'Nothing clears a room like removing a brain'
2 - Corps De Blah (10:11)
3 - Phrasing (4:45)
4 - SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter) (21:41)
5 - Epizootics! (9:40)
6 - Dimple (6:47)
7 - Tar (5:39)
8 - Pilgrim (2:26)
9 - The Day The "Conducator" Died (7:45)
Whenever a new Scott Walker album is released it is very hard not to look back over his long and sprawling career, a career without comparison perhaps as no one has had quite as spectacular a journey as Scott Walker. He rose to fame as a member of 60s pop darlings The Walker Brothers who had huge hits with tracks Make It Easy On Yourself and The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore, Scott developed a unique and distinctive set of writing credits across The Walker Brothers' albums and singles that became more original and dramatic as time went on. Highlights of his early Walker Brothers penned tracks include the epic organ led Archangel and the soap opera drama of Mrs. Murphy.
The Walker Brothers would disband after the release of 1967 album Images, Scott and John would begin their respective solo careers within the next year or so... Scott would go on to release four beautiful, bombastic and influential albums that were - to begin with at least - highly influenced by the songs of Belgian Chanson singer Jacques Brel. Over the course of these four albums he would nurture his songwriting to the point that Scott 3 would feature 10 Scott originals and Scott 4 would feature nothing but Scott's own songwriting talents. Sadly Scott 4 - although now considered a masterpiece - would not sell well, perhaps as the record was released under Scott's birth name, Engel. Scott would quickly slip from the dizzy heights of his first four solo records and not write any original material after 1970's half baked 'Til The Band Comes In for a whole 8 years.
Fast forward to 1975; The Walker Brothers are reborn as a country pop band with albums No Regrets and Lines, polite albums with a handful of memorable tracks but no Walker originals. It wouldn't be until the third and final album from the reformed Walker Brothers that the brothers' own songwriting would be pushed to the forefront. The resulting album, Nite Flights, was their last shot: it was make or break time as the label GTO was folding. Scott Walker made the most of this opportunity and finally returned to songwriting with incredible passion and gusto with his four tracks, Shutout, Fat Mama Kick, Nite Flights and The Electrician. Though unable to express itself, Scott's songwriting had grown over the years and become incredibly twisted, unusual and confrontational yet lost none of its beautiful drama, Nite Flights marked a distinct turning point for Scott and must have shocked a fair number of fans.
After 1978's Nite Flights Scott seemed to disappear once more and it wouldn't be until 1984's Climate of Hunter that he resurfaced. The album was a short and unusual blend of pop and avant garde, picking up where Nite Flights left off six years earlier. It was perhaps too unusual to be taken seriously at the time and didn't sell well yet with hindsight, it can now be appreciated as part of Scott's evolving oeuvre, a transitional album that was to set the path for the rest of his career.
Skip forward eleven years to Scott's next release, 1995's Tilt, the dark oddity Climate of Hunter wasn't a one off! Tilt is an incredible record of brutal honesty that sketched out many interesting and diverse ideas, a far more successful album than Climate of Hunter in my opinion with tracks like Farmer In The City and Bouncer See Bouncer... that still leave me utterly speechless.
Skip another 11 years - he doesn't exactly churn these albums out does he - and the release of The Drift, with its tense throbbing orchestration and thick as blood atmosphere it is an incredibly emotional record that is more than a little crushing to listen to. This was actually the first Scott Walker album I bought, I was unaware of his earlier work at the time and so I didn't have any of that subconscious baggage (which I will admit I have a lot of now!) to weigh down my experience of the music. Since 2006 I've been delving further and further into his incredible back catalogue yet my heart belongs with his more recent work, there really isn't anything quite like Scott Walker at this moment in time.
When rumours started to surface around a year ago suggesting a new album was on the way I was sceptical it would materialise, but here we are, only six years after the release of The Drift, a new album has fallen from the skies in the form of Bish Bosch, a very different beast to anything Scott has released before and sure to split fans down the middle...
Bish Bosch is an intensely confrontational album, even by Scott Walker standards, but it is also a fantastically detailed, unique and creative album with many moments that will intrigue and surprise new and old fans alike. The general 'style' of the album is far more scattershot than The Drift's lush throbbing strings, it has some string arrangements that flash through from time to time but they don't really dominate the sound of the album. The main instruments used on Bish Bosch are guitars, percussion, keyboards and studio effects... but the 'sound' of the album is that of unpredictability.
When listening to The Drift the overwhelming sense you get is of thick pulsating darkness, a very bodily darkness suggesting blood, death and helplessness - although it is a multidimensional record with some comical moments here and there - whereas with Bish Bosch the main things that come to mind are insanity and bodily excretion. It is a far more unpredictable beast than any of his previous work, it feels as though the songs could do 180 degree turns at any given moment - and they often do.
There doesn't appear to be a foundation on which sounds and ideas are placed, on The Drift I'd argue that the strings are often the foundations of the tracks, but with Bish Bosch sounds seem airborne and emerge from black silence, like a constellation with vast space between each moving element, sometimes elements may cross over one another but they never seem to blend together or create some kind of foundation, everything is kept in flux, every element has its own inner logic and agenda. There are moments where the sounds simply fall away and leave only silence and Scott's exposed voice.
Scott's voice floats above the songs as if a guide to the sounds that fester below, yet he is so erratic and the words he sings are so vile and insane that you wouldn't really trust his guidance through this devastating constellation; if anything his presence and his words appear to conjure the sounds, inciting sonic enactments and musical debris like a magnet force field.
The album opens with the stuttering industrial pulse of an interrupted drum loop and the lyrics 'while plucking feathers from a swansong, spring might gently press its thumbs against your eyes' which seems to encapsulate two common themes of the album; the juxtaposition of opposites and the human race's delight in gory physical cruelty. This opening track, titled 'See You Don't Bump His Head', Scott insists - like all his tracks - is not meant to be read as autobiographical, yet it is hard not to read into the word 'swansong'. A swansong is the final hurrah of a successful career, a beautiful goodbye before retirement or death. What he surrounds this repeated phrase with suggests anything but a stable equilibrium or happy ending, there is often opposites scraping against one another like a decaying beauty... 'while plucking feathers from a swansong, a tiny laugh dirties everything it touches'... 'while plucking feathers from a swansong, a cobweb melts within a womb'. The fact that these lyrics open what could possibly be his last album - he is turning seventy next month - suggests to me that he's saying 'hey, if this is my swansong don't expect this to be an easy ride'... The title of the track comes from an unused line from a scene in the 1953 film From Here To Eternity; soldiers are placing dead Pvt. Angelo Maggio (Frank Sinatra) into the back of a truck and Pvt. Robert Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) cautions, 'see you don't bump his head...'.
Corps De Blah opens with Scott's voice naked against empty silence. After the constant drum loop and eerie keyboard and guitar wails of 'See You Don't Bump His Head' the silence seems particularly startling. Scott sings in an uncomfortably high register while instruments slowly move into the track before everything sharply careens into a bizarre romp with what sounds like a broken horn squeaking away like a rusty window wiper... in the credits there are no brass or wind instruments for this track so I have no idea what that actually is! The track fades back down to silence before what can only be described as a series of processed farts takes to the stage along with the lovely line 'ah, my old scabby Sachem, a sphincters tooting our tune'... the track then crashes into one of the albums most frightening moments with strings flying all over the place before suddenly stopping once more... Corps De Blah is one of the hardest tracks on the album to unpick, made up of a collage of so many different parts it is very easy to feel lost. It is one of the uglier tracks on the album but also contains some typically 'musical' moments including a low guitar riff that chugs along like a Sunn O))) track and a beautiful string section near the end of the track that sounds like a flock of seagulls overhead.
The centrepiece of the album, a twenty-plus minute track with the unwieldy title SDSS14+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter), puts the Hieronymus Bosch reference of the album's title into practice with a vast set of miniatures that seem to encompass the depths of hell and the hellish psychologies of mankind. Like Bosch's painstaking art SDSS14+13B is very hard to take in at once - even after multiple encounters - but it is teaming with minute details and inventive ideas. The track uses sharp jump cuts and silences that when spread across the course of the track's twenty minutes have a very disorienting effect. The format of the track suggests collage, cut outs of larger stories and ideas spliced together in horrific formations, there is no clearly defined beginning or end to it, no clear lines or origins. The track is somewhat darkly psychedelic, kaleidoscopic and delirious, it's too big, encompasses too much, changes direction too many times.
If I'm going to be honest I cannot comprehend everything that the track contains and feel like that I am missing out on some of the references that perhaps over time will become clearer, yet one of the most prominent and recurrent images of the track is pole-sitting. Pole-sitting originates from Simeon Stylites a Christian ascetic saint who endured thirty-seven years living atop a pole in Syria. Luis Buñuel made a film in 1965 about Stylites called Simon of the Desert, being a huge cinema fan it is fairly likely Scott has seen and been influenced by this film in some respects for this track. In the 1920's pole-sitting rose in popularity when Alvin "Shipwreck" Kelly sat atop a pole for over thirteen hours - many others would beat his initial pole-sitting, some would sit atop a pole for over 50 days. Pole-sitting has also been used as a platform for protest; in particular Ty Sagal sat on a pole from November 1982 for 439 days in protest of the price of gasoline.
Since 1984's Climate of Hunter Scott has ended each of his albums with a short introspective guitar track. Climate of Hunter has the beautiful Blanket Roll Blues played by Dire Straits songwriter Mark Knopfler, the track is a cover of a short song featured in 1959 film The Fugitive Kind (click here to listen to the original). Tilt ends with Rosary, a tender and thorny clean electric guitar line plucked out by Scott himself, a track that has the honour of being the only track from any of his modern albums to have been played live. The Drift ends with the see-sawing acoustic guitar and 'psst psst' of A Lover Loves, towards the middle of the track the simple guitar melody gets bent out of shape by a number of discordant notes that add a real bitterness to the track.
So, Bish Bosch ends with a short and clean guitar track too right? Not exactly. The track, The Day The "Conducator" Died (An Xmas Song), is a solo effort by Scott that features a guitar awash with echoes and reverb as well as sleigh bells and a xylophone slowly tapping out Jingle Bells as if it were morse code. This is the most 'filled out' track to end a recent Scott Walker album and makes a great case for Scott doing a 100% solo album. He does a great job with the track, not simply feeling like an outro track but a fully fledged song like the eight that go before it. The track features a number of statements, almost like a dating website's or therapist's questionnaire, statements such as 'I am out-going/socially active' or 'I have control over desires and temptations' are followed by multiple answers such as 'not so much/very much'. Together with this self deprecating questionnaire is the repeated lyric 'Nobody waited for fire' which refers to the execution of Romanian Communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu on Christmas day 1989. The firing squad did not wait for orders to fire but instead started shooting as soon as Nicolae was stood against the wall.
Although the atmosphere of Bish Bosch is extremely dark and tense Scott appears comfortable and at ease throughout almost all of the album, it's the sound of a man who has nothing left to prove, who is able to create without fear of judgement or backlash. He sounds as though he is enjoying himself in the studio this time round whereas he has said in the past that he finds it very difficult to record his vocals and prefers to only do one take. Scott is also a lot more playful and varied with his vocal delivery throughout the album, adopting accents here and there, whispering parts, screaming demonically other parts.
The artwork for his last four albums are telling of the direction his music has been taken over the years, Climate of Hunter shows Scott's face in conversation or perhaps argument whereas by Tilt the face has disappeared and in its place we have a collage of hands and eyes mixed together with jet black wings and feathers suggesting metamorphosis and disembodiment. The Drift suggests blood, disease and depression with its sombre greens against fleshy reds. The artwork for Bish Bosch mirrors the themes of bodily excretion and insanity found in the albums songs. The writing on the sleeve brings to mind someone who has lost their mind and has taken to writing on walls with their own faeces, definitely not a nice image but there is something very disgusting and unpredictable about the album and the messy front cover mirrors this.
Bish Bosch is not as coherent or consistent as Scott Walker's last album, The Drift, but it is also different enough from anything he has done before that it is hard not to recommend to Scott Walker fans. It is an extremely difficult and confrontational album that revels in its own bizarre logic, and because of this I can safely say it won't be for everyone. Some will hate this album with a passion but it is hard not to be impressed by its scale and Scott's energy throughout its seventy-three minutes is nothing but phenomenal. Even after listening through the album ten times I still feel there are many details to uncover, twists and threads to follow, it is an album that is constantly confounding yet also incredibly rewarding to delve into. If Bish Bosch turns out to be the last Scott Walker album to grace this earth we can safely say he went out with a hellish bang, with limbs flailing and entrails falling all over the place, a remarkable record from a remarkable man.
Posted: 3rd December 2012