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Current 93 Black Ships Ate the Sky: A Review (long)

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  • Michael J. Salo
    BLACK SHIPS ATE THE SKY: A STRANGE FORTUNE REVIEW David Tibet s Current 93 has followed such a fascinating evolution. From the primitive droning of _Nature
    Message 1 of 1 , May 30 12:20 PM

      David Tibet's Current 93 has followed such a fascinating evolution.

      From the primitive droning of _Nature Unveiled_
      (1983) to the apocalyptic-folk pioneering
      _Swastikas for Noddy_ (1987), to the enormous,
      epically orchestrated masterpiece _Thunder
      Perfect Mind_ (1992), it used to be the one thing
      you could expect from every new Current 93
      release was it would be "bigger" than the last.
      Each album was more ambitious, more audacious,
      with more new ideas and more and better musicians than ever before.

      Tibet & company were pursuing a "maximalist" path
      for the first era of their career ­ a little
      recklessly even ­ making for a very exciting
      first decade of Current 93. I still remember
      being astonished at the sheer size of the band
      lineup on releases such as _Thunder Perfect
      Mind_. How much bigger could they get, how much further could they go?

      _Thunder Perfect Mind_ would prove to be a peak
      of sorts, as the following releases saw the band
      start to mellow out and strip away musical layers
      one by one. After a couple albums it was clear we
      were now following a "minimalist" path. Each new
      release was more stripped down than the last.
      Less variety, simpler instrumentation, fewer players.

      Why turn around in this way? It's just my own
      observation & speculation but it seems clear that
      Tibet began to see the big dazzling musical
      accompaniment as a potential distraction to his
      art. Tibet has never claimed to be much of a
      "musician." He isn't necessarily out to make
      great music. He doesn't really sing or play any
      instruments. What he really has to offer is,
      words and ideas. Current 93's work was now
      getting closer to the center ­ David Tibet's words and ideas.

      This minimalist direction would culminate in the
      release, _Soft Black Stars_ of 1998. By this
      point we are down to nothing but Tibet's spoken
      poetry and a gentle piano accompaniment. On the
      surface _Soft Black Stars_ is an absurdly simple
      album. On a musical level it is not particularly interesting at all.

      The genius of _Soft Black Stars_ is the
      consideration that if this work stands as a
      success at all, then it has to be because of the
      core content ­ Tibet's words & ideas ­ because
      there is almost nothing else! He seems to be
      testing whether he can carry it on his own.

      And in fact _Soft Black Stars_ holds up well. I
      won't claim I personally find it to be the most
      enjoyable Current 93 release, but it's a success
      of some level. Tibet has always maintained it is his favorite.

      "armageddon music ­ eclipsed by words"

      A major point established with _Soft Black
      Stars_, Tibet may have regained the confidence
      and willingness to start "building" again.
      Subsequent new recordings have been few and
      scattered but have shown Current 93 developing
      the sound of a full ensemble once again. The
      difference this time is the central vision
      radiates more effectively than ever ­ the
      minimalist exercise having strengthened Tibet's
      delivery (see the _Halo_ recording for striking
      demonstration of his new powers).

      And now after four years of work, it's time at
      last for the next major studio album of Current 93.

      _Black Ships Ate the Sky_ is no less than an epic
      masterpiece on the level of _Thunder Perfect
      Mind_. This album is enormous in every way. The
      band lineup is large and many-talented. There are
      two different lead guitarists, alongside cello,
      viola, harp, harmonium and electronics. There are
      vocals from eight star collaborators. It's 21 tracks, 75 minutes long.

      Going by the liner notes it seems this album had
      something of a two phase development. It was
      begun four years ago with longtime guitarist
      Michael Cashmore as main collaborator, and
      finished later on with Ben Chasny of Six Organs
      of Admittance taking over his role.

      Half the tracks of _Black Ships Ate the Sky_ have
      a "Cashmore" sound and half have a "Chasny"
      sound. Michael Cashmore has long ranked high
      among my personal favorite guitarists, with his
      refined classical style and a mesmerizing,
      chime-like quality. New-Wierd-American folk
      guitarist Ben Chasny offers a softer, more earthy
      style that sounds like it's coming from a cabin
      in the middle of the woods. It's impossible to
      decide which style I like better. Based on what
      I'm hearing here Chasny is likely to become another of my favorite players.

      Another signficant musical contribution comes
      from cellist John Contreras. His presence is
      noticeable through most of the album, always
      adding a welcome, rich element to the tracks, and
      the extra level of depth you can get from a
      string player who knows what he's doing.
      Contreras is listed as one of the five core
      members alongside Cashmore & Chasny, Tibet & Stapleton.

      Further musical elements adding to the mix range
      from piano by Antony, to viola by the talented
      William Breeze (of Coil & Psychic TV), to
      electronics by William Basinski, to the usual
      sonic manipulation of Stephen Stapleton.

      Eight guest vocalists appear on this album, for
      the most part delivering interpretations on an
      old apocalyptic hymn called "Idumaea" by Charles
      Wesley. Each one of their parts serves as a
      valuable contribution to the whole, with the
      opening rendition by Marc Almond ranking as
      particularly memorable. Further performances come
      from Antony, Baby Dee, Cosey Fanni Tutti and
      other guests of similar caliber. The recurring
      lyrical theme holds the work together in a
      similar way as the repeated lullaby of _All the
      Pretty Little Horses_ ten years ago.

      The title of _Black Ships Ate the Sky_ is
      certainly over-the-top. If anyone else were to
      come up with such a title we would assume they
      had been watching too many bad science fiction
      movies. When Tibet comes up with this title, we
      figure he has a profound vision to relate, and
      indeed the lyrics are stirring throughout, from
      the soft pastoral innocence of the initial tracks
      to the apocalyptic wailing of the later tracks.
      As always there are definite way-over-the-top
      moments, and you won't get through this album
      without laughing out loud at least once. This is
      part of Tibet's charm. (As a side note _Black
      Ships Ate the Sky_ imparts new humor into Thomas
      Dolby's _Aliens Ate My Buick!_)

      _Black Ships Ate the Sky_ is the long awaited
      next epic Current 93 album that can stand next to
      _Thunder Perfect Mind_ in every way, by a band
      reinvigorated by being rebuilt from scratch in more potent form.

      It's the kind of awe-inspiring listen that makes
      me remember why I got into music like this in the
      first place, and ended up collecting almost every
      album of Current 93 & related projects. It's
      skillfully played music directed by creative
      ideas ­ a fusion that's more potent than the
      music on its own or the ideas on their own.

      While such a "big" album could seem daunting,
      this music is of such quality that you sink in
      easily from the first notes ­ Marc Almond makes
      sure of it ­ and the 75 minutes go by like 15.
      It's the kind of album you'll realize quickly is
      worth 100 times what you paid for it.

      _Black Ships Ate the Sky_ comes as a substantial
      boxed set including a book of liner notes.
      "Booklet" doesn't quite apply, it's more of a
      book, a big fat book. It's the kind of package
      that reminds us the role of liner notes in the
      first place, including all the lyrics and photos
      of all the players and giving an intimate feeling for the album.

      This Current 93 release comes at a time of
      renewed interest in creative folk-inspired music
      in the larger indie music scene. While this album
      will be a big success within the usual fanbase,
      it'll also be interesting to watch how it's
      received by those whose interest is captured for the first time.

      It would seem the sky's the limit!

      agree or disagree? please contribute your own comments at


      Michael J. Salo
      The source for strange & exquisite sounds

      Strange Fortune / PO Box 440383 / Somerville MA 02144 USA
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