That Was Their Fabulous Stink:

The Early History of
Violence and the Sacred

by Cell Turgor

Since Violence and the Sacred were a phenomenon causing headaches among the many, and delight among the few; since they have been a source of contradiction and confusion; and since I have been one of a small group of admirers, hangers-on, and assorted other parasites associated with the group, I have taken upon myself the task of documenting the many twists and turns in the career of this remarkable musical unit, from its inception to its brief, poverty-stricken, but vibrant superstardom, and then to its subsequent ignominious decline into poverty-stricken obscurity.

1985

VATS in concert: Sept. 28, 1985

VATS in concert: Sept. 28, 1985

Violence and the Sacred (VatS) forms in August to open for Chris and Cosey (members of the group are big Throbbing Gristle enthusiasts, and Chris and Cosey have yet to degenerate into utter bores).

At this early stage the members are: Sri (samples and rhythm programs; ex-Polkaholics and Believers' Voice of Victory); Potemkin (guitar; ex-Believers' Voice of Victory); Graham Stewart (electric 'cello; ex-Platypus Rex); Michael F. (keyboards; ex-Platypus Rex); and Robert Kennedy (keyboards).

Potemkin: Sept. 28, 1985

Potemkin: Sept. 28, 1985

Songs are speedily written, practised, and recorded before the show. Sri, who runs the rhythm programs, suggests that once he starts the program for a song he might as well leave the stage, but is convinced that it's a bad idea.

The concert is a big success, but a drunken Michael physically attacks a female housemate of some of the band members afterwards back at Kathedral A, the band's headquarters (practice and recording space). After causing considerable trouble and breaking one of the front windows, he is hauled away by the cops to spend the night in the drunk tank. He quits and/or is expelled from the group.

Graham: Sept. 28, 1985

Graham: Sept. 28, 1985

A tape is released, Two Songs from Violence and the Sacred, representing material from the Chris and Cosey show. The tape gets plenty of airplay on local campus station CKLN -- enough to cause one listener to pledge money to the station during a fund-raiser, if only they would not play the tape.

Another band is formed later in the fall, with most of the same members: Time Collapse Agony. (The idea is that Time Collapse Agony will follow up on the more ambitious compositional ideas of the musicians, leaving the more off-the-wall, humorous stuff for VatS). At the same time, the idea of VatS mutates - rather than being a "band" with a fixed membership and distinct style, it will be a flexible "project" with changing membership. There will be multiple performing versions of the group, and people will be involved with recording as time and enthusiasm allow.

Time Collapse Agony

Time Collapse Agony. Back: Robert, Soon, Trevor, Graham, Potemkin. Front: Morgan, Sri. Photo: Chris Buck.

Lots of people get involved with the next recording project, a tape of Christmas carols called Santa Satan's Holiday Hellocaust. Among the players on this tape are Soon of the Polkaholics, Janice Maxwell, and Trevor, an ex-Butthole Surfer who contributes a glorious version of God Rest Ye Merrie, Gentlemen. Aside from a few lapses into moralising rhetoric, this hastily-recorded tape stands as one of VatS' best works, certainly their funniest. Out just in time for Christmas, this makes a fine stocking stuffer!

1986

Violence and the Sacred get a manager! Aspiring rock impresario and celebrity photographer Chris Buck takes on the management of possibly the least manageable musical unit the world has yet seen. Band meetings at this time tend to develop into long, drawn-out political or philosophical arguments, with factions representing Sadean nihilism, anarchism, academic post-modernism, radical feminism, etc. etc. Chris convinces the band to do a press kit, which explains some of the group's goals:

One of our primary goals as a band is to provide little-known information: psychic, political, and erotic -- not to mention musical. We would like our projects (recordings, performances, videos) to be catalysts for interaction between the band and audience... The focus of this communication should not be merely our activities but a wide range of topics relating to social breakdown and personal rupture on many levels... The music itself should provoke trance/formations in our listeners as much as it does in ourselves.

Graham and Sri: May 29, 1986

Big band: Graham and Sri at Lee's Palace: May 29, 1986

A new version of VatS, usually called "the big band", is formed to play an Animal Liberation Front Defense Fund benefit concert (some of the members are animal-rights activists or sympathizers; others are not). The big band is more of a rock format, with drums, structured songs including vocals, etc. A good deal of the material is aggressively political, even preachy, unlike the bouncy weirdness of Two Songs and most of Santa Satan. At the benefit concert, the band shares the stage with a bunch of ordinary hardcore punk bands. There are long pauses between songs as the complicated technical set-ups and instrumentation are changed for each new song. A lot of the people in the audience don't know what to think.

Graham, Lynna, Ted Parkinson, Frank (hat) at Lee's Palace: May 29, 1986

Big band: Graham, Lynna, Ted Parkinson, Frank (hat) at Lee's Palace: May 29, 1986

The material from this concert is recorded and makes up the bulk of the material on the next tape, Cathexis (or Cat Hex Is), along with the reappearance of the two songs from the first tape. Reviews are mixed: some people are put off by the stridency of the lyrics.

In April the big band opens for David Thomas (of Pere Ubu), who plays with Chris Cutler, Tony Maimone, and Lindsay Cooper. In June, the band travels to St. Catharines, where they and another Toronto group, Fred Spek's band Blank Crowd, play a local legion hall. In a concert well-attended by bikers and legion fellows, VatS manages to break the circuits at least five times in the course of a what would normally have been about a 60-minute set, owing to the massive drain on resources caused by electrical instruments and amplifiers, PA system, slide show, video monitors, and a video camera which recorded the entire fiasco. Fortunately, being well-lubricated, the locals are patient and the crowd doesn't turn ugly.

Sri and Potemkin: 1986

Sri and Potemkin: 1986

By late summer there are three versions of the band, each quite different from the other. The big band continues, with Graham on bass, electric 'cello and vocals, Lynna on vocals and some percussion, Frank Szabo (who has replaced Morgan) on drums, Robert on keyboards, Potemkin on heavily-processed guitar, Ted Parkinson on guitar, sax and vocals, Sri on keyboards/samplers and programming. An "off-stage" member, St. Deborah, contributes lyrics and taped voice.

Potemkin at Ildiko's: November 10, 1986

Potemkin at Ildiko's: November 10, 1986

The big band uses a lot of visuals, particularly slides. The size of the group is completely unwieldy, especially live, and the "arrangements" tend to involve everyone playing all the time, so the live sound is often a mess (a situation which is not helped by the usual deaf and unimaginative rock sound people, who make their contribution).

The second version of the group is a quartet (Sri on synth/sampler and programs, Graham on electric bass and 'cello, Potemkin on guitar, Ted Wheeler on guitar). This group is a bit closer to the first version of the group, and to the short-lived Time Collapse Agony, doing idiosyncratic composed instrumental music including samples and noise. (The quartet doesn't actually debut until November 10.)

Ted Wheeler at Ildiko's: November 10, 1986

Ted Wheeler at Ildiko's: November 10, 1986

The final formation of the band is the "improvising group" (or improv group). This is the most challenging and difficult version of the group, the material being completely improvised (but not in a jazz sense); atonal, non-rhythmic, noisy, disjointed - an improv group show can be a disturbing experience, and each one is different. Sri plays synth/sampler, sometimes drum machine, and tapes; Ted Wheeler play guitar and tapes; Graham plays electric 'cello, Korg MS-20, and tapes; and, again, St. Deborah provides taped texts but does not appear on stage.

Graham and Ted: 1st improv group show: May 16, 1986

Graham and Ted: 1st improv group show: May 16, 1986
Photo: Chris Buck

The use of tapes is a defining characteristic of the improv group. Each on-stage member has at least one tape player at his disposal, and an assortment of tapes at each concert to draw from: kitschy dollar-bin music, classical music and opera, motivational and promotional tapes, religious and news broadcasts, pop music, etc., as well as St. Deborah's readings (usually chosen and played by Sri). Because of the cacophonous, messy nature of the music, these readings (and sometimes some of the found tapes) become centre-pieces for both the live shows and the recordings made from them.

Ted and Sri: 1st improv group show: May 16, 1986

Ted and Sri: 1st improv group show: May 16, 1986
Photo: Chris Buck

The improv group shows vary in the use of visual accompaniment, from no visuals to an overwhelming visual assault from multiple TV monitors, video projection, slides, etc.

While these various formations of the group are practising and/or performing, the line-up is expanded for a recording project, a cover of the saucy 1967 pop hit Windy, by The Association, commissioned for a cassette compilation of covers by various bands, put together by VatS manager Chris Buck. [The choice of songs, I must immodestly point out, was my idea. Upon hearing that the band was going to cover a pedantic Beatles song (Taxman) I objected, and said, "What about the saucy 1967 pop hit Windy, by The Association?" I rushed out and purchased a 7-inch 45 of the song, gave it to the band, and, sure enough, they recorded their own, vastly superior, version of the song. True story.] In VatS' numerous hands this short pop ditty is transformed into a 13-minute epic, collaging bits of the melody with random noise and shouting, harpsichord improvisation and stock market reports, a lecture deconstructing the song's lyrics, seemingly endless repetitions of the chorus, and even a snatch of the original recording at the end. Guest instrumentalists include the late Michael Smith (harpsichord) and Ron Korb (flute).

This vast, absurd piece becomes the first track on the compilation, called The New Originals - a reference to Spinal Tap. In his introduction to the tape, Chris Buck writes: "I realize now that every band is Spinal Tap; petty band politics and pretensions, gross over-rationalization of their own importance... flash-back visions of Tap-like situations raced through my mind's eye: FILL IN THE REST..." (Luckily, Chris survives his stint as Violence and the Sacred manager, and becomes a successful photographer of famous people in New York.) Whatever the circumstances, Windy is one of VatS' finest moments.

The big band almost falls apart when Lynna, the main vocalist, quits after a November concert. She goes on to form Mourning Sickness, an all-woman experimental/theatrical music group. Robert Kennedy leaves around the same time, followed by Ted Parkinson.

Improv group

Improv group. Photo: Chris Buck

1987

January 13, 1987

The quartet opens for Elliot Sharp in March and Eugene Chadbourne in October. They travel to Montreal and Quebec City in September. The Montreal gig is part of a post-modern poetry festival organized by one Alan L. VatS are among the few performers who actually get paid what they are promised by the organizers, mainly because they show up at the office the day after their performance and intimidate someone into writing them a check on the spot.

The big band plays its last concert in March, opening for Karen Finley at the Diamond Club.

Improv group performing Lost Horizons, May 2, 1987

Improv group performing Lost Horizons, May 2, 1987

The improv group is extremely busy in 1987, playing several shows and recording. Although their music is quite unpleasant and difficult, they become quite popular for a time, filling Toronto venues like the Fallout Shelter (three times) and the Rivoli. They travel to London for two concerts in June (one night with the infamous Nihilist Spasm Band, the other with The Brain Show), and to Montreal for the aforementioned poetry fest.

Teddy Bear Stinks Real Bad Now concert, 1987

Teddy Bear Stinks Real Bad Now concert, 1987

Some of the recordings from these shows are later mixed, treated, and edited in the studio, becoming the cassettes Teddy Bear Stinks Real Bad Now, Arkinoid, No Be Many Maybe, Lost Horizons parts 1 and 2, Maria, Failure Parade, and maybe others. The intensity of their music and the unusually high quality of their recordings make the improv group tapes favourites of the cassette network in Canada, the U.S., and Europe.

Improv group performing Arkinoid, March 13, 1987

Improv group performing Arkinoid, March 13, 1987

A studio piece, Stürmisch Bewegt, is recorded in March and April for A view From Somewhere a John Doe recordings compilation. Stürmisch Bewegt is a studio improvisation over the last movement of Gustav Mahler's 1st Symphony with St. Deborah reading an excerpt from Friedrich Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Sri and Po complete a video and soundtrack entitled Advance in the early fall. They send the finished video to The New Music and Much Music's City Limits (the supposedly "non-mainstream" video show). Because both the video and the music are excellent, it receives no airplay. Nonetheless, Robert Olver includes it as the first track on the Freedom in a Vacuum Release Undying.

Sri, Ted, Graham, late 1987

Sri, Ted, Graham, late 1987

At the end of the year, VatS (mainly Sri, St. Deborah, Graham and Po) undertakes its most ambitious recording project yet, to provide a soundtrack for a 60-minute videotape by John Dubiel. This takes a huge amount of time in December, and gets Sri, Po and Graham in trouble with their house-mates. They are yelled at for not doing their share of the dishes and the general housework. The tension contributes, no doubt, to the nihilism of the final recording, called Suture Self.

1988

Suture Self is completed - there are plans to release the video on a small-scale commercial basis, but they never come to anything. However, Robert Olver, of industrial/experimental music label Freedom in a Vacuum, hears the tapes and offers to release them as an LP on his label. The group accepts, pleased. A 7" single is released first, comprised of "Knife", from the first tape (re-mixed), and an excerpt from Suture Self with St. Deborah reading a text on cancer with a sparse electronic backing. Things are really falling apart by this time. The improv group is, by January, the only active version of the band, and the tension is high here, too. The nihilism and negativity that has characterized the group's work for some time seems to have seeped into everything.

A Winnipeg industrial music networker, Al Lincoln Roy, visits in the spring and members of VatS record two sessions with him, which are turned into two tapes: The Memory Waltz and Baptized and More Involved.

The improv group plays an excellent show in March with sax improviser Jack Wright. This later becomes the cassette Maria, on John Doe recordings. After this concert, Ted quits, leaving Sri, Graham, and to a decreasing extent, St. Deborah, as active members.

Graham and Sri play another interesting improv show in July with the great Philadelphia drummer Jim Meneses (Stick Men, Zeena Parkins, etc.) The tape is never released.

Little more performing takes place for the rest of the year, but a lot of mixing and editing of tapes from live shows and odd studio bits, is done over the course of the summer, so the group still has a steady stream of recorded material being issued by various labels, even though the band is in a lull.

1989

Graham and Sri fall out early in the year. From here on things really get tenuous.

The balls of Violence and the Sacred

The Suture Self LP is finally released during the winter. Sri and Potemkin appear at the release party, along with others, under the name Violence and the Sacred, doing a very different kind of political, song-oriented material. This group later becomes Steal This Book.

Ted and Graham perform as "the balls of Violence and the Sacred" in the fall at the Music Gallery, part of a series curated by Myke Dyer: "The 20th Century and how to leave it". They also appear at The Purple Institution. A low point is reached when, at a concert at the Rivoli in Toronto, the audience totals 2: Fred Spek and eh.

In December, Graham travels to Europe and meets Christoph Heemann of H.N.A.S. in Aachen, Peter Moreels (aka Dr. Piotr Aakoun of Corrosive tapes) in Tournai, and GX Jupitter-Larsen in Amsterdam.

1990

Ted and Graham work on recordings, on and off. Parts of The Song of Labrador are recorded.

1991

Unnamed member of Electro-Static Cat, Christoph Heemann, Graham at Toronto airport, March 1991

Unnamed member of Electro-Static Cat,
Christoph Heemann, and Graham at Toronto airport, March 1991

Graham and Ted play as members of German studio group Hirsche Nicht Auf Sofa as part of a series of concerts organized by Robert Olver at the Music Gallery. The following week just the two of them perform as VatS. This time they are doing strange electronic music, with some guitar, at extremely high volume, sufficient to induce pain. Surveying the audience from the back of the room, Robert Olver smilingly observes that he is the only person there not plugging his ears.

Christoph Heemann returns to Germany, where he plays the most recent VatS studio material for Artware Audio, who decide to release it as a CD.

1992

A final mix is done of the material for the Artware Audio CD; it is to be called The Song of Labrador. The CD is released in September. The following is Graham's explanation of the title:

The title track was mostly recorded in the Spring of 1990. During the late 1980's NATO conducted low-level military flight-testing and cruise missile testing in Labrador. These were extremely disruptive to the indigenous people of this area. Some details are here. We wrote the rhythmic middle section of the title track with this in mind, trying to juxtapose a "traditional" drum sound with electronic representations of bombing, overhead flights, etc. Kind of a cliche but it was effective.

The rhythm used was actually Iraqi in original, shamelessly stolen from a wonderful Ocora album, Irak: Makamat. Little did we know in the spring of 1990 that both the Innu of Labrador and people of Iraq would share the common experience of NATO war machinery. The CD's front cover depicts this, although not in a decipherable manner. And the blow-up of the ear on the inside belongs to Saddam Hussein.

The Canadian government still uses Labrador as a military test bed. In retrospect, the CD should have been called The Song of Nitassinan

Ted and Graham continue to record as Violence and the Sacred, also contributing a version of Mille Regretz, by Josquin des Pres (ca. 1440-1521) to Hare, Hunter, Field: a Portuguese compilation CD.

1993-1995

Ted and Graham, 1993

Ted and Graham, 1993

The current duo finish mixing a second CD worth of material, but don't actively look for anyone to release it. Darkness descends.

1996-2006

Fitful, nightmare-filled sleep.

2007

A stupefied giant, unconscious for years from sampling the bitter dregs of fabricated vicissitudes, awakens: transformed, unrecognizable, basaltic ....

2008

Rusty Pile

Rusty Pile

The group, if that is the correct term, records extensively. The work is studio bound as Graham builds a "traditional" studio based on a Tascam 58 8-track 1/2 inch reel to reel recorder. Sounds sources are mostly analogue synths, old taped bits and pieces, destroyed sounds, cello, etc.

In October, after several production-related delays, a CD, Rusty Pile is released. A 2nd CD is planned for January 2009.

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