Coil: Sacred, Psychedelic, and Very Disciplined

Dais Records releases Coil's 1999 "Musick to Play in the Dark" on November 27.
Dais Records

While Coil’s roots lay in the industrial scene, their music quickly became more identifiable by its esoteric atmosphere than any genre ties. It conjures up a vibe of occult ritual, with none-too-subtle references to psychedelic drugs (take their album title “Love’s Secret Domain” or the fact that each of the four songs on “Main Themes” was named after a different substance) strewn around.

Coil began as a solo project of singer/ producer John Balance, but his partner Peter Christopherson joined in 1982. A former member of Throbbing Gristle, the band who gave industrial music its name and much of its sound, Christopherson was also an accomplished photographer, designer, and music video director.

“Musick to Play in the Dark” reissue has a hermetic, homemade feel

Although Christopherson started off as a proud non-musician, he worked with a proto-sampler using tape loops before the instrument became widely available and affordable. Both Balance and Christopherson participated in Throbbing Gristle singer/ bassist Genesis P-Orridge’s band/ cult Psychic TV — P-Orridge started identifying publicly as a trans woman late in life — in its earliest manifestations, sharing her spiritual interests but growing disturbed at P-Orridge’s use of her growing Thee Temple Ov Psychick Youth as a genuine control mechanism over her fans.

Coil’s first decade occasionally flirted with the mainstream. Their pained, dirge-like cover of “Tainted Love,” released soon after Soft Cell’s version, was a benefit for the Terrence Higgins AIDS Trust, and its video (directed by Christopherson, with a cameo by Soft Cell singer Marc Almond), which depicts a gay man watching his lover die, may be the first major acknowledgement of the disease in popular music. Without changing a word of the original song, first recorded by soul singer Gloria Jones in 1964, Coil made the new meaning of “tainted love” in 1985 hit home.

Later, Trent Reznor, who cited them as an influence on Nine Inch Nails, hired the group to remix NIN (five of these long-distance collaborations are compiled on the ep “Recoiled”), got Christopherson to direct the suppressed pseudo-snuff film “Broken,” and signed the group to his Nothing label, although their album “Backwards” went unreleased for years.

Coil composed the scores for gay directors Derek Jarman’s “The Angelic Conversation” and Clive Barker’s “Hellraiser,” reaping the honor of having Barker’s studio reject their work as too menacing for a film in which a man returns from the dead as a skinned but horny body.

After the rave scene’s influence on “Love’s Secret Domain,” their music became more hermetic and private, reflecting their home in the countryside by the southwest coast of England. While they worked with outside musicians — thighpaulsandra and Drew McDowall contributed to “Musick to Play in the Dark”— the album feels homemade. The artistic credit on one of their albums was ELpH, the spirit they thought haunted their studio. While the band released much of their music in limited editions on their Threshold House label while together, “Musick to Play in the Dark” is one of a flurry of recent reissues, following Dais Records’ edition of the 1992 “Stolen and Contaminated Songs” last year.

“Are You Shivering?” ushers in a new period for the band; at the time, Balance claimed they were turning toward the moon for inspiration, which is reflected in the cover art. According to author David Keenan, the title refers to the side effects of ecstasy, but the lyrics are full of sexual allusions — “I lie down and shiver in your silver river” — enhanced by the heavy breathing looped throughout. It never becomes vulgar, instead reflecting a view of semen as a sacred substance. The song builds upon glitchy, chopped-up vocal samples toward more direct and straightforward passages using a droning melody.

Against a sequencer pulse halfway between Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” and Philip Glass, whirring sound effects come in and out of “Red Birds Will Fly Out of the East and Destroy Paris in a Night” for its first two minutes. The song gradually builds on top of its original rhythm without ever letting it go. Running 12-and-a-half minutes, it’s carefully composed, even if many of its elements, once again, are based around distorted and heavily processed vocals.

Afterwards, “Musick to Play in the Dark” heads to the cabaret. “Red Queen” begins with two minutes of sped-up voices before turning into a piano ballad. It’s the most conventional song on the album, with Balance delivering a critique of the media’s power to create reality in a bleary, distanced voice.

Given the band’s reputation for chemical excess, “Musick to Play in the Dark” sounds surprisingly disciplined. The mix has a pointillist detail, where every noise is carefully positioned. The lengthy songs were carefully structured, inspired by lesbian composer Pauline Oliveros’ concept of “deep listening.” “Musick to Play in the Dark” re-emerges into a much different world, where music is often used as background while we do three different things on a laptop, albums get chopped up into playlists, and short songs that try to grab the listener immediately get the most attention. The long intros and outros and slow builds here are alien to that ethos, but Coil was making their own occult version of sacred music. Even if the specifics of their belief system don’t always come across from the album itself, “Musick to Play in the Dark” carves out a special space.

COIL | “Musick to Play in the Dark” | Dais Records | Nov. 27 release

 

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