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The Lead Review: Russell Cuzner On Thighpaulsandra's The Golden Communion
Russell Cuzner , September 4th, 2015 08:50

Russell Cuzner examines the ex-Coil member's latest solo full length as an impressive and transgressive "psycho-musical"

"…it bristles with wonderfully singable tunes. It entertains. It communicates instantly, as all good pop should. And it is a considerable piece of barrier-breaking."
Derek Jewell, The Sunday Times, 1968

"… so stunningly effective a theatrical experience that I am still finding it difficult to compose my thoughts about it. It is, in short, a triumph."
Douglas Watt, The New York Daily News, 1971

"The score is an unparalleled fusion of twentieth-century musical experience. Echoes of the past... shimmer hauntingly through. But it is the interweaving of pop, rock, jazz, Broadway, Latin and other elements which make the brew so astonishingly potent."
Derek Jewell, The Sunday Times, 1978

Of the dizzying amount of genre-switching dextrously displayed across Thighpaulsandra's The Golden Communion, the oddest but most persistent one is that of the rock musical. Its semi-regular combination of prog-like manoeuvres with sung-through verse and ensemble choruses bursting with harmony has a touch of Andrew Lloyd-Webber about it. Although the above quotes are taken from early reviews of the now Tory peer's first three blockbusters - Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita respectively – they could equally apply to this exquisite new release.

Nowadays such fare is all too easily derided. Punk's DIY revolution necessitated a bullying of prog, kicking its complexities out of the park for some years; and the notion of the rock musical has turned tacky, not least due to a dearth of money-spinning productions feasting off the carcass of rock and pop back catalogues to ensure audiences already have the music imprinted on their unchallenged minds. But, back when the 60s turned into the 70s musicals such as Hair, Tommy, The Rocky Horror Show and Jesus Christ Superstar mainstream audiences were challenged to explore counter-cultural mores of faith and sexuality, war, drugs and race, while lending their ears to new compositions drawn from the heavier end of the pop spectrum. (Indeed, Jesus Christ Superstar started life as a concept album with a focus on synth-fuelled rock featuring Deep Purple's Ian Gillan in the lead role).

But if The Golden Communion is to be taken as a rock musical, it is a heavily transgressive one, and maybe 'psycho-musical' makes a more suitable moniker. After all, Thighpaulsandra's releases have tended to test its audiences' moral and musical fibres far beyond the relative palatability of political correctness or prog/classical mash-ups. For example, there was the Daily Mail-baiting homoerotic S&M imagery of Double Vulgar II's sleeve in 2005, or the fragments of sexually-explicit lyrics that sometimes rise to the surface of his otherwise well-seasoned multi-genre soup like a particularly salty crouton. But much more interesting than his choice of pictures or lyrics has been the way his complicated compositions knit together to form something coherent enough to be not just entertaining but works of performance art in their own right.

Perhaps in the same way psychogeographers suggest dramatic occurrences can leave a psychic mark on a place, so too it seems have Thighpaulsandra's extensive musical experiences stained his soul. From a devoutly musical Welsh family - his grandfather a conductor, his mother an opera singer - their regular visits to classical concerts in Cardiff throughout his youth introduced him to all manner of performances, from the key stones of Bach and Beethoven to pioneering experimental electronic works from Berio and "the charm of impossibilities" inherent in Messiaen's revolutionary compositions. Meanwhile, his home's lack of a television set and his father's ban on pop music cultivated secret channellings of The Beatles and Motown. Then, working as an engineer and producer in the South West's finest studios ever since the mid-80s has lent him a forensic insight into music of all modes, from recording Aled Jones, Bolt Thrower and Shed Seven through playing keys for hair metallers Tigertailz, to more famously recording and touring extensively with Julian Cope, Spiritualized and Coil. All of which, somehow, resonate out of his solo work.

Often the way this has worked on previous releases is through nesting his short, regular(-ish) pop songs within large, irregular assemblages of arch harmonics and polyrhythms to create epic-length compositions. Like on 'Black Nurse' that opened his solo debut Some Head, released on Coil's Eskaton label in 2000, where he surrounded a jewel-encrusted three minutes of Kraftwerk-meets-ELO electro-rock with a tempestuous, atonal sea of synths and propulsive, jazzy Kosmische angles. But, with his last two albums prior to The Golden Communion, he seemed to be edging away from this approach: 2005's Chamber Music, while ostensibly an attempt at creating an orchestral album still carried a hectic blend of jazz, glitch, and atonal electro acoustic textures, but delivered its only consonant rewards in its lush finale of angelic voices, elegant, eldritch piano and Roxy-like horns. Conversely, The Lepore Extrusion from 2006 was a demonstration in how to drone, its mercurial synth suspensions deliciously writhe for three-quarters of an hour without edging anywhere near the soporific effect of so many of today's 'soundscapes'.

Portended by The Clisto EP's four, short tracks (his last solo release, now over seven years old), Thighpaulsandra's pop eggs have at last hatched on The Golden Communion, to reveal several perfectly formed birds of paradise, but without losing the ambitious, avant architectures in which they incubated. It is, in the main, his most cohesive ride yet, despite the ambitious range of thoroughfares that, in less nimble hands, could so easily get messy.

The opening number 'Salute' drifts from the type of queasy synthscape that laced many a Coil track, cleaving the air like some interdimensional portal and leading through a solemn, processional ballad before slamming into a monster rock ensemble piece. It feels like a performance made for a big stage in a Victorian theatre, with an opulent set design and a large cast that slowly join the narrator, hands outstretched as the piece climaxes. Ensemble choreography would suit 'Did He Fall?'s exciting, cyber-camp workout that deftly switches gears from a kind of electro-glam stomp to a motorik groove before clearing the stage for perhaps the richest and most resplendent pop reward on the album. 'The Foot Garden' opens mysteriously with an elegantly haunted duduk (an ancient clarinet-like instrument) charming sibilant synths into unfurling their suspenseful tones until, midway through the piece, a gentle rhythm kicks off a song so accessible, yet so other, effortlessly balancing ancient and modern modes. It is a rare reminder of how sophisticated and sensual pop once was when the likes of Japan and Talk Talk enhanced the charts, while emphasising how course and commodified it has become.

Act 1's (or disc 1's) first three tracks are The Golden Communion's best pop pieces, and its last is its best instrumental. Thighpaulsandra has compared the way he composes to making a Disney cartoon ensuring there's enough action, whether oblique or straightforward, at all times to keep everyone entertained, as if imagining each work frame-by-frame. The Golden Communion's title track benefits from this approach needing neither verse nor chorus to make its half-hour journey fly by. Dramatically tripping through balletic chamber music, wayward electronic forces, synth slipstreams, dense drones and psychedelic soul - each transformation is captivating, inspiring the kind of suspense and awe of watching Close Encounters Of Third Kind for the first time, but through sound alone.

The excellence of the first act kind of overshadows the second, which is darker and more experimental. 'Valerie' is its highpoint which manages to fit a Sixties-styled psychedelic nursery song, a verse from a haughty church choir and an infectious piece of piano pop before the machines start to warp again. They continue to malfunction manically right up to The Golden Communion's epic 'anti-finale' 'The More I Know Men, The Better I Like Dogs' – perhaps the longest and strangest piece on the album. It has been around since 2008 when it closed an interview with the artist on ResonanceFM (when, curiously, Thighpaulsandra mentioned The Golden Communion as having "just gone to the printers") and it would seem no amount of listening to it can solve the audio puzzle it poses. Using recordings of Coil's John Balance on singing bowls, a ritual-like scene is set with unstable synths, dustings of eldritch piano, and random creaks and groans, each taking turn in the limelight on an otherwise spare set. It casts a woozy atmosphere for Balance's repeated reading of the title that gets ever more severely cut-up and maddeningly mangled. For the last few minutes we're treated to a tuneful, sonorous pattern somewhere between Steve Reich and the theme from Hallowe'en before the synths close in on themselves, as if returning to their home world.

Accessible and difficult, Thighpaulsandra's music is always a performance in its own right. It really doesn't need visuals, actors, sets or lights for its drama to be felt. The multifarious music he makes seems designed to constantly seek attention, whether in the studio or on a stage. Unusual for someone so at home in the studio, he sees a supreme importance in performance, and we can thank him for persuading Coil to perform live, arguably leading to their most creative period before the untimely death of Balance in 2004.

Despite the rock modes that would seem anathema to Coil, their sound world, which also indiscriminately incorporated pop and avant garde movements, is still perhaps the closest to Thighpaulsandra's solo productions of all his many collaborators. Prior to The Golden Communion's release he compiled two impressive monographs published last year that collect the paintings of Balance and the photography of Peter 'Sleazy' Christopherson. In the intro to the latter he indicated that the work had meant he was "…immersed in Sleazy's world for over nine months…" and that there were times "…when seeing pictures of my dead friends stops me in my tracks." Perhaps this goes some way to explaining such a long delay in this glorious album's release.

For those whose relationship with Coil was solely through their music, The Golden Communion goes some way to filling the gap the absence of their sublime audio oddities has left, while at the same time giving us the best example yet of Thighpaulsandra's seriously prodigious and sometimes preposterous musical talents.