The last great ZTT record?
“Heart of Darkness” by Hoodlum Priest (1990)
That is, if you could still count it as “ZTT” as we once knew it — the ZTT of Horn and Morley, neither of whom were on board at the time of Heart of Darkness’ release; and it is telling.
But goodness me did Hoodlum Priest (aka Derek Thompson, aided by lyricist/rapper Sevier, a curious individual with an apparent background of voodoo and witchcraft worship who vanished after this record) try hard to find the “art” in tHe art of Darkness. A number of photographs tastefully decorate the sleeve, including three by the vaguely S&M-inclined ‘30s photographer George Hoyningen Huene, and one of Epstein’s Rock Drill Torso, which is resident in Leeds City Art Gallery. Also a photo of Dali, but we’ll forgive that lapse.
But no words. No manifesto — it existed, but needed Morley’s blissful bullets to bite. Nevertheless, the record in itself remains strangely magnificent and still unclassifiable.
After a lengthy, atmospheric introduction we are thrust into the attack of “Rock Drill.” Utilising many elements which in 1990 had been overused beyond the point of cliches by the well-meaning but ultimately useless likes of Jesus Jones and Pop Will Eat Itself (Schwarzenegger, Blade Runner et somnola), this still has a punch which eluded most of its contemporaries, despite even the straight outta the Pennines rapping of Sevier. However, this latter is mixed down, is but one further element in the aural jigsaw.
Dynamics are further whittled down in the long and winding “Tyrell.” Bookended by a whispering sampled diva and the benign voice which softly intones “time to die,” this track manages, against all the odds, to use a “Carmina Burana” sample in an original and purposeful way, to emphasise the perceived wretchedness of existence. It embraces, stands up and screams, and then settles back down into its doomed self-embrace. It is followed by the almost shockingly pop-like “C Horse” with its R&B harmonies slowly undermined by Sevier’s growl until it is a shredded remnant of itself.
“Caucasian” was the obvious single; again using a blindingly obvious sample (“Voodoo Chile” by Hendrix), and while Sevier is no LL, he serves the song’s purpose well enough; the rant is all that is needed to ice the ragingly vibrant cake underneath.
After this we get the clattering M25 (as painted by John Martin) inferno of “Talk Dirty,” with its refrains of “let it happen” and “the pleasures of heaven or hell, I didn’t care which.” Astonishing how fresh these beats still sound. One last nod to guitars and Sevier follows in “Deep Dance” with its chorus of “time to rock,” though goodness knows how big a cradle would be required — in fact, much of this record takes on what was suggested in 1988’s still shamefully overlooked Jack the Tab “compilation” by Richard Norris and Genesis P-Orridge and attempts to move it into a larger arena, as so few others did or have done since.
The finale “Rebel Angel” once more demonstrates how good Hoodlum Priest were at assimilating cliches and turning them into what they originally may have been. In this instrumental, every obvious sample you could think of — that Satie piano motif, Les Voix Bulgares, Gregorian chants, tolling bells — is tossed into the pot, with the Hammer voiceover of “Goodbye, happy fields, where joy forever reigns — better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven.” And yes, to an extent it is corny, and yes, to a considerably greater extent we may be listening to Goth (that Leeds connection!), but the refraction of darkness still manages to puncture the listener pretty sharply.
Thompson has continued alone since this record, and occasionally releases others, but invariably into a void — the same void to where so many of the artists and records which The Church Of Me has extolled seem to have disappeared. Was there great, visionary music in the ‘90s? Of course there was — but visit your local music emporium today, and there’s scant evidence of it. It all seems to have subtly been written out of the picture, and if it is a central duty of this Church to excavate treasures and visions and help to bring them back into public focus, then I can only but continue to dig.
In reality Heart of Darkness is about digging one’s own grave. It is, in a very literal sense (and musically foreshadows) a trans-global underground; instead of looking upwards towards the light, defeated in one’s continued battles to lead a purposeful life, one tires and decides that embracing nothingness in darkness is better than embracing no one in the light.