Sailing Circles Around Convention
Current 93 continues to echo the moody atmospheres and occasionally tuneful rants of frontman David Tibet’s industrial-music contemporaries of the 1970s and 1980s: Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV, Coil, Nurse with Wound. The new Black Ships Ate the Sky, however, is a cut above the remainder of the group’s catalog on two significant levels.First, Current 93 assembles what might be their most thematically stable album, even if one occasionally has to wade through eccentric lyrics about maggots, cabbage, and “cosmic” Shirley Temple. Second, while they don’t completely leave behind their signature electronic manipulation, they do spend a lot of time reverse-engineering it. They discover logical starting points in the drone of acoustic instruments and the white noise of chatter and chorus using some of those same eccentric lyrics.
The key to understanding the album is found in the constant repetition of images and words. Tibet regularly refers to giant flying ships and Julius Caesar, while eight bracing performances of the hymn “Idumea” (featuring the likes of Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Soft Cell’s Marc Almond, and Antony sans the Johnsons) serve as the album’s centerpieces. A song inspired by God’s judgment on the Biblical homeland of the descendents of Esau, it helps Current 93 tell a cautionary tale of the paths individuals and civilization as a whole can take as Armageddon nears.
Despite its metal machine music pedigree, Black Ships Ate the Sky is essentially a folk album — possibly even angular, tortured gospel — to make Devendra Banhart’s beard wet with jealous tears. It’s a fascinating set of variations on an apocalyptic theme, and a successful musical experiment in every sense of each word.