Musick To Play In The Dark
Near the top of our personal canon of “couples” in pop music – though Lux and Ivy and John and Alice Coltrane and Nik and Mrs. Fiend are wondrous in their own ways – is John Balance and Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson (also of Throbbing Gristle ill-repute), the guiding lights and darkling gems of industrial innovators Coil. Their sinister, seeking music has been present for so much of my life that it’s strange to think that they are both no longer with us. The duo soundtracked the eternal, so perhaps that means that they live on as the knives of pure light one sees in the backs of the eyeballs during that energizing, jolting first listen to “Slur” or “Going Up” or “Tainted Love?” We take comfort in thoughts like that.
This year, Dais Records followed up their 2017 reissue of Time Machines with another overlooked later work by Coil – Musick To Play In The Dark. To hardcore Threshold House denizens, this one is UP THERE with Love’s Secret Domain and Unreleased Themes For Hellraiser and Scatalogy as holy sonic text. Nightmare fuel or meditation soundtrack or the audio totem that saves 2020? Why not all of the above?
Musick to Play In the Dark was Coil reborn, reimagining themselves, shedding old skins and mapping out new sonic worlds. The thrill was, in fact, not gone. The spark of unfettered and darkling creation bloomed stronger than ever. Critically hailed as a new beginning, it was in more ways than one. Balance and Christopherson had fled busy London and retreated to a Victorian house in a coastal town called Weston-super-Mare, naturally setting up a studio since distractions would be few. It’s impossible for me to not imagine them as Byronic or Hammer Horror protagonists, wandering the seaside and returning to their gothic manse to engage in a spot of sonic alchemy.
The year was 1999, an appropriate time to seek out a new way amidst a world widewdie sense of fin de siecle – which I’m sure could even be detected in the fresh sea air. As David Keenan put it in England’s Hidden Reverse, the duo wanted nothing less than to “map a new reality, and unmistakably alien” at that.
There were, of course, clouds on the horizon, mostly in the form of Balance’s increasing struggles with alcoholism, that would at times grind both the work and the life the two had made together to a screeching halt. (There’s an anecdote about Balance accidentally cutting himself while on a bender and bleeding on some album sleeves that the duo later dutifully repurposed into a special Trauma edition of the album, retrospectively that’s some ice-cold entrepreneurship.)
Longtime Coil member Drew McDowall left the project after working on this album, his sanity stretched after album sessions where Balance and Christopherson would work on music during the day and he’d take a bit of liquid opium and tweak tiny fragments of sound ceaselessly through the nights. (Worth noting is that the mighty Rose McDowall of Strawberry Switchblade and Death in June also contributed some vocal parts.)
Musick To Play In The Dark was first planned as something of a collector’s item: a subscription-only album, to reconnect with the hardest of the core of Coilheads. When it sold out immediately, they had to reissue.
This Dais reissue marks the first time the record can be heard on vinyl, and officially the first reissue in many years with the full art and audio, so cast thy boots and CDrs away. Remastering was conducted under the watchful eye of Drew McDowall and fellow Coil alum Thighpaulsandra.
Opener “Are You Shivering” starts out with dark portentous chords, before turning into the equivalent of a piece of music dissected and trying desperately to reform itself, finally coalescing – just about 5 minutes in – into a bed of choral vocals underpinning Balance’s shiver-inducing spoken word piece about MDMA trips. When Coil fires on all cylinders like that, there are few equals.
“Red Queen” is a spectral, bluesy vamp encased in ice. To hear Balance’s voice like this … it’s almost too much. Weary, regal, eternal all in equal measures. Treasure this song.
“Broccoli “is liquid beauty, all chopped n’ screwed blankets of electronics with choral vocals, Balance’s icy voice and even a rare vocal turn from Christopherson.
As a personal aside, my band once thought about covering “The Dreamer is Still Asleep” but went with “Going Up” instead – I couldn’t bear the thought of trying to get to the core of this darkling, somnambulant pop hit. Listening again, that was still a good call.
This seems, now more than ever, the best time to take in this particular Coil album. Dive deep into your own inner geography with this album as your map and compass. Listening to Musick To Play In The Dark, you’ll know that you’re never alone.