Written by: Dave Cantrell
Whether it was destined to be the writer with his words or the musician via the auspices of his work, one of us was going to eventually lose the race to the end of superlatives. In the case of your correspondent vs. the output of one Pete Burns, dba Kill Shelter, the outcome, I’m both afraid and ecstatically happy to say, was predictable. Having barely withstood the quality onslaught of 2018’s Damage with its wondrous glut of collabs then the Antipole meetup A Haunted Place from last year, the wells of praise this particular pen has available to dip into are perilously close to running dry. I shall soldier on regardless of course, extracting what dribs and drabs of panegyric I can possibly wring from the dregs at my disposal because, lord knows, what choice do I have with an album like Asylum holing up inside my ears, attacking then saturating the pleasure centers at will.
Again alive with co-conspirators – 70% of the ten cuts this time around – the new record also underlines the usual deft touch at tracklisting, with two of the Pete-only tracks opening and concluding proceedings and the third, called “Crossing Borders,” nestled in the center sounding for all the world like a dark, and indeed haunted, oasis. And, while creeping our way out on to a limb here, hoping to not be too presumptuous with our interpretation, we’re nonetheless going to say that that sense we get of a shadowy refuge is the point. Asylum, though chock-a-block with the usual thrilling churn of primarily Burns-authored tracks that amount to a masterclass of postpunk-based songcraft, would appear to be named as it is for a reason. Hard sought and even harder-found these days, asylum, so painfully and desperately yearned for especially in Europe right now with Russia trying to prove its bearish manhood, is more precious than diamonds, than rhodium, is as precious as life itself. Thus does both “Crossing Borders” – foggy, doleful and powerfully sparse with its watery tolling and the crunch of gravel footsteps – and the ominous implications of emotional terror in final cut “The Cage,” not only make a more profoundly human sense than such tracks most often do (i.e. not filler not even close), speaking more clearly as they do without words than with to the plight off those forced to flee their rightful homes due to war, famine or climate change, they also lend a crucial insight to that Burns-only opener.
Aside from sharing what’s become a consistent hallmark of a Kill Shelter album, which is to say a first track so immediately compelling as to elicit an odd, hope-against-hope wish that the fucker will never end, “Time Will Come,” on initial listen, can reasonably be assumed to be directed at, say, a long ago lover (“you turned your back/my lesson’s learnt//my patience spent/your time will come” goes its first refrain), which isn’t a wholly off-the-mark assumption given the decades of song crowding our memories and, frankly, the tenor of A Haunted Place‘s 0pener “Raise the Skies.” But on second inspection, with those other two other moody, essential pieces exerting their quietly devastating impact, the gist of “Time Will Come” dawns upon us just in time to understand its final stanza – “I hope your crown lies heavy/I hope your kingdom burns” – is only allegorical in its most literal sense. In any case, important-as-it-is context aside, the song, boasting that same degree of blistering exactitude that’s pretty much the Pete Burns brand, ditto the sort of venomous wisdom in his tone of voice and the urgent arpeggiated double-tracked (and very clean) guitars, the track is of course a blissful stormer and welcome to the new Kill Shelter album.
Materially an amalgam of the first two records, Pete with one exception writing all the words as was the case on AHP and exclusively responsible for the music throughout as he mostly was on debut Damage, Asylum most resembles the latter simply by dint of the darkwave who’s-who of vocalists but, to these ears anyway, this latest concocts a result that could conceivably be heard as the best of those two previous efforts poured into one. From that riveting launch we swoon into heavier territory, “In This Place” riding the sonorous trance baritone of Stephan Netschio from Essen’s long-time synth-wielders Beborn Breton (who were, um, born in 1989) the song tilted majestically darkward on a more measured tempo and all the more powerful for it. For “Queen of Hearts,” with its somewhat obvious need for a female lead vocal (wife Lyn Burns provides backing vox all across Asylum), Burns turns to Valentina Veil from the Berlin-based VV & the Void who without surprise brings her A-game to the performance, her voice, Cocteaus-like but steelier – if it’s a lilt it’s ‘The Lilt Not to be Fucked With’ – bestowing the cut with the shatter-proof luminescence it clearly called for. From there, Karl Morton Dahl AKA Antipole comes crashing in again on a burner called “Buried Deep,” sporting a vocal and some added guitar that rather reinforces one’s impression that he and Pete were indeed separated at birth. Ash Code’s Allesandro and Claudia lend, not unexpectedly, an icy smolder and drive to the already-thundering “Feed the Fire,” “Cover Me,” with Bellwether Syndicate honcho William Faith at the mic and awash in something damn near approaching shimmery shoegaze dynamics counts as Asylum‘s love song, shivering as it is with doom and romance, while, speaking of which, “All of This,” lengthy intricate and, frankly, pretty fucking stunning, allows Ronny Moorings from Clan of Xymox to stretch to the full-throated edges of his gothic instincts to most satisfying effect.
Through it all a bristling, glistening darkness pervades in ways we’ve come to gratefully expect with Mr. Burns at the helm. As best benefits the ultimate result, Pete would appear to approach these pairings with both a keen aesthetic ear and a respectful humility and it’s that latter attribute that, we believe, accords these albums with a certain power. As was made clear on Haunted and again up top this time around, Pete’s no slouch on vocals, which relegates any idea of being a control freak to the dustbin, instead pointing to, one, a reflexive generosity when curating what are becoming coveted roles on these Kill Shelter albums and, two, that innate understanding of who/what will best enhance any given track, a talent made nowhere more manifest than on Asylum‘s (literal) centerpiece “The Necklace.”
Commanding from the off with ‘that’ guitar and bass assault pushed to the front in all its gloried precision and grace – this album’s production is, as ever, impeccable – “The Necklace” is the sole track wherein the lyric writing reins were handed over to the guest artist singing them, in this case Agent Side Grinder’s Johan Lange who’s joined in the booth by bandmate Emanuel Aström. With a punch, immediacy and hook that could well have landed it a top spot on any KS album, its placement as the tracklist’s anchor is in this case critical in perhaps multiple ways – its basic strength, for one; any band or artist would just about die to have a song this strong exerting its gravity at the center of things – but given Asylum‘s thematic heft “The Necklace” would seem to serve as something of a spiritual crux to all that swirls around it. Metaphorically rich but direct, charting with unpulled punches the raw emotional cost of violent displacement, the song – sharp, empathic, the opposite of maudlin – allusively documents the every yearning, every wince and desperate hope those fleeing have that today will not be marked by pain or abuse, by the cold, dead, dehumanizing stares of everyone in their surround. Quite moving, quite brilliant, it’s, oh yeah, just a purely cracking tune besides.
And, really, right there, we’re arrived at the gist of the ‘Pete Burns/Kill Shelter touch.’ The songs on Asylum, as they are on the two previous, feel both effortless and slaved over, extravagant yet intensely elemental. It’s as if, in his fashion, he’s tapping into the richest darkest vein available to our post-punk senses and extracting gems that glint with an unprecedented shine we all nevertheless recognize and crave. Knowing Pete we’re quite certain his modesty won’t countenance such talk but if that be the case, well, quit making such, um, killer records then. Seeing as that seems constitutionally impossible, you best expect the plaudits to keep piling up, mate.[seek the European version of Asylum here, the US version here]