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Rose McDowall's Icelandic Sagas

Ornamanetal Crystal Nights cover Rose McDowall Ornamental No Pain cover Roae McDowall Ornamental was a short lived project featuring Rose McDowall, Dave Ball, Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, an Icelandic master pagan, and Einar Örn Benediktsson of The Sugarcubes. Formed in the years when Rose McDowall was embarking on a solo career after the demise of Strawberry Switchblade, the polka dotted pop-punk outfit she formed with Jill Bryson. Following the split of Soft Cell, Dave Ball was in the midst of what he termed his wilderness years, on short run projects such as Ronnie B and English Boy On The Loveranch, when Ornamental formed.

The roots of Ornamental, however, lay in the groups Psychic TV and as we shall find out later on Current 93.

Thee Fabulous Feast Ov Flowering Light
It was at Thee Fabulous Feast Ov The Flowering Light event held at the Hammersmith Palais on May 19th 1985 Dave Ball, Rose McDowall and Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson performed as part of an extended Psychic TV line-up joining Alex Fergusson, Max, Mouse, Paula P. Orridge and of course Genesis P. Orridge. The show was part of an all-day event featuring performances from the Virgin Prunes, The Death and Beauty Foundation (featuring artist Val Denham), The Process (featuring Bee of Into A Circle, a group Rose would record with and join for live performances), writer Kathy Acker, Micha Bergese's Mantis Dance Company with films from Derek Jarman and John Maybury. The bill also included KUKL, an Icelandic post-punk group signed to CRASS Records, which included Bjork, Einar and Siggi before they went on to form the indie pop group The Sugarcubes.

A composer, musician and electronics wizard, schooled in the works of Wilhelm Reich, Nikola Tesla and Aleister Crowley, Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson is a key figure in the Icelandic religion of Ásatrú. Hilmar was managing Þeyr, when Jaz Coleman of Killing Joke, allegedly deeply immersed in the works of Aleister Crowley, escaped to Iceland to avoid the impending apocalypse in 1982. Hilmar would become part of the Icelandic division of Psychic TV and a constant fixture in the group from 1984 onwards, while Dave Ball and Rose McDowall would occasionally guest. Rose formed part of The Angels of Light on Psychic TV's hyperdelic tribute to Brian Jones, 'Godstar' which just missed hitting the charts. Both would appear on Allegory and Self an album inspired by occult artist Austin Osman Spare and doomed Rolling Stones musician Brian Jones. As Rose cut ties with Psychic TV after falling out with Genesis P. Orridge, through Bee, she found kindred spirits with others in the post-industrial underground such as Current 93, Death In June and Coil. Meanwhile, Dave Ball along with Richard Norris were finding inspiration in the electronic/house sounds of Chicago resulting in the Psychic TV related release Jack The Tab, before finding chart success with The Grid.

It was Rose that introduced Hilmar to Current 93's David Tibet. Hilmar would contribute to many Current 93 releases during this period such as In Menstrual Night, and Imperium but it wasn't until 1986 at the behest of Hilmar, Tibet made the first of numerous pilgrimages to Iceland, often in the company of Rose McDowall and others to record. The first fruits of these Icelandic recordings was 'Crowleymass', a kitsch humorous paean devoted to the Great Beast, Aleister Crowley, recorded by Tibet and Hilmar following an evening of drinking. These sporadic sessions would eventually culminate in the synth drenched album, Island, which was recorded over a number of years. The influence and inspiration of Iceland couldn't be missed: it was there in the title (Island being the Icelandic translation of Iceland) and in the map images on the Babs Santini designed sleeve. Amongst the numerous guests it featured Bjork and Einar Örn and a host of others, as well as Rose on backing vocals on some of the extra tracks on the CD edition. Co-credited to Hilmar as HÖH, many of the tracks would resurface, reworked as a beautiful instrumental soundtrack to the film Children of Nature, directed by Friðrik Þór Friðriksson.

With its synth laden sound Island may have been something of a departure in sound for Current 93, a group who like fellow travellers at the time, Death In June, featured fluid line-ups involving Rose, Bee, Douglas P, and Tibet and many others. Along with Sol Invictus that trinity of groups created a genre given the appellation "apocalyptic folk" which would morph into neo-folk. Rose would contribute bewitching backing and bittersweet lead vocals to both Current 93 and Death In June, with Death In June's 'To Drown A Rose' and Current 93's Swastikas For Noddy being amongst the most noteworthy. Current 93's rendition of Strawberry Switchblade's 'Since Yesterday' is also something of an interesting listen.

Rose and Bjork didn't sing together on Island, that opportunity arose on Höfuðlausnir, an album by cult Icelandic artist Megas also recorded during this period. Regarded as something of an icon in his native country, Megas has been a recording artist since the early seventies. Some of those earlier albums failed to capture the imagination of Icelanders but recently he has come to be appreciated for his songs and writings. Speaking to Big Gold Dream , about her singing with Bjork, Rose commented that she felt their voices "complemented each other really, really well." Rose found a kindred spirit in Bjork, with whom she shared fun both in the studio and outside on camping trips. In Hilmar's garden, Bjork proposed to Rose, a request Rose duly accepted. The marriage, however, remains unfulfilled. Amongst the other guests on Höfuðlausnir were Bjork's sister Inga and of course Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson who supplied keyboards. Rose's unmistakeable voice and harmonies are scattered throughout Höfuðlausnir and it's an album well worth seeking out. Original vinyl copies of Höfuðlausnir have been increasingly hard to find but it has recently been reissued by Iceland's Alda Music. Aside from the music, it is noteworthy for the assortment of photographs on the back sleeve capturing the group both on stage and off-stage socialising, while the front sleeve features a still from a live performance, excerpts of which can be found online with Bjork and Rose backing Megas on 'Drukknuð Börn'.

Aside from her work with Current 93 and Megas, Iceland would prove inspirational to Rose. "If you wanted somewhere to go off and write an album Iceland is the place to do it. No matter where you go in Iceland you can come up with a classic" she stated. It is where she would write 'Soldier' and 'Crystal Nights', songs which would figure in her post-Strawberry Switchblade work.

The first release from Ornamental though was recorded in London, and released simultaneously in Iceland and the UK by the Icelandic label Gramm in April 1988. Gramm was a label ran by Asmundur Jonsson and Einar Örn. Their 1987 compilation Geyser - Anthology Of The Icelandic Independent Music Scene Of The Eighties surveyed the then largely unknown Icelandic scene and included tracks from Þeyr, Purrkur Pillnikk (featuring Einar Örn), KUKL and HÖH amongst others. Ornamental even got a namecheck in the liner notes. The Icelandic version of 'No Pain' was titled 'Skytturnar - Kyrrlát Kvöldstund Á Hótel Hjartabroti', with a still from Friðrik Þór Friðriksson's debut film Skytturnar featuring on the cover. So, although I can't say for sure, I think it probably formed part of the soundtrack.

Dave Ball gives little away about the first Ornamental release in his autobiography Electronic Boy simply stating, "I'd also been collaborating on an Anglo-Icelandic project with Rose McDowall of Strawberry Switchblade and Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson from PTV and Einar Örn Benediktsson, one-time member of The Sugarcubes. We went under the name Ornamental and released a twelve-inch single, No Pain, on the Icelandic label Gramm Records" but in an interview with Snub TV USA, Einar Örn, with Bjork at his side, is more forthcoming: "Ornamental is a group of people that sort of got together whenever necessary and we've done one record so far, a disco single which was needed to do in Iceland, to do a pure disco single and Ornamental is sort of the labours of trying to do a disco single in Icelandic with English words."

'No Pain' was an infectious dance number built around sprightly ringing rhythm, slap bass beats, and parping synths sprinkled with Rose's beautiful melodic tones and a sweet catchy chorus of "No pain, no gain at all" which Rose delivers in fine form. Einar offers similar sentiments in his own characteristic way with an additional spoken section expanding on the semiotics of the track evoking old gods and mourning the loss of individual spirit within modern culture. Further mixes included a 'Get Ready' mix which offered a more spacious dubby sound giving room to all the sound elements while a short version soundtracked a video filmed in the grounds of Garðakirkja church just outside of Reykjavik featuring Rose, dressed alluringly in leather and stripes, spliced with fleeting images of Einar and a montage of bullfighting, festivals and footage of Afghan and Russian troops.

Rose didn't appear on the other track on the 12-inch. Translating as The Sacred Winter, 'Le Sacré d'Hiver' is a frosty symphony, comprised of majestic synths, jabbering and hammering beats and playful spirited trumpet parps with a yelping Einar taking on lead vocals. Frantic and dramatic, its faintly orchestral and almost a forerunner of what would become martial industrial.

"A dance-offering for degenerates who want to redeem themselves" stated the sleeve of 'No Pain'. With harsh words for Mr. Tower "whose congenital lying, swindling and whatnot kept this project on ice for much too long".

The Sugarcubes engineer Mel Jefferson was on production duties along with Dave Ball and Hilmar, while Danny Hyde, Coil's right hand man in the studio, was engineer. Mel Jefferson would take on a larger role on the next single.

'Crystal Nights' the second release from Ornamental was released on One Little Indian, the label run by Derek Birkett, formerly of anarchist punk band Flux of Pink Indians, and home to The Sugarcubes. That song itself has had a convoluted history; it was written by Rose while in Iceland, and would be released in demo form as the b-side to her cover of the Blue Oyster Cult classic 'Don't Fear The Reaper'. It's appearance coincided with the release of Current 93's Swastikas For Noddy where Rose accompanied Tibet on 'The Summer of Love', Current 93's own take of another Blue Oyster Cult track 'This Ain't The Summer of Love'. This would have been quite fitting, except for the fact that it was released on the label Rio Digital by her then ex-manager without her permission.

A new Strawberry Switchblade
In May 1988 Rose launched a new look Strawberry Switchblade with shows in Brighton and later on in London. Assembling something of an interim indie supergroup drawn from her circle of Creation Records friends, this iteration of Strawberry Switchblade included Dave Morgan and David Greenwood Goulding from the Weather Prophets, Andrew Innes and Robert "Throb" Young from Primal Scream, Lawrence from Felt along with her friend Mandy from Glasgow assisting on backing vocals. The intention was to audition new members for a forthcoming tour, something which unfortunately never occurred. Interviewed and filmed by Rockin' In The UK with the interim all friend star cast performing 'Crystal Nights' she related that the 'Don't Fear The Reaper' single was basically a bootleg, "As far as I'm concerned I don't want anybody to think that it is representative of anything I'm doing. It was basically a bootleg, it was a bad demo of something that I did ages ago."

Talking with writewyattuk, Rose remembers those gigs as being "just the best, with really good reviews. It was such fun playing with all those guys, who were all my mates anyway." Though not confirmed, there was talk of Rose signing to Creation Records, the label run by Alan McGee, a friend and associate from her Scottish punk roots. Rose did appear on Creation Records though providing backing vocals to indie darlings Felt on 'Space Blues' and guested with Felt at Creation's Doing It For The Kids all day event at the Town and Country Club in August 1988. She would subsequently sing backing on their final album Me And A Monkey On The Moon, which due to cash and scheduling issues was released on the label El, as Felt needed to complete their aim of releasing 10 albums in 10 years. Dipping into darker realms, Rose also featured on the eponymous album by Church of Raism, a musical project devoted to notorious Satanist and child killer Gilles de Rais. Spearheaded by James Havoc (aka James Williamson) who ran Creation Books, the literary arm of the label, the one-off project soundtracked Havoc's novella Raism and involved a number of Creation musicians such as Robert Young (Primal Scream) and Martin Duffy (Felt, later Primal Scream). Rose's main contribution was the track 'Night Scar' which with its nursery rhyme lyric and stark acoustic strum was reminiscent of her work with both Current 93 and Death In June. She also continued to work with Into A Circle, a group centred around the duo of former Getting The Fear members Bee and Barry Jepson. A May 1986 Strawberry Switchblade fan club letter announced that lately "Rose has been doing backing vocals with a band called Into A Circle" and that Bee and Rose would be releasing something as soon as they have time off. That never happened but she would sing and provide backing vocals and accompany the group in live performances whenever she could. Rose appears fleetingly in the video for their 'Evergreen' single, directed by Viv Albertine of The Slits, which got at least one showing on The Chart Show one Saturday morning. Her main contribution would be to their Assassins album which combined pop sensibilities with esoteric pursuits. It's a stunning album. Bee and Barry would also contribute to Rose's post-Strawberry Switchblade work during this period which would eventually be released as Cut With The Cake Knife.

Crystal Days and Crystal Nights
While the unofficial solo Rose McDowall version of 'Crystal Days' fell into the bracket of indie pop, the Ornamental version, retitled 'Crystal Nights', was more ornate filled with twittering birds, trumpet fanfares and warm passages of Hilmar's summery keyboards sprinkled over sprightly strum and completed with Rose's beautiful sugar coated vocals. It sounded like a sweet mix of Strawberry Switchblade and Psychic TV which would have sounded great placed between their pop songs 'Just Like Arcadia' and 'Baby's Gone Away'.

A "peachy pop-concoction of ex-Strawberry Switchblader Rose McDowall and (engineer of The Sugarcubes among others) Mel Jefferson, together with Hilmar and a shifting complement of friends/accomplices" is how Sounds journalist Keith Cameron described it when he caught up with Ornamental around the time of its release. In a rather nonsensical interview which perhaps dwelled too much on Hilmar's admiration for Tesla, Ornamental were described as "purely the vehicle for reaching his ultimate destination: Free energy, the harnessing and transmission thereof." Optimistically proposing the single released just a week before Christmas as a Yuletide smash, Mel retorted that "I think it is a bit late for that, actually".

Of Hilmar, Rose quipped, "He's a crystal God". He's "brilliant at having an idea, pulling everyone together for it, when nobody else knows exactly what he's on about. It's when you get there you find out what you've actually go to do." On Hilmar's working methods, Mel was more revealing, "One of Hilmar's infuriating gifts is that he gets people to do things under, not false pretences, but under certain pressures, which he exerts very carefully". He continued, "I wrote a song also, which is the first I've written in six years - because it was necessary." Co-credited to Hilmar and Sugarcubes drummer Sigtryggur Baldurson, that song may have been 'Yonilingaphonics' a piece of abstract pop with vocals delivered by Hilmar's wife Gunna Sigga as something akin to a language tutorial. Icelandic lines were followed by their English translation, including such bizarre nuggets as "Do you come here often, do you like the group, do you like the discotheque, don't you find it hot in here..." over music which jostled with shifting keyboards performed by Drew McDowall, and rhythmic patterns supplied by the Sugarcubes drummer. Wailing harmonies from Rose featured in the background. The full 12-inch release was completed with a 'Gratuitously Extended & Really Quite Silly Mix' and an instrumental 'Singalongahighchaperal' mix. The only downside aside from the number of mixes was the misspelling of McDowall on the sleeve credits.

And that was the last we heard from Ornamental, although it's been suggested that more material may be in the vaults. Talking with the African Paper, Hilmar remembers Ornamental as "music for a certain time in a certain place". Rose, meanwhile, is more circumspect, telling Big Gold Dream, "A lot of us had so much going on at the time. Even if we wanted to do something else - when could we fit it in?"

A little later Hilmar and Einar hooked up with Katie Jane Garside from Daisy Chainsaw as Frostbite releasing just one album, The Second Coming on One Little Indian. Hilmar has continued to compose soundtracks solo and with Sigur Ros on Angels of the Universe and Odin's Raven Magic. He and Einar have continued to collaborate on projects such as Grindverk. Einar Örn records as Ghostdigital.

Rose continued working with Into A Circle, Coil, Current 93, and Death In June and eventually started work on her ether-pop project Sorrow. Night School Records have been reissuing Rose's post-Strawberry Switchblade work including the solo album Cut With The Cake Knife and the 'Don't Fear The Reaper' single and much more besides.

Electronic Boy: My Life In and Out of Soft Cell: The Autobiography of Dave Ball, Omnibus Press. 2020
Big Gold Dream, Rose McDowall - Extended Interview
Beyond Strawberry Switchblade with Rose McDowall by Malcolm Wyatt
African Paper, It's better to be a good Pagan than a bad Christian: An interview with Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson
Ornamental, Sounds interview by Keith Cameron, 24/31/12/88

Rose McDowall and Sorrow reissues at Night School Records
Megas - Höfuðlausnir reissue available here
Psychic TV - Thee Fabulous Feast Ov Flowering Light CD available here
A photograph of Rose performing with Felt can be found here
Rose's work with Into A Circle is documented here

Thanks to Simon Dell for providing additional archive material.