Human Rites: Coil's Agony and Ecstasy
Option No. 44, May/Jun 1992

by Scott Lewis

Here's a practical example of Coil at work: "Disco Hospital", from the group's latest album Love's Secret Domain (Wax Trax), was largely created by cutting up pieces of found tape, throwing it into a box, reassembling the pieces at random, cutting up the resulting cape, and then going through the process all over again.

Christopherson and his Coil co-conspirator John Balance, who today share a flat in London, met in the early 1980s, when both were members of Psychic TV. Formed in 1982, the group grew out of Balance's solo project, which quickly came to include Christopherson. "Coil didn't ease out of Psychic TV," Balance says, "it's just that at the time we were not getting along with Gen [Genesis P-Orridge, founder of Psychic TV, whom Christopherson had also played with in Throbbing Gristle), so a split would have happened anyway?"

Some common traits among those groups include the practice of ritualistic self mutilation - the current body piercing fad can be traced back to Psychic TV, via the re/search book Modern Primitives - an interest in the occult, symbology, white noise, and tape manipulation. Balance and Chrisropherson shared beliefs about ritual and the ritualistic use of sound, which is still an important influence on their music. Their first major release, recorded in early 1984, was "How To Destroy Angels," a one-sided record featuring a slow, atmospheric shimmering of gongs. It's described on the jacket as "ritual music for the accumulation of male sexual energy," though Balance denies the record was intended for men only.

"It's because we're male that we said it was male sexual energy," he says. "Anyone can use it for whatever they like. It's a ritual piece of music based on the god Mars and the numbers 17 and 5, numbers associated with Mars in the Kabbalah. It's 17 minutes long, and we had five huge iron gongs in the piece, and we used swords, which symbolize Mars, to hit the gongs. We also used bullroarers, which are used throughout the world for male-only initiation rices. They're like long sticks that you whirl around your head and they, make a whirring, more like a feeling than a sound - like a helicopter"

Moving rapidly from Heaven to Earth, the pair released Scatology, in 1985, produced by their friend Jim Thirlwell, better known as Foetus. "His mania complements our more melancholy side," Christopherson says. "We wanted someone who would complement our atmosphere with a certain amount of intense derangement. We didn't want to drift off into a kind of noodly, soundtracky, wimp-type thing."

No wimp-type thing at all, Scatology is a mixture of savage percussion, pulsing bass, liner notes about venereal disease, and lyrics that indict Christianity as an institution. A particularly intimidating crack is "Godhead=Deathhead," in which drumbeats hammer away over chanting before giving way to ominous synthesizer and Balance's voice bitterly intoning, "Virgin Mary, weak and wild, rids herself of an unwanted child."

Says Balance, "That was me being an angry young man with the first forum to actually vent my spite. So the words are pointed and deliberately anti-Christian in the imagery and execution. But now, having gotten that out of the way, we're sort of demonstrating the other side. We're not so interested in demolishing what's there by shouting, but by actually acting upon it... we're born-again pagans. We want to reestablish what was there before."

Christopherson continues: "With Scatology, we were quite straightforward in the anger that we felt towards the church, particularly the more fundamentalist kind of view. At the time we were recording the record, we were actually handing out leaflets saying, ` Kill a queer for Christ,' and stuff like that. The way we've developed, we're now more interested in the older and more underlying religious thoughts."

Despite the hard edge to most of Scatology, the album includes Coil's investigation of sound for its own sake, which has become more prominent on the group's later albums. A particularly strong example of this is "The Sewage Workers Birthday Party," which captures the contradictions inherent in much of Coil's work.

The name of the piece comes from a vile story in a hardcore Swedish S&M magazine, yet the music is delicate and profoundly sad, built around a recording of Balance playing a Chapman Stick bass with an E-bow. The mysterious noises in the background "are taken from recordings of rituals and orgiastic things that I was doing at the time," says Christopherson, in his typically enigmatic fashion. "The mood of those particular experiments was quiet and meditative in the dirtiest possible way, and that came through in the music. Our state of mind and our obsessions tend to permeate their way through, from our personal lives into the subject and the way we make the music."

One such personal interest is the AIDS crisis. Since the early 1980s, their lives have been touched by the disease, as many of their friends have died of its complications. Coil donated the proceeds of their first single, a remake of "Tainted Love," to AIDS research, and filmed a controversial video about AIDS that played in Discos around the world.

"We had eyewitness reports of people seeing it in gay discos," Balance says, "and instead of dancing they'd stop and watch this video, and they'd have an ashen look on their faces. At the time - this may sound a bit naive - it was really important, because people were just not taking any notice of warnings about AIDS. So we had to tastefully shock people, representing a beautiful young man dying on a bed... in a pop video. That was, in a sense, a really perverse idea. That's the way we thought we'd get through to people. It was being shown in the place where people were picking each other up and catching the virus. It was going right to the heart."

Coil took their ideas a quantum leap forward - musically, lyrically, and conceptually - on Horse Rotorvator, released in 1987.

Their sound opened up, abandoning Scatology's preoccupation with rhythm in favor of a more contemplative, lyrical favor, with sampled guitars, strings on one crack, and sporadic clarinet from Stephen E. Thrower, who was credited on the album as a third member.

Despite Coil's small victory in getting the message out about AIDS, people they knew continued to die. "Because of that touch with death, we decided to explore all aspects of it," says Balance. "I think every track on Horse Rotorvator is basically about death."

"Ostia" is about the death of Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini, who was run over on a beach near Rome by a male prostitute. They also include a cover of Leonard Cohen's "Who By Fire," which details in almost Biblical terms all the ways a person can die. Over dirge-like chancing, "The Golden Section" relates an ancient Persian poet's attitude towards death. And "The First Five Minutes After Death" is an introspective instrumental that soars into the Great Unknown on wings of sampled guitar, woodwinds and feedback.

The album isn't "incensed to be morbid or depressive," Christopherson stresses, "because our views are very much the Buddhism views of continuing energy, rather than the Western view of death as a final departure of the final stoppage of everything."

On "The Golden Section," Coil uses an excerpt from a Peter Wilson book that describes the Persian Sufi poet Rumi's views of death. The words are read by BBC personality Paul Vaughan, who does a science program on the British network. "For English listeners," Christopherson says, "Vaughan's voice will have connotations of scientific authority and truth, which we felt appropriate. The Persian poet was confident chat he would be greeted by death, and politely invited to move on to the next state. We feel that's a scientific truth."

Be that as it may, the obscure album title fits the theme. Balance dreamed that "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, instead of riding their horses down and destroying the world, just killed their horses and used the jawbones to make a big machine. And they churned the earth up with that." The "horse rotorvator" of the title, he explains, "is a sort of earth-moving machine made up of horses' jawbones."

With the final chord of "The First Five Minutes After Death," Coil practically disappeared for four years, not releasing a full-length studio album until míd-1991. In the interim, they released an album of experiments and variations, a collection of compilation tracks, and the almost -soundtrack to Hellraiser, a horror film by Clive Barker. Hellraiser was partially inspired by magazines about piercing and "reference material about the more extreme sides of human sexuality" that Barker had encountered at Balance and Christopherson's apartment, according to the group. Coil recorded several tracks of chilling samples and ominous percussion for the film, but the group's involvement was derailed when Barker's Hollywood backers insisted on a more conventional soundtrack.

Coil has also released Unnatural History, which collects 12 of the group's numerous compilation cracks plus "How To Destroy Angels," and Gold Is the Metal (with the Broadest Shoulders), 50 minutes of never released singles, outtakes, fragments, and reworkings from Horse Rotorvator.

"For Horse Rotorvator, we almost had enough for a double album," Balance says, "and then we sort of honed it down. We had a few bits left over - some finished, some not - and that's what we evolved into Gold Is the Metal. If we'd have had enough money at the time it probably would have come out as a double album. "

However, part of the genesis of Gold Is The Metal is Coil's alchemic tendency to continually transform their work. "We quite often feel that when we've put a lot of time and effort and angst into producing an album, three months later we suddenly think of different ways we could have done things of different interpretations we hadn't seen as the time we were doing the album," explains Christopherson. "Some of the tracks on Gold Is the Metal start out in a similar way to tracks on Horse Rotorvator, or are different versions of tracks on the original album."

Finally, in 1991, Coil released the long promised Love's Secret Domain, delayed by problems with Some Bizarre, the label that had released Horse Rotorvator. Love's Secret Domain is a much more upbeat album, brimming with layers of sound and complex percussion patterns. The lyrics are lighter and more optimistic than chose of Horse Rotorvator.

"We were aware of the possible interpretation of the last album as being morbid," says Christopherson. "But just as in our personal lives, we're interested in having a good and interesting and incense time, regardless of the consequences in the future. You can sit and worry about whether you're going to die next year or in ten years time, and there's really not much point. It's much more interesting to have intense and passionate and..."

Balance interrupts: "The responsible abuse of pleasure is what we're talking about at the moment..."

"...which doesn't mean that the album is about taking drugs, particularly, " Christopherson continues. "It's not. It's much more about ways to increasingly potentiate the intensity of one's life."

The first of the album's two singles, Windowpane, combines those two interests. Named after a particularly potent brand of LSD, the song is about "opening up gateways, both physical and metaphorical," according to Christopherson. Windowpane is six minutes of slow, textured sequencer tracks over drifting synthesizer, with Balance dreamily intoning the lyrics, "If you want to touch the sky, just put a window in your eye." The beat is strong enough to dance to, though, as Balance quips, "If you had windowpane you probably wouldn't - you'd probably just lie down and listen."

While Windowpane has a great beat and catchy vocals, it's largely the use of samples that makes the song - as well as much of Coil's work so compelling. Christopherson has been sampling since the late 1970s when Throbbing Gristle keyboard player Chris Carter built a primitive sampler to Christopherson's design, connecting six cassette players to a one-octave keyboard. Coil's current equipment is far more sophisticated, but it's what they do with it that's important. "For me a sound is a sound," Christopherson says. "It doesn't matter how it's made. You can make it with a piece of tape or a piece of RAM memory or a piece of string."

Samples account For 6O to 70 percent of the sounds on Coil's albums, but Christopherson and Balance will do whatever it takes to get the sounds they want, often running high-tech devices like computers through low-tech devices like fuzz boxes. Because of this mutilation of technology, Coil's music has a human warmth that is rare in electronically programmed and treated music. The payoff is heard on tracks like "Ostia," with its beautiful acoustic-guitar samples, or the "Golden Section," where Christopherson's manipulated vocal samples lend a cinematic aura worthy of Ben Hur.

"Dark River," from Love's Secret Domain, uses what sounds like backwards, sloweddown bells to create a hypnotic collage of sounds that takes its listeners farther out than several hits of LSD could. Love's Secret Domain uses Coil's widest range of sounds to date, making wise use of instrumentation to create lush timbres. On "Where Even the Darkness Is Something To See," the group uses layers of rhythmically droning didgeridoo which interact with the drum beats to create a stunningly original sound.

Balance and Christopherson now feel chat the one advantage to the album's enforced delay is the time it gave them to set the material aside and rework it later.

"We worked it and reworked it over in the space of a year," says Balance. "We wanted everything to be latent and inherent, rather than obvious and easy to understand. So we sort of folded, everything in on itself mutated all the vocals, put all the samples in, and took the whole track and mutated it again through a flange. The whole thing was sort of like a pudding. The result is that the meaning is fragmented to such an extent that it could almost mean anything."

"But it's not nonsense," he insits, "it's that everything is hidden and packaged away, and you have to find it yourself. We took away the sense and left the sensation. We took away the meaning and left the feeling. Listeners have to really involve themselves much more than on anything we've ever done. This album requires more than listening carefully - that's too passive. You have to listen actively."

This end result has a lot to do with Balance and Christopherson's transformative working method. Christopherson "starts everything off," Balance says, "and I come along and tell him to change everything. We work by erasing half of each other's work. He does something and I'll come along and say, `That's shit.' He'll leave it for awhile, and I'll come back a week later and say, `Oh, that's quite good,' where in fact it's the same track."

Despite the technology and the long time it took to produce Love's Secret Domain, Balance and Christopherson always made the process of making the music into a ritual, albeit one they only hint at in conversation. Discussing a particular track, Christopherson says, "Both the recording and the mixing process involved a very intense experience for us, both from a musical point of view and ..."

"... a pharmaceutical point of view," Balance interrupts. "We sort of made the studio sacred and then blasphemed. "