For the last three decades, Current 93 have been not so much a band as an ever-evolving collective anchored around the complicated vision and curdling voice of David Tibet. To scan the liner notes of Current 93’s past is to see a roster of remarkable talents and controversial figures, each worthy of their own lengthy explorations: Crass’ Steve Ignorant and Coil’s Jhonn Balance, folk queen Shirley Collins and ambient demigod William Basinski, regulars Steven Stapleton and Andrew Liles, the mesmeric singers Antony Hegarty and Rickie Lee Jones. Tibet has been an unapologetic Svengali, bending these incredible casts to his alternating will of atmospheric neo-folk or apocalyptic rock symphonies, refined industrial cacophony or delicate chamber maneuvers.
There’s endemic payoff and peril with such an arrangement, of course. That rotation has long seemed to energize Tibet, forcing him to reconfigure his explorations of ancient religion and modern life with for nearly every new outing. Tibet’s music remains intriguingly unpredictable, then, a wide catalog bound mostly by the thread of his serpent’s tongue and high-minded conceits. On the other hand, some crews of Current 93 have simply worked better than others. Many have afforded his material surprising depth, while others have seemed shallow when pitted against his idiosyncratic charge. So it goes for the capable assemblage of I Am the Last of All the Field that Fell, an 11-song album that not only re-taps Hegarty, Liles, Nick Cave, and guitarist James Blackshaw (relegated to bass this time) but adds John Zorn and boundary-pressing Dutch classical pianist Reinier van Houdt. And that’s but a partial sample. There are flutes and poetry readings, floods of noise and wisps of bass clarinet. Still, such an astounding lineup only serves to reinforce the disappointment of the flat and oftentimes gangly Field.
Tibet’s voice does not easily fit many definitions. It is a sharp, brittle instrument that works best in starts and stops, when it can leap beneath and through musical phrases with the authority reserved only for a bandleader. But on Field, Tibet’s only consistent accompaniment is van Houdt’s versatile piano playing. Together, they navigate peppy burlesque numbers and lurking acid rock, demented freak-jazz and drooping torch songs, various members joining in or dropping out. He attempts to slip his uniquely shaped vocals into too many unyielding holes. These torrents of words—references to Akkadian grammar and forgotten gods, cigarettes and hipsters, delivered no less in several languages—lash against the sides of the songs van Houdt attempts to shape. The most awkward fits even become unintentionally hilarious. Late during “Kings and Things”, Tibet steps sprightly over piano and a distortion-pedal din, his voice chased by the fair air of Comus’ Bobbie Watson. He offers phrases like “Announcing Japanese beheading,” and she stays in his thrall. It sounds like an action scene from Cats, while its successor—the piano-and-voice soliloquy "With the Dromedaries"—sounds like the dark-night confessional that might chase it on a Broadway stage. “Let’s discuss denim/ or the weather/ of my dead friends,” he sings, doing his best to constrain himself to the small valleys between van Houdt’s cresting-and-collapsing notes. Above the tightly scripted full-jazz-band motion of “Spring Sandy Dream Larks”, Tibet seems truly lost for one of the first times in his career. It’s as if he’s wandered uninvited into a rehearsal by the Bad Plus and tried to shoehorn his voice—shouts of Aleph and all—into a tune written without him. Dejected, he takes his leave nearly a minute before they’re done.