The Power & The Glory: Vatican Shadow Live

At the Blackest Ever Black label's Corsica Studio showcase, John Calvert is confronted with Vatican Shadow's war of attrition. Pic thanks to Oliver Clasper

It’s around 3:30am, last Sunday morning. The very most lightless insides of the night. I look around the crush and think, where have these people been, these extreme music fiends? I can’t fathom their daylight lives, their interior lives, their past. To me they are un-humans, these zero men, these saxon spooks bleached anhedonic, painless. There are Meinhoff-ian hags and monochrome vampires. There are twisted androgens, UV veins playing up thick necks towards capillary nests on shorn scalps. The neurotic flash of specialist strobe equipment cuts their amphetamine stares into morse code screams. It’s like… if they were once a thing of nature, they are no longer. It begins with Cut Hands. They become sexual, gyno rhythm machines, spasming on impact with Bennett’s discorporated Africa, his awful tyranny. I hate their movements. During Concrete Fence’s noise set a thin jarhead uses his tongue to push his thin bottom lip downwards. A vomitus face. He simulates a greedy banquet, using his hands to shovel the sound into his disgusted scarecrow-mouth like faeces, and it sickens me. In the black bottom of central London, in this back corridor off some rotating thoroughfare, for a split second I look at him, straight on, and he looks back. He is ready. They are ready. Hungry for their weekly regeneration. But I was not. I’ve never been in a crowd like this, not ever. I feel a long way from home. I’ve got to get some sleep. Not ready. Not for Vatican Shadow.

Dominick Fernow performs, because tonight, for all intents and purposes, is about electronica as performance art. And what it is he performs would offend the new faces here that I almost know, journalists who leave with the sour taste of moral ambivalence in their mouths. And somehow my response comes out all different. The instinct is to stand motionless in a state of repulsed fascination, as I oxygenate to this bizarre and mind-altering exhibition, as Dominick Fernow goes full Section 8. I think it’s awe, genuflection to the most perfect live expression of an artist’s music this writer has witnessed in some years.

In the guise of Vatican Shadow Fernow seeks to reunite the listener with the satanic realities of millennial western warfare; to make real the zoetrope of military images and fatality stats rendered unreal over the years; to plot an oozing beeline between our taxes and the bombs that kill children in desert nations. In true no wave fashion, Vatican Shadow violates our apathy with quiet horror; challenging our role within the machinery of a supra-national system that with efficient insentience works to dispose of the Middle-Eastern ‘Other’. Fernow’s caustic ambient places the listener in ghostly aftermath zones, or at secluded drop points, or at the scene of hotel suite assassinations. We teleport to sweltering DMZ’s, or glide like phantom clones up Safwan’s Highway Of Death, or inhabit the tired minds of Restrepo‘s child marines, or assimilate the eerie calm that’s said to come in the wake of Basra’s inner city car bombs. Re-formed into impressionistic soundscapes, this is the true face of illegal war by Fernow’s estimations – he deals in the unreported. The tracks take their name from sinister Page Seven headlines (‘Shadow War in Yemen’) or military doublespeak (‘Peace Rage’), or pointedly reveal the sadism coded in those bottom-line soundbites, relayed numbly in their entirety and verbatim – ‘Snipers As A Breed Tend To Be Superstitious’; ‘The People In The Compound Kept To Themselves’. At heart, Fernow is a moralist. Tonight though, in a live context, the New Yorker blurs the line between exposing evil and revelling in it.

BREAK. Forget the albums. Brooding prowl is no more. This is war. All-out, techno-powered, sonic terror. STOP

Somehow we should have known and somehow it makes perfect sense. There is triumphalist disgrace written all over Fernow’s set; at best a vulgar display of power, at worst an act of oppression, with the producer daring us, willing us, to defy him. It is utterly brilliant. Guilt Envy Revenge….that’s the gospel according to BEB’s Kiran Sande, the basis for all significant human interaction, he says, the Blackest Ever Black way, the motor of history. Human nature. So that’s what we get, as if there was ever an alternative. Guilt-Envy-Revenge, for all time. I’m a believer. I am extreme.

Fernow’s intimidating heft fills a Desert Storm camo jacket, while his sweat-lank black hair whips in every direction. His movement on stage is remarkable, just mesmerising. He is Vincent D’Onofrio, or a zombie George S Patton. He is seething, taunting, head-banging, trouncing stage left, stage right. He is Charlie Kane and the hymn to capitalism, only reinterpreted through the medium of DANCE, in massive, arm swinging convulsions of pseudo-militant worship; the total embodiment of American madness. Solidarity Forever. Semper Fidelis. 1-2-3-4 United States Marine Corp, God’s Representatives on Earth. Final Victory: Christ Became A Man And Had Truly Assumed Human Nature. Quite instantly, all that worthy subtext inverts, turns upside down.

Instead of hypocrisy or criminality or free thought, what Fernow’s live set evokes, quite explicitly, is the power and the glory of military might. What before was the sound of lies is now the sound of fanatical allegiance, the image a patriot roaming the earth on steel tread, making the world safe for democracy, a soldier of Christianity. The beats are undanceable, the tracks senseless and interminable, because the only object of power is more power, and there is no conclusion. It’s going on 4am now and I find myself wearying in the face of this jackhammer assault. My eyeballs ache. I think about Guantanamo Bay, how the Americans used children’s songs and heavy metal music to torture prisoners. I’m stressed again. Yeah, it’s the aural equivalent of a stress position. I am no longer Black, or extreme, and this cruel, monophonic bass is constricting my windpipe every half second. There’s no release and I feel on a knife’s edge. Maybe that’s the point; to recreate in the listener the trembling, unmoveable PTS anxiety that grows in the modern infantryman. Or maybe Fernow’s aim is to disable, for the duration of the set, our capacity for independent thought, make machines of us, make patriots of us. My mind is a white detuned nothing. I don’t know, these are pretty far-fetched conceptual-art theories. But then, when you’re neck-deep in the attritional storm Fernow’s onslaught, your mind becomes susceptible to even the most extreme ideas.

The bottom line is aggression, a hangover from noise’s neo-punk pretences at the height of the Wolf Eyes era. Which just does not sit comfortably with what was assumed to be essentially pacifist content. But because, to me, discomfort is the one and only true function of transgressive art, and a sensation so very few artists are able to inspire in these desensitized times, the set blows me the fuck away; as much as would Fernow’s self-laceration, or a live sex show. Ideologically, it’s every bit as obscene. You can’t trust the narrator? So what. It’s art. You don’t like the violence and see the point? Maybe there isn’t one.

Days later I ‘rotate back to the world’, to Fernow’s original vision, his mission if you like, and everything falls into place. Because Dominick, the slippy bastard, knows full well that condemnations of evil deeds are most penetrating when disguised as evil itself. And sure enough, five days later, I can still remember exactly what horror feels like (a bit like tinnitus and a low-grade nerve damage, to be specific). To reclaim history’s most sinister phrase, tonight the end justify the means.

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