Soliloquy For Lilith: Nurse With Wound & The Vastness Of Possibility

Created 30 years ago through financial precarity, a new family and phantasmagorical feedback, Soliloquy For Lilith is too often labeled as simply ‘dark ambient’. But Nurse With Wound’s album of hallucinogenic, avant garde and intrepid spirit helped spawn a lineage that includes Aphex Twin, Sunn O))) and Klara Lewis

By the mid 80s, post punk was a distant memory for most. Received wisdom suggests there was some kind of creative halt between early 80s post punk fallout and acid house – Simon Reynolds referred to this time as the “bad music era”. But while it’s true that the energy of post punk had dissipated, the aftermath of industrial music remained ripe with inspiration, many artists putting out their most audacious work.

Coil forged a sound from mangled sampling: songs like ‘The Anal Staircase’ were libidinal battle cries, a stark opposition to the puritanism of the Thatcher years. David Tibet was coming into his own as Current 93. The Swastikas For Noddy album saw him reinvented as a macabre folk visionary – a transition inspired by Shirley Collins, Comus, and a bizarre acid vision of Noddy crucified above the London skyline. International groups like Einstürzende Neubauten, Laibach and Scraping Foetus Off The Wheel expanded the parameters of industrial music, proving it was no nihilistic cul-de-sac but an ever-evolving and multi-dimensional movement.  

Nurse With Wound mastermind Steven Stapleton remains one of the figures most difficult to place. He was a remnant of the pre-punk, hippy weirdo world, commonly sporting a scruffy Dickensian top hat and filthy round spectacles. In the years before the late-70s industrial boom, this krautrock evangelist would travel to Europe as a roadie for German groups like Guru Guru, visiting countless record shops and becoming well-versed in all manner of freak rock and avant composition.

These studious years were documented on the inner sleeve to NWW’s debut, 1979’s Chance Meeting On A Dissecting Table Of A Sewing Machine And An Umbrella – the enclosed ‘Nurse With Wound list’ became a shopping list for record-collector geeks, and was expanded on their 1980 follow up, To The Quiet Men From A Tiny Girl.

Chance Meeting was the culmination of Stapleton’s wayward listening habits, splicing crude tape collage with sadistic imagery and spaced-out guitar improv. The title is taken from a poem by 19th-century poet Comte de Lautréamont, who was a huge influence on the surrealists and situationists, but it wasn’t till the mid 80s that Stapleton grew comfortable with the role of audio surrealist. On 1982’s Homotopy To Marie and 1986’s Spiral Insana, sudden jolts announce the passing of one idea into the next. One moment jaunty pianos invoke a sense of ease, seconds later you are subjected to clangs, scrapes and muttered incantations.

His 1988 record Soliloquy For Lilith is something of an anomaly, then. Devoid of such jarring transitions and dislocations, and deemed “fucking amazing” by Stapleton himself, the album is a highly focused act of audio alchemy recorded at a time of personal upheaval but reflecting no such uncertainty.

At the time of Soliloquy For Lilith’s creation, Stapleton was married to Diana Rogerson, a member of the radical performance art group Fistfuck. Rogerson was a catalyst, driven mad by Stapleton’s humdrum routine of working all day then retreating into his studio in the evening. She gave him an ultimatum: he should leave his job and fully commit to her and his music, or she would leave.

“I wanted her, I really did,” Stapleton told David Keenan – author of Coil/Current 93/Nurse With Wound biography England’s Hidden Reverse – “but I had no faith that I could still bring in enough money to live on from music.” Despite crippling doubts, Stapleton decided to quit his day job and invest all energy into a newly founded label, Idle Hole Records. Soliloquy For Lilith would be the label’s first release, named for his newborn daughter.

The album remains an outstanding listen, but its inception came about by chance more through tech chance than conscious innovation, Stapleton and Rogerson discovered a phantasmagory feedback generated by a series of linked-up effects units, determined by their own movements around the studio.

“As it cycles it creates a loop which slowly becomes rhythmic, mantra-like,” Stapleton told Keenan. The six tracks of the initial release – later expanded to eight – would be comprised of nothing but this feedback, stretched out for aeons.

The sprawling tones of Soliloquy For Lilith are shifting, but they somehow create a sense of blissed-out stasis. The album’s cover art inverses this effect: stare long enough at the cryptic gold circles and a sense of motion is generated from the static image. A lack of song titles encourages you to assess the music on its own terms.

Despite its restrictive processes, what they get out of the equipment is remarkably varied. Track two is all numbing repetition, a throbbing pulse which in the right mind-frame leads straight to oblivion. On the third track, the feedback’s resonance is akin to a 1950s sound effect for a UFO (fitting, given that Stapleton compared the effect-unit feedback to a theremin). One constant throughout, however, is the album’s cavernous low-end bass, projected outwards like sonar communication.

The impact of these murky hums is comparable to the avant garde composition of Robert Ashley or Eliane Radigue. Radigue’s three-hour work Trilogie De La Mort feels like a cousin of sorts, exploring the transformative power that sound can have on the completely focused psyche, the way mere tones can induce psychedelic states.

Though its connection to the deep listening/avant garde composition of Ashley, Radigue, Pauline Oliveros or La Monte Young is clear, its place within the pantheon of ambient music is far more complicated.

The methodology and execution of Soliloquy For Lilith can be seen as the antithesis to Eno’s vision for ambient music. Eno imagined ambient as a form of generative music, where the role of the creator gives way to algorithms that take the initial idea to places unbeknownst to the composer. This is entirely contrary to the way in which Stapleton and Rogerson adopted the roles of composers and conductors, their physical movements controlling the hallucinogenic swells of the tones.

Eno’s belief in ambient as some form of furniture music – “as ignorable as it is interesting” – seems equally incompatible. In the world of NWW, ambient can be a sound that is beautiful, yes. But this is a beauty so sensually overpowering that it becomes as intense as any metal, psychedelic or straight-up noise piece. Soliloquy is almost anti-ambient, at least in terms of the genre’s commonly placid associations. Take Tangerine Dream, an act Stapleton was a noted admirer of. Soliloquy is, for the most part, as distanced from their ambient as it is from Eno’s, sharing none of their tranquil relationship to nature.

One Tangerine Dream record that does feel intrinsically linked is 1972’s Zeit, an uncharacteristically foreboding work. What Zeit hinted at, Soliloquy would materialise fully, shedding ambient’s ‘new age’ associations and working with a sound that is all too often simplified to ‘dark ambient’. Traces of that emerging sound can be found from the inception of industrial music – the more languorous end of Throbbing Gristle, previous NWW – but examples such as Soliloquy, which is so committed, so pure to a singular aim, were few and far between.

This interest in elongated drones places Soliloquy in a far wider and more multi-purposed history of meditative music. Comparable in function to the engulfing sound of Indian raga, the same willing lack of direction, and the same focus on a heightened, trance-like experience. Dirter Promotions, the label who reissued the record, even specified that it’s an album: “designed for ritual ceremonies”.

For a niche act like Nurse With Wound, the impact of Soliloquy was massive. It was the project’s most successful release to date, and enabled Stapleton and his family to move away from London’s chaotic post-industrial scene and find a new home in remote Cooloorta, County Clare. To make this new location a home, they were tasked with renovating a dangerously dilapidated house. It was a turbulent time, with Rogerson claiming that in this region, “even getting a screw was difficult”. What came out of this struggle was a guest house full of Stapleton’s own gnomic sculptures, a place as magickal and bizarre as NWW’s music (and they are surely the only avant garde artists to have their home on TripAdvisor).

Soliloquy’s impact on the world of music was just as great. Look on Bandcamp and you’ll find a deluge of producers working in the same realm as Soliloquy, making inspired ‘dark ambient’ – admittedly with varying degrees of success.

A few years after the album’s release, traces of influence could be detected in emerging dance culture – the clearest example is Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II, an album that flew in the face of ‘chill’ ambient aimed at the post-rave comedown. Like Soliloquy, SAW II is a work with textures made amorphous, spectral, largely unbound to any structural framework.

‘Dark River’, the highlight of Coil’s 1991 dancefloor diversion, Love’s Secret Domain, is bedded in equally beguiling sorcery. Soliloquy’s lunar qualities seem to predict Coil’s later infatuation on albums like Musick To Play In The Dark or The Ape Of Naples, as well as showing some precognition of their influential drone LP Time Machines.

A parallel in the works of both Coil and NWW is a commitment to altered states – reached via whatever means necessary, be it chemical, sexual or spiritual. In an interview with Keenan, Coil member John Balance spoke of Time Machines having “some kind of temporal disruption caused by just listening to the music, just interacting with it.” Both Soliloquy and Time Machines share this obsession with halting time and dislodging perception; listen to either record and you feel time erode around you.

Stapleton’s ability to break away from standard time made him a highly sought after collaborator – he went on to work with Faust, Stereolab and close friend David Tibet. Drone-metallers Sunn O))) cite NWW as an influence, even getting Stapleton to remix their second album, ØØ Void, ten years after its release for The Iron Soul of Nothing. Sunn O)))’s Stephen O’Malley explained, "The initial brief was to hopefully come up with something in the vein of Nurse’s legendary Soliloquy For Lilith set.”

For his 2009 film Katalin Varga, director Peter Strickland made extensive use of ‘The Grave And Beautiful Name Of Sadness’ – a track from NWW’s album with David Tibet The Sadness Of Things. Shots of Eastern European woodlands are set to drones that, like Soliloquy, fire the imagination and bypass both the literal and the logical.

It was a wise choice for Strickland to use the track itself, rather than rope in a composer to approximate a ‘NWW sound’. Those influenced by Stapleton know better than to emulate his music, and choose instead to aim for a similar mental state. Take Sunn O))): they are a group who belong to an entirely different genre, a whole other network, and they are kindred artists due to their exploratory spirit, not their sonic components. Just as Stapleton drew from the impulses but not the specific sound of the avant-garde minimalists, so those inspired by him map out an alternate trajectory for this mode of composition – a trajectory that continues with artists like Klara Lewis or Helm.

What makes this lineage of music so thrilling is the simplicity of its foundations and the vastness of its possibility. All that’s really required is a focus on repetition or extended tones, and from this point onwards musicians may do as they please. Soliloquy For Lilith takes this template to its extreme, and in doing so offers a music of genuine mystique.

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