MacGillivray looks startled and curious, and sometimes it’s as though she’s discovering these songs (and her voice, for that matter) for the first time, marvelling at their changes in direction as if they move of an independent will. There’s nothing particularly complicated about her music– which is an earthly, lonely, and yet somewhat romantic dialogue with emptiness – and she seems to hold a fascination for the intricacies that lie innately within simplicity and minor event: the uneven plod of solitary piano keys, the curdling overtones that seep out of her autoharp, the gentle vocal hiccups that cause her voice to dance and momentarily arch upward, like a bird propelling itself into the sky. She pushes her voice up against its technical limits, stooping to notes beyond her natural range that warble and falter as a result, and despite the domineering sadness that laps up against the chapel’s stone walls, there is a playfulness to her buoyant exploration of the unknown, skipping into shadows of feedback and imperfection.
What follows is quite unexpected. Who would have guessed that Shirley Collins’ first live appearance in 35 years would be a brief, unbilled support slot 10 minutes before Current 93 take to the stage? “I don’t think I would have done this for anyone else but David Tibet,” she announces to a stunned applause, before quietly slipping into a rich, earthly rendition of “All The Pretty Little Horses”. Her voice swoops at the commencement of each line, channelling the sound of age into a sort of momentum; gorgeous vocal curvatures both smoothed and textured like pebble edges, wearing her years of existence like a cloak that trails and dances behind every lyric. Perhaps the lighting has something to do with it, but she is utterly radiant tonight; even the cold, often belittling setting of the Union Chapel seems to shrink to the size of a living room in her midst. It later transpires that David Tibet has been trying to encourage her to perform again since he met her back in 1994, and as he stumbles over words in an attempt to express his gratitude for her appearance, the magnitude of the occasion becomes clear.
Collins is one of two musicians tonight to have such an effect. The other is Groundhogs guitarist Tony McPhee – something of a childhood hero of Tibet – who features alongside James Blackshaw, Andrew Liles, These New Puritans’ Jack Barnett and others in this evening’s Current 93 incarnation. Given the romantic, full moon lament of Honeysuckle Aeons (their last full-length proper), the set’s opening chord is particularly ugly: illustrious and morbid; a sort of abandoned mansion music, brimming with gold and yet a certain emptiness too – a longing that extends a hand in front of the face, snatching at thin air, loaded with questions that spill outward to no response. “While the train shuffles along…” Tibet proclaims as the music aptly ambles forward, haunted by a pre-destiny that thrusts the band down the tracks in a slow, inevitable straight line.
Indeed, the movement of the new album feels more angular than before; drums and piano lock together in hard 4/4’s that evoke motion in lurches and shunts, proclaiming fierce, hard-edged frustrations into empty rooms. There are moments of softness that feel like the echoes of those solid gestures, documenting the subsequent fade toward silence before the music regenerates, krautrock style, into another high-energy jam – the climax comes as a storm of Liles’ electronics that hammers of the walls and windows, while a bass drum quickens like a pulse escalating under brimming epiphany, pumping out white noise and hideous screams in jets. The coda is a clear sky – flutes skipping like the hooves of dancing fawn, delicate chimes of ride cymbals coaxing eyes open into optimism – before an encore feeds some old favourites through the grit and aggression of the night’s C93 setup: “Black Ships Ate The Sky” becomes a ferocious motorik burnout, while “Lucifer Over London” sounds like an asteroid waltzing toward the earth.