Brave the Heart of an Irish Sun
64 · 18 April 96
Whipping Boy: Heartworm
"Whipping Boy. Heartworn. Sony. You will thank me.", read the email. Presumptuous, but Roch had been right before, and it was a slow week for new albums. I hesitated for a moment, in the store, when I realized that the title was actually Heartworm, not Heartworn, but it hardly seemed fair to deprive a struggling band of an album sale because of a typo that they didn't even make. So I bought it. And an hour later I sent the thank-you.
Every once in a while, just to test myself, I try to recreate my ten-album desert-island-disc list without reference to any source material. The first seven entries are easy: one album each from my five favorite artists (Tori Amos' Little Earthquakes, Big Country's Steeltown, Kate Bush's Hounds of Love, Game Theory's Lolita Nation and Marillion's Misplaced Childhood), and my two invariant alsos, Del Amitri's Waking Hours and Talk Talk's Spirit of Eden. After those, though, I inevitably find that I come up with at least five entries for the last three slots, and I can never remember by what criteria I was able to differentiate among them on previous occasions. Jane Siberry's The Speckless Sky, The Icicle Works' If You Want to Defeat Your Enemy Sing His Song, New Model Army's Thunder and Consolation, Pop Art's Snap Crackle Pop Art and Runrig's Amazing Things are the other five I came up with when I tried this exercise yesterday, and indeed, when I check, I see that the last version I committed to paper, in mid-1994, concludes with the first three of these.
In most of these cases, the bands in question have also gone on to make other albums that I like nearly as much (including Game Theory reconfigured as The Loud Family, Pop Art reborn as Smart Brown Handbag, and Icicle Works leader Ian McNabb as a solo artist). The conspicuous exception to this rule is New Model Army, whose post Thunder and Consolation output includes two studio albums (Impurity and The Love of Hopeless Causes) that seem uneven and more than a little weary and played-out to me, a live album (Raw Melody Men) that for me fails to capture the energy of the band's concerts, and a really-only-for-fans b-sides collection. The inspired combination of agit-punk intensity, violin and atmospheric keyboards that I love about Thunder and Consolation never quite came together the same way again, whether because the band wasn't interested or wasn't able I know not. Until, that is, now. The spirit of Thunder and Consolation, dissatisfied with its hosts or perhaps just restless, appears to have jumped bodies and taken up residence inside the new Irish quartet Whipping Boy, from which footing it is able to meddle with striking effect in their US debut, Heartworm.
I should qualify what I mean by this. Whipping Boy don't sound like New Model Army in any individual aspect. Myles McDonnell and Colm Hassett's rhythm section doesn't come anywhere near emulating NMA's frenetic bass lines and vicious drumming, Paul Page's guitars don't have the punk edge of Justin Sullivan's, and singer Fearghal McKee's gentle Irish oration is a long way from the insurgent fervor with which Sullivan once screamed about Christian militias, the Falklands, American reverse-imperialism or the imminent destruction of the civilized world by the international technochemical conspiracy. What they do sound like, to me, is an extrapolation of the aura of Thunder and Consolation in a contemporary direction that NMA themselves didn't take it. By Impurity NMA seemed to me to have written themselves an ending, and on The Love of Hopeless Causes they were left with nowhere to go, and responded essentially by collapsing into old ways. Whipping Boy, unburdened by NMA's history, nor, frankly, by any even faintly evident social or political concern, which were always primary factors in NMA's persona and music, are thus free to explore the purely musical implications of Thunder and Consolation's expanded palette. Where NMA played at a hyperactive cant that made the early Clash sound a bit like the Eagles, Whipping Boy are children of their decade's aesthetic of busy drums, dense processing, big hooks, guitars mortar-and-pestled into a My Bloody Valentine-esque wash of overdrive, synthesized pizzicato strings and a trace of Manchester groove. Where NMA superimposed stark menace on rich atmosphere, Whipping Boy weave menace into the atmosphere itself. Where NMA ventured tentatively into balladry like a foreign world from which they might at any moment be extracted by a petulant transporter-room attendant (an intriguing tension, mind you), Whipping Boy aren't afraid of slow songs that sound like a well-massaged Liam Neeson rehearsing diary entries and love poems over the swirls of reflected firelight in a thick single-malt. And where NMA tore into the external world like piranhas attempting (and expecting) to dismantle a continental shelf, Whipping Boy are introspective to such a degree that outside realities creep into their songs only through the half-shuttered window of television name-bites.
Heartworm opens with a legato violin, which steps aside to reveal the elegant, trebly aural silhouette of "Twinkle", a song that seems disarmingly pleasant until the chorus introduces thundering drum cascades and guitars idling near the distortion red line, and the violin returns in a mode we could call "sawing" without much fear of contradiction. Listening to the lyrics undermines the impish title further, as the song turns out to be a wildly self-loathing unrequited vow of allegiance to a whore (though "unrequited", in this context, takes on a rather different meaning). The self-awareness with which McKee sincerely intones "She's the only one for me, now and always", in between itemizations of the girl's horrific faults, does for romance about what Mark Eitzel's songs do for drinking.
You'd think something more cheerful could be done with nostalgia, in the oscillating UK single "When We Were Young", but the childhood upon which recollection is cast turns out to have been spent, if the narrator is to be taken literally, primarily in petty crime and low-grade drinking, which somehow here don't have quite the harmless charm of the Gin Blossoms leading starchy Arizona cops on a good-natured Friday-night chase in "Hey, Jealousy". That the emblem of redemption in this memory should be an adolescent fondness for Starsky and Hutch is either a calculated retro-Americanism, or a depressing failure of the narrator to have even connected with his own time and country while growing up in it.
"Tripped" is about something else depressing, but neither its subject matter nor its quiet parts are any match for the witheringly metallic guitar noises that burst in at around the two-and-a-half-minute mark, which sound like the results of an ill-advised experiment by some renegade Korg and Yamaha modeling-synth techs to simulate an instrument merging the acoustic characteristics of a harpsichord and a lawn mower. "The Honeymoon Is Over" is kind of muted, too, until the terminal crescendo's cries of "So you remember now what it takes to make a woman cry?". And "We Don't Need Nobody Else" starts off calmly, too, with some dawn self-analysis laced with an oddly unprovoked remark about Bono (another NMA connection for me, as I persist in reading Bono into their anti-deserter anthem "Green and Grey").
But then, just before the chorus kicks in for the first time, things take a sinister turn from which, for me, the album never recovers. In the midst of some relatively innocuous philosophical musing, scorn suddenly wells into McKee's voice, and he says, threateningly, "And around here nobody tells me what to do anymore". Guitars roar in and lift up his defiant repetition of the title, but I can't yet tell what he means by it. And then the second verse unfolds a scene of domestic abuse perhaps most horrific because of its banality, and in the space of a few phrases "We don't need nobody else" has turned from independence and nationalism to a sort of Gaslight-esque psychological imprisonment, except this time the claustrophobic torture is bi-directional. I doubt that Whipping Boy accounted consciously for my NMA juxtapositions when they were writing this, but in the context of NMA's social broadsides, this chorus seems to me to point out that it's quite possible for two people to create so much misery in the confines of their own kitchen that it is hardly necessary to look outside any windows to find bile-eliciting inspiration. And perhaps the most disconcerting thing about this song is how, even after I've uncovered these significances, I am drawn magnetically to it. I keep playing it, over and over again, improvising harmonies over McKee's deadpan delivery. I don't espouse the sentiments, but then, neither does he. This is a character piece, common in other forms but rarely attempted in rock music because of notoriously literal-minded audiences (and their even more literal-minded parents). I sing along not because I identify with the narrator's character, but because I recognize humanity in the intricacy and depth of his portrait.
After that the rest of the songs exist in "We Don't Need Nobody Else"'s shadow. "Blinded" sounds a little like the Chameleons covering something by Ned's Atomic Dustbin. The languid "Personality", with its undisguisedly shallow admission of wanting to marry "someone who looks just like Koo Stark", undulates on soundtrack string swells. "Users" sounds like a variation on "Twinkle". "Fiction" seems to me like it would be an Echo and the Bunnymen record if somebody would just take their finger off the turntable and let it spin at its native speed.
Things come back into focus for me on the last track. "Morning Rise", slow and hushed, revolves around the line "When our time comes, I will know", and between its lyrics and the frame of mind that "We Don't Need Nobody Else" put me in, even this apparent vote of confidence in destiny takes on evil stalker/voyeur overtones. And after a short pause, the bonus track (listed on the album cover, so why they couldn't give it a track index of its very own I'm not sure), "A Natural", fills in the last piece of the harrowing puzzle with a meandering instrumental that accompanies a spoken recitation of a series of dire-sounding mental instabilities and family dysfunctions, which ends with a torrent of pitch-bent guitar and the concluding phrase "Today is not a day for me -- / Today is not for me". After listening to this album, you will know never to ask the band why they chose their name. Actually, after listening to this album I think it's wise to stay as far away from the members of Whipping Boy as possible, as they seem unhappy and unstable in such an insidious way that it could easily be viral.
But if you could catch diseases from CDs, I'd be well and thoroughly dead by now, so I guess it's safe to listen to this album again. Or maybe, given how many exposures I've had in the last couple weeks, and how many I still plan, a mask would be wiser.
Iona: Journey to the Morn
Depending on your attitude toward evangelical Christianity, Iona may be either the opposite pole from Whipping Boy, or even more disturbing. Iona, the island, is a five-square-mile monastery-supporting rock off the coast of Scotland, which I didn't visit when I was there because, well, there's nothing on it but a monastery, and I never travel anywhere where there's no CD shopping. Iona the band combine a healthy amount of Clannad-like Celto-ethereal listener-friendliness (including guest vocals and harp from Clannad's Maire Brennan herself) with an unexpectedly pronounced neo-prog-rock edge (including Robert Fripp playing guitar on two songs, and the album's having been recorded at The Funny Farm, ex-Marillion vocalist Fish's personal studio for the cultivation of Scottish bloody-mindedness), and lyrics that are rife with "Thou"s even on the songs not explicitly attributed to the Testaments. I would wonder whether there was really a non-zero audience for such a hybrid, did I not constitute part of it myself. And even I have to go through a short rationalization regimen to put up with this album. It goes as follows: first of all, if you pay no attention to the lyrics, this is a pretty cool-sounding band. I like Clannad, Enya and Capercaillie fine, but I don't expect to ever buy any more of their albums, because except for Clannad's arena-synth-pop digression, Sirius, all their albums blend together in my mind, and the music quickly becomes a commodity. It is soothing and good for background, but because I don't really focus on it directly in this use, it doesn't wear out, and there's no reason for me to own more than one album of it. The couple Clannad discs, one Enya record and one Capercaillie one I have are easily more than utility requires. Iona's infusion of neo-progressive intricacy and pomp, then, provides the animation that the other three bands lack for me, and gives me a tool with which to disambiguate instances. Not that, come to think of it, this justifies my now having two Iona albums, which I might be hard-pressed to tell apart, but you probably don't even have one yet, so we're getting ahead of ourselves.
Which brings me, though, to the lyrics. As an atheist of sorts (I believe, on early-Wittgensteinian grounds, that questions about gods are unanswerable and thus meaningless, which "agnostic" seems too indecisive to characterize), I would, on my own, tend to avoid the Modern Gospel section of the record store without much thought. (Actually, they'll probably have to special-order this for you, but you get the point.) I've recently, after much consideration, reached the stage where the religious impulse no longer seems inherently distrustworthy to me, but it's one thing to recognize that there are people who are both intelligent and, in some safely abstract way, spiritual, and it's quite another to countenance the quoting of origin-of-the-world-ish Bible passages without some token show of irony. What about my intellectual humanist pride? I mean, I own Zarathustra in the original German! Sure, yes, I haven't actually read that copy, owing to its being in, as I said, German, a language in which I'm lucky if I can recall four of the first ten numbers and a handful of assorted pronouns, and even them I pronounce in atrociously slurred Brooklynese, due to some unpleasantness in the personal life of my high school German teacher that we never had the courage to question her about as she peered through her sunglasses at us over a frighteningly large thermos of coffee, considering that the class took place at two in the afternoon, and the room had no windows.
But anyway, I had two revelations about the lyrics that made me stop worrying about them. First, as Richard and Linda Thompson demonstrated more than once, it doesn't take much to turn a religious song into a love song. "Your divine presence": this could easily mean "Your extremely enjoyable presence", rather than "the super-human Presence with which You make it clear that You are the one and only God, creator of the universe, legislator of all eternal justice, and general Being to avoid annoying". The bit about the "brave heart of an Irish son" could just be patriotic and romantic, if you forget that the song is supposed to be about Columba, the saint who, in 563 AD, escaped to Iona from somewhere less conducive to his faith (i.e., somewhere with people), and decided that the thing a five-square-mile island really needed on it was a church. Iona help this confusion on several of these songs by singing key phrases in Gaelic, a language into which I'm not entirely sure Nietzsche was ever even translated. Probably this observation, about how similarly we express romantic fervor and religious faith, reveals a world of truth about human conceptions of both love and God, but I'm really in no mood to think about either topic so soon after remembering my German teacher, or considering the idea of living anywhere where reaching the nearest Tower Records would require rowing.
The second revelation I had about the lyrics is that, really, the fact that they don't move me doesn't make them particularly unusual, and given that, it scarcely makes much difference why they don't. I've been listening to the Cast album a lot this week, for example, and if there's a meaningful phrase to be found on it, I've missed it, but it's still enjoyable. Yes, Iona didn't intend for their lyrics to be throwaway nonsense, but life is short, and you can't please everybody.
various: In Memory of Celtic Frost
Celtic Frost were an appalling proto-death-metal band that, other than the first word of their name, have absolutely nothing to do with anything Celtic, but if you can't put out an issue that goes directly from a cadre of effete Scottish Christians to a bunch of demented Norwegian Satanists, what's the point of having your own weekly review column?
Celtic Frost are no more, having folded shortly after 1992's retrospective Parched With Thirst Am I and Dying. Their demise disappointed me mightily, as I thought the two next-album demos on the compilation sounded fabulously cool. In their time, Celtic Frost introduced the world to a macabre variant on heavy metal that made Ozzy look like a mildly irritable veterinarian, and Slayer look like adolescent hockey fans who had merely watched The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a few too many times. Their first two albums, Morbid Tales and To Mega Therion, are a good impression of the noise you would hear, momentarily, just after you accidentally summoned Cthulhu, and just before he began consuming your mind and soul with some sort of toxic astral solvent. The third one, Into the Pandemonium, gets seriously weird, mixing metal extremes with drum machines and some wraithlike woman shrieking in French. The band then got expensive hairdos and made a fluff metal record that isn't as bad as their fans would have you think, but which is still probably better forgotten than anything else, and then their swan-song, Vanity/Nemesis, which I think is great, though the patronizing liner notes to this compilation don't deem it worthy of anything more than a historical mention. Frost mastermind Thomas Gabriel Warrior is now working on a new band, called Apollyon's Sun, and their brutal remake of the Celtic Frost song "Babylon Fell" is, in my opinion, the best reason to buy this tribute album.
There aren't, actually, a whole lot of other reasons for buying this album, and certainly none at all for anybody who doesn't already possess all of Celtic Frost's own catalog. If you do, a tribute album is at least an idea with potential, as it would be cool to hear some Celtic Frost songs done in completely different styles. Unfortunately, most of the versions here differ from Celtic Frost's originals mainly in that the bands here are not as good as Celtic Frost were. There's a lot of guttural croaking, which is the genre's identifying affectation, and a lot of turgid guitar-playing, but the most enthusiasm I can muster for this unremarkable mimicry is the faint surprise that anybody other than Celtic Frost would have the patience to figure out how to play a Celtic Frost song. 13's ultra-slowed intro to "Triumph of Death" is amusingly excessive, the recorded-in-your-garage sound quality of Emperor's cover of "Massacra" is kind of charming, and Closedown's ten-minute ambient version of "Danse Macabre" at least doesn't sound like the original (at all, actually, which perhaps misses the point of a cover, and perhaps not), but on the whole I think this collection is a cogent summary of why bands whose primary innovation was in sound, not songwriting, are poor subjects for a tribute, and why bands who basically seem like cut-rate knock-offs of the honorees are bad choices with which to staff one.