Insomniac Focus A survey of third-act Drew McDowall (Coil)

Photo: Gordon Haswell

Drew McDowall’s work extends well before Coil’s 1998 album Time Machines, but his major releases from that work to now is more than enough to explore. Coil fans, I know you’re set. It’s partly you who I had in mind when I welched on my assignment for his latest solo album, The Third Helix. You likely have alerts on this guy, and no amount of critical descriptors (“harrowing,” “cavernous,” “dreamscape,” “hallucinatory,” “bleak,” “trance-inducing,” etc.) are going to make any difference to you. And, as for neophytes, McDowall is not only an easy sell, but one who you likely have to get to ass backwards. And in these diffuse, cherry pick-enabling internet times, that’s something. We tend to keep our paths of discovery close to the vest against the snotty record store clerk in our heads. I say “we,” because I’m a newbie myself at 38. I did meet a classmate in my junior year of college who tried to help me with my post-NIN fan, small town ignorance, but it was to little effect. I don’t wanna admit I got into Blackest Ever Black and PAN artists before McDowall, but it’s true. There is no tomorrow, so allow me to show my ass in this regard. It took time — and a closer friend with a staggering record collection — to show me the way.

I won’t blame blowing my assignment on anything but me, but I will offer the assertion that Drew McDowall’s music is alive in ways that language is not. Although McDowall, John Balance, and Peter Christopherson collaborated on Time Machines, you could hardly call it a conversation. It feels more like an unstable, massive hum, with the creative instinct of human interference put in restraints. It’s the sound of artists getting out of their own way, carving out a path for something that doesn’t sing so much as surge like blood or water or electricity (it resists analogy, so I’m inclined to reach for more elementary terms). If the intention was to induce the loss of a sense of time, it dissolved critical faculties in the process as well. It is sound happening to you. Whatever a train does to you when you hear it, before you even begin to get to the typical leitmotifs. Whatever a tuning orchestra makes you feel, before you remind yourself not to feel anything about it. There is suspense, sure, but there’s also the flat pulse of pure sensation. Time Machines hunkers down and dispels reaction in favor of presence. Of true immersion. Of rote and unquestioning self-sacrifice to a sensorily consuming source. The tracks being named after psychotropic drugs and the perhaps unavoidable (there’s always “repeat all”) reality of their finiteness are the only things stopping this machine. It has you without a hello.

It’s curious that this towering, uncompromisingly minimal work is collaborative, while his eventual solo material doesn’t shy from a comparatively genre-friendly, kitchen-sink aesthetic. But more on that in a bit. First, a decade-plus later, some more from the creative alliance dept. Having familiarized myself with Psychic Ills, McDowall’s collaboration with Tres Warren as Compound Eye was on my 2013 radar. Their music intrigued in ways that the sturdy psych rawk of Psychic Ills never did. I liked it enough to save it, but never got too deep. So McDowall’s presence didn’t properly register until researching him this year, even after the aforementioned friend gave me his free download code for 2017’s Unnatural Channel. Having familiarized myself with McDowall, it’s easy to see that the man never quite got triggering-then-getting-out-the-way-of-strong-currents out of his system in the intervening years. It contains that blissful, sci-fi pastoral modular babbling that is really nothing to turn off, but the album is balanced with the (watch me writhe, beset by stultifying magnetic poetry adjectives) vast, impassive coursings of McDowall’s high water mark material. The album title, Journey From Anywhere, reinforces the notion of not ruining vital elements of sonic procession with basic human shit. Both are men, with presumable communication skills, but never does conversation seem like an apt analogy. Their collaboration is a numb sort of cooperative sentience, toiling as a vessel for steady, sluicing flow. Destiny being God and human’s favorite crap joke alike, the void really deserves more credit. Compound Eye’s shimmering, delicate, 69-minute reverie comes across like a humble attempt to give the nothing its due. It simmers in rote bodily function reality, even as it attempts to merge with the least dense, most windless air it can manage to breathe.

Another collaborative work, The Ghost of Georges Bataille (released on Bank earlier this year), is less of a curious animal, but enticing nonetheless. Hiro Kone (a.k.a. Nicky Mao) specializes in elegant digital snowdrift downtempo. She, like McDowall, is a friend to contemplative melancholy as a default mode. But similarly to McDowall, she’s careful to augment her traditional rainstreaked Aphex brooding with character-rich textures that teeter on the brink of encroachment. Here, McDowall pushes this bordering that much closer. Each haunted progression is enshrouded with warm yet disorienting clamor. Similarly to the post-Boards re-tooling of Dalhous, Bataille takes away the head-nod in favor of a swirled sort of distance. This blithe obfuscation renders that tradition of pastoral, half-remembered dream progressions that much more affecting.

McDowall excels as a bit player as well. In 2015, he featured on Ben Greenberg’s (Sacred Bones engineer, Men) debut with Michael Berdan (York Factory Complaint) as Uniform. As much as the album is a scorcher par excellence and far superior (and I’m edging on apples/oranges territory here), what “Death Star” is to The Future of War, “Lost Causes” is to Perfect World. McDowall’s hermetic throb steals the show on an album of showstoppers. Then, ably displaying his adaptability to ambient techno, McDowall lent his modular chops to another album highlight on Hiro Kone’s 2017 album, Love is the Capital. “Rukhsana” is a shorter track, but it still bears the unmistakable fingerprints of McDowalls absorptive approach. With these drop ins, McDowall redeems the notion of the guest spot from mere name-dropping and seamlessly applies his methodology rather than his personal stamp.

Now, back to 2015 and Drew McDowall’s first official solo release under his own name, Collapse. As I mentioned, McDowall wound up being decidedly less reductive once left to his own devices. Similarly to Prurient’s later output, there is a concerted effort to tacitly merge monophonic direness with monolithic earthen beast-sloughing reverbations, whelmed to the edge of over. Dark monophony has retained a lasting power, even if the grubby fingers of branding-obsessed metal aestheticians have rendered its keenings almost cute. These are the ones who cry “false metal,” which in and of itself is false. It’s no different than complaining about how football has changed or how a comic book adaptation oughta be. True artisans of inner and outer darkness are not beholden to purist genre fetishism. They survive, thrive, and die by their virtue in this exploration. By their unwaveringly limitless drive, we are able to imbibe the vast shimmering terror innate to existence. While Collapse may not be the most chilling thing out there, its black satin bug eyes affix you to where you are and evaporate your culture-soaked lunges for contextual asidery.

Things only seemed to get better with 2017’s Unnatural Channel, though it’s of a piece enough that “seem” might be the operative word. There are two tracks featuring words/vocals from Roxy Farman (of superb NYC duo Wetware, also a guest on the Hiro Kone album), but the key adjustment is a Vanity Records-like focus on the embracing of silent rests. Of course, the fidelity is higher, but the unrelenting hesitation of that legendary label’s best material (namely, Tolerance’s 1981 LP, Divin) is a curious early precedent. Even with the presence of a singer, Farman’s recitation of “this is what it’s like, sleep deprived” is just as innately infused as the “I convulsed” sample on the last record. And her whooping and schizo mutterances on closer “Recognition” are essential but unshowy bits of punctuation. All spaciousness aside, the tetanus textured throb of “Unnatural Channel (Part 2)” is a sort of head-nodder, but even this winds up being more of a cautious slink through a confusing party (boring? bad scene? twisted? brilliant?) than a departure.

Although the bowstring bouncing on The Third Helix opener echoes Unnatural Channel’s “Tell Me The Name,” “Rhizome” initially feels like a proper departure. Not unlike the airy skittering of Actress’s R.I.P, this tune initially seemed like a wrong turn. It’s lovely, especially when the “Sinking of the Titanic” strings come in, but it feels almost lateral rather than expansive. The touchstones come too easy. It’s a fascinating track, the way it swells and glitches out abruptly, but it’s also strangely on-the-nose for this artist. Things get better and back to the same (“Proximity” sounds cut from the same cloth) from there, but one couldn’t be blamed for mistaking Third Helix for a Helm, Fis, or post-Virgins Tim Hecker album. Of course, he is a sort of godfather to said touchstones, but similarly to the atemporal realm of Time Machines, this sort of sine wave slippage reads more familiar than it actually is. And, for what it’s worth, why shouldn’t masters be genuinely influenced by their descendants (beyond tokenistic exaggerations)? Chances are, they are beholden to a lot of the same technology anyway. Taken another way, McDowall’s newest is a sort of long-distance collaboration with those who’ve been inspired by him and his rarefied peer group. Conscious or not, its blending with the aesthetics of younger, like-minded artists could be seen as a rejection of the notion of hierarchy in musical succession, one way or the other. The Third Helix is an endearingly solid listen, and it deserves a place among the heralded releases of 2018. Similarly to the previous two (all on Dais), the album’s tracks don’t stray too far past the five-minute mark. Despite this, they stretch out in the ears like ancient aural cobwebs, making one feel as lived-in as the planet itself.

I’ve tried not to use the word “innovation” here. Too often, the notion of innovation is whittled down to novelty, and reinventing the wheel is not what makes McDowall’s third-act material so worthwhile. More so, it’s the sense of earnest drive. The deep affinity for life’s rich tangent. That it’s darkly fixated is no more material than that the blues are despondent. Actually, the best of that long deracinated-to-pilloried genre has much of the same turning-oneself-inside-out quality. Even if Drew McDowall never tops himself or others in this quietly industrious field of wide-eyed abstraction, he is set to remain a stirring essential to every cerebral wandering ear, regardless of prerequisites or lack thereof.

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