Black Ships Ate the Sky
I have so many guilty pleasures in this world for which I must atone for if I should pretend to have even one finger of my withered hand on the pulse of the Young. I love terrible flowery excited poetry, like Walt Whitman's exhortation about pine stands and train tracks. I love torchy sappy music with almost no hesitation, bothe mine and that of the singer. I love things that have an almost Dungeons and Dragons grade of anachronism about it. I love ecstatic visions even though in practice, the supernatural doesn't hold much water for me. I love the most historical of folk music. I love The Apocalypse even though I suspect we as a species will not go out in grand battle or explosion, but more like a succession of firings from jobs we don't really want anyway. The underlying thread through all this is True Belief. The practitioners of the above arts immerse themselves wholly. When I heard a weathered Marc Almond (formerly the Soft Cell guy) intoning some antiquarian prayer at the beginning of this record, I took a stroll through his website, coming across a bit where he got to record some stuff with his torch idol Gene Vincent, and Almond revealed that the elder statesman required being stripped to the waist to belt out his velvet hammer to the heavens. I love that degree of dedication. I myself am rather mild-mannered in public exposure, preferring to practice my black arts in stolen moments under the radar, so this degree of exegesis is both foreign and so comforting to me.
Fortunately, David Tibet of Current 93 is still kicking along, tossing a salad of all the above guilty pleasures only to slather on a dressing made of his own endgame-Christian resolve and fever dreams on his latest album Black Ships Ate the Sky. I am a huge unabashed fan of Current 93, especially the latter "acoustic" era since the maypole madness of Earth Covers Earth literally fell off the shelf of my college radio stations stacks into my inquiring arms nearly 20 years ago. And it seems though that his brand of breathy poetry slam in Albion goth-folk-rock-mysteria is back in vogue. Maybe it is the end times after all.
Black Ships, a labor of four years that ultimately resulted in Tibet collapsing before his imminent US tour, is like an all-star Bob Hope special of the spooky underground. The album is punctuated by a number of renditions/verses of an ancient prayer "Idumea" all brought to life by those for whom Tibet has been a muse, collaborator and benefactor. Marc Almond's is so perfect that it should have closed the record, his resonant voice bearing just the right tinge of age, still holding aloft the golden heart of youth. Bonnie "Prince" Billy, an avowed lifelong fan, brings his ghost-in-the-barn rasp while Baby Dee warbled like a drugged sparrow in solution. Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons, who were first brought to light by Tibet) pays up any debts in full with his weird, delightful multi-tracked warble, sounding like the best barbershop quartet in Hell. Cosey Fanni-Tutti (of Throbbing Gristle fame) doesn't quite have the vocal chops of the other Idumeasts present. Someone operating under the name Pantaleimon brings the sweetest moment to hers, sounding like a breeze above crickets on her take, and venerated English songbird Shirley Collins underscores the ravages of time that are hinted at in Almond's performance. Really, these different interludes could almost be their own album, but listening to it as a whole, they serve as the perfect buffer to Tibet's bus stop nightmares with which they intersect.
For his turns, most songs are rooted in his impeccably recorded acoustic guitar strumming (really, nobody has as good a sense of what an acoustic guitar should sound like on record like he does,) strings or ambience and his singular voice, quivering about fairy tales ("Sunset (The Death of Thumbelina")), history ("Then Kill Caesar" - one of the most powerful tracks on the record,) and mostly, those goddamn black ships. Being the fan boy I am, I've read interviews where he describes his constant visions of these ships killing off the daylight, bringing eternal night and you get a taste of his dread in the first version of the title track. It builds like floodwaters, with the pitter-pat of human activity quickly giving way to stampede. Tibet's' voice gets higher and weirder as he gets more excited and to me, that's where the good stuff is. David Tibet is willing to Go There in a time when religious fervor is regarded by many as hostile and ignorant. Listening to this song, I wait for those snakes to rain down from the sky to shake me from the dull dream-world I pretend to live in, opening up violent vistas of the Real Cosmic Shit Going Down. I get the sense tat there is little witnessing and preaching in Tibet's world view, just an almost unending book of Revelations.
His last couple albums have been characteristically sparse in landscape (2001's Sleep has its House is a magnificent endurance test of chant and harmonium) but this could possibly be the Pet Sounds of Armageddon. At 21 tracks and a running time of 1 hour 16 minutes, it's a daunting record to take on, but the songs, while being tightly packed pieces unto themselves move and sway with the unfeeling sea that brings those Black Ships that make Tibet wake up in a cold sweat. And yes, I know I'm personalizing the artist in the listening of this record, and you are not supposed to do that (I guess) but with him I can't help but do so. It's too close, too certain in its details for me to maintain the fourth wall on his stage. Wim Wenders could make the movie of his career by just playing this record over a slideshow of rotting cathedrals, ravens and most importantly dark ships, ciphering as our collective destiny, popping their masts over the horizon against a dying sun.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com
March sees a greatly expanded reissue of Elliott Smith's most critically acclaimed album Either/Or