The plotline is an epic conflict ready for the Lucas-sized screen or the beginning of the end of an ecclesiastic Tolkien trilogy: An armada of black ships storms the sky from south of Heaven, a swarm of eclipse-bearing mechanical locusts led by the Antichrist. As God, "the sleeping lion," rests, the penultimate Caesar is slain, and the ships descend from the right side of East, gnawing through the clouds and erasing it all--the sky, birth, death, humans, human imperfection. It's preparation for Christ's second coming and the rise of the ultimate Caesar.
This plot--a dream of the apocalypse that English songwriter David Tibet had five years ago and shaped into the latest album, Black Ships Ate the Sky, from his band of two decades, Current 93--is not for everyone. Then again, he doesn't intend it to be.
"This is my own dream. It's a hallucinatory patripassianist dream. I believe the apocalypse will happen soon, if it's not already happening. I feel that the water is running out of the plug hole, and that the sink is getting empty," says Tibet, an affable Englishman making jokes and telling stories from his home near London, despite his somewhat superficial reputation as one of the more grim songwriters in music. "Somebody else would disagree and say it's already happening now. And others would think I'm out of my mind, and it's all nonsense and superstition. This is just my personal view of it."
But Black Ships' highly specific and personal portrait of the apocalypse, fostered by Tibet's equally specific notion of Christianity, is a gateway for its welcoming generality: Both the battle for power and the shift between dark and light are archetypal, and Tibet's work paints them with demanding brilliance, lyrically and musically. Black Ships is one of the most intriguing, cult-worthy records of the past decade, and Tibet's approach to both the album and his career are a model for humanist cooperation among sects with differing views, especially at a time when religion is an administration's malignant mandate for human contention.
Consider the cast: Tibet himself emerged from the early '80s industrial scene spawned by Psychic TV, forming Current 93 in with 1982 with Fritz Haaman and John Balance. The late Balance is best known for his work with Coil, June of 44 and Nurse with Wound, the highly influential, long-standing experimental project of Steven Stapleton, Tibet's principal bandmate in Current 93 since 1983. Like several other musicians involved in Current 93, Stapleton has no interest in religion, Christianity or otherwise, says Tibet.
"I don't think any of them share my particular theological view. I'm Christian, and I have a particular way of seeing the world and I don't think--apart maybe from Joolie Wood on violin and Baby Dee--any of them are Christians, and, if they are, certainly not with the same interests or passions I have," says Tibet, who considers everyone who has ever worked on a Current album a member of the band, not a mere collaborator. "But, still, it's a sense of love and a sense of commonality."
He asked Six Organs of Admittance's Ben Chasny to join the community after hearing his records (Chasny had long been a fan), and Chasny introduced him to Sleep and OM bassist Al Cisneros. Chasny, Cisneros and his bandmate Chris Hakius will form the core of the next Current 93 record.
Certainly, it's an odd fit: A devout Christian working with some of industrial music's heavyweights and two of the most important figures in stoner metal. Future collaborators include doom metal purveyor Stephen O' Malley (Sunn 0))), Khanate) and glitch artists Matmos, two gay partners from America. Tibet doesn't feel the need to bond with his friends over his ideology.
In fact, it is because Tibet believes what he believes so strongly and with such erudition that he is comfortable cooperating with those who don't necessarily agree or understand: A mostly self-educated and amateur Christian scholar born in Malaysia, he's heavily concerned with the semantics and scholastic foundation of his work. Alongside bands like Blue Oyster Cult and Comus, Tibet's Web site (www.brainwashed.com/c93) lists Gregorian Chant, German monastic leader Hildegard von Bingen and authors from James Joyce to William Blake as influences. He's taught himself the original Greek of the Bible and is now learning Coptic, an ancient Greek written variant used to deliver the Gospels to Egyptians in the second century. At a time when Christianity seems casual to the point of being bastardized, Tibet's diligence in his belief is inspiring.
But critics have sometimes dismissed Current 93's work as subscribing too steadfastly to Tibet's own worldview, often described as ruining a glorious piece of music with his salvation-seeking poetry and atonal, unrelenting speak-scream-singing. But that's the point entirely, and Tibet has never expected anyone to appreciate any of his records precisely because they are so singular and unapologetic.
"I've spent all my albums trying to explain myself and work out my own salvation. I've always written it for myself," says Tibet, who denies his role as the patriarch of the currently popular American "freak-folk scene," which includes Six Organs and Antony, a vocalist on two Black Ships tracks. "I really have never had any sense that I've had an influence on anyone. I'm really surprised when anyone says they like my work or know it at all. It's all so personal, and the references are so specific."
In the midst of the battle for heaven, earth and hell, it's an incredibly grounded instant. The earth, Tibet implies, does not consist of automated soldiers battling back against the Antichrist. Instead, it's a battle waged against (and, in a way, for) real people wondering what will become of their souls. To illustrate that, nine different versions of "Idumæa," a hymn written Charles Wesley in 1763, come intertwined with scenes from Tibet's dream. Vocals are handled by Tibet's friends and heroes, from Antony and Bonnie "Prince" Billy to Shirley Collins and Clodagh Simonds. Nine different voices pose one question: "Soon as from earth I go/ What will become of me?/ Eternal happiness or woe/ Must then my fortune be."
But Tibet, who constantly supplies the needed gravitas of humility to his ideology, doesn't have the answers for anybody else. He's hyper-aware that this glimpse of the apocalypse is his alone: He is a Christian believer, not a preacher proselytizing his views as much as expressing his own questions about them. He asserts that his glimpse into the coming apocalypse is not a vision, and he is not a prophet.
At home in England, relaxed after a mad dash for his family's new portable phone, Tibet also insists that his dream is not a metaphor, a parable directed toward certain politicians, although he agrees certain world leaders are skewing outsider perception of his religion. He's not a political songwriter, much less a politician. This album, he says, is meant as a very literal translation of his dream.
"People now think that if you believe in a literal second coming you're a biblical fundamentalist, which has a bad shade to it. Either you're metaphorical, people think, or you're a dyed-down-the-line, Bible Belt, burn-again, born-again fundamentalist," says Tibet. "And, from my point of view, the literal second coming has been a fundamental basis of Christianity for 2,000 years. I believe in a literal second coming, and that's just what I believe. It's the way I see the world, and that's all right."
Current 93's Black Ships Ate the Sky is available now on Tibet's Durtro Records.