Music

Strange Vistas from the Occultism of Coil and Psychic TV

From the cover of Bright Lights and Cats With No Mouths - The Art of John Balance Collected (Timeless, 2014)

Psychic TV and Coil were vanguard bands that blended ritual magick and creative method. But even their esoteric beliefs bore scant resemblance. This is a split that runs deep.

Wishful Thinking

So-called kindred spirits are rampant in the lore of underground music. But even among these charmed couples, few bands are as interwoven—modern myth tells us—as Coil and Psychic TV. Lately, tastemakers are spilling impressive amounts of ink, if you will, over each group, with a flurry of tributes in online outlets. And this rekindled allure shows no sign of waning; examples include the forthcoming Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth (hereafter, TOPY) documentary A Message from the Temple, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge retrospectives in mainstream culture houses (e.g., the Rubin Museum of Art), Sacred Bones/Dais record reissues for both groups, and the impending book Black Sun, Lunar Dreams: The Music of Coil (Bloomsbury Academic, 2020). But throughout these narratives, Psychic TV and Coil are incessantly invoked together by the impresarios, and rarely for reasons that make much sense.

Now granted: Peter "Sleazy" Christopherson and P-Orridge cut their teeth together in Throbbing Gristle; Coil's Christopherson and John Balance became Psychic TV's first schism in 1984; the groups often swapped collaborators; and historically, their fan bases heavily overlapped. But genealogy alone falls apart when searching for what matters: shared synergy between their artistic visions. Coil's sonic imprint—a dread electronica, always modulating and unnerved—veers drastically from Psychic TV's crusade for "hyperdelia", a revamped psychedelia by way of aural collage. Nor did their career arcs overlap, despite each carving out milieus from scratch. Coil persisted as a quiet beacon, pulsing in the backdrop of the scene's dark corners; ascetics who barely toured and released only sporadic missives. Conversely, Psychic TV and TOPY's whiplash grandiosity, to foment a global "cultural engineering" project, needs little introduction here. And many participants, like Balance, allude to no love lost: "[Psychic TV/TOPY] draws in willing victims" while "Genesis' personal view[s] were …. the whole of PTV". POrridge's ersatz cult emerged as "autocratic and one-lined" and "a naïve oversimplification of how the world actually is." So why name-check Coil and Psychic TV as if bound at the hip?

Fan comparisons, I believe, amount to wishful thinking for some intrinsic occult connection. True, Psychic TV and Coil were vanguard bands that blended ritual magick and creative method. But even their esoteric beliefs bore scant resemblance, a split that runs deep. In fact, three magickal rifts are to blame for the many public fissures now glossed over by nostalgia. Naming them will expose how Coil and Psychic TV borrowed different impulses from the 20th century's occult landscape, and using music, translated their agendas into radically distinct places for listeners.

Dots image by geralt (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

Three Rifts

Flash back to 1981. Amid Throbbing Gristle's immolation and Psychic TV's inception, chaos magick was coming into vogue across the UK's counterculture haunts. In retrospect, through-lines are obvious between the codification of chaos magick in 1978 by Peter Carroll and Ray Sherwin, and the weaponization of its tenets three years later within TOPY. Chaos magick embellished teachings from the personal religion of artist/occultist Austin Osman Spare, rejecting the hierarchies and ceremonial pageantry of Victorian-era magickal orders (e.g., Ordo Templi Orientis) while empowering a wide breadth of source material for ritual design. Tropes from pop culture, quantum physics, homespun mythology, and even choice bits of ceremonial occultism—now liberated from old affectations—were broken apart and glued together again at the user's whim. But this ambition to dethrone the Victorian sects hit a stumbling block: with chaos magick's practical roots in the prior occult traditions, their new generation needed to first learn these hidebound customs before reverse-engineering them. This vestigial flaw carried into the Psychic TV/TOPY assemblage, and followed Coil after their split. So the two bands typified this tension between upstart "Chaotes" channeling Spare, and the remnants of the Victorian orders preserving the Golden Dawn or ceremonial Thelema. But the lines were never clear-cut: Coil and Psychic TV/TOPY plucked competing features from each of these projects, creating their own hybrid systems which clashed in three key ways.

First, there's activism. TOPY's syndicate model unmistakably riffed on Aleister Crowley and the Victorians' sects, an update for the age of corporate media and Thatcherite politics. But TOPY's mass rituals serving "a common framework … a unity ov Purpose"—replete with a guru (P-Orridge) and hierarchy—flipped chaos magick's entire logic of deposing the gatekeepers. In fact, at its height in 1991, TOPY became the living-out, by nearly 10,000 acolytes, of a single person's hodgepodge mythology: Brian Jones as messiah, psychedelic collage music, William S. Burroughs's control machines, hippie cults, and so forth. Coil, on the other hand, pursued Spare's example of an egocentric magick. Balance and Christopherson's "revelations" were fueled by intuition from their own depths of self, and in their telling, conveyed nothing to outsiders since no two persons draw power from the same system. Accordingly, Coil's albums were the oblique sonic grimoires of "our imagination, craft, and spirit. These alone say what we want in the form we want it." Coil's personal lore became its own sub-occult: "we don't believe that [our convictions] should become an important part of our public image—as misinterpretation, and unnecessary and incorrect replication would possibly occur. Silence and secrecy."

Second, there's technique. To rediscover magick's "concrete function" in life—a facet lost by the ceremonial sects—Psychic TV/TOPY championed the sigil ritual, a single working method borrowed from Spare. TOPY sought research insights from its acolytes; how do slight variations of ritual impact the outcomes? Disciplining oneself to hone sigil technique over sustained repetitions emerged as a paramount concern for Temple members. The tighter one's grasp of inputs and outputs—ritual's "demystification"—the more revealing the feedback about magick's physical manifestations. Coil, however, opted for a grab-bag of ceremonial magicks and a "come what may" attitude for whichever misadventures ensued. Their ad hoc tactics pulled together shamanism, alchemy, astrology, and divination, in addition to Enochian magick, the Qabalah, and the Medieval/Renaissance grimoire traditions. In lieu of a formulaic working method, or any lust for externalized results, Coil's protean approach to occultism obsessively fine-tuned the variables of their own psyches. Bypassing the immediately sensible world, Coil sought to calibrate their minds to directly tap into magickal conduits and energies. Balance observed how "sometimes we set down a whole page of parameters [for ritual in music] … just so some chemistry within us is deliberately changed."

Third, there's metaphysics. Within Psychic TV/TOPY, the truest world is the one we inhabit, able to be selectively bent and nudged through magick. But magickal practice lacks teeth when disconnected from its role in TOPY doctrine: to clarify intentions and focus the will, using sigils to dissect and decipher latent ambitions. So TOPY's ritualism expressed as much a learning heuristic as a spiritual pursuit. Coil turned in the opposite direction; they sought higher elemental planes, independent from and indifferent to human interference. And to that end, Coil's music performed complementary functions. For Christopherson and Balance, a creative process laced with ritual rearranged their "chemistry", opening points of entry into the occult Otherworld. For listeners on the outside, the finished tracks were mappings of etheric zones upon arrival—"embedded fragments, clues" about accessing "an underlying system of correspondences and parallels" to elsewhere. As Balance instructs, "we don't create it, really. It's already there. We just assemble a kit" to dislodge the self and journey over liminal landscapes via astral projection.

Each band adopted a pastiche of contrary "occultisms", which even for the subject matter, seem odd. Psychic TV/TOPY: a chaos magick sect conducting research to see if their communal self-help regime's single technique even works? Coil: a reclusive duo, privately re-enacting a jumble of ritual pomp from centuries earlier to tweak their brains and traverse fantastic netherworlds? But the embodiments of these rifts—where Coil peered inward, and Psychic TV gazed outward—are the anomalous places conjured by their art. Psychic TV's music charged physical, disciplinary enclaves for TOPY members to dwell in and perform rituals together. Here, the immanent world is broken, but it's all we have—our duty is to make amends for its injustices. Coil's music opened doorways to push inside oneself, and enter etheric, open-ended realms—indeterminate plateaus populated by anything but one's fellow travelers. Here, the immanent world is broken, and our calling is to journey elsewhere and report back our findings so that other wanderers discover their own passage. So where are such places realized in sound?

Psychedelic Case Studies

Psychic TV's Ultrahouse: The L.A. Connection and Coil's Love's Secret Domain open windows onto these strange vistas. Both released in 1991, Ultrahouse and LSD (not an accident) are snapshots of a curious moment when the bands' paths briefly intersected, with each plumbing the depths of the acid house scene for several years before again going their separate ways.

Ultrahouse is the final installment of an apocryphal three-album series which implied that P-Orridge and the TOPY clan were the instigators of UK acid house. These studio LPs were "compilations" that presented Psychic TV band members and collaborators as two dozen different pseudonymous acid house artists under the sway of TOPY's magnetism. Despite Psychic TV's peripheral role (at best) in UK acid house, the ploy proved shockingly effective: for instance, SPIN magazine's 1992 review of Ultrahouse, categorized under "Various Artists" proclaimed: "this collection of intoxicating and devilish house music was orchestrated by Psychic TV—compiled by its Genesis P-Orridge—and it shows. Mind-blowing rhythms abound … The best cut, White Dove's 'The Eagle Has Landed,' bubbles with pagan vibrations." And equally credulous attributions are plentiful among the current Psychic TV/TOPY tributes pieces. Ultrahouse implied that TOPY's sphere of magicko-acid authority enveloped scenes as far-flung as California, elevating the band from shadowy ringleaders (on the prior compilations) to sophisticated curators. From the liner text: "this cocktail of tabs is an indirect result of trips into the west coast acid house underground scene around sunset strip during the summer of 1990."

On Psychic TV's acid albums, the TOPY ritual experiments begun in dingy communes were scaled-up for the mass market. Sigils and other enchantments were planted across the albums in a variety of formats, notably sonic samples of "occulture" liner text, and design elements. Together, they cast an aura of suggestibility, supplanting acid house's folk narrative with insidious innuendo of Psychic TV's leadership. But on Ultrahouse, most profound is the blending of existent and invented artists and institutions. For instance, two of the eleven artists on Ultrahouse are (shockingly) real: manic post-punk/country crossover artist Glen Meadmore, and Japanese "deep house" group The Ecstasy Boys, neither affiliated with the acid scene. Wax Trax! was Ultrahouse's publisher and distributor, yet licensing is ascribed to the fictional "Deep Fry Records", hinting at an underground scene and independent label discovered by P-Orridge and lifted from obscurity. Even a fabricated design firm, "Magical Dimensions Music Artworks", is credited with the album art. Here, the desired "place" catalyzed by magick was a preferred version of our world—an alternate reality—in which rituals designed to convince fandom of Psychic TV's acid authorship already worked. Formerly contained to TOPY hideaways, these experiments now conscripted disaffected scenesters as unwitting test subjects; the acid subculture (and beyond) became a laboratory of ritual repetition.

Coil's LSD, on the other hand, is a sonic drawing of their "most lucid glimpses of the other side." Psychedelics served as tools of the studio itself; not remarkable in the annals of music-making, but the drugs were just step one. For Coil, psychoactives unlock backdoors to better sync the mind with ceremonial magick and tap inner domains; production became ritual. By embarking on these expeditions midstream during LSD's assembly, Coil positioned themselves to transcribe their travels in real-time through synthesizers, tape-splicing, and effects. For instance, Christopherson asserts, the track "Windowpane" references "opening up gateways, both physical and metaphorical"; its music leaked back into our dimension through the breach. LSD stands apart from Coil's other entries. Throughout their subsequent LPs, says critic David Keenan, psychedelics were delayed until the studio work's conclusion "to make [the new album's] workings explicable." And unlike the earlier Scatology and Horse Rotorvator—which each featured magickal timings and structures open to decoding by their devotees—Coil demolished all the occult scaffolding used in LSD's construction.

LSD's ethos became the ravaging of sounds to ensure that original expressions were hidden; "we took away the sense and left the sensation." Obsessively reworked over the course of a year, everything on LSD was "processed and folded in … collapsed in on itself or concealed." The end result? An album that "melts together and superimposes" with progression among distant fragments, the interactive buzzing of obscure noises, and "delirium subliminals: avatistic glimpses of a grand chaos—surfacing in flashes of black light." But these aural markers on LSD's map are not conventional waypoints: they arouse "deep listening", the mode of engagement that Coil sought to provoke during this period. A phrase knowingly appropriated from composer Pauline Oliveros, tracks built for deep listening suggest multiple strata of content for the listener to unlock; further trysts allow more profound excavations of latent features. On LSD, deep listening is how Coil divulges uncanny places to their fans: layers superimpose into a sonic mirror of the band's astral wanderings, revealing causeways already traversed so that others may venture through the looking glass themselves. Listeners are forced to search the music for meaning using the same intuitive and abeyant lenses that Coil employed in magickal processes—they then become primed to blaze their own occult trails.

Clearly, Psychic TV considered their sculpted product to be the magickal lodestar, whereas for Coil, true ritual potency came from discovering new paths during the production process. But such approaches were necessary to conjure the divergent places each band sought for its listeners. These places manifest the three rifts that cleaved apart the bands' artistic visions, while showcasing a final truth: occultism served Psychic TV's means—to sate worldly desire through magick—and Coil's ends—to step entirely inside of magick.

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