Union Chapel, London, Sat 8th Feb
”He can open the seals because he wrote the code.”
Those new to the often arcane world of Current 93 may wish to start by perusing this list of influences. As it ranges from Dostoyevsky to the Bee Gees, picking up anarcho-punksters Crass and deep-sea fish along the way, it's possible you will find it overwhelming rather than useful. But then that overwhelming sense is what's useful where Current 93 are concerned. Others may prefer to consult my unauthorised, sketchy and highly subjective potted history, posted the last time I saw them.
However much I enjoyed my previous sighting, the salubrious Union Chapel made for a far more appropriate venue than the halls of the South Bank Centre. Cups of coffee replaced beers, and CDs and LPs (yes they still trade in LPs!) were stuffed in the slots normally reserved for hymn books. (Not that these surroundings held back lyrics about doing speed, and such like.) From the off, this wasn't going to be one of your regular gigs.
When talking about Current 93, words have a habit of giving up on you. You may want to bear that in mind with what follows...
They're one of those 'bands' that are at root an individual – David Tibet, plus his somewhat unhinged visionary mindset and whatever compatriots he's gathered to convey it this time. Which gives things great scope for reinvention, something he audaciously employed by turning the whole main part of the gig over to the latest release,'I Am The Last of All the Field That Fell', performed in track order. (Which we are encouraged to see as a whole cloth, a suite of songs, rather than a collection of tracks. The band seemed intent on playing the whole thing through, with audience applause only occasionally breaking in, as if through cracks in the music. And while the CD does have a track list, this is tucked away inside the lyric booklet.)
And while as ever I'm behind on releases, it sounds some way indeed from the last thing I have heard – the mighty, pounding doom metal of 2009's 'Aleph At Hallucinatory Mountain'. In fact, the nine-piece band seemed some way not just from those long-gone industrial roots but from their more general haunts of rock and folk. Much of the music had a timeless quality you couldn't pin to any era. Suited and hatted, Tibet could even have been a crooner from some alternate history – John the Baptist meets Tony Bennett.
It's difficult to pin their music, even down to whether they're dealing in songs or tracks. They sometimes sounded like a jazz cabaret act double-booked with a left-field experimental troupe, yet somehow always magically able to combine their efforts. Rich melodies and sonic adventures somehow combined. Though they employ electronics, it's cool the way the more left field sections don't confine themselves to those. There's puffs on the sax, for example, that sound more like something you'd encounter on a free impro night. The hurdy-gurdy is reclaimed from folksiness into the source of strangeness it always was. My best analogy for their sound would be a schooner. Numbers set out piano-driven, proceeding at a stately pace. The rhythm section kicking in is like the point the sailboat picks up a current and surges forward. After which it's all exploration.
Tibet's vocals are perhaps akin to Dylan's drawl, not least in inducing a Marmite reaction. It's a taste I've acquired, but I can understand those who call it an acquired taste. This was the first time I'd heard him employ a backing vocalist (Bobbie Watson), and I was curious how his voice might sound when placed against another. Would it just expose his limitations in singing? In the event they proved one of the night's highlights, at its best when the backing vocals shadowed his rather than supplying harmonies. Joseph Burnett of the Quietus would seem to agree, writing “Watson's contribution is by far the most exciting, her eerie high notes winding around Tibet's more nasal tones to lend an almost mystical edge to proceedings.”
John Peel famously said of the Fall, “they are always different, they are always the same”. A quote I've already appropriated for Swans, but it equally applies to Current 93. However much their style varies, the themes and mood always remain. Though almost always trading in apocalypse, they revel in the double meaning of the term as both destruction and revelation. (I suspect Tibet would be sympathetic to this Alan Moore quote.) With Tibet's passioned, frenzied and barely decipherable torrents of imagery, they don't just induce a fugue state – you come to the sense that you're feeling everything you could possibly feel, all at once.
Then for the encore they became almost a different outfit. Tibet had said not one word to the audience through the main set, appearing preoccupied. After which he became the garrulous figure from the earlier South Bank show. (“My mother says I go on too much,” he confessed.) The rockiness returned to the band, with crowd favourites served up with a wall-of-noise sound. 'Black Ships Ate the Sky', which has always previously reminded me of Hawkwind, came closer to Faust – an intense, metronomic grind, as if built around drilling the concept into your skull.
After which I hurriedly furnished myself with the new CD and a tube station, in that order. I am barely competent to tell you what Tibet does, and would be clueless as to how he does it. But I am indeed glad that he does. If this first gig of the year is setting the standard, the bounty should be rich indeed.
This one justifies two clips if anything does. Two tracks from the new album...
...then that afore-mentioned new version of 'Black Ships'...