Coil : Backwards

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Very early in this portion of my music-writing life, I positioned Coil’s The Ape of Naples as the last echo of that experimentalist duo’s Wilhelm scream. Jhonn Balance, the shapeshifting voice of a generation of can bangers and keyboard warpers, had fallen to his death at home in 2004. His creative partner and ex-lover Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson spent the next year and more mourning him through work, building a shrine to Balance’s memory for himself as much as for Coil’s fans. Assembled from sessions ranging from more than a decade old to just weeks before the accident, the album was a haunting, melodic, maudlin affair that threatened critical and popular success the likes of which Coil hadn’t seen since Love’s Secret Domain in 1991.

How naive I was. Nothing about Coil’s sound was ever safe, nothing about their discography ever simple. They were first on my radar briefly during Nine Inch Nails’ move to Interscope Records, and I was reintroduced to them working in the racks of Digital Underground, Philadelphia’s legendary goth- and industrial-leaning record store. So out of curiosity and some sort of professional duty The Ape of Naples was my “get.” I was unaware of just how consumed they were by rejiggering their music—by their own hand or by others, on their own labels or elsewhere, on bootlegs authorized or otherwise, on stage or in the studio. The newly released Backwards sets out to rewrite Coil’s own revisionist history, with a chapter where NIN figures prominently.

The music here was largely conceived through the first half of the 1990s, a time where Coil coincidentally had significant ties to Trent Reznor’s outfit. They were present for production and performance input from the days of Broken through right before The Fragile. Reznor, inspired by Coil since the start of his career, had planned to repay them by letting them finish Backwards at his Nothing Studios in New Orleans and release it on his now-defunct Nothing label. What Coil producer Danny Hyde refers to as “issues with grey men” gave the band cold feet, and they never delivered the album. Subsequent hints of its existence raised Backwards to the level of holy grail.

Leaked demos and bootlegged radio shows like Dutch Radio4 Supplement presaged The Ape of Naples, ostensibly Coil’s final album in 2005 which included bits and pieces from at least four Backwards songs. Three years later, a deluxe reissue of The Ape of Naples included an extra vinyl slab called The New Backwards, where Sleazy and Hyde had decamped to Bangkok to assemble presentable versions of the music worked on at Nothing. Now we have an official Backwards release produced by Hyde alone twith his claim that this music and tracklist are as Coil had originally intended, serving as the missing bridge between Love’s Secret Domain and what would become Musick to Play in the Dark in 1999.

Most of the tracks repeated here from The New Backwards have been significantly shortened, and any extensions were slight. Three others appeared on The Ape of Naples in different forms, although the shifts in the prison dirge “A Cold Cell” are largely cosmetic. What I really get out of comparing The New Backwards to [the new] Backwards is that it may not really be Hyde who rules the day here, but the NIN zeitgeist of the time. Coil rubbed off on Reznor as he entered the industry, and you can hear and feel how the atmosphere and actual tools at Nothing circled back in this moment to rub off on Coil.

It’s not like Reznor appears in the production or performance credits, although I think I hear his voice sampled briefly in “Fire of the Green Dragon.” Rather, Hyde’s assembly seems to include some of the same sonic touchstones that helped define Reznor’s mainstream breakthrough and technical reputation. Familiar are some of this album’s disquieting ambient washes, harrowing series of filtered squeaks and bangs, and distortion of vocals into crypto-instruments (especially in tracks like “AYOR [It’s in My Blood]” and “Be Careful What You Wish For”). Balance’s voice in the 1990s was becoming clearer in both tortured melody and toxic message; combined with Sleazy and Hyde’s instrumentation and these production endpoints it makes for music that’s not just bracing but curiously accessible.

Lest you think this is merely an NIN album by proxy, like Saul Williams’ The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust!, Coil’s dread-filled musical theater still cuts into your eardrums. After a wriggling intro, the title track is the band’s desperate ode to imperfection and things gone wrong, Balance’s martial chants angrily referencing anal sex and personality disorders. Approximations and synthesis of primitive instrumentation—circus organs, music boxes, treated piano—lend a baroque air to “Paint Me as a Dead Soul” and “Amber Rain.” “Nature is a Language” nicks a lyric from The Smiths over fierce electronics from the Aphex Twin school and crunchy sounds approximating Deep Purple riffs.

Much like NIN’s The Fragile, Backwards is a difficult album that contains a surprising amount of groove. “Heaven’s Blade” is much more rhythmic than it appears on The Ape of Naples, all house beats and violins slicing through the metallic clutter. Where “Fire of the Mind” quietly opened that album, here it’s a much more aggressive closer wrapped in buzzing guitar. “Copacabella” creates momentum with precious little percussion and no actual bassline, Balance’s imagery (“Your glorious palaces are hospitals set amid cemeteries”) propelling you through the machinery. There are even tracks like “Be Careful What You Wish For” with some of the same dalliances with drum’n’bass we would hear in NIN’s “The Perfect Drug.”

I’m not a veteran Coil fan, but I wonder if Hyde’s proclamations will stand up to the scrutiny of actual longtime listeners. For one thing, some tracks from The New Backwards don’t appear here at all. For another, Sleazy’s death in 2010 left Hyde as the last link to the Coil legacy. What, and who, defines a definitive version in the Coil universe? How is one mind here better than two on The New Backwards? Beyond any legal entanglements, why would Hyde hold onto, redo, resequence and release this work again after just seven years? All important questions, all unanswerable at the moment. I’d like to believe that Backwards fits into the puzzle of Coil’s catalog as the band and its fans desired, and serves as a proper postmortem. If it doesn’t, it still sounds like one of Coil’s best albums, an aurally engaging version of their creepiness and naked emotion.

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