Vatican Shadow’s early cassettes represent a digression in Dominick Fernow’s predominantly noise-driven trajectory. With a distinct move away from the harsher elements of his highly regarded Prurient moniker and the PE-tinted synth-pop cacophony of Cold Cave, those earlier offerings symbolize a passing in time, where the Wisconsin-born artist allowed his months on the road to become engulfed by the repetition of tires on tarmac intertwined with a soundtrack of Muslimgauze, Demdike Stare, and other proprietors of “dark techno.” From this rather sobering portrait of life on tour, Fernow began exploring the beat loops and grazed aesthetic distortions that would lead to his most exceptional output yet. For the uninitiated, it’s an intensely potent playback experience, like submerging your palate in a vibrating pale of crude oil.
As those cassettes went digital throughout 2012, the Vatican Shadow moniker became increasingly well renowned. Even though Fernow expanded a captivating sonic model with his music at the center, it was given an idiosyncratic spin via the deadpan imagery and curiously composed titles that embellished it. With cover art ranging from images of anonymous militants and mass murderers to track names taking their cue from the absurd poetry of satellite news headlines, the project was easily identifiable as a step away from what the artist had worked on before: “Al Qaeda Possess Nuclear Capacity,” “He Held The Victims Responsible,” and “India Has Just Tested A Nuclear Device” all reek of a CNN news ticker shuttling at the bottom of our TV screens. But despite the implied riskiness of these subjects, Fernow has spoken about a lack of political agenda — depiction, in this case, does not equal endorsement. Remember Your Black Day is birthed in this context, billed as Vatican Shadow’s first “official” full-length release.
The album is an unraveling of fragments Fernow has explored on previous material. It exposes deep, industrial beats that arm each rendition with a guttural thrust; the use of repetition distinctly reveals that influence of confined movement together with muffled, robotic vocal samples that replace the Eastern-flecked singing cast about Ornamented Walls with a more expected stylistic range. This is a cold, stern glimpse into an angle that Fernow has been exploring since 2011, and he emphasizes that by continuing a familiar compositional course: these are not “songs” by any stretch of the imagination; they are sections that run a permitted lifespan before fading out as abruptly as they begin. But the difference between the blunt decay of these tracks and the slapdash way that he has bracketed his music in the past comes out in the textural detail, which brings new challenges to the fore. Kneel Before Religious Icons and Ghosts of Chechnya were stark and minimal enough that the brute force of their content created an isolating and precise listening experience. It felt like you were locked inside some crazed techno cell that was caustic and domineering but also affirmed and addictive; by straying from his rigid path and including both vocal and melodic layers, Fernow creates a grey rainbow of opportunities that take his sound in a different direction.
Album opener “Circumstances Quickly Became Questioned” rears for half a minute before disappearing into its own preliminary notes. It’s no demarcating sign, like the gut-wrenching scream on Pharmakon’s Abandon or the muddling of acoustic rumble on Notional Species; instead, it operates as a precursor for the atmospheric spaces that permeate within the record’s course. This is enhanced by “Tonight Saddam Walks Amidst Ruins” with its sullen, downtempo synths and echoic percussion, which has composure and pace in the manipulation of a bleak flavor, fading away just two seconds before its sudden end. It’s an abrupt means of encasing these tracks, making their route easier to trace — this is mood music, after all, an illustration of the feeling Fernow exposes when he talks about juxtaposing constricted motion with governmental distrust. It’s desolate, but intriguing to witness unwind.
Although the vibe remains austere throughout, the impact of driving forces within the music tends to vary. The first sequence consists of three squalid, nocturnal pieces that build into album highlight “Contractor Corpses Hung Over the Euphrates River.” It’s an unquestionable standout in the way that it mirrors previous efforts (I’m thinking here of the trance-inducing “Church Of All Images” or “Voices Came Cracking Across The Motorolla Hand-Held Radio”), where percussion is the central coercive energy that rallies dark/ambient synth loops over a sparse melody. The base nature of the track acts as a reminder of how addictive some of that earlier Vatican Shadow material was, but on this occasion, the atmosphere kind of sags in the midst of all that surrounds it.
“Enter Paradise” is perhaps the main offender here. It’s hinged on a rusty eight-chord guitar loop that gives the song some early-90s metal feel, as it brushes up against a gritted, reverberating vocal sample. It complements the closing piece, “Jet Fumes Above The Reflecting Pool,” but does little to maintain the repugnant aura that gave Vatican Shadow its appeal to begin with. The result is more akin to the Purient/JK Flesh release from earlier this year, where guitars were more prominent and synth-based atmospherics took the proverbial backseat. As a collaboration, it worked nicely, particularly in the context of a Prurient release, but amongst a series of tracks that venture such a specific mood, it seems out of character. Remember Your Black Day has some great moments — the eight-minute title track, with its hyper-pulse percussion and somber synth strains, is a solid incarnation of what made Vatican Shadow so compelling in the first place — but it’s surrounded by a mixed bag of tunes that either attempts some agoraphobic tightrope walk before falling flat or wrestles with contrasting ideas that weaken the project’s potency as opposed to crystallizing it.