Moon Musick: Coil’s Musick to Play in the Dark

Are you loathsome tonight?
Does your madness shine bright?
Are you loathsome tonight?

At the time, Coil was a curiosity. My own personal tastes veered much closer to Nine Inch Nails and Ministry, the more mainstream “industrial” sounds of the mid-’90s. In fact, it’s likely that to this very day, I might never had heard of Coil were it not for Trent Reznor’s obvious superfan status — Coil was one of his favorite remixers, and for good reason, as it did some of the most outstanding remixes of Reznor’s material ever laid to the proverbial wax. The Coil/Danny Hyde remix of Broken‘s “Gave Up” is a masterpiece of frenetic drum programming and chopped up (and I do mean chopped up) vocals; their remix of “Closer” is creepy and atmospheric (the perfect counterpoint to the blatantly blunt original); and their trancey reworking of “The Downward Spiral”, which uses elements from their own “First Dark Ride”, is nothing short of brilliant.

Referenced record:

Coil, Musick to Play in the Dark (Chalice)
US release date: 19 June 1999
UK release date: 18 June 1999

Given my interest in the band, it had never occurred to me that its releases could possibly be difficult to track down. After all, Coil had been around for nearly 20 years, and was preparing to put out an album on Reznor’s nothing Records. Having read up on them via newsgroups and message boards, I finally managed to secure a few of the band’s “classics” for highly inflated import prices at the local record shop.

Now, Coil is the type of band that is not tied down to any particular aesthetic other than that of experimentality and the esoteric. How it achieves those ends varies from release to release, with the more traditional sounds of 1986’s Horse Rotorvator providing counterpoint to more recent, drone-based releases like 1997’s Time Machines. If nothing else, my early pile of Coil-related purchases had taught me to expect the unexpected, to expect nothing and everything from any given album. And so it was with great interest that I bought in to the buzz of a new album, to be released exclusively through the band’s website, an album that was to be pre-ordered before it was even finished to help finance its completion. The album was to be called Musick to Play in the Dark, and given that my interest in Coil was peaking, I gladly shelled out my 20 bucks in hope of a truly special gift from the band.

Nothing could have prepared me for what I received.

Musick to Play in the Dark is six tracks and 60 minutes long. Yes, that’s an average of ten (ten!) minutes per track. This is not an album to rock out to, this is not an album for casual listening — this is an album to absorb.

“Are You Shivering?” hits you with huge, distorted synths, stuttering voices, and a computerized choir that stays mired in dissonance for most of its existence, content to ever-so occasionally hit a single, sublime, beautiful chord before descending back into quiet dissonance. “Red Birds Will Fly Out of the East and Destroy Paris in a Night” has the goods to back up its Nostradamus-referencing title with a slowly evolving synthesizer workout (courtesy of then-new Coil member Thighpaulsandra) that eventually devolves into destruction via static, noise, and seriously warped air-raid sirens. “Red Queen” is a spoken diatribe on media lunacy (one of John Balance’s more lucid lyrics) over layer upon layer of slow, thick pianos. There are moments in “Red Queen” that feature at least six hands worth of piano at once — those are the moments that transcend mere notes, together a wash of beautiful harmony where not a sound is out of place.

Indeed, it is “Red Queen” that first caused me to sit up and notice just how special Musick to Play in the Dark truly is.

The album begins its second-half wind-down with “Broccoli”, a reflection on the importance of ancestry (with a rare vocal appearance from Coil primary Peter Christopherson) whose backing consists largely of static pops assembled just-so, built to approximate the crackle of a roaring fire. “Strange Birds” is a vaguely tropical noise piece with a sinister, whispered one-line poem attached. And then, we are left off ever-so gently with “The Dreamer Is Still Asleep”, a workout of mellow bell-synths with Mid-Eastern overtones that also happens to feature Balance’s only turn at actual singing, as opposed to spoken word. Regal and understated, “The Dreamer Is Still Asleep” is the perfect lullaby to be followed by the silence of whatever passes for the real world.

The assembly of each track is perfect. Not one of them could go a minute less, no small feat when they average ten apiece.

Musick to Play in the Dark is an album that I would listen to again and again, often following the instruction of the title and absorbing it in the black of night, face to the ceiling in the bed of my college apartment. I had a window facing the street — the headlights of passing cars served as randomized punctuation for the experience. Even in the black, I would close my eyes, convinced I could hear more, hear a sound that I’d never heard before, an interplay between voice and instrument that might not have been there the first 20 times I had listened. And I would take in the whole hour of music, every single time.

John Balance was the driving force behind Coil, and he is now dead. He passed this last November as the result of an alcohol-influenced fall in his own home. The world is less one poet, one artist, one visionary. I’ve never been one to be emotionally shaken by the death of an artist, but the passing of Balance took me for a loop. I had quietly become intimately, emotionally involved in the world of a fascinating human being, a world that introduced me to other artists as diverse as Nurse With Wound, Current 93, COH, Cyclobe, and even the great Jim Thirlwell. Suddenly, the relationship I had with the man was ripped from my grasp.

Fortunately, the music remains. Barring a revelation in the form of the upcoming final Coil studio album The Ape of Naples, Musick to Play in the Dark is and will always be the greatest link in Balance’s massive musical legacy.

This is moon musick. It will last forever.

May I ask you all for silence?
The dreamer is still asleep…