By: Cameron Piko
Rebellion in art can appear in many forms and with different intents, but can generally fall into two main varieties: a rebellion that promotes personal growth and internal change, and one that promotes an environmental or external change. As a vague framework inspired by Albert Camus’ The Rebel, let us designate the former type as rebellion, and the latter type as revolution.
This article will be looking at a band that truly fit the former label of rebellion: the duo of John Balance and Peter Christopherson that is Coil.
Rebellion in Coil
“Atonal noise, and brutal poetry. COIL is amorphous. Luminous and constant change. Inbuilt obSOLescence. Inbuilt Disobedience.”
Coil came into being in 1983 with a manifesto that could not better describe the band’s aesthetic if it tried. It also reveals that from their very inception, Coil were committed to a conceptual and political foundation for their musical experiments.
The most easily recognisable aspect of Coil’s musical rebellion is how far it distances itself from conventional and contemporary (as of the 1980s) music. Producer and sonic-manipulator Peter Christopherson was previously in Throbbing Gristle, who created the record label Industrial and thus gave a name to an entire genre of music. The aesthetics taken from that music – harsh, cold and mechanical electronic noises – were applied over John Balance’s vocals which were commonly spoken, whispered or heavily manipulated. This electronic coldness allows and encourages the kind of introspection that is so essential to the band’s philosophy, and remained the sole constant as their music developed and changed over the years.
Transgression is a key element of Coil’s work, and the basis for the rebellious aspect of their music. For Balance and Christopherson, music is a method to discover and improve oneself, and to listen to Coil is to be privy to their personal journey along that path. But they do not see any potential for growth in the current construction of society, and thus put themselves outside of that. In The Rebel, Camus says that “artistic rebellion is a demand for unity and a rejection of the world”, and Coil attempt to live up to this by exploring alternatives to the status quo. A large part of the band’s philosophy involves rebelling against commonly held societal beliefs in an attempt to uncover a greater understanding of one’s self: whether that involve partaking in sexual taboos, inverting Christian ideology, partaking of hallucinogenic drugs or practicing the occult.
Even the music they create is achieved through a process of rebellion. Coil saw the punk scene as compromised with regards to its rejection of technical musical precision. Punk musicians still played instruments and knew chords – Coil were anti-musicians with computers and samplers, and had little if any technical ability. Even though this anti-musician aspect was later compromised when the band collaborated with ‘actual’ musicians, Balance and Christopherson managed to stay relatively true to their philosophy.
“COIL know how to destroy Angels.”
Although both Balance and Christopherson rejected the label of Satanism, there is an undeniable incorporation of satanic iconography in there works – a rejection of Christianity by revering its opposite.
The inverted cross on the cover of their 1984 debut album Scatology is a perfect example of this – as well as an image that has been taken up by so many metal bands that it is practically a cliché. The title itself comes from a pun on eschatology – the theological study of ‘end times’ – and twists it to a study of ‘rear end times’. This elevates (or degrades) the album out of the realm of pure cliché, but the entire approach is a rather adolescent rebellion to the Church. In The Rebel, Camus points out that this method of rebellion via inversion belies a dependence on what is being inverted (in this case, Christianity). Christopherson seems to agree in retrospect: “With Scatology, we were quite straightforward in the anger that we felt towards the church, particularly the more fundamentalist kind of view. At the time we were recording the record, we were actually handing out leaflets saying, ` Kill a queer for Christ,’ and stuff like that. The way we’ve developed, we’re now more interested in the older and more underlying religious thoughts.”
“We know one thing only – We know nothing.”
So Coil have to look deeper. As mentioned earlier, self-improvement and discovery are crucial to Coil’s aesthetic. For them, the answer lies in something bigger and realer than all of us, of which we can be given access through certain means. Magick and the occult (the word itself meaning ‘hidden’) are seen by Coil as pathways to unlock one’s own mind, and throughout the band’s discography you can find countless references to occultists Alistair Crowley and Austin Osman Spare, romantics like William Blake, Renaissance magicians and – continuing and developing their rebellion against Christianity – a promotion of pagan beliefs .
Ritual drug taking was also important in Coil’s earlier work as a way to access other levels of consciousness – their best foray into acid house, Love’s Secret Domain, doesn’t have an acronym of LSD by accident. In The Sound of Progress (a great Dutch documentary that looks at Coil and their contemporaries), Balance elaborates further: “We believe that states of delirium and sorts of self-induced madness, whether it be LSD or schizophrenia which you would invoke and make worse … I actually believe that you can strengthen yourself through those things. By putting yourself through it.”
All of this could very easily devolve into parody and silliness, but throughout all of Coil’s music there is an undeniable feeling of sincerity of what they are trying to convey to listeners. They are not simply posturing but genuinely live and breathe this alternate lifestyle.
Having said all of this, it is finally time to look at some of the music in detail. Coil’s discography is expansive and complicated; they favoured personal, niche releases with limited pressings and in some instances employed aliases – Wikipedia lists around 70 works attributed to Balance and Christopherson in some way. Because of this, the albums listed below are to be considered highlights along the way, or potential entry points for new listeners.
Horse Rotorvator (1986)
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse kill their steeds and mount their jawbones to create “an immense Earthmoving device” which ploughs up the world – this is The Horse Rotorvator. As you do. Horse Rotorvator is Coil’s second full-length record and finds them in a world of goth pop sensibility with a smattering of industrial noise alongside. Strings and (somewhat dated) keyboards mix with military-style drumming and explosions of sound. “The Anal Staircase”, “Slur” and “Penetralia” punctuate their appropriately apocalyptic atmosphere with harsh, clashing noises, but the standout track is a far more subdued affair.
“Ostia (The Death of Pasolini)” is dedicated to the controversial Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini. Pasolini’s film Saló is either one of the most revered or more deplored in the film world, an adaptation of Marquis De Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom that explores the abuse of power and depicts scenes of rape, the eating of faeces, graphic violence and sadism. Coil’s track delves into none of this (although you can buy the film on their website), instead focusing on Pasolini’s murder and linking it to the infamous suicide spot of the white cliffs of Dover. The strings add a human touch to a rather mechanical album and Balance’s vocals are in great form. The lyrics themselves reflect on the mystery surrounding Pasolini’s death and in the end Balance identifies himself with the controversial figure (“Murder me in Ostia”), showing one of the many future instances that Coil will side with those outside the status quo. It’s also just a cool song.
Love’s Secret Domain (1991)
As mentioned earlier, Love’s Secret Domain finds Coil in the midst of some extreme drug taking. Most likely due to the drugs and subsequent clubbing, LSD leaves the goth stylings behind in favour of acid house. “Teenage Lightning” is bossa nova on crack (quite possibly literally), whilst “The Snow” and “Windowpane” are prime pieces of acid house and potentially the only times you would ever dance to a Coil track. The rest of the album fluctuates between dance rhythms and lengthy sonic experiments, so you’re never in doubt that this is a Coil record and not one that you put on at a club.
The band also retain their occult imagery. “Windowpane”’s backwards lyrics provide hidden imagery needing to be unlocked (although easily done by anyone with a computer these days) and William Blake is quoted in the album’s title track.
Coil would explore this mixture of acid house, dance and experimental noise over the next few releases such as Born Again Pagans (attributed to Coil vs. ELpH, but as ELpH is Coil, this is essentially a Coil release) and this juxtaposition of genres seems to be essential to their rebellious aesthetic. The transcendent quality that Balance and Christopherson strive to reach through their rebellion – the drug taking, the occult – is reflected through the never-ending climb of their dance tracks, whereas the nebulous, often beat-less soundscapes provide a moment for introspection. To touch something beyond oneself and then reflect; the high, and then the comedown.
Time Machines (1998)
Time Machines (another Coil alias) consists of four lengthy tracks, each based around a single tone and named after a chemical compound, meant to “facilitate travel through time”. Another way to put it: Coil experiment with drone. The album continues with the soundscape half of albums like LSD and Born Again Pagans, and attempts to use that aforementioned nebulous character to access both transcendence and introspection within a single sonic framework. Single, bassy tones oscillate for as long as 26 minutes at a time, alternating between sub-shattering and something approaching white noise. The result is music that sets the perfect atmosphere for a trance-like state of immersion, if you are willing to succumb to it.
With all the pieces on Time Machines, this immersion and its inevitable dissolution act as the transcendent and introspective. That is, Coil wish for the trance state to unlock one’s unconsciousness, and then for the listener to reflect on that experience once that state ends, typically with the ending of the piece or by being shocked into another mental state by a certain tonal oscillation.
We also have another instance of Coil’s occult worship: the album included stickers, one revealing the black mirror of the cover artwork to be obscuring John Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica. John Dee was, among other things, an adviser to Elizabeth I and magician, and the exact meaning of his glyph is …difficult to interpret to say the least. Even hidden in the artwork is symbolism that’s meaning is hidden; obfuscation upon obfuscation.
But Coil don’t just stop there, they add another layer to their rebellion – indeed, by “facilitate travel through time” Balance wants the listener to step beyond the normal confines of human temporal experience. There is a story on Coil’s website of someone having what Balance termed a ‘temporal slip’. This person played the album and experienced what they self-describe as “blanking out” for 20 minutes.
How effective Time Machines is on this aspect will depend on the listener, but it is certainly worth a listen regardless.
Musick to Play in the Dark, Vol. I and II (1999-2000)
A few months after Time Machines, Coil began releasing four EPs: Spring Equinox: Moon’s Milk or Under an Unquiet Skull, Summer Solstice: Bee Stings, Autumn Equinox: Amethyst Deceivers and Winter Solstice: North. The music developed here retains the appreciation for drone, but the tracks are far shorter and take on a more recognizable song structure in parts. The titles of the EPs themselves bring Coil’s pagan side to the forefront, which they also embraced by staggering each release with its respective solstice or equinox.
By this point, the industrial aspect of Coil’s music is gone almost entirely in favour of ambient music, noise and reverent pagan worship. Balance called Coil’s earlier music “solar music” and the later material “moon music”, and indeed the music is quieter, more mysterious than ever and truly belongs in the darkness. This all culminates in the two-volume Musick to Play in the Dark.
Musick to Play in the Dark, Vol. I is a masterpiece of night music, creating and exploring an atmosphere of unknown fears and beauty. The opener, “Are You Shivering?” features sinister keyboards, Neanderthal glitching vocals and what sounds like a church choir. Balance’s spoken words over the top, however, complicate matters. The lyrics conflate the silver shimmer of the moon with the “silver river” of man’s “vital fluid”. Sex, mystery and nature worship make this song a classic of latter-era Coil, and the album continues to not disappoint.
The addition of new Coil member Thighpaulsandra provides some refreshing musical variety in his 12+ minute, Tangerine Dream-influenced “Red Birds Will Fly Out of the East and Destroy Paris in a Night”. The dizzying bed of arpeggiated synth lines reveal a technical competency beyond that of Christopherson and Balance, and his piano playing in the simply perfect ambient-pagan-jazz of “Red Queen” is one of the album’s great highlights.
It is a shame then that Vol. II, released one year later, is for the most part a carbon copy of Vol. I. It’s not that any of the music on there is bad, but one would have hoped for a more complementary and contrasting release as opposed to mimicry. Having said this, Vol. II in its final track features one of the most life-affirming, beautiful pieces of music in the catharsis that is “Batwings (A Limnal Hymn)”.
A quotation from Alistair Crowley’s Hymn to Lucifer (“the key is joy is disobedience”) is whispered at the beginning of the piece, before the organ starts to play its four simple chords. It will play these for the rest of the track’s 11 minute duration.
The lyrics, apparently influenced from a 17th century eccentric’s private collection of oddities, are unsurprisingly cryptic. Balance mutters his vocals with the reservation of someone who has uncovered the meaning of the words, but is unwilling to divulge further. At this point, all of this is pretty standard for Coil, and the simplistic chords combined with the cold vocals could easily make this a rather boring piece of music. Until seven minutes in, when Balance starts to sing. Balance lets loose, his once impenetrable vocal morphing into a gospel like choir, as if he has finally ascended to the perfect magickal state he has been seeking all of his life. Blissful, transcendent yet utterly human vocals soar into the unknown – sung in a language only he knows, Balance pushes listeners to attempt this same journey of self-discovery.
When the band weaned off drugs, Balance took to alcohol to ease his withdrawal. This turned slowly but surely into alcoholism and, in late 2004, lead to Balance falling from a two-story balcony and dying soon after. “Batwings (A Limnal Hymn)” was played at his funeral, taking the secret of that beautiful moment with him. Christopherson continued to release the last Coil recordings and continued musical work in other bands before passing away in his sleep in 2010.
Camus spoke of artistic rebellion as trying “to give form to an elusive value which the future perpetually promises, but which the artist presents and wishes to snatch from the grasp of history.” Looking over their body of work, Coil’s musical rebellion similarly reveals this furtive need for there to be something lying outside and apart from society. Whether one actually believes in the specifics of their philosophy (the magick, higher-consciousness raising through drug taking etc.), their continual representation of alternatives to societal norms and the emphasis that this be a unique, personal journey are powerful messages to take away from their music. There are plenty of other Coil albums before and after those listed here worth discovering and listening to, but these five provide some potential starting points, and some insight into how the band mixed music, philosophy and politics so well.