Over the 20-plus years of Dominick Fernow’s career, the breadth and versatility of his projects have only made defining his music more complicated with time. The oft-repeated line about Fernow is one of his own making, that he makes “noise” and not music, which when applied to his longtime project Prurient—which clocks in at around 79 full-length releases, counting collaborations and early demos and cassettes—still only tells some of the story. In 2020, he’s also coming up on a decade-long career as a techno producer, both in key moments of the Prurient catalog (e.g. 2013’s “Through the Window”) and the whole of that of Vatican Shadow, a project that’s taken him far from the grimy D.I.Y. basements of noise on up to headlining gigs at Berlin’s beatmaker mecca Berghain. He doesn’t just make “noise,” nor even simply “music”—he makes dance music.
Dance music of the sort that Vatican Shadow makes is still dark, still sinister, pulsing with industrial menace and pasted over with images from the War on Terror—last year’s Kuwaiti Airforce compilation featured none other than Dan Quayle’s grinning mug on its cover art. Menacing industrial techno that plainly if abstractly lays out the horrors of U.S. imperialism—on paper it’s a lot, but in practice it’s seductively sinister, a sound perfected and streamlined on Persian Pillars of the Gasoline Era, Fernow’s first Vatican Shadow album to be released on metal label 20 Buck Spin.
Dissecting the particulars inside Vatican Shadow’s blurred boundaries—such as the line where techno or ambient ends and industrial begins, or to what degree this music is explicit political or cultural critique rather than something more open-ended, providing more questions than answers—remains as complicated as ever on Persian Pillars. This is less an explicit concept album and more a vivid hallucination, a stylized descent into a realm where the peril is palpable but not always so obvious. It at times feels like a beats- and synth-driven film score, wartime dystopia lit by an eerie neon glow.
Compositionally these six tracks are among Fernow’s most immediately arresting, as well as his most accessible. And each is given a razor sharp mastering job from Godflesh’s Justin Broadrick, as if to emphasize that beneath the synth glow, these are still compositions fraught with danger and menace—perhaps the eeriest tracks to potentially grace a club soundsystem. Moments like “Predawn Coup D’etat” feel aesthetically connected to Prurient’s most drone-heavy material, albeit with more of a skittering beat to carry it, while “Rehearsing for the Attack” echoes the corrugated-steel dub techno of Andy Stott, booming in its percussive attack yet subtly unsettling in its atmosphere.
The album’s two monolithic peaks are reserved for Side B. The first of these, “Moving Secret Money,” finds a dreamy surrealism between a kind of punchy, pulsing bass thump that actually does sound like it could have been plucked from a Godflesh song. There’s at once a sense of hypnotic beauty and stoic militancy to the track, the effect something like vaporwave at its darkest. With closer “Ayatollah Ferocity (The Refinery at Abadan)”, Fernow builds to a spectacular climax and an almost unbearable tension. The beats hit that much harder, the dense strata of synths replicating the disorienting fog of war. The repetition is as hypnotic as any other moment here, but its progression comprises the most intense 12 minutes of the entire album.
Despite his roots in D.I.Y. harsh noise experiments, Dominick Fernow has grown as a producer to the point where he’s able to craft something undoubtedly appealing, even strangely pretty, without sacrificing the darkness at the core of his identity. There’s a sense of narrative, of tension and anticipation, at the core of Persian Pillars of the Gasoline Age. It’s an arc built upon movement, on beats, on slow subtle variations and evolution.
Label: 20 Buck Spin
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.