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...

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less

Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.