ZU93 - Mirror Emperor [House of Mythology - 2018]A free-jazz group who've collaborated in the past with the likes of Mats Gustafsson and Eugene Chadbourne as well as producing some mightily heavy Boris-style sludge rock, might not seem likely collaborators with Current 93's David Tibet. Nevertheless House of Mythology follow up their 2016 Tibet collaboration with Killing Joke's Youth with this striking hybrid which they've appropriately named Zu93. Mirror Emperor is the latest instalment of what looks like a bumper year for the mystagog of Hastings. This record follows closely on from the rather lacklustre The Stars on Their Horsies which is to serve as a warm-up for a new C93 album due out in October on the day the band play London alongside old mates Nurse With Wound.
The rather derivative audio collage and lack of lyrics on The Stars on Their Horsies didn't give me high hopes for this record. But as it turns out the respective parties have put on a tour-de-force, distilling some fine moments and themes from their back catalogues. Current 93 fans will be especially pleased that Tibet has again taken up his pen and produced his first new set of syncretic incantations since the publication of his lyric book in 2014. One was beginning to wonder if having committed his work to a single volume that the will to open up a new chapter might be waning. In fact the lyrics and the overall structure of the album hark back to some of Tibet's finest moments. Perhaps not surprising for long term fans, the album's success comes from its focussing on a limited number of lyrical and musical themes. The Mirror Emperor, like The Inmost Light, Black Ships or Thunder Perfect Mind is the lyrical anchor which Tibet drops into his ocean of words. Musically it appears that the ensemble of Zu which is comprised of principle members Luca T Mai, Massimo Pupillo and Thomas Jarmyr has similarly limited their scope to compliment Tibet's. What results is a lovely marriage of mournful strings , strummed acoustic guitars, as well as occasional studio trickery, drones and other electric interventions.
Confirm the Mirror Emperor is a good example of where Zu's experimental rock experience combines well with the gloomy tone of Tibet's usual fare. Guitar strings are plucked, bowed strings drone and a nice proggy distorted lead hovers somewhere in the background. Comparisons will undoubtedly be drawn with Tibet's more stripped down records, when they're usually at their best in my view. To the Mirror Emperor would sit well on Nature and Organisation's classic Beauty Reaps the Blood of Solitude whereas The Heart of the Mirror Emperor is a wonderfully creepy trip, kicking off with skittering electronics, processed tape and strings before opening out into sparse orchestrations of distorted guitar and keyboards. Tibet's voice floats as if disembodied through the firmament. His poetry references some of his old Gnostic themes of dual worlds, ancient deceivers and dark powers legion in the history of humanity. Here, however the words are delivered with poise and given space to resonate in a semi-sung fashion; a style which I'm delighted to see he's returned to after at times burying the listener under a mountain of ideas and references on C93's last full album, I am the Last of All the Field that Fell.
And the nostalgia continues on what is for me the album's centrepiece (The Absence of the Mirror Emperor) which ranks easily alongside Tibet classics like Oh Thou Coal Blacksmith, A Sadness Song or Niemandswasser. Yes Zu do a fine job of impersonating the best acoustic licks of Douglas P and Michael Cashmore but the harmony they achieve with Tibet's delivery is something we've barely seen from him this millennium. Mirror Emperor is a pleasantly un-neurotic record, perfectly paced and not afraid to insert the occasional short interlude of doomy soundscape, as they do on (The Silence of the Mirror Emperor) and the near a cappella The Imp Trip of the Mirror Emperor.
Tibet has been without a convincing demiurgic figure since the Black Ships of 2005. Perhaps like all the best stories Tibet's halucinatory patripassiant songs are at their strongest when they contain a good baddie. Whatever exactly the Mirror Emperor represents for Tibet it's helped inspire a set of lyrics that Zu have done a fine job in raising to suitably dramatic heights. Mirror Emperor also confirms something I've suspected for a while, that Tibet is far more dependent on his collaborators than I used to think. When you imagine C93's best moment's they usually feature signature performances by collaborators. Think Maja Elliott's piano on Soft Black Star's, Steve Stapleton's production across the InMostLight trilogy or the incomparable contribution of Michael Cashmore on numerous records of the 90s. It's not just that they add scenery to Tibet's poetry, they substantially define the form and possibility for what Tibet does. A mismatched group of players (as I argued was the case on I am the Last of All the Field that Fell) can leave the voice adrift and susceptible to logorrhea. But with the right framework Tibet can find space to produce what is still one of the most unique and occasionally moving vocal performances in modern music.
Youth, Zu, keep these collaborations coming!Duncan Simpson