The usual rolled-out cliché of criticism that always greets every Scott Walker release, charts the enigmatic artist’s pop light to experimental morose career arc; from the teen swoon idol heady days of the Walker Brothers, via monastic alienation and Jacques Brel inspired crooner of esoteric idiosyncrasies, to existential avant-garde isolation.
Inhabiting the darkest recesses of humanity and history for at least half of that time, we should be used to this morbid curiosity, worn with earnest pride, by Walker, who peers into the abyss on our behalf. Confronting with a meta-textural style the barbarity and failings of humanity for at least thirty odd years then, any developments in the Walker peregrination, shouldn’t really surprise any one: at least the critic.
In what was met with certain trepidation or surprise by many, his unholy union with the habit adorned disciples of hardcore drone Sunn O))), is actually a very shrewd and congruous partnership; a 50/50 immersive experience, with both parties seemingly egging each other on. Walker for his part lyrically less cryptic, the Sunn chaps pushed to produce one of their most poetic and nuanced beds of sustained droning yet, and on this occasion, even cracking out various wild shortened, punctuating and unyielding riffs – verging on full metal and heavy rock riffage. Letting rip with a resonant field of sustained one-chord statements and caustic stings that bend or longingly fade out into a miasma, trying to find a meaning in these drones is akin to an Auger interpreting symbols and signs from the entrails of a wretched, just slain sacrificial beast. Yet it does work, and the bare minimal, fuzzy and wrenching bed of murmuring primal guitars perfectly set up the intended atmosphere.
Harrowed be thy name
Once again, Daemonic forces have conspired. The result, a five act guttural opus, entitled Soused – in this instance the title is to be taken as a plunging or submersion into liquid or water, rather than a slang for hard liquor intoxication (though if it were, the brew on offer would be hemlock!).
What starts out and continues as a sort of proxy chorus (the nearest you’ll ever get to one on a Walker outing), the introductory crystalized, even dreamy, sense of melodic relief that introduces the album’s first musical tome, ‘Brando’, is soon corrosively despoiled by the menacing first strikes of a signature Sunn O))) chord and bullwhip. A rather odd theme for Walker to build a threatening tower of misery from; the song alludes to the obligatory sacrificial martyrdom of the title’s Marlon Brando. Whether as self-flagellation, Brando had a penchant for taking on or even bringing, off his own back (so to speak), to many of his roles, the act of taking a brutalized beating: from vigilantes in the The Wild One to feeling the sharp end of a Elizabeth Taylor horse whipping in Reflections In A Golden Eye. Brando’s fatalistic characters were either the naïve well-intentioned disaffected (Terry Malloy in On The Waterfront) or assassinated disenchanted mavericks (Colonel Kutz in Apocalypse Now). The repeated lashings of a bull whip in this instance however, refer to his role as the conniving bank robber Rio in the western One Eyed Jacks; one of it’s most memorable scenes being when Rio is administered the whipping of his life by a disgruntled and wronged former criminal partner, Dad Longworth (played by Karl Malden), in front of the towns people. Perhaps this series of observations, first set off by watching One Eyed Jacks, from Walker is over-played, but it is remarkable as you play back through the actor’s movie catalogue and find a connective theme of taking the blows and even death on the chin. Probably reading too much into now and Walker does have a history of wry and acerbic wit, but Brando could be said to be offering his body up to the mortal sins as a punch bag (taking method acting literally) or was just masochistic (Last Tango In Paris M’lud). You decide, it makes for one reason or another a most apocalyptic soundtrack; mixing doom with Walker’s almost uplifting, visionary vocals to a flaying cycle of whip happy bullies.
Biblical in more ways than one, the stand out mega-bestial centerpiece must be the harrowing ‘Herod 2014’; an atavistic disturbing chapter from the Roman occupied Middle East, it alludes to, what many historians say, is a wholly fictional tale of King Herod’s decreed infanticide of his kingdom (allowed by the Roman occupiers to reign over Judea and surrounding areas). Bathed in a sonorous reverberation of fearful discordance and a distressed unworldly cry of danger, this 12-minute opus is stalked by the harangued forces of malcontent and revved-up torturous drones. The conceptual allusions, which can’t help but echo through time to the present, are far bigger than this baby cull, the region has, after all, always been awash with both the fabled and all too real episodes of death and misery for thousands of years. Yet despite this, the song is itself one of Walker’s best and even melodically poetic; sitting happily with the material on his last two albums, The Drift and Bish Bosch.
Lyrically traumatic, but almost beautifully hewn from the English language, the opening lines bellow a nuanced scene-setting intellect, more novelistic pyschogeography than song: ‘She’s hidden her babies away. Their soft gummy smiles won’t be gilding the memory.’ In setting up the horrid event and psychological primal emotions that resonate with his audience, Walker goes on to mention two of the most famous painters to depict this crime, Nicolas Poussin and Rubens, who both fashioned their own (setting it in their own time) Massacre Of The Innocents.
Herod 2014 straddles the LP like a monolithic titan. A real horror show, both wrenching yet also surprisingly compelling.
You would perhaps be fond of some relief after sitting through all that, but Walker won’t let you off that easily; summing another Sunn 0))) crackled, anvil- beating, industrial chorus of esoteric dread. ‘Bull’ is fraught with tension, languidly striking with stabbing guitars and post-industrial riffs one minute, sinking into the mire of silence and emerging like a troubled crooner monk the next. Heavy and brooding with mechanical timepieces, crowing shadows and subterranean spirits moving amongst the low buzzing presence of a pant-messing sustained drone, the Bull is unsetting to say the least; a game of tag in the Labyrinth of the Minotaur. And the song with the longest outro of all; Walker finishing off his cryptic lines halfway through, leaving the last four minutes to his comrades to play out.
‘Fetish’ as it may already suggest is a sadomasochistic affair. A soundtrack set to some cannibalistic or serial killer shocker, where the action is carried out entirely on a Mona Hatoum barbed wire bed in a meatpacking factory. Thrashing around and violently piqued by a harassed beak like attack, the backing is a maelstrom of dentist drills, panting shakers and eerie hanging silence, until it breaks out with the album’s first drum break and rhythmic holy chorus. Throughout, Walker swoons in resignation, dropping lines like, ‘acne on a leaper’, and ‘glim away little brute’, in a disjointed narrated somber tone that gets more dangerous as the song churns to a climax. A ritualistic metaphor, the song’s central tool of terror, the blade or scalpel, is held as an abstract reference point to gleam some meaning, whether it pertains to the cosmetic, life-threatening surgery, torture, the sexual or even tattooing, Walker and Sunn O))) build a nuanced layer upon layer of industrial buzzing queasiness to a trope.
Be under no illusion with the finale to this Dante inferno, the ‘Lullaby’ tones on offer here in no way promise a good night’s sleep. This is after all Walker’s crooned eulogy to assisted suicide, and the sound of death’s hallucinatory vibrations, gradually taking hold.
Interpreting the song in her own enigmatic way, Ute Lemper bravely grappled with the song for her 1999 album, Punishing Kiss, but Walker now takes it back, converting it into an even gloomier anthem with his monastic brethren.
You can almost hear the percussive ticking of a Newton’s cradle: the mortal clock running out as the drugs take effect; comfort is not an option.
The whole thing sounds like a seething hotbed of psychological thrillers and horror, played out remorsefully until the final bleep of the life support signals the end. Walker never nails home his own social or political solutions, and so this, very much a topic debated in recent years and ongoing, is more a diorama set piece, which neither condones nor condemns assisted suicide.
Disturbing throughout, this unnerving suite is obviously not to be recommended to those already on the knife-edge or for those who stay clear of the news or anything that may remind them of human suffrage. You also need stamina and plenty of nerve to sit through this uncomfortable 49-minutes of music at its most challenging. Not so much hostile as shredded by a repeating rotor bladed cutting action that piques and prods, even the quietest passages are threatened by an unseen presence of danger. Hell knows (literally) how this album would go down live, the option tentatively hanging in the air, depending on its reception; a possibility that could see the maverick auteur and theatrical seven-day avant-gardist, performing for one of the first times in eons.
Both parties in this experiment prove their mettle, reinforcing their reputations but producing an album that is not only accessible to the devotees and followers but also those who’ve previously skirted around taking a walk through the catacombs of the bleakest recesses of a conflicted mind.