Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Morton Subotnick—
The Wild Bull


Released 1968 on Nonesuch
The Seth Man, April 2004ce
“The structure of technology squats on the surface area of collective consciousness.” -Jim Morrison


Following up Subotnick’s debut album, “Silver Apples of the Moon” was a record that was in many ways its twin partner: Titled “The Wild Bull”, it was commissioned by Nonesuch Records, executed on the newly-created Buchla synthesizer, sequenced into two parts (“Side One” and “Side Two”) totaling a length just under a half an hour and loosely inspired by poetry from the pre-technological past of humanity. But the similarities quickly end there, because whereas his previous album was based on the verse of Yeats and underlined by glittering displays of avant-garde freakouts and peaceful planetary soliloquies, on “The Wild Bull” Subotnick was touched with an inspiration far removed in both time and space and one infinitely darker than the space between the planets: namely, with a Sumerian poem cuneiformed into wet tablets sometime around 1700BC, from which “The Wild Bull” takes its title.

A simple lament for the dead, “The Wild Bull” is a mournful indictment of mankind’s third oldest profession: soldier. And although Subotnick states in the liner notes that “there was never an attempt to ‘portray’ the poem” what was finally conceived was probably from a far deeper subconscious level. And since Subotnick was influenced by Marshall McLuhan (who stated in his 1967 book “The Medium Is The Massage” that “electric circuitry...[is]...an extension of the central nervous system”) it’s highly likely that to anyone with a heart and a pair of ears that “The Wild Bull” is nothing less than a harrowing statement on the experience of war and its inevitable aftermath. It is deeply evocative as it burrows and runs through the full gamut and gauntlet of sensations of human war, followed by those experienced within the folds of its eternal camp follower, death.

For the first eight and one half minutes of side one, filtered tones aggressively and abruptly stab outward in paces of steady escalation from a murky percolation of discontent. Vexatious sounds that only trigger aggression can be heard as munitions are amassed, swords are unsheathed and missiles are readied. High-pitched flutterings waver above darkened skies of impending woe, interrupted only by tape splicing approximating technological overload with all the disorientation of quickly spinning the dial across a broad length of radio waves until it jerks back to lock into a disjointed, harried cluster of sequenced tones that jerk cruelly and uneasily in reactive counterpoint. It is a dance that turns quickly queasy and nightmarish: continuing for far too long with a crazy quilt of tones that zap and/or strike out in percussives until a second collage of quickly edited tones like the radio dial’s been spun around with no purpose but just to crazily surf up and down the wavelength until a dead, horizontal calm of nothingness ensues.

And soundless it remains.

As though projecting a sickly slide show of the inevitable price paid -- scenes of slaughter, waste and decay -- single tones appear out of the bone-chilling silence to ring with the tempo and tone of a single tolling funeral bell. The same telltale chime that sounds heavily in men’s hearts when they realise it’s all gone too far, and one that leaves both the living and the dead equally mute. Surrounded by an unnerving quietude, lifeless soldiers are now cradled not by mother or held by lover, wife or daughter but only by earth and sky. A mottled wash softly fades in and out of the background, as though soothingly either in quiet rivulets of silence or life’s blood seeping gently back into the earth from whence it came...

“Side Two” opens with a gradual, low pitched and gently modulated theme that unsteadily rebuilds from the havoc of the previous side’s psychological carnage. Soon joined by skittering and arrhythmic jolts of electronic pulses as though a different battle has ensued -- one of electronic birds of prey, fighting over, squawking or tearing away and what is soon revealed by the sonic tableaux to be an ever-expanding horizon line littered with carrion as early synthesized tones resembling tablas curl into a premature fade out.

It returns and the remainder of the album begins to quietly turn terrifying when the silence is torn in two by the unearthly screams of searing synthesizer lines until a lone cry sounds out and over from the fray and continues. And continues. And continues. Its trajectory is aching and alarming. It’s torturous. And whether it’s one emitting from a human, animal or both does not matter as it is certainly only one of eternal, wordless grief. Percussives start to pattern around the piteous cry, joined by a sickeningly lurching minor key sequence. The wail soon dissolves, replaced by the arrival of a predatory host of minor guests, as though the carrion birds have long departed for now it is the soundtracks of worms nudging into bone, joined by whirring insects and countless ghostly presences. The requiem is that of the entry off buzzing, supernatural judges that survey the joint and shake their heads...

...Then patiently sweep the chess board clear to start anew, or again.

I’m over-stating the obvious here, but “The Wild Bull” is not easy listening by any means (and not because it’s some intellectual avant-garde-a-clue clang-honk-tweet fest because it ain’t in the least but) because it unflinchingly gazes into some heavy darknesses of the hardwired human interior and somehow managed to expose it onto grooves in the form of two highly intense electronic instrumentals. Luckily, it is counterbalanced by a more constructive and compassionate response born out of the same hardwiredness; in this case, one that extends between Subotnick’s composition, his own performance on a synthesizer that he himself help to design and inspired by a poem written thousands of years ago in an unfortunately timeless lament:


“On his couch you made the jackals lie down,
In my husband’s fold you made the raven dwell,
His reed pipe -- the wind plays it,
My husband’s song -- the north wind sings them.”


Amen.