Current 93 at O2 Shepherds Bush Empire

Support: Nurse With Wound
October 13, 2018 at O2 Shepherds Bush Empire
Promoter: Old Empire

Some context for this review: I wasn’t vastly familiar with either performer here. I’d not really listened to much Current 93 until a week before the gig, and until a couple of months ago I’d never knowingly heard a Nurse With Wound album. . .  though since then Soliloquy for Lilith has rocketed up my list of “great albums to play at work at a just barely perceptible volume that’s faintly disturbing for others”. That I haven’t explored their histories is sort of surprising even to myself: of course I’ve been aware of their names and reputations floating spectrally around loads of other music I’m intently into, from the Legendary Pink Dots and the Tear Garden perhaps most obviously, to the drones and power electronics, to weird neo-folky bits and pieces and so on. Anyway, all of this was enough of a preamble to recognise a certain Octarine flicker of a buzz around this gig, and so I find myself circulating around the Shepherd’s Bush Empire on this early October Saturday night, in a collection of post-punks and goths, people in Morrissey suits or black-metal t-shirts, Mohicans, woolly raver jumpers, smart shabby jackets and assorted other esoterical accoutrements, ready to enter the storied West London venue for what promoter Old Empire described as some white magic.

Nurse With Wound enter the stage with a creaking, rasping concoction, a gradually building, slow. clanking drone piece, like something ungodly conjured in a railway siding or a disused triangle of yard too close to the underground tunnels, left behind by surrounding construction, rattling with the passing of each subterranean train with a shudder. The dull term “ambient industrial” might begin to suggest its soft-padding contraption rhythms, the tones not quite organic but neither lifeless nor inhuman. A slow, vaguely focused mirage of video projection slowly drifts across black and white photos. . . is that a statue or a demon? a bearded lady, children in old-fashioned clothes, is that Aleister Crowley? (probably. . .) In the sound there’s angled door-hinge drones, shrill alto whistles, gate-closing kerchunks and odd jangles like you hit the water pipes or the stair rail on its funny bone. Then a little gear-change to a lightly pulsing beat, and the bass slowly wanders up into a pulsing thump, faint screeches at the edge of feedback cut across the melancholy robot heartbeat, high frequency wisps and echoes spiral fractally into nowhere. On screen, the vague dream of mysteries continues,with your attempts to decipher and pin down both provoked and frustrated. Or sometimes invited inward as we zoom in oddly, colours beginning to pulse and flare in LSD edging. It somehow feels un-giglike, as if this music is for secret late-night experiments and solo bookish investigations, or to supply small cabals of initiates with accompaniments for their opaque sequences. But it’s certainly absorbing to me, and to the arrangement of listeners in berets or platform boots or Nietszche moustaches. There’s applause as if, rather than the music having come to an inviting stop, instead more like someone is determined to voice their public approval and have it catch on (it does). Meanwhile the music reconfigures, the breathing clockwork turns to a new course, deviant drones sweeping out in front of the shuttled warps of sound draped from the stage, and those with antennae most in tune are once again eyes closed, heads shaking, one hand curving cryptic designs in the air in response to the hidden intensity in this low-key set.

On the PA there’s choral stuff with a click track, a snippet of Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds riff, then “Where’s your mama gone? / Oo-ee, chirpy, chirpy, cheep-cheep“, clearly a secret occult combination orchestrated to raise the listening consciousness ready for Current 93 to take the stage with a whirling oscillation tone. It becomes quickly apparent with a screen reading “1. the birds are sweetly singing” that this will be a complete rendition of new album The Light is Leaving Us All. A short piano-led vignette, the track sets the tone for the rest of the set, with the grand-piano grandness accompanied with well-balanced touches of violin and samples of, well, yes, birds sweetly singing. The track at the end threatens to burst into crackling electric flames; but is swiftly hushed, stubbed out, in another touch that feels, in hindsight, representative of the evening: generally wistfully drifting, elegiac even, but with an oblique hint of wilder sonic universes beyond.

‘The Policeman is Dead’ now comes, introducing for the first time, over a tinkling descending guitar line, the album title as a lyric: the visionary eyes of the something or other, cuckoos call and the light is leaving us all. In the visionary projections, as in the striking concert poster, images of people have dazzling points of haunted-ether light sizzling out from their eyes in lines, and a star-studded house drawing appears at moments. . . As with a bunch of the visuals. and things like the birdsong field recordings played at points, it’s really rather literal (lyrics say the light is leaving us all, visuals show light leaving people’s eyes weirdly) but it’s lavish and convincing, building on David Tibet’s distinctive, conspiratorial voice, both intimate and strange, promising to show strange secrets and subtly delivering. ‘Bright Dead Star’ floats sadly, sculled gently by piano oar-dips amidst violin eddies, while scrambled calligraphy flits across the screen, the strategic dance of chess moves narrated in the lyrics.

The next track features the name of the first one repeated in the lyrics, and the same relation between the sixth and the fifth. . . it’s a good job the names of the songs are literally emblazoned across the screen otherwise your reviewer would have had no idea how to untangle it all. But in truth, this is part of the mechanics of the set (and I suppose the album), with revolving layers built up across the pieces through cycles and repetitions, tropes and themes. This has the confected effect that, though practically everyone here will be hearing it for the first time, by midway through it the experience is like remembering something out of the corner of your eye. The birds again are sweetly singing through ’30 Red Horses’, over pizzicato plink and now with a more wizard-busy-in-the-kitchen incarnation of the vocal incantations, the witch of Endor and dark holes appearing in the words. This is perhaps among the most lively and animated Tibet’s singing gets, and I could imagine there being more of this wild-starry-eyed, faintly manic delivery being turned up several more notches, but for the most part the style tonight is more stately, drifting dream. ‘A Thousand Witches’ has a very very low piano, almost a dead, slack wire, but with delicate windings of violin and pipe drone, sonically the exact figure for the grey watercolour wash and flickering grainy deep scarlet punctuation in the projections. Between the tiredly cantering ‘Future Cartoon’ and the eternal return of the chirping birds again in ‘The Bench and the Fetch’, there’s the impressively glooming scrape-along ‘The Postman is Singing’. The final songs of the record billow out into the balconied space of the venue, curls of violin and pipe drone wires, and the band depart.

After significant applause, the musicians return for a substantial encore of I think four songs, one of which was distinctively ‘Then Kill Caesar’. Have they specifically picked out songs from the catalogue to fit with the new album set, or hang on, are all of Current 93’s songs about dead bodies and odd houses and birds looking at you funny? Ah, probably so, I’m guessing. Anyway, the encore is certainly much in that vein, which makes me wonder if they could have varied the instrumentation around for a bit more of a dramatic contrast. But then, countering that, ironically the quiet and slow ‘All of Your. . .’ song was the most captivating part of the encore: a stunning visual of calligraphy, repeated lines spelling out ‘all of your. . .’ appearing then melding, refracting, overlapping while the big sparkle house appeared over top again, and that line is repeated ritually over slow piano and peeps of violin. Another song cycles around a baroque. dark folk formality, with a strong sense of a quaint, deep mythology embedded in the images both lyrical, sonic and visual; and there’s a country house drifting between dimensions, and there’s portrait photos with slow lightning bleeding from their eyes, and there’s piano and pipes and bass and violin accompanying a spell-casting voice; and the birds are singing sweetly, and the light is leaving us all.

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