If ever there was a record that you could say “they don’t make ‘em like this anymore” it would be “Blood”, the third and final album by This Mortal Coil. Perhaps this is the kind of record that can only be made by a label boss, after all, when you’re the label boss you can pretty much do what you like. Ivo Watts certainly did. After all, he had the keys to the sweetshop. He could call on the likes of Elizabeth Frazer and Robin Guthrie (Cocteau Twins), Mark Cox and Andrew Gray (The Wolfgang Press), Peter Ulrich (Dead Can Dance) and Tanya Donelly (Throwing Muses, Breeders, Belly) as they were all on his label 4AD, and they probably all owed him a favour. He could get them to knock out covers of his favourite 60s and 70s obscurities because who was going to tell him it was a bad idea? He could put out two minutes of his own baby’s gurgling and giggling because it was his goddam record label and he’d do what he liked.
This Mortal Coil was formed in an apparent fit of pique when Ivo’s suggestion to his band Modern English to re-record two of their earlier songs as a medley was foolishly knocked back. Understandably he thought, screw you guys, this is still a good idea so I’ll record it myself, which he did, and This Mortal Coil was born. The “sixteen days/gathering dust” EP was the result, featuring the more cooperative members of Modern English together with representatives from the Cocteau Twins and Cindytalk and including a sublime cover of Tim Buckley’s “Song to the siren”. This was followed by three studio albums, 1984’s “It’ll end in tears “, 1986’s “Filigree and Shadow” and finally “Blood” in 1991. All three albums are uniquely 4AD in sound; sparse, mysterious, vaguely classical, and wonderfully packaged by genius in resident Vaughan Oliver, an artist who’s intricate 4AD sleeve designs defined both the label and left field 80s independent music for generations to come.
They were not really a band at all, more of a nucleus of Ivo and producer/contributor John Fryer with various 4AD electrons pulled in every now and then to put down vocals or add instrumentation. This gave Ivo complete creative control which found its ultimate expression on “Blood”. It’s a remarkably eclectic piece of work. Pieces can last anything from half a minute to four, squealing electric guitars and drum machines can segue smoothly into baroque string quartets, vocals can swirl in the ether without forming words, then suddenly form crystal clear duets with plucked guitars. It’s the kind of record where, even if you were struggling to like it all, there would definitely be moments that you’d absolutely fall in love with. The way “Bitter” travels from eerie floating vocals to all-out guitar fury to peaceful wide open savannah all within three minutes. The way “Baby Ray Baby” switches on a coin from abstract baby noises to a shuffled doom-laden drum break and then almost immediately moves into “several times” where violins, synths and vocals combine to create an oasis of calm . The way “Dreams are like water” starts with a ghostly backwards vocal that swirls around until it’s anchored down by a killer dub bass line. There’s the exquisite string quartet backing to Kim Deal and Tanya Donnely’s sweet duet for Chris Bell’s “You and your sister”, arguably one of the rare cases where the cover exceeds the original.
Moods shift and textures build almost constantly throughout, as if the music is afraid to settle on a tone or theme. The instrumentation takes in strings, guitars of all descriptions, new age synths and processed pianos, and programmed drums that are delicate gossamer patterns or bludgeoning hammers depending on the mood. It’s a crazy schizophrenic blend and an exhilarating listen. The ordering of the tracks is calculated to heighten the effect, and so this is an album where downloading individual tracks is simply not an option. Even listening to it on CD reduces the impact as “Blood” is designed to be on two sides not one. It reminds you how the art of track ordering is being lost in today’s iTunes dominated world. Just as films no longer have cornetto breaks it’s now impossible to design an album around a turning over of sides. Side 1 starts with “The lacemaker”, all violins and violas, all leading gently into an acoustic cover of The Apartment’s “Mr Somewhere”. Side two starts with “The lacemaker II”, the same melody and arrangement but this time with overdriven guitars, the perfect way to lead to a cover of Syd Barret’s “Late night” and the churning grind of “Ruddy and wretched”. Playing these tracks on random just will not work. Play them in sequence and you truly feel like you’re entering Ivo’s mind in all its mixed up glory.
He sold 4AD back to Beggars Banquet in 1999 and apart from the occasional musical coda he’s now largely retired from the business. We may never see his like again, but he’s left behind three unique albums that I’d urge you to explore, and “Blood” for me is the desert island choice.