A: where nun is a number
The King James Bible — unlike say Munich choir Capella Antiqua’s 1976 Polydor LP Paschale Mysterium — predates copyright, which is of course a key reason it gets to be at once pervasive, and so richly contradictory in associations. Not only did all the warring breakway sects share the same book, so do many of the proto-pagan warriors round the margins of rock (an avant-garde that’s also a genuine heresy). The late 60s and early 70s was a frightening, turbulent time — intimations of the passing of, if not everything, certainly everything you were used to, and the response to this was combination end-of-days thrilled terror and redemptive/transformative yearning. And the music that reflected this, for a particular social-artistic layer (from Dylan to Miles Davis, from the Kinks to Carla Bley), was an often deliberately lumpy sound-clash of fragments and voicings and modes and traditions, some ancient, some modern, most barely digested, being wildly spewed out all over one another, as a response to the arrival of everything you most desired and eveything you couldn’t bear to imagine, at once.
And inevitably, in among all this, a lot of people of all classes, right across pop and rock and soul and jazz and reggae, were washing themselves in the imagery of the Revelations of St John the Divine. Which is not to say that all more modern use of these passages trace back straight through Paris 1968 — when Enigma’s Romanian-born Michael Cretu was after all only 11, and likely still living in Bucharest — but, well, look, if the seventh song on your LP (“The Voice and the Snake”) is a recitation, however diffidently rewritten, of the pouring out of the seven vials, with the Scarlet Woman and the Great Beast just a page away to anyone suitably versed, then you must look to all the gods being invoked, however inadvertently.
B: welcome back my friends to the show that never ends
In response to the discussion of Enigma’s No.1 with (timid UK title) Sadness, on Popular — my theory (which is mine) is this: that 1991 was for a wide variety of reasons the YEAR OF THE RETURN OF THE REPRESSED, of genres and stances and attitudes that the 80s had caused to be sidelined within the Conversation. Or better — and to put it in a way that rubs Tom less the wrong way — insofar as commentators still chose to convince themselves that a Central Non-Niche Discussion did and should exist, these various strands had been excluded, the sacrifices necessary to realise the countercultural cull, and the collapse from an inchoate dream of revolutionary unity to something a great deal less daring and more self-congratulatory. And thus, for whatever proximate reason — post-xmas lull, larger confidence wobble — here were Maiden and Queen and [SPOILERS] and [SPOILERS] and [SPOILERS] (actually well on into the year), restating their robust continued presence within the market at large. Reminding the many newer, smaller niches that had so effectively colonised (and also semi-balkanised) the non-niche attention industry that they had once been major players within the all-for-one countercultural fold. And still counted for quite a lot, counterculturally — however NAFF they were now taken to be, as mere past-sell-by holdovers — because, if only on a units-sold scale, they dwarfed the presence in the world of all the newcomer microgenres…
Which leaves Enigma where? There’s really no consensus on the thread, anything but — but there IS something of a shared assumption that Enigma were somewhat chasing the fans of what I’m calling a “newcomer microgenre”, although no agreement which microgenre: those cited include New Age, fag-end Balearic, Ambient and Chillout and (not quite by name) Sampladelic Quiltpop. (Another, which went unmentioned on the thread , is the beyond-Genesis P wing of “Industrial”: quasi-sinister David Tibet territory, all folk and pervy whispers and cheeky sonic pseudo-magick.) Certainly if Enigma belong anywhere here — or even in some sort of intersect set — they CAN’T be part of the “return of the big-beast repressed” that I’m outlining.
Now Cretu is nothing if not a journeyman chancer, and I don’t doubt his music was very much tweaked to trend-conform — but for the purposes of clarity I’m going to set aside the opportunistic evolutionary convergence for a while, and drag you back into the early 70s hinterlands, on a quest across the forgotten marches of PROG EUROTICA.
By which I mean: such works as 1976’s The Story of i by keyboard maestro Patrick Moraz, and, 1972’s double album 666, by Aphrodite’s Child. Moraz, you will recall, briefly supplanted R.Wakeman in Yes (on Relayer, by SOME WAY their best record): before this he was teamed (as Refugee) with members of The Nice left bereft when Emerson joined ELP; later he worked with the Moody Blues (later still he took the MBs to court). Aphrodite’s Child, meanwhile, are the legendary Greek psych-prog group that introduced us to both Mr Demis Roussos (bass guitar and vocals) and Mr Vangelis Papathanassiou (keyboards) — the same Vangelis who would go on, not irrelevantly, to work with apocalyptickal ecstatician Jon Anderson, and of course compose the post-cataclysmic 1982 soundtrack for Blade Runner.
C: the story of phwoar
So far so prog. The word you have nervously been eyeing is “Eurotica”, isn’t it? Well, it’s retro-fitted, it’s true (it actually comes from the world of comicbooks): but I wanted a term that drew a tidy line between Metal Hurlant and the Emmanuelle novels; because these are the tributaries that flow into the particular local swamp within Euro-prog fusion that I want to draw attention to.
So here’s Wikipedia on The Story of i, to do my groundwork for me free of charge: “The concept album is based around a romantic story of a massive tower in the middle of a jungle. The tower lures people from all over the world to go inside it. Inside the tower, people are able to experience their wildest desires and fantasies. The only rule is that the people inside the tower may not fall in love with each other. However two people inside do so and decide to escape since the tower acts also as a prison which inhabitants are slaves of their own desires.” Which of course puts as squarely and clearly in the lineage of De Sade’s isolated fortress in 120 Days of Sodom and Pauline Réage’s The Story of O, and all kinds of kneejerkily anticlerical stuff in-between, from Lautréamont to Carl Orff. The LP comes complete with Moraz’s own callow musings on lust, love, possession and liberty etc etc.
In all the length and breadth of Merrie Brit-Prog (“Sir Stephen” not withstanding), sex was a topic largely avoided: the punters didn’t fancy it; the artists did not deliver it. By contrast, continental fusion was actively interested in porn, as emergent cultural issue and sales device. Aphrodite’s Child — the name is not un-germane — had apparently already done a soundtrack for (also Romanian-born) Henry Chapier’s softcore movie Sex Power. On 666, they crossed the streams: celebrated Greek actress Irene Pappas makes orgasmic noises across all of the track “Infinity”, her contribution towards Vangelis’s um conceptual examination of countercultural teleology, good and bad. (AC were in Paris in 1968.)
D: monk time
The point is, at least as much as any subsequent mini-genre Cretu cannily nuzzles, THIS is the repressed that Enigma were obliquely signalling a return to. FEATURING: somewhat underpowered post-Floyd guitar rock, washed in with chants, choral music, recitations “as from” De Sade and Revelations, ethnic instruments and percussions, found sound, hints of softcore erotica, and the classic prog/metal handwave at conceptual commentary. Where concept means — just as it does in UK prog — a cover image doing 90 percent of the intellectual heavy lifting, combined with thudding DO-YOU-SEE nudges from song titles.
Now as noted Cretu is a chancer, who found himself with a surprise hit and very much mined the formula as it was understood by the massed fans. He was not so implacably wedded to his own semi-realised concept — meagre as it will seem set out in words — that he minded it being turned on its head, by the unplanned vastness of the listener response. Including the apparent fact — and I haven’t the slightest idea how to confirm this claim — that, like Dark Side of the Moon before it, people were buying it in vast numbers because, ostensible themes notwithstanding, they found it nifty music to shag to.
(Where he’d been before the tide turned: co-production work on Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells II, a project that presumably mattered a great deal more to Oldfield than Cretu; and — closer to his own heart — taking his wife Sandra’s releases Into a Secret Land and Paintings in Yellow to the mid-teens of the Norwegian and Austrian charts. And Top Ten in Germany! Just!)
OK, let’s skip the rest of the context and dig into the disc itself, and the main elements in its mix.
E: the principles of list
1: There’s a posh lady’s breathy voice introducing us to the world of “music, spirit and meditation”: it sounds like a yoga tape, perhaps for meditation or exercise.
2: There’s Gregorian chant, lifted (apparently without permission) from Paschale Mysterium.
3: There’s Gregorian chant backwards!
4: There’s a man and a woman discussing or enacting erotic etiquette, sometimes in French.
5: There’s panpipes, so-called (I don’t in fact think they are panpipes; see below).
6: There’s rock guitar, some it extremely Pink Floydy.
7: There’s various heats of discoid erection-section machinebeat, each on a single one-bar loop (OK I haven’t really checked the single bar bit).
8: There’s various naturish SFX, and instruments imitating nature.
9: There’s other stuff, too (bells, marching, drums, Maria Callas maybe…)
And before this there’s these three quotes on the cover:
i: “The path of excess leads to the tower of wisdom.” William Blake (a Babelfish misquote that handily reminds us of The Story of i)
ii: “The pleasure of satisfying a savage instinct, undomesticated by the ego, is uncomparably much more intense than the one of satisfying a tamed instinct. The reason is becoming the enemy that prevents us from a lot of possibilities of pleasure.” Sigmund Freud (also seems a bit Babelfish, but I haven’t checked).
iii: “If you believe in the light, it’s because of obscurity, if you believe in happiness it’s because of unhappiness, and if you believe in God then you’ll have to believe in the devil.” Father X, exorcist, Church of Notre Dame, Paris (I am unconvinced this is a non made-up person!)
F: dialectabolical mystoricism
If the comments on the thread are a guide, these all simply mulch down into a glutinous sameness, a kind of murky broth of no-longer-distinguishable aspirations and energies. But if we take the liner quotes at face value, the effect SHOULD have been quite the opposite. Blake in particular is the prophet of the non-resolution of conflicting impulse as the spirit of love and life. Instead of blurring into one another, the various elements should have been playing off one another — the contradictions in our make-up, our hopes and needs and fears playing off one another in a kind mutually upending joke, a dialectical dance of wisdom out of teasing.
And so this is how I think we’re meant to be processing the first few minutes.
i: the presentation of a project of “spiritual education”; of somewhat cliched “new age” declamation —
ii: — is coolly elided into a sound that anyone of a certain upbringing will instantly recognise as the OPPOSITE of “new age” — this is a choral sound that calls forth the unchanging ages, and you don’t need to hunt far to find papal anathemas against “new age spirituality”, as being in effect devilworship…
iii: … but wait!! because any member in good standing of the European anti-clerical avant garde knows IN THEIR VERY BONES that what monks MEAN is hyprocrisy, greed and lust (this is much less urgent an association in England, since Tudor usurper Henry VIII angrily drove such foax orff of his royal lawns…)
iv: [INSERT BIRKIN-ESQUE BREATHING HERE]
v: for is not the truth eternal that ALL projects of so-called spiritual ennoblement, from Catholicism to crystals, are just about wanting to cop off? See Jungle, see jungle! Go bang your gang, yeah…
vi: and so on and onan… and let’s cut into the close reading just halfway into the first track, to observe that Enigma’s LINE in all this is intended (see name of band) to remain utterly wide open and un-pin-down-able.
vii: And jump sideways, into something that official Surrealism was pathologically — which is to say tellingly — hostile to: music. Music was worse even than monks, to the art-elite spawn of Lautréamont. So let’s take all this to the level of the music, and the contrary meanings coded there.
G: quilty pleasures
Superficially the common denom of Windham Hill-style New Age and Gregorian Chant is the power to soothe, to calm, to induce a bliss of no-event peace. But this really only happens if you’re predisposed to turn off your mind, relax and submit: it’s BY NO MEANS a bad thing to still the mind periodically, and indeed daily, but it’s a pretty tricky magic, and where genuine magic is needed, all kinds of cheats are found gathered.*
But is Enigma even meant to be de-stressing, as New Age and Chill-Out really are? Does it remain in the background, as Ambient should? Isn’t it a sequence of gags and irritants and arousal stimuli? Even the single — which runs through the same elements as the LP in rather different permutation — is strangely full of little-noise event. In its oh-so-low-key way, it’s all about expectation of engagement. It’s intending your attention to snag on these near-subliminal juxtapositions and expressive contradictions and shifts of perspective.
Is it claiming to be enlightening? Only teasingly: because it’s all tones and hints to mock the very concept of enlightenment — it’s quietly chuckling at how an uncarnal spirituality will always be disrupted by the call of the body. Except of course It really IS an old-fashioned concept album, fleshing out — as they so often did — an idea already largely exhausted by the LP sleeve. It’s a programme-music sequence of tone-poems and mood pieces, copping amused attitude at every philosophy it dips into, the Sadean philosophy of the bedroom, especially as this soft-offs down towards the sex-without-consequences me-generation idyll of the idle semi-colonial pretty-thing rich depicted in the Emmanuelle books and films.
It’s not at all the fag-end of Balearic: all its tropes except the beat come from Prog-Fusion, and even the beat is simply a shrewd looped update of the kind of late-nite robodisco that gets onto soundtracks for “sexy” TV movies.
And Sampladelic QuiltPop? Well, here’s the thing: quilting was always — and this is the crux — the VERY ESSENCE OF PROG. Quilting is pretty much what the term “progressive” actually means: progressive jazz was jazz quilted into classically composed structure; progressive blues was blues admixed with jazz and rock; progressive rock was rock and blues salted with, well, everything to hand, from the Shangri Las to Stravinsky, raga to Riley, folk to Coltrane to clavé…
And actually — at last — we’ve come to the heart of the Enigma problem: the question of the [hunts round for grand-sounding word] ETHOS OF SUTURE. Or in non-poncey English, how stuff is joined together, and why this matters. The age of the digital edit makes all kinds of splice really easy — and as everyone who’s ever read a fairystory wll recall, magic always comes at a price. Shortcuts make long tangles. Pretty quilting comes with a payback; and so, in fact, does merely deft quilting.
Enigma may arrive from the tradition I’ve outlined: but it emerged in the age of a great starburst of newly easy quilting — some deft, some beautiful, some smart — and the realisation of its potential. And it emerged a success — such a success, in fact, that it isn’t one bit held back by
(or even anywhere else associated with) all the earlier stuff I’m linking to it. So hurrah! exclaim their accountants.
The downside is this: by sidestepping all the stuff that makes its precursors a problem for us now, it isn’t doing what they did, but better. It’s really just sidestepping what the ancestors were struggling with. The joins they were making; the leaps they were attempting; the unities they were imagining…
Listen again to those panpipes. Which they aren’t, of course — they’re a keyboard setting of some sort, maybe Fairlight-samplings, maybe just a synth register that’s tweaked to resemble them. It means whoever plays them — Cretu I assume, but screw it, THEY opted for anonymity — gets to play a what amounts to a connoisseur’s game with himself, deliberately inventing a little figure that you physically COULDN’T play on panpipes, pushing the unusual sound-envelope (with its very percussive and de-tuned startsound) into an odd and grabby little anti-Peruvian keyb-solo wriggle of modern techno-sound.
But it’s almost a private joke (as is, I’d happily insist, the easy-mimic Floyd-y guitar): and as such highlights the overall self-cancelling dynamic of the Enigma project: the way ethos and realisation get in each other’s way.
Now it’s easy to get the tone wrong at this point: I’m saying ethos, and that can sound like I’m merely proposing some factitious ethic of best practice, a moralism of dated technique: KEEP MUSIC LIVE, NO SYNTHESISERS, or what-stupid-ever. No: what I’m getting at is that Enigma’s glue, courtesy the era of the simple digital edit, presents everywhere as invisible mending: all its contradictory elements glide seamlessly into one another.**
But if solace are genuinely achieved this glitchlessly, via this gleaming new technology, you begin to start to doubt the emotional reality of a woe so easily and swiftly soothed. And while there’s always the light sly crackle of naff blasphemy in the jump-cut from posh yoga-girl to monks chanting “in nomine Christi“, this element — that there are actually inconsolably stressed people in the world, too — has somehow also been jumpcut out of the story. Or muffled, under these gloopy long-hold synths, these carefully smooth diatonic chords, these tidily looped neverchanging break-beats.
But as with every other instrumentality and technique, it’s not the how that’s the issue, that worry is always in the end a silly fetish. It’s always the why that matters — or more accurately the tangle of the many contradictory whys. To conjure a mood, to unlock a world, to woo, to wound, to show off, to shrug off, to describe, to describe yourself describing…
Why — from around 1967 — did music-makers start to cluster round the will to quilt? Just because they could? It’s NEVER just that: the new thing you can do gathers an energy of meaning beyond novelty the moment a community gathers — the twin communities, to make a faint specious but convenient distinction, of prog and fusion, flirting and fighting.
I: 120 days of sodcast em
I’ve explored this at some length elsewhere — but it’s not published yet*** so I’ll try and restate it swiftly. Rock and jazz are both group musics, but the latter is primarily about group encounters of adult individuals, publicly exploring their differences, and the former about teenage collectivity: gangs, if you like (in the Bash Street rather than the GoodFellas sense). Prog and fusion represent the moment when the two wings each began to probe the aesthetic antipode — I orginally wrote “tentatively”, but really it was anything but.
The social context was of course the suddenly newly imaginable utopia of a post-segregation-world: where black, brown, white and etc are equals, free to co-mingle, and so are jazz and classical and rock and roll and all the rest…
Fusion swapped the jagged encounter of individuals, in self-consciously temporary immediacy of togetherness, for the bruising head-on encounter of whole genres and styles: Afro jazz, jazz-funk, Third Stream… fascinated and semi-appalled by rock, Miles Davis pretty much invented this — just, no accident, as his producer Teo Macero slipped the invisible tape-splice into jazz practice — and you can trace ita line through early, rock-inflected Mahavishnu, Marcello C’s beloved Escalator over the Hill, and beyond, into what came in the 80s to be called Harmolodic Collision…
(Not that this is fusion is how remembered — because most of the musicianly professionals in that wing of jazz baulked at rock’s inexperienced teenage tactlessness, swerving instead towards trans-stylistic politesse and diluted diplomatic compromise, sutured by glib pseudo-spiritual polymorphism into over-smooth, self-abnegating piety jams. It was very passive-aggressive, fetishising — and paradoxically de-libidinising — that achieved serene cultural one-ness it claimed to illustrate and exemplify.
Prog, by contrast — well, let’s get to particulars, it’s clearer. King Crimson quilted unusual and disparate modes of performer, each writhing round the angular iron frame of Fripp’s signature riffs. Yes spliced together barely related bright fragments of proto-NuPop semisongs into extended sequences of pretty but highly variable meaningfulness. In ELP, Emerson himself was the quilt, with his thuggish yet oddly characterless mastery of every kind of modern keyboard style…
The glue in prog was almost always over-excited virtuosity: the carnival excitement of dextrous fingers and stamina and dazzle got you past the more abrupt shifts. The effect — given the context — is, at least over the long haul, of massive anxiety, displacement activity — and the obstacle course of often quite ugly riffs — radiated chaotic unease about its own coherence, and thus doubts even about the possibility of the lovely new unbarriered world it yearned for, this radical countercultural oneness. The unity of all was no balm of easy commonality: it was a state of peace that had, paradoxically aggressively, to be fought for, by all involved…
Jump-cut now to 1991, and the portal through which the big-beast repressed actually came back. Which we’ll call Sampladelic Concept QuiltProg: Frankie with Trevor Horn (and Steve Howe!), Malcolm McLaren juggling opera and hiphop and township and voguing, and of course the KLF… all working with a smash of elements — styles and genres in glittering precast fragments, hurtling across one another, in a whirl of irony and profusion and barrier-crashing and the epochal fleeting dream of oneness, out of all these elements distinct and driven and contradictory, glued now by well-practiced digital means and excellent ears, and also — just to emphasise what was so central — a RADICALLY slippy way with self-declaration. As if to say: haha you won’t catch ME being unequivocal about my allegiances; my position on all and any of this remains elusive, because your enlightenment emerges out of CATCH AS CATCH CAN….
Which is to say — massive DO YOU SEE nudge — “ambiguity” and “mystery” and “enigma”… and MCMXCad as another project in this precise tream, countercultural anti-clerical concept handwave against new age yearning that nevertheless itself dreams of the serene endorsement of same, and the cynical marketing, and ________ and __________ and _________
A failed project? It’s not as if much of the above gets through into routine understanding of McLaren or the KLF, either (or Queen, since I think I talked myself into including them…). MCMXCad gets drearier the more you listen to it — to “see through” it is not to redeem it — and that’s what it’s taken me longest to explain, to myself as much as anything. In the last part of the last song, in “Back to the River of Belief”, a godawful rock-ordinaire vocal lays itself open: (“I look inside my heart, I look inside my soul/I’m reaching out for you, let’s hope one day/We’ll rest in peace on my rivers of belief“). (“My” rivers, note: not “yours” or “ours“.) And there’s a drop-in — jump-cut non-surprise surprise — of a posh English voice reading from (course) Revelations (the lamb and the seventh seal), then massive rising Floyd-chord and keyby pipes and everlastingly looped eroto-beat … But here’s the thing, in all of this. Where their prog-fusion predecessors and NuPop rivals (sometimes) could and can tweak and challenge and ensnare us, confront us in their thrilling flaws and delusions and utopias and contradictions with our own, shared or opposed, Enigma, mocking or promising unearned solace, bliss-on-a-stick, never dare to step beyond cover to engage the riverlike complacency of our resolute UNbelief. “Mah friend” sings the smarmy voice — but it’s the passive-aggressive and pro-forma “brother” or “sister” or “comrade” or “citizen” of the interlocutor who doesn’t trust himself to talk as an equal — to Pope or to puritan or to prostitute — without a mask. “My rivers“, remember: despite the fact that nowhere, in this entire project, does he un-pin-downably declare his beliefs. He should have gone with “fuckbuddy“.
*I’m actually inclined to be fairly approving of yoga, since a friend taught me entirely to transform my asthma management via yogic breathing exercises. If it’s associated in the west with unearned leisure-time, the fault is a world-system that denies most of the world the time or cash-space for any type of leisure. And one of my allergies has long been that species of shallow and cynical pseudo-critique that, having “decoded” the “signification” of native American chants in this or that throwaway western tosh, then proceeds to accept this as the WHOLE of their meaning ANYWHERE. It’s the kind of lazy shortcut that ends with Jeremy Clarkson sniggering at the death of the last whale, just because it will upset some earnest silly hippies somewhere.
**Yes SHUT UP I know you don’t really glue quilts. THIS METAPHOR IS ALSO IN THE FORM OF A QUILT!
***Relevant essay to be published in Afrofuturism: Interstellar Transmissions from Remix Culture, ed. Tobias c. van Veen, 2011. Detroit: Wayne State UP. YOU KNOW YOU CAN’T WAIT.