13 Mar Classified Information – The Vatican Shadow Files
“The Hardest Working Man In The Industry” is one of those glorifying terms that have been (mis)used to the point where they work best as a meme and are usually hard to be taken seriously. Still, even though there’s no *industry* to classify him into, it may be the best term to describe Dominick Fernow’s work ethic, all memes and humor aside (except when his own work demands it), and his mission to keep the underground alive.
Embodying a definition of a modern day polymath, Fernow, New York City’s Hospital Productions’ boss and multimedia artist has been involved in countless (self-initiated) projects: most notably a fierce-noise powerhouse Prurient, a witch-hunt death dub of Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement, black metal band Ash Pool and many more (listed at the end of this article). It’s a calling and an act of necessity after all.
“My work was never intended to stand alone but rather become a cumulation of ’research’ (smaller releases focussing on specific content and sounds) and the result of this research would be called ‘albums’ which deal less in specifics and incorporates the wider spectrum of that research.” (The Quietus, 2020)
However, instead of doing an impossible Sisyphus’ work of trying to capture his whole discography (and thus missing the point), I will laser focus on Vatican Shadow, Fernow’s “militant religious industrial – music for assassins on the world-scale board game upon which it isn’t clear who is winning or what side you are on.” Or his ‘dance project‘ if you like…
The article is divided into several sections; part one introduces the project’s background. Part two presents (what I find to be) the four key takeaways from Vatican Shadow’s practice. The third part is less formal, dissecting his musical opus through what I see as its five main phases. The part four is centered around *mood playlists* for newsletter library and, finally, there’s a part five, encouraging a further research.
Behind the shadow
Vatican Shadow’s groundwork had been laid a decade ago, simultaneously with creation of Prurient’s *Los Angeles trilogy* (Bermuda Drain, Time’s Arrow, Through The Window), when Fernow had been touring Europe, listening to minimal techno, learning MIDI programming and experimenting with making beats (while driving at night through tunnels).
Even though foundation was same, the intent was different.
“Monikers are simply a reflection of content and contextual starvation. If I can’t find something that I’m looking for regarding a topic or perspective (usually dealing with taboo) I tend to just try to make it myself. I use monikers as a device to remove the pressure from the audience, but also to give emphasis to the art itself rather than the ‘identity’ behind it.” (The Quietus, 2020)
Still, Fact Magazine, in their early review of Vatican Shadow record, expertly cite Prurient’s ‘Pleasure Ground’ (2006) as ‘a clear precedent for Vatican Shadow’s loop-based structures’. Despite being imagined as one-off, Vatican’s work was impossible to ignore and let go; characterized by thought-provoking imagery mostly centered (but not limited) around the USA’s political interests in the Middle East, involving post-Gulf War themes and including artworks depicting paramilitary forces, Hillary Clinton or Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hasan among others. Pitchfork writer Grayson Currin made a nice correlation regarding the artwork of early releases:
“Like a set of early 90 baseball cards, those initial offerings paired depictions of the players of the armed forces—Joe Biden on Larry King Live, Hilary Clinton in front of a Pakistani flag, soldiers prepared for a chemical attack—with antagonistic phrases ripped from headlines or wartime jargon…” (Pitchfork, 2013)
In an interview with (then) Fact Mag’s Kiran Sande, Fernow got into his own vision of what Vatican Shadow means as a project:
“You could also say that Vatican is the total opposite and antithesis of Bermuda Drain, because it doesn’t address the personal world thematically. It’s really more about headlines…I like to describe it as being like a spy game, an espionage board game where you don’t know who’s winning or what side you’re on. I think that’s fair. I like the idea that there are multiple events happening simultaneously, and they may be unrelated, but somehow they’re creating a larger picture. I like the idea of things working behind the scenes, particularly in a sinister way. Even the name Vatican Shadow, and all the song titles, are based around this idea of fear and mistrust…” (FACT, 2012)
He further describes the difference and similarities between Prurient and Vatican Shadow:
“They’re both very personal. It’s just using a different story… First and foremost is the subject matter. Prurient deals with the interior world and Vatican the exterior world. And there has been a conscious effort since Frozen Niagara Falls with Prurient to leave mostly the beats to Vatican. When I was working on Bermuda Drain and Through the Window, that was before and during the birth of Vatican, so that was experimenting and learning and trying to figure out how to make techno. And we did that, so there wasn’t a need for that to exist in the Prurient world, because it was a training ground and an experiment…“ (Treble, 2020)
The weird and pervertedly-engaging song titles (‘Security Cameras and Perimeter Walls as High as 18 Feet Topped With Barbed Wire’, ‘There Was a Black Banner on the Floor’, ‘Voices Came Crackling Across a Motorola Hand-Held Radio’, ‘Shooter in the Same Uniform as the Soldiers’ being only a couple) were another important part of the project. When speaking of those, Fernow said.
“You can’t even make this up, these headlines. They’re like miniature poems. They have a beginning, a middle and an end. Sometimes I just can’t believe my eyes that this is a huge, printed piece of paper on every street corner. It’s almost like the person writing the article is revealing something about themselves when they’re choosing what to emphasize in the story…It’s so grotesque and so absurd and so laughable, that I think recontextualizing that humanizes something that’s been presented in an incredibly inhuman way.” (Red Bull Music Academy, 2015).
He (rightfully) doesn’t consider these themes to be taboo though claiming that “This is mainstream stuff. It’s been on every magazine stand and bodega for the past 20 years. It’s mainstream America.” (Treble, 2020). Still, the project keeps ambiguity as one of its core values, remaining ‘neutral’ and trying to make you overcome the fear of thinking with your own head (something I will touch upon later in the article).
“My mission is to recontextualise the story on an individual basis through ambiguity. When you are presented with a familiar story, but the sequence is out of order, that is a device which, I hope, can lead people to drop some of their prejudices and think twice about what they are already bringing to this story. So, for this reason, the ambiguity is essential to the project. And its ultimate purpose in trying to break apart the assumptions that many people carry, when they approach a subject like that, is to ultimately overcome fear. The project is really about fear and overcoming it.” (NSNS, 2018)
Fernow considers music to be a ‘misunderstood media form’, claiming that ‘it isn’t an identity but can be a fantasy…‘ (Artribune, 2020). It’s only right to say that all this ‘preparation’ wouldn’t matter much if the actual sonic side of the project hadn’t been equally (if not even more) addictive, so the third chapter in this article will go through Vatican Shadow’s whole discography, seen through what I’ve distinguished as five phases, in order to portray the project in a more vivid way. In a nutshell, Vatican Shadow is a Techno project, but not necessarily the way you may imagine it while hearing the term usually associated with clubbing and extroverted behaviour.
“There’s been tons of ‘industrial techno’ for years; what’s changed is the listeners and the way people are hearing it. Before the only place you’d hear it is in the clubs or through 12-inches predominantly. It was music created for a certain environment to serve a function. What’s changed is you know have home listeners who are coming forward and aren’t there to dance or do drugs necessarily.” (Self-Titled, 2013)
Finally, as FACT’s Joseph Morpugo noted: “Vatican Shadow definitely isn’t Fernow’s noisiest project, but you could happily call it his most obsessive“, intelligently leading it back to Fernow’s definition of Noise as ‘freedom to pursue personal obsessions‘. Vatican Shadow is essentially the introvert techno music – designed for nights of relentless researches, dark-web digging and overthinking in general. To cite John Calvert (of FACT, again): “while Prurient was totalitarian in its construction, Vatican Shadow leaves much more room for the individual“. Prurient forces you onto itself directly, the vocals and feedback just demand attention and want you to pour everything out; Vatican Shadow creeps in the background, consistent in its subtleness, never letting you completely process what quicksand it truly is.
Key takeaways from Vatican Shadow’s practice:
01. Constraints breed creativity
Doing “whatever you want” is often more a curse than a blessing. Constraints breed creativity, they force you to act, move, think, sharp and find a solution. Sometimes the constraints and limitations are already there, sometimes we have to create them ourselves. If you find yourself stuck, limit your tools (Schneider, 2016).
Judging by its predetermined anxiety of choice, you could say that the whole Vatican Shadow project had been done under constraints, but Fernow utilized that approach in Prurient too: “The main criteria in recording the ‘Bermuda Drain’ album to begin with was that not a single piece of equipment, down to the pedals and microphones, could have ever been used on any previous Prurient record.” He also adds: “I always like to work with a restriction; placing restrictions on yourself is oftentimes a way to break through into some unfamiliar territory.”
Scholar Jason Bell (2017) says that our brains rely on patterns to ease the burden of thinking. This happens at sub-conscious and conscious levels. Sometimes constraints, oddly enough, can break us out of our associative ruts. For this to work, the constraint needs to push us away from our natural schemas, rather than toward them.
In some manner, the format of music release could be an obstacle itself:
“I had a critique of some collages I did with Vatican Shadow asking, “Why are these on 8 1/2 x 11 paper? Why isn’t it the size of a wall? Why isn’t it really tiny? Why are you using generic standardized formatting?” It forced me to realize that the limitations of music formatting is part of what excites me. Because It forces you to be creative, and think, “What can I do differently with what I have?””
This leads us to conclusion that creativity tends to be situational, rather than some inborn superpower, but also a problem-solving skill. This model, developed by psychologist Patricia Strokes, has come to be called “little ‘c’ creativity” —a form of creativity not necessarily focused on producing creative works but rather on solving practical problems through new uses and applications of resources (Sonenshein, 2017).
My favorite ‘constraint’ from Vatican Shadow’s practice is how, even from its earliest days, it manages to avoid any cliches which someone would normally associate with ‘Middle Eastern sounding project’. FACT’s John Calvert noticed that too in his article:
“While a lesser producer might have, say, sampled Al-Jazeera, here the FX and textures make only obtuse, indirect reference to the setting, while Middle Eastern rhythms are completely absent.” (FACT, 2013)
Finally, in his interview with Noise Receptor journal, Fernow commented on the *double-edged sword* dimension of the aforementioned ideas: “It isn’t about inconvenience for the sake of itself, but as an ethos or an attitude. The danger is only focusing on the tool and not the job itself. The functionlessness of it is so important to the psychological and physical signifiers that can take you to another world…“. Coil’s Peter Christopherson shared a related interesting thought about ‘tools’ in one of his interviews (Montreal, 2003), saying how it’s not important whether you use Ableton or some analog gear, what’s important is your disrespect towards its ‘recommended’ use.
It’s important to constantly update your progress though, yesterday’s constraints quickly become tomorrow’s safe havens.
02. Raise questions
Despite its visual nature, you will not find Vatican Shadow, nor any of Fernow’s projects, using social media in any shape of form. He considers it a cultural decision, a highly destructive element, and claims that it shifts the spotlight from the artist to every other thing they do.
“It used to be when you went to a show, you had the shirt because you went to the show, and the only way to get the shirt was to go to the show. You formed an experience and relationship with the band and the music. Now there’s this expression of reducing everyone to the same category, you know? It seems like it’s only cool to like something if you don’t really mean it**…It’s classic modern-elitism, in that you don’t have to attend the show nowadays, instead you have to have a picture of the show. There are completely different ideas and motivation…” (The Seventh Hex, 2015)
**Some of this could also be connected to a concept of social (or ideal) self, already discussed here.
Mystery pays off, if you can afford it. James Jebbia, founder of Supreme, recently said that: “Supreme didn’t even have a website until six or seven years ago. Inaccessibility is a value, since it enforces people to actually put an effort into discovering who you are. I think this will be a key component of the next creative wave.“
Attention span in today’s age is at an all-time low, creative content must be understood instantly, otherwise there is no traction. The paradox of this is that the output has to be familiar and uncomplicated, but also astonishing and new (MSI, 032c, 2018).
Fernow recognizes this issue too: “Getting back to this idea of time and information loss and mystery and sequence, I think that one of the saddest parts about the time we live in, the information era, is that there is an attempt to answer every question immediately. I think when you do that, you’re really losing the pleasure and experience of investing into something.” (TinyMixtapes, 2011)
Vatican Shadow’s releases are ambiguous (‘Art requires ambiguity‘, Artribune, 2020), elusive and sometimes even frightening, full of hidden references. Their physical editions are usually of a very limited nature, especially when pressed on tapes. But eventually, inaccessibility of that nature makes people do articles like this one. Music often makes us deepen our relationship with ourselves, but there also has to be some exchange in order for relationship to truly blossom.
“That’s what I used to like about music when I was a kid: I didn’t know everything about the people making it. I wanted to feel like I wanted to know more, that I didn’t have all the answers and was learning something. If you go in like “I have all the answers,” there’s no exchange. It’s a desire to try to discover something, even if it’s discovering something about yourself.” (Consequence of Sound, 2015)
In that way, raising questions comes off as a responsibility of an artist.
“That’s my aim: to make you feel something. Even if those feelings are negative or uncomfortable, that’s important to me. I think raising questions and not providing answers is ultimately the goal.” (FACT, 2012)
03. Content matters
But how do you raise questions? Does being experimental for experimental’s sake work?
There’s a nice Kiran Sande quote addressing that field: “There’s no risk or transgression in calling your track “B15587” …however good the music might be. Nobody grills a house or dubstep producer on what their music is actually about, because we know from the outset it’s not about anything, and nor do we expect it to be. But after a while you begin to crave content, don’t you? At this point in my life I want to be provoked, I want to be romanced, I want to be made to feel stupid and confused all over again.“
‘Crave content‘ is actually the key part, content builds mythology around you. Going back to marketing theory, storytelling can be an important tactical tool in a fragmented media world. Because there is such media fragmentation, people are not just looking for different experiences but different delivery. Why should someone give you their time? Do you offer something different?
Fernow is (reasonably) critical of the ‘safe’ radicalism by today’s artists: “A lot of the industrial stuff that I see coming out follows a template: a band symbol, a logo, a manifesto, and some ‘radical political ideology’ attached to it. Yet, it all just feels so unconvincing and predictable. The language of Industrial does not speak with certainty. Yet, voices of certainty are all around … Content isn’t the issue, but that it doesn’t feel believable, and by believable I mean at least sincere interest in the topics or the fantasy … These ‘declarations’, these ‘manifestos’, they mostly reek of insecurity to me.” (Noise Receptor, 2018)
One can understand this criticism since storytelling and mythology are deeply omnipresent in Fernow’s work, claiming that mythology is “an essential tool in our brains to deal with abstraction” (The Quietus, 2020.). He utilizes it to the point of obsession:
“I think what’s valuable about religion in a modern, contemporary society for young people who are living in a secular society is that in some ways it still deals with mythology. Mythology is essentially the language of symbols and symbols by default are abstractions of something other than themselves. I think if science really wants to take a foothold within the psyche, it needs to start incorporating the language of mythology. Every time we’re reading we are participating in symbols. Reading in itself, like, letterforms have no fucking value. It’s all about abstract thinking, and abstract thinking is problem solving.” (Vice, 2015)
There is also another side of the ‘content’ – the media’s one – we may love it or hate it, but it obviously succeeds in its distorted ways. Media thinks of everything in terms of it being a potential ‘product’; if it exists there must be a way to brand it and thus exploit it. Propaganda lives off content in the end, no matter the nature of it. Related to the themes of Vatican Shadow, Fernow touches upon the ideas of memorialisation and branding the tragedy:
“In regards to terrorism, for example. You know, when you hear about the victims of terrorism, it is predominantly focused and categorised through deaths. But the real statistical product of terrorism is not death. It’s permanent disfigurement and injury. It’s almost unheard of that. That deaths supersede injury. So how do you memorialise injury? How do you memorialise something, that is ongoing and permanent… I was in the Boston airport when there was the Boston attack, it was a week later, I was going through security and there was a moment of silence. And they had a logo for the attack already.“ (NSNS, 2018)
So that is exactly where Vatican Shadow’s content comes in the play – processing the aftermath:
“It’s not really about war. It’s not about killing! Specifically with Vatican Shadow it’s about the media. It’s the product. The documentation. The iconography… We are bombarded with imagery especially with imagery of war, so it is more about what is behind the desire and need to consume and need to see war. It’s not necessarily about fighting or combat, it’s about what happens after, it’s about what happens next.” (NSNS, 2018)
In his seminal work “Dreams, Memories, Reflections”, psychologist Carl Gustav Jung once said that true innovation only happens when someone takes the knowledge from one field to another, and subsequently applies it in practice. No matter the alias, Dom seeks inspiration outside of his primary medium too.
“I never start with music. Sound is always the last part of the project. I’m inspired by words and images, primarily by reading. And that’s not to say that the sound of the music is not important. It’s just not what inspires or motivates me. The power noise once had is it was never about music. It was never about noise. It always took an inspiration from somewhere else. You had something that’s essentially abstract and yet, had so much of a presence. If sound and images are too abstract, I lose interest. And if they’re too direct, I lose interest. There has to be a non sequitur in this.” (Self-Titled, 2013). He adds: “The sound is only a location for the characters and events to take place in.” (Style Zeitgeist, 2017).
Construal level theory (CLT) is a theory in social psychology that describes the relation between psychological distance and the extent to which people’s thinking is abstract or concrete. CLT divides mental construals into two levels: the high-level and the low-level. High-level construals are a way of thinking in a big-picture way; thinking about the overall idea of the situation and extracting its main gist. Low-level construals are more detail-oriented or subordinate thought processes. At the low level, more emphasis is placed on how the situation is different from others, whereas at the high level the focus is more on finding how they are similar (Trope, Yaacov L., 2012). Vatican Shadow’s work utilizes the low-level approach. In context of your content, it could be the little details which add the human element to your story.
A lot of it is just headlines. I always look for the thing in the title that is unusual. The details of these stories, that’s what excites me. Chechen soldiers communicating on radio, but what kind of radio is it? It’s a Motorola handheld radio. I like that kind of detail, because that’s the human element. I think it just builds an atmosphere of imagery. Because the sound is abstract and there are no vocals, by bringing in that sort of minutiae, that’s how the audience can connect or start to form a picture. It kind of fills in for the lack of voice.” (Red Bull Music Academy, 2015)
04. Never stop thinking
This one is more of a conclusion out of the previous three.
Following the takeaways of limited accessibility and storytelling, Dominick Fernow balances between the two and doesn’t do interviews as Vatican Shadow, he feels that “silence is essential to the presentation of these themes to allow room for the audience’s own interpretations” (CVLT Nation, 2015).
You cannot (and shouldn’t) aim to change people’s minds, the best thing you can do is to make them think with their own head.
“I actually have no real interest in that and am not advocating any of those theories. I find [conspiracy] interesting as a symbol for collapse, a total lack of trust, a total global failure – I think that’s what’s interesting. I have no agenda. I like the atmosphere of degeneration and fear that Vatican conjures. It’s very poetic.” (FACT, 2012). “Control is a cause, and resistance is an effect, but the root of the problem is morality. The very heart of underground music is ultimately the struggle against morality.” (Noise Receptor, 2018).
He repeats the similar sentiment in another interview…
“There’s not a literalism. It’s about taking a familiar story and rearranging the elements, remaking the timeline in the hopes that people will look again. There’s a difference between being told what to think and having people walking away thinking that there’s more. There’s a message, but the message is not necessarily clear, and that’s by design.” (Treble, 2020)
Author Carl Hendrick (2016) proposes that instead of teaching generic critical-thinking skills, we ought to focus on subject-specific critical-thinking skills that seek to broaden a student’s individual subject knowledge and unlock the unique, intricate mysteries of each subject.
According to the earlier takeaway about importance of ‘raising questions’, Fernow continues: “We’ve become very polarized and very reactionary, one side or the other. That’s a really dangerous territory to be entering into. The goal in education is to be able to think and not just react. If you’re just following one doctrine or the next, that’s not really a discussion going on. It’s hitting someone over the head with one perspective or the other, and there’s no room for a conversation to open up in terms of music or the creation of art. You have to have questions, not answers. You need to go through that process experience without knowing, because that’s why you’re going through the process to find to answer, not “I already know what it is.”” (Consequence of Sound, 2015)
Critical thinking became a watered-down buzzword, an excuse for procrastination, an ‘it’ term used overly free in post-modern education practice.
Public school teacher D.J. Buck recognized this problem well:
“There is choice reading, wherein students select the books and material that most interests them, spend time reading it during the school day, using a reading journal, and then design their own final projects. On paper, this makes sense, but to focus on student-centered lessons and choice-based reading, which restricts students to their personal interests and existing genre preferences, is to deny them the ability to learn anything new or meaningful. Our role as educators is to show our students the history, culture, philosophy and science that they would not otherwise learn, not to reinforce their existing adolescent interests. When many students lack the knowledge necessary for critical thinking—or reading—such initiatives work against the inculcation of such skills. They merely reinforce the students’ naturally acquired cultural knowledge, which helps maintain their interest, but teaches them nothing new.“
To doubt well, it takes time and knowledge. As scholar Sara Guyer (2020) notes: “We can live with post-truth. We can’t live with post-analysis, post-criticism, post-interpretation, post-humanities. That would be the real crisis.”
Buck’s indication of danger that comfort zone produces for the mind is advocated by Dominick Fernow too:
“This crippling fear that so many people have to do anything at all that’s stepping outside of their safety net, I think it’s really a mistake for their own work, and I really don’t think you begin to understand how your work is operating, or understand the full power of the gestures and tools that you use, until you take it out of its ‘natural’ context. That’s the only way to develop and grow as an artist. So in some ways, the stranger the event, the more interesting I think it is. And more relevant. It has so much more impact when you have a noise band playing on a bill with two rock bands rather than just having three noise bands playing together.”
Finally, being critical, taking risks and taking yourself out of comfort zone leads to growth:
“Be your own worst critic…There’s nothing I’ve heard anyone say negative about me or the band or any aspect of it that I haven’t already thought of before. You have to be critical. The last thing this fucking world needs is another record, especially one from Prurient. We have to be very conscious about what we’re putting out with such an overwhelming amount of material that’s being produced.” (Consequence of Sound, 2015)… “Taking risks is essential for any artist. The most seminal moment of the early days was the revelation that putting out tapes counted as running a ‘record label’…Everyone told me at the time it would not last 5 months. It stayed open for 5 years and we closed it on our own terms.” (Style Zeitgeist, 2017)
So just like the title says, never stop thinking.
Phase one: Corroded Tape Techno (2010, 2011)
The project’s early days were based on rusty, industrial loops which were literally running until the tape ends.
“It was really this idea of loops that are unchanging, where there isn’t a beginning and there isn’t an end – you come into the track and you feel like it’s been in progress before you arrived, it isn’t defined by your presence. It’s not like you’re here, OK the track’s starting, OK now it’s finished, now you go away. I wanted more of a voyeuristic feeling, like you’re being led into an event that’s already in progress and isn’t affected by your presence. So Vatican Shadow is still like that in a sense, as it’s still essentially loops, I wouldn’t call that material songs, there’s no real songwriting there, it’s mostly just atmosphere.” (FACT, 2012)
The work made back then can be best described as a paranoid collection of martial tape-techno whose corroded design matches the rustiness of assault rifles sold to middle-Eastern paramilitary forces on the black market… These tapes were like a soundtrack to a PTSD-inducing, tense chopper rides where no words are spoken, just occasional eye contacts are made, and only visible emotion is seen through fingers gripping the aforementioned rifles which, of course, don’t have serial numbers… A pre-meltdown stuff that makes you close your windows and turn the lights off…
The rare early tapes, industrial-rooted “Byzantine Private CIA”, “Mural of Saddam” and “Yemeni Commandos” were recently reissued as a double LP and personally I think they make the most sense as a whole. “Kneel Before Religious Icons” is a seminal work, possibly the most straightforward one (in terms of a project’s original concept), “Pakistan Military Academy“, often perceived as his best early work, is a proper downtempo nail-biter, perfectly flowing off ‘Kneel…’. Finally there’s a colorful anxiety of “Washington Buries Al Qaeda Leader at Sea” trilogy (recently reissued and remastered), an often overlooked masterwork of nervous and broken Techno, Middle East arms market scenery and funereal Ambient.
Also released during this era is a split tape with Akitsa’s co-conspirator Contrepoison “The Serpent Carries Him Back Into Paradise“, built on fuzzy *Wave* and one of the Vatican’s ‘lost’ gems, which may also be a byproduct of some initial Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement’s sessions…
Phase two: Killshot era (2012)
Why killshot? Because every single hit was a headshot. Simple as that. So let’s start with his work on the home turf first.
Someone on YouTube recently said something about missing the days when ‘Dominick didn’t know how to make Techno yet’, referring to the Vatican Shadow’s early days. Perhaps, no other release evokes that nostalgia better than “Operation Neptune Spear“; a twenty-minute powerhouse assembled of experimental rehearsals for his first live show, when he still used to play the Prurient card here and there, just to fight the nervousness (or ‘Impostor syndrome’?) off I guess. The result is some of the finest lo-fi goth, noise and techno collages that you will encounter, sounding like a radio signal going on and off in the middle of nowhere…
That release, together with (recently remastered, reissued and expanded) “Kuwaiti Airforce” may be the easiest records to distinguish from others in this original run. Their flow of ideas sounds like a nervous channel-switching when you find out some bad news. Also, there is a strong usage of reverb, distortion – mercilessly butchering songs with a chaotic noise. With that said, it’s just easy to see the shades of Prurient here, so I’d probably call “Kuwaiti Airforce” a *Vatican Shadow remixed by Prurient* or *desert-Techno getting a Doom Electronics treatment*, taking place at a desolate airforce landing spot – I mean why not…
Contrary to aforementioned chaos, something different had been prepared for the launch of Fernow’s new label (Hospital’s off-shoot) Bed of Nails, marked by his relocation to Los Angeles and focused on “industrial dancefloor rhythms and seductively isolated electronics“. There goes “September Cell” – not only that neither of Vatican Shadow’s records sounded so clean and polished to that point, but it also had some unusually ‘standard’ ‘song’ formatting. The EP was / is a pure atmospheric Ambient Techno brilliance, flirting with occasional breakbeats and ceremonial ambiance, even pervertedly channeling the vintage Aphex Twin vibes.
[It’s important to mention the “The Sharp Lines that Delineate His Robes” EP which, not long after, Fernow released on Bed of Nails under his Christian Cosmos moniker. Even to some trained ears, it’s hard to distinguish the exact line which draws the difference between Christian Cosmos and Vatican Shadow in 2012 – that may be the exact reason why Dominick soon abandoned this, visually and mythologically lesser project. Still, in the fall of 2012, there weren’t any Vatican Shadow tracks sounding simultaneously as massive and clean as ‘The Angular Positions Of His Ghost’ for example. If we were speaking of pure Industrial in club surroundings – not necessarily Industrial Techno but literal Industrial – it hardly gets better and concrete than this; a proper predecessor to ‘Remember Your Black Day’ I would say.]
None of this could prepare us for the exquisite trilogy of what later became known as ‘It Stands To Conceal’ compilation.
“Ghost of Chechnya” is possibly Vatican Shadow’s most *religious* offering, primarily relying on tense, stressful (but unexplainably blissful) ambience which seems like it can be disrupted anytime by sudden, out-of-nowhere missile airstrikes. Matter fact, that’s exactly what happens a couple of times throughout the record, with unstoppable Industrial marches ‘ruining’ the *aura of higher presence* and running until the tape ‘ends’, just to remind you that you’re not in control… Heaven and hell captured simultaneously… Hell on Earth? Maybe…
“Jordanian Descent” is a drill of hypnotic, almost tribal, mind-altering repetitive electronics, covering the grey area between Industrial, ‘screwed’ Techno and Dub. This record is a definitive proof of how much trance-inducing the music of Vatican Shadow can be when given enough time to build itself up.
“Atta’s Apartment Slated For Demolition” is the unobtrusive midnight Techno, ready to soundtrack a sleep-deprived night of starring into WikiLeaks articles while downloading some random files off dark web… Possibly his most subtle one and a pinnacle in *background music*…
Around this time, Vatican Shadow expanded to other ‘outside’ labels too. Modern Love released “Ornamented Walls“, a stellar release containing aforementioned “Operation Neptune Spear” as well as some remixes and new experimental tracks (“Ornamented Walls isn’t an LP so much as a collection of material you might have missed and an addendum of tracks you don’t want to miss.” (Pitchfork, 2012)); it seems like an idea was deconstructing songs rather than building them up, remixing and disfiguring some of his own most accessible tracks – taking all the likability out of them, stripping them to a bare bones but still keeping them as sharp as ever. In the meantime, Type pressed a vinyl version of “Kneel Before Religious Icons” and Blackest Ever Black released “Iraqi Praetorian Guard“, a dessert EP containing two of the best tracks from “Byzantine Private CIA” paired with a Regis’ villainous remix.
I’d also like to note that this ‘era’ also spawned two independent ‘zines; “A Lie Must Tell A Single Story” and “Here Is Where The Story Falls Apart”. I don’t have an access to their full content – if you do, reach out.*
Shout out to Pete Lane for hooking me up with the ‘zines, like he said: ‘I guess the modern underground lives on the internet’. The ‘zines are extremely detailed and obsessively compiled collage pieces – they made me respect and admire the whole Vatican Shadow project even more. Also, they made me delete a page focused on track titles’ sources; as I stated on this site already, this pieces are meant to encourage further research and show admiration, not decipher anything.
Phase three: I.P.O. (2013-2015)
“I usually self-release. And I put what I do into two categories: research and albums. And while the definition of an album is a loose one, and in some cases a literal one based on time duration or formatting, I define the albums as the less-specific combination of the results of the research of the individual releases that I have put out myself, which always deal in specific sounds and subjects. If you’re trying to emphasize the conclusion of the research, a third party is needed in essence to publish the result of that research. Even if you look at it in an academic way. Formatting is important.” (Creative Independent, 2018)
So how do you follow-up such an amazing year? I guess I.P.O.’s the answer. *Phase Three* marked the release of Vatican Shadow’s ‘first proper album’ “Remember Your Black Day“. Most of the project’s notable qualities are still here – conspiratorial concept executed to perfection, tape running out out-of-nowhere, overall discomfort summoned by the sounds of tense Industrial, Dub, jet-black underground Techno and even some disfigured Black Metal, all packed in a cohesive whole which builds up in an organic way, leaving the impression of a narrative and also delivers the first true dance floor rhythms in his opus. I don’t necessarily focus on other reviews or critical acclaim here, but I’m certainly surprised by Pitchfork’s take on this album, insisting how it “repeatedly suggests something that it never becomes: dangerous“, adding how “all this war iconography begins to feel like false provocation” and finally saying how it “didn’t quite nail his gift for making cohesion out of disunity“. I must strongly disagree because for one: isn’t ‘false provocation’ or ‘a tease’ one of the most important aspects of the Vatican Shadow’s project? Expecting ‘answers’ means missing the point. For two, I feel like ‘Remember Your Black Day’ flows perfectly, (like I said) leaving an impression of a linear narrative, rather than shuffling the cards and taking surprise airstrikes.
Soon after, we also got ‘When You’re Crawling” EP – a dessert disc designed to accompany the album and push its leanings towards brute, caustic and never-not-stomping Industrial Techno even further. Practically, it’s the first pure *dance floor* work under the Vatican Shadow moniker, all with a little help of Silent Servant.
The following year brought the “Death Is Unity With God” monolith, assembled of six EPs (“Fireball”, “Enduring Mysteries”, “Easing Of Our Task”, “Oklahoma Military Academy”, “Elohim City” and “April Silencer”). Once again, aesthetically in tact with earlier material, it was a collection of witching-hour stealth operations infiltrating the enemy camp, ideology-fueled silent meditations, nervous mechanics shining through detached optimism and claustrophobic electronics (mis)heard from a bunker under the ground. There was also enough space for new and more experimental approach; from deconstructed-drone field recordings and tribal death march steppers all the way to minimalist gunfire-Techno corrosion and borderline-IDM sound, sounding like Boards of Canada with ‘dark mode on’. When all summed up, it flows like a video game score.
Before silent (in terms of new records) year of 2015, there was one more collaborative record – “Games Have Rules” with Function- it seems like a project which should be the *best of both worlds* but, for my taste, weirdly limits the both sides…
Phase four: Diplomatic Immunity (2016-2018)
You could tell that something was going on (signing with Ostgut in a couple of months) because “Media In The Service Of Terror” was definitely the glossiest Techno record to that point – a point where *I’m not going to club to dance* people would start talking about missing the days when “Dominick didn’t know how to make Techno”… Militant middle-eastern synth leads were still there, just over a (slightly?) more polished Techno tracks; these were a brand new rifles, not the rusty unmarked stuff we were used to… Funnily enough, the transition worked! It still does…
Eight months later there’s “Rubbish Of The Floodwaters” – a post-war scenery and sorrowful ambiance of demolished buildings, monuments and homes. Business as usual you say? Yes, but this time it’s Ostgut as fuck, as Fernow notes: “The concept was to bring together the early hand held tape recording manipulation, the obsessive midi processing and the more recent club oriented live sets” (Style Zeitgeist, 2017) with the signature beautiful soft drums which kinda turn the omnipresent paranoia into a dreamy sequence – observing the aforementioned scenery from some rooftop, not even scared of snipers, feeling like the storm is finally over. Pitchfork, in their review of Floodwaters (because it would be weird to say ‘in their review of Rubbish’), pretty much nailed the sentiment I had in mind when I conceptualized the ‘phase four’:
“Here, Fernow is figuring out how to mold Vatican Shadow to his newfound success, while maintaining a mysterious air. It heightens the contradiction that has always driven Vatican Shadow: while it’s Fernow’s most accessible project, it’s shrouded by an oblique presentation. Before, it was vague references to terrorism abroad and the shadowy nature of modern politics; now, it’s a darker overall sound that’s more within reach, but also more impenetrable. Floodwaters looks like the start of a new era, and it’s not as though Vatican Shadow wasn’t danceable.” (Pitchfork, 2o17)
Soon after that, “Luxor Necropolitics” comes out on Hospital – A continuation of crisp and detailed Ostgut work with ‘main’ disc being probably the peak Vatican Shadow Techno output; a final stage in Fernow’s techno evolution… There was a need to “find the balance between functionality and the decaying atmosphere of belief/non-belief that the subject deals with. We arrived at a terminology of ‘economy of means’ and ‘trading’ in terms of percussion rather than my traditional impulse to constantly add and build drums. The contradictory magic of restraint and decadence is the techno we strive for.” (Style Zeitgeist, 2017).
A dessert disc of this era is “Bunkerterror“, a no remorse Industrial Techno showcase featuring the genre’s master Ancient Methods who just sweeps the floor here. This collaboration also made me think how bad-ass and over-the-top would Vatican Shadow’s track and album titles be if he started doing it in German, but I think everything would kinda get out of hand at that point, don’t you think?
Phase five: Back To Basics (2019)
I have to be honest and say that “Opium Crop Airstrikes” (initially available through Kickstarter) surprised me, primarily because it channels the project’s ‘old’ long-form-industrial meets doom-Techno sound. The ‘screwed’ opener runs for almost fifteen minutes and creates an impeccable atmosphere of oil-war death march and the rest just follows it the way you may expect – fueled by industrial mechanics in a signature overly-suspicious and conspiratorial manner, taking the lead in arms-race brainwashed by religion and ideologies…
The next-up was Berghain 09 released through Ostgut on Vinyl, as a V/A compilation of exclusive songs and a *full* mixed version on Soundcloud. The beautiful thing about the mix is that it isn’t a regular ‘sequence of songs’ that professional DJs usually do, this one is a rhapsody of ideas and sounds, simultaneously sounding like a moodboard and a chaotic stream-of-thought; despite having a full track listing, no one can ever replicate it in the exact same way considering that snippets of so many songs constantly play simultaneously; it’s just one more instance where Fernow used the back door to his own benefit.
A Halloween reworks collection “Church Of All Hallows Eve” was a little bit ‘suspicious’ release (in elitist, or as Boomkat would say, fiends’ eyes) due to being ‘Amazon Exclusive’. Still, that obviously didn’t have anything to do with its brilliance – fueled by horror synths it was strong from start to finish, giving as a (sort of) mashup that we never even imagined to get from VS. This is the point where I realized how strong Vatican Shadow’s opus truly is, when you have a record this good and it barely cracks the top ten favorites…
Finally, for the decade’s finale, there was the “American Flesh For Violence”. Six ‘new’ unreleased tracks and a couple of remixes by the ‘familiar’ faces (Alessandro Cortini, Ancient Methods, JK Flesh, Regis…) who practically draw a blueprint of how ‘remixes’ should be done – or how good a remix can be when the remixer understands the project’s core and still has enough skill to keep it in his own sound… All the moods, feels and sounds mentioned earlier in the article are here – it’s all here and it’s beautiful…
Initially, this section ended here, not knowing what future direction the project will take. In the meantime, 2020 brought us two brand new releases so let’s put them in here for a start.
The first release, a collaborative EP with Salford Electronics ‘Temple Gas Mask’ (released on Hospital Productions); a mini-release containing one signature slow burner by Vatican Shadow, two new Minimal Techno excursions (SE solo and SE+VS), and two more remixes of Salford Electronics’ ‘Deconstruction’; a track which had already been remixed by VS in the past… After that, there was a special treat in form of a brand new LP, titled ‘Persian Pillars of the Gasoline Era’, released on the metal label 20 Buck Spin. The record was some of the Vatican’s most textured work to date (at moments it reminded me of ‘Berghain 09’ mix or even earlier live experiments such as ‘Operation Neptune Spear’) in the way that it sounds like he’s playing a couple of different tracks simultaneously, like layering Muslimgauze tracks over Techno kicks and adding another Vatican Shadow synth line over it. To prove the point, listen to ‘Ayatollah Ferocity (The Refinery At Abadan)’ for example, which is like Ancient Methods remixing Suicide’s remix of Muslimgauze. In some elitist way, you may say that he abandoned Berghain’s dance floor in order to get back to his roots, but took them to a whole different level (again!).
Almost a year later, Bandcamp Fridays seem like a plague; birthing so much uninspired and ‘concept’ albums whose only concept is tautology – being there because of the Friday itself, something which eventually had a contra-effect; making people buy music any day other than the Bandcamp Friday. Still, one in the March of 2021 brought us a new Vatican tape SR-71 Blackbird Survivors, a *research* based around the US military ‘spybird’ conceived during the Cold War. Sonically, the tape usually finds the most comfort in the night-vision aura of legendary tapes such as Atta’s Apartment, or even the cross-genre eclecticism of Death Is Unity With God. It’s remarkable how, even this long in its tenure (especially for something that was supposed to be a one-off project), Vatican Shadow still finds the room to grow, without abandoning his unmistakably signature sound but connecting the dots instead; giving you the new sound just to hit you with those PTSD-inducing synths when you least expect them. *Never reveal the secrets of the world’s most ominous techno project.*
*REWORK IN PROGRESS. PLEASE BE PATIENT. I WILL EMAIL YOU REGARDING CHANGES.* [April, 2021]
Organized Playlists / The Cheat Sheet
Boiler Room (London, 2013) / Boiler Room (San Francisco, 2014) / RBMA (New York, 2013) / NTS (London, 2013), Varvara Festival (Torino, 2014) / Mosaique (Saint Petersburg, 2019), Dekmantel Festival (2019) / Reaktor Festival (w/ Ancient Methods) (2019)
Remixed by Vatican Shadow:
Addictionproblem – Doom Generation (Vatican Shadow Remix)
Akkord – Typeface / Greyscale (Vatican Shadow’s The World Is Complete)
Anastenaria (Vatican Shadow Version)
Azar Swan + Vatican Shadow & Cut Hands – We Hunger (Vatican Shadow Remix)
Covered In Sand – Heaven’s Gate Suicides (Vatican Shadow Remix)
Dave i.d. – AWIDK (Vatican Shadow Remix)
Endon – Etude for Lynching by Family (Vatican Shadow Remix)
Expander – Volta Forte (Vatican Shadow 4/4 Remix)
Expander – Volta Forte / Once Strong (Vatican Shadow Broken Remix)
The Field – Cupid’s Head (Vatican Shadow Mix)
Function – Psychic Warfare (Vatican Shadow Remix)
Massimo Iannece – The Birth Of Hatred (Vatican Shadow Remix)
My Flower – Rea (Vatican Shadow Remix)
Recondite – Abscondence (Vatican Shadow Remix)
Ron Morelli – Confused Position (Vatican Shadow Remix)
Salford Electronics – Deconstruction (Vatican Shadow Remix)
These Hidden Hands – Ivy (Vatican Shadow Remix)
Violetshaped – Delusory Parasitosis (Vatican Shadow Remix)
Dominick Fernow’s other projects:
Christian Cosmos + December Magic + Exploring Jezebel Force Publique Congo + Machinegun Warfare + Prurient + River Magic + Sierra Leone Anger + Tortured Hooker + Winter Soldier ——— Ash Pool + Autumn Heart + Cold Cave + Departure Chandelier + Devil’s Dung + Football Rabbit + Jumping Tiger + Macroprurient + Mitochondrial DNA + Los Angeles Death Cult + Nihilist Assault Group + Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement + Roman Cross + Smashed Femur Dance Party + Taylor Bow + Time Crypt + Vegas Martyrs
People on the internet sometimes tend to dismiss Vatican Shadow and bring-up Muslimgauze for elitist reasons. That is completely ignorant since Dominick Fernow never avoided the Muslimgauze discussions and always praised the Bryn Jones’ work directly (words) or indirectly (playing his songs in DJ sets). In an interview with Self-Titled (2013) he also mentioned his favorite Muslimgauze records, which can also be a good starting point for your dive into it: Veiled Sisters, Betrayal, Drug Sherpa, Dome of the Rock. Personally, my favorite is probably Mullah Said so I can’t recommend that one enough.
Dominick Fernow on Muslimgauze:
“I was definitely influenced by his work and, again, I think that part of the genius of this project is that it doesn’t really make any sense. And that’s why it’s compelling to this day. But beyond that, I would say that as much as I was influenced by it at one point, I would say that Vatican Shadow is the opposite of Muslimgauze. Because whether or not it was iconography, he took a position politically at least on a semantic level. Because he included dedications, you know, to certain organisations. So, Vatican is the opposite in the sense that there is no dedication to anyone on any side, that it makes no stands, if it’s iconography or not, it makes no stands within iconography. Or as a political statement, so in this sense it’s a total opposite of Muslimgauze as much as it is influenced by it. But I have a deep respect for his art and it’s incredible, on musical level, to think what he produced, when he made it, how quickly he made it and mostly without computers.” (NSNS, 2018)
Originally published: August, 2019
Last Update: March 17, 2021
* The aforementioned ‘key takeaways’ are not meant to be portrayed as the Dominick Fernow’s agenda, attitude or stance. They are just my observations correlated with some pre-existing knowledge.
** Media theorist Geert Lovink asserts that blogging is “essentially a nihilist exercise, a digital self-fashioning that actually negates critical engagement, privileging self-promotion over analytical interventions.” Nicolas Carr considers it “a flat noise of opinion – a Socrates’ nightmare.” (Falconer, R., 2015.). While this quote, thanks to social media, can easily be translated to a whole internet, there is a honest intent in this article – it’s conceived in order to champion an inspiring artist and possibly encourage others to do their own (rewarding) research.
*** The header image is sourced and cropped from here. The rest of the images are sourced from the Vatican Shadow’s posters, record artworks and ‘zines. The original images are cropped in order to match the site’s visual direction. In case you’re the author and would like to get some images removed, please let me know here.
**** Support the artist’s music by buying it while they are still alive.