It is impossible to respond to the music of Scott Walker with indifference. Since his contribution of four troubling, weird and brilliant songs to The Walker Brothers’ 1978 comeback Nite Flights, he has embarked on a slow, increasingly bleak journey into uncompromising territory.
This fearless voyage reached an apotheosis in 2006 with the release of The Drift, a masterpiece that stared directly at the worst degradations of man’s inhumanity to man. Somewhat inevitably, that impossibly bleak statement has proved difficult to follow. The ballet music on 2008‘s And Who Shall Go To The Ball exposed Walker’s limitations as a formal composer, whilst some of Bish Bosch suffers for no longer having ‘the shock of the new’.
For much of its first half, Bish Bosch feels oddly disjointed. After the relentless industrial urgency of See You Don’t Bump His Head, the long form pieces, although clearly meticulously organised, feel like a series of fragmentary thoughts coerced into persistently digressive pieces of music. Brutality, dominance and exertions of power remain familiar concerns, but there is a newfound taste for the absurd here too.
The lyrics often lapse into stream of consciousness gobbledegook or unashamedly lame put-downs (“if shit were music, you’d be a brass band”) and there are repeated, jarring corporeal pronouncements (including the, erm, much-trumpeted “sphinctural emissions” on Corps De Blah and several references, by various names, to testicles).
It seems that Walker has simply written too many words for this project and the songs all run the gamut from the inspired to the ridiculous, Walker’s serious-as-your-life theatrical vibrato often heightening the sense of the latter (“I severed my reeking gonads and fed them to your shrunken face”). Is this all intended to be farcical?
Yet for all its uncomfortable moments, Bish Bosch also provides both reminders of Walker’s existing strengths, and some intriguing suggestions of where he might go next (should he, at the age of nearly 70, decide to make another recording). There is his masterful use of silence, used to disquieting effect at the start of the 21-minute SDSS14+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter), the album’s unsettling, wildly unfocussed centrepiece.
Then there is his bold use of insistent, repeated refrains to create deeply unsetting atmospheres (“while plucking feathers from a swan song” on See You Don’t Bump His Head, the “here’s to a lousy life” conclusion of the brilliant Phrasing). His arrangements also still make effective use of timbre and texture to create often dissonant sheets of startling sound, sometimes with unusual instrumentation (the rare Tubax is deployed on two pieces). In this, he has been aided considerably by musical director Mark Warman. Ian Thomas’ powerful drums and Alasdair Malloy’s adventurous percussion (including the use of machetes) play a crucial role in informing the sound and menacing feel of the music.
Zercon would be challenging even for a seasoned Walker enthusiast (supposedly inspired by a dwarf-jester tasked with entertaining the court of Atilla The Hun). Once it has finally passed, the music takes more controlled and intriguing directions. Walker has recently threatened half-jokingly that his next project might be a “groove album”. The punchy, bass heavy Epizootics! suggests that this might be a seriously good idea. For a while, with marvelous incongruence, it even swings. The creaking, eerie Dimple succeeds in creating a warped, treacherous sound world (the “unbearable clink”), whilst the surprisingly concise Pilgrim, set to an ominous, brilliantly executed drum roll, feels relatively unencumbered by baggage and excess – a taut and tight experiment in sound.
Walker closes the album as he did The Drift, with a stripped back solo performance. The Day The Conducator Died is subtitled a ‘Xmas Song’, but there is little in the way of seasonal cheer to be found here. The Conducator was the name Nicolai Ceaucescu bestowed upon himself, and the song is stark and twitchy. All this merely emphasises how close in shape and form Bish Bosch is to The Drift, with long pieces clustered towards the start and ending in relative directness. Whereas Walker seemed to grasp something on that album, here he seems restless and inconsistent, but his continuing artistic quest remains peerless and fascinating.