While Angels Watch - History and Heritage, Volume 1For many people their first exposure to the music of While Angels Watch, the project of London based musician Dev, began with the release of Dark Age on the French label Cynfeirdd. A fine short representation of dark folk music, aided by Matt and Jane Howden of Sieben and Ian Read of Fire + Ice. A few years later, Still The Star Shines, further enhanced their reputation in dark folk circles. Again issued on Cynfeirdd, on Still The Star Shines again featured assistance from Matt and Jane Howden.
Interested listeners would have noticed from even a quick glance at the While Angels Watch discography that they had a rich history and that Dev had been active in post-punk circles stretching way back to the early eighties.
Active in the squat scene of the eighties Dev performed guitar for hardy post-punk perennials Flowers In The Dustbin, and an early line-up of (what was to become) While Angels Watch featured Patrick Leagas, formerly of Death In June. A while later members of While Angels Watch assisted Patrick Leagas with the recording of the debut Six Comm album, Content With Blood, released on Eyas Media. While Angels Watch never issued any vinyl; their output was confined to three cassette releases all issued prior to 1991 in frighteningly small numbers.
History and Heritage Volume 1 compiles 12 tracks from the three previously issued While Angels Watch cassettes: Reflection of Joy (1986); Behind The Mists (1988) and Falling In Love (1991). The period photographs of While Angels Watch captures a group fresh faced and attired in military uniforms. The music found on History and Heritage really picks up from the post-punk period and specifically from the influence of Death In June and Joy Division. It takes them as a springboard for While Angels Watch to develop a sound. It's a sound that crosses into punk, electronic dance, pop and into what would eventually be known as neo-folk or dark folk. The group has described the music as death disco, not in relation to the PiL's song but to a sound that developed alongside the European electronic music and folk acts that were beginning to achieve prominence during the eighties. History and Heritage provided a variety of musical paths to pursue.
The opening tracks 'Reflection of Joy' and 'Shadow Over Shade' provide the staple ingredients with the precise acoustic strum, the booming bass lines, jagged guitar lines, melodic keyboards and of course the rough, heavyset voice of Dev, a deep course roar that provides the loose melodies to these dark, introspective songs entwining age-old symbols with personal relationships. Opening with the line "This lands breath is stagnant, Trees stand still in the concrete fields", 'Curse The Crown of Thorns' tackles ecological awareness in the glare of soulless capitalism wrapped in pagan themes, referencing the old gods and the destruction wheel, culminating in the lines: "Let the final battle commence, With the call of a wolf and the hammer of Thor."
The rolling drums and plucked guitar of 'Angel' is particularly reminiscent of early Sol Invictus, with Dev's voice powerful and soaring. Similarly, the opening spoken vocal harnessed to a booming bass and snare drum rolls may start like Sol but 'The Isle of Glass' quickly morphs into Peter Hook basslines and niggling post-punk guitar lines. The sombre sentiments of 'Solitary' embrace the atmosphere of Death In June circa But, What Ends When The Symbols Shatter? with the acoustic guitars and keyboard embellishments. With its skipping tambourine lead rhythm the second part of 'The Little Death' is almost traditional folk with a tale of misguided sexual energy.
'Kill' appears to allude to the Manson murders, with its references to "Sadie...I'm hypnotised at the gate...I've found the strength to unleash my will...Sadie, Will you tell' over rolling timpani, intertwined acoustic guitar building up to a frenzy. Dev's voice is clear and defiant over fast acoustic strum and steadfast beat as he intones the rhythmic verse of 'The Axle', excerpted from the Walpurgis-Night chapter in Aleister Crowley's novel Moonchild. And while these songs call upon touchstones of industrial culture a number of the tracks display a pop like veneer hiding dark, introspectives lyric. The gentle melodic keyboard and low-key melody of 'A Gentle Death' recalls the early solo work of Julian Cope, even down to Dev's vocal as it eeks out a warm, forlorn melody teased out by soft keyboards in that love gone-awrong scenario. 'In The Wind' continues with another Cope type melody this time lead by piano, with acoustic strum, snare drum rolls and keyboard flourishes. The closing track 'In Heaven's Arms' is another sprightly acoustic track with keyboards ably assisting the acoustic guitars, that appears to snatch a few moves from New Order.
And even with more than a decade between the final cassette release, Falling In Love, and the release of Dark Age you can easily pick up on the dark, graceful acoustic melodies that would be so richly augmented by classical touches on Dark Age and the subsequent mini-album Still The Star Shines.
History and Heritage captures a period of transition for While Angels Watch, and, as Dev writes in the liner notes, "for better or worse, this was While Angels Watch in the 1980's". History and Heritage is an illuminating listen for those familiar with their more recent output and one that will have appeal to anyone with an interest in that period, and specifically to those with an interest in any of the aforementioned groups.
History and Heritage Volume 1 is the third release in Eis & Licht's 'Dokumente' series devoted to reissuing music previously released on sold-out cassettes and LPs. History and Heritage Volume 1 is released in an edition of 525 copies.
We met up with Dev via email to shed some light on the formative years of While Angels Watch, and to find out why they never achieved a prominent role in the world of industrial folk.
i) Prior to forming While Angels Watch you were a member of Flowers in the Dustbin and Tom's Midnight Garden. Could you comment on your involvement with these groups? I'm not aware of any releases by Tom's Midnight Garden but did you feature on any of the Flowers in the Dustbin recordings?
ii) Both groups were active in the post-punk scene and the anarcho squat scene. Did you strike up any relations with any bands or labels from that era? Any notable acts you shared a bill with? What do you remember about the anarcho squat scene?
I joined Flowers In The Dustbin as drummer in 1982, just after they recorded their first demo on cassette, Always Another Door. I’d never played drums before and consequently was very happy to move over to guitar via a brief stint in Youth In Asia. My first appearance with them was playing in an old abbatoir at Swindon… it used to feel great turning up to these towns in rural England, back then normal people were still rendered speechless by the site of a few hundred punk types arriving for the weekend!
I really liked the set at this point; the music was similar to the early Banshees and Ants stuff with a bit of Joy Division thrown in for good measure, and although we were pigeon-holed into the ‘Positive Punk’ thing we found ourselves playing with bands more often associated with the Anarcho scene such as Flux of Pink Indians, Youth In Asia, Omega Tribe, The Mob, Hagar the Womb, etc.
On the eve of recording the debut 12 incher Freaks Run Wild In The Disco on All The Madmen records I was dropped by the band. At the time I felt betrayed and it certainly increased my misanthropic tendencies. In retrospect it probably played a large part in the development of my songwriting. Although I was writing lyrics they weren’t being used in Flowers In The Dustbin, so I took the opportunity to form Tom's Midnight Garden and present my own material. Initially, you could speculate that Tom’s Midnight Garden was my version of Flowers, we shared a similar vision and often played together, in fact our debut performance was a benefit gig for Stop The City with them at the Old Ambulance Station in the Old Kent Road, London.
Having now been expelled from school and living in London, the next twelve months were spent playing regularly around town as well as a few gigs around the country.
The original line-up of Tom’s Midnight Garden: William Burton, Kappa and I, recorded seven songs in the studio which was catalogued for release on Rob Chalice’s 96 Tapes called The Gap In The Curtain. However, I had tired of things as they were and reinvented the band as TMG firmly outside of the now stagnating anarcho scene and into a more project orientated collective which would shortly develop into While Angels Watch.
I am reliably informed that one of the labels involved in re-releasing cassettes from 1980’s alternative bands will be releasing a CD-R of The Gap In The Curtain alongside some rehearsal material in the not too distant future.
iii) I understand that an early line-up of While Angels Watch featured Patrick Leagas (who went on to form Six Comm) and Gareth Smith (who went on to join Sol Invictus). How did you hook up with them and what role did they play? Do you remember anything of the gig? And why did the line-up only last one performance?
When I reinvented TMG we played two live performances in 1985, the first was at a place called Merlin’s Cave near King’s Cross and the second was at the squatted Wood Green Arts Centre.
As I’ve explained, this incarnation of TMG was very different to the original and the concerts encompassed 90% new material including 'Assassin', 'Fuck' and 'Kill' that survived through to While Angels Watch. I guess an easy way to describe the sound for the Merlin’s Cave appearance would be The Velvet Underground meets Joy Division via lots of feedback – well you can get a good idea from 'Kill' on History & Heritage. The stage presentation was short hair, white shirts, black ties and attitude… in front of an audience of punks and old fans we went down like a brick… which was great… at this time we would do anything we could to antagonize the sheep that now inhabited the once creative squatting scene in London, such antics had made us rather unpopular with certain sections of the community.
My experience of the evolving era, sparked by Psychic TV/TOPY was much more creative and challenging from both a musical and personal point of view than anything else around at the time and certainly represented my interests and way of life much more than bands out of the Crass Camp ever had… with the exception of The Mob and Zounds and Crass themselves up until 1982.
Anyway, the second performance was the one that featured Dougie playing bass, Garry on synthesizer with Patrick on drums and drum machine, I had a guitar with an onboard synthesizer that would make loud industrial noises, so you can imagine the racket. I don’t remember who else played that night, just that our set contained a large amount of energy and that we got a lot of abuse from the crowd which I returned tenfold. Another memory is that I remember looking round at a point when the drum machine had stopped working and Patrick was sat on the stage floor looking into nowhere… someone commented afterwards that it was an effective piece of performance art!
For me it was a farewell - a good send off. There was never any intention of performing again… and we never did. Patrick went on to leave Death In June and immediately started Sixth Comm. An ex-girlfriend of mine had started seeing this bloke called Alan and she introduced him to me, we started fiddling about with my material and that’s when I started While Angels Watch.
As far as how we met, well, I met Garry in 1982 through a mutual friend and we squatted together from 1984, Patrick we’d met through our travels to see Death In June and he moved in with us in 1985.
iv) Who were the members of While Angels Watch? Was it consistent for the three cassette releases? Did you perform live?
While Angels Watch was always my project, sometimes with assistance, sometimes without. Alan Jeffries and myself recorded together for about two years. At the very beginning we were experimenting with a less song based, more industrial sound. Alan had a WASP and would get some strange sounds out of that and put it down against a drum machine and my guitar which would be going through a delay unit, and we used audio from films. I was also getting into dance orientated beats on the drum machine, mostly from listening to Patrick rehearsing in his bedroom next door, so that sort of got added… it all sounded pretty weird to be honest. Fairly quickly we returned to the song format, ditching the WASP for Keyboards but retaining the rest. That’s when I started calling our music Death Disco… in reality it wasn’t really disco at all, I just liked the phrase!
Before compiling the tape I went into a studio in Islington with Alan to record a couple of tracks for a compilation album that was released in 1986 (I don’t remember the name and was never given a copy). We recorded 'A Day of Grace' and 'Shadow Over Shade'. These earlier versions of songs that appeared on Reflection of Joy capture the weird-pop-folk stage we went through, with audio cuttings of film in the background (mainly lifted from Paris Texas). Although they evoked the moods intended (in me at least), I wasn’t overly happy with the results and Alan’s input into the music became negligible. I wrote, and ended up playing, everything on Reflection of Joy, but it wouldn’t have been possible without Alan’s assistance.
In 1988 I went into the studio to record Behind the Mists on my own, with just an engineer to assist. This was to be the second tape which I regard as my definitive Apocalyptic Folk album… not that there was such a thing at the time!
For Falling In Love, I teamed up with a chap called David Horton, who I’d met through a mutual friend, to date these were the only sessions that were a true collaboration. I wrote the lyrics while David wrote all the music and introduced a more pop like sound to the material. We almost played live, but the performance (in a hospital) was cancelled. So, the first live performance under the name While Angels Watch was in fact at an Hinoeuma night in London, 2003 with Allerseelen.
v) I must confess I wasn't aware of While Angels Watch until the release of Dark Age. What was the response to the cassette releases? How healthy were the sales?
For the most part response to all the material was very positive, lyrically and musically; however, sales were very low, being self-released and I’d often give the tapes away. My problem was that I didn’t appreciate wAw as a commercial venture, and frankly, I still don’t… it’s just a part of me, my creative outlet if you like. So, I’m not really surprised that you, and most of the rest of the world, were not aware of the product… back then we went to see a new band, or bought their records by word of mouth, there was no Internet - so if you didn’t promote yourself or play live then clearly people would have a hard job knowing you were out there. I could have put more effort into that side of things, but I would never and will never compromise what I do.
vi) Listening to History and Heritage I can spot elements of Joy Division and Death In June. How important were both groups to this incarnation of While Angels Watch? What were the prime influences musical or otherwise at this time?
Both of these groups were important to me, as was Psychic TV, initially. I also had an interest in: Cabaret Voltaire, TG, Derek Jarman, Getting the Fear, Current 93, Coil, Sonic Youth, William Burroughs, Once Upon a Time in America, Aleister Crowley, Blackadder, Lydia Lunch, Freya Aswynn, Into A Circle, Zos Kia, Kenneth Anger, Marc Almond, Nastassja Kinski, Velvet Underground, Ingmar Bergman, Manson Family, Laibach, Michael Clark, Taxi Driver, Kate Bush, Whitehouse, New Order, Angel Heart, Swans, Blue Velvet, Clannad, Scott Walker, Swastikas For Noddy, several dead poets…
vii) Aside from Patrick Leagas, you were also friends with Ian Read (who went on to form Fire + Ice) during this period. I'm interested in how the anarcho scene evolved from post-punk to something more spiritual and magickal. Was it a conscious backlash or a natural progression? Can you find any parallels between then and the groups and musicians associated with dark folk and neo-folk today?
Patrick had set up the Eyas Media label with a mutual friend which they ran out of the West End, and subsequently, early in 1987 he relocated in order to concentrate on Sixth Comm, and I would guess to reside at a more stable base… he was spending quite a bit of time away on Forces maneuvers and when you’re living in a squat you never know if you’ll have a home to come back to. By now, Garry had joined the recently formed Sol Invictus and Ian moved into the spare room. I had stopped working with Alan, saved my pennies and recorded Behind the Mists at a studio in Stoke Newington early in 1988. By the end of that year, life was bleak and I was at a personal low. One day I returned from a weekend away to find that the squat had been broken into and a load of stuff nicked… well that was pretty much the end of it for me. We all moved on… I went to South East London… I’m still there.
As far as the evolution of the anarcho scene is concerned, well, perhaps like punk in 1976, I’d say the label came after the event. In the early 1980’s there were pockets of creative, autonomous individuals interested in Magick and alternatives who might’ve been inclined to play a Crass record one day and Psychic TV the next, certainly that was my case and I’ve certainly been interested in the Metaphysical since childhood. Conscious backlash or natural progression? For me, a bit of both.
At the same time there was also a sort of Goth/Anarcho cross over with bands such as Blood & Roses, Southern Death Cult, The Mob, Sex Gang Children. By 1983/4 these bands had run their course but friendships, musical or otherwise had been established and so you had people like Tibet previously associated with PTV working with Steve Ignorant from Crass then working with Death In June, you had Bee teaming up with the Southern Death Cult minus Ian Astbury and also working with Psychic TV after John and Sleazy had started Coil after John had performed with Zos Kia who had released a record on The Mob’s label, All The Madmen… you get the picture, I’m sure.
Parallels now? I think, what has become known as the Neofolk scene has always been pretty incestuous… I’m reminded of Douglas when he once said he’d rather work with other leaders. Generally, other leaders will have their own project of some kind and so the gift is returned… that’s usually how it happened and it’s how it happens now… for example Gary Carey plays in While Angels Watch under my direction and I play in Joy of Life under his. So certainly that is a parallel with the anarcho/squat scene… a sense of community, of pooling resources… a lot more than that too, perhaps an understanding of the fundamental nature of the human condition outside of the material world. The DIY ethic is also a parallel, not because your music is shit, but because it means you can stand on your own two feet… honour, pride, respect, achievement. You could probably draw the same parallels with the rave/acid house development of the mid-late 1980’s, which was the way a lot of anarcho types went. In the early 1990’s you’d be just as likely to bump into me at a rave as at a Death In June gig.
viii) While Angels Watch music was confined to cassette. Did you never seek a record deal? If not, what was the motivation behind While Angels Watch?
Had I remained in contact with Eyas Media after Patrick had moved out I’m reasonably positive that Behind the Mists would’ve had a showing on vinyl. If I’d known about World Serpent, I would have probably tried to get Falling In Love distributed through them, but I’d crawled under a rock by then and when I resurfaced their house was getting blown down.
The motivation behind While Angels Watch is and was purely personal, a part of my life completely and absolutely, and as such I revisit it when I am compelled to. It is always there but often in the background. There was much to fill those days with from Direct Action through to Directors Ale… Magick and acid tabs… from Steptoe’s to the Fall Over club…
ix) Members of While Angels Watch, including yourself, contributed to Sixth Comm's debut album Content With Blood. How did it feel to be recording and releasing material as Sixth Comm when While Angels Watch were without a record deal?
Firstly, if my head had been in the right place and I had been otherwise motivated there would have been no reason for me not to do what Patrick did… that is; get a partner, start a label and bash out a deal with a distributor. So that was my responsibility… or not.
Recording with Sixth Comm was a pleasure… my only disappointment was that I’d worked out a nice bit of Arabic sounding guitar for the beginning of 'Neiflheim' which didn’t get laid down because I turned up too late and half-pissed during that particular session… fool.
x) History and Heritage contains selections from the three While Angels Watch cassette releases. What was the deciding factor for inclusion? Will there be another volume? And why did you leave off 'Behind The Mists' which you later re-recorded for Dark Age?
There was no deciding factor regarding inclusion, other than to contain material from each cassette which would provide some idea of how the project developed during the initial five years. I could have, I suppose, filled the CD with my acoustic songs to please the Neofolkers but that wouldn’t have been an honest reflection of what While Angels Watch produced… I’m not interested in re-writing history for my own ends.
There will be another volume in the same vein, but not before new material sees the light of day. I left out 'Behind the Mists' precisely because it is already available, albeit á la 2002. It’s basically the same song but with strings and piano.
xi) The later tracks on History and Heritage display less of a post-punk influence and feature acoustic guitar more prominently, was the nascent axis of Current 93, Sol Invictus and Death In June an influence at this point?
Ummm, well the Death In June catalogue was an inspiration (rather than influence) before that point as was Dogs Blood Rising by Current 93 amongst other artists I have previously mentioned. I guess you are talking about when I was writing the material for Behind the Mists (c.1987-88)… Ian had brought home some demos of Swastikas for Noddy which blew me away, if anything, that was an inspiration for that period of writing. I also heard a lot of the early Sol demos which I liked very much. I’d used an acoustic guitar in my music on and off since 1983, I think I just ditched the electric guitar and drums really.
xii) Why did While Angels Watch cease to be a group? Whatever happened to Dougie Graham, Alan Jeffries, Gareth Smith and David Horton?
It was Tom’s Midnight Garden / TMG that ceased to be a group, While Angels Watch was never a standard group.
Dougie had been a big part of TMG and also did some bass on Content With Blood, unfortunately I lost contact with him around 1987… I heard he was on the road with Wolfgang Press and then moved back to Paisley… but I don’t really know.
Alan remained in North London at least until 1992, when I bumped into him in Bond Street. Current whereabouts unknown.
The last time I met David would have been around 1995, just before he got married. Current whereabouts unknown.
xiii) In retrospect, how do you view While Angels Watch at this point in comparison to the present incarnation of While Angels Watch?
Instrumentally it was perhaps more limited than I would have chosen, I would have preferred to introduce more organic instruments earlier and had better synth’s. But it profiles what I wanted to present at the time and I am proud of the legacy. The way in which I write music has not really changed and nor have my interests and inspirations, so it sits quite happily with the current material.
xiv) Since release of Dark Age and Still The Star Shines things with While Angels Watch have been quiet. What's on the horizon?
By now, everyone surely realises that the wheel turns slowly. Though it is true that I am unhappy Treasures of Treachery is not complete yet; all I can say is that there have been some demanding times for my family and I over the past few years and a crisis always seems to crop up just as I am focusing on the album. I can only reiterate that it will be the next full length release. History & Heritage, though, is in itself an achievement as I have been talking about releasing older material on CD since 2001. Aside from that, there’s always the sun.
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