Friday, November 8, 2013

High Priests of the Death Church: A Rudimentary Peni Retrospective

Nat informed me that “punk is not fashion, it’s an attitude.” I have heard this somewhere before. I must say I am relieved that both he and Greg take this view and will not be resorting to war-zone dress sense of many punks. Nat gleefully described the “corpse of punk” as having no life in it whatsoever, and it was this decayed grandeur of a fallen subculture which had so attracted him.
Nick Blinko
The Primal Screamer

Rudimentary Peni did not revolutionize punk rock. At least not in the sense that the band boasts a wave of imitators intent on stealing any hint of the English band’s psychologically unstable glamour and passing it off as their own. The trio of guitarist/vocalist/visionary Nick Blinko, bassist Grant Matthews and drummer Jon Greville is just too idiosyncratic and hermetic for such easy imitation and commoditization.
But what the band has accomplished over its 30 year run is unrivaled in the annals of punk. When too many other punks celebrate their semi-centennial birthdays with sad trips around the nostalgic circuit (is there anything more pitifully un-punk than the very existence of such a nostalgia circuit?) or filing lawsuits against former friends, Rudimentary Peni unexpectedly pop back up a couple times a decade to drop yet another immaculate EP’s worth of new material that builds on the morbid visions they first laid out in 1981 without recourse to rehashing their (wilted) salad days.
Unique among the restless waves of politically-minded crust punks that roamed England in the early 1980s, Rudimentary Peni, while certainly political, filtered their diatribes through Blinko’s nightmarish insights and intricate artwork to set themselves well outside the circle of their peers. Rudimentary Peni songs, practically from the very outset, were psychologically rich meditations on death, decay, social oppression and mental upheaval that resonated far beyond the glut of bands who just tried to provoke and shock with cheap frights.

One picture was particularly engrossing: a vortex of violent volutes, with voodoo babies and foetuses banging their heads against brick walls. Some of these offspring looked far too intelligent, like mad professors, but this illusion was caused by their circular spectacle-like eyes and high embryonic foreheads.

The EPs of R.P.

Rudimentary Peni, born from Blinko and Greville’s avant-synthesizer band The Magits, set out to blend together English greats like Discharge, The Damned, Wire and Slaughter and the Dogs but transcended their influences from the outset, releasing a pair of EPs in 1981 that stood outside the crust punk tropes that were prevalent at the time. Their eponymous debut was a dervish of minute-long diatribes that skewed Matthews’ anarcho leanings through Blinko’s Heironymus Bosch aesthetic. The result was a brand of punk that was darker and more otherworldly than anything that came before or has limped along after. Barely out of high school, Blinko was developing a sophisticated musical assault that blended deceptively simple riffing with a constantly shifting, schizophrenic cavalcade of vocal styles that mutated to fit the demands of each song. Matthews’ burbling bass was the pulsing heart that set time for Greville’s smashing and crashing.
Follow up EP Farce was a bit of a step back. Produced and released by members of Crass, Farce sacrificed some of Rudimentary Peni’s idiosyncrasy to offer something more in keeping with what their peers were doing. Matthews’ politics took more prominence, nakedly delivered without Blinko’s skewing eye to wrap them in layers of demented imagery. Even though it’s probably the weakest link in Rudimentary Peni’s uncommonly strong discography, it still flashes bits of the band’s trademark wit songs like “Only Human,” which subverts the empty cliché into a tale of the sole survivor of an alien invasion. Even when they tried to fit in with their peers, Rudimentary Peni still steadfastly stood at the fringes.

As to the music itself, I could not suffer a great deal. Most of it is cacophonous. There is a lot of screaming by Nat; a bit scary, but nothing like the primal therapy aberrations, thankfully. Some passages would be unique were it not for a slight fleeting resemblance to the most extreme moments from the canon of that deceased, eccentric English composer Cornelius Cardew. However, it mostly sticks to a rigid and very rapid common-time beat, with Greg and Jim revealed as reasonably competent musicians. Nat just adds volume and bluster with distorted musica in diabola guitar and growling vocals, wrought with the occasional weird whispered overdub: like speaking in tongues, wrought with primitive studio trickery. It is apocalyptic music. This is doubtless why it has had a minor appeal. It is basic, but genuinely eerie.

Death Church
With two successful studio efforts to their credit, Rudimentary Peni made their full length debut in 1983 with their most popular and probably best all around effort, Death Church. It would be the fullest blending of Matthews and Blinko’s visions, an album that seethes its politics in the black bile of apocalyptic visions, a nightmare menagerie of veganism (“carnivores are flesh tombstones”), punk sellouts (“Rotten to the Core”), failed relationships (“Blissful Myth,” “Love is Not”) and suffocating religious oppression (“Army of Jesus”). In between Blinko belted whacked out masterpieces like “Cloud Song,” “When You Are a Martian Church” and “Vampire State Building” that seemed unmoored from any conventional reality shared by the bulk of humanity. On the whole, Death Church is a slower overall effort, operating at a dream pace, everything mired in slow motion nightmare sloth. The guitars on Death Church are a wonderful slurry of largely indecipherable noise, and that really allows you to appreciate just how much Matthews’ bass drives the melody in songs like “1/4 Dead.” It’s probably limiting to think of Death Church as a punk record. It’s Rudimentary Peni’s first leap outside of genre constraints into the new realm of death rock they’d come to embody.

He is persevering with guitar. His younger brother is offering him musical advice but he only accepts perverse snatches of music theory. Tritones – the infamous “Devil’s Tone” – are a particular obsession. He retunes the guitar to his own desires. The neighbors don’t seem to mind this, but do take exception to the occasional wild vocal improvisations which are liberally sprinkled with screams.

After a four year hiatus during which Matthews battled cancer, Rudimentary Peni roared back with H.P. Lovecraft love letter Cacophony. Blinko has about 100 of the best voices in punk rock and he put each and every one on display on this fragmentary, schizophrenic emulation of Lovecraft’s cosmic oeuvre. The racket on Cacophony can only be loosely considered songs in the traditional sense because they lack anything that ties them to traditional song structure. Instead, they’re slivers of chaotic noise that carom from one bombastic aside to the next. Each song seems to occupy its own pocket universe from farcical sendups of Lovecraft’s life through doggerel poetry and sunset visions of wondrous cities only half glimpsed in dream realms that are clandestine conduits to the play realms of forgotten eldritch gods who wile away the life of the universe in revelries that would blight the sanity of the mortal mind. It all makes Cacophony a confounding effort but certainly one of the most original albums ever set to tape. It perfectly embodies Lovecraft’s blend of purple prose and sense of wonder in the face of an incomprehensible and indifferent universe.

Nat is beginning to accept the fact that his doom-laden emotions will never fully disappear. With more work, however, we can hope to lessen their domination of his personality. Naturally, he finds it rather dubious to desire to dispel something which has been so large a part of him throughout his life. He tends toward the light but darkness pulls him back. I wish I could give him a pill that would provide the thrills and insight of his love of death, whilst simultaneously freeing him from the threat that it poses to his life. Such a pill, sadly, does not exist, and psychology favours all-pervasive healthy normalcy over morbid unwholesomeness, however visionary it might be.

Pope Adrian 37th Psychristiatric
Part of Rudimentary Peni’s mystique is the lack of solid information on the band and how they operate. Take for instance the rumors that Blinko has been periodically hospitalized for severe psychotic breaks from reality, including rumors that he once fancied himself to be a long forgotten shadow pope. That experience allegedly gave birth to Pope Adrian 37th Psychristiatric. This may be the toughest album in Rudimentary Peni’s entire discography to digest. It seems actively listener-hostile in some aspects. It boasts the longest songs in Rudimentary Peni’s entire catalog, but those songs are often maddeningly repetitive nursery rhymes imported from the band’s gloom-struck alternate dimension and mired in a medicated sloth. Back behind the songs, the bastardized Latin phrase “Papus Adrianas” runs in a constant loop for the entire album’s runtime. But the repetition is intended to mirror the fixation of the psychologically delusional, an audio interpretation of madness and compulsion and the way they can grind a life to a halt.

He does seem to have a lot of pent-up anger that comes out during his writing and playing of “songs.” Indeed, the very idiom he uses indicates this. Punk, after all, is a music of hatred and destruction, but it is still music, i.e. a statement of hope not pessimism. Nat does not see it as an adequate catharsis. Indeed, he does not believe in catharsis. He does believe in some things: evocation of certain moods—predominantly bizarre—in his lyrics and drawings.

Echoes of Anguish
After the baroque indulgence of Pope Adrian 37th Psychristiatric, Rudimentary Peni pivoted in the other direction, releasing Echoes of Anguish, the first of several EPs emphasizing shorter songs and tightly wound musical hooks. With Echoes of Anguish Blinko thought he’d take a shovel and dig his own grave, just to lie in it and get a sense of how death would fit him. It’s less an album experience than it is a relentless memento mori intent on ruining your day with endless admonitions to contemplate your impending mortality. Death has always haunted the wings of Rudimentary Peni’s work, but this time they invite the Reaper to tea and reminisce like old war buddies catching up after a separation of years. Memories decay and bodies fail, but Rudimentary Peni sound resigned to, even relieved by, the prospect of imminent dissolution.

Nat and Greg continue working out new songs and practicing their initial efforts with Jim once a week or fortnight. There is some dissension within the band as to just how well-polished their pieces should become. They do not feel that they are being true to their punk ideals on one hand, but on the other none of them are keen on playing live concerts which, I am given to understand are the natural habitat of the punk band. However, they are not, they claim, a punk band as such, and they are more than a little apprehensive as to what real punks will make of them.

The Underclass
With The Underclass, Rudimentary Peni gave a bit more leeway to Matthews’ overt political bile, but they did so without degenerating into eye rolling crust punk diatribes. When Rudimentary Peni casts its eye on the state of politics, it assesses the systemic forces that hold down portions of the populace rather than pissing and moaning about individual actions. So “ No Other Truth” informs that there is “no other truth but power” while “Captive of Atrophy” calls society a “collection of empty cells” and assures  the forces that be that they are “the crumbling walls of our prison.” It’s an almost uplifting message of individual autonomy from a band that could famously find the gloom in a sunny spring day. And there’s gloom aplenty. While The Underclass may be more overt in its politics, there is still plenty of trademark mopery clouding the proceedings. “Essence” reminds you that “being within is a lie” and “Bequest” asks whether your parents were really doing you any favors with this whole existence thing since you’re just going to die miserable anyway. Now there’s the Rudimentary Peni we all know and love.

The patient was tall and thin, slightly bent over, with short but wild black hair erupting over a high dome-like forehead. In fact, his head seemed too heavy for his neck to support and he held it to one side, virtually resting it on one shoulder. His eyes were very piercing yet somehow old. They were almost as black as his hair; an impression intensified by the glowing whiteness of his face. Dressed entirely in black he was on the darker, Gothic side of Romantic.

From the first notes of “One and All,” Archaic feels more strident and stubborn than some other Rudimentary Peni efforts. There’s an almost martial stride to it all as they press on through the depression and suicidal ideation that they affectionately refer to as life. Archaic is a relentlessly negative album and Rudimentary Peni glower their way through “Suffer,” “Mercy of Slumber" [spoiler alert: there is none], “Farewell Tomorrow” and “Rehearsal for Mortality.”  But where other Rudimentary Peni albums are content to wallow in accumulated miseries, there’s almost a steely resolve at the core of Archaic. The slashing, staccato guitars and unrelenting drums give a sense of unflappable resilience what with the noted rigidity of the English’s upper labrum and all. The prospect of sudden, unescapable misery, misfortune and bodily dissolution are never that far over Rudimentary Peni’s horizon, but on Archaic it just doesn’t feel like today is the day they give in.

I told him he should feel very proud of the cover artwork. It depicts a miniscule filigree of cretinous creatures, headless popes, demoniac archangels, angelic demoniacals, necrophiliac nuns etc. etc. Many heads are severed or seem to exist independently of bodies; each one is depicted screaming. The screams are not those of the twentieth century to familiarised by Munch and Bacon, but instead they hark back down the generations to primeval times in a far more convincing manner.

No More Pain
No More Pain is probably the most intellectual of Rudimentary Peni’s albums with its obvious nods to T.S. Elliot and a cover of Pachbel’s Canon in E. It also boasts their most whimsical song in the sing-songy “Doodelbug Baby.” There are not a lot of bands, particularly those that came out of punk, that continue to push themselves and make challenging music nearly 30 years into their career, but No More Pain, while expounding on Rudimentary Peni’s familiar topics, does see the band mixing up their own formula. It makes No More Pain one of the most distinctive EPs in their prolific pack of short players. It’s been five years with nary a peep from Rudimentary Peni aside from plans to reissue portions of their back catalog. If No More Pain is the band’s tombstone, we at least can take cheer they went out at peace. It took them three full lengths and six EPs to finally achieve their sublime fantasy on No More Pain. The trip was well worth the investment.

Nat and Greg egg each other on within their insular world. Like retarded twins, they spend every evening tucked away in Greg’s bedroom poring over the history and present forms of their chosen subculture with the intensity of scholars or historians. Why, what is punk but a living fossil?


Jozzy Mosbourne said...

Excellent article, really enjoyed it.

The Mule said...

Thanks for this. As someone who hasn't ventured beyond Death Church and Cacophony, it was enlightening.

Alexsmusic said...

I third these two previous comments. I only had a cursory knowledge of early RP. I really get a sense of the sonic shifts from album to album after reading this. Very well-written!