A (Somewhat Incomplete) Coil Retrospective
By Jordan Pytosh
Coil, founded by John Balance in 1982, has proven to be one of the most influential industrial music groups in popular music history. Though Balance sadly died at age 42 in 2004, his group's formidable output has informed the work of countless electronic musicians, ranging from Trent Reznor to Aphex Twin, and deserves more attention than it has received. Below is a chronological overview of most of the band's releases, rated on a scale from one to ten - a starting point for anyone interested in exploring one of the most important industrial bands of all time:
Scatology (1984): 5/10
In 1984, Coil was deep into the industrial music scene. However, this album does not fully capture their importance to this burgeoning underground community, as it feels a little too out of place. This album suffers from being incohesive, and is too harsh on the ears for many of the best songs on the album to actually stand out. “Solar Lodge” and “Ubu Noir” are undeniably fantastic, but none of the other tracks hit nearly as hard, making this album less essential to the Coil discography.
Horse Rotorvator (1986): 10/10
This record is Coil’s true creative starting point, the moment they found their real footing. Horse Rotovator's spine-chilling vocals and countless ambient synths lead the listener into a strange organic world that updates Throbbing Gristle for the MTV era. The album is a spiralling tornado of atmospheric vibes, with an eclectic motion that leads in a delightfully crazy way to an ambient finale straight out of the grimy industrial underbelly. Undoubtedly, this album remains a timeless classic that will wow audiences over 30 years later.
Love’s Secret Domain (1991): 8/10
Domain combines acid house influences and an industrial foundation in a way that suggests what Afrika Bambaataa's music might sound like had it been rearranged by Meredith Monk. Its eccentricity proves powerful, but a little too weird to actually work. Whereas, on Horse Rotorvator, Coil used eclectic noise to create something lifelike and tastefully insane, Love’s Secret Domain is too clouded to achieve the same effect. However, the album does excel at being a fantastic late night trip record, and still deserves a spot among Coil’s best.
Stolen and Contaminated Songs (1992): 7/10
This is probably the most accessible Coil record audio-wise, as it has lot more lo-fi house and early electronic sounds than other albums in the band’s discography. It’s very much a step away from the strangeness that Coil had perfected, but still works as a piece of evidence that this group was capable of doing much more than pure industrial music. Though not very memorable as a cohesive piece, it's still pretty damn good.
The Angelic Conversation (1994): 4/10
I want to love this record, but the din and unsettling sound effects get in the way of a lot of these songs. None of the multitude of stock sounds used throughout the album prove to be nearly as compelling as Coil's other work. If you want creepy horror movie ambiance, you're better off listening to Akira Yamaoka’s soundtracks for the Silent Hill series, as those will stick with you a lot more than this album.
Astral Disaster (1999): 6/10
While better than its predecessor, Astral Disaster feels too drawn out, albeit with some starkly beautiful compositions. Highlights “The Mothership and the Fatherland” and “Mu-Ur” are ethereal 20-minute plus pieces, but most parts in between feel a little too inconsequential. There’s some really good stuff, but it feels lost within the album's excess.
Musick to Play in the Dark Vol. 1 (1999): 10/10
In the strangest sense, this is easily another Coil masterpiece, of the same caliber as Horse Rotorvator, whose every moment feels powerful and intense. There are so many memorable aspects to this work, including heavy synthetic/organic instrumental fusions, “Red Queen’s” gigantically immense piano line, and dialogue throughout that both unsettles and engages the listener with its beastly fervor. It’s very much in the vein of Godley & Creme’s early work, but not as bloated and pretentious. Musick to Play in the Dark Vol. 1 proved that, even after a series of relatively underwhelming releases, Coil still had the capability of delivering incredible music.
Musick to Play in the Dark Vol. 2 (2000): 8/10
Wrapping up the two part coda to Coil’s new innovative crusade, this album takes a more esoteric route, cultivating a weird melancholy vibe throughout. The album is seething with unrelenting beauty, and healthy doses of tonally dynamic electronic beeping gently ease the listener into these late night vibes. While not as compelling as the first volume, standout track “Where Are You?” is unforgettably and strangely sentimental, and one of most riveting pieces of music I’ve ever heard.
Constant Shallowness Leads to Evil (2000): 2/10
It’s like they stole Merzbow recordings and made them sound even worse. Listen to Merzbow if you want good harsh noise, because this album isn’t good at all.
Black Antlers (2004): 7/10
This album is like if Massive Attack went even more industrial, birthing a fusion of house and ambient music that wows the ears with its visceral eccentricity. While not overly compelling, the random grunts and dialogue make this record a pretty riveting listen, and not too eccentric to the point of inaccessibility, ala some of Coil’s previous work.
The Ape of Naples (2005): 9/10
This 2005 record was a posthumous effort recorded after the death of the group’s visionary John Balance, and while that may incur a lower quality record, Ape of Naples is definitely one of the best the group ever released. Much like other posthumous classics, such as Grievous Angel or Donuts, it shows Balance’s vision in his last moments, and remains compelling over 10 years on. Compared to other records in the Coil discography, the use of electronic elements is toned down yet manipulated to perfection. Its eclecticism has Balance’s likeness all throughout making the record a tasteful tribute to Balance’s vision for the group.
And the Ambulance Died in His Arms (2005): 5/10
This recording of a 2003 Coil performance isn’t as compelling as the proposal would suggest. It’s quite droning and ultimately boring, without the elements that make many of Coil’s other albums genuinely engaging. The musical work here is lacking in more than a few ways, rendering And the Ambulance Died in His Arms a disappointment, especially given Naples' success.
The New Backwards (2008): 6/10
It sounds as though Coil had no idea what they wanted to do with this record; the album's musical ideas are a bit all over the place and the track listing seems completely random. But aside from those shortcomings, the album is still pretty solid, especially given that it came out after the group's short hiatus. Though an interesting listen, The New Backwards never manages to reach the peaks graced by a lot of the band's other albums.