrambled and disassembled stages. Remnants of what once was and a few clues to what might have been. There are very few pointers to what will be. We have radically rethought, realigned, sharpened and overhauled our ideas in preparation for our new recordings, one of which will become “The Dark Age of Love”. This record is a chance for us to release some otherwise placeless pieces of music.”
It would be quite possible to dismiss GITMWTBS as a side project, merely a selection of sweepings from the cutting room floor. However, I believe with the release of GITMWTBS, Coil’s horizons opened up to such a degree that from here on, every Coil release could be seen as a side-project. The group’s creative floodgates had now opened so wide that anything was possible and everything was permitted.
* Curiously, a fourth member is listed on the credits of GITMWTBS: Otto Avary. And whilst a handsome teenager appears alongside Coil in their publicity photographs around this time, there is no evidence that Avary contributed to Coil’s recordings or had any corporeal existence. The name seems to have been created by Balance as an alternate identity, whilst the nameless young man in the photographs appears to have had a merely totemic presence.
NB: I have dedicated a chapter to each of the 16 tracks on the original vinyl album. Each chapter begins with the album’s sleeve notes for the individual track under discussion.
‘THE LAST RITES OF SPRING’ (01.57)
Sleeve Notes: ‘Twin Gods of death at the end of the tunnel. Panic in the streets of Mandalay.’
The album fades in slowly. The sound we are hearing is an endlessly looped sample from Igor Stravinsky’s orchestral work ‘The Rite of Spring’. The sample is of a constantly ascending and descending chromatic line played on piccolo, flute and clarinet in unison, doubled by the strings, with a stab of brass in C minor.Below this, kettle drums pound away in the bowels of the composition. At 00:46 another sound source rises up, forcing the loop into the background. Although exactly what we are listening to is difficult to define. It could well be a field recording of some kind of traditional Burmese musical street procession. There’s a banging of finger cymbals and hand percussion and possibly one or more flutes. The mood is frantic and frenetic. If this is indeed a field recording, it sounds like it’s been sped up to increase the sensation of ‘panic in the streets of Mandalay’. At 01:08 the street musicians seem to climax and the Stravinsky loop and kettle drums assert themselves once more. But now we are aware of something else buried in the mix; the intermittent sound of a man laughing. Yet the laugh sounds tight throated, humourless and cynical. Then at 01:20 the street musicians career back into earshot. If anything, they sound even more agitated. From here on, the two sound sources, the concert hall and the street, battle for dominance.
‘The Rite of Spring’ (or ‘Le Sacre du Printemps’) was a ballet and orchestral work written by Russian composer Stravinsky and choreographed for the Ballets Russes by his fellow countryman Vaslav Nijinsky. The work received its premier in Paris in 1913. And, according to numerous reports, missiles were thrown, fights broke out, a riot ensued and the police were called. It has long been regarded as the most infamous musical premier in history. Nijinsky’s choreography was seen as primitivistic and soulless, whilst the score was judged to be overly dissonant. But the biggest jolt to turn of the century Parisian sensibilities was Stravinsky’s use of repetition, and more specifically rhythmic repetition. Classical music critic John Allison has called the score “The first music of the machine age”.
The Stravinsky sample, was selected, processed and looped by Sleazy, with an ear for an unusual hook and a knowing wink at the original work’s revolutionary impact. And it must be said, opening your album with the sound of arguably the most iconoclastic work in 20th century orchestral music makes for a fairly clear statement of intent. Describing how the sample had been treated, Sleazy told Keyboard Magazine that it was “Backward and upside-down, and at a quarter of the pitch.”
‘Last Rites of Spring’ is the first of five tracks on GITMWTBS which first saw the light of day in radically different forms on the previous year’s ‘Horse Rotorvator’. Although Thrower believes it would be wrong to see them as remixes. “The standard of multi-track recording equipment we had around the time of ‘Horse Rotorvator’ was encouraging us to make more and more complex and multilayered tracks. And you started to realise that there were other tracks inside the ones that you’d already done. And you could reconfigure them and they’d be quiet different.” This stripping away of extraneous sounds, find obvious echoes in the approaches of Jamaican dub producers – techniques which had long been absorbed into the matrix of post punk influences.
Sleeve Notes: ‘Was originally intended for ‘The Dark Age of Love’. This is the deep space techno mix as opposed to the raw horn original.’
The word ‘Paradisiac’ would appear to be a conflation of paradise and aphrodisiac. Such a seductive title might suggest a music with a sensual pulse, a feeling of wild passion or elation. And yet, what Coil serve up is a slow moving monolithic grind. Here is a piece of music which could be used to soundtrack a large injured beast dragging itself over a pitted terrain. Thrower describes the track as “A thudding drum beat and a weird, slowed down brass fanfare.” Whilst this is the core of the track, there is of course far more going on. Due to intricate mixing, ‘Paradisiac’s minimal components have maximum impact.
The word ‘Paradisiac’ could also be a conflation of parallel and aphrodisiac. That is same sex cestus. Coil were of course homosexuals. Or, to be more exact, queers. And it has long been noted that a specifically queer perspective helped fashion Coil’s work. In his book ‘The Queer Cinema of Derek Jarman’ (2009) Niall Richardson writes “Whereas ‘gay’ suggests conformity and a fixed sexual identity, ‘queer’ rejects labels, challenges fixed ideas of gender and sexual identity and refuses the status of a tolerated minority.” There are numerous examples of Coil’s artistic queerness, from the foregrounding of hardcore fetishistic sex on tracks such as ‘The Sewage Workers Birthday Party’ through to ‘Going Up’, their elaborate and ornate cover version of the theme tune to the camp British TV sit-com ‘Are You Being Served?’.
In an interview for the book ‘England’s Hidden Reverse’, Sleazy is quoted as saying “I think that gay people have the advantage, in that when they realise that they’re gay it’s tangible proof that the world is not the way it’s represented.” And, whilst many openly homosexual artists in the 80’s and 90’s seemed to be focussed on equality, Coil were always far more fixated on emphasising difference and deviance. In John Balance’s obituary in The Guardian, Richard Smith remarked “In the mid-1980s, gay pop was coming out of the closet, but Coil were the first resolutely queer group; their words dealt with desire, disease, dirt, death and drugs.”
Sleeve Notes: ‘A provisional title that stuck. Recorded between “Scatology” and “Horse Rotorvator”. A Loose tune set in a Thai boxing stadium. The ties and bonds of love and conflict.’
‘Thump’ is a solo composition by Sleazy. It opens with a field recording of the above mentioned Thai boxing stadium. We hear the chatter and murmur of what sounds like a predominantly male audience. As bells ring to indicate the start of the next round, there is a palpable swell in the audience’s excitement. At 00.42 music begins to interact with the atmosphere. The keyboard tones in E minor feel taut and brittle. The arrangement is sparse, with plenty of space to hear the continuing hubbub of the busy stadium. The sound of the wrestler’s sampled and looped grunts form a percussive thread which weaves in and out of the track. More than once we hear appreciative noises and applause from the audience. But these don’t seem to be triggered by any kind of combative climax. Instead the atmosphere, whilst aggressive, remains contained, measured and ritualised.
Coil had a keen interest in various ritualised practices, from wrestling to arcane magickal ceremonies, to S&M games. The were also known for employing their own rituals as an integral component of the recording process. Balance was fond of saying “We made the studio sacred and then blasphemed.” Sleazy and Balance shared an intensely personal caché of esoteric interests, which they either explored within their work, or used as triggers for the work itself. These include elements of pagan worship, Aleister Crowley’s Thelema magick, the sacrificial rituals of the Vienna Actionists and the urban tape recorder spells of beat author William S. Burroughs. In a 2001 interview with Fortean Times, Balance referred to his lifelong engagement with magick practice. “Even as a kid I used to do it. I was an only child, always talking to animals, fantasy creatures and spirits. I would make little plasticine gods and make offerings to them. I was just born with a pagan sensibility.” .
Coil’s very first release was the one sided 12” EP ‘How to Destroy Angels’ (1984). An instrumental piece largely composed of gongs, both beaten and scraped, bullroarers and clanking metal, the recording was subtitled ‘Ritual Music For The Accumulation of Male Sexual Energy’. The reverse of the 12” was a completely smooth blank disc of black vinyl. The suggestion being that the disc could be used for scrying. Scrying is the occult practice of staring into an object, such as a crystal ball, or lodestone, or even a skull, for the purpose of divination. However the object Coil’s black disc most closely resembles is the ‘obsidian mirror’ of astrologer and magickian John Dee (1527-1608/9).
‘FOR US THEY WILL’ (04.49)
Sleeve Notes: ‘At one point this track was due to be released as a 10” single in the Netherlands. But these plans never came to fruition. We intend to re-work and re-record this song at a later date.’
With its wailing feedback, synthetic stentorian snare, crackling guitar scree and powerful treated spoken vocals, this is Dionysiac music. The first of only four vocal tracks on GITMWTBS, ‘For Us They Will’ is the one with the lengthiest and most developed form. Despite the overwrought nature of its content, Balance’s fevered vocal, conveying what Thrower refers to as “A certain bullish outsider stance”, is utterly convincing. And it’s worth quoting the lyric in full, as it manages to cover many of the concerns central to Coil’s worldview.
Held high to bring the sun,
That burns in the sky
That burns in his eyes,
And pierces a hole
Like a negative sun,
Held high to bring the sun,
that burns in the sky
That burns in his eyes,
And pierces a hole
Like a negative sun,
Le soleil noir,
All the time
That you have to burn in order to shine
Smear me with with blood,
Till the sun rises red
Till, till the sun rises higher, and higher
Becomes a baptism,
A baptism of fire
And I’m caught between bright teeth,
Bright, bright teeth of morning
I am dog
I tell myself, I am dog, I have no name
I am hungry
I am hungry and I want to eat
I want to eat the hand that feeds me
The hand that feeds me
And I know these things
I know the stupid should struggle
The stupid should struggle
And, and with us they will
And, and for us, for us they will
And, and they will be gored to death
Gored to death on the horns of plenty
And, and smear me with blood
I am dog
Smear me with blood, blood
Until the, till the sun rises red
Till the sunrise is known all the time
You have to burn
You have to burn in order to shine
In order, in order to shine.
If not exactly a manifesto, then the lyric of ‘For Us They Will’ certainly provides a whistle stop tour of several touchstones in Coil’s cosmology; life seen as a primal arena, the price of existence being eternal struggle, the symbolism of the black sun, man at the mercy of elemental forces, the bestial being close to the celestial, the outsider as gifted visionary, hedonism viewed as an heroic pursuit, the concomitant risk of erasure of identity and, for Balance himself, the personally prophetic “gorged to death on the horns of plenty”.
Balance was heavily influenced by the surrealist artist Salvador Dali’s ‘paranoia critical method’ whereby a visual image can simultaneously have more than one identity and meaning. Balance would often attempt a parallel effect with text. We can see this in conflated titles such as ‘Paradisiac’ or ‘Penetralia’. Via lyrical word play, the use of puns and linguistic corruptions, he was keen to wrong foot the listener. Phrases we think we know turn out to have been mutated or inverted. For instance in ‘For Us They Will’, what initially sounds like the phrase ‘It’s stupid to struggle’ turns out to be ‘The stupid should struggle’. His titles often use puns to create startlingly original images, e.g. ‘Unprepared Piano’, ‘Static Electrician’ or ’Stoned Circular’. Whilst puns are seen as a fairly common form of wit, here, I think Balance is using them to interrogate fixed meanings.
‘THE BROKEN WHEEL’ (4.36)
Sleeve Notes: ‘These sections were recorded and mixed by Coil and Jim Thirwell. It was originally intended that a 12” extended version of this, our first proper Coil song should be released. This never happened and eventually a shorter more compact version of ‘The Wheel’ appeared on the obscure Some Bizarre/EMI compilation ‘If You Can’t Please Yourself, You Can’t Please Your Soul’, where it never received the attention we think it deserved.’
Sleazy counts us in. “1, 2, 3, 4.” ‘The Broken Wheel’ bursts into life with a fizzing guitar chord in C Major. Instantaneously, we hear a bass drum hit and a tight snare drives the track into life. Then, at 00:04 it cuts and reverberates into silence. At 00:12 Sleazy counts us in again. “1, 2, 3, 4.” The guitar, bass drum and snare hit once more and we’re off. But seconds later, the same thing happens. The track cuts. More silence. At 00:21 Sleazy counts us in for a third time. And we’re off for real this time. The snare pushes us relentlessly forward, at 00:24 a tight sequencer rhythm rises up, increasing the feeling of heady forward propulsion. Then suddenly, at 00:30 the whole thing stops dead again. The reverb fades to nothing and we sit in silence for a while longer. The first 30 seconds of the track have been all introduction and tease.
At 00.32 the song kicks in for a fourth time. This time we start at a different point. This time there is clear intention in the darkly pulsing sequencer pattern. At 00:54 Alex Fergusson’s guitar starts up in ernest, fizzing and picking like Lou Reed’s playing on the Velvet Underground’s ‘Sister Ray’. The guitar isn’t an instrument readily associated with Coil, yet it features strongly – albeit often in a distorted, sampled and/or treated form – on some of their best regarded recordings. This however, is a guitar which sounds like a guitar. But even as we’re drawn into the track’s thrilling slipstream, there remains a suspicion that everything may come to an abrupt halt once more. It doesn’t. It drives on. Then, at 01:41 just as we think we know where we are – in amongst the throbbing electronics and jagged fretwork – we hear two young voices start up a ‘comic skit’. They sound like boys in their late teens or early twenties. They talk in clear English, but with strong Eastern accents, possibly Malaysian or Thai. One is trying to seduce the other. They are incongruously high in the mix.
One could charitably call the skit vaguely Burroughsian with its focussing on the fantasy sexuality of Eastern boys, always smiling and always ready to fuck at a moment’s notice. But in reality the dialogue is not especially inspired, having none of William S. Burroughs’ acidic bite. It’s just two boys horsing around, trying to amuse their friends.
At 02:14 it sounds as if the boys reach some kind of orgasmic climax. But at the same time we can tell they’re partly giggling. In contrast with the throwaway nature of the dialogue, the rhythms then gather in intensity and Thirwell’s production stretches the squalls of guitar noise into ever more psychedelic shapes. At 03:08, there’s what sounds like a synthetic thunder crack and the track comes to an end. Silence. Then at 03.16 the whole recording of the skit plays out once more. Heard a second time, without the musical backing, it becomes apparent that it is just one teenager performing two different voices. At the skit’s conclusion, the boy laughs at the silliness of what he’s doing. “Finished.” He says. “Yeah?” Asks Sleazy, suddenly sounding very English, distanced and cool. He doesn’t sound amused. In fact, he sounds almost bored. As a listener, this moment feels a little uncomfortable. “Finished. Very funny.” Says the boy. He chuckles some more. Like the false starts and jolting stops of the track’s multiple beginnings, its conclusion seems designed to make its listeners feel uncertain and awkward.
Despite the group’s concerns that the song “never got the attention it deserved”, in truth, its appearance on the Some Bizarre compilation – sans the stop/starts and teenage skit, but with Balance’s confident vocal – probably made this Coil’s most widely heard song of the era. Independent label Some Bizarre had been riding high for the first half of the decade and had released the first two Coil albums. The relationship between Coil and label head and prankster Stevo Pearce had been good, although in years to come (when Pearce licenced the albums to foreign labels without the band’s consent, nor indeed passing on any monies) things would turn decidedly sour. GITMWTBS was Coil’s first release on their own label Threshold House and it marks the point where Coil, freed from the restrictions of parent labels and conventional release schedules, could begin to bring out a wider range of musics in a greater variety of formats. This also ultimately meant they could challenge the notion of the group having a fixed identity. They also sought to exact strict quality control over their own releases.
Coil’s aura of mystery and exclusivity was enhanced by the limited availability of much of their work. The group brought out a number of their albums in strictly limited runs, some as CDRs, some as limited coloured vinyl, some in collector’s ‘art editions’ with individually crafted sleeves. There was even a special ‘trauma edition’ of their album ‘Musick To Play in the Dark 2’ (2000) copies of which were smeared with Balance’s own blood. Actions such as this pushed Coil’s releases beyond being mere sound carriers and helped foster the idea that these were artefacts infused with talismanic or occult significance.
‘BOY IN A SUITCASE’ (01:13)
Sleeve Notes: ‘This particular relic dates from the time of the very early Coil sessions. Played on a rented Fairlight and recorded in our bedroom. It features a rare vocal appearance from Sleazy and has the added involvement of Andrew Poppy on brass. At the same time we recorded the beginnings of several other tracks like ‘Ergot’ and ‘Silence and Secrecy’ that have yet to see the light of day. The title comes from a chance remark overheard in the back of a Marrakech taxi, and later confirmed by a series of forensic photographs.’
With its nifty synth stylings, its brevity and its title, ‘Boy In A Suitcase’ could easily be the TV theme tune to some early 1970s Gerry Anderson spy thriller. The recording confounds our expectations, fading in with both the vocal and chorus melody already underway. The crisp hi-hat cuts through the mix and the short, truncated bass runs feel less like underpinning and more like adornment. This is Coil’s synth pop moment. We could almost be listening to a long lost Soft Cell B-side. But, as ever with Coil, things are far stranger than they first seem. Andrew Poppy’s brass arrangements add an odd toy town tinge to proceedings. Especially the break at 00:49 where the horns’ lopsided gait is reminiscent of Bruce Lambourne Fowler’s trombone lines on Captain Beefheart’s ‘Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)’ (1978). Sleazy’s half sung, half spoken vocal is breathy and boxy with a slightly wide eyed tone. There are in fact only two lines in the song, each repeated several times;
“Boy in a suitcase,
Follows you from place to place”
The second line shifts the imagery away from a spy thriller, suggesting something more in the morbid mood of a supernatural tale by MR James. ‘Boy in a Suitcase’ is a classic example of Coil editing down an idea to its essence. The original unreleased ‘Scatology’ demo – of which the 1:13 GITMWTBS track is an excerpt – ran for just under 7 minutes. It opens with 1 minute 20 seconds of morbid church organ work. Here, we are deep in horror soundtrack territory. It sounds as if Vincent Price’s Doctor Phibes is doing a free form warm up exercise. The recording then develops into a lengthy version of the song we know from GITMWTBS. However, the original also includes some minor lyrical additions, namely the repeated lines;
“Checks in, checks out,
disappears without a trace”
And, just before the song’s conclusion, the distinctly Burroughsian.
“An old man’s eyes
In a young boy’s face”
Perhaps one reason these latter lines are excluded from the later version is, that by the time of GITMWTBS’s release, they had already been cannibalised for inclusion in the ‘Scatology’track ‘The Spoiler’.
The Fairlight was in effect the first digital sampler. And in the early 1980s, it was a prohibitively expensive luxury item, available only to rock aristocracy. Early purchasers included Jean Michel Jarre, Prince, Todd Rundgren and James Young of Styx. Like many other pieces of cutting edge kit used by Coil, where it not for Sleazy’s external earnings, the Fairlight would have remained well out of reach. Even so, as GITMWTBS’s sleeve notes attest, for their earliest recordings, Coil could only afford to rent one. In the UK, the Fairlight had been employed extensively by Peter Gabriel. And, more significantly to a studious fan such as Balance, it was used to great effect on Kate Bush’s darkest album ‘The Dreaming’ (1982) and her most wildly ambitious: ‘Hounds of Love’ (1985). And there are definite similarities in Coil’s approach to sampling and the way it was initially employed by Bush and Gabriel. That is, not simply using the Fairlight to replace musicians with controllable samples, but using it to provide detailed atmospheric spaces and sculpt and mutate non-musical sounds into instrumental forms.
‘GOLDEN HOLE’ (03:27)
Sleeve Notes: ‘Sowing stones – Gods of mud’
No sooner has the quirky, nimble synth pop of ‘Boy In a Suitcase’ hit its stride, than it is suddenly and brutally subsumed by the violent detonations of ‘Golden Hole’. It’s like opening a door and suddenly finding yourself in a war zone with heavy shelling overhead. Of all the recordings on the album, it is ‘Golden Hole’, with its explosions and churning rhythm, which retains the most ‘traditionally’ Industrial sound. And yet, it transpires that ‘Golden Hole’s rhythm comes courtesy of a decidedly non-industrial source. “It’s clog dancing.” Deadpans Thrower. “It’s from a record of a massed Ukrainian clog dancing ensemble of 12 or 24 people, all dancing together and it’s a loop of one of their flourishes.” So it turns out that this grinding industrial noise storm is actually being driven by something rather kitsch and camp. There in a nutshell, is the essence of Coil. A diamond hard darkness with something playful and queer at its heart.
The ‘Golden Hole’ of the title is of course the anus. And would it be reading too much into proceedings to view the sleeve note line ‘Sowing stones’ as a reference to seeds sewn in anal intercourse which will not sprout?
Despite the struggles for sexual equality which saw an early spike in the 1970’s, by the mid 1980s to be visibly queer still marked you out as a potential challenge to the status quo. And then there was the small matter of AIDS – a disease which seemed to have the potential to relegate homosexuals to a new leper class. In 1987, the year of GITMWTBS’ release, the total number of AIDS-related deaths worldwide stood at 71,751. In the UK alone there had been 1,170 AIDS-related deaths. By the end of the year 8,888 people in the UK had been diagnosed with HIV.
The disease had first raised its death head ten years earlier in 1978, when a small number of homosexual men in the US and Sweden started to exhibit initial signs of what would later be called AIDS. At the same time, a small number of heterosexuals in Tanzania and Haiti also began showing signs of the condition. Although this was little reported on at the time. It was initially referred to in scientific circles and consequently the press, as ‘gay-related immune deficiency’ or GRID. Or, by those less sympathetically inclined, as ‘the gay plague’. However, there was soon clear clinical evidence that the condition did not just affect homosexuals.
In July 1982, the term Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome or AIDS was introduced. Unfortunately by this time, the idea had been forged in both the media and public consciousness; this was a disease that differentiated between straight and queer. To those of a religious and/or politically fundamentalist mindset, AIDS was a Godsend. Or more specifically something they could claim was a Godsend. A divine judgement upon the perverted. A righteous plague come to return things to their natural order. If certain tracks from Coil’s 1980s work seem overly apocalyptic, obsessed by death and obliteration, it’s perhaps worth remembering that for many gay men, these were indeed apocalyptic times.
During their first decade of existence, Coil addressed the AIDS crisis in both personal and mythic terms. One of Balance’s interpretations was that men were being “Killed to keep the world turning.” As if perhaps the death of AIDS victims was analogous to acts of Aztec sacrifice. It’s also worth noting that, with their 1984 12” single ‘Panic’ (backed by their uniquely funereal interpretation of the northern soul classic and Soft Cell hit ‘Tainted Love’) Coil had released the first British benefit record for the victims of AIDS, with the profits being donated to the Terrance Higgins Fund.
‘CARDINAL POINTS’ (04:20)
Sleeve Notes: ‘The arrangement of real strings is by Billy McGee. This is an out-take from ‘Horse Rotorvator’. We had planned to adapt this piece when we were working on the film score for Clive Barker’s ‘Hellraiser’ movie. But we pulled out of the project before work could be completed. A forthcoming album ‘The Sound of Music’, a collection of our film work, will probably include a more developed form of this track.’
One of Coil’s greatest strengths was their ability to cover so many different bases. They were a group who thrived on contrast and contradiction. Following up the harsh, unsettling storm of ‘Golden Hole’, with the album’s most subtle and reflective track, Coil demonstrate that, far from being mere pedlars of grinding industrial noise, they were capable of crafting works of true delicacy. ‘Cardinal Points’ is a beautiful and slightly mournful piece which sits, regal and serene, at the centre of GITMWTBS. Sleazy had created an earlier version of the piece using just cello sample presets on an Emulator. “Even that sounded lovely.” Says Thrower. “It was all Sleazy’s work. But it sounded quite synthesized. So he gave it to Billy to flesh it out.” Billy McGee would provide the string arrangements for several Coil pieces, but ‘Cardinal Points’ is probably his finest work with the group.
Instead of simply employing session musicians, Coil would often work with guest musicians and vocalists in unexpected ways. Sometimes collaborators would be given no guidance whatsoever. Rather than listening through to a track to get a feel for it, musicians would be asked to play along upon their first hearing, in order to get their most direct response. The group were keen to leave plenty of space for the unexpected. In fact they were often intent on openly nurturing a sense of chaos. Sometimes this could be achieved not just via the introduction of random elements of sound, but by the participants being what Thrower describes as “drug-fucked”. Of her sessions for ‘Love’s Secret Domain’ vocalist and regular Coil collaborator Rose McDowell claims to have been paid in Ecstasy. “They gave you a tab every time you did a vocal take.”.
9. ‘RED SLUR’ (03:08)
Sleeve Notes: ‘An early alternative.’
‘Red Slur’ opens with a strange, strangulated cry. It could either be an injured cat crying to be freed from a trap, or an injured human crying to be freed from his corporeal form. These vocal contortions continue for half a minute, then, at 00:31 the track starts in ernest. A moody low slung bass line gallops into view, rough riding over a complex syncopated drum pattern. At 01:03 the horn samples kick in, lending proceedings a strong Morricone-esque atmosphere. The horns have been so heavily treated they could almost be massed harmonicas. This combination of elements create a propulsive but blurred feeling, like watching a passing landscape through a smeary train window. This is Coil at their most cinematic. “Any technique that you can apply to a film, you can also apply to a piece of music,” Said Sleazy, in a July 1987 interview with Keyboard Magazine. “Our tunes that start off with a sort of film script or filmic picture are much more successful than the songs that start with a riff or bass line or conventional musical cue.”
Coil were part of a growing number of alternative musicians in the 80’s who displayed the clear influence of film scores in their work. This was after all an era when numerous musicians began to refer to their albums as “a soundtrack to an imaginary film”. Examples of artists releasing imaginary soundtrack albums include Colin Newman’s ‘Provisionally Entitled The Singing Fish’ (1981), In the Nursery’s ‘Stormhorse’ (1987) and Barry Adamson’s ‘Moss Side Story’ (1989). It will be noted that many of these artists, along with Coil themselves, inevitably ended up being commissioned to score genuine feature films. Perhaps their most successful score is for Derek Jarman’s ‘The Angelic Conversation’ (1985) which translates as one of the most subtle and resonant works in their run of 80s albums. Coil also contributed music to Jarman’s final film ‘Blue’ (1993) and they would go on to be heard on a variety of compiled soundtracks, including David Lynch’s ‘Lost Highway’ (1997), Nicolas Roeg’s ‘Puffball’ (2007), Gasper Noe’s ‘Into The Void’ (2009) and Johnny Vegas’s BBC sitcom ‘Ideal’ (2005-2011).
‘…OF FREE ENTERPRISE’ (01:22)
Sleeve Notes: ‘The picture completed, via Acapulco.’
With ‘…Of Free Enterprise’ segueing straight into the following ‘Aqua Regalia’, and both compositions employing the same key sound sources and samples, these two tracks play out very much as one piece of music. It begins with a field recording of a brass band playing in the streets of Acapulco. The band sound loose, very amateur and at points completely and comically wrong, lending the performance an almost drunken feel. Coil had used a street recording of the same band to create the track ‘Herald’ on 1986’s ‘Horse Rotorvator’.
On March 6th 1987, shortly after departing the Belgian port of Zeebrugge, a roll-on roll-off car and passenger ferry capsized, killing 193 passengers and crew. The ferry’s name? MS Herald of Free Enterprise. It was this tragic event which triggered the reworking and naming of the recording here.
Whilst ‘Herald’ was played pretty much as a straight field recording, its twin is a much more complex beast. At 00:33 another quite different music makes an appearance. Rising incongruously from the mix is an orchestral arrangement of ‘Greensleeves’. It’s quite possible that its inclusion here may be a reference to the British victims who died on the ferry disaster. Legend has it that ‘Greensleeves’ itself was composed by King Henry VIII (1509-1547) although in all likelihood it was actually written by a paid songsmith at a much later date. Whoever penned it, it is often viewed as the singular most English song in existence.
There is an oft quoted opinion that Coil are a specifically English group, and that they channel a concealed stream of England’s deviant cultural discourse. However, as Thrower points out, “All that came later.” In reality,Coil’s music is far from isolated from other influences. One only has to listen to the heady Germanic kosmische of the ‘Musick To Play In the Dark’ albums, the didgeridoo featuring on several tracks on ‘Love’s Secret Domain’, or the numerous musical field recordings which pepper GITMWTBS, to recognise that Coil were a genuinely porous musical entity, eager to soak up a panoply of global sonic influences.
‘AQUA REGALIA’ (01:29)
Sleeve Notes: ‘An abandoned work which was due to be on ‘The Dark Age of Love’. Richard Fur-Verge played the string part. The lyrics of the song, not included on this particular version, explored the links between royalty and water – royal waters – the royal wee – underwater kingdoms and Europe after the reign.’
Until the conclusion of ‘Aqua Regalia’ the darkly arranged yet decorous English strings seem to be struggling with the slack-handed Latin brass for supremacy of the sound field. Then, at 01:06, the final orchestrated refrain from ‘Greensleeves’ sweeps in, for one last time, obliterating all else from the stereo image. ‘Greensleeves’ might generally be expected to summon up a gentle, pastoral mood. Yet here, in ‘Aqua Regalia’s final moments, it feels so dark and foreboding, it may as well be the sweep of the grim reaper’s scythe.
With ‘Greensleeves’ royal connection, the deliberately dissonant and chromatic brass stabs that underpin this usually sweet melody seem to be metaphorically showing the aggressive face that lurks behind the pageantry of the Monarchy and its allies, the multinational corporations, as referenced by the words ‘Free Enterprise’. Themes of royalty run through numerous Coil tracks, from 1984’s ‘Ubu Roi’ and ‘Aqua Regis’ to 1999’s ‘Red Queen’ and 2000’s ‘Queens of the Circulating Library’.
Speaking purely personally, when I listened to the album for the first time in 1987, it was the ‘…Of Free Enterprise’/‘Aqua Regalia’ sequence which hit me hardest. Bold, dynamic and experimental, yet infused with a strong sense of history, this sounded utterly unlike anything else being produced by a British band in 1987. And like precious little that has followed.
‘METAL IN HIS HEAD’ (02:07)
Sleeve Notes: ‘A Psychotropic broadcast via Tesla’s wireless. The title is based on the fact that Shostakovich composed music he claimed to hear in his head, receiving it like a radio broadcast. He had splinters of shrapnel lodged in his brain from the First World War, which he believed were responsible for these transmissions,’
Seconds after ‘Greensleeves’ has faded, we dive into a blizzard of pink noise. Maybe we’re sweeping through the FM wave band, searching for the desired station. The fizzing static is punctuated by what sound like filter sweeps and some oddly detuned feedback whistles. It could be a piece of musique concrète by Francois Bayle or an electroacoustic composition by Bernard Parmegiani.
Except it’s actually the sound of a Fairlight malfunctioning. “Sleazy had hooked up the Fairlight for midi triggering during a studio recording.” Explains Thrower. “And he switched it on and it just started making this incredibly loud ‘Ggraahhhshhh!’ interference noise which is what all the phasing is. And he was frantically changing the controls and nothing was happening. So all the strange plinking and plonking noises you can hear in it, is Sleazy tapping different keys trying to find a way to make it stop. So it is genuinely random in that sense. It’s not a composition. It was an inadvertent composition whilst trying to turn the damn thing off! But luckily we were actually recording at the time.”
At 01:39 the interference noise cuts into a strange metallic flicker, then suddenly we’re listening to a field recording of another boxing club. But this time we’re in England. Three men are discussing boxing and betting. A middle aged man with a London accent says “I’ve spent 500 quid tonight.” “How much?” Says another in surprise. They are interrupted by the voice of a young boxer; “He’s a good lad, he is.” He sounds either punch drunk or just plain drunk, or perhaps special needs. “Here you are, you, ugly.” Says the Londoner. As the exchange continues, it becomes increasingly disjointed. Rather than a field recording, we’re listening to a snippet from a 1980’s TV documentary about East End amateur boxing clubs. It’s interesting to compare the controlled and refined macro view of the Thai boxing stadium in the earlier ‘Thump’ with the near Hogarthian sense of the grotesque which accompanies the micro view of the English here.
It’s a testament to Coil’s belief in the role of accident and chance within artistic creation that ‘Metal in His Head’ presents itself as such a sharp and fully formed piece. As William S. Burroughs said “The best writing seems to be done almost by accident.”
‘EITHER HIS OR YOURS’ (02:55)
Sleeve Notes: ‘An alternative mix to the one on John Giorno’s Poetry Systems album ‘A Diamond Hidden In The Mouth of a Corpse’. More aggressive possessiveness.’
Tentative guitar feedback whistles into ear shot. Then, as stern beats pull the sound into focus, an incongruous walking bass begins a restless, uptight strut through the track. At 00:16 a fidgeting synth pattern starts and doesn’t really let up. At 00:54 sampled horns in F minor begin to interact with the urgent electronics. As on a number of Coil pieces from this era, the sampled brass has an ancient, near Roman feel, almost as if it could be soundtracking the circus maximus. Of all the instrumentals on GITMWTBS, this is the one which seems to be crying out for a vocal from Balance.
In Mick Gaffney’s 1987 one-off fanzine known as ‘The Coil Book’, Balance describes the piece thus: “It’s vaguely based on an old hymn and is a mescalinated song of praise, of infantile possessiveness, and is dedicated to Brion Gysin.” If ‘Either His Or Yours’ really is based on “an old hymn”, the composition it most closely resembles is the ancient Gregorian chant ‘Dies Irae’ which dates back to at least the 13th century and may well have been composed much earlier. ‘Dies Irae’ translates as ‘Day of Wrath’, another term for Judgement Day. The text for ‘Dies Irae’ includes the lines “Wondrous sound the trumpet flingeth, through earth’s sepulchres it ringeth” which may well account for Coil’s inclusion of the ancient sounding horns.
The dedication is also significant. Although not as well known as Jack Keruac, Alan Ginsberg or William S. Burroughs, the queer beat generation author, artist, magickian and inventor Brion Gysin (1916 – 1986) has actually had a comparable cultural impact. It was Gysin who, in 1959, invented the cut up technique – a form of word based collage, whereby pre-existing texts are spliced together. Gysin showed the method to his friend and former lover Burroughs, who immediately saw the creative possibilities it offered and went on to employ Gysin’s discovery to create a sequence of novels including ‘The Soft Machine’ |(1961) and ‘Nova Express’ (1964), thus bringing the cut-up to a wider audience. Clearly the cut-up has ramifications far beyond the world of literature. Interestingly, when Coil first began to use a Fairlight, Balance remarked that it was “An aural equivalent of William Burroughs’ cut-ups.”
Gysin was also the creator of the Dream Machine – a stroboscopic device which pulsates at a frequency which alters the brain’s electrical oscillations, thereby causing hallucinations. It’s easy to see how Gysin, a queer iconoclast with an abiding interest in magic and a fascination with accessing the realms of inner space, would become a touchstone for Coil.
Before the authors’ deaths, Coil were in regular contact with both Gysin and Burroughs and it’s clear that the group developed their own take on themes which were central to these two writers’ work, including the cut-up technique, the position of the homosexual as outlaw outsider, the hidden codes within language, the mixing of the magickal with the quotidian and of course the pursuit of cultural disobedience.
In an interview from 1986 Balance said “It’s nice to realise you are perhaps in some ways continuing researches – avenues of thought, action and example, these ‘pioneers’ in a sense have established. Regardless of public images and Beat-poet status – all are/were very ‘wise men’… We do owe so much to these guys!”
Sleeve Notes: ‘An everything fixation. The camera shows a magnified close up of goosebumps on naked chicken’s skin. An itchy snippet that slipped in sometime, someplace.’
After a slow build, employing ominous bass synth tones and sampled floor tom and tambourine, at 00:42, ‘Chickenskin’ erupts into a festering frenzy of twisting and uncoiling melody lines. It initially sounds as if these melodies are repeating over and over, yet close attention reveals that they are in fact constantly evolving. The central melody doesn’t repeat for 32 bars. It’s as if the linear systems music of Philip Glass or Steve Reich has gone haywire. This is a disorientating labyrinth we have entered. “You can feel all these intricate elements moving around, almost like a switchboard lighting up.” Says Thrower.
Then, just as it feels like things can’t get any more off centre, at 01:24 the entire composition goes, rather squelchy and peculiar. “I was watching what the engineer was doing,” Says Thrower. “And we’d set up a digital delay and modulation unit, intending to affect one sound. And the engineer was checking that it was working as the track was playing, and I thought ‘that’s really good’. And there was an opportunity to do it to the entire mix. So I jumped in and pressed this button and it squelched the whole thing into this fat mass.”
Coil frequently used an approach to recording to which they ascribed the name Sidereal Sound. “Our use of the term however did not refer to a specific device or process.” Said Sleazy. “But more to the intention to make audio works that in some way came at you from odd angles or from unexpected viewpoints—filtering and messing with the quality of the sound to confound the listeners brain in subtle ways was the priority, rather than the melody or even the song itself. A further part of this process of ‘confounding the listeners expectations’ came from the belief listeners had that, since we had come up with this name, there was in fact something scientific going on, whereas in reality it was entirely subjective—the result of using commercially available software and hardware, albeit in unconventional ways.”
The concept of ‘siderealism’ was originated by one of Coil’s major inspirations, the occult fine artist Austin Osman Spare (1886 -1956). Sleazy and Balance were serious collectors of Spare’s work, as are latter day Coil member Ossian Brown and Genesis Breyer P. Orridge. Spare coined the term ‘sidereal’ to describe his visual experiments with a logarithmic form of anamorphic projection, creating what might crudely be described as images with a slanted approach. Largely ignored during his own lifetime, Spare was a radical and distinctive visual artist whose work, including highly naturalistic portraits, strange automatic drawings and magickal sigils.
Sleeve Notes: ‘Recorded live at Bar Maldoror. A point of entry.’
‘Soundtrap’ is the album’s 4th vocal piece, albeit another wordless one. Easily the shortest track on the album, it’s also one of the highlights. ‘Soundtrap’ opens with a series of repetitive arpeggiated synth stabs which twitch and wriggle like a disturbed insect nest. The mood is anxious and panicky. It feels like you’re listening to the soundtrack to a particularly disturbing scene in a John Carpenter movie. You are pitched head-long into the track, and have to scrabble to escape. At 00:07 you hear another of Thrower’s treated vocal cries. Despite the fact we’ve already clocked this very distinctive effect earlier on ‘Red Slur’, it loses none of its emotional punch here. The cry continues, deepened and extended by echo and reverb. By the time the unsettling electronic pulses starts to fade at 00:31 you feel lucky to escape with your skin still intact. Here, on what could easily have been just a throwaway interlude, Coil’s attention to detail pays huge dividends.
‘THE FIRST FIVE MINUTES AFTER VIOLENT DEATH’ (02:43)
Sleeve Notes: ’Pasolini’s point of view – a more or less intensive speculation.’
Death is one of the constant and consuming themes within Coil’s work. Although they addressed it in a variety of ways, the most clear ‘message’ was not that death should be feared, but that it should be respected. To quote a line from ‘Amethyst Deceivers’, a song which they performed and re-recorded many times; “Pay your respects to the vultures, for they are your future.”
Here’s an incomplete list of Coil recordings, including cover versions, in which death is either addressed directly or alluded to.
‘Godhead ~ Deathhead’
‘Blood From The Air’
‘Who By Fire’
‘The Golden Section’
‘The First Five Minutes After Death’
‘The First Five Minutes After Violent Death’
‘The Universe is A Haunted House’
‘Last Rites of Spring’
‘For Us They Will’
‘Fire of The Mind’
‘The Halliwell Hammers’
‘Assassins of Hakim Bey’
‘Is Suicide A Solution?’
‘Paint Me As A Dead Soul’
John Balance died on 13 November 2004. He was 42. His death was caused by a drunken fall from the first floor landing onto a stone floor some 15ft below. As he had sung on Coil’s ‘Sex With Sun Ra’, “Most accidents occur at home.” By the time of his death, Balance had been battling with alcoholism for a number of years. According to Sleazy, Balance “Spent most of those months in his last year drunk in bed.” His addiction itself would feature as the subject of a number of Coil pieces. Not in a celebratory way, not in maudlin manner, but as another spectre to be confronted.
Six years after Balance’s death, Sleazy passed away. He was 55 years old. He died in his sleep, in his adopted home of Bangkok in Thailand. In the light of their lyrical and musical preoccupations and their embracing of sensual and visceral excess, the two men’s deaths can inevitably be read as ‘mythic events’.
In an interview with Wire magazine, Throbbing Gristle’s Cosey Fanni Tutti told David Keenan “One of the saddest things was when Balance was on this hedonistic road to hell and he said to me ‘Look, but our fans expect it of me now.’” Hedonism as long term lifestyle choice had always been a core component of Coil’s agenda.
So how we should view Balance’s trajectory. As the logical conclusion of classic rock and roll excess? The Dionysiac journey of a visionary poet? The tragic annihilation of a vulnerable individual? Sheer bad luck? Like the suicide of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, John Balance’s accidental death seems to confer authenticity on the depth of his lyrical preoccupations. In the end, perhaps he was indeed “Gorged to death on the horns of plenty.”
© Graham Duff 2015