Bird Seed

Released 2003 on Susan Lawly
Reviewed by Serotonin, 26/03/2003ce

Among casual observers, the image still persists of "William Bennett's notorious Whitehouse" (Record Collector, Jan. 1995, laughable play-up-the-mystique article on "Industrial Music") as sadistic, misogynistic, serial killer-obsessed low-lifes trading in taboo-blasting lyrics and walls of unpalatable white noise. Well, admittedly when taken at face value, oft-quoted lyrics like "I'm coming up your ass, you won't like it" and "It's your right to kill, it's your fucking nature" don't help matters when reported by those who continue to sensationalise the group's early explorations into unchallengeable sonic extremes and DeSade-inspired investigations of human debasement, but Bird Seed, released on the 13th of February this year, goes the furthest distance yet in dispelling such perceptions. It's a mature, focused look into the deepest recesses of the human psyche, set on a backdrop of the group's most inventive and sonically sculpted noisescapes of their 23-year existence.

'Bird Seed' has been seen by most fans of the group (I always find the word "band" doesn't quite suit these guys!) as the latest instalment in a trilogy of similarly themed albums, with some material on each album being carried forward to the next and re-worked to emphasise this continuity. 1998's 'Mummy & Daddy' set the tone of investigations into victimhood in various forms, particularly when brought on the individual by their own lack of assertiveness. 2000's 'Cruise' amplified the disgust even further, leaving fans wondering if a follow-up album could possibly top derisive missives like 'Cruise (Force The Truth)' and 'A Cunt Like You'.

Instead, many of the group's hardcore fanbase were left bewildered and feeling somewhat short-changed (and many made their disappointment known: see the varying reactions at http://www.susanlawly.freeuk.com/textfiles/birdseedreactions.htm) by the maturity, diversity and complexity of Bird Seed.

There was still a fair amount of unadulterated lyrical bile in evidence, such as the album’s opening couplet “Can I suggest you….get fucked!” and the already-released single ‘Wriggle Like A Fucking Eel’ with its widely suspected references to the controversy surrounding Michael Barrymore, but then midway into third track ‘Philosophy’, after sneering indictments like “Don’t forget you’re fat, Don’t forget you’re ugly” came the sudden surprise of William Bennett relating the grief felt at the untimely death of a friend “A terrible thing happened…It was awful”. This, and other more generally complex and intellectualised psychological probing in the album’s lyrics, particularly in the utterly uncharacteristic ‘Cut Hands Has The Solution’, wrong-footed a lot of people expecting another ‘Cunt Like You’.

On accepting ‘Bird Seed’ on its own terms, though, as a new-found level of maturity for two (the group only became a duo, William Bennett and Philip Best, in the run-up to this album, after the departure of long-time member and author on sexual obscenity Peter Sotos) men approaching middle age and arguably at the top of their game. And this is why I love this album, and why I believe it deserves a wider audience among those who harbour doubts about investigating such a controversial group. I’ve already mentioned how worthwhile the lyrics are of close investigation; album opener ‘Why You Never Became A Dancer’ continues the theme of ‘Cruise (Force The Truth)’ by ramming home blunt points about the individual’s responsibility for their actions and the consequences thereof, ‘Philosophy’ is dramatically moving, and ‘Cut Hands’ is a spot-on commentary on self-harm and the fallacy of some forms of therapy and self-help. Sonically, too, ‘Bird Seed’ is a fascinating listen; long gone is the monotone screeching of the embryonic Whitehouse of the early ‘80s, and this album marks the fruition of the group’s attempts over their last few albums to strive for as much diversity and innovation in their sound as possible. The arches of sculpted (really over-using that word now, that’s the last time I promise) feedback on ‘Philosophy’ almost take on a semblance of melody, whilst adding to the foreboding atmosphere of the vocal and lyrics: imagine Joy Division’s ‘I Remember Nothing’ being hijacked by Aphex Twin at his most ear-piercing and you’re halfway there. As mentioned above, it’s spine-chillingly dramatic and involving, and the outstanding highlight of the album for me.

The album’s closer, the almost playful (playful?! Whitehouse?!?!) ‘Munkisi Munkondi’ (nope, no idea, and no official explanation given as to that title) loops this arc of noise to a vague beat and features a snippet of dialogue in some unspecified language to create one of the album’s two greatest departures from stereotypical Whitehouse territory. The other is the aforementioned ‘Cut Hands’, which features a typically strident Bennett vocal over a completely untypical mechanical thud and a crystalline, sparkly noise track buried right down in the mix, further emphasising the album’s sense of experimentation and departure from fans’ expectations. The thudding rhythm track sounds like tuned percussion, giving another ever-so-slight melodic dimension to this traditionally least melodic of groups; it always makes me want to hum the Imperial March from Star Wars along with it when it starts!

Even the most recognisably full-on-Whitehouse assaults which start the album don’t become endurance tests. ‘…Dancer’ is abrasive but concise, stripping bare the basic elements of ‘Cruise’’s ‘Princess Disease’, and ‘Wriggle’ has enough intricate electronics going on to make it a huge improvement over its obvious predecessor, the ‘Cruise’ title track. The only track left to mention, then, is Peter Sotos’ final word as a Whitehouse member, the ‘Bird Seed’ title track. As with its counterparts on the two previous albums, ‘Private’ and ‘Public’, it’s a lengthy spoken-word collage of various victims (generally of sexual abuse) relating their experiences. Although toned down a little in its sheer nihilistic bluntness from Sotos’ two previous collages (apparently his three books are fairly similar in structure and content) to raise some interesting points about ‘safe sex’ practices among prostitutes, it’s still difficult to listen from its sheer audio-verite presentation of extremely painful real-life experiences. It’s also a tad boring to listen to more than two or three times, a point on which I concur with just about every contributor to the aforementioned page of reactions on the group’s website. This minus-point aside, though (easily rectified by the good ol’ CD skip button), I’ve been completely blown away by this fascinating album, by its considered and thought-provoking lyrics, by Whitehouse’s continued complete dedication to what they do, and by their willingness to experiment and re-invent their staple palette of electronic noise and feedback. IMHO - an outstanding release by an oft-misunderstood group, and one that deserves a wider audience.

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