Vatican Shadow: Kneel Before Religious Icons

By , Apr 22 2012

Available on: Type LP

At first glance, the boundaries between Dominick Fernow’s various aliases seem fairly inviolable. If you’re after Noise Fernow, head for Prurient; if you want Occult Fernow, dust off an Ash Pool cassette; and so on. By the same token, Vatican Shadow often gets pegged as Fernow’s ‘dance’ project – the forum where he grafts looped patterns onto a 4/4 skeleton. Since 2010’s Byzantine Private C.I.A cassette, Vatican Shadow has turned out tape after tape of orderly compositions that fall somewhere between techno, electro and EBM. It’s tempting to see Vatican Shadow as a freaky outlier, a curio situated at a remove from Fernow’s more scabrous work.

To do so, of course, would be to disregard 2011’s madcap Bermuda Drain LP. Fernow’s gleeful mix of pop melodies and noise histrionics flummoxed expectations entirely; the walls, it appeared, were collapsing. It’s arguable, however, that the partitions between Fernow’s projects have always been somewhat porous, and Vatican Shadow is a prime test case. Prurient’s 2006 LP Pleasure Ground provides a clear precedent for Vatican Shadow’s loop-based structures. Equally, his Ash Pool work (sample EP title: Genital Tomb) clearly pre-empts Vatican Shadow’s schlock tactics. On Byzantine Private C.I.A, the needling trebles and squalls of feedback familiar from Fernow’s Noise interests are present and correct. Rather than a curious side project, Vatican Shadow’s “militant religious industrial” is as integral a part of Fernow’s musical identity as Cocaine Death or The History Of Aids. On Kneel Before Religious Icons, the Vatican Shadow enterprise sounds more essential than ever.

Kneel Before Religious Icons first emerged on Fernow’s Hospital productions in 2011 as a cassette-only tetralogy. With Fernow’s fanbase larger than ever, Type have now reissued the set as a vinyl LP and download. You can see why: compared to the Yemeni Commandos or Mural Of Saddam tapes, Kneel Before Religious Icons is strikingly accessible. None of the tormented dub of ‘Archbishop 911’ here: these compositions are taut, lean, exceptionally well-drilled. ‘Church Of All Images’ is a case in point. Superficially, it’s an oppressive affair, all doomy rumbles and minor-key figures. Listen past the pomp, however, and you’re left with a straightforward arrangement, a no-frills assemblage of simple musical elements.

Examples abound of a softer approach. The syncopated rattle of ‘Missing HMM364 Squadron Purple Fox Assassins’ switches up industrial’s familiar foundry rhythms. ‘Harbingers Of Things To Come’ features the sort of crystalline jangles you might encounter on a Pantha Du Prince record; the harmonics on ‘Missing…’ are downright pretty. Naturally, Fernow still knows how to nauseate: the brutalized electro of ‘Chopper Crash Marines’ Names Released’ is grotty to the core. But, more often than not, Kneel Before Religious Icons could feasibly be described as ‘funk’ – and not just the descending kind.

Kneel Before Religious Icons also proves that Fernow has an instinctual feel for the mechanics of dance music. A cursory glance at his 2011 FACT mix selections (Traversable Wormhole, Dopplereffekt, Shackleton) shows that Fernow has been schooling himself in this stuff for some time. ‘Shooter In The Same Uniform As The Soldiers’ showcases a techno musician’s ear for restraint. The linear ‘Church Of All Images’, meanwhile, follows a conventional verse/hook blueprint. Musicians who drift from Noise to dance often make a virtue of their dilettantism (Ital’s off-key house music springs to mind). Fernow, however, demonstrates an intuitive understanding of tension and release, of emphasis and ellipsis.

Fernow’s work is nothing if not concept-driven, and Kneel Before Religious Icons does a good job of elaborating Vatican Shadow’s thematic leitmotifs. The earliest Vatican Shadow releases take direct inspiration from Nidil Hasan, the Palestine-born US Army Major suspected of killing 13 soldiers on his own base (Byzantine Private C.I.A and the original Kneel cassette rather tastelessly plonk him on their front covers). Fernow’s uneasy fascination with the atrocities of war is chilling – in many respects, this is the most conventionally ‘prurient’ music of his career. A quick peep at Kneel Before Religious Icons’ tracklist shows that Fernow is still raking over the same minefield. The music itself is similarly war-ravaged: the rattling snares sound like the discharge of rifles, the shredding hi-hats like helicopter blades. Throughout ‘Final Victory…’, the disjunction between the airy synths and pummeling industrial drums is conspicuous: it’s as if these different timbres are being deliberately played off against one another – a sort of sonic civil war. Structurally and thematically, Kneel Before Religious Icons thrives on conflict.

It’s helpful to consider Kneel Before Religious Icons in the light of Fernow’s own back-of-an-envelope definition of ‘Noise’, as outlined in his 2011 sit-down with FACT. Noise, he says, is “the freedom to pursue personal obsession, outside of genre and audience”. Vatican Shadow definitely isn’t his noisiest project, but you could happily call it his most obsessive. Kneel Before Religious Icons takes the most fetishistic elements of the Vatican Shadow identity – the fascination with repetition, the lurid morbidity, the spy game paranoia – and finesses them as never before. If there’s any criticism to be made, it’s that these tracks hit their rubric so efficiently that they often blur into one. On an album this regimented, there’s little room for the exceptional.  Judge the album as an exercise in mood-making, however, and you can’t help but bend a knee. “Paranoia”, says author John Shirley, “can be instructive in the right doses”. Fernow’s swiveled-eyed compositions are wonderfully controlled bursts of trauma. Regular application is recommended. 

Joseph Morpurgo

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