RIP Scott Walker (1943-2019)
Astral Noize would like to pay tribute to a true icon, American musician Scott Walker (born Noel Scott Engel) who sadly passed away last week. Though many people will know him best for his iconic ’60s pop hits such as ‘The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Any More’ (with The Walker Brothers), ‘Joanna’ and ‘The Seventh Seal’, his more experimental works that defined his later years are equally as important to discuss. Here at Astral Noize we cover many experimental musicians in the expanses of drone, dark ambient, avant-garde and industrial music, who have taken influence from Scott Walker, and many heart-warming tributes have been pouring in.
It’s incredibly sad to have lost such an important figure, but hopefully new listeners will open their ears to his incredible discography. For those that want to delve further, here is our take on the fascinating body of music that he has left behind…
Scott Walker’s solo career was originally defined by his hit albums, titled Scott 1-3 (1967-1969). Scott’s unique and powerful baritone voice earned him chart hits, exploring a baroque pop sound, with production similar to Phil Spector’s “Wall-of-sound” techniques. You could say that Scott Walker wasn’t radically different from other popular singers of the time, such as Tom Jones and Frank Sinatra, especially with the orchestral flourishes in his hit songs. His rendition of Burt Bacharach‘s ‘The Look Of Love’ proved that he had a voice perfectly suited for smooth radio hits. But even at the height of his stardom, Scott Walker’s music always expressed a darker, more melancholic and forward-thinking approach than many of his contemporaries. In particular, his decision to cover many songs by Belgian singer Jacques Brel gave Walker a more outlandish approach to pop music trends of the time, with the bizarre lyricism and theatrical vocals expressed in hits such as ‘Jackie’ and ‘If You Go Away’.
At the peak of his fame, Scott Walker hosted his own BBC TV Show where he would sing his hits. It’s surprising to think that his next release (listed under his birth name) Scott 4 was a chart bomb, even though it is critically regarded as a masterpiece. Yet with songs referencing Poland’s invasion of Czechoslovakia, and Ingmar Bergman films, maybe it was a bit too forward-thinking for some audiences at the time. You can certainly hear some of the seeds of what was to come…
Climate Of Hunter
The ’70s saw a decline in popularity for Scott Walker, and some of his mid ’70s albums haven’t even been issued onto CD yet. For some reason he took less artistic risks in the search of chart popularity, yet never found this either. This resulted in The Walker Brothers reuniting to play live. After a ten-year gap of solo work finally came Climate Of Hunter, released on Virgin Records. Bizarrely, half the tracks remain untitled, and a music video was even made for ‘Track 3’. Scott Walker took a further step into experimental territories. Though the album has that “’80s sound”, there are eerie synths punching through, and Walker’s lyrics become more esoteric. And that incredible voice of his still sounds in a world of its own. Climate Of Hunter still has very mixed opinions from Scott Walker fans old and new, but holds up as an interesting halfway point between his pop sound and his experimental works to follow…
Scott Walker’s 1995 album Tilt is the true game-changer that defines the second wind of his artistic career. At this point, Scott Walker was 55 years old and had been out of the public eye for eleven years since the release of Climate Of Hunter. Nobody could have predicted the route his music would take, and it stands as one of the most groundbreaking releases in his entire discography. It could even be viewed as the beginning of a loose trilogy, with The Drift and Bish Bosch following.
The album opens with the ominous and powerful string-laden slow ballad ‘Farmer In The City’, with Walker’s voice sounding more emotive and isolated than ever before. After this the album takes a nightmarish turn, with the scratching percussion and mumbled vocals of ‘The Cockfighter’ bursting into the kind of industrial madness you might expect from a Ministry or Nine Inch Nails album! Tilt is an album absolutely nothing like what he had attempted before, and it remains an incredibly bold vision, as well as one of the most radical turns in music direction taken by any pop icon and heart-throb, perhaps in the entire history of music!
Aside from contributing music to Leos Carax’s 1999 film Pola X, it was another eleven years ’til the release of his next bold studio album, The Drift. Scott Walker took an even leaner stride into experimental music, with elements of industrial, noise, drone and dark ambient dominating the sonic landscape. His enigmatic voice became more haunting, his lyrics more abstract, and his song structures less defined. The Drift is yet another masterpiece, and at times is so foreboding and sinister sounding that you could imagine it being a score to a surreal horror film.
Scott Walker had completely changed as an artist by this point, no longer performing live and largely remaining hidden from the public eye. He became this mysterious, cult figure who was making extremely weird music. A documentary film, Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, was made about the making of The Drift, showing Walker punching slabs of raw meat in order to record some of the striking percussion sounds heard on the album. Yet even in the film, Walker remains largely quiet, viewed from a distance, as many other musicians, such as Brian Eno, Jarvis Cocker, Alison Goldfrapp and Damon Albarn, talk about how much they admire the legend.
The Drift clearly marked a “no going back” statement from Scott Walker, completely alienating himself from the fan base who grew up with his pop hits of the ’60s, and finding a completely new appreciation from a new wave of fans, as well as musicians from wide genres of music, whilst also being applauded by critics.
In 2012, Scott Walker released the highly anticipated Bish Bosch on 4AD Records, an album that was performed with a whole orchestra (with some churning industrial metal guitar riffing thrown in for good measure) making the most abstract and avant-garde sounds of any of his albums yet. Many fans and critics still don’t know what to make of this album. Is it a true work of surreal genius, or a complete load of absurdity? Perhaps both! Walker’s absurd sense of humour comes out in full force, perhaps a side to him we hadn’t truly heard since ‘Jackie’ back in 1968.
Bish Bosch is a truly unforgettable listening experience that can be best described as unsettling, blood-curdling and bat-shit insane! The parameters of music were completely broken at this point, with epic 21-minute centrepiece ‘SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter)’ (yes that’s the title) really encapsulating the entire journey. Scott Walker’s lyrics had become more cryptic and disturbing than ever with impenetrable stream of conscious such as “If shit were music, you’d be a brass band”, “Drop-kicked coloraturas fouling my ears/Bypassing an anorexic sky” and “Your Heliopolis is scrapheap/Gone the brown slug of your tongue”. On Walker’s previous three albums, his vocals had been somewhat restrained and reserved, haunting the mix of the records like a ghost, yet on Bish Bosch he is mixed right into the forefront – bellowing, wailing, spluttering and screaming absurdities all over the record. It stands as his most visceral and striking vocal performance of his entire career, and the album itself is easily one of the most challenging and truly out-there listens of any record made in the 21st Century, perhaps reminiscent of the strangeness of Captain Beefheart‘s Trout Mask Replica.
Soused w/ Sunn O)))
Fortunately the wait for new Scott Walker material wasn’t long, and just two years after the release of Bish Bosch, Walker announced a collaboration with legendary Seattle drone metal band Sunn O))), dubbed “Scott O)))”. This unlikely meeting of minds was most likely met with disdain by long-term Scott Walker fans, but was widely applauded by extreme metal fans and critics, praising Scott Walker further for his fearless yearning to experiment and work with left-field musicians. Though the album was highly anticipated and is certainly a good album, the results were surprisingly restrained, with neither artists going quite as hard and “out-there” as their own previous studio works. Regardless, hearing Scott Walker let loose over the heavy drones of Sunn O))) is one of the purest and most magical things we could have ever dreamed of!
Listening back to the music of Scott Walker, it’s safe to say that nobody else in pop music has ever taken such a drastic turn in artistic vision as this legend did. He must have kept an ear to the ground when it came to listening to new music, as well as experimental music even as far into the realms of extreme metal, and it’s a wonderful thing that we wish we could see more of. Scott Walker stands as one of the most fearless and uncompromising musicians of all time, with a unique vision. He had no plans of becoming washed up or outdated, abandoning his pop-star persona, saving some of his most acclaimed and groundbreaking works for later in his life and discography. There is no doubt that his music and legacy will continue to find new audiences and inspire more musicians.
To get a deeper insight into the way Walker’s works have influenced artists from our sphere, we’ve spoken to and compiled quotes from a host of musicians to gain their thoughts on the late musical icon.
“No one has gone from mainstream crooner to punching meat.” – Jake, Weapon Dogs
“Scott Walker was a boundary-pushing, inspirational, insanely talented (if more than a touch ‘weird’) visionary who will be sorely missed.” – Dan Dolby, Mastiff
“Scott cut across musical boundaries. Taking in the same territory inhabited by Sinatra all the way to Sunn O))). His single-mindedness about following his vision vs. expectations has been very inspiring.” – Dereck Higgins
“I still can’t believe that we will never again hear a new Scott Walker composition. Of all the celebrity deaths in recent years this feels the most like a personal bereavement. I lie awake tonight being driven mad by music that could have been.” – Andy Curtis-Brignell, Caina
“I think that it is likely that Scott’s ability to sew the seeds of baroque orchestration within a contemporary artist in the extreme metal scene, such as Ulver or Sunn O))), is what has essentially obliterated the boundaries between music and art. Finding Scott’s bodies of work is as refreshing as finding an oasis in a desert.” – Jimmy Long, Everest Queen,Orme
“For me, Scott Walker’s musical output and life represents a journey that many musicians are frightened to make. He started off essentially as a pop idol, but he became displeased with the constraints of the genre. He towed the line his record company wanted to spin for a while, but as time went on, he embraced darker themes and experimentation; something that was denied to him by others in his younger days. He was and is the very definition of finding yourself through music, and freeing yourself from other people’s expectation of your art.” – Tanya Byrne, Bismuth, Dark Mother
“I imagine most musicians remember where they were the first time they heard his music. I think I sat open-mouthed, listening to The Drift at my ex’s house while it slowly twisted my brain like an orange. An inimitable and ferocious talent. I’m grateful for the fascinating, terrifying, tender, piercing and bizarre magic that he put into this world. A shining example of worldbuilding in music.” – Javier G. Wallis, Wilderness Hymnal
“There’s no doubt in my mind that Scott Walker has been one of the most interesting and fearless musicians of our time. I’ve been devouring his music since my early twenties and to this day he has served as a constant source of inspiration. I remember talking to my Mum about him when I discovered Tilt and she recounted seeing The Walker Brothers at St George’s Hall in Bradford at the height of their ‘Beatles-esque’ mania… she’s never quite understood his weirder material! I find it enthralling to see someone develop their career in such a way and how difficult it is to do that whilst enhancing your credibility and influence along the way, as well as basically finding a whole new audience for his work. He has become somewhat of a pioneer for a lot of the music I listen to, reaching into the darkest depths of sound and tones and producing this beautifully unsettling music that to me sounds completely unique. I know I will continue to reach for his music and still find something new and inspiring in there every time.” – Richard Knox, A-Sun Amissa, Gizeh Records
“‘Let the great constellation of flickering ashes be heard’ – ‘The Angels Of Ashes’. With Scott, we haven’t just lost another of my heroes, but a weaver of worlds, a true visionary of our time, an alchemist in the truest sense. Taking his epic nightmares and depicting them so intricately, so devastatingly in his baritone voice and anything from string sections to the pounding of meat. He inspired me on my path to dealing with monumental and terrifying visions and informed a lot of my approach to darkness in music and it’s transcendent properties.” – Oliver Hill, Grave Lines, Dead Witches
“Incredibly saddened by the news SCOTT O))). Rest in peace great maestro. It was an honour to meet you and spend a small time and space sharing your creative universe. An unbelievably rich and affirming experience, your courage and passion for the depth of the creative source.” – Stephen O’Malley, Sunn O))) et al. [Source: Twitter]
RIP Scott Walker (1943-2019).
Words: Chris “Frenchie” French