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Friday, 18 January 2019

“HIS DARKNESS INCREASES”: CURRENT 93'S 'THUNDER PERFECT MIND' (TOP 50 ALBUMS)



“My aimless feet
”To be in the world
”And not of it
”That's the aim of the pain
”That's the aim”

“In The Heart of the Wood”

Convincing yourself you're about to make your last album, that’s often proven an effective spur for artists to create their best work. By deciding to stop, what you do is start. There's no need to hold anything back. All bets are off. Should you want to try something new or different, it's now or never. Many people, for example, think of 'Hex Enduction Hour' as the Fall's finest moment, for this reason. But I’ve a better example...

Much as the Fall’s Mark E Smith had before him, by 1993 David Tibet had become dissatisfied with his own output as Current 93 and decided to deliver his swan song. And besides, the whole business of ends and beginnings... that was a fairly appropriate mindset to be in when making 'Thunder Perfect Mind'.

The band has originally produced menacing industrial soundscapes, perhaps best dubbed “tape-loops-for-the-end-times”. The name had come from Crowley. Previous albums had already been heading into a more Neofolk direction, and were characterised less by an aggressive nihilism and more by (a very unorthodox) Christianity. 

Keenan’s post-industrial history ‘England’s Hidden Reverse’ vividly illustrates this. It’s peppered with pictures of the band in graveyards and squats, posing moodily amid underlighting and sporting occult symbols. Then you hit a 1988 photo of a colourful, expanded line-up sitting around a tree on Hampstead Heath, looking like an extended family of troubadours, a latter-day Gong.





But 1993 was the point Tibet really got there. The album was even recorded in Topic studios, essentially Muscle Shoals for folkies. It’s a similar history to Swans. You can’t help but respect the deranged commitment the early stuff showed, the unrelenting viscerality of it all, the visions of Noddy crucified in the sky and so on. But it yielded to work not just more accomplished but richer. It's like watching a headstrong adolescent mature into an adult. Once it happens, it changes even your memories of that adolescent.

Though it did bring problems of its own. The slightly bizarre title is taken from a Gnostic poem. And Current 93 are sometimes presented, dauntingly, as something you need to do extensive background reading before you can actually listen to. But you don’t actually need to learn the Coptic alphabet or study the Patripassian heresy or any of the rest of it. Tibet might need to do that stuff to create it, but it doesn’t follow that you have to in order to listen to it.

In fact Tibet himself has said “Everything I love is essentially simple. I read complex theology but what interests me most are the simple phrases at the heart of it… What moves me most are profound simplicities and Current’s music is very simple.” Which, not un-coincidentally, is the best way to take this album. Which contains the lyric “To pull them apart/ We butcher the essence/ And cripple it’s meaning.” Plus the Blake quote on it’s cover, claiming those “who strive to ascend into Heaven by means of learning” will be “repelled by the celestial spheres”.

And a large part of the break made by ‘Thunder Perfect Mind’ comes here. Early plans to make an eschatological concept album, what Tibet later self-mockingly referred to as “an apocalyptic ‘Tommy’”, ended up condensed into the first number, ’Long Satan and Babylon’.

Which was a large part of the getting there. But still we can't skip that opening track. It frames the album, sets the mood and creates the imagery. So let’s take a brief detour through esoteric Christian heresies and non-canonical saints. (At least as I see it.) Satan’s machinations have locked Christ out of his own creation (“a Christ spun out of the worlds”) hence itis dominated by Long Satan and Babylon. The tangible Christ, who bled real blood on the cross, is gone. They exist, in the physical sense. While he doesn’t.

And so we inhabit “a world ripped away from its centre.” It admonishes the listener “Though the world makes dark shadows/ You must look in your heart”. Silence is referred to throughout the album, as a state of loss, of Christlessness.(Religion’s association with sound and Babylon with the material is common in Christianity, and has an obvious appeal to a musical artist. It reappears on several other C93 tracks.)





Which ties in with the legend of St. Eustace. About to hunt down a stag, he sees a vision of a crucifix between its antlers and converts on the spot. There’s a painting of this vision on the album sleeve,while it’s referred to a couple of times in the lyrics.Of course the original legendis about seeing beyond the surface of things, like a curtain being pulled back. But Tibet, I think, is as interested in the disjunction – the way the two things, body and spirit, can be associated but not in the here and now combined.



This is mostly referenced'In the Heart of the Wood and What I Found There'.As Christ appears in various natural forms (wind, flowers and so on) the song evokes the tumultuous newfound activity of Spring, as songbirds reappear on branches and hares frolic. (The picture of Tibet on the sleeve shows him under May blossom.)There’s an association of Christ with nature, in particular with flowers, so strong it virtually collapses the distinction between Christianity and paganism. (Tibet’s also described “apocalyptic, pagan and Christian” as “all things that interest me”.) 

Romanticism frequently treated the forest as the very source of life. Just as I strongly associate the later album ’The Light Is Leaving Us All’ with Autumn, this very much puts me in mind of Spring.

Yet it's one of those early Spring days which still has a chill to the air – light and fecundity without real warmth and the consequent feeling something vital is missing. Sounds are bright and melodic yet somehow also plaintive and mournful. Check out for example the trillingly haunted backing vocals on ’A Song For Douglas After He’s Dead’.

For Christ is still spun out of this world. Light is of course a standard image of revelation in Christianity. But light is by definition unearthly. Like the crucifix between the stag horns, or possibly the stag itself, these are appearances – pictures made of light. It's like Plato's vision of shadows on the cave wall being the only thing caught in our vision, only made from light. Tibet used the phrase “the sadness of things”, later using it as an album title. By this I think he means “the sadness inherent to physical life”.

And like the cross and the antlers, the instruments often seem a strange combination of opposites. There’s the acoustic guitar and recorder on ’Mary Waits In Silence’, the violin and cello on ’A Silence Song’, the combination of vocals and backing vocals on ’A Sadness Song’ and on ’All The Stars Are Dead Now’… well, we’ll get to that. While the appeal of that album-titling Gnostic poem seems to be its embracing of paradox. (“I am knowledge and ignorance… I am war and peace.”)

Which in another paradox is simultaneously what puts the ‘neo’ in neofolk, the work of someone who came to the folk tradition from outside, and very much part of that tradition. That mournful recorder sound, for example, comes straight from ‘Stairway to Heaven’. After seeing Richard Thompson live some years ago I wrote “[the] Spanish term duende is sometimes translated as ‘soul’ but a better definition might be ‘exquisite sadness’. It seems peculiar indeed that we lack a direct English word for the feeling I associate more with English folk, that everything is bound up with its opposite, that joy must always border sorrow and vice versa.”

“Empires Cannot Last”

But despite this new direction there’s still no shortage of Tibet’s third great love -armageddon. It remains true, indeed to this day, that if you’re tired of Current 93 you’re tired of death. As I said of a more recent gig: “Though almost always trading in apocalypse, they revel in the double meaning of the term as both destruction and revelation.”

In fact as the album progresses it reintroduces more elements from the earlier Current 93. But rather than abandon the folk elements it finds means to combine the seemingly incompatible styles. The epic nine-minute ’All The Stars Are Dead Now’ starts off acoustically, and even as the apocalypse descends the original melody continues. Tibet’s vocal sgrow sonic trails as if the song’s inside some ever-expanding, ever-more-distorting hall of mirrors. Up till now the album has sounded expansive but spacious. With this track that sound starts to thicken.

Which is followed by the still-more-epic, sixteen-minute ’Hitler As Kalki’sounding like the Doors as a Mariachi band booked to perform at the end times. (Typically, Tibet claims on the sleeve notes this was a prophecy passed to him by the spirit of William Blake.) This time we really are at the end of all things, with Hitler presented as an incarnation of the destructive Hindu avatar Kalki.



But the end of all things doesn’t turn out to be the end. The album closes with the serene ’They Return To Their Earth’. The segue becomes a thematic microcosm of Tibet’s career, from the savage wastelands of meaning conjured up in the Industrial era (later self-described as ”the time of building broken Gods”) to a kind of redemption. Yet at the same time, as the title says, the song is all about return. The sadness of things is gone, the music is lush and rich. The bucolic agrarian imagery reminds me of German Romanticism (“blonde hair moves in the blonde corn”) but on a more primal level of my own childhood - that feeling of belonging, of everything being in its place.

“The pestle grinds the mortar
”The mortar turns to dust
”And the metal turns to rust
”Words they fail
”And fall apart
”The corn it dies
”And is reborn”

The album couldn’t finish any other way, it wouldn’t be complete. And yet for a long time, it didn’t. The version I bought was an expanded reissue which (bar some live ephemera) does end on that track. But, though it had been recorded, somewhat inexplicably it was one of the numbers left off the original release. (Which ended with a short spoken word section.)

Finding my mind unable to process that particular piece of information, I decided to dispel it by creating my own consumer’s cut. Which ensures that the four concluding tracks run together - ’Anyway People Die’, ‘All The Stars Are Dead Now’, ‘Hitler As Kalki’ and ’They Return to Their Earth’. Just as they should have been.

”How All My Hearts Felt”

So the album’s an account of all things, the end times and beyond, of death and rebirth. Actually, that’s only the half of it. Here mythological figures such as Lilith co-exist on the album with Tibet’s friends, lovers and collaborators.Tibet had two recurring dreams while making the album, Kalki manifesting as Hitler and his ex-girlfriend Suzanne appearing to him as a spirit. Tibet said of this new direction in his work “all I know about is myself, and I don't even know very much about that.”

None of this is really given any context. If you know a little of Tibet’s biography, you pick up that for example the Irish place names will for him be associated with his frequent collaborator Steven Stapleton, who had moved to the West coast. But as with the Patripassian heresy, that’s not really the point. The point isn’t even the juxtaposition between the two.

’A Lament For My Suzanne’ could be taken primarily as a song of lost love. Yet ’In The Heart of the Wood’ is like two tales Tibet’s telling you simultaneously, seeing visions of Christ in a woodland clearing and wandering Irish clifftops with old friend Mary. Like the cross and the antlers, they have to be taken together.

Just as “the personal is political” became a phrase, in Current 93’s universe the personal is also eschatological. Deranged visions of the end times and diary entries overlap. Yet it never sounds intimate, like much acoustic music, but big and spacious. The couplet “I'll take a knife to your heart/ And London Bridge is falling down” captures the shift between the scales. As I wrote after first seeing the band: “Everything has an epic grandeur and yet is so personalised, with many songs about friends and collaborators, as if there’s no barrier between the ultimate and the everyday.”

“Swastika, I'm Told”

Guitarist Douglas Pierce was a huge influence on Tibet and his change of direction. Some have even claimed the whole turn to neofolk hinged on him. His contribution was musical. In quite a literal sense. As Tibet remembers it: “[None of us] could actually play any instruments and because we were involved in the experimental/underground scene, nobody we knew could play any instruments either. None of us had any need to… but when I met Douglas I just thought – this is a whole new area to explore.” He seized upon chords played on a guitar like it was a brand new, unexplored means to make music.

But there’s a rub. Tibet said later “I definitely had a lot in common with Douglas… but I didn’t share his specific interests, for instance his fascination with the Second World War.” Which was putting it rather delicately. Pierce’s fascination with the Second World War was a very particular one – with the losing side. His own band, Death in June, named to commemorate a fascist faction, are listed by the respected Southern Poverty Law Centre as a purveyor of hate speech and have been met with pickets and protests the world over.

And Tibet then foregrounds this by explicitly dedicating as song to Pierce, ’A Song For Douglas After He’s Dead’ which more-or-less explicitly refers to his “interests” - “crooked crosses”, “blood and soil concepts” and “the honour of violence”.

Let’s be clear. There’s no reason to believe Tibet ever entertained such sympathies himself. In earlier years, unusually for someone on the Industrial scene, he had close links to the anarcho-punk band Crass. Steve Ignorant and Annie Anxiety had even given him guest vocals. And even on Pierce’s tribute song Tibet sings “Empires cannot last/Where blood and soil's concepts/ Have faltered and failed.” He dedicated ’Hitler as Kalki’ to "my father, who fought Hitler,"including a wartime photo of him in the lyric booklet.

Yet all this has an extra significance here. Industrial music, like punk before it, had appropriated Nazi imagery for (often puerile) shock value. (For example Throbbing Gristle’s ’Zyklon B Zombie’.) But actual fascist sympathies didn’t arrive until the post-industrial era, in other words when the music took on a folk influence. Which shouldn’t be a surprise.

Fascist propaganda builds on the mythology of a static ‘eternal past’, some golden age of belonging where everybody knew their place, which was then ruptured by some rather hazily defined onset of modernity. Consequently, it often finds folk music of use. A scene which can conceive of ‘the past’, and thereby ‘the music of the past’, as if it’s some homogenous block. Which often then gets associated with notions of the homeland, songs being “pure England” and so on. Of course the truth is the complete reverse. Time was never still, nor are folk songs a window onto any kind of golden age. Folk music is not a tableau, an un-changing scene, but the opposite - a seismograph of ever-changing times.

Yet this leaves a folk scene which must be ever-alert to incursion. As Woody Guthrie knew long ago, folk instruments must be set to kill fascists. Eliza Carthy, when told far right nut and failed politician Nick Griffin called himself a fan of hers, responded by saying openly “Bollocks to Nick Griffin”. Whereas, in failing to make the right decision, Tibet made the wrong one.

And this all seems worse now than it did then. The petulant adolescent egoism weaponised into political stance, the fascism as personal brand and lifestyle choice, the provocative demands for attention then the whingeing when that attention arrived, all topped with dollops of self-congratulation for being so risqué… in brief this hipsterisation of hatred was a dress rehearsal to today’s alt-right.

So how could this have come about? Perhaps Tibet, with misapplied generosity, presumed Pierce’s fixations were mere eccentricities. But inevitably, there’s more. ’A Song For Douglas’ refers to Pierce’s teeth, later echoed in the repeated refrain “teeth teeth teeth”, which convey’s Kalki’s devouring. Yet Kalki, while a terrifying sword-wielding warrior, ends a dark and chaotic age where people are at their furthest from God, and starts a new cycle of time. So fascism, though evil, becomes part of the grand plan. In short, Tibet incorporates Pierce’s belief system into his own.

In fact the song is best heard not as tribute but displaced self-portrait. Tibet seems to have a mind that turns the concrete into symbols. “The wind carries smoke from a world that is burning” as he’s hunched over a book, perceiving the ashes as “patterns”, as occult symbols to go alongside those he is reading. Even the “mask on the wall” could refer to Tibet’s own dark side, the part the rejoices in the oncoming fire, the devil that lurks in even the most devout Christian. Well, it work for me.

This is not only widely regarded as the best C93 album, it’s also one of the most accessible – so makes for a good jumping-on point. (Though take note the term ‘accessible’ is a relative one here.) For those with more scruples than me, it’s the last album to involve the notorious Pierce. So if you’re tempted to start with the next one, ’Of Ruine, Or Some Blazing Starre’, be assured that though very different it’s almost as good.

All quotes otherwise unsourced come from David Keenan’s much-recommended post-industrial history, ’England’s Hidden Reverse’.

And that consumer’s cut playlist on Spotify. (Yes I did pull the track ’Thunder Perfect Mind’ from the album ’Thunder Perfect Mind’. I am contrary like that.)

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