Loading Posts...

There's Honey in the Hollows: Coil's "Horse Rotorvator" 30 Years On

Horse Rotorvator

Horse Rotorvator


Coil’s “Horse Rotorvator” 30 Years On

by Madeleine Ledespencer


Thirty years ago, Coil released their groundbreaking second full-length effort, Horse Rotorvator. Following up on the ferociously surreal LP Scatology, Horse Rotorvator finds Coil delving into a into a more nuanced fever dream of sound and influences. Here we leave behind the brutal rhythmic assault of Clint Ruin’s Scatology production to enter into more varied and subtle soundscapes.

To bring this album to life, John Balance and Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson extended into their network of artists and friends. Horse Rotorvator marks the first appearance of Marc Almond providing backing vocals to Coil as well as the introduction of Stephen Thrower as a fully accredited third member of the band. Stephen would provide his  haunting clarinet to the aural tapestry and continue as a core member of the group well into the 90s.

As a whole, Horse Rotorvator wears its preoccupations proudly. To borrow an analogy from the Western Hermetic tradition, this record finds Coil at the height of their solar phase. It is an album positively dripping with a kind of pagan Roman sensuality, debauchery, martial violence,  and death. In many ways, the Coil oeuvre can be seen as initiating with a very solar, fiery, and aggressive air. This perspective slowly evolved across fifteen years or so until developing into a more “Lunar” aspect in their later works. While not a perfect analogy, it certainly does seem to chart a maturation and evolution on the part of Coil and their work.

Coil, Horse Rotorvator Era

Coil, Horse Rotorvator Era

In many ways, Horse Rotorvator is a mirror for the impact the AIDS crisis was having on the lives of Balance and Sleazy. Despite a successful AIDS fundraising effort with the Tainted Love EP and video, the duo were left to cope with the fact that friends and associates were continuing to die. Balance would later comment, “Because of that touch with death, we decided to explore all aspects of it…I think every track on ‘Horse Rotorvator” is basically about death.” This overarching theme is quite apparent across the album, even down to the physical media itself. The first pressing of the Horse Rotorvator LP featured, engraved into the vinyl of side B, “Chants de mort” (Songs of Death).

Coil has always been an iconoclastic force within culture, standing well outside the circles of mainstream acceptance. One of the most confrontational aspects of their early work is a defiant expression of their homosexuality. The importance of this is so easily lost to the modern viewer, now thirty years removed from the political and social climate of 1980s England and the intensely conservative air of the Thatcher years. It  is also easy to misjudge the virulent homophobia and utter inaction that was the international response to the AIDS epidemic. For perspective, 1986—the year Horse Rotorvator was released—was also the first year AIDS was defined by the World Health Organization. In the midst of such an inferno of sexualized death, it must have been easy to see the world churning with the jawbones of the apocalypse.

The opening track of the album sets the stage—a would-be hellish dance-floor hit, “The Anal Staircase” is unapologetically, confrontationally, aggressively gay in its message and content. It is a swirling paean to anal sex, an ode to a violent hypermasculine sexuality. It is a lashing out at the culture of Thatcher’s 80s. At the time, the height of gay representation in popular culture was perhaps Bronski Beat—groundbreaking in their own way, but still offering a certain disco and nightlife presentation of homosexuality. Coil, on the other hand, offered a bacchanal—a gender-flipped maenad dance of feral sodomy: masculinity drenched in blood, urine, shit, and bad dreams. “The Anal Staircase” is a growl of rebellion to counter the howl of grief represented by Tainted Love.

Horse Rotorvator Insert

Horse Rotorvator Insert

Following up on this maelstrom is the track “Slur.” Here, longtime friend and collaborator Marc Almond (credited under his pseudonym Raoul Revere) appears on background vocals. Almond has a voice which is coy yet tainted—a slippery sweet croon suggestive of a deeper corruption. From the opening, hissing lyrics describing a bath from Nero’s long, hot tongue to the final lines in which Balance intones, “I ask my lovers, do you know where the desert roses bloom and grow?,” “Slur” is absolutely seething with raw sexuality. Even the rhythms of the song itself, with its horns and throbbing bass, speak of a pagan carnality. Many themes that will haunt this record appear here: Roman lands, Roman suns/sons, ancient mysteries, and honey-sweet death.

“And the winds
blow round
this sleeping town
This sleeping town
This Roman land
Of Roman sands
And Roman sons.
And it seems to me
That when I
close my eyes
All the lights in the world
Go out”

“Babylero” is one of the two tracks on Horse Rotorvator which appears to be composed mostly of location recordings. It helps to cement the experience of being in some strange city in a far-off country observing festivities you may not understand. The song consists of what seems to be a young boy singing a traditional Spanish song, “Maria Isabel” (see here and skip to 1:42).

Following “Babylero,” we find ourselves surrounded by the chirp of crickets in the night. The intro to one of the most outstanding pieces from the album, if not one of the greatest tracks from Coil’s early catalog as a whole. “Ostia (The Death of Pasolini)” tells the story of the 1975 murder of noted Italian filmmaker and antifascist agitator Pier Paolo Pasolini at the hands of a young male prostitute in the Italian coastal city of Ostia. The seventeen-year-old boy had run over Pasolini’s body with his own car after crushing his testicles with a bar and setting his body on fire.

Coil, Horse Rotorvator Era

Coil, Horse Rotorvator Era

The lyrics of “Ostia” suggest an interesting perspective on the implications of Pasolini’s murder. The song seems to suggest an almost esoteric metaphysical inevitability in his doom. It is almost as if the filmmaker might be considered a sacrifice, as suggested by lines such as “Killed to keep the world turning” and:

“Leon like a lion
Sleeping in the Sunshine.
Lion lies down
Out of the strong came forth sweetness”

The imagery of honey, sweetness, and death is common in Coil’s early work. It manifests visually in the “Tainted Love” video as Balance traps and suffocates flies in honey. Sweetness which carries death is not a challenging symbol to untangle in light of how sexual pleasure could quite easily equal death for gays and bisexuals in the era.  Here, the line of “out of the strong came forth sweetness” is a reference to the biblical scripture Judges 14:14, which is known as “Samson’s Riddle.” In the story, Samson kills a lion and, after some time, returns to the decaying corpse to find it has been colonized by bees who have built a thriving hive. The dead lion is literally seeping with honey—a grotesque and powerful image.

Lyle's Holden Syrup

Lyle’s Golden Syrup

This image of the lion corpse with the evocative slogan “Out of the strong, came forth sweetness” would be quite well-known to any young English boy. It is the image on the tin of Lyle’s Golden Syrup. The image is even carved in marble on the exterior of the factory in Tate & Lyle’s Plaistow Wharf location. It may also merit mentioning that honey syrup has been cited as a lubricant for fisting and anal play, especially in the days before silicone-based lubricants were common and knowledge of spermicide as an HIV antagonist was known. As a result, honey carries yet another implication true to form with Coil’s tendency to play on multiple levels.

“Penetralia” makes impressive use of panning sound as well as recording from the unusual source of the band members’ communication via two-way radios. A slapping bass-line accompanies the dizzying cacophony of sound and voices before a particularly rewarding drop. “Ravenous” initiates a collection of Stephen Stapelton-esque samples that creak and thump into a harpsichord melody. It is pleasantly dreamlike after the brutality and intensity of the preceding and bookends the first half of the album nicely.

Side B opens with “Circles of Mania,” featuring Clint Ruin returning to arrange a swooning, nauseous horn section. A dizzying piece of syncopated drunken music, “Circles of Mania” is darkly erotic, with references to Clive Barker’s short story “Age of Desire” (found in book four of the Books of Blood, published in the United States as The Inhuman Condition) in the imagery of a hysterical man fucking any orifice he can find, including holes in the nearby architecture.

Clive Barker's eroto-maniacal horror was a perfect match for the aesthetics of Coil. They would collaborate briefly on Hellraiser as well as foster a friendship.

Clive Barker’s eroto-maniacal horror was a perfect match for the aesthetics of Coil. They would collaborate briefly on Hellraiser as well as foster a friendship.

With regards to this Barker reference, it stands to mention that Coil was spending time with Clive Barker around the era of Horse Rotorvator. Barker was in preproduction on his first film, Hellraiser, and spent many days at the Coil house reviewing BDSM pornography as research for the cenobite designs.

“Blood from the Air” emerges as one of the most haunting pieces on the album. A simple pulsing synth bass-line punctuated by the occasional sample forms the foundation to Balance’s monotone spoken word. The lyrics detail the journey of a sleeper into a nightmare dreamscape. The song was inspired and named from a poem by poet and friend to John Balance, Phillip Lamantia.

Balance often expressed dreams as being a central force in his inspirations. In the documentary The Sound of Progress, shot around the Horse Rotorvator era, he and Stephen Thrower discuss the merits of maintaining a dream record. Nothing could more express Coil’s preoccupation with the irrational and often ominous world of the unconscious than lines like:

“A mind like a cemetery
where the corpses
are turning
Where the bodies twist deep
in the frozen grip
of a dreamless sleep.”

The iconic dead lion and quote have been featured on the Lyle's Golden Syrup tin for decade.

The iconic dead lion and quote have been featured on the Lyle’s Golden Syrup tin for decade.

“Who by Fire” is a cover of the Leonard Cohen song of the same name. This track also marks a backing-vocal return from Raoul Revere / Marc Almond. Balance slurs the lyrics with a languid yet confrontational cadence in his voice. The song appears, at first listen, as a catalog of the many ways one might meet their end. According to Leonard Cohen, it derives from a Hebrew prayer for the dead:

“According to the tradition, the Book of Life is opened and in it is inscribed all those who will live and all those who will die for the following year. And in that prayer is catalogued all the various ways in which you can quit this veil of tears…the conclusion of the song, as I write it, is somewhat different: “Who shall I say is calling?” Well, that is what makes the song into a prayer for me in my terms, which is who is it or what is it that determines who will live and who will die? What is the source of this great furnace of creation? Who lights it? Who extinguishes it?” —Leonard Cohen

“The Golden Section” is an interesting construction of horns, military drums, and marching feet. These sounds serve as an almost cinematic aural backdrop to the spoken word which forms the core of the track: a reading from The Book Angels by Peter Wilson. The song describes the many facets of the Angel of Death, Azrael, and how the Persian poet Rumi was met, greeted, and invited by death into the beyond. This time, the vocals are not delivered by Balance; rather, Coil enlisted the service of BBC personality Paul Vaughn to deliver these lines. Peter explains:

“For English listeners, Vaughan’s voice will have connotations of scientific authority and truth, which we felt appropriate. The Persian poet was confident that he would be greeted by death and politely invited to move on to the next state. We feel that’s a scientific truth.”

It is interesting that in this track, Coil makes direct reference to the axis of Thanatos and Eros, sex and death, the twin influences on the record. Coil would utilize a chaos star as an icon for their work, which was also entering into the zeitgeist as an emblem of the Chaos Magick organization Illuminates of Thanateros, themselves preoccupied with the connective power and ambiguity of sex and death. It bears noting that prominent chaos magician and founder of the movement as it came to be known, Ray Sherwin, is thanked in the liner notes to Horse Rotorvator.

Peter Lamborn Wilson's Angels

Peter Lamborn Wilson’s Angels

The song title derives from a name for the Golden Ratio, a number also known as Phi which is said to underpin all beauty and order in the universe. Euclid studied the number as it manifested in the regular pentagon or Pentagram. The 16th century philosopher and occultist Cornelius Agrippa incorporated the image of a human with the golden section (as a pentagram) to illustrate the connections between this number and the genius of creation.

Agrippa's Pentagram

Agrippa’s Pentagram

Horse Rotorvator closes with the instrumental “The First Five Minutes After Death.” This is a swirling crepuscular soundscape filled with the croaking of frogs and a whirling keyboard passage. Stephen Thrower adds to the aural texture with his gorgeous clarinet performance. The song seems to build in stages and steps leading deeper into a kind of primordial swamp. When I hear this miasma of creaking and croaking drawing the listener deeper into the song, I cannot help but imagine the Voltigeurs—toad totems of occultist and Voudon priest Michael Bertiaux. Bertiaux was popularized in the 1970s and 1980s by the works of British occultist Kenneth Grant. Bertiaux characterized these toad creatures as a means of traversing the dark otherworlds of the averse tree of life. Coil were absolutely influenced by Grant and referenced him directly in music (“Titan Arch”), and his works are clearly seen on their bookshelves in an interview segment of “Hello Culture.”

Coil: Presentation and Intertextuality

A large portion of Coil’s work  has always functioned via intertextuality. By working in layers of meaning, references, and allusions that spiral out from the music itself, Coil creates a greater whole of meaning. This seems to be a result of the perfect union of Sleazy’s background in both conceptual and commercial art via his work with Hipgnosis, Coum Transmissions, and Throbbing Gristle, and Balance’s devotion to surrealist literature and art. As we have seen already, Horse Rotorvator positively swarms with nested levels of reference shaping the work as a whole. This does not stop at the content of the record itself but extends into the very packaging and cover art.

The original LP sleeve of Horse Rotorvator featured an image of the Regent’s Park Bandstand at sunset. At the bottom of the image read the words:

“On the Eve of the Apocalypse – the Four Horsemen betray their steeds – slitting open the animal throats – and in doing so release the Second Great Deluge – Horsegore – (The air choked with horsehair) – Infinite Divisibles Split – An infinity of open sewers.

“The Four then fashion an immense earth-moving device from the collective jawbones – The Horse Rotorvator – with which to plough up the waiting world – (ROTA turns through 180 degrees to TARO) – Wheels replace Horses – Dark Horses Run – Dark Horses Run Deep (We plough the fields and scatter Our Dead Steeds on the land) … and Hell is paved with horseflesh”

At first glance, it appears as nothing more than a bandstand or pagoda shot with a wide-angle lens. However, the meaning is hugely altered with the addition of a little more context.

On July 20, 1982, a two-pronged IRA bombing took place during military festivities at Hyde and Regents park. A bomb had been placed under the bandstand and detonated during the show. Seven band members were killed by the blast. In Hyde Park, a nail bomb detonated while mounted soldiers of the Household Cavalry were passing.  That day, four men and seven horses lost their lives. Images of the mutilated horse bodies were everywhere in the news—a gruesome and impressive image of blood, violence, and horror. It’s a tableaux highly evocative of the lines:

On the Eve of the Apocalypse – the Four Horsemen betray their steeds – slitting open the animal throats – and in doing so release the Second Great Deluge – Horsegore“

The Second Great Deluge: Horsegore

The Second Great Deluge: Horsegore

Looking back on Coil’s vast and varied body of work, Horse Rotorvator stands high as a milestone of their formative phase. The record represents Coil truly coming into their own and drawing together their varied influences and obsessions into a highly focused and brilliantly realized whole. As we look back from a world which seems so much more dim for the absence of both John Balance and Sleazy, it seems so fitting to remember John telling us:

“We all must be shown, we must realise, that everyone changes, and everything dies.”