Track by Track: MARCUS WHALE – LUCIFER (SELF RELEASE, 2020)

Words: James Frostick
Artist Image: Jarred Beeler
Cover art: Jack De Lacy

Last week, solo musician/composer/performance artist Marcus Whale officially released their second full-length record Lucifer, an album that explores the idea of devotion, a recontextualisation of religious rituals and repositioning the titular figure as a queer icon – something other than a malevolent force of evil. To help give better insight into the album’s conceptual foundations and execution, Marcus has offered up an in-depth track-by-track breakdown of Lucifer in its entirety. 

There comes a time in everyone’s life where they have a reckoning of sorts with religion. For some folks, this process is a subtle and quick affirmation of belief. For others, it’s a wrestling match that shakes the foundations of their identity. Commonly inhabiting the latter category are those whose lifestyles are perceived as incongruous to mainstream religious creed, whose identities are deemed incompatible with antiquated scripture. While queerness and faith aren’t entirely mutually exclusive, the teachings of many widespread religions categorise queerness as antithetical, discriminating and othering folks who don’t subscribe to the heteronormative mandates built into the foundation of religious structures. This restrictive operating practice has caused many rifts, not only among families but in the self.

For Marcus Whale (Collarbones, BV), religion has long sat as a subject of fascination. As a queer artist, Marcus is acutely aware of religion’s built-in restrictiveness – its austere attitudes to sexuality and identity, and its attempts to inhibit the base desires of its followers. As a former member of St Mary’s Choir at St Mary’s Cathedral, Marcus has also seen first-hand the beauty of ritual, the grandeur of ceremony and the pureness at the heart of devotion. These experiences make Marcus uniquely suited to create an album such as Lucifer – a gorgeous and vivid record through which Marcus reimagines aspects of the Christian mythos, its history and the art of worship through a queer lens. The album, which sonically swings from abrasive techno (all curdled synthetic squelches and brain-crushing percussive thumps) to heart-rending balladry (haunted-yet-lush expansive swells of synthetic sound, vocal evocations drawn from the core of Marcus’ soul) is undeniably visceral and beautiful in equal measure. While Lucifer feels like a deeply spiritual record (stirring and invigorating), Marcus has deconstructed Christianity down to its core elements and rebuilt it anew – envisioning it as an institution more accepting of humanity’s vast multifaceted multitudes. A beacon of hope for the forsaken.

Marcus kindly shared insight into each track on Lucifer, elucidating the thought processes that helped shape the album inside and out:

***

‘Proud and Dirty’
These days I often find myself making new songs, new arrangements, new costumes or new performance ideas for almost every show, mostly out of a fear of boring the people who watch the shows I play. This track came out of one such performance situation – I think it was some weird outdoor thing in Parramatta that no-one came to – where I decided I needed to have some kind of dramatic introduction to the show. The song you hear on this album is a cut down version of what I’ve performed at most shows since then, except, instead of the 15 minute ramp-up, it went for two minutes, while I walked across the stage or through the crowd with a long piece of mylar stuck to my face. Don’t ask.

Ironically, it’s a song about being rid of shame, but like most songs, it’s more of a wish and an aspiration than a reflection on my present. In the end, though, I find the lyrics a powerful maxim for myself.

You also hear me yelling “Miracolo!” at the beginning. This is a reference to a scene in The Decameron, a film by Pier Paolo Pasolini that adapts the 14th-century novel of the same name. In his style of smutty, sexualised readings of old, famous texts, Pasolini depicts a scene in which an extremely horny convent of nuns take to fucking this tall, hot guy, who is pretending to be mute for some reason. Having fucked the nuns relentlessly, he finally cracks, speaking to protest to the convent Mother that he is unable to keep up with their insatiable appetite, revealing the ruse of his inability to speak. Instead of taking this at face value, the Mother screams “Miracolo!” to the rest of the nuns, pretending that a miracle has occurred in order to keep this hot piece of ass around. I love the bald-faced blasphemy of this episode in the film and the performativity of that “Miracolo!” – a state of grace that is invoked entirely to maintain the sexual liberation these nuns have claimed.

‘No Bounds’
Many of the songs on this album are about summoning unknowable forces or thinking about the body as a portal for unimaginable ways of being. Like many of the songs on this album, I’m trying to reflect the devotionality of religion, especially Christianity, but in service of a different force, a liberatory force rather than a punitive one, which is how I think of Christian moralism.

Athena Thebus, who made a bunch of performances with me also titled Lucifer, told me about how she thinks of the figure of Lucifer as representing being forsaken by God. I was watching the movie last night, Hagazussa, about a witchy woman in 15th-century Austria who is harassed and abused by her Christianised neighbours for her heathen ways, and it made me think about how Christianity in the West represents a violent attempt at ordering the natural – which is thought of as a God-given right. It doesn’t go well in this woman’s case, but as Athena might say, forsakenness is something you can take as yours and throw towards your liberation, even if you fail in the act.

‘Lucifer’
The reclamation of Lucifer attempted in this song (and album) originated from a video work by Athena called Lilac Lucifer in which she cast her cousin Ricardo as this beautiful fallen angel dressed in a lilac cloth performing various actions – being draped on column, gesturing, pulling off petals from a rose – in an almost comically melancholy way. I was blown away by the possibility of transiting the prince of darkness from an icon of moral evil to an icon of forsakenness, so much so that I wrote this song to try and render Ricardo’s performance of Lucifer into musical form. There are something like seven different versions of this song that I’ve made for the Lucifer performance series with Athena, but the one you hear on the album is the first I ever made.

‘Spill’
I’ve lived in a share house a few doors down from a Greek Orthodox church for the past six years, and my bedroom was the front room of the house for most of them. In each of those years, I was home at midnight during the Easter Vigil on the Holy Saturday. This is the Anastasi service, which celebrates the resurrection of Jesus. The congregation gathers outside and takes turns lighting red-cupped candles from the priest, who leads a series of plainsong responsories, to which the congregation responds “Kyrie eleison” (Christ have mercy). 

At the beginning of this song, you’re hearing a recording of this service from 2017 at the beginning of this song. Kyrie Eleison is for some reason also the only remainder of Greek in the Catholic service – it’s the first line of the sung High Mass.

This is a song about simple devotion – being there over and over again, like a tape loop.

‘A Ghost’
There are a few ways in which I try and invoke the grandeur of church in this album. Here it’s through the programming of a synth that sounds like a church organ, but arpeggiated in a way that would be impossible for human hands to achieve. 

There’s a line in this song that goes: “here is the portal the bloodless hole”. With this line, I was thinking about the spectacular opening of Jane, a collection of poems by Maggie Nelson about her aunt, Jane, who was murdered. Nelson describes Jane waking up at 5:30AM, undead, with a bloodless hole in her forehead and another in the back of her skull. While there isn’t much to do with Nelson’s excavation of family history in this song, this image and its time context has become important to me in articulating the ghostliness of the morning. I think of this time as loaded with the speculative and anticipatory, a kind of portal to other places and other ways of being. It’s not a coincidence to me that Lucifer is associated with Venus, the morning star, and the sky at this time has come to embody, for me, a queer futurity.

‘Work Your Gaze’
This was the first song made for this album. It was written all the way back in 2016, when I was making a lot of recordings with a friend of mine, Jacques Emery, on the double bass, and had intended to make the album around the sound of his instrument, a goal I eventually abandoned. He’s mostly a jazz bassist, but for me he was primarily playing with the bow, often very high on the instrument. For this song we get to hear many layers of his playing, which I have always adored. I recommend, also, checking out the music he makes on his own, which is usually recorded on iPhone and edited using Audacity and through those limited means comes up with the most incredible, immersive sound worlds.

This song, like many of the songs I wrote in 2016–2017, is about giving yourself up to a higher power, whether it be religious or romantic or sexual, in hopes of becoming more than or other than your present self. Reckoning with this submissive kind of mindset and its blurry intersection between the religious and the sexual is one of the central concepts I’m attempting to articulate on this album.

‘Indivisible’
Following on from ‘Work Your Gaze’ both in sequence and in concept, this song takes from the impossible idea of being “like God”, which in many readings is the central conflict that led to Lucifer’s fall. How can you be like the invisible and indivisible God? The inherent failure in this sentiment is something I find myself attracted to. The line “I wanna be like you” resembles a song that one of my favourite ex-Christian musicians Major Napier would perform live at the start of some sets, who, I speculate, was processing the aftermath of an extremely devout upbringing.

There are some apocalyptic images in these lyrics also: I reference the pale horse, the final Horseman of the apocalypse, who represents death. Also buried in there is a melodic and lyrical reference to the William Byrd setting of Ave Verum Corpus, an extremely popular church choir piece that I have sung in many different choirs and different times of my life.

‘Bliss’
This song became, in a small way, a change in direction for the album. My last album was made with a lot of help from other people, many musicians, producers and engineers were involved thanks to a grant from the government. No such support was forthcoming for this album but I felt as though I could achieve the sound I wanted inside the computer, with my own means. On this song I wanted the synths to sound as sensually powerful as a string section, so as to reflect the themes of rebirth and longing.

Bliss contains another reference to choral music, this time from the English tradition by way of Herbert Howells’ “like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks” – a pain-filled piece about searching for the presence of God. I find it to be one of the most passionate and erotic church choir pieces I’ve ever sung. The lyrics around this reference are meant to reflect the confusing and exhilarating experience of desire, which I think of as a generative force of projection rather than a drama based on lack. I’m thinking about how the concept of God, for instance, or someone you desire, becomes an enormous, elaborate fiction generated inside yourself. Longing becomes a tool for working out the mess of your own insides. That moment of realising the unknowability of any other person can be devastating, but equally filled with potential. 

‘Bliss Reprise’
I made this track while mixing the album, thinking it needed extra breathing space. You hear another synth designed to sound like a church organ here, while a choir of my voice repeats the central line of Bliss. 

At the end, my favourite moment of the album, you hear a field recording of wind howling under a door in this hotel in Hobart I was staying with my parents in January. This is perhaps to reflect the “air” I sing about in Bliss, the spooky absent presence at play in desire.

‘A Field of Mirrors’
I was thinking about the confusion of death and the corpse when writing this song. I was revisiting a writer to whom I lend a lot of my ideas about desire, Dennis Cooper, who frequently deals with the unknowability of people and their bodies in his novels and poetry. In the instrumental, I was trying to simultaneously achieve a sense of instability and inevitability. I became, during the four years making this album, really obsessed with sounds that slide between pitches, and these are deployed throughout this song. There’s a kind of nauseating turmoil I feel when hearing sounds like this and I felt like it held a parallel to the uncanny experience of seeing a corpse.

‘Everywhere’
It’s no secret to the people that know me that I love a ballad, especially one that closes an album. I loved making this song because of its looseness. I wrote it at the keyboard, playing the synth you hear in the final version, which was recorded in one take, then surrounded with other sounds. It’s also the only song on the album that I re-recorded the vocals for while mixing the album a couple of months ago. In that sense, it holds a strange out-of-time quality for me, although I understand that will be completely illegible to anyone who didn’t hear the original demo, which I recorded on my phone. 

There was initially, before the pandemic hit, going to be a fairly elaborate video made for this song by my friend Kane Gaundar. He’d imagined staging the end of the War in Heaven, the vanquishing of Lucifer by the Archangel Michael, on the surface of Venus. We had mood-boarded the setting from an incredible image from the surface of Venus which appears to have a yellow sky and slate-like black ground. Kane proposed the video to have very beautiful, slow images of Michael and Lucifer enmeshed in homoerotic combat. It’ll likely never be made, but perhaps it’s in its imagined form that it reaches its peak.

This is a song about trying to let go of someone who felt embedded in my whole being, and everywhere in the world I lived. The feeling I describe in this song passed, of course, but that’s the power of the momentary. The message of the album is that, even in your moment of forsakenness, there is always some beyond to aim towards, no matter where that line of flight lands.

Lucifer by Marcus Whale is available now. You can score a digital copy (also available with a saddle-stitched zine featuring a dialogue with artist Athena Thebu plus lyrics, art and additional texts) over on Marcus’ BandCamp. Also be sure to read this phenomenal interview with Marcus over at LIMINAL

WEBSITE / BANDCAMP