hckr.fyi // thoughts

Uncoiling a Meaningful Art of Listening

by Michael Szul on

In the early 2000's I was a co-founder of a counterculture and occult group blog called Key 23 (now defunct and existing only in the memory of the Internet). A few of us spent time around the Disinformation Company web site, which is how I originally met Jason Louv. Louv was an aspiring writer and editor at the time, and was recently (recently for that time) published in a volume of Strange Attractor—a journal being put out by a company of the same name. I only occasionally kept tabs on Strange Attractor through the years, but they caught my attention again as I began to increase my exposure to the books and exhibitions put on by Fulgur Limited. After a lengthy hiatus, Strange Attractor decided to bring back their journal with Strange Attractor Journal 5. It piqued my interest, so I ordered directly from the company in order to pick up the limited edition hardcover.

Nearly two months went by without the book landing on my doorstep. Coming from England in the middle of the Royal Mail crisis didn't help, but still, the rather lengthy time prompted me to reach out to the State 51 fulfillment company. They apologized for the delay and decided that the book was lost in the mail. Promptly, they mailed out another copy… which took almost another 5-6 weeks to get to me. I excitedly opened the mail package to discover that it did not contain Strange Attractor Journal 5, but instead a hardcover version of Everything Keeps Dissolving—a collection of interviews detailing the history and life of industrial and experimental band Coil.

I knew little of Coil. I wasn't ignorant of industrial music, having been exposed to Skinny Puppy, Ministry, and several Front Line Assembly projects. Also, from my time with Key 23, I was well aware of Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV. Even among Key 23, Wes Unruh and Rachel Haywire experimented plenty with industrial noise. But I never dove into the outskirts of English noise, neglecting to follow Jhonn Balance (he of many monikers) and Sleazy Christopherson from PTV to Coil.

The hardcover sat. State 51 sent me a label to return it, but I was never truly motivated to print it off.

At a moment in a reading lull, I decided to pick the book up while simultaneously listening to various Coil albums—no reason to read the book without the musical experience. It took about chapter in before I contacted State 51, told them I was keeping the book, and asked them how I could pay them for it. Because sometime the universe drops things in your lap, and when it does, you pay the tithe.

Coil's earlier work is harsh, masculine, and profound—a band interested in only making music for themselves, but there was always a hint of something more esoteric. This became more pronounced with the release of Love's Secret Domain and by the time the band entered their "Moon Musick" phase, that hint was a much fuller halucinatory experience.

"Musick" is an ample term. Aleister Crowley used the term "magick" to distinguish real occultism from stage magic. Musick brings to mind a form of song and art much more meaningful, trancendent, and lived than the pop century. This was intentional. Balance and Christopherson were deeply a part of the British occult rediscovery occuring during the 70's and 80's. This was a period after the failure of the 60's and 70's hippie counterculture. The remains left on the table helped construct a more cynical culture in British literature and music. Balance, Christopherson, David Tibet, and more were well versed in Crowley, Austin Osman Spare, and others.

Jhonn Balance (or John Balance or Geoffrey Rushton) was a prolific occultist and experimenter. When we most often think of the occult, we imagine characters like Crowley in cosplay ritual gowns calling out the four corners. Balance was more Spare than Crowley, but note the differences in artistic output. Spare wrote, but was mostly known for his visual art. Crowley was the poet. Balance? A musician. All three artistic components are necessary to create "images." (One could also add theater as a fourth component, or consider theater a combination of the three in sacred time). Balance's work was "inspired." He moved as any artist moves—when the feeling was right. This inspiration creates a sense of ritual and trance when the work is being done. For Coil, the result was a musical output that worked on multiple levels and attacked multiple senses. It created music that you didn't just listened to, but felt. Music that transformed (and still does). In some ways, the right musical creates an alchemical chain reaction.

The story of Balance, Christopherson, and Coil is not a happy one. Coming of age during British conservatism during the 80's and enduring the AIDS epidemic as gay men made them outsiders in almost every way imaginable. Although experimenting with drugs was never unusual for either the music or the occult scene, Balance struggled with alcoholism, which eventually ended in his own accidental death. Christopherson followed not long after.

I sit here typing this with a record player sitting on a shelf slightly behind my laptop. I have a small record collection, intending only to collect those albums that mean something to me or have influenced me. Coil dominates my collection with both volumes of Musick to Play in the Dark. Time Machines, Queens of the Circulating Library, and Love's Secret Domain. They will soon be joined by a re-released Moon's Milk in a few months. Although the music certainly speaks to me, I feel like Jhonn speaks to me as well. Parts of his story—parts of his life—have a reflection in my own.

If I played a Coil vinyl at a neighborhood gathering, most would be confused. Some would be put off. You can find Coil on Spotify, but this is music that you put on a record player or pop into a CD player (many of Coil's releases were on CD and retroactively pressed to vinyl) and listen to, but not only with your ears. Put the musick on. Sit down. Let it play from end to end. Hold your thoughts and comments. Feel it.

Music on vinyl is meant to be appreciated and felt. Albums on vinyl are meant to be experience as a whole—refrain from the skipping around, refrain from the Internet knee-jerk reaction of playing single songs on streaming… This is how music was intended to be enjoyed, but little is enjoyed in this way today. We have given away our sacred songs to pop music algorithms constructed by financiers that bought up music labels. We no longer feel the musick—stagnating our growth and transformation. What are the repercussions of such a confiscation of personal experience to a species that has always relied on music during formative years for social development?