by Jordon Leigh, September 2010
Of the multitudes of recording artists which populate the various strata of the contemporary music world, very few have either the verve nor tenacity in sonic metastasis as the likes of Chris Connelly.
His arc of evolving talent is quite well known to the initiated: constantly shifting gears and mutating from the earliest of days in Rigor Mortis (later to become Fini Tribe) to the infamous Revolting Cocks, or side projects like Acid Horse (with members of Caberet Voltaire) and the one-off release The Love Interest. The hey-day of the loosely fitting term ‘industrial rock’ had all but wound up during the late Eighties and early Nineties, through which Connelly maintained a high profile within the ranks of Ministry and then shortly after crossing over to the post-punk experimental circus called Pigface, helmed by Martin Atkins and his label Invisible Records. In retrospect, this change would prove to be a blessing in disguise of sorts, allowing for Connelly to exhibit deeper lyricism as well as a far wider range of vocal skill more true to his own style rather than that of the atypical distortion-blistered screams of metallic mechanical rage. Murder, Inc. followed suit, bringing to light a brilliant blend of Chris’ angst-laden lounge crooning against a backdrop of Killing Joke-esque post-industrial noise rock. To the converted, this record remains a fan favorite not quickly forgotten; when later incarnations of Pigface (without Connelly) would play the album’s title track, crowds would tend to fall into a chaotic reverie of shaking fists and shoulder-to-shoulder mosh pits.
Amongst the revolving melee of his interactions, collaborations and contributions to numerous projects and records, Connelly released his first proper solo outing, Whiplash Boychild, in 1991 after the wake of Ministry’s A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Taste tour and Pigface’s initial effort Gub. Those anticipating the chain-link fence bashing, dreadlocked, sinister vocalist to do more of the same were in for a rude awakening indeed. Eschewing the violent, metallic and overtly electronic overtones of prior efforts, what Connelly delivered instead was a melodic, poetic, often times beautiful affair, maintaining the truisms of underground music whilst flirting with the conventions of well intended pop. Many comparisons have been drawn countless times through the years toward the likes of David Bowie and Scott Walker (both of whom Connelly himself fondly admits admiration), but also slight reminiscences of early eighties Iggy Pop and sublime touches of lounge music. His 1992 follow up, Phenobarb Bambalam, was a more extreme record; bipolarizing the two fronts of his songwriting between the excesses of angry post-rock and the melancholia of smoke-filled lounge balladeering, both exercised (and exorcised) with ingenious clarity. Aside from a live acoustic EP, Songs for Swinging Junkies, it would be two years before he would release another full length studio recording.
The wait would prove to be worthwhile. His third studio release Shipwreck laid out the perfect amalgam of the two previous records, delivering elements of pop, post-modern rock and endearingly touching lounge ballads that make your head swim. Connelly even went so far as to do ‘Spoonfed Celeste’, a song that defies categorization aside from being deemed ‘neo-bluegrass’. Stunningly beautiful with smooth production, the troubadour comes truly into his own here, with no apologies.
A vast, gaping hole of four years’ silence was left yawning in the aftermath.
Eventually, at the turn of the century, Chris returned to the place where his talents lay best: singing, songwriting and all the poetry which lay within. Of first note, Mr. Connelly produced his debut book, a hardcover collection of songwords and poems entitled Confessions of the Highest Bidder in the early summer of 1999. Initially instigated by the overwhelming requests of fans and listeners in 1996, Chris decided to plunge into the task of arranging and dissecting some of his catalogue of work; which was then, by the auspices of KB Publishing, awarded to those demands in its 112-page glory.
And what about the music? No longer on his longtime label Wax Trax, Chicago based Hit It! Records released an album of his new material under the moniker The Bells. The album was titled The Ultimate Seaside Companion, which “along with Chris “featured his long running friend and collaborator Bill Rieflin as well as other indie luminaries such as Chris Bruce and Jim O’Rourke. Far and away, this record was a clear and distinctive departure from Connelly’s past approaches to structure and production. Not merely handling the lyrics and general basis of his material, he wholeheartedly took the helm of his own ship: playing and directing the songs with acoustic and electric guitar, banjo, and even utilizing the harmonica at points. Having stripped away the artifice of so-called ‘rock production’ and unconcerned with carrying the weight of his past reputation (under the pseudonym of a band rather than his own name), Connelly was able to quite simply get down to basics: writing emotive and sincere songs without the prejudice of an already established audience preying on his past. The Ultimate Seaside Companion‘s successes lay strictly within that regimen: pure, focused, honest songs done without the need and greed of the almighty dollar, MTV, or the overzealous ‘industrial’ fan who still think of Chris Connelly as the dreadlocked, enraged duke of RevCo, Ministry and Pigface.
What happened next was probably the most surprising and unexpected move that Mr. Connelly could have ever considered at that particular point of his career.
Invisible Records’ Martin Atkins was busy getting up a new project with his former PiL band mate Jah Wobble, who in turn suggested Killing Joke guitarist Geordie Walker to round out the experiment’s music section. As rumor has it, once things got going, they had attempted to get John Lydon to handle the lyric/vocal duties but were dismissed. Atkins (and appropriately so) suggested Connelly. The result was the Damage Manual; with one EP and one full-length album under its belt, it would, in a sense, mark the ‘return’ of Chris Connelly to the ‘industrial’ realm once again.
During 2001, Mr. Connelly would release yet another album: the swooning, eloquent and near cinematic Blonde Exodus. Again utilizing the assistance of Bill Rieflin and continuing upon the path laid down by The Ultimate Seaside Companion, Blonde Exodus would deliver even more clearly the radiant and minimalist ingenuity of Connelly’s songwriting abilities “both as a sublime lyricist and a heartfelt vocalist. In the midst of this period, Chris and Bill would also record an album called Largo, which was released on Rieflin’s First World label.
The year 2002 would announce the delivery of Private Education, and 8 song set of pared-down acoustic numbers, or ‘charcoal reliefs’ as noted by Chris himself; performed entirely solo with the exception of a guest appearance by former Voodou vocalist Michelle Walters, providing some additional backing vocals. Stark and minimal, the material took on a shape all its own, solid in the traditional songwriting sense that Chris is so prone to compose “yet baring an assemblage of vocal melodies and guitar textuality that made the most of any limitations of the instrumental palette. Recorded over the course of two days (with the assistance of Julian Beeston) and drawn from experiences over the previous year, the artfulness of Connelly’s lyrics took to the fore over the more bare (however far from barren) musical arrangements; aurally blurring the lines “like the difference between the delicacy of an origami construct and the simple beauty of a fine line pencil illustration” poignantly lent to the context of sound. From the tidal ebb and flow of the near 8 minute opener ‘Harbour Days’ and pacing itself eloquently through to the record’s closer ‘The Last Hit Man In Heaven’, we are seduced, not clubbed, by the raw sublime intention.
That same year, Underground Inc. released a collection personally selected by Connelly, Initials C.C. Vol. 1, culling material spanning over 20 years: a widely diverse and scattered collage of his musical experimentation including tracks from his ‘home-made’ tape experiments with Andy McGregor (his long-time friend and collaborator in the days of Fini Tribe), out-takes from his involvement with the likes of Fini Tribe, Revolting Cocks, Pigface, F/I, PTP, The Damage Manual and, of course, his solo work. Without question a fine addendum to his steadily growing catalogue.
After a challenging and long-running road show of touring throughout ’02 and ’03, a break from the rigors of international touring indeed seemed well-deserved.
In 2004, Connelly began a collaborative effort called Everyoned, featuring his friends and members of such notable Chicago based talents such as Liz Payne, Brent Gutzeit, Ben Vida and Tim Kinsella; artists whom have made themselves known in the likes of Joan of Arc, Town and Country, Central Falls, TV Pow and The Owls; converge to create an amazing series of song set to record. Cyclic, delicate and intricate, their 8 song eponymous debut (released on Brilliante Records) showcases an immersive, collective performance of beautiful and often times haunting textures, harmonies and arrangements.
That same year, Chris would release his next solo opus Night of Your Life, a more lush and atmospheric record; featuring a richer and more textural palette of sound than his prior cd, Private Education. Gorgeous in every sense, the record offered many stand-out tracks including the instantly hooky “Don’t Landslide Away From Me” and often sonically harkens back to the cinematic feel of his Blonde Exodus album.
Changing gears yet again during 2005, Connelly regrouped with The Damage Manual, this time without Jah Wobble and Geordie Walker; who were decidedly replaced by the multi-talented Steven Seibold of Hate Department to provide bass and guitar. The album, Limited Edition, was far more raw and direct than it’s preceding releases and may perhaps stand as one of Chris’s finest “rock” records to date. As of this writing, it is doubtful that there will be another DM release with his input, according to Connelly.
Then came marriage and a child, and perhaps an internal reassessment of his creative direction.
A bold new album, The Episodes, came to light in 2007 on David Tibet’s Durtro Jnana label with again the assistance of Tim and Nate Kinsella, Ben and Adam Vida, Josh Abrams and a flurry of additional musicians. Recorded largely at Lake Wandawega resort in rural Wisconsin, the disc highlights more long-form musical performances with a campfire jam feel, sans the predictable cliches regularly attached to it. “Mirror Lips”, “Every Ghost Has An Orchestra” and “Empty Coda” are certainly shining moments; but one cannot dismiss the resurgence of the “Empty Sam” song cycle whose original version appeared on The Ultimate Seaside Companion.
Largely eschewing the rock/pop format, 2008’s Forgiveness And Exile proved to be one of the most stunning releases of Connelly’s career; merging elegiac music, prose-peom lyrical imagery, haunting vocal melodies and spoken word vignettes. Due to all of these elements, it is truly a concept record behaving less than traditional in the music medium and more as an aural motion picture…in an arthouse sense, at that. Furthermore, the proceeds of this album were devoted to the Marjorie Kovler Center in Chicago, an organization dedicated to the aid and treatment for survivors of torture internationally who now reside in the United States.
Also around this period, Connelly wrote and published his second book; this time a nonfiction autobiography of his days coming to the states and becoming a component of Ministry and The Revolting Cocks; Concrete, Bulletproof, Invisible and Fried: My Life As A Revolting Cock. Where most self-told narratives about the ups, downs and excesses of being a working, touring rock musician can often turn heroic and glorified, this book offers a humbled, down-to-earth and very often funny observance of the dysfunctional, ego-mashing and downright unglamourous trials of the “industrial” boom of the late eighties and early ninties.
With his 2009 release Pentland Firth Howl, the focus of the material turned even more reflective; constituting both equal amounts of yearning for and turning away from his homeland and things left behind. Beautiful and minimal, the songs; although melodic; offer up a more abstract and angular musical aspect. And decidedly so; as the tilting acoustic guitars deliver a soundtrack to the tales entrenched within the lyrics; some moments musically drawing from past songs in his canon.
2010 couldn’t have been a more productive year for Chris, with his twelfth solo album How This Ends which returns to more poetic and atmospheric fare reminiscent in stature to Forgiveness And Exile. The music is profound, providing a soundscape to Connelly’s cadent storytelling. Fitting then that the same year sees the release of his third book, this time a novel entitled Ed Royal.
Set against a backdrop of Edinburgh in the early eighties, Ed Royal is a story of a city quietly divided by class and of an innocence quickly and cruelly destroyed by mind games and frightening desire. A love story both touching and tragic, the novel proves that Chris’s first proper foray into fiction is just as prosaic and engulfing as his lyrics.
If that hadn’t been enough, he has found himself working again with what one might call a ‘proper band’, The High Confessions. Consisting of such diverse and creative personnel as Steve Shelley (Sonic Youth), Sanford Parker (Buried At Sea/ Minsk), Jeremy Lemos (studio genius, member of White/Light and Lacerati) along with Chris, the group have released a debut album Turning Lead Into Gold With The High Confessions on Relapse Records. Highly Recommended for anyone into post-punk, experimental and/or post-rock.
Above all, Chris Connelly is one of the few independent artists today who still believes in the power of songwriting as nothing short of divine narrative; the craft of music as the perfect vehicle for poetic expression.
Welcome to the world of Chris Connelly.