‘Time’ passages

Pub date August 19, 2009
WriterMatt Sussman
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

DRUG MUSIC "We attempted to dissolve time." That’s how the late John Balance, half of the now disbanded British experimental musical duo Coil, described the aim of their 1998 release Time Machines (Eskaton). Balance said this with such matter-of-factness that you hardly notice the ludicrousness of his claim. No mere sensation-hungry dabblers when it came to tearing down the doors of perception, Coil certainly had reason to stand behind their assertion. Having logged countless hours drifting in the lapping tides of Time Machine’s slowly unraveling synthesizer drones, I can tell you that Balance and musical partner Peter Christopherson definitely succeeded in their attempt.

Coil’s m.o. with Time Machines can be best summed up by the title of Spacemen 3’s 1990 demos compilation Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To (Bomp). Starting from the premise that hallucinogens can remove oneself from one’s temporal reality, Balance and former Throbbing Gristle member Christopherson (with assistance from William Breeze and Drew MacDowell), set out to synthesize music that would catalyze and tease out the temporally-disruptive effects of specific chemical compounds.

If that sounds a bit dry, there is indeed an aura of scientific self-seriousness to the release. Each composition is titled with the chemical name of the substance it has been designed for — track one, "Telepathine" (an earlier term for the compound found in Ayahuasca or yage, popularized by Burroughs and Ginsberg); track two, "DOET/hecate"; track three, "5-Me0-DMT"; and track four, "Psilocybin." But for Coil, science was another form of magic, something driven home by the album’s cover design: a black, glossy oval that alludes to the obsidian "scrying mirror" of Renaissance magician and astronomer John Dee, who supposedly used the stone to conjure spirits. (A limited number of albums also came with a set of stickers that when placed on top of each other depicted Dee’s sigil, the Hieroglyphic Monad).

I should confess, with much embarrassment, that for the many times and many different contexts in which I have listened to Time Machines, I have yet to experience any of the tracks while on the substances for which they were specifically engineered. That said, the album’s transportive effects are noticeable even while listening sober (and are certainly heightened by strong doses of THC). My experience has largely been subtractive: it is hard to do anything or to think about anything with much success, or even "actively listen," while Time Machines is playing. It is the aural equivalent of an isolation tank, in that you don’t even notice the vessel falling away, you’re so immersed. Turn it on, tune in, and dissolve.