Autobiographical Order No. 468: Coil – Horse Rotorvator

The sound of apocalypse. Even before industrial music became the angry, aggressive sound of underground clubs in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Coil created the template for the industrial rock album (even if industrial “rock” isn’t quite the way to describe this). Everything about it feels sinister and fraught with danger. The front cover is a fairly safe-looking image of a gazebo in a park—which had, the previous year, been subject to a bombing from the IRA. The first track is called “The Anal Staircase.” And the text at the bottom of the front cover describes how the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse will use the jawbones of their steeds to till the earth. Hence, Horse Rotorvator.

Yeah, it’s dark. Terrifying, actually. It’s also a masterpiece.

I had known about this album long before I had actually heard it. It was something of a legendary album in noise/goth/industrial circles, and Coil were one of the biggest influences on Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor (who collaborated with the group’s Peter Christopherson and who had intended to release their Backwards album on his Nothing label—which never happened due to disagreements with parent label Interscope). You can hear how an ambitious piece of music like The Downward Spiral has roots in Horse Rotorvator, from the harsh grind of tracks like “Penetralia” to the more uncomfortably hushed moments like “Ossia (Death of Pasolini)”.

I finally got around to giving it a listen, oh, 10 years ago, back when Treble, still in its early-ish years, had a feature called For the Record (my brother wanted to call it “Mind the Gap,” which is totally better, but anyway…) in which we would listen to five older albums each month that we had never heard before, book-club style, and discuss them. It was around Halloween that we finally got to this one, and I was instantly converted. The fact that it’s so weird, and unpredictable and at times nightmarish is what sold me. “Blood from the Air” is one of the most chilling things I’ve ever heard—it makes all the more sense that Coil submitted a soundtrack to Clive Barker’s Hellraiser not long thereafter (the story is that it was rejected for being too dark/scary—that’s probably not the truth, given the band’s history of disagreeing with decisions regarding artistic license, but it makes for a good tale).

Then again there are some genuinely accessible moments. “Slur,” which features guest vocals from Soft Cell‘s Marc Almond under the name Raoul Revere, has a peculiar loop sample that creates a kind of odd but upbeat melody, and the opener “The Anal Staircase” is kind of the archetype that Nine Inch Nails and Ministry and a lot of bands would follow. Plus there’s a pretty ominous cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Who By Fire,” which helped make me realize that there are a lot of great covers of Cohen songs that aren’t “Hallelujah.”

While I loved the album when I first heard it, it became this thing that I’d listen to more closely over the years and grow more fascinated by it, soaking in the various details—like how maybe the darkest song is the prettiest, “Ossia (Death of Pasolini)” which is almost something of a murder ballad of how the provocative Italian film director was killed. Sex and death are both a major part of the album, which become intertwined when you consider that the apocalyptic themes are informed in large part by the AIDS crisis—of which the band’s own cover of “Tainted Love” was specifically a commentary on. (Marc Almond was in the video for that too, for that matter.)

As it became one of my all-time favorites, naturally I had to find a copy on vinyl. Easier said than done! I may have seen it locally at a record shop for, oh, $50? I didn’t pay that much, but I typically don’t buy that many used records for more than $20, or even $15 for that matter. So this was a little more of a splurge. But worth it. It’s actually gone up in value a little, and considering there are bootlegs of it floating around—which surprises me a little, since it’s not a super famous album or anything, like Frank Ocean or Kanye records that were bootlegged in the last few years—which makes having the real thing worth it.

A friend even tried to make me an offer for it. Sorry, this one stays.

Rating: 9.5

Sound Quality: Great

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