“the listeners of these recordings will always enjoy the most intense reactions of all because they are the most violently repulsive records ever conceived”
So read the text that accompanied Whitehouse’s Buchenwald album, an LP so loud that I feared for the needle flying right out of the groove. The same disclaimer might well have been applied to 150 Murderous Passions, a 1981 joint project between Whitehouse and Nurse with Wound which works for reasons other than pure volume overload. It is genuinely frightening music. I bought it and played it on a day when no one else happened to be in the house, and it almost drove me out into the street. It was and still is as emotionally battering as Penderecki’s “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima” or Ligeti’s “Atmospheres”.
Now that I think about it, Passions has a good deal more in common with the works of those composers than anything else Whitehouse or NWW did before or since. The fact that “Hiroshima” or “Atmospheres” used nothing more than orchestra to accomplish what they do is astounding, but that doesn’t make Passions’s use of tapes, found sounds, noise and studio techniques any less fearsome. It is one long, undulating shriek of horror — or maybe ecstasy, given that the title and many of the references within the record trace right back to Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom. Excerpts from the book can be heard read here and there, but the text isn’t crucial to appreciating any of the emotional effects generated by the record — it’s just the starting point, maybe something to meditate on casually while you’re being bludgeoned by what you hear.
The first track — identifiable on the record only as side one, or according to the run-out groove etching, “INFAME OSCULUM INFAME” — radiates such malevolence and violence that it threatens to blot out all the other senses. It begins with a blistering squall of feedback (which, like many of the sounds throughout, demands to be heard as cries of pain), then segues through piano, saxophone, atmospheric effects and finally a climax of reverb, human screams and a whole battery of other sounds that I can’t identify and probably don’t want to. Throughout most of it there is the regular, deeply echoed chiming of a bell, each beat of which is used to ratchet up the tension all the more. It’s as nerve-wracking as Suicide’s infamous “Frankie Teardrop” and just as primally powerful.
Track 2 (“FASHIONING A DEVICE BEHIND THE SCREEN”), the Whitehouse side, is far less interesting. It’s like standing in front of an open furnace of noise, while heat waves of feedback and sheets of sound pour out in all directions. Compared to the emotional torture chamber of what came before, it’s downright middling — once the basic idea is established, there’s no real development. The cleverest part is the way the very end and beginning of the record are reconnected with each other, something that lends the second track an iota of narrative flow that it otherwise doesn’t possess on its own.
Passions has a curious history. Originally conceived as a NWW/Whitehouse joint project, it was released both on Whitehouse’s Come Organisation label and in a NWW United Dairies edition that were fundamentally the same release. Each artist took up an entire side — NWW was the “long” piece and Whitehouse the “short” one — and each aided the other with production for their respective tracks. Later on, when Steven Stapleton of NWW reissued the album on cassette, he remixed his side heavily to produce the results excerpted here. The remix is shorter, but also that much more frightening and emotionally charged; the “long” version is still interesting, but sounds more meandering and unfocused. Stapleton has done this sort of thing before with his own material: when he initially re-released the Gyllensköld EP on CD, it too was edited down — although the recent CD release contains both the long and short mixes of the album.
What’s odd is William (Whitehouse) Bennett’s take on the whole matter. When interviewed about the disc, he stated that Stapleton had performed his remix from a clumsily-bootlegged vinyl edition, which explained the presence of surface noise and other artifacts in the mix. Somehow this doesn’t ring true: I’ve listened to both the original version (the master tapes for which Bennett claims to have always had) and the remix, and the “surface noise” that Bennett describes appears to be something that was in the original recording to begin with. I suspect Stapleton kept his own original multitrack master of his contribution used that. I also don’t agree with Bennett’s assessment that the remix was essentially a cash-grab with unimpressive results. Passions is easily one of the best things to carry either the Whitehouse or NWW label, no matter what its provenance. That doesn’t mean you have to subject yourself to it more than once, of course.