Although the accidental death of Coil's Jhonn Balance in November 2004 came as a horrific shock to his friends and fans, in many ways it seemed an event for which Balance himself was hardly unrehearsed. As his longtime Coil partner Peter "Sleazy" Christopherson has put it, Balance's work has "described or addressed that Very Moment" time and again. And so it is on The Ape of Naples, an exceptional collection assembled from Balance's final recordings and earlier, uncompleted material originally recorded at Trent Reznor's New Orleans studio. Given the circumstances of its construction, the album is a remarkably unified work, its every meditative gesture alloyed with a looming, unmistakable sense of impending loss and/or transition.
Throughout their 20-year recording career, Coil have struck a careful symmetry between spontaneous, animistic creation and exacting ritualistic structure, often with specific alchemical intentions for each record. So while it is impossible to know what ultimate design Balance had for the material on The Ape of Naples, credit must be given to Christopherson for his skillful and devoted stewardship to this music. Several of these songs-- "A Cold Cell", "Teenage Lightning 2005", "Heaven's Blade"-- have previously appeared in another forms. Here, however, Christopherson has significantly reworked each track, mixing electronics and acoustic instruments with the help of sympathetic collaborators Simon Norris, Cliff Stapleton, and Thighpaulsandra-- resulting in an album of astonishing cohesion, vitality, and undisguised poignancy.
Judged by the evidence on these 11 tracks, Balance remained a commanding and utterly captivating presence to the end, and these selections do well to showcase his expressive, multifaceted vocals. Augmented by the carnival textures of accordion, hurdy-gurdy, and singing saw, his vocals on the theatric "Tattooed Man" has an almost effortless elegance ("There's a man lying down in a grave somewhere/ with the same tattoos as me") while beneath the agitated electronics and cool jazz snatches on "I Don't Get It" his heavily effected vocals spin as just another enigmatic cogwheel in Coil's diabolical engine.
The album closes with its most curious track, a cover of "Going Up?", the theme song from the long-running British sitcom "Are You Being Served?" As the closing song of Balance's final live performance, the cover has taken on an unlikely significance in Coil's history. In their hands it undergoes such an extraordinary transmutation that it'd likely go unrecognized by even the staunchest fans of the BBC comedy. With its tempo slowed to a funereal waltz, the song gathers an eerie, unsettling force as Balance is joined on vocals by Francis Testory, the two alternately repeating the lines "Going up" and "It just is" with a contented resignation-- as serene a conclusion one could expect from a shaman who never shied from penning his own epitaphs... *Pitchfork