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Reissue Of The Week

Reissue Of The Week: Form Grows Rampant By Threshold Houseboys Choir
Eden Tizard , February 18th, 2022 09:18

Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson’s Threshold HouseBoys Choir in many ways continues the mission of latter day, lunar Coil, says Eden Tizard. This reissue demonstrates his unrelenting push forward, a life in art, a life cornered by instinct

Final Transmission.

A man dressed in Benidorm garb speaks to a handheld camera on Dong Tan beach, Thailand. Fireworks prematurely pop mid arc, his flow of RP English broke with deft comedic timing. We can barely make him out, something about a “Mecca for badly behaved foreigners… myself included!” What is this? A straight to video travelogue? The amateur presenter seems to ape Palin, Portillo, and there’s a hefty dose of accidental Partridge.

Is this BBC doc fanfic?

Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson always had a disreputable slyness about him, saucy postcard wit full of Brit double entendre, a Carry On film down ‘The Anal Staircase’. But wait… now we get an earnest meditation on heroism, he tells us his belief in the idea that human error, our lapses in morality and compassion, stem from hesitation, that we all have an innate goodness and must trust our instincts – more on that later.

Fire In The Sky was recorded four days before Sleazy’s unexpected passing. The short lo-fi documentary about the Thai equivalent to Bonfire Night is a rather shoddy affair. One passage is like a budget re-edit of the section of Terrence Malick's The Tree Of Life that features dinosaurs and the universe, or an idle computer shuffling through cosmic photography on Movie Maker, synced up to BFG-style new age hums. But this notion of resisting hesitation seems a fitting epitaph for Sleazy. His approach to art and life was the non-musician who let instinct take the reins.

Where does he fit in our understanding of the non-musician? We often paint them as eternal underdogs, the makers of glorious, DIY botch jobs. They don’t simply get by with, but relish a half stocked tool kit, which was hardly the case for Sleazy.

In the late 70s, DIY as a function of creation and distribution – though also as a rough and ready aesthetic – went into overdrive. It was seen by many as a move of democratic insurgency, where, so the official story went, posh prog virtuosos were usurped by a viral prole art threat, as short lived as it may have been.

Now where does that leave him?

Sleazy never did fit the role of archetypal underdog. A public schoolboy and child of Sir Derman Christopherson, an esteemed academic in the field of engineering. His initial musical contact was with the piano, rather antiquated compared with what was to come. From the off he concedes that he did have some minor tutoring on the instrument, but even at a young age there was already a sense of forgetting that intrigued him. Even in the stuffy public school setting, where no doubt the Western canon was evangelised - not to mention a strict sense of practice and discipline - Sleazy’s approach to the instrument was to view it as conduit and transmitter, where inner currents might flow uninhibited by formal barriers.

In a documentary short on his life works and Coil, he professed it to be “a great luxury not to have a musical education, because it allows you to make a direct connection between your heart and your soul and the sounds that you make.”

To shed the baggage of scales and notation.

Manuals be damned.

He soon sought new transmitters. With pals at school he’d splice up tapes, make loops of churning, concrete clangs, in ignorance – though very much in the vein – of Burroughs and Gysin. These were premiered to baffled peers in assembly. By stroke of mad synchronicity (or more likely crafty, posthumous bullshit) he claims the group were called Pulsing Vein, a clear synonym for Throbbing Gristle. Years later as part of TG, he would be invited by a precocious student to perform at Oundle School in Northamptonshire, where, upon contact with their sound of septic leakage and slasher dread, pupils broke out in a spontaneous chorus of ‘Jerusalem’.

Throbbing Gristle eroded privilege, at least in a musical sense. The backgrounds of Sleazy and Genesis P Orridge stood in stark contrast to the working class upbringing of Cosey Fanni Tutti. Bar tech wiz Chris Charter, they played on a level field of fuck all know how, cornered by instinct. Rather than just see the idea of non-musician as a feature of a worthy cause (democratisation), here the case is made for its validity on its own terms, a creative imperative, an asset.

Once the TG ‘beast’ was put to rest, Sleazy and his partner, the visionary poet and singer John Balance, had a short stint at the birth of Psychic TV, but were disillusioned by the project’s cult-lite tendencies. Rather than flirt with and subvert systems of control and occult coercion, they founded Coil, sought the breach of more individually minded thresholds.

Sleazy found cash via high end design and video work, first with the design troupe Hipgnosis – who produced lavish sleeves for the likes of Pink Floyd and Peter Gabriel – later directing videos for everyone from Erasure to Nine Inch Nails. This gave us a glimpse at what the intuitive-led, non musician might produce if they had to hand the cutting edge of technology.

Cut forward.

Sleazy is now based in Thailand following the death of Balance, a chronic alcoholic who had a fatal fall at their Weston Super Mare home in November, 2004. Prior to his passing, Sleazy had been workshopping the idea of a new project, The Threshold HouseBoys Choir. Balance was a keen supporter of the idea.

The name is something of a misnomer. There would be no choir in a traditional sense, but one assembled in digital zones, either sampled sources, Sleazy’s own heavily altered voice, or entirely novel creations. Not altogether new territory for Sleazy, a common Coil trope for vocals to be assailed by a maelstrom of effects, from impish digi-theatrics to gurgling drones.

In many ways what we hear on 2007’s resulting Form Grows Rampant is a continuation of latter day, lunar Coil, where Apple Mac and Hurdy Gurdy are both valid tools to unlock heightened states of being. You can hear hallmarks of the Worship The Glitch approach. Voice too succumbs to the wordless sonic residue, we get regal horn pomp and happy hardcore hook, operatic falsettos hover like flying saucers, sounds reach genuine celestial planes while plunged down deep in uncanny muck.

Similar to his work with Coil, titles, sounds, colours, are given talismanic qualities. We get the sense of boundless limbo on ‘So Young It Knows No Mauring’ and ‘So Free It Knows No End’. Driven by what he called a “low threshold for boredom”, as well as trust in “inspiration”, instinct, and “a willingness to work”. This approach is no haphazard, anything goes affair, but one that places value on editorial judgement over technique.

Taken from a strictly sonic standpoint, Form Grows Rampant is an astonishing piece of work, prone to gamelan mirages, lunar minimalism, but that’s half the story. This is an audio visual project, and the video aspect delves into some of Sleazy’s more questionable preoccupations.

TQ’s Luke Turner once wrote: “I adore the music of Coil and their track 'Teenage Lightning' remains a favourite, but it's hard not to wince when Jhon Balance would introduce the song live saying, 'We always say that teenage lightning is the energy generated by two teenagers rubbed together', or at the aesthetics of some of Sleazy's photography of young boys, often violently eroticised.”

It doesn’t stop there. When interviewed by TQ back in 2010, Sleazy said this of his move to Thailand: “It's true to say I have had better sex, and for hours, with willing, skilled and considerate STRAIGHT boys here (18 + of course) than I ever had in the West with anybody!”

Putting the exoticism to one side for a moment, this comes across either as a barely muted dog whistle, or some sort of bizarre, tongue in cheek mimicry of a barely muted dog whistle.

It didn’t help matters when he went on to say: “And living at the edge of that bell curve, in the back of beyond, does trigger concerns in the more faint hearted that I might be some kind of Gary Glitter character – certainly there are many unpleasant Englishmen in Thailand just as there are in England.”

Sleazy is no longer alive to be held accountable for his comments, and there are also no direct accusations of inappropriate behaviour. But at the very least, it’s clear Sleazy was aware of this perception of him, and the wink wink nudge nudge responses he was prone to give were callously flippant.

So the Threshold Houseboys Choir film then.

We see a document of Thetsakan Kin Che, The Vegetarian Festival, where, as part of a ritual that pays tribute to The Nine Emperor Gods, metal rods are pierced through faces, tongues are sliced into with razors, all without the use of anaesthetic. It’s true to say that this was not orchestrated by Sleazy, it’s the documentation of a local rite, however, this preoccupation with violent teenage imagery has been a feature of Sleazy’s art going back to his days with pre-TG troupe Coum Transmissions, indeed, this very ritual practice was used on the cover for Mute compilation A Taste Of TG. Then there’s his reputation as sideline voyeur, a reputation that earned him the name Sleazy in the first place.

Where do we stand here as listener/viewer? Form Grows Rampant is a visually arresting piece of film, one whose inception emerged simultaneously with the music, but we can’t help but ponder what intentions lay behind the gaze. This would be an unfair concern in and of itself, but in light of prior work like the indefensible video to Coil’s ‘Love’s Secret Domain’, it becomes a more understandable query. If you’re going to make it a habit of flirting with this topic of sexualised youth, then it’s not uncharitable for the viewer to have such anxieties. I don’t think it’s enough to go: “Ambiguity yeah? You’re meant to feel uncomfortable yeah? Sleazy loved to shock, he was always a taboo buster!”

Thankfully, in the instance of this particular film, the focus seems to lay far more on the impact of this ritual on its participants. Sleazy had this to say: “The footage is documentary, and it shows the Kin Che festival in the south of Thailand which is designed basically to scare away malign spirits, to bring merit to the community, but the way that they do that is in relatively gory ways. A bunch of, in this case, working class local type kids go into trance and do various gory things… what you will find is that sounds disgusting and heavy, but the film that I’m making of it is actually quite slow and beautiful and contemplative… the music likewise, takes you further towards the kind of spiritual state that I believe these boys achieve for themselves as part of the ritual, which is an elevated state of spirituality.”

This would be the final major work for Sleazy. In it we see a lifetime's worth of interests coalesce. Like any other Sleazy project, it’s a balancing act. Where does curiosity end and voyeurism begin? Above all intuition reigns, blind faith in his own judgment. The elemental fire of the mind.

Form Grows Rampant is released today via Music Pour La Danse