Dominick Fernow’s music has entered a phase of rapid and exciting evolution as of late. Of course, the man best known as Prurient has long had more strings to his bow than many commentators give him credit for. Indeed, albums like Arrowhead and Pleasure Ground, with their long, exploratory tracks, differed greatly from the rapid-fire bursts of noise on Cocaine Death or The History of AIDS. If anything, Prurient’s approach to noise and power electronics is magpie-like, plucking at various strands of harsh expression, the one constant being his absolute dedication to extremity.
Despite this, last year’s critically-lauded Bermuda Drain, with its flurry of sequencers and propulsive techno beats, came as something of a surprise. This vinyl reissue of Fernow’s first tape under his Vatican Shadow moniker seems to be a continuation of his interest in electronic music. With a greater focus on atmosphere and texture than his works as Prurient, Kneel Before Religious Icons has been compared to such mutant dancefloor operators as Muslimgauze and Sandwell District. But on first hearing the opening few bars of ‘Chopper Crash Marines’ Names Released’ my mind casts further back to the murky early days of industrial music, particularly Australian sado-punks SPK – its scattered, staccato beats and rumbling bass evoke that band’s nightmarish ‘Post Mortem’, from their Leichenschrei album. Like many industrial bands, Vatican Shadow’s focus is on the dark and unpleasant sides to human actuality, namely the mythologising and propaganda that surround the US government’s military involvement in the Middle East. But beyond that the comparison with SPK fades somewhat. Fernow’s emphasis on drifting, near-ambient synth lines to counterbalance driving percussion makes the material on Kneel Before Religious Icons a more melancholic and almost wistful proposition, as if he’s at once alarmed by and despondent about the way these new wars are unfolding.
Both the concept behind Kneel Before Religious Icons and its emphasis on sounds that stretch beyond the scope of modern noise lend it potency. The muffled synth drones and hypnotic swirls on ‘Harbingers of Things to Come’ and ‘Gods Representative on Earth’, for example, clearly echo his involvement with synth-pop act Cold Cave. These outward connections allow Vatican Shadow’s music to transcend the influences of early industrial electronica and find a new voice. Rather than simply focusing on death, mutilation and sorrow – as he might have done when recording as Prurient – here the Wisconsinite looks at how information on grim events on the other side of the world is processed, reinterpreted and fed out to us, as we sit on our sofas drinking beer and gazing at the TV. The lengthy track titles are both instantly familiar and, in the manner of a news item, unspecific, mere words that don’t really evoke the reality of war, religious strife and death.
Likewise, Vatican Shadow’s music is relentless and repetitive, haunting in the sense that it gets under your skin and lingers, but without a tangible hook or melody to focus on. Even at its harshest, the music on Kneel Before Religious Icons feels elusive, its synth patterns and oblique sound effects or samples buried under a layer of haze, as if being broadcast from an isolated radio in the desert. The way we are fed reports from Iraq and Afghanistan contributes to the public’s indolence when confronted by hideous violence, something reflected perfectly in Kneel Before Religious Icons‘ oblique and restrained tone. Is Fernow angry? Disgusted? Or merely nonplussed and indifferent? Are we? There’s a comparison to be drawn between Kneel Before Religious Icons and the hauntological moodiness of a Demdike Stare or a Mordant Music, but where their take on bleak industrial electronica has tendrils that slide into the past, Fernow channels similar ghosts and intangible data from our very uncomfortable present. The results are both grim and strangely hard to hone in on.
Within that context, Vatican Shadow’s focus on beats and sub-bass-heavy techno dance archetypes is an adroit one. Modern techno, dubstep and electro are increasingly being used by artists such as Raime, Shackleton and Regis to process concrete and meaningful information and hurl it at listeners, even as they’re being drawn towards the dancefloor. Vatican Shadow’s tracks emerge from this tradition, and wouldn’t feel out of place if played to a packed crowd in a Hackney warehouse. This might be secondary to Fernow’s underlying and tense reflections on modern war propaganda, but it’s an astute vehicle for his message, and one that adds sonic potency to an already powerful artistic statement.
Kneel Before Religious Icons is another enthralling chapter in Fernow’s ongoing consideration of the nightmarish and the oppressive, perhaps his most intriguing one to date. It may not carry the brute ferocity and sheer angst of the best Prurient albums, but Vatican Shadow is a beautiful and intense addition to an ever-expanding vista of thoughtful, haunted electronica.