The Outer Church
The Outer Church
, September 4th, 2013 07:06
Much of the UK's current electronic music inhabits a post-Coil world. When John Balance and Peter 'Sleazy' Christopherson relocated from London to the West Country around the late 1990s, they opened up a conduit between the noise-scarred, nocturnal urban explorations and club cultures that informed their earlier work, and the more gradual and unchanging processes of the natural world. Coil's later music often united those two aspects, using predominantly electronic equipment and textures in ways that evoked the tides, the passing of time, and the transfer of energy through repeated cycles of birth, growth, death and decay. Even aside from the duo's direct cited influence on subsequent generations of UK musicians, their approach provided a blueprint of sorts for what was to follow: similar tensions between mind and body, urban and rural, archaic and modern, are now expressed everywhere, from the neural overloads of techno-rooted artists like Surgeon and Shackleton to recent Modern Love output and the haunted liminal zones of the Mordant Music roster and the Haxan Cloak (to name but a few examples).
Since 2009 The Outer Church, curated by sometime Quietus writer Joe Stannard, has booked many of these musicians and more for its regular Brighton sessions. This first compilation draws together tracks from 28 artists who've played there across the last few years, everyone from Baron Mordant and Vindicatrix to Kemper Norton, Glasgow's Broken20 label collective, Ghosts Of Bush maker Robin The Fog and shadowy London crew Old Apparatus. It's a pretty stunning collection of work, with its 28 tracks offering a roadmap of the uncanny paths trodden by the UK's esoteric electronic music community in recent years, via forays through folk-leaning forms, windswept moorland and deserted beaches, grubby clubs in railway arches and ancient burial sites. The music on The Outer Church, released through Manchester label Front & Follow (whose recent Collision/Detection series of EPs stalked similar regions) is united by several characteristics. First and foremost is a sense of the uncanny, a suspicion that there are additional forces (physical, psychological, paranormal, lysergic) at work beyond our full comprehension - but across the compilation's two-and-a-half hour length, what also emerges is a common mood of unfettered joy in exploration.
Indeed, as much as they're ostensibly in charge, frequently artists seem just as happy to relinquish control to the whims of the music itself and allow it to guide them to places they hadn't quite anticipated reaching. One highlight is '#24 (Edit)' by Some Truths, a project of Hackney's cosmic explorer Ralph Cumbers (Bass Clef) based entirely around modular synthesiser improvisation sessions. Its taut, shimmering tones whip around one another in a disorienting, glassy dance - simultaneously dazzling and brutal - while at any given moment you're never quite sure what's going to happen next, as brittle-edged notes abruptly melt and distort time like a Dali clock. The same feeling of precariousness lent an astonishing amount of energy to Cumbers' performance at the Outer Church CD launch party in London last month, as his hands darted around the modular system, reigning the music in only by the skin of his teeth. Ekoplekz's hardware-based, dubbed-out rhythm 'n' noise jams share a similarly unpredictable air; his 'Outercountry' is one of the most inviting and melodic things he's released to date, even as its blasts of interference and subaquatic bass detonations seem poised to destabilise it entirely at any time.
It's tough to select individual tracks to discuss from a compilation this sprawling, and most of the tracks included here justify highlighting as points of interest, which speaks to its strength. The Outer Church's sheer size, admittedly, functions as both help and hindrance. It's tough to absorb the entire thing in one or even two settings, and for strongest effect it's best digested in a series of smaller chunks, the better to pay close attention to the subtle differences in atmosphere and approach between individual contributors. A few particular pieces, however, spring to mind as worthy of mention. Nearing the end of the second CD, Paper Dollhouse's 'Swans' offers a moment of straight-up lovely contemplation, all layered choral vocals and keys that glimmer like stars on a clear night. It's immediately followed by the chaotic scribblings of Time Attendant's 'WHOA!', a striking but effective contrast, especially when the latter reaches its beautiful and teasingly brief peak, with all the music's elements coalescing into a steamy haze of harmonic interactions. Listening to BrokenThree's '96D' - a collaborative track between Broken20 label bosses TVO, Production Unit and Erstlaub - I'm reminded that this consistently excellent Glasgow-based collective deserve far wider attention than they currently receive: its slow, Chain Reaction-esque throb plots an oceanic mid-point between the latter's surging ambient works and the former two's club-minded techno deconstructions. Pye Corner Audio's 'Black Mist' is spectacular, haunted cosmic disco, and Baron Mordant & Mr Maxted make slow house sound like the creaking of gigantic rusted iron gears on 'Roehampton By Night'.
Returning to Coil, the connection between those practitioners of the British otherworldly and this broad community of descendants feels particularly strong in a couple of places. The contemplative incantations of Kemper Norton's 'Melegez' swim within a diffuse sea of conflicting and complementary electronic textures and the meditative drone of bellows, conjuring up a vertiginous sensation of displacement in time and space. Like Coil's later music, it seems to contain a whole other world inside itself, with the track itself a doorway into a parallel space governed by slightly skewed laws of physics. The compilation's highlight, meanwhile, is Grumbling Fur's contribution, akin to their marvelous recent Glynnaestra album, which has barely left my stereo in the last few months. Their track here - titled 'Tilda Holds A Sword & Lilies', a visual nod to (Coil collaborator) Derek Jarman's Caravaggio - might just be their finest to date. Like their new album's most pop-oriented moments, there's again something particularly magic(k)al about its relocation of 1980s British synth-pop into the untamed wilderness: here, great drifts of synthetic colour undulate like long grass in the wind, while Daniel O'Sullivan and Alexander Tucker chant their lyrics in baritone, stood perhaps within stone circles or atop vast rocky outcroppings. It arrives near the beginning of the first CD, functioning - appropriately, given The Outer Church's overall aesthetic - as a portal, drawing you forcefully into its world. Like every track here, its characteristics contextualise the others around it, making for an always intriguing and unusually coherent listen. I can't imagine you'll find a better or more comprehensive survey of the eccentric, magical and plain weird in British electronica this year.