A key experimental label says goodbye with an excellent compilation of ghostly, skeletal rock.
That's the question I keep asking myself while assessing A Short Illness From Which He Never Recovered, the compilation that acts as the epitaph for Kiran Sande's Blackest Ever Black. In a 2015 interview with FACT, the publication he used to edit, Sande discussed the Blackest Ever Black mixtapes he released—alongside original material—from the label's inception to its end. "Arguably the most important thing about those mixes isn't what's included on them, but what's excluded," he said. Same goes for A Short Illness From Which He Never Recovered. Most of the artists on the compilation have never released a record on Blackest Ever Black. The duo who inspired the label, Raime, is notably absent, as are early adherents such as Tropic Of Cancer, Regis and Dominick Fernow.
The sound of the compilation, as well as the two mixtapes Sande released prior to the label's end, is also a far cry from the elusive mixture of downcast post-punk, dark ambient and UK-flavoured techno that acted as an aesthetic foundation. Instead, there are flowers at the funeral, which come in the form of Lightning In A Twilight Hour's space rock, Unchained's gorgeous Vini Reilly-esque guitar instrumental and the Vibracathedral Orchestra member Bridget Hayden's obfuscated folk lament. In its latter days, BEB seemed focused on outré indie rock and peaceful bedroom ambient (the is captured in pieces from the likes of Ian Martin and Bremen/Brainbombs member Jonas Tiljander, AKA Brainman). The end of Blackest Ever Black comes not with a bang, but a whimper.
So what does it all mean? Sande, who referred to himself as having as pretentious disposition, is not big on explaining things. He seems content to make records that could perhaps be assessed as literary objects. Think about the poetic potential of the dancer captured mid-motion on the cover of Raime's debut album, Quarter Turns Over A Living Line, or the names of the artists he worked with (Tomorrow The Rain Will Fall Upwards, Exploding Jezebel, Ashtray Navigations) and even the title of this record. The press release that comes with A Short Illness From Which He Never Recovered is a bizarre short story about a hermit who goes to market before coming across a foreboding verse in the apocryphal Bible. We don't know what it means and we're not supposed to. I doubt even Sande does.
We can focus on what the label accomplished. It was a paragon of good taste, influencing, then introducing the world, to artists like Carla dal Forno, whose music is the post-punk heir to invaluable Blackest Ever Black reissues from the likes of Gareth Williams & Mary Currie and Weekend. Over its run, they not only threw parties that spanned from post-punk to noise to jungle, they put out records that traversed that expanse, along with punky black metal (Raspberry Bulbs) and heady improv (Jac Berrocal, David Fenech, Vincent Epplay) and plenty more besides. Sande might be the closest modern equivalent to Tony Wilson, another bon vivant journalist turned label head obsessed with bucking convention and smart graphic design. That Sande has neither a New Order paying the bills or (presumably) an attendant coke problem speaks to the lower stakes of today's left-of-centre music business.
But just as Sande's tastes have changed over the last nine years, so have his aims. Rather than run a label that lifts acts out of the underground with slick branding and decent distribution, he now heads up a London shop whose stock-and-trade is distributing marginal music from labels like Spillage Fete, Jolly Discs and Förlag För Fri Musik. Quietly ending Blackest Ever Black with a compilation full of obscure artists should encourage you to go seek out the cassettes, CD-Rs and Bandcamp accounts, to unravel the mystery yourself. As The Fulmars tune that ends the collection says, "Go Fish."
Sande has removed his label's defined aesthetic, and perhaps his ego, from the equation, in order to avoid a decline in quality. "Most labels dwindle into irrelevance after ten or so 12-inches but insist on sticking around for years after, releasing stuff of less and less value," he griped to former RA editor Todd Burns back in 2011. "To be honest, I can't imagine Blackest will be any different. And anyway, pissing all over one's own modest legacy is a natural, perhaps even crucial part of the life cycle." Apparently not. R.I.P. Blackest Ever Black, a label that knew when to call it curtains.
Mon / 27 Jan 2020
01. Scythe - Flower, Drop
02. Lightning In A Twilight Hour - The Munich Post
03. Unchained - Gray D'Aboukir
04. Hypnotic Sleep - De dröigen Blaar
05. Jam Money - Dawn Swoop
06. Bridget Hayden - Solace
07. Brainman - Kilonovo
08. Carla dal Forno - Blue Morning
09. Ian Martin - Missing Realism
10. The Fulmars - Fish On