In a discography as long and prolific as the War on Terror itself, Dominick Fernow emerges with VATICAN SHADOW’s newest full length to create a chilling album to soundtrack your post COVID club trip, games of Warzone or Guantanamo interrogations.
Words by Tyson Tillotson (@tytilly):
My sixth birthday was a rather chilling one. It came three days after the events that would destroy the lives of so many between the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and United 93. I will never forget watching the events of that Tuesday unfold and I can still remember how I felt. My parents didn’t hold back; they told me exactly what was going on and what would transpire in the coming months. Reflecting on it nearly twenty years after the fact, I’m still struck with the anxiety and fear I felt as a young boy watching United 175 virtually vaporize into the South Tower.
Those feelings include and are not limited to: anxiety, sadness, bewilderment, heartache and above all, fear. These are emotions that we all feel no matter what we go through in the human experience but every so often an artist comes along that is able to fully tap into the vein of something truly sinister yet also intriguing. Enter Dominick Fernow. Definitely not a household name like LADY GAGA, HARRY STYLES or 21 SAVAGE, but this is an individual who’s collective works far outshine most others. Mainly known for his work in PRURIENT and his record label Hospital Productions, Fernow has carved an interesting niche for himself in the worlds of industrial, techno, ambient and noise. He’s also been able to work with such luminaries as JUSTIN BROADRICK of GODFLESH and JESU as well as The Specter of OLD TOWER. His resume is long and quite an achievement, but it’s his project entitled VATICAN SHADOW that feels as if you are running a night op in some Middle Eastern country.
Forged around 2010, VATICAN SHADOW’s pulsating rhythms come from the unorthodox method of separating stems on cassettes to create a sound unlike anything in the electronic music sphere. This would result in the first release entitled Byzantine Private CIA (2019), followed shortly after by releases with equally mouthful titles like Kneel Before Religious Icons (2011), Pakistan Military Academy (2011), Atta’s Apartment Slated for Demolition (2012), Remember Your Black Day (2013), and Washington Buries Al Qaeda Leader at Sea (2011) among many others with equally profound yet chilling names and imagery. One such release, entitled American Flesh for Violence (2019), initially saw a limited to 91 copy two cassette run include artwork depicting the North Tower of the World Trade Center in smoke as well as being packaged with a box cutter. Now THAT'S how you package your releases.
But now in 2020, we come to the newest release from Fernow’s project that dwells on power, corruption and lies with the album Persian Pillars of the Gasoline Era, the first VATICAN SHADOW record to be released on a strictly metal label as 20 Buck Spin, which has released acclaimed records from the likes of TOMB MOLD, CAULDRON BLACK RAM, FETID, and much more in the last couple of years. So what exactly does Fernow bring to the table this time, M16 and frag grenades in hand? Well for one thing, his frequent endorser, Justin Broadrick, was able to twiddle the knobs in order to capture Fernow at his claustrophobic apex. Dark tones collide with eerie pulsating industrial beats while invoking endless hours of playing Syphon Filter on the PS1. So step into your BDU’s and lock and load because we’re coming in hotter than Baghdad in July.
In fitting with the aesthetic set forth with the album titles, Fernow gives most, if not all, of his track titles for VATICAN SHADOW long and often puzzling names to those not in the militaristic know. Predawn Coup D’etat (Schwarzkopf Duffle Bags of Rials) opens the affair with cutting noise before lush synth and eventually harsh static cut through like an insurgent’s knife. One of the main influences and sound comparisons that VATICAN SHADOW often is compared to is the equally prolific Bryn Jones of the Middle Eastern influenced industrial project MUSLIMGAUZE. The track is short unlike most of Jones’ tracks, but it builds a very uneasy yet danceable atmosphere that envelops as well sets on edge. It ends in a wash of it’s opening synth before transferring hands like dirty money.
Single Rehearsing For the Attack is very much in the vein of NINE INCH NAILS meets a dreamy FRONT LINE ASSEMBLY. The beats aren’t as caustic yet they still feel sharp enough to create some real damage. The tension throughout the track is palpable before giving way to more expansive droning before the main synth returns to enact Mujahideen style guerrilla warfare upon your psyche. Some parts of the synth work remind me of the shimmering psychedelics of a band like OZRIC TENTACLES without sounding overly cheesy or convoluted. Before long, the track ends as abruptly as a bullet to the head from an enemy sniper, setting up the next round.
Unforgettable Oasis (Real Life Spy Mystery Ends with Scientist Hanged in Iran) picks up immediately with spacious drum and cymbal machine work while distant choral chants bring you to pray towards MECCA and THROBBING GRISTLE as you feel a certain type of anxiety that can only come from watching a white knuckle espionage thriller. Why Fernow hasn’t been recruited to score films like EXPLOSIONS IN THE SKY or NICK CAVE have is beyond me and this track is proof that he can stand with other unorthodox composers, such as MARK KORVEN, to create music for a military thriller that thrives more on tension and atmosphere rather than in your face action. The methodical pace is quite soothing in fact. Like its predecessor, it is cut instantaneously to make way for the next torture tactic.
As soon as we greeted by it, Taxi Journey Through the Teeming Slums of Tehran gets that noise going just caustic enough to drive any interrogated individual into spilling the beans on their attack plans. The simple yet effect clank of machinery will get a body moving on a dance floor as well it would for a good old session of water boarding and genital shocking. The fearful beats get you in the mind space of being constantly surveilled by the enemy, though you have no idea who. Nothing is cheery to be found in this taxi ride. It would definitely make for great music as you storm an enemy compound in COD or to get your friends hyped to hit the town after the end of this god forsaken pandemic.
Moving Secret Money is a little bouncier with some semi groovy bass and 80’s-esque synth coloring the oasis like soundscape in the desert of anxious techno foreground. Occasional snaps of cymbals add to the Middle Eastern feel of unbridled dread while Fernow’s masterful command of the control board is second only in precision to the pilot of a Hunter Killer drone. The pace stays very much entrenched in the backbeat while not letting go of your attention during the duration of the cut. It’s almost as if you had a front row seat to the initial missile strikes that ignited the first Gulf War and would lead to Desert’s Storm and Shield and eventually the War on Terror.
Closing track Ayatollah Ferocity (The Refinery at Abadan) is where Fernow has saved his sinister best for last. Those who know the history of the Abadan Refinery and the role it plays in Middle Eastern history will know what this track’s theme is all about. The track begins with rapid cymbal crashes that coalesce with malevolent synth work to create a stressful yet exciting tune that works to get the crowd moving, as well as soundtrack a carpet bombing. The track isn’t afraid to drop in and out of major and minor keys to create an unease that would equal that of driving a deserted Kabul street while on foot patrol. The atmosphere of the track is oddly calming in the way dungeon synth functions but with a bit more tenacity. The track rides this wave of pure dread before ending as quickly as an IED hitting the Humvee, bringing this journey to an end.
To bring everything full circle, VATICAN SHADOW is a listening experience unlike any other. Whether it’s the aesthetic or the sound, it’s a feeling that will get you pumped for a game of Warzone while also soundtracking your viewing of street warfare in Baghdad. Dominick Fernow has been able to create music that not only transcends a genre, but also the modern cultural landscape to give us a sound that fills one with pure dread while also allowing us to see through the smoke of what the western world has failed to do in protecting its people and keeping their noses out of other peoples affairs when it comes to politics and warfare. Not many artists out there can get you hyped for the club and fill you with the existential dread akin to watching a plane fly into a skyscraper at the same time. And yet, it’s as clear to see as that fateful Tuesday morning that we have an artist of that caliber in our midst.
Persian Pillars of the Gasoline Era is available now via 20 Buck Spin. Get yours HERE.