Sickness of Snakes - Nightmare Culture [Soleilmoon - 2013]Sickness of Snakes was the collective name for the brief collaboration between Coil (Jhonn Balance and Peter Christopherson) and Non (Boyd Rice) in the mid-eighties when both were fledgling post-industrial provocateurs. The results, a mere ten minutes long (taking an equally mere nine hours to record), reconstituted a shared influence of Italy's Futurist movement that celebrated the sounds of war, machinery and conquest, thanks to the groundbreaking sampling technology of the time.
Indeed, the lead instrument throughout these three short tracks is the Fairlight CMI, the first digital sampler launched a few years' earlier. It enabled the trio to both compose pompous orchestral passages and to play with nastier, non-musical noises. This combination, that has since gone on to influence legions of generic martial-industrial bombastic tripe, still manages to sound precociously chilling, following neatly on from the wayward aesthetics of Coil's debut album, Scatology, released months earlier.
'Various Hands' (or 'Many Hands' as Rice refers to it), is perhaps the most elegant example of their epic sound. A spritely flute sample lures the listener like the Pied Piper onto a panic-raising path of cinematic strings as fierce explosions get nearer and nearer. The cellos and violins continue their quest unabated by the growing carnage surrounding them to suggest Death's unstoppable march through a war zone.
'The Swelling of Leeches' continues the carnage through a flurry of strings, trembling neighs of anxious horses and tympanic crashes. But, curiously, the cacophony ceases suddenly to switch to a pacey noir theme built from a cyclical marimba punctuated by brassy belches. Marimba patterns, sounding like Steve Reich's percussive experiments of the seventies, would remain a consistent feature of many of Coil's more melodic compositions for the rest of their existence.
The final track presented here, 'The Pope Held Upside Down', is the closest to Non's relentless noise loops of the time. Formed of little else than multi-layered recordings of pigs squealing, the effect is that of listening to someone talking in an unknown language, the brain desperately trying to catch some meaning out of the disturbed babble.
Although these tracks have lost none of their awe in the 28 years since their release, it is a bit of a confusing (and expensive) re-release. It lacks several crucial elements from both the original 12" and subsequent re-releases. Firstly, the three tracks were first released as the flip-side to Current 93's 'Killy Kill Killy', a 12 minute exercise in David Tibet's evolving plundered sound collages of apocalyptic dimensions that involved both Rice and Balance. Secondly, it ignores the original release's packaging excluding its crucial sleeve notes that revealed the concepts behind the three tracks (ranging from the mysterious architects of ritualistic burial mounds, through insects feeding in a river of death, to the psychology of language). Thirdly, it misses out on a fourth piece ('His Body Was A Playground for the Nazi Elite' AKA 'Predator/Prey') made by the trio around the same time that was later released (along with all three tracks presented here) as part of Coil's marvellous Unnatural History compilation.
What it does have, though, is a short article written by Rice in 2011, where he fondly remembers the recording session and laments the fact they didn't get to continue the collaboration. Here he remembers how the Fairlite, that so defined their sound on this release, was hired straight after Kate Bush had been using it for her Hounds of Love album. "Better yet, her samples were still on the machine" he amusingly reveals, suggesting she inadvertently provided the destructive noises on the opening track.
Despite these welcome insights, let's hope this meagre offering isn't a sign of things to come for the many Coil works that sadly remain out of print.Russell Cuzner