In the early 1980s, Current 93 and its founder David Tibet were a pillar of England’s esoteric underground. But while most bands continued to explore the debris of industrialism, David Tibet entered a then uncharted territory populated with mystic obsessions – the occult, Aleister Crowley’s hermetism, Comte de Lautreamont’s nihilism, monotheistic and Buddhist spiritualism, near-death experiences.
At its best, Current 93 was neither hierophanic nor iconoclastic. Tibet, supported by the studio talents of Steven Stapleton never attempted to express the ineffable. Rather, the focus of the early recordings was on the tortured, medieval scenery juxtaposing the angelic and the demoniac, the Gnostic mysteries and the Gothic splendor. This is not to exclude that David Tibet was, indeed, prodded in this direction by genuine afflatus.
The multilayered productions of 1984-1986, heavy on echoing Judeo-Christian chanting, tape manipulation and abrasive recitations became lasting classics. During these years, Tibet and Stapleton were frequently supported by John Fothergill, John Murphy, Nick Rogers, Annie Anxiety, Roger Smith, Tathata Wallis, Steven Ignorant, John Balance and Rose McDowall. Most of these artists appeared in many other formations at that time.
The real mystery is why after 1986 David Tibet lapsed into an artistic coma and launched an interminable string of records riddled with supposedly apocalyptic, but mostly puerile rhymes.
Ach Golgota (Maldoror Is Dead)
The side-long composition initiates us into an atmosphere of petrifying horror. A malevolent beast inhales and exhales with painstaking precision – claustrophobically close to our ears. This abominable, monstrous sonic motif will recur throughout the composition. But the focus of the recording is on the emotional power of ancient Christian chants. Although much has been made of David Tibet’s interest in Gregorian monophonies, the character of the vocal drone that buttresses the choir makes it more likely to be of Byzantine or Coptic tradition, singing to the glory of Pantocrator. The contrast between the horrifying proximity of the beast and the exalting drones emanating from Temenos is almost unbearable.
The mighty choir proceeds slowly, undisturbed an electronic burr that Steven Stapleton extracts from his repertory. A third seam is being added – a repulsive, dantesque, porous male voice lurches out, overreliant on open vowels. When the voices multiply, the carnivorous, guttural breathing returns. All this bathes in a dark stew of deep echo and reverberation which drown out pathologically insomniac piano chords. An alcove occludes reeds and percussive shingles; a bassoon hides in the baptisery… From the demoniac voice germinates a smeared out, abrasive recitation. The echo, sustain and slow release make it impossible to capture the sense of the prayer. The dejected piano chords thrust as if from a different dimension, arousing the catacomb-dwelling beast again.
The hummed damnation is exposed to some spuriously sub-rhythmic repetition while the agonizing, condemned voices remain the focus. This last part of the composition is more openly electronic. Crippling electromagnetic beads mutate into a sizzle and then smelt into slabs, cross-mutating with the demon’s voice. Colloidal, radio-magnetic clouds appear in an excellent display of shock-awe electronics from John Murphy, John Fothergill and Nick Rogers. The vocal reaches an expressive climax, subsuming the sprawling infra-growl. This all clears the apse for the final howl of anguish and pain. Stapleton allows his internal combustion engine to move in slow motion. Like a stream of felsic lava, it all slowly cools down, rarefying the ambience.
The Mystical Body of Christ in Chorazaim (The Great in the Small)
Like a clerestory that lets in a beam of light, this composition’s evanescent beauty relies on the recurrent choir of nuns, immersed in a faded echo. Afar, sampled strings hand over a dolorous refrain. Meanwhile, a deeper, thermospheric layer overcasts the sampled rhythm. Two more sonic mappings will blend into the imagery of malaise: a male Gregorian choir, extensile, twisted and disfigured; and Romanic declamation pleading the Lord for absolution.
The correlation between the two choirs does not seem to be aleatoric. The female waves rhythmically lash in and out, in torment and lamentation. The Gregorian choir endeavors to find the inner sanctum. A didjeridoo buzzes with its elliptic, see-saw abandon. Tragic mellotron strings join the thick, tessellated lattice. Disorienting cut-ups close this section, leaving the listener to marvel at the colonnades resonating with the song of solitude that still emanates from the female choir. Quite unnecessarily, some sequenced synthesizer bleeps percolate through the Gothic walls. Angelic voices soar, instantly infected by tape speed changes, direction reversals and trajectory vacillations. Only the “nun” choir perseveres, oozing in and out inexorably.
In the last section, a skronk of a wooden cart parades behind our ears, leaving a sfumato rut in the loam for the female choir. The buzz returns, jarring and increasingly prominent. Initially a minutia, it ferments into a pervasive sonic canopy, haunted by Annie Anxiety’s howling apotheosis of final damnation.
Between 1984 and 1986, Current 93 could do no wrong. It is difficult to choose between these remarkable recordings, which married successfully Tibet’s hermetic visions with Stapleton’s undeniably novel studio creativity. Then came “Imperium” and the spell was gone. Tibet somehow decided to pioneer a very different style – a particularly loquacious form of apocalyptic folk. It stomped and it strutted with menace, but despite Steven Stapleton continued involvement it never appealed to Sonic Asymmetry. A long list of these recordings would be out of place here.
CURRENT 93: “Lashtal“ EP (1983)
CURRENT 93: “Nature Unveiled“ (1984)
CURRENT 93: “Dog Blood Rising“ (1984)
CURRENT 93/ NURSE WITH WOUND: “Ballad of a Pale Girl / Swamp Rat“ SP (1984)
CURRENT 93: “Live at Bar Maldoror“ (1985)
VARIOUS ARTISTS: Gyllensköld, Geijerstam and Friends. Live at Bar Maldoror (1985)
CURRENT 93 / SICKNESS OF SNAKES: “Nightmare Culture“ MLP (1985)
CURRENT 93: “In Menstrual Night“ (1986)
CURRENT 93: “Dawn“ (1983, 1986)
CURRENT 93: “Imperium“ (1986)
This is not to say that David Tibet’s talent simply evaporated. In the late 1990s, he recreated some of the old magic on several records. These are heavily studio-manipulated affairs, with “Faust” probably the most engaging of all. “The Great in the Small” is an interesting concept, squeezing into one LP the multilayered themes from previous records. “In a Foreign Town” is an electronic fresco created for Thomas Ligotti’s writings.
CURRENT 93: “The Starres Are Marching Sadly Home“ ½ LP (1996)
CURRENT 93: “In a Foreign Town. In a Foreign Land“ (1997)
CURRENT 93: “Faust“ (2000)
CURRENT 93: “The Great in the Small“ (2000)
Regrettably, the last three are the exceptions to the otherwise dominating folksy mannerism in which the most recent output has been mired.
Current 93’s older tracks from the early period can be found numerous compilations: “Myths 4”, “The Fight Is On”, “Devastate to Liberate”. More recently, the band also participated on “Hot Buttered Xhol” – a tribute to the legendary German band.