Colour Sound Oblivion – A Review

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A Focus on the Live DVD Boxset

A Review-in-Progress By Kiefer Gorena

Before I begin, I should note that this will be a critical review of Colour Sound Oblivion. I recognize the personal emotioal difficulty Peter underwent to create the set, and given the circumstances of the end of Coil, the fact it was the last big project he finished and released in his lifetime, and the expansive contents of the set, I am truly greatful for its release. However, I want this review to push all of that aside and judge it on its own merits, first and foremost. Any complaints I lodge against CSO are NOT personal attacks on Peter, so please do not accuse me of such. I love and respect the man. Furthermore, do not let any of my criticisms take away any enjoyment or love you may hold for CSO – I don’t want that and I am certain you don’t either. These are just my opinions, looking at the set as objectively as I possibly can. With that out of the way, let’s begin.

Physical Packaging

“In the early 90s Geff commissioned a wooden fireplace from a handsome gay carpenter friend of of ours called Spud, and he chose to inlay the words Colour Sound Oblivion into it. Within a few months of its completion, Geff and I were standing in the Chelsea funeral directors, looking down at Spud’s dried out corpse, unrecognisable compared with the charismatic ruffian we had so recently known and loved. Once Spud knew he was sick, and the treatments were making no difference, he had deliberately OD’d, but he was already nothing but walking bones. The Colour Sound Oblivion Coil Live Video box is named by and dedicated to him. I wish I’d thought about it before…” – Sleazy

For starters, I don’t own the boxset myself. Please don’t let that kill any shred of credibility I may have! CSO had very limited runs and remains an expensive item today. I hope to buy a copy some day, but it will be a long time before I can afford it.

Regardless, I have digital copies and scans of the set’s contents and have seen and gone through a physical copy in person once before – Jon Whitney’s, to be exact! Thank you for that again, good sir. To recall personally handling the box, the packaging is absolutely gorgeous. The smooth surface of the wooden box feels great on the hands, and the lock on its face makes it feel like you are opening a treasure chest, which you basically are. Inside the open lid is a plastic tag, either blue or red, with a number on it, denoting the edition of the box and its serial number. As you can see, the box is packed with material. It’s a rather tight squeeze, so taking all the contents out and trying to put it all back in can be somewhat messy – I owe that primarily to the fluffy cloth bag.

Included are 16 numbered DVDs, 13 of which are housed in four cloth bags, each representing a specific live-incarnation of the band and mirroring the designs of Coil’s onstage outfits during those eras (one fluffy, one with a mirror on its face, one gray and smooth, and one with a black sun sewn onto it), a 15-page booklet containing John Balance’s funeral program and an essay written by Peter, 124 postcards of the band live or traveling while on tour delicately wrapped in a blue ribbon, and a few other inserts. The CSO 1 DVD sleeve, the Air Gallery gig, is not housed within any of the live incarnation sleeves, since it’s the odd one out (which I’ll explain later). The last 2 DVDs are the Coil Reconstruction Kit.

Every DVD is packaged in a little cardboard sleeve. The gig discs detail the following technical information, which I believe Peter handwrote himself:

Catalogue No.
Location
Venue
Date
No. of Cam(s)
Feeling [Live Era of Concert]
Sound [Source]
Disc includes extras after show? – Yes/No
Step through songs? – Yes/No
Switch angle for projections? – Yes/No

There are no track-listings included for the gigs, only for the Coil Reconstruction Kit.

It was considerate of Peter to include the informative booklet. The funeral program speaks for itself, while the essay, entitled “Colour Sound Oblivion: Coil manifest in front of a live audience,” details how Coil started performing live up until the final Dublin show, Peter’s opinions on John performing live, a few anecdotes of the troubles Coil faced on tour, notes on how some of the backing projections and music came together, thank-yous to the live Coil members and the tapers of the shows, and the Dublin show. It’s a great read which I still pick back up from time to time for fun. The only downside is that it’s riddled with spelling and grammar issues, indicating it was possibly written in a single draft.

The high quality photos are all gorgeous – most of them are candid shots of Coil traveling as opposed to actual gig pictures, but they’re fascinating to flip through all the same.

I won’t go over the differences between each edition of CSO, as for our purposes they are all rather minor, but you can find that information here.

The Switch Angle and How it Affects the Technical Stuff

So now, let’s talk about the gig DVDs. Most of them include a second selectable angle wherein the user can switch from the performance footage to the backing video projections. Before we talk about the gig content, I want to discuss the technical aspects of encoding onto DVDs because technicalities such as implementation of the switch angle play big roles throughout the set.

According to Google: “A single sided, single layer DVD disc can hold 4.7gb of data and 2 hours (120 Minutes) of video in (SP) standard record mode. DVD 4.7gb discs recorded in (LP) long play mode can record up to 3 hours (180 minutes) of video and recorded in (EP) extended mode play, you can record up to 4 hours (240 minutes).” This principle also applies to analogue video tape recording, though to my knowledge it doesn’t necessarily apply to digital video recording. In SP mode, the video runs in standard quality. In LP mode, frames may be dropped, block noise may appear, and most importantly video quality may be downgraded.

EP mode is not a concern on CSO, but SP and LP are. For the DVD to be optimal quality, the total combined video footage can be no more than two hours. The recordings of gigs by themselves on this set range from 23-83 minutes, so any occasion a switch angle is employed, that time gets doubled (at least, as far as I can tell). Peter stated at the end of CSO 7 that he wanted the DVD to be optimal quality, so he did not include a switch angle on it, implying that since the gig recording and interview footage ran for a combined time of ~93 minutes by themselves, adding another ~69 minutes would have downgraded the DVD from SP to LP mode. My qualm is that not every DVD was encoded for optimal quality in this manner, when such an approach would have been ideal for the viewer. The switch angle really wasn’t necessary, as it often eats up the DVD’s allotted time for SP mode, preventing ancillary materials from inclusion on the DVD instead. It’s also rendered almost completely useless due to the Coil Reconstruction Kit.

Take CSO 3 and CSO 4, for example. Counting the gig footage, switch angle, and ancillary materials, both of them contain less than two hours of video, resulting in SP mode for both DVDs. However, CSO 3 omits soundcheck footage of the New York show, most likely to satisfy the two conditions of optimal quality and having a switch angle. If I personally had to sacrifice optimal video quality, the switch angle, or extra material, I would sacrifice the switch angle in every single case. The video quality and bonus material are far more important. Where extra material is missing, we usually don’t know if it’s a lack of material available or if the switch angle is eating up time on the DVD, and I shudder to think it’s the latter in any case. As it stands, the switch angle is a novelty that usually just gets in the way.

CSO 8 is another example. The performance video is 83 minutes, but there is also a switch angle, so the 2 hours and 26 minutes prevents the DVD from hosting optimal quality for no real reason. This also plagues CSO 10, 11, and 14 – all four DVDs use switch angles and are in LP mode because of it when they could be in SP mode.

Except for CSO 7, in cases where there aren’t switch angles, i.e. CSO 5 and CSO 12, the backing video projections are integrated with/overlaid onto the gig footage in unique ways. I’ll discuss this further when I speak of each individual CSO disc.

The only cases where I feel the switch angle is beneficial are CSO 13 and CSO 14 because they hold projections not present on the Coil Reconstruction Kit. CSO 13 contains the lightning video used at the Jesi show during “Teenage Lightning” and CSO 14 contains the “Stranded with Gifts” and “Going Up” fire projections, which are all gorgeous (the Kit video for the latter song is the snowfall projection).

DVD Content

Before I get to the actual content, I want to mention that Black Sun Productions and draZen released edited backstage footage of 2002-04-04 Zurich and soundcheck footage of 2002-04-06 Bologna as “invocations to bring Colour Sound Oblivion into existence” onto Youtube and Vimeo in 2008 and 2009. Those full recordings would not surface until 2016. Peter himself put out a sampler video for CSO shortly before its release, which included clips of every DVD except CSO 5, CSO 9, and CSO 14. Moving on…

Each disc opens with a digital title card which mirrors the information included on the disc’s cardboard sleeve. Sometimes a sample of William Burroughs saying “Colour sound oblivion” will play during this moment, with varying manipulation. If a gig needs further contextualization, Peter also notes additional comments before and/or after the gig portion plays.

The gigs included on CSO cover the whole of Coil’s career. They are as follows:

“Time Machines” Era – 1
2000-06-17 Sonar – Royal Festival Hall, London, UK (EDIT)

“Constant Shallowness Leads to Evil” Era – 2
2001-08-18 Convergence – Irving Plaza, New York City, USA (EDIT #1b)
2001-09-15 DK Gorbunova, Moscow, Russia (EDIT #3)

“Backwards / Remote Viewer” Era – 2
2002-04-06 Teatro delle Celebrazioni, Bologna, IT (EDIT)
2002-06-07 New Forms III – Theater aan het Spui, Den Haag, NL (EDIT)

“Live Four” Era – 3 DVDs, 4 shows used
2002-09-29 Vagonka Club, Konigsberg, Russia (EDIT)
2002-10-05 Ydrogeios Club, Thessaloniki, Greece (EDIT)
2002-10-27 Palac Akropolis, Prague, CZ (EDIT) (Partial)
2002-10-29 Flex, Vienna, AT (EDIT) (Partial)

“Instrumental” Era – 1
2003-05-29 Mutek Festival ’03 – Montreal, Canada (EDIT)

“Black Antlers” Era – 3
2004-05-23 La Loco, Paris, France (EDIT)
2004-06-03 Melkweg, Amsterdam, NL (EDIT)
2004-07-11 Il Violino E La Selce Festival, Jesi, IT (EDIT)

Exclusive Sets – 2
1983-08-24 How to Destroy Angels – Air Gallery, London, UK (AMT)
2004-10-23 Dublin Electronic Arts Festival – City Hall, Dublin, Ireland (EDIT)

There are some good choices here, but I must nitpick the fact that not every era gets equal representation. I can forgive that fact for the “Time Machines” era, since Coil only performed two sets in it, and the “Instrumental” era, since they lack John and usually did not offer especially dazzling visual performances, but why then do the “Constant Shallowness” and “Backwards / Remote Viewer” eras only get two each while the “Live Four” and “Black Antlers” eras get three each? For that matter, how exactly did Peter come to decide that 14 shows would be included? It seems like a random number to decide on, and many great shows and great recordings are conspicuous by their absence, but I’ll delve into that after talking about each DVD in depth.

CSO 1 – 1983-08-24 How to Destroy Angels – Air Gallery, London, UK

John Balance – performer
John Gosling – performer
Marc Almond – narrator
Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson – backing tape

Coil performed live four times in 1983, most of which were collaborations with Zos Kia, and did not play again until 1999. As such, it’s quite the novelty seeing anything from 1983 on the set, but the gig itself deserves the moniker of “messy,” mostly for the fact that it’s such a dark and muddy recording.

There isn’t much of worth aurally. Nobody sings or, to my knowledge, performs any instrumentation – Peter only played a backing tape of “How to Destroy Angels” and then sat in the audience to watch the others perform. However, the audio doesn’t sound quite like the LP release and might have been a different song, or there might have been live instrumentation overlaid by unseen players. It’s moody and weird. Marc Almond’s monologue about a strained relationship with an ex-lover is captivating, and seeing video of him collaborating with Coil when they would work together on the master-piece Horse Rotorvator three years later is amazing, but due to the lo-fi nature of the recording it’s sometimes hard to tell what he is saying. At least the cinematography is okay, panning from Almond, to Peter, to John Gosling and John Balance, to the audience and back again.

Gosling and Balance are the real draw. Balance, half-naked, wears a mask throughout until it flies off during his pseudo-seizure at the end, while Gosling wears a strange white dress that is reminiscent of the kind Ian Johnstone eventually made for Balance to wear over 20 years later, before eventually disrobing. The pair cover themselves in lotions, fake blood, and other various fluids in a kind of strange ritual that only they know the meaning behind. Set to Astral Disaster, maybe this would make a whole lot more sense and impacted more!

It was quite disturbing for me when I first watched it as a teenager – I can sympathize with Nick Cave when Gosling starts pissing everywhere. Like the shit-eating dinner scene in Pasolini’s Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom, that’s the big memorable moment everyone takes with them (though if you were unlike me in that you weren’t familiar with Pasolini when first watching this, then you probably weren’t as fazed). Upon repeat viewings, however, the shock value wears off, and beyond the shock value, it’s hard to find any real artistic merit or worthwhile statement the band are making here. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a decently fun watch, but not the sort that is easy to go back to multiple times, unlike some of the other discs on CSO; you can tell by the audience reception at the end. Once Balance calms down from his seizure, he and Gosling walk out of the room and the recording stops almost instantly.

At least the behind-the-scene fun facts aid the gig, like the fact that Nick Cave was there and walked out and that Anita Lane helped clean the duo afterwards.

I think the 1983-12-03 Berlin Atonal II gig would have been a much better choice for CSO, personally, or would have made for a worthy addition to the gig, seeing as how the 2-camera edit is higher fidelity, featured actual performed songs, had Min performing with Gosling and Balance, and was the last proper Coil gig of 1983. Early historical Coil documents reveal the duo were aware of the recording and I’d bet money they had a copy, but maybe there were legal issues preventing that from happening, or something. The edited video has only surfaced in part publicly, but if the Psychic TV set performed the previous day has surfaced in full, I think it’s only a matter of time until we see the full recording.

CSO 1 is also the shortest DVD in the lot, at just about 24 min. There are no special features or anything else beyond the gig recording – again, Berlin Atonal would have been a good addition to fill up some time. It would have been even better if Peter had maybe included a gallery of contemporaneous Psychic TV, Zos Kia, and Coil-affiliated photos set to “How to Destroy Angels,” or even the June 2001 recording of John reading the “Coil Manifesto” to put the performance into greater context and perspective. Perhaps Peter wanted to do something like this and just didn’t have the time or energy? I dunno. The theme of not filling out the DVD continues throughout many of the other discs on CSO as well, but this is the most egregious case.

Rest of the review coming soon…