Within the institutionalised avant-garde, overt but actually often inert rule-breaking is the norm.
There are numerous hidden codes and limits setting a constantly-shifting line between good and bad rule-breaking. Active since 1997, one of the things that makes the Zeitkratzer ensemble interesting is that they knowingly and repeatedly breach the strongly-policed ideological border between experimental/improvisational music and industrial, which even in radical music circles is still seen by many as beyond the pale (some of the most hostile and even prohibitonist responses to industrial and Power Electronics have come from partisans of the improv scene).
Zeitkratzer don’t restrict themselves (or allow themselves to be restricted to) safely alternative sonically correct artists and having cooperated with Merzbow and Zbigniew Karkowski (R.I.P.), Throbbing Gristle (which a few anti-industrial types are still trying to de-legitimise), they moved on to work with the Power Electronics anti-christ himself, William Bennett of arch-provocateurs Whitehouse.
leave little space for illusion
It will be interesting to follow the ideological criticisms Zeitkratzer will inevitably receive for collaborating with the never-to-be-fully-rehabilitated Whitehouse. Although in practice some of the dichotomies between the industrial/power electronics approach and experimental/improvisational are false and people move between the two camps, there are real tensions. Zeitkratzer will be seen by some as repeating (and re-staging) some of the original ideological sins of industrial/power electronics – refusing to respect or stay silent in relation to externally-imposed political or aesthetic codes and knowingly transgressing these.
This is released at an interesting moment and is a part of Whitehouse’s ongoing critical rehabilitation, underway since at least The Wire’s major 2007 article in which Bennett remarked “We saw ourselves as coming out of a classical avant-garde tradition.” This was followed by deluxe vinyl reissues of early Whitehouse albums and the success of Bennett’s Cut Hands “Afro-Noise” project. His Whitehouse partner Philip Best has also received more attention for his Consumer Electronics project and earlier this year was invited to play at a mostly improv-focussed night organised by the London Contemporary Music Festival. The fact that the show was shut down after a few minutes due to local complaints about excessive noise shows that even when promoters want a touch of Whitehouseian noir, they’re not necessarily able to cope with what they actually get.
This album documents a more fruitful fusion of Whitehouseian aesthetics and conventional instrumentation, recorded live at the festival Musique Action in Nancy. Bennett himself appears on the opening ‘Daddo’, sounding both stately and malevolent as he impassively recites a squalid scenario of abuse. His voice is unusually clear and cold, set against a squalling mass of squealing woodwind and ominous percussion.
It’s interesting to encounter this material in the wake of the Savile revelations, and to think that while Whitehouse were exploring and being accused of glorifying some horrific fictional scenarios in their work, these pale into the shadows compared to the industrial-scale abuse Savile and his (quite possibly still-at-large) V.I.P. associates were committing when not associating with Mary Whitehouse, Margaret Thatcher and the Royals.
The brass that opens ‘White Whip’ lends it the ritualistic atmosphere of some of Hermann Nitsch’s soundtracks to his controversial actions. It churns and prowls uneasily, before giving way to silence.
Initially, ‘Foreplay’ might easily be mistaken for the work of an anti-industrial improv performer (again pointing to the uneasy fluidity of the improv/industrial border). Woodwind squawks like distressed sea birds and snatches of female screams manage to convey the Whitehousian heart of darkness powerfully.
‘Incest’ is suitably agonised and drawn out. Desolate cries and queasy, nails-on-blackboard strings leave little space for illusion or hope. Zeitkratzer stress that no electronic effects were used in the pieces, only “pure acoustic power” and perhaps this actually intensifies or renews the horror of the Whitehouseian vision. Stripped of Power Electronics machismo (and also of the black humour), for some it may be a harder proposition than the original noisescapes they’ve become accustomed to. If it also frustrates enjoyment in or causes renewed reflection on the subject matter that can be no bad thing.
In contrast, the slow, menacing ‘Fanatics’ offers a richer soundscape than the scratchy original. Here sinister piano keys and lowering brass are to the fore, insidious rather than overtly confrontational.
The ensemble make a really valiant effort with the material, but the conventional instrumentation can’t always match the frenzied buzz of Wasp synths or sweeping oscillators. Rightly, it doesn’t attempt to domesticate Whitehouse or introduce a falsely humane note by trying to avoid the most difficult subject matter. These are neither new compositions nor neutered Power Electronics, but suitably ugly hybrids. Even if they doesn’t always fully convince, this belated meeting between the institutional avant-garde and a self-appointed, unauthorised, and to many perfidious, avant-garde was still an experiment worth attempting.
If nothing else, it must have had a strong impact on the audience exposed to it live. Perhaps a certain distance or caution is actually appropriate and a sign of the material’s continued power.
Perhaps one reservation is that putting Whitehouse’s material into this institutional context is a distortion in that Zeitkratzer’s techniques don’t materialise the absurdist, demented, cabaret-like atmosphere of Whitehouse performances, ironically running the risk that its critics alleged the group’s fans were exposed to, of taking it just slightly too seriously.
Perhaps a more innovative and challenging gesture would be to Zeitkratzer-ise the Italo Disco and HI-NRG Bennett plays in his DJ Benetti guise.
From Speak and Spell to Laibach.