By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
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By Emily Weiss
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By Jeff Gage
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Black Ships Ate the Sky
Cults, by definition, need not just a charismatic and enigmatic figurehead, but also a devoted legion of believers. Persistence pays off in getting the message out there; just look how long it took Jesus. Witness the recent, critically acclaimed documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, which follows the manic-depressive singer-songwriter some 20 years after his first naïf cassette appeared down in Austin, and another decade before his Beatles-infused wonderment found fans in Kurt Cobain, Yo La Tengo, and the Flaming Lips.
Daniel Smith, who records as the Danielson Famile, Tri-Danielson, and just Danielson, kicked off his own cultdom with a Rutgers senior project-turned-debut album, A Prayer for Every Hour, which echoes the odd, cracked pop Johnston yelps out. Over the course of seven albums, Smith's cult status has grown, even while he himself remains childish when addressing his Christian faith. It didn't take him nearly as long to get his own documentary, though. If Daniel Johnston is forever trapped in his parents' basement due to notorious psychotic episodes and debilitating meds, the younger Daniel is suspended in that aspic of home-schooling (or perhaps a Bible camp play). Both sing their faith, which means not just Jesus, but John and Paul. Smith, much like Johnston, is more than happy to rewrite Beatles songs through God's eternity. For Danielson's newest album, Ships, his Beatles fixation seems to have fallen on the catchy yet idiotic glee of "Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da," which should tell you whether you want onboard. Another deal-breaker is the captain's voice, a highly affected, cracked drawl in a squeaky register, which sounds not unlike J. Mascis, were he squished into a too-small pair of Underoos. Sometimes the two extremes combine to sound startlingly like Chris from Family Guy. And Smith seems similarly stuck in his teenage years, off the coasts of adolescence and adulthood.
Yet on Ships, he gets by with a little help from his friends. His now-famous buddy Sufjan Stevens blows oboe and flute, Why? from Anticon hops on, and as always, his family and kin stand behind him, making for a ramshackle, slightly off-key choir. But the biggest coup is recruiting Deerhoof to handle a majority of the band duties. From boisterous marches to the stutter-steps of "Kids Pushing Kids," there isn't an awkward gearshift or chord change that the prickly noise-pop band can't wrassle into shape. Flexing their prog muscles behind Danielson on "Cast It at the Setting Sail," they know when to chug forward at full-steam and when to careen off-course completely (see "Two Sitting Ducks"). While Smith himself may not don a duck costume à la Elton John, he has been known to rock a tree suit onstage.
On the more melancholic and morbid side of earthly faith resides cult artist David Tibet. Springing up in the post-industrial landscape plowed by Throbbing Gristle in the early '80s, Tibet's long-running Current 93 project has always depended on bands such as Psychic TV, Coil, and 23 Skidoo. Not to mention a fervent fan base that pays exorbitant sums for ludicrously limited releases. As Tibet pilots on into the 21st century, his skeleton crew likewise expands: The current lineup boasts Ben Chasny from Six Organs of Admittance, Nurse with Wound's Steven Stapleton, cellist John Contreras, and more all-stars than a Jerry Lewis telethon.
Black Ships Ate the Sky, which Tibet labels "a Hallucinatory Patripassianist Dream," is held together by various versions of an 18th-century hymn, "Idumea." On each of the tune's nine appearances, a guest vocalist tries to out-sing the rest: Mark Almond, Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Baby Dee, Cosi Fanni Tutti, Antony, and U.K. folk legend Shirley Collins all take their turn with the onerous lyrics. Over an ever-shifting bed of bleak and spectral folk sounds—from detuned acoustic guitars and banjos to churning tambura and diaphanous harps—their voices jostle with their own mortality.
The central voice, of course, is that of Tibet, a portentous and feral device falling somewhere between Johnny Rotten's mewl and the projection of a bit player in Macbeth. Tibet too, deals with occult forces, this mortal coil, Lazarus, and other lost deities as his band plies a strange and moldered strain of folk much like what might emanate out of Stonehenge or a witch's cove. A longtime champion of dark U.K. folk, he's supported everything from Comus and The Wicker Man soundtrack to the Incredible String Band and Collins (not to mention Tiny Tim). Current 93's music is similarly chilling, tasting of hemlock and belladonna. Yet it may take a high priestess or Aleister Crowley follower to decipher songs like "This Autistic Imperium Is Nihil Reich": "I called God on the phone just yesterday and spoke to Breathface/He told me Death arises for Bloodface," or lines linking maggots and cabbage and a "Cosmic Shirley Temple." Here's hoping such a concoction doesn't taste like the Kool-Aid in Jonestown.