PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

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

Mike Schiller

In which Schiller discovers beauty and majesty that he never thought possible in experimental electronic music.

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...

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.