Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Current 93 - Island

Current 93

Released 1991 on Durtro
Reviewed by FNS, 02/02/2010ce

David Tibet has stamina. Current 93 produce song cycles and connected suites. They release spoken word albums with simple musical backings. They broadcast nebulous soundscapes. David Tibet has made an interesting journey from a deep-seated interest in diffuse paganism to an exploration of a form of unorthodox or non-conformist Christianity. ‘Island’ is the album that represents this transition. It also stands as a fitting example of the strengths and weaknesses that typify Tibet’s work.

‘Island’ is jointly credited to Current 93 and HOH. It is safe to assume that the relationship between David Tibet and HOH first developed during their involvement with Thee Temple Ov Psychick Youth and the early manifestations of Psychic TV in the early 1980s. The majority of the musicians that play on ‘Island’ are from Iceland (a young Bjork Gudmundsdottir provides backing vocals on ‘Falling’). Joolie Wood, a regular contributor to Current 93 performances to this day, contributes violin to several tracks and old friend Rose McDowall provides backing vocals on three songs. Tibet’s former guru / teacher The Venerable ‘Chimed Rig’dzin Lama, Rinpoche makes appearances on bells and drums. Tibet’s sleeve notes pay ‘Homage to the Lama’. Other members of the group hide their identity behind pseudonyms.

‘Island’ was recorded in Iceland between 1986 and 1991. This extended recording period is an indication that the album released on CD (Durtro 006 CD) is not one work but several. This seems obvious when listening to the CD, which can be divided into two or three sections.

The album proper consists of the first eight tracks.

‘Falling’ is a description of darkness brightened by starlight and lamplight. Tibet sings of an awareness of a growing silence that is beginning to envelop everything. The world is covered by wind. What will happen if the universe should decide to stop? Shadows descend from the mountains. The clouds have blocked out the sun. Phrases are repeated for emphasis and undergo slight alterations. The people of this world will not escape the coming darkness because they cannot abandon the comfort or familiarity of their homes or their ways of being. It is the end of the World, the Apocalypse.

‘The Dream of a Shadow of Smoke’ is a description of the vanity of life set to a softly repeated drum coda, resembling a kind of Nordic tabla, accompanied by an electronic wash and a stepped, rising bass sound. People wander the world in sorrow; death and the darkness of the grave are their destiny; but they remain intent on engagement with the beautiful phantoms of their youth. Tibet quotes Homer and Pindar on the vanity of human existence before concluding that ‘… St James spake by a more excellent spirit, saying our life is but a vapour… made of smoke or the lighter parts of water’. People are disconnected from everything, including themselves. Life drifts by. The search for meaning fails to yield meaning. People are hindered by sadness from moving. Tibet contemplates turning to God as a remedy or palliative for hopelessness. He invokes the power of the three and considers God’s three functions – Father, Son and Holy Ghost - or creator, sustainer and destroyer? If the presence of this threefold God could be invoked through ritual, the seeker could then seek death as a form of eternal rest. A form of Christianised magic is codified at the end of this song (“three, three, three, / God’s three functions / So three I shall cross myself / Three & hope to die”).

‘Lament for my Suzanne’ is a hallucinogenic journey through the mind into another world. It is a ritual, swathed in the smoke and heady fragrance of incense, performed against a soundtrack of encroaching doom and an all-pervading awareness of pain and loss. Suzanne can be seen as a representation of the Mother of God, or a priestess acting as guide and facilitator of the journey. Suzanne is an ancient figure, long known, marked by suffering, and her suffering escapes into the world. Tibet’s voice lies deeply submerged in the mix, a physical device to suggest mystery or partial disembodiment and separation from the physical world. Tibet dreams vaguely of the wild roaming horses of destruction that will carry the Four Riders of the Apocalypse.

‘Fields of Rape (Sightless Return)’ is a form of dark nursery rhyme or folk song in ballad form about the horrors of the Father out reaping. The time of weeping shall come when the Father goes out to gather his people and banish those who are not his people from his land, which was once this Earth, which will stand where this Earth stood, but be utterly transformed.

‘Passing Heroes’ begins with a chant from the Heart Sutra. The song also contains a transcendent vision of the landscape of Iceland, with snow melting and snow falling from clouds that resemble the horses that will be seen at the end of time. We are full of emptiness, we are long lasting dewdrops, and ultimately as fleeting as the snowflake that melts in the air. We are free and in our freedom we are given to motion, suffering, pain and laughter. We delight in our freedom but ultimately it fails us. We feel joyful in the presence of a teacher but ultimately our teachers cannot provide the answers we yearn for. Tibet looks to the stars and to the water; he begins his search through the woods, which will ultimately lead him to knowledge of St. Eustace. The foam on Noah’s water has dissolved; what followed Noah was but the rippling of the waters of the Flood, the whole course of human history stems from the disturbance of those waters. The innocent or ignorant swallow goes about its business, unaware of the eagle that hovers in wait for prey.

‘Anyway, People Die’ is the song of someone who has been on a journey for so long that he has forgotten who he is. He is given over to formlessness and change marked by frequent shifts in identity. The protagonist of the song is a personification of cursed mankind, or the element of man that is cursed. It is a song of growing desperation, the song of a madman lost in the storm of life and longing for death. Distant bells sound and chants from a monastery can be heard through the storm. Trees bend against the wind. The bells and the chants and the wind produce strong magic and a heightened visionary capacity. The singer sees a vision that resembles the Vision of St. Eustace. He witnesses the blinding of the hunter. He becomes the blind hunter and sees a row of Christs in the land of vision beyond his blinded eyes. The singer implores the envisioned Christ through a form of remembrance of Christ’s words – who am I? Who do you say I am? It is a song from the beyond, beyond human and inhuman, beyond the hope of anything but Christ and that hope is uncertain. As Christ continues, so does the singer.

‘To Blackened Earth’ is set to the sound of insubstantial sleigh bells. Everything changes, and the change tends from better to worse on its way to the end. The world has fallen; man exists in a fallen state. We are held firm by the gravitational pull of dust. We are made of stars but our light has been dimmed and we are disappointed in our hope. The song ends with a breathing exercise promoting a state of calm; a deep breath through the nose as the dread journey reaches its conclusion.

‘Oh Merry-Go-Round’ observes the state of the people of the world from on high. Life is a merry-go-round, circular, forlorn, but thrilling, an entertainment and diversion. What has been encountered before will be encountered again. Life is circular and cyclical. Sadness will dissolve and sadness will come again. There is a clear indication of the movement from heathenism to Christ – swastikas are replaced by a cross – and this movement brings its immediate reward – sickles are replaced by the sun, the time of reaping has not yet come and life stands still against it. This movement is echoed in the visionary sequence of the rise of a dragon; the fall of an empire; the flash of a thunderbolt; and the birth of a child. The song’s end speaks of it for a third time; an emblem of Christ glints on the breast of a girl, a form of the new earth in heaven, the apes (meaning the wilfully ignorant as well as the bestial) mock the girl. The universe dissolves in time with a rising and descending church organ motif.

The album should end here. The CD version continues with ‘Crowleymass Unveiled’, ‘Paperback Honey’ and ‘The Fall of Christopher Robin’. These songs are examples of failed humour. One could argue that they are throwaway treatments of ideas that could have been developed more seriously. One could argue that they are examples of a knowing and decadent form of light relief.

The music on these travesties or diversions consists of parodies of dated disco music and smooth lounge jazz funk. ‘Crowleymass’ is proposed as a celebration in place of Christmas. The little children are full of awe as each receives a copy of Crowley’s Book of the Law as a gift at Crowleymass time. Phrases from Crowley are littered throughout the lyric, a recording of Crowley can be heard, and the song ends with an extended chant from the work of Crowley. Tibet mocks and renounces something he once revered. On ‘Paperback Honey’, the singer plays the part of a lascivious lounge lizard leering his way through a cha cha dance to produce something that sounds like a song inserted into a Radio 4 comedy show from the early to mid 1980s. ‘Christopher Robin’ casts the protagonist as a form of Faust entering into a contract with the Devil, who appears as the young lad recites his prayers. Unlike Goethe’s Faust, Christopher Robin does not achieve redemption; he endures a horrible and fatal accident before finding himself in a lake of fire in hell for all eternity.

The misguided diversion of the three joke songs leads us to alternative versions of songs from the album proper. It could be argued that ‘Fields of Rape and Smoke’ is superior to ‘Fields of Rape’, the music of which it reprises. ‘Fields of Rape and Smoke’ is elevated by virtue of an Icelandic spoken word performance backed by a distant female choir. The bardic voice is wistful, yearning; grateful to recount moments of wonder that prove that everything can be awe-inspiring. The song ends with a death groan, but the death groan is a beginning and not an end. ‘Merry-Go-Round and Around’ consists of an instrumental version of ‘Merry-Go-Round’; a humming behind music box bells, mournful violin, sad electronic washes, a two note organ refrain becoming a two chord organ refrain to add depth to the CD’s close.

The journey into a Christ centred worldview so clearly indicated on ‘Island’ has continued for the past 15 years. The theme of the Apocalypse has remained a central concern. The theme of salvation has grown more pronounced. The Vision of St. Eustace has superseded the vision of the Stag and the Hunter. Tibet devises prayers for the dead and commissions masses for the repose of the dearly departed. The journey of the Wanderer continues; the aim of that journey is redemption.

Reviews Index