The William Blakes – Dear Unknown Friend

When the William Blakes released their first album, Wayne Coyne, in 2008, it received excellent reviews in Denmark, the band’s home land, but was largely missed by the rest of the world or, when noticed, viewed with the typical disdain reserved by Anglo-American critics, bloggers, and the rest for Euro-pop. A couple of reviewers commented on the archness of the band’s name, along with the fact that their album cover consisted of Thomas Phillips’s 1807 portrait of Blake over which was pasted the head of Wayne Coyne, lead singer and guitarist for The Flaming Lips. Well, at least Coyne appreciated the tribute as recorded in this video interview, and of course it is precisely the band’s chutzpah in selecting Blake’s name and portrait that first attracted me.

The influence of Coyne remains very much in evidence on their 2009 follow-up, Dear Unknown Friend, as well as that of Talking Heads and 1980s wunderkind Roland Orzabal from Tears for Fears. For me, unfortunately, that is not an entirely good thing: I always preferred my eighties synth pop to either have a rougher edge (early Ministry) or be more stripped down and intellectual (Kraftwerk). Likewise, I have always wanted to like the Flaming Lips ever since I bought Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots purely on the whim of its marvellous title, but found myself unable to listen happily to Coyne’s voice. I love to read about him (for example “The Parking Lot Experiments”), but sitting in the same room as an entire Flaming Lips album is never something I manage with ease.

Nonetheless, having indicated that I am a person who literally will buy records on the basis of something as superficial as the title and cover art, Dear Unknown Friend is something of a hidden delight. Pretentious the band may be (their self-launched record label, Speed Of Sound, describes lead singer, Kristian Leth, as “a published poet and TV persona in Denmark”), but that has little influence on my own appreciation. They still have a long way to go before they even approach the vast ego of Jim Morrison, something which never prevented The Doors actually making great music once in a while.

The William Blakes comprise Kristian on vocals, with Bo Rande on horn and keyboard, and twins Fridolin and Frederik Nordsø on drums and guitar. The reason for their name is an intriguing one, that “They took their name from the poet William Blake (1757 – 1827) because they share his desire for a spiritual upheaval,” even if it is best to pass over the assertion “This is music made without fear” with as little comment as possible.  In general, however, the lush production, effortless harmonies and catchy pop tunes of Dear Unknown Friend provide moments of genuine pleasure, with only the occasional duff note – literally in the case of Leth’s voice when he tries a little too hard to imitate Coyne, metaphorically with lyrics such as “My government is killing every hope for me” on opening track “The Thing We All Believe In”: Leth’s sympathies are in the right place, but as political protest lines such as this trip over their own feet.

Elsewhere, however, the William Blakes are much more deft – a particular favourite of mine being “It Looked Like Us” which reminded me of of a missing track from Julian Cope’s Jehovahkill: humane, amusing, but also an every-so-slightly disturbing apocalyptic vision that appears immediately vivid and yet somehow uncertain at the same time. What exactly it is that looks like us is never clear and yet I see many things when listening to this song. In addition, the idiosyncracies of Leth’s voice are perfect here, shifting to mild paranoia in a way that arouses the listener’s sympathy rather than grates. “Contact” is also impressive in its ambition, avoiding prog-rock overkill to evoke rather elements of Pink Floyd or even Space Oddity-era David Bowie before launching into an incredibly uplifting final chorus.

How much, then, do the William Blakes invoke their namesake? They avoid anything as crass as direct references – so fans of the original should be warned that this is no direct engagement with the Romantic artist in the style of Jah Wobble. However, there is something of an attitude that reminds me of Cope’s appropriation of the great man as a presiding spirit who wishes to pursue heaven and hell, angels and devils in the quotidian. The visionary qualities of Dear Unknown Friend never approach the originality of Blake (nor Julian Cope, for that matter), but the final feeling after listening to the album is that the William Blakes have found a great deal of fun in this series of memorable fancies as well as moments of brilliance in tacks such as “It Looked Like Us”.

You can purchase Dear Unknown Friend from CDON.com.

“It Looked Like Us” track on YouTube:

Scarlet Woman: Heather Corinna

Recently I noticed a fair amount of traffic coming to Zoamorphosis from people looking for a particular name, Heather Corinna. This was after a tweet of mine about an online interview with her that appeared on feministing.com was added to the site. I recognised the name from the old Albion mail list, but only recently realised that William Blake has been a continuing influence on the queer polymath and feminist activist who c0-founded The All Girl Army and whose work can be found on sites such as Scarlet Letters and Scarleteen. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend her blog and various musings at femmerotic.com, and her work has accolades from sources as diverse as Playboy to the Utne Reader.

Here I’ll concentrate on where Blake threads his way through some of her work. From the 1970s onwards, Blake took a beating from a number of feminist writings and – to be honest – deserved a great deal of it. While there is plenty that is vibrant, uplifting and sexually liberating about Blake’s works, he couldn’t resist absorbing all those emanations into his four zoas, and if he celebrates femininity, even feminism, the female vision of Beulah always seems to take second place to masculine Eden, at least in his later work.

In fact, that phrase – “later work” – sums up my own problems around Blake and gender. In his early works, such as The Book of Thel and Visions of the Daughters of Albion, he has no problems whatsoever with recognising the importance of gender politics and a Wollstonecraft-inspired response to the oppression of women in his day (he had, after all, illustrated some of Wollstonecraft’s work during the 1790s). Unsurprisingly, it is Visions, and particularly the lead character of Oothoon, that is one of Corinna’s inspirations:

HC: It’s crazy tough to pick just one, but Oothoon in William Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion would have to win it if it was just one. It’s a short piece, but in but a few pages, mostly composed of Oothoon speaking and telling her own tale, she does those most magnificent telling-off on everything from how crazy it is for anyone to suggest that a woman raped is somehow “tainted” or “impure,” to what’s really at the core of sexual jealousy to what sexual freedom and women’s sexuality could really be like in a better world. It also contains Blake’s concept of what innocence is, which is radically different from how we usually hear it defined. For Blake, innocence was simply where we are at without experience, less about purity and more about an open wonder, then we get life experience, and the ideal state — unlike the one we often see, which is this perpetual state of innocence or “purity” — is to return to innocence informed and deepened by experience. (From an interview on Feministing)

Corinna spent her early years alternating between Chicago and Lancaster County, Pennsylvania before attending the Chicago Academy of Arts and Shimer College where, in her own words, “she discovered Blake and found that erotic literature and sexuality could parade as an actual major”. After throwing herself into online communities (All Girl Army being the most notable of many) as well as specialising in writing about sexuality and working as a sexuality educator and queer activist, she attracted considerable attention for sites such as scarleteen.com (she’s also a trained Montessori teacher). In short, she’s just the kind of person to get down and dirty with Blake or engage in an honest (mental) fight with him, for without contaries is no progression – though there would not necessarily be that many contraries between the two of them.

Blake crops up again and again in Corinna’s work, but I’m going to end with just one piece to demonstrate her way of using him to make humane and often extremely thoughtful observations – in this case on the subject of rape advice for teenagers:

Were our thoughts, as a whole people, more broad and wider in scope on sexuality, we would understand that an act of rape, legally defined as “a sexual act committed against a woman’s will,” is only a sexual act for the perpetrator, and even in that, has far more to do with other factors, such as power, dominance, control, anger and emotional imbalance, than it does with sex at all.

William Blake, in the late 1700’s, wrote a piece entitled Visions of the Daughters of Albion. At the time, the premise of this piece was revolutionary: Oothoon, a woman in love with Theotormon, is raped by another, Bromion, and despite Theotormon’s feelings she is “spoiled,” she boldly asserts otherwise. Oothoon — and Blake — states clearly that she is incapable of being spoiled, ruined or sullied by the action of others upon her, in which she had no part or engagement with. Thankfully, others have also finally begun to realize this is so. (From scarleteen.com)