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Current 93 - Black Ships Ate The Sky

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Artist: Current 93

Album: Black Ships Ate The Sky

Label: Jnana

Review date: Apr. 24, 2006

Way back when, Current 93 stood by the side of Psychic TV, Coil, even Whitehouse in the UK's "difficult music" category. I remember listening to Imperium and Dawn, and their occult, spiritually-dark atmospheres were perfect for long winter nights. The conversion of Current 93 into standard-bearers for "apocalyptic folk" left many puzzled, and initially the results were fairly crude.

It's safe to say, though, that David Tibet (I thought he had dropped this appellation, but the credits on this album are still under the name) has found his voice, as well as an ever-shifting and growing collection of collaborators. Black Ships Ate the Sky is an expansive canvas, painted with a repeating set of motifs and obsessions by a large group of artists.

The song "Idumea, clearly the central theme of the album, appears eight times, rendered by that many vocalists. The first track of the album is a version with Marc Almond; his resonant vocals make the song into a gorgeous lament. Bonnie 'Prince' Billy contributes throaty, bluesy vocals to a minimalist version that's often just the naked vocals, sometimes joined by jangling banjo. Antony's rendition features his seemingly endless vibrato (which fares better on the brief "The Beautiful Dancing Dust"), while the version sung by Clodagh Simonds, with what sounds like an air organ, has a nice Celtic touch. Others include Baby Dee, Pantaleimon, and Shirley Collins, as well as a version featuring Cosey Fanni Tutti blended with "Black Ships Were Sinking, forming an 11-minute suite with the album's most experimental drone work.

Overall, the core instrumentalists here provide excellent backing for Tibet's vocals. This is no surprise considering they include long-time collaborator Michael Cashmore, new friend Ben Chasny of Six Organs of Admittance, Steven Stapleton and John Contreras. The acoustic guitars and strings are particularly notable on Black Ships, weaving intricate support for Tibet's (and others') vocals. The title track's unexpected looping of distorted power chords, extracting some of the album's most powerful and chaotic vocals, is a particular exception to the primarily melancholy air.

Tibet's delivery may still be a bit too much for some, but his earnest chanting finds a comfortable place amidst this music. Whether it's the wavering singsong of "Sunset (The Death of Thumbelina), atop delicate acoustic guitar and cello, or the intense urgency of "Black Ships in the Sky, everything comes together very neatly. On the darkly droning "The Dissolution of the Boat 'Millions of Years'," the vocals are spoken, somewhere between a story and a news report of disastrous proceedings. Tibet's breathless chanting on "Black Ships Seen Last Year South of Heaven" takes a few moments to find its groove, but by the end the song is effectively oppressive, with an unidentifiable foghorn-like call breaking through.

Lyrically, Tibet's references include many of his ongoing interests and touchpoints, with the motif of the black ships snaking its way through the album to tie the songs together. With song titles like "This Autistic Imperium is Nihil Reich" and lyrics like "The desert is too close / Though we have seen it in our hearts / Like black ship time / So let's lock the doors" and "A land of deeper shade / Unpierced by human thought / The dreary region of the dead / Where all things are forgot," it's apparent that Tibet's focus on the dark things, and symbols thereof, remains.

Ultimately, perhaps most listeners at this point have already made up their minds about Current 93. But that may well be a shame for those who don't give this album a spin, because it's perhaps the richest, most rewarding release yet from Current 93, thanks both to Tibet's eccentric vision and his success in finding very talented collaborators.

By Mason Jones

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