Mark Stewart died last month at 62. I didn’t know much about him — for example, I was shocked to learn that he was 6’6”. I owned one of his albums, Metatron, when I was in high school. I bought it because it was basically a Tackhead album, produced by Adrian Sherwood and featuring guitarist Skip McDonald, bassist Doug Wimbish, and drummer Keith Leblanc, and I guess I liked it OK, but not as much as the singles “Mind at the End of the Tether,” “What’s My Mission Now?” and “Ticking Time Bomb,” or Leblanc’s albums Major Malfunction and Stranger Than Fiction. Stewart seemed to be more interested in foregrounding his lyrics and lashing them to relatively conventional song structures, albeit in that same heavy industrial dub style. I never thought Tackhead was at their best in “real band” mode, whether Stewart or Bernard Fowler was singing. There was a head-spinning abstraction to the singles, and especially the Gary Clail remix album Tackhead Tape Time, that was more appealing to me.
Many years later, I found some albums under Stewart’s name that I clicked with a little more. 1983’s Learning to Cope With Cowardice and 1985’s As the Veneer of Democracy Starts to Fade were noisy, disorienting assaults. Sounds came out of nowhere and disappeared without warning, and rhythms would suddenly become a roll of thunder, drowning almost everything else before retreating. Eventually, just a few years ago, I heard his earliest work, with the Pop Group, and while I thought the most interesting aspect of their sound was Gareth Sager’s guitar, I could hear what drew Stewart to work with Sherwood. After all, the Pop Group’s debut was produced by reggae legend Dennis Bovell (though, it should be clear, it is not in any way a reggae or dub record, just one that uses dub techniques).
The connection between postpunk and dub and, later, industrial is impossible to imagine coming out of any other culture than late ’70s London. Some of it works really well, like Killing Joke’s first single, “Turn to Red,” and some of it is a good idea that never quite gels (Public Image Ltd.’s Metal Box — yeah, I said it). Later, when those ideas spread throughout the Western punk-and-beyond world, crossbreeding with hip-hop and industrial in the work of Kevin Martin and the Macro Dub Infection and Electric Ladyland compilations, as well as the Brooklyn-based WordSound Recordings label, the music of Bill Laswell, and some small scenes in London and Berlin, things got really interesting. An entire book — multiple books — could be written just tracing all the links. (It’s apparently covered to some degree in Laurent Fintoni’s Bedroom Beats & B-sides, but I haven’t read that…yet.)
This is a style of music that speaks to me on a very deep level. I still listen to those old Tackhead singles and the Electric Ladyland and Crooklyn Dub Consortium compilations all the time, as well as stuff by Martin (as The Bug, under his own name, and with JK Flesh as Techno Animal, Ice, and now Zonal) and other similar stuff as it comes across my screen. I recently discovered the UK-based duo Holy Tongue thanks to Martin, who recommended their first full-length album, Deliverance And Spiritual Warfare, on Twitter. I clicked over to Bandcamp, checked out a few tracks, and bought their entire catalog — three EPs, a live tape, and the album.
Holy Tongue is a collaboration between producer Al Wootton, who handles synths, bass, percussion and sound effects, and Valentina Magaletti on drums and percussion. He’s released a ton of material as Deadboy and has put out an album of minimal electronic music as Immrama, and she’s a member of groups like Vanishing Twin, UUUU, and the London Improvisers Orchestra, and recently played on Radiohead drummer Phil Selway’s album Strange Dance. There’s an interview with her in a recent issue of Tone Glow.
The music on their first three EPs, simply titled Holy Tongue, II, and III, is an eerie blend of postpunk and dub, with some art-rock sounds thrown in — there are moments that seem pulled from the earliest African Head Charge records, and others that owe something to Berlin-era David Bowie (or, more accurately, Iggy Pop’s The Idiot). The vague mysticism in track titles like “Curse Removing,” “Spirit Mask,” “And Your Camp Shall Be Sacred,” and “Erev” also bring to mind Muslimgauze, whom I wrote about a couple of months ago. And their occasional use of ritualistic and Middle Eastern percussion reminds me of some WordSound releases by Scarab and Slotek. Some tracks are faster and twitchier than others, some are slower and darker, and it’s not always obvious that they’re the product of the same two minds.
(Every sound from the past has become a style at this late date, so there are plenty of artists working in this vein from all over the world, with varying degrees of individuality. Some people’s artistry manifests in earnest imitation of those who’ve come before, and that’s fine. If you want impeccably executed rockabilly, or 1950s-style hard bop, or ’80s EBM and industrial dance music, someone out there is doing it right now. So the first three Holy Tongue EPs would fit seamlessly into a DJ set filed under “postpunk dub,” and no one on the dance floor would blink.)
They’ve made a real leap forward, or at least sideways, on Deliverance And Spiritual Warfare, though. It’s audible from the first seconds of the first track, “Saeta.” The militaristic percussion and blaring parade-ground horns don’t sound like postpunk or dub; they sound like early Laibach. After a little over a minute, though, a distorted techno beat comes in, clearing the way for a vocal sample warped through effects into an electronic squiggle. After that surprising introduction, things go back to a more expected zone on “Threshing Floor” and “Under a Veil, Under a Garment,” but there’s still something slightly different, airier, less oppressive about the new music, even when the snare drum has the brutal slap of Keith Leblanc’s ’80s kit and a bank of electronics is grinding like a malfunctioning hydraulic press.
The fourth track, “Susuro,” sounds like an outtake from Can’s Future Days — there’s a sampled snippet of voice that could be Damo Suzuki murmuring, gentle percussion, and electronic burbles. “Where the Wood is the Water is Not” lays gentle vibraphone and treated piano over a dubby techno beat; “Joachim” adds hand drumming and upright bass to their arsenal of sounds, creating an effect like a remix of a track from the Black Unity Trio’s Al-Fatihah; while “A New God Before Us” has a seismic boom-bap, leavened with harp and haunted reggae piano, that could be a lost RZA track circa Ghost Dog. This whole album is a journey through dark, cold urban spaces that will have you looking over your shoulder like a character in the recent remake — reboot, reimagining, whatever — of Candyman (which was great, btw).
This is contemporary music that’s part of a lineage going back to the late ’70s. While it has clear connections to the past, the players put their own spin on it, much the way SAULT — whose Untitled (Black Is) is another possible reference point — combine postpunk, dub, hip-hop, soul and Afro-rock into a head-spinningly new experience. If you’re in the mood for something hypnotic, immersive and genuinely dark, Deliverance And Spiritual Warfare is gonna take you down a very deep well.