Black Ships Ate the Sky
might as well own up to the fact that I consider David Tibet (Current 93’s only constant member and head) to be one of the UK’s most horrendous vocalists. He’s got the kind of voice that Tim Burton would break his back to assign to a scrawny stop-animation carrion crow. Like some spidery old dame, Tibet waltzes his way through semi-narratives and heavily pronounces more apocalyptic imagery than your average well-read fundamentalist.
Tibet has the unique ability to make everything he says sounds deeply cryptic, whether it is or not, and this is one of the major reasons that Current 93 has never become as popular as they should’ve been. Sometimes a vocalist slipping into some fustian intonation can work to put a certain point across, but his refusal, or inability, to switch from this singular path has sunk a good many pieces of music. That being said, I’ve always tried to keep abreast of the band’s releases. Not because I’m a masochist, but because the music has always been satisfyingly excellent.
Tibet's recycling sensibility has left the band (as it is) coasting along on a raft of reissues, remasters, and remixes for several years. Despite the vast majority of this material being new, it still doesn’t feel like a 'full' album release in the traditional sense. The album comes over more like a soundtrack, especially with the abundance of vocalists (eight) tackling “Idumea.” These songs skilfully reflect the personalities of the singers via the instrumentation and arrangements as well as their intonation, inflection, and style. They almost seem like little motifs or character pieces within a larger play.
There’s a slight similarity, in certain aspects of language and style, to Tom Waits’ release of Robert Wilson’s The Black Rider. Instead of freaks and Faust, though, Tibet specialises in lunacy, virtue, the apocalypse, and their symbols. The repetition of these ideas and specific images builds up a central theme of madness inspired by barely controlled ecstasy and a fear of the day of reckoning. Some of these ideas might sound initially interesting, but those familiar it’s starting to look like the same old shtick. The phrase ‘black ships’ is used so liberally that it becomes intensely obtrusive and by the ninth track, “Bind Your Tortoise Mouth,” it’s incredibly invasive and dulling. In fact, the glints of a number of great lines (“cosmic Shirley Temple” and “hammered messiah,” for instance) are dimmed by identical intonation and reiteration.
It’s odd then that the reworkings of “Idumea” are almost all effective and absorbing pieces. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy comes out on top with his banjo, dungarees, and moonshine take. Further versions see Marc Almond doing his theatrical velvet curtain thing, Baby Dee bringing a hopeful melancholy with harp and cello, and Antony Hegarty backing himself with a choir of angelic clones. (Antony returns later with a solo track, the minute-long “The Beautiful Dancing Dust,” which eclipses just about everything else here.)
Things on Black Ships Ate the Sky seem clearer, brighter, and more carefully constructed than the majority of Current 93’s past work. It’d be near impossible for anyone to go wrong with a cast of musicians like Six Organs’ Ben Chasny, cellist John Contreras, Michael Cashmore, Bill Breeze, and the other near staple of the band, Steven Stapleton. All of them work together to create a gorgeous selection of instrumentals that move from sparingly understated touches of European folk, woody breezy drones, and buzzing power cable murmurs. The title track, for instance, revisits Current 93’s industrial past with an unlikely guitar / bass stomper covered in a barbed wire layer of violin fallout, while “Black Ships in the Sky” is high-quality Armageddon folk.
But, in the end, it’s all about Tibet. If you can get past his peculiar vocal stylings, the mesmeric performances of the guest vocalists and the album’s musical content make Black Ships Ate the Sky another half-great work from the Durtro label. Good luck.
Reviewed by: Scott McKeating
Reviewed on: 2006-05-12