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