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Vatican Shadow
Remember Your Black Day Luke Turner , October 11th, 2013 09:49

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It was inevitable that an event as grand, terrible, momentous and world-changing as the September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington would provoke and become connected with art both great and appalling. For every William Basinski's Disintegration Loops, Art Spiegelman's In The Shadow Of No Towers, Jonathan Safran Foer novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close or United 93, there's conspiracy loon flick Loose Change or Don Henley and The Eagles' 'Hole In The World'. Most of these, however, have been fairly straightforward in interpretation, either thoughtful reflections, attempts to explore the psychological consequences, or gung-ho, mawkish sentiment around American rescuers and resilience - the nadir of which is perhaps dc Talk's unintentionally hilarious 'Let's Roll'.

Vatican Shadow, a project of Hospital Records founder Dominick Fernow (who also records and releases under the aliases Prurient, Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement and so on) has offered up a more complex response to 9/11 and the subsequent so-called War On Terror. Refusing to do interviews, Fernow has attracted controversy for using militaristic and terrorist imagery for cover art and naming tracks and albums after newspaper headlines, as well as sporting US military fatigues during aggressive live sets. After innumerable cassettes and several vinyl records of distracted abstract noise grating against techno, Vatican Shadow now releases Remember Your Black Day. This, we are told, marks "an evolutionary shift away from the complex, collage-based narrative of those cassette releases into more visibly direct contact with the listener." Does this make for a greater explanation of what Vatican Shadow is 'about'? Yes and no.

In musical terms, this is arguably more robust and structured than any of the previous Vatican Shadow releases, with a well-defined narrative arc from beginning to end. Yet it is still broken music. Introductory track 'Circumstances Quickly Became Questioned' features hollow booming chants and snarls of voice. It's followed by 'Tonight Saddam Walks Among Ruins', a mournful and circular dirge out of which synth pulses emerge before the track suddenly ends. The escalation begins with 'Contractor Corpses Hung Over The Euphrates River', where a hectic rhythm sits underneath metallic sighs. 'Enter Paradise' features a simple one/two boom a repeated guitar riff, a soldier on a practice amp during a period of R&R in Bagram, before a lumbering, potent steel-and-wood kick. The gritty, pulsing title track is as basic as anything here, a panted training regime to an entirely dancefloor-friendly 4/4. Best of all is 'Not The Son Of Desert Storm', which at Sonar this year had a thousand-odd frazzled Spaniards pumping along to these songs, souped up to intense techno - yet intense techno as irregular as a Soviet-era ZU-23-2 23mm cannon mounted on a dusty Toyota pick-up truck.

September 11th has always seemed to me to be a case of a few nutters getting lucky thanks to monumental cock-ups, a theory of history that always seems more convincing (see also the rise of the Nazis) than woolly conspiracy theories. The American neo-cons exploited the attacks for devious geopolitical ends, via the invasion of Iraq and the endless drone wars that continue to this day, something that I actually find far more disturbing than wild-eyed talk of empty radio-controlled planes, explosive-rigged buildings, and Jews having a suspicious day off. This post-event exploitation of 9/11 seems to be what Fernow has explored throughout the Vatican Shadow project. I am fairly sure he is neither a 'truther' nor a gung-ho, quasi-racist American apologist, as some have implied.

He has left clues to this everywhere. For starters, there's an insidious passivity to Vatican Shadow's music -  it sidesteps macho, overtly muscular directness in favour of corroded sound, hollow, nocturnal hints of melody and distant fragments of singing. This becomes a background music that sits there, quietly disturbing, a malevolent presence in your ear. As such, it seems abundantly clear exactly what comment Fernow might be using Vatican Shadow to make. It's fairly obvious that this deeply un-American music is not remotely aggrandising. Instead, the sense of empty froideur points not at any explicit declaration of despair or glory, more an opening of hands to say 'this is what it is, make of it what you will'. Furthermore, this is such human-sounding and often emotionally expressive music (there's far more soul to this than most of the expensive static sold in the retail wing of the Hospital empire over the years) that it's hard not to interpret Fernow's stance as being entirely critical and questioning: of American foreign policy, Western complacency, and the nihilistic fascism of Jihadist terrorism alike. 

There's further evidence for this in the intrinsic humour that pervades Vatican Shadow, which follows in the tradition of artists like Throbbing Gristle and Mayhem. Seeing a short man in American desert ops camouflage dancing and thrashing around in inchoate rage has a macabre humour to it. Similarly, Fernow's occasional use of collages of American newspaper cuttings and religious tracts as background visuals when he plays live renders the original words absurd in their hollow pomposity, as well as reminding us just how ingrained into our daily lives the War On Terror has become. It's there in the titles too: Remember Your Black Day is overwrought, grave international incident rendered emo. 'Muscle Hijacker Tribal Affiliation' becomes curiously homoerotic. 'Tonight Saddam Walks Amidst Ruins' acquires an almost disturbingly bleak humour when you realise that it's a line taken from George Bush Sr's A New World Order speech from March 6th 1991. Which leads us towards another clue. Those were Iraqi ruins then, just as they would be again twelve years later when the War On Terror justified a return to Iraq for a conflict in which, as a Marine Corps officer wrote in 1997 (in a piece that gave Vatican Shadow yet another title) conventional forces would suffer at the hands of guerrilla forces: "future war is most likely not the son of Desert Storm; rather it will be the stepchild of Somalia and Chechnya". This was a warning the hawks in the Bush administration fatally ignored. 

19th and 20th century history was arguably characterised by binary opposition: British versus French, Nazi vs the free world, the 'free world' versus Communism. Nowadays, everything is far less clear cut, more confusing, the propaganda more easily discerned, lies more conveniently exposed - the polar opposite, in fact, of George Bush's infamous September 20th 2001 statement that "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists." So it is that the US government's 9/11 Commission Report (from which, again, Vatican Shadow sources some track titles) is as pacey and riveting a read as any Thomas Clancy thriller, where art and entertainment, political comment and provocation can and must be blurred. And Remember Your Black Day ends with 'Jet Fumes Above The Reflecting Pool' - a reference to the bodies of water at the World Trade Centre memorial, which seems to bring the Vatican Shadow project full circle, an acknowledgement that the past ten years of war and disorder have been part of a bleak, yet undeniably and depressingly human, cycle. The lessons of our 'black days' are never learned. 

Ashkin
Oct 11, 2013 8:30pm

An attentive review for some very rousing material. I've felt, for some time, that the Vatican Shadow project has achieved a level of virtue that falls short in other works concerning the last decade of war... You almost feel that Fernow's reflections on these troubling matters run deeper than the last decade... In a ghostly way they shoulder 2000 years of spiritual bloodshed and crusading.... This is some hair-raising work....

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aaron.
Oct 11, 2013 11:51pm

Thanks for the words, Luke. Fine writing for a fine album. My enthusiasm for Vatican Shadow over the year has only been tempered with dismay at all of the terrible copycat projects it has spawned... whilst it exists in a category of its own, the music/techno scene definitely are not richer for the 101 bloody gritty karaoke acts.

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John Woods
Dec 29, 2014 4:30pm

Dom is a good Madison boy, and I am glad he is so successful.

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