“That’s my aim: to make you feel something. Even if those feelings are negative or uncomfortable.”
Dominick Fernow has been making us feel something, making music – or more accurately noise – since 1998. Born in Wisconsin, he spent most of his twenties in New York, and recently relocated to Los Angeles. Across literally hundreds of CD, CD-R, vinyl and cassette releases – many of them on his own Hospital Productions label, many of them made available in tiny editions of less than 50 – he has built up a rabid cult following around the globe. But even as recently as three years ago, he wasn’t someone you’d consider to be of interest to anyone outside of the noise community. So what happened?
Well, Vatican Shadow happened. It’s an unlikely story: What started out as one of the most obscure outposts of Fernow’s cultural activity has become his most well-known and acclaimed project, exceeding the reach and penetration of even his long-standing, ever-evolving Prurient guise. Vatican Shadow, and the recent Prurient albums Bermuda Drain and Through the Window, address what Fernow identified as “a lack of content, or story” in most techno music. His beats are not an incitement to dance but rather a carrier wave for more interesting, troubling ideas and provocations. “I think raising questions and not providing answers is ultimately the goal,” he says.
But Prurient and Vatican Shadow are just two of numerous solo and collaborative projects Fernow has been involved in across the course of his career. Running his own label, and favouring the cheap-to-produce medium of cassette, has given Fernow the opportunity to be extraordinarily prolific; to document and disseminate his ideas almost as soon as they come to him. As if that weren’t enough, he’s also released records through Editions Mego, Hydra Head, Blackest Ever Black, Type, Hanson, Harbinger Sound and many other imprints.
The result is a body of work that is huge, and exciting, but also daunting to the uninitiated. So, in order to help make sense of this sprawling catalogue, most of which is now available digitally, we’ve put together a guide to Fernow’s eight most important and distinctive projects, with three key recordings highlighted for each. In the time it takes you to read it, he will probably have released another four or five albums, so be quick.
Prurient is Dominick Fernow’s longest-running project, his most personal, and his most adaptable. Originally an outlet for his harsh noise exorcisms and trebly, ear-needling “power electronics” (a term first coined by William Bennett in 1982 to describe Whitehouse’s highly influential brand of sonic terrorism) Prurient has gradually become a more amorphous and open-ended entity.
My involvement and interest in noise is actually entirely anti-musical. It’s all concept.
The malevolently undulating synthesizer loops of 2006’s Pleasure Ground hinted that there might be more to the project than mind-flaying distortion, but nothing could have prepared fans for 2011’s script-flipping Bermuda Drain LP. Inspired by his time as keyboardist with Cold Cave, and by the hours of European techno that he privately consumed while on tour with them, Bermuda Drain found Fernow expanding his sonic arsenal to incorporate elements of techno, synth pop, minimal wave and expansive industrial music, and presenting the whole with a newfound confidence and clarity; his voice, no longer buried under layers of grot and feedback, took centre-stage, sounding more menacing and tortured than ever before.
Recent work has explored the space opened up by that landmark album: this year’s Through the Window is swishing, thumping techno noir, custom-made for the LA nightscape that Fernow now calls home (think Prurient does Drive), and Worship Is the Cleansing of the Imagination, a split release with JK Flesh, is all desolate ambient and funereal drum tattoos, more poignant than punishing. Whatever future musical metamorphoses Prurient undergoes, you can be assured that the cathartic, confessional nature of the project will remain constant.
The History of Aids (Armageddon / Hospital Productions, 2002)
Cocaine Death (Hospital Productions, 2008)
Bermuda Drain (Hydra Head, 2011)
“Militant religious industrial” is how Fernow described Vatican Shadow when he issued its first tape, Byzantine Private CIA, in 2011, and those three words continue to capture its essence. At its core, Vatican is a tribute to the work of the late Bryn Jones, AKA Muslimgauze, who in the ’80s and ’90s ploughed a similar furrow of murky, dubbed-out electronics and political provocation (in his case acutely pro-Palestine, pro-Islam, anti-West). Fernow’s political stance is more ambiguous, reflecting the tenor of the times. There are no heroes or villains in Vatican Shadow’s post-Gulf War worldview, only players, cyphers: the tapes’ cover art depicts the likes of Hillary Clinton, Saddam Hussein, Nidal Malik Hasan (the “Fort Hood shooter”) and an anonymous Chechen rebel with the same blank indifference, creating a disconcertingly equivocal iconography of the War on Terror era.
By the start of 2012 Vatican Shadow was already much talked-about and name-dropped, and the project gained further traction over the course of the year with releases/reissues from the likes of Type, Blackest Ever Black and Modern Love; meanwhile a remix by Sandwell District’s Regis of “Church of All Images” consummated Fernow’s love affair with European techno. (Sandwell’s US operative Silent Servant has since released an LP on Hospital Productions.)
Fernow closed 2012 with the epic 3xLP set It Stands To Conceal, but the debut Vatican Shadow album proper is still to come, due to be released before he packs his Desert Storm fatigues for a headline European tour this summer.
Kneel Before Religious Icons (Hospital Productions, 2011)
Pakistan Military Academy (Hospital Productions, 2011)
It Stands to Conceal (Hospital Productions, 2012)
Cold Cave always has been, and always will be, the baby of one man: Wes Eisold. But his close friend Dominick Fernow – with whom he shares an adolescent’s weakness for gothic romanticism and self-loathing – played a significant role in breaking the band, and in shaping its sound; he in turn was influenced by the brief period he spent as one of its members.
Fernow introduced Cold Cave to the world by releasing their Painted Nails 7-inch on Hospital Productions in 2008, and then joined the band as a touring member in the wake of their breakthrough album release Love Comes Close, playing synth/keyboard and adding an explosive noise dimension to their live shows. It was while on the road with Cold Cave that Fernow became obsessed with Sandwell District, Traversable Wormhole and other practitioners of bleak modern techno, and began to consider how he might incorporate this sound into his own musical practice. Eisold also played in the live incarnation of Prurient during this time, and the two collaborated on Stars Explode, a gloomy minimal-synth workout reminiscent, in parts, of Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works II. With impeccable timing, Fernow left Cold Cave shortly after the release of their rather bloated, over-produced Matador LP, Cherish the Light Years.
Cold Cave / Prurient - Stars Explode (Hospital Productions, 2009)
“Life Magazine” (Prurient Remix) (Matador, 2010)
Cherish the Light Years (Matador, 2011)
Prurience isn’t restricted to, er, Prurient in the Fernow oeuvre; witness the nasty nocturnal emissions of Exploring Jezebel. Fernow is generally sincere to a fault, but Exploring Jezebel is one project where his sly sense of humour comes to the fore: signal titles include Attending UCLA Lecture on Forced Feminization in Prison and My Heart Sank, But My Cock Was More Erect Than Ever Before.
A sordid celebration and parody of noise’s infatuation with sado-masochism, torture and transgressive sex acts, Exploring Jezebel overturns the genre’s usual delusional misogyny: for once, our male protagonist is a simpering, degraded submissive rather than whip-wielding dominant. The music is a fairly unremarkable collage of static-sheathed machine-drones and curdled voice recordings; it’s not untypical of Fernow to have applied more effort to aesthetic than to sound. “My involvement and interest in noise is actually entirely anti-musical,” he has previously admitted, with palpable pride. “It’s all concept.”
Penis Torture Chamber (Hospital Productions, 2010)
Locking Up the Husband’s Penis Is Not Slavery, But Rather the Greatest Act of Kindness Given to a Man (Hospital Productions, 2008)
Weltmeister (Hospital Productions, 2012)
Nihilistic black metal from Fernow and his old friend and regular co-conspirator, Kris Lapke, Ash Pool is battering-ram blast-beats, guttural vocals and in-the-red guitar riffage, recorded in the cruddiest demo quality imaginable, and bound together by imagery fixated with space and creation (references to Saturn, white dwarves and the Big Bang abound). On first encounter there doesn’t seem to be much to distinguish Ash Pool from your average over-conceptualised, under-rehearsed no-fi metal outfit, but prolonged exposure to their feckless onslaught breeds affection.
Prolonged exposure to their feckless onslaught breeds affection.
The furious, high-velocity First Taste of Power is probably the purest, most potent Ash Pool transmission, but World Turns on Its Hinge and For Which He Plies the Lash are more inviting, owing as much to Black Sabbath and bratty US hardcore as they do to raw Scandinavian Black Metal.
First Taste of Power (Unknown label, 2005)
World Turns on Its Hinge (Paragon Records, 2007)
For Which He Plies the Lash (Hospital Productions / Tour de Garde, 2010)
A fascination with religious symbolism and doctrine runs through much of Fernow’s work, perhaps an upshot of his Italian family heritage - but it finds its fullest, most explicit expression in Christian Cosmos, “a soundtrack for the judgment of souls.” Little intervention or exaggeration is required to make Christianity seem strange and sinister; Fernow simply quotes lines from the Bible as track titles (“Behold, a Sower Went Out to Sow,” “To Him Be the Glory Forever, Maker and Judge of All”) and for cover art deploys stark monochrome illustrations that look as though they’ve been culled from a Sunday School textbook.
The capacious, cathedral-scale music is broadly similar in palette to Vatican Shadow, but the percussion is heavier, and moves at a grave, burdened pace more appropriate to an Easter procession than a military operation. The synth lines, meanwhile, gleam like stained glass windows caught by sunlight – promising redemption, maybe, but more likely damnation.
Enthronement by God As the First-Born of the Dead (Hospital Productions, 2011)
The Sharp Lines That Delineate His Robes (Bed Of Nails, 2012)
Which Echo Again and Again (Hospital Productions, 2012)
“Psychedelic Decay,” the title of a track from 2012’s Strawberry Sugar Zeros, perfectly describes the sound, and effect, of Mitochondrial DNA – one of Fernow’s richest, most rewarding “pure” noise endeavours of recent years. You can detect the influence of depressive black metal in its harrowing, primordial churn, but there’s a remarkable spaciousness to the sound that renders it almost meditative. Once discovered, you long to return to again and again. Perhaps that’s what Fernow was alluding to when he described the fabulous Powercrash as “obligation noise.” Digital compilation Mitochondrial DNA Volume 1 collects all of mtDNA’s Hospital tapes to date.
Between Another Magic Mushroom (Gods Of Tundra, 2012)
Powercrash (Hospital Productions, 2012)
World’s Largest Ink Collection (Hospital Productions, 2012)
RAINFOREST SPIRITUAL ENSLAVEMENT
The identity of the person or persons behind Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement is meant to be a secret, but a consensus seems to have been reached that it’s none other than Dominick Fernow (distinctly Fernow-esque titles like Folklore Venom, The Plant with Many Faces and “The Verdict Handed Down by a Kangaroo Court” are perhaps the biggest giveaway).
Taking witchcraft, superstition and serial murder in Papua New Guinea as its inspiration, RSE’s music ranges from eerie, Vatican Shadow-style beatscapes to darker, ritualistic ambient. Black Magic Cannot Cross Water, an LP recently reissued by the Blackest Ever Black label, simultaneously brings to mind the abyssal invocations of Lustmord, the serpentine synth soundtracks of John Carpenter and Burzum’s compellingly primitive prison recordings.
Black Magic Cannot Cross Water (Hospital Productions, 2011)
Taking Place in the Foyer (Hospital Productions, 2012)
The Plant With Many Faces / Folklore Venom (Hospital Productions, 2012)