Released on Berghain’s house label, Dominick Fernow’s latest is built around clubbier techno atmospheres, but its transitional nature recalls the spirit of his earlier cassette releases.
“They Deserve Death”—
Stateside, Vatican Shadow is considered the industrial techno side project of Dominick Fernow’s main concern, Prurient. That’s not how it is in Europe, where Vatican Shadow is far more popular than Prurient. It was one of the reasons Fernow relocated to Berlin and made Rubbish of the Floodwaters, his first for noted Berlin club Berghain’s house label Ostgut Ton, and one of his few Vatican Shadow releases not on his own Hospital Productions. It’s built around a club atmosphere, although it’s not as huge of a shift as that might suggest.
Two significant Prurient records were influenced by transition—Bermuda Drain’s abrasive synthpop was shaped by traveling through Europe and moving to Los Angeles as part of his tenure with Cold Cave, and returning to a changed New York City made Frozen Niagara Falls more like his older noise works, but wasn’t a “return to form.” That is somewhat true of Floodwaters, his most polished work yet, even more so than last year's Arthur Rizk-produced Media in the Service of Terror. Two of its three tracks are built around longer grooving, molding the Vatican sound from a post-war wasteland soundtrack into a post-fallout seance. Tape hiss is a thing of the past, as is any semblance of rough edges. The actual songs themselves are more subdued, never approaching the bombast of “Enter Paradise” or “Peace Rage.”
Disembodied, stretched out voices that barely resemble voices permeate the title track. “Floodwaters” is like a more streamlined, murkier version of “Not the Son of Desert Storm, but the Child of Chechnya,” which also built around similar vocal effects. For Vatican Shadow, Fernow’s always used vocals as haunting textures and never as hooks, and that subversion of club convention is still true even as Floodwaters aims for more consistency. “Weapons Inspection” is the most active of the set, with shifting beats, ambient underlays, and bursts of sputtering rumbles. Opener “They Deserve Death” plods along a snowy terrain, a smoother version of a keyboard-driven black metal intro. Honestly, it wouldn’t sound out of place on an early Blut Aus Nord record or a remastered Paysage d’Hiver tape, and it’s so nocturnal Striborg could make some use of it. The icy electronics of “Death” are a staple of Fernow, who wrings the most out of brittle melodies, making it the most ominous song here despite its brevity and beatless nature.
Floodwaters’ transitional nature recalls the spirit of his earlier cassette releases, which were similar in visual aesthetic if not always sound. While they were mostly more industrial and more beat-driven than any of his numerous projects, they ran the gamut from barebones bass rattles to jittery chaos to lo-fi ambient. 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. After all, if a minimalist jam like “A.T.F. Sinful Messiah” didn’t translate live in the first place, he wouldn’t have bothered to move to Berlin at all. Fernow’s shown he can adapt Vatican Shadow to more spacious settings, but there’s definitely more he can do to solidify that move, one that might need a full-length to really prove.