As I used to read "proper literature" avidly and still occasionally sit down with a heavyweight tome, I have always thought it is the duty of anyone who has ever considered themselves even a semi-serious bibliophile to tackle that weighty volume of impenetrable verbosity, James Joyce's Ulysses. This I have attempted on at least three occasions, but I have never made it past about a hundred pages, such is its sheer intellectual mass. In conclusion, I ain't clever enough, and I'll leave it to Joyce and the likes of Will Self who may well be a modern Joycean equivalent to bamboozle me, and I've no doubt quite a few of those in possession of a higher IQ than mine.
Much the same can be said of the serious alternative music fan and the latter works of Mr Noel Scott Engel. Although a vein of wilful artistic intent can be traced right back to Scott's first solo album in 1967, the true seeds of the creeping vine of strangeness were sown with The Walker Brothers 1978 reunion album Nite Flights, progressing through 1984's Climate Of Hunter, taking a sharp turn left with 1995's Tilt and latterly with 2006's The Drift. With those last two albums, the artist known as Scott Walker had produced works of increasingly frightening complexity, full of literary obscurantism cast adrift on an obsidian ocean of furious pessimism. A bit wordy, that; maybe Scott's verbosity is rubbing off!
I was quite proud of myself as I coped quite well with Tilt, "coped" being the right word, for one cannot "like" this kind of thing, it is more an exercise in intellectual rigour than a pleasant listening experience. Tilt may as well have been The Walker Brothers' Greatest Hits in comparison to The Drift, which was Scott taking another step or three down the ladder to the rose garden of funeral sores. I think I've listened to The Drift all the way through no more than three or four times, and indicative of its sheer scariness is the fact that on Clara, a dark tale ostensibly about Mussolini's doomed lover, part of the rhythm track is actually a percussionist "meat punching." It may well be apocryphal but it has been said that the meat in question was a side of pork hung up in the studio, and given Scott's Jewish lineage and his highly idiosyncratic sense of humour, I'm inclined to believe the tale. Another story, this time from that fountain of almost-truths Wikipedia has it that Mikael Åkerfeldt wanted Opeth's Watershed to be a heavy metal version of this album, but "it proved to be impossible simply because his [Scott's] head is sicker than mine and I also love melodies and dynamics." Shame, that would have been some experience!
Musically and lyrically ambiguous in extremis, what we can say with certainty about Scott is that he makes the music he wants to make, when he wants to make it, as is evidenced by the 11-year gap between his last two releases, and a further 6 to Bish Bosch. Popular culture isn't so much ignored, rather it is completely below the level of Scott's wayward and strange antennae. Amazingly The Drift reached the dizzy heights of No. 51 on the UK album chart, which given that it was at that point, and probably remains the oddest piece of what can only be very loosely described as "popular" music I have ever heard, and I've heard a fair few, is testament to the artist's reputation as had an unknown come up with something like that it would have sold about 27 copies.
To say I am looking forward to placing Bish Bosch in the CD player is another incorrect description; "nervously anticipating" is much nearer the mark. In fact, I'm actually writing this intro before I've even received the CD let alone heard it, the preview snippet above excepted, such is my need to mentally prepare myself for another blast of Scott's dystopian fearfest.
Three weeks later and the CD has arrived.
As I said earlier, anyone who professes to "like" this kind of thing is either lying to impress his (and it will nearly always be a "he", there is very little appealing to the feminine side about Scott's later work) peer group of oddballs, or, more worryingly, if he's actually telling the truth then he must be somewhat disturbed. You can admire or respect this work, but "like" is an adjective too far. One can only hope that for Scott's sake the process of extracting these tracts of disconsolate dyspepsia from the subterranean depths of his psyche is cathartic, or his analyst will be using him as a case study for years to come, particularly as he has repeatedly insisted that none of his writing is self-descriptive.
To start at the beginning, which in itself is probably far too linear a thought to work where this music is concerned; as it says on the album website:
Bish (n. sl.), bitch
Bosch, Hieronymous (c. 1450–1516), Dutch painter
Bish bosh (sl.), job done, sorted
The About Bish Bosch tab says all you need to know about how to approach this work, but to summarise, much like a Bosch painting, there is too much going on to absorb in one, two or three sittings, a bit of effort is needed. Scott states, enigmatically enough, in the third person “It’s moving on a bit each time we go. Hopefully it’s getting nearer and nearer the kind of thing that’s in our heads. Little things are improving, a bit more focused. The style is improving.” He states that his work is in no way autobiographical, and if we are to believe that, then what is "...in our (his) heads" is by definition entirely removed from ego, which necessitates that the listener takes a different approach in return. Is it even possible to listen in the third person?
Scott is possessed of a very dark and ironic humour, announced in the album title, as an album that takes a mere 3 years from commencement of writing to completion is "bish bosh"; well by his standards I suppose it is indeed lightning fast. Mind you, I know a few builders like that...
"Take that accidentally in the bollocks for a start"
As if to soften up his audience, the opening track batters us into near submission. Although only 4 minutes in length "See You Don't Bump His Head" is built around a non-stop 160bpm (or thereabouts, my guess) bass drum sound high up in the mix that repeatedly rabbit punches the synapses into jelly, while Scott relates a tale that may be aimed at music critics, with the oft repeated phrase "While plucking feathers from a swan song" possibly pointing at the critic picking away at his possibly last album while the other lines seem to relate the never-ending process of "life must go on"? On the other hand I could be entirely wrong, such is the overwhelming feel of abstraction. The song takes its title from Montgomery Clift's cut line in From Here To Eternity cautioning his troops to be careful with Maggio's (Frank Sinatra) body when putting it in a truck.
"Cholestoroled mansions crowded with sulphured air"
The black humour rears its ugly head on several occasions, a slapstick focus on bodily functions playing a full part, serving to break the listener's high concentration levels with a wry smile. Corps de Blah is a 9 minute journey through bodily dysfunction replete with the sound of farts and piss-tinkling. On the other hand it could be about torture; charming whichever way you look at it! Musically spartan, silences cut through with swishing knives as percussion, and a shard of distorted guitar. Elsewhere we get a return to Scott's longtime interest in dictators, and suitably for an album released in December it ends with its very own Xmas song, jingle bells aplenty as The Day The "Conducator" Died imagines the detached state of mind of the soon to be executed Romanian dictator as "Nobody waited for fire", Ceaușescu and his wife being gunned down before the order was given.
"To play fugues on Jove's spam castanets"
The centrepiece of the album is the 23 minute SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter) a song so obscure it gets its own essay of semi-explanation in the booklet. A tale of a deformed dwarf jester (Zercon) in the court of Attila The Hun; flagpole sitting, a craze in the early 20th century involving odd chaps who took to sitting on top of flagpoles for long periods of time, the record being 21 days; and finally the discovery of the Brown Dwarf given the index number of the title and the coldest body in the known universe. Unravel that lot if you can, but it seems that Zercon rises up past the sitting-poles and away into the far universe, morphing into the stellar object and along the way we have a very very odd tale indeed that will take several listens before I could even begin to give an explanation.
The music on this piece is the most complex and intricate of the album with all manner of instruments from orchestral arrangements, pedal steel guitars, electric baritone guitar, ukelele, tubax (a low bass saxophone), rams' horns and sundry other more "normal" instrumentation, and of course weird electronica. Oh, and the odd complete silence. If you are aware of the band Faust and their more obtuse works, then this is akin to the "grown up" version of that band's sometimes cacophonous soundscapes.
"If you're listening to this you must have survived"
Elsewhere Walker rails at Biblical certainties on Tar, punctuated by machetes being sharpened as percussion, and on Epizootics we have an apparent collision between street-hipster slang and disease infection rates punctuated by more blasts on the rams' horns. Dimple points to things evolving from a fixed point beyond recognition, and...Hell, these are only first impressions. I think you'd have to listen to this album for a year before coming to any even partly certain conclusions about any of the themes going down here.
"Where does this fit into the pantheon of popular music?", you may well ask, and I'm jiggered if I know, for this is way beyond any convenient pigeon-holing. I cannot begin to intellectualise this as some other reviewers with far better minds than I have attempted, but in order to comprehend all the references in the lyrics you'll probably need access to Wikipedia as your finger hovers over the pause button, or invite Stephens Fry and Hawking along for a listen. The former for the literary references and the latter for the astronomical tendencies that some of this tract seems to be exhibiting. Above all you need discipline, and a lot of it.
As I said ages ago, you cannot "like" this, and I would not recommend this to anyone of a nervous or anxious disposition. Handle with caution.
"Here's to a lousy life"
Scott Walker will be 70 years old in January. It amazes me that at that age he can still produce art that burns with such pin sharp intellectual passion, laced of course by his unique brand of fierce pessimism.
These are not so much songs, as psalms from an unsettling parallel universe. This music, like all music, was always out there, it just needed someone wilful and single-minded enough to pluck it out of the ether. Scott says he is not worried by having little appeal as he has a dedicated band of followers who buy enough of his CDs to pay the rent, and as for people who dismiss his work as pretentious, he says they should all "try harder". I couldn't agree more; art like this is worth putting in the effort for. Far too much music nowadays panders to the lowest possible denominator, and seeks to be no more than entertainment, and while that has its place, so does intellectual - not pretentious - music.
True art should take you to places you can only half imagine, and this piece of conceptual music does just that.
"If shit were music, you'd be a brass band""See You Don't Bump His Head"
Corps de Blah
SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter)
The Day The "Conducator" Died
Hugh Burns - every type of guitar imaginable
Mark Warman - keyboards, programming
James Stevenson - more guitars
Peter Walsh - keyboards FX
Alasdair Malloy - percussion
Ian Thomas - drums
John Giblin - bass
Paul Willey - violin harmonics
Michael Laird - rams' horns
Pete Long - tubax, baritone sax
BJ Cole - hawaiian pedal steel
Guy Barker - trumpet
Tom Rees-Roberts - trumpet
Andrew McDonald - low rumbles & white noise
Scott Walker - voice (& keyboards on Pilgrim; percussion, electric guitar & keyboards on The Day The Conducator Died)
A chamber orchestra consisting of 1st & 2nd violins, celli & double basses features on Zercon, Dimple, & Corps de Blah.