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Coelocanth: The Last Shriekback Song I Will ever Hear?

Inspired by listening to Without Real String or Fish, James from Canada (his preferred cognomen) felt compelled to share his thoughts about the mighty “Coelocanth."

Coelocanth: The Last Shriekback Song I Will ever Hear?

So here we are in 2015, and Shriekback have just released their 13th album, Without Real String or Fish. And a most excellent album it is, too: full of the usual Shrieky goodness - clever lyrics and wordplay, groovy basslines, catchy tunes that run the gamut of dark, light, thoughtful, funny and sombre (often at the same time!).

So it is not surprising that while one is feasting on a plate of brand new songs, that one also reflects on a band’s past releases, and how they may have influenced one’s musical tastes, preferences, or - perhaps - one’s life.

In my case, I'd like to look back at one particular song - "Coelocanth" - the atmospheric conclusion to the Oil and Gold LP back in the 80's.  I was a teenager back when Oil and Gold was released, and at the time I preferred all the hard-rockin' tunes like "Nemesis" and "Malaria."  So while I loved most of the Oil and Gold album, I always thought that "Coelocanth" was a piece of crap.  "What the hell is this?" I asked at the time.  "Did Shriekback hire Zamfir and his cheesy pan flues to play on this record?** Awful!"  As far as I was concerned at the time, Oil and Gold finished with the conclusion of "Hammerheads."  And so it went for many years... until Manhunter.

Many Shriekback fans either discovered or re-discovered the band as a result of Michael Mann’s film Manhunter, which featured the Shriek songs “Evaporation,” “This Big Hush,” and “Coelocanth.” For me, when I saw the famous tiger scene in that movie, set to the music of “Coelocanth,” I had a bit of an epiphany. All of a sudden, this song wasn’t a cheesy woodwind “extra” tacked on at the end of Oil and Gold, but something which really penetrated deep down into the soul. I promptly began to listen to “Coelocanth,” and with my ears now finally open (so to speak), I realized just how haunting and beautiful a track it really was.

Back in the late 90’s, I once had a dream about this song. I remember it quite vividly - I was lying on some ocean beach on an alien world, with a huge ringed planet rising in a dark aquamarine sky. I heard “Coelocanth” playing somewhere in the distance, although I knew that I was alone on this planet.

At the time I didn’t give the dream much thought… it was just a cool thing that happened. Well, you can imagine my surprise when several years later, while I was surfing the internet for some new desktop wallpaper for my Mac, I came across this particular image at the Digital Blasphemy website :

This image - minus the palm trees - was almost 100% verbatim what I saw in my dream.  It really chilled me to the bone to see my "vision" realized by some person whom I'd never met.  Of course, I immediately pulled out Oil and Gold and played “Coelocanth,” and found myself thoroughly captivated by the synergy of sound and image…it was absolutely hypnotic, even magical. I had already grown to appreciate that once-belittled track “Coelocanth,” but from the moment I heard it in conjunction with this image from my dream, it just became so much more.

So why is it that I say “Coelocanth” is “the last Shriekback song I will ever hear?” Well, it may not be, but - and this is where I perhaps get a little morbid and over-the-top for some readers, but bear with me - I have for many years thought that “Coelocanth” would be the perfect “last song” for me. The last song is essentially the soundtrack to one’s end: when you’re on your death-bed, and you know that you’ve only got minutes left to live, but you can pick one piece of music to accompany you as you journey out of this world and into “whatever-lies-beyond.”

For me, “Coelocanth” conjures up many feelings and imagery. The obvious one is that of prehistoric fish moving through the dark depths of an ancient ocean. But I also see strange alien landscapes (as in my dream), or even the infinite depths of outer space, filled with stars and galaxies. Combine all that imagery with the background synths and trickling water samples, and you have a concoction that just soothes the soul in a way that’s hard to explain. This is why I would be quite happy to spend my final moments with this song in my head. It really encompasses, well, just about everything, for me. Not bad for a previously-mocked, little 4 minute atmosphere track at the end of a 30-year old album.

So why all the “deep-thought” and rather mawkish gushing over this old song? Well, for me, it really demonstrates what I (and no doubt many other Shriek fans) love about Shriekback. How their music grows on you over time, and how deeply it can affect you. It’s not surprising that I’ve been a fan of the Shrieks since the 80’s: they’ve consistently delivered amazing and diverse music, and the new Without Real String or Fish album continues this tradition. Hopefully there are many more wonderful albums coming from this talented bunch in the years to come.

©James from Canada
8 March, 2015

**with apologies to any fans of Zamfir. I also heartily recommend Digital Blasphemy’s Desktop Wallpaper site. The worlds that this guy creates with 3d software really go well with the whole Shriekback vibe. “Without real worlds or matter”, I guess!

Great piece. I can see using that song as a door-opener... maybe right after "Dust and a Shadow" and "Into the West".
He definitely had a religious experience, that's for sure. What's so crazy, though, is that this kind of story has been told in some form by more than just James from Canada. It's very odd.
FWIW, I used "Coelocanth" as the musical backdrop to my intro/invocation for a run of the LARP "The Greater Trumps"... I played it while I read from the Charles Williams novel of the same name:

"...there they were, in exact presentation--the juggler who danced continuously
round the edge of the circle, tossing little balls up and catching them
again; the Emperor and Empress; the masculine and feminine hierophants;
the old anchorite treading his measure and the hand-clasped lovers
wheeling in theirs; a Sphinx-drawn chariot moving in a dancing guard of
the four lesser orders; an image closing the mouth of a lion, and
another bearing a cup closed by its hand, and another with scales but
with unbandaged eyes--which had been numbered in the paintings under
the titles of strength and temperance and justice; the wheel of fortune
turning between two blinded shapes who bore it; two other shapes who
bore between them a pole or cross on which hung by his foot the image of
a man; the swift ubiquitous form of a sickle-armed Death; a horned
mystery bestriding two chained victims; a tower that rose and fell into
pieces, and then was re-arisen in some new place; and the woman who wore
a crown of stars, and the twin beasts who had each of them on their
heads a crescent moon, and the twin children on whose brows were two
rayed suns in glory--the star, the moon, the sun; the heavenly form of
judgement who danced with a skeleton half freed from its graveclothes,
and held a trumpet to its lips; and the single figure who leapt in a
rapture and was named the world."

Edited at 2015-03-11 08:56 pm (UTC)
It was an interesting experience. We didn't do any set dressing... just lowered the lights and had a "thunderstorm" sounds CD playing in the background. The players were really into it. There is something about the archetypal energy of that game that makes it take on a life of its own... I've run it three times myself and it's been amazing each time.

I went through more than half of a bottle of Irish whiskey on that run and didn't feel it a bit. ;-)