When it comes to industrial music as true art, there are few who would disagree that Coil are within the top tier. The fact that Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson, half of the duo that formed Coil (alongside Geoff Rushton, AKA Jhonn Balance), was in the first true genre group, Throbbing Gristle, ensured they hit the ground running. Christopherson, alongside Chris Carter, Cosey Fanni Tutti and Genesis P-Orridge, created some of the most grisly, controversial, and outright challenging music even to this day. They’re simply just one of those bands who you either get or don’t. To be fair, most people tend to fall into the latter category. Either way, it’s undeniable the impact they would ultimately have on underground music and performance art.
After the dissolution of Throbbing Gristle in 1981, Christopherson would later join P-Orridge the following year along with Balance in Psychic TV. Coil, created by Balance originally for use as a solo output, was also founded around this time. The moniker would be used by the duo full time when they departed Psychic TV in 1983.
Coil would release How To Destroy Angels, a one-sided 12″, in 1984, which was followed shortly by their debut album Scatology. They would also go on to release the world’s first AIDS charity single, containing a grim, yet beautiful reworking of “Tainted Love”. The video for the track would be featured at the Museum of Modern Art, and later became part of their permanent collection.
For the production of the follow-up to Scatology, they would enlist the help of frequent collaborator, and later full-time member, Stephen Thrower. The concept of the album itself was due to a vivid dream on the part of Balance. “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse killed their horses and used their jawbones to make this huge earth-moving machine. Which was the Horse Rotorvator.” he’d later recall. The songwriting was also led to darker paths due to the fact that they were losing numerous friends to the ongoing AIDS epidemic during production. As such, Balance would go on to refer to it as “the death album.”
Released in 1986 by Force and Form, Horse Rotorvator shows a band that was firing on all cylinders. Balance, fairly timid vocally on their debut, shows tremendous growth and confidence with his abilities. Kicking off the album, “The Anal Staircase” opens to a loop from “The Rite Of Spring” before a crash alongside a child’s laughter that starts the track proper. Feeling like a roller coaster of the Stravinsky strings cascading alongside the throbbing beat and bleating synth stabs. Balance bellowing “And the rapids of my heart, will tear your ship of love apart” only helps to reinforce the bleakness of the content.
“Slur,” with its galloping, almost hand-beaten drums and backing vocals provided by Marc Almond from Soft Cell, follows. The image of the desert it evokes is quite literally realized by Balance’s lyrics, with the dystopian “I stare in surprise towards the desert’s warm black. And the desert stirs, and the desert stares back.” Containing a field recording of echoed singing, Babylero gives way to “Ostia (The Death Of Pasolini),” written about the murder of Pier Paolo Pasolini within the region in 1975. Acoustic guitars are soon joined by a gorgeous and fittingly arranged string section, which provides moments of pure grace throughout the track. This was one of the first Coil tracks I ever heard, and it made me a fan for life. It’s the perfect amalgamation of the album proper. Utilizing all the central themes and creating a moment of shining beauty in the center of the surrounding uneasiness.
“Herald,” another field recording this time featuring a marching band, leads into the industrial march of “Penetralia.” With it’s chugging guitar sample and swirling radioed in voices, delivers a disorienting segue into the utter insanity that is “Circles of Mania.” Assisted by J.G. Thrilwell of Foetus, it’s a sonic blast of an off-the-rails burlesque performance accompanied by a manic, screaming Balance. “You get eaten alive by the perfect lover” he croons, in what can only be an allusion to the worsening AIDS epidemic. Comparatively, “Blood From The Air” is low-key. However, it’s also the album’s darkest moment, the depressive counterpoint to “Ostia’s” radiance. An ominous four-note bass plays as various far away sound effects and clangs give off pure claustrophobia. This is not a safe place. The sounds swirl into a cacophony of dissonance before breaking back down. A soaring synth is added, as Balance intones “We all must be shown, we must realize, that everyone changes and everything dies.“
After that, the much lighter cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Who By Fire” is almost like a breath of fresh air. While the lyrics are still on theme, there’s a playfulness to the cover you wouldn’t expect in context. “The Golden Section” features an authoritative narration by the BBC’s Paul Vaughan regarding the angel of death, Azrael. A military-esque drum beat and horns lead the way forward, marching alongside the spoken text. The album concludes with “The First Five Minutes After Violent Death,” which almost feels like a fever dream. Woodwinds and acoustic guitars combine to give a last grasp at reality before the track grinds down and fades into the ether.
Yes, this is a heavy listen. There’s no two ways about that. However, there is a distinct beauty and elegance in which the themes are handled. Coil was never the kind of band to shy away from subjects due to their taboo nature. Death is a fact of life, and acknowledging it and facing it head-on as this album does, albeit harsh at times, also shows the fragility and fleetingness of our time on this planet. It may seem desolate, but it also shows that there’s so much to live for. You just have to find the light that will always be there, shining within the darkness.
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