Features I by I 11.02.14

Forgotten Classics: Coil’s Horse Rotorvator


Forgotten Classics is a new weekly feature where we ask FACT contributors and noted diggers from across the spectrum to pick an obscure gem that they think has been unfairly brushed under the carpet and explain why it’s worthy of re-appraisal. This week:

Horse Rotorvator
(Some Bizzare/Force & Form, LP, 1986) 

Picked by: Optimo heavyweight JD Twitch.

JDTwitch“Looking through my collection trying to pick a record for this piece, it strikes me that it is stuffed to the gills with what might be called forgotten “classics”, though it could be that I have a tendency to have a lot of love for records that most people don’t like and they are forgotten because nobody cared about them to begin with. After much consideration, I narrowed it down to two and flipped a coin. They were Gareth Williams & Mary Currie’s Flaming Tunes album, and Coil’s Horse Rotorvator. Coil won the toss, but I heartily recommend you try to hear Flaming Tunes at some point in your life, as it is one of the most life affirming collections of songs I’ve ever heard and should be prescribed by the NHS to cure all manner of ills.

“A little background: Horse Rotorvator came in out in 1986 via the Some Bizzare label, which in the mid-’80s was possibly the most interesting label around, releasing beautifully produced, lovingly packaged music from the frontiers of sonic exploration. Coil were Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson and John Balance (later Jhonn) alongside various other members who came and went, plus various engineers and producers who helped them realise their unique sound.

“By 1986, the term “industrial music” was generally – and rightly in my opinion – considered a joke, which of course it had been from the minute it was first coined by Throbbing Gristle associate Monte Cazazza. The fact that the term is still in widespread use nearly 30 years is very strange to me, especially as I like a lot of so-called industrial artists who make music that bears zero relation to the cliched tropes many people associate with that term. The idea that “Industrial music” was all about harsh, grinding, rhythmic noise had long ceased to be, at least as far as the progenitors of that so-called scene were concerned. It was a period akin to the years just after punk when barriers were being kicked down and anything seemed possible sonically, but particularly with regard to embracing state-of-the-art technology and production methods.

“Coil embraced technology and production more than most. They were in the enviable position of being funded by Some Bizzare, who had creamed vast amounts of money from various major labels and diverted it into releasing astonishingly visionary albums with large production budgets that probably made little financial sense but were deemed necessary by the label’s mercurial head honcho, Stevo. In addition, Coil co-founder Peter Christopherson was a very in-demand video director, and thus had an income that allowed him to indulge his penchant for high end music technology developments.

Horse Rotorvator was their second album and was a gigantic leap forward sonically and musically from their first, Scatology (also a great but very different album). Side One is possibly my favourite side of an album ever. The cover features a seemingly innocent photo of the Regent’s Park bandstand, which had a few years earlier been the scene of an IRA bomb that killed three soldiers and their horses. A very dark joke from a very bleak and dark time and a portent of the music contained within.

“The album starts with ‘The Anal Staircase’, which features an inventive sample of perhaps the most controversial piece of music of the 20th century, Stravinsky’s ‘Rite Of Spring’, before morphing into a slow death disco electronic groove with spiralling synth motifs building to crescendos while John Balance’s vocals tear your soul apart. In the hands of say Depeche Mode, this could have been a global pop hit. In the hands of Coil, it becomes an alarming, claustrophobic, hypnotic waltz guaranteed to be eschewed by radio programmers everywhere. Not ones to shy away from controversy themselves, the song is an ode to anal sex. In fact, the twin preoccupations of Horse Rotorvator seem to be death and gay sex, which no doubt reflects the fact that it was written at a time when they were losing lots of their close friends to AIDS; they had previously released a harrowing but resplendent version of ‘Tainted Love’, which was the first ever AIDS benefit record. While gay sex wasn’t something I could relate to, death certainly was, as I was living in Edinburgh at the time – then sadly the AIDS capital of Europe, and I would lose several friends both gay and straight to AIDS.

“On ‘The Anal Staircase’, Coil worked with Rico Conning, an all-time production hero of mine, now mostly sadly forgotten or barely remembered for working with William Orbit on Madonna’s Ray Of Light. Conning’s production skills were so far ahead of the pack it was almost ridiculous. Everything he touched around this time was sonic gold and ultimately one of the main reasons I wanted to start djing was to have the opportunity to play these incredibly advanced electronic productions through loud sound systems. Somehow, I managed to make that happen, but it was an odd time just before house music arrived and people in this country were very resistant to electronic music. I’d constantly have people come up when I was djing asking why I was playing “this drum machine crap”. There was obviously an amazing turnaround a little over a year later when house music arrived in full force, but at this point in time it really felt like few people were interested in electronic music. I was endlessly jealous of our European cousins who seemed to have far more advanced ears.

“Rico Conning returns to add his magic to the side closer ‘Penetralia’, which I recently heard someone call proto-dubstep – one of the most ludicrous things I have ever read while simultaneously being fairly spot on. It is a 70/140 bpm electronic shuddering sonic juggernaut with deranged brass and strings and spoken word voices panning wildly in the mix. Masterfully arranged, it has what would nowadays be called a “drop” that would not only clear a dancefloor but would possibly result in the evacuation of every building in a half mile radius. While I can see the term “industrial” being attached to this track, it remains a uniquely futuristic listening experience, especially on headphones.

“In between ‘The Anal Staircase’ and ‘Penetralia’ is an extraordinary 12 minutes or so of music that is almost impossible to categorise. It’s here that Coil’s use of sound design and singularly beguiling, odd melodies that would become such a big part of their sound comes to the fore. John Balance’s vocals here melt rather than scare one’s soul. On ‘Slur’, Marc Almond – a close ally – appears (under a pseudonym) on backing vocals. The underlying melody throughout the song has an indiscernible origin, perhaps North African, perhaps Middle Eastern, perhaps somewhere else entirely. There’s a certain exoticism, a fourth world sensibility, maybe best described (courtesy of William S Burroughs) as from the Interzone. All too soon, it is over, and we are into ‘Babylero’, a minute of what might be found sound, or perhaps something recorded at an occult ritual, or on a field trip to somewhere far away –  something that at the time might have been labelled World Music, which is conceivably the worst, most patronising (though intended to be well meaning) genre term ever invented.

“By 1986, the term “industrial music” was generally considered a joke – which of course it had been from the minute it was first coined.”

“Next come the evocative cicadas and street noise that introduces “Ostia (The Death of Pasolini)”, a song that will always be on my Desert Island playlist and is about the mysterious death of Italian film director, poet, writer and intellectual Pier Paolo Pasolini. Instantly the listener is transported to another place. Strummed acoustic guitar, a beautifully recorded, gloriously sumptuous string arrangement, strange percussive sounds and a breathtaking vocal by Mr. Balance, one of the greatest, esoteric voices England has ever produced. It also pulls off two very unique tricks that I love in music but find very rarely: the first of which is to be heart-warmingly uplifting yet simultaneously melancholic; the second is to have a rhythmic propulsion but ultimately be drumless, but not be something one might think of as “ambient”. Perhaps because I’ve always listened to so much rhythmically centred music, I also love music that is the antithesis of that. ‘Ostia’ is simply perfect, and if Horse Rotorvator had only ever been released as a one sided 7″ featuring this one song, it would still be one of my favourite records ever made. ‘Ostia’ is followed by ‘Herald’ – another (perhaps) found sound interlude akin to a crazed Mariachi band.

“Side Two starts with a collaboration with JG Thirwell, aka Foetus, which in 1986 was just about my fantasy dream team collaboration. However, it ended up being a colossal, messy disappointment to my ears. Foetus seemed to dominate proceedings and the end result, while admittedly deranged, resulted in a track I don’t need to hear again very often. This side picks up with their cover version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Who By Fire’, again featuring soaring backing vocals by Marc Almond. Just as John Cale or Jeff Buckley made their covers of Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ their own, so Coil manage the same, instilling new meaning into the lyrics and enveloping it in “Coil-ness”. There are little production touches that never cease to get to me, such as when they audibly blur the word “blurred”. Such attention to detail! The album nears its end with the sampled clomping horse hooves that introduce ‘The Golden Section’, before orchestral brass and timpanis create a funereal dirge with a voiceover by then BBC TV science programme narrator Paul Vaughan reciting an excerpt from a Peter Wilson book that describes the Persian Sufi poet Rumi’s views of death. It’s easy to hear why, shortly after this, Coil were invited to soundtrack the horror film Hellraiser, although ultimately their score was rejected for being too scary. Closing track ‘The First Five Minutes After Death’ has Coil pushing the then capabilities sampling to extreme limits, revisiting almost every idea on the album but compressing it into a five minute soundtrack for, well, the first five minutes after death.

“If you’ve never listened to Coil before and are curious, I’d perhaps suggest starting with Musick To Play In The Dark Vol. 1 and work your way backwards or forwards from there. Horse Rotorvator, bar the mid-section of the first side, is for the most part not an easy listen; one on-line review ends with this – “If you are considering suicide or are really down on your luck I would suggest not listening to this. It is easily more sad than anything else I have heard.” I burst out laughing when I read that, however I can see what they are getting at. But, as a testament to pushing music to its absolute technological limits and as an expression of all-out creativity and imagination, it is a deeply rewarding sonic document from nearly 30 years ago that really has no antecedents. This pushing at the frontiers of sonic possibilities was one of the reasons I fell in love with techno shortly afterwards, and one of the reasons that, though there are still great techno records being made, I am often disappointed that there are very few that are advancing those frontiers of sound and production to the absolute outer limits – and also so few that sound genuinely unique, which for me was always a big part of what techno was always meant to be about.

“Coil opened my ears and my mind in a way that possibly nobody else has quite managed to such a degree since. They led me off on all sorts of tangents, musical and non-musical, and I spent a joyous and occasionally infuriating 20 years trying to hear every second of sound they ever recorded. Sadly no longer with us, at least in this dimension, I can’t imagine a day will ever come when I tire of listening to them. Their music is endlessly rewarding and nothing and nobody else sounds remotely like them. They truly created their own sonic universe and trying to lump them in any genre is a fool’s errand. They simply made Coil Music.

JD Twitch will appear at this year’s Unknown Festival. Opti
mo have just released the Dark Was The Night mix CD on Mule Musiq.



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