September Cell, Vatican Shadow’s recent 12” techdustrial juggernaut sounds like nothing if not electronic intrigue; the unfinished soundtrack of The Da Vinci Code meets Arab Spring, The Movie, NOT starring Tom Hanks and directed by Oliver Stone. Of course, these are associations based on the often-misguiding compasses of band name, album cover and song title, but with Dominick Fernow, the shoe fits snug, Inschallah. Having temporarily jettisoned the dentist-drill noise aesthetic of Prurient for the cathartic repetition of machine rhythms and ambient pads, Fernow has done his damndest over the past two years to reinforce the connection between his music, the War on Terror and various developments in the Middle East, both current and historical. Previous VS 7” and 12” covers have included portraits of US Army psychiatrist turned Jihadist Malik Nadal Hasan, murals of Saddam Hussein, and action shots of the Pakistani Armed Forces—always framed by four black Maltese crosses and featuring song titles like ‘Worshippers at the Same Mosque’, ‘Cairo Sword Unsheathed”, and ‘Shooter in the Same Uniform as the Soldiers’. You get the picture. Or rather: you get a picture.
The number of musicians exploring War on Terror-related themes has gone up and down over the past decade, peaking a few years after the second Gulf War, and, for the most part, adopting either the classic protest song template a la Bright Eyes’ ‘When The President Talks To God’ or the “support-our-troops” rhetoric of R. Kelly’s ‘A Soldier’s Heart’. But more recently, a different kind of art-on-War-on-Terror has sprouted up in songs, on record covers and in band names—one that eschews the polemical for a more observational reflection on the post-911 zeitgeist. Examples range from Anarchist Republic of Bzzz’s absurdo Technicolor Osama LP cover and frenetic free-jazz Dadaists Talibam!, to Steve Reich’s transposed cut-ups of eyewitness terror accounts on WTC 9/11. Despite having Terror as its almost singular focus, Vatican Shadow comfortably fits into this latter category of Terror processing, because without lyrics or a clear message, the music remains ambivalent and non-discursive, dwelling in the politically ‘creative’ realm of conspiracy theory. Images of Joe Biden on CNN (2011’s Operation Neptune Spear) or Hillary Clinton smiling to herself in front of a Pakistani flag (2012’s Washington Buries Al Qaeda Leader At Sea – Deck 3) ostensibly ask “Who’s behind this really?” as much as they scream “LIAR!”
September Cell is Fernow’s maiden release on his new Bed of Nails imprint and curiously doesn’t boast the eye-catching covers of releases past, even though it does bare the simple musical formula at the core of the VS conspiracy series: brilliantly constructed measure-long industrial rhythms, warmly overdriven and hypnotically looped, ceaselessly motoring forward under an ominous synth-sky of unstoppable black clouds. The sound is almost always dark and foreboding, with slightly shifting beats occasionally gaining or losing a layer of syncopated crunch. Nothing on the EP marches four-to-the-floor, chugging along instead as a complex machine with all components working symbiotically to create a driving, no-frills atmospheric techno, elegantly halled-out and padded with tape-like saturation. Indeed, the lack of straight, monolithic kick drums has been central to Fernow’s rhythmic vision from the first VS releases, and it’s an important part of what makes his oeuvre so inviting to repeated listening.
On September Cell in particular, Fernow seems to have musically at least as much in common with darker shades of Detroit techno hypnotists Drexciya or Underground Resistance as he does conceptually (sort of) with often-drawn comparison Muslimgauze—or atmospherically with Dive and ambient techno pioneer Wolfgang Voigt’s GAS and Mohn projects. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s also a common denominator here, which is the endless quality of the minor-key meditations. Fernow consistently homes in on a single, golden synth/drum loop that implies the infinite without actually having to simulate it. Nothing on the EP exceeds eight minutes and most of the tracks clock in under five, ending with abrupt fadeouts. And while the music isn’t functional per se, like a dance record it’s clear the songs need no synthetic resolution. They’re literally end-less, even if they operate within the ultra specific historical/conceptual context. Cinematic, drone-eye panoramas of desert and urban Arab protest, American geopolitical arrogance, misinformation and conspiracy, the sounds of Blackhawk propellers and missiles fired—in a way, all of these images ring more true on September Cell than the barrage of Terror narratives we’re inundated with everyday. Maybe because they’re the elusive truth of profound musical vision, not reporting.
***Wishful collaboration: Prodigy of Mobb Deep kicking calm, lengthy Illuminati verses over the top.