Before the Dawn: The Ninth Wave

Earlier this year when Kate Bush announced a series of live shows (her first since 1979’s Tour of Life) fans the world over waited with baited breath to see what would happen. Before the Dawn, a 22 date residency at the Hammersmith Apollo, sold out within minutes of tickets going on sale. Despite several friends and myself trying on various sites, I was unable to obtain a ticket; until a friend of a friend revealed she had a spare. I was therefore lucky enough to go and see Kate perform on 16th September with said friend, and it was an evening we shall both treasure forever…

Bush has almost always had a reputation for being reclusive, which has of course led to her being viewed through a particular shroud of mystique. In the words of one critic, she “got all the madwomen down from the attic and into the charts.” Few figures in contemporary music are as original, idiosyncratic and visionary as Kate Bush, and fewer, even those who share the same mythic reputation, could generate as much interest when announcing they’re coming back to the stage. Not only is she an artist who has accomplished the rare feat of combining musical innovation with commercial success, she does so on her own terms, maintaining complete creative control of her work. When one takes a closer look at her work, it becomes apparent that Bush is something of a horror fan, particularly Gothic horror, and she frequently draws inspiration from Gothic literature and cinema to lend her music a rich, blood-dark depth.

Wave after wave, each mightier than the last/Till last, a ninth one, gathering half the deep/And full of voices, slowly rose and plunged/Roaring, and all the wave was in a flame... Tennyson

Before the Dawn was no exception, for sprinkled throughout it were traces of the Gothic and the downright macabre, not least during The Ninth Wave; a conceptual song cycle from Hounds of Love which narrates the plight of a woman lost at sea and slowly drowning. Kate Bush described The Ninth Wave as being “…about a person who is alone in the water for the night. It’s about their past, present and future coming to keep them awake, to stop them drowning, to stop them going to sleep until the morning comes.” Each song in The Ninth Wave is a dream/nightmare, emerging from the woman's unconscious state, though at times she appears to be conscious, drifting in and out, above and below the waves. It taps into various primal fears including abandonment, isolation, drowning and ‘what lurks beneath.’ Layers of vocals and oddly arranged fragments of spoken word create an immensely disorienting effect akin to the state of semi-consciousness between sleep and awake. Throughout the suite, Bush deftly creates a sense of the place between here and there, with call and answer vocals that seem to exist in a space between moments; the whole thing has an ebb and flow as ever-shifting as the sea. Eerie atmospherics drift throughout.

The Ninth Wave by Ivan Aivazovsky

Jacques Tourneur's Night of the Demon (1958) partly inspired Bush's Hounds of Love (1985)

This is not really intended as a review of the concert, more a look at the various Gothic elements of The Ninth Wave and how they were presented in a live concert setting...

Combining aspects of theatre, film, conceptual staging, mask work and puppetry, Before the Dawn begins as Bush enters the stage barefoot and, accompanied by a live band and various backing singers/dancers, sings a handful of songs from Hounds of Love, The Red Shoes and Aerial. Towards the end of King of the Mountain, when she sings of the wind whistling through the house, a figure emerges on stage swinging a purerehua (a traditional Maori wind instrument) above his head. Chaos erupts, lights flash on and off, the sound of an immense storm can be heard and the stage is plunged into darkness as the audience braces itself for The Ninth Wave…

A short film is projected onto the stage as the band is engulfed by the ribs of a large wrecked ship. It depicts an astronomer frantically calling the coastguard to report a sinking ship he’s spied through his telescope. Kate then appears on screen, floating on the black surface of water (she spent three days in a floatation tank to film these moments), the sole survivor of the wreck, singing And Dream of Sheep, which details her attempts to resist the urge to close her eyes and drift into the dark depths below. A subdued piano melody, delicate and mournful, enhances the notion of a woman bobbing up and down on the waves while gulls circle and cry overhead, and snippets of coastguard radio broadcasts are heard. References to poppies, heavy with seed (opium), bring the song to a close as the urge to let go becomes too much and she slips beneath the waves (“deeper and deeper”) and into the intermediate state between life and death, seguing beautifully into the spooky, downright glacial introduction of Under Ice. Suddenly the stage floor becomes a rippling mass of material mimicking the motion of waves and sinister, shadowy figures wearing large fish skulls begin to skulk around while various figures in life jackets also emerge, ghost-like, from the darkness as the sound of a submarine’s sonar pierces the gloom. Under Ice features disorientating dream logic, as the semi-conscious narrator slowly becomes aware of her plight; the realisation encroaching upon her dreams of drowning as internal and external narratives collide. Trapdoors appear in various parts of the stage as Kate is hurled through them and dragged up out of them, all the while gradually realising that the figure beneath the water she’s singing about is actually herself – “There's something moving under/Under the ice moving/Under ice through water/Trying to/"It's me"/Get out of the cold water/"It's me"/Something/"It's me"/Someone, help them/Wake up!” It’s a haunting moment reached by a slow-building sense of dread; the music as ominous as the opening strains of John Williams’ theme from Jaws.

Not a soul on the ice/Only me skating fast

You won't burn/You won't bleed/Confess to me, girl!

With terrifying vocals and lyrics, Waking the Witch begins calmly enough, with a gradual cacophony of disembodied voices prompting the narrator to wake up. There’s more time and sensory distortion as some voices sound near, while others sound further away. At one stage we hear a voice ask 'Can you not see that little light up there?' hinting that our narrator may be sinking deeper and deeper into the depths. 'Where?' is the whispered reply. 'There!' 'Where?', the final dreamily uttered response, as though she is half awake and not fully aware of the immensity of her predicament. Events become even more terrifying as the narrator, now staring death in the face, her life flashing before her eyes as she thrashes in the water, is confronted by a sub-aquatic witch-finder condemning her to the flame. The dancers in life-jackets have taken on an almost demonic quality; the straps of their jackets doubling as forked devil tails, they surround Kate, pointing at her mockingly as stuttering vocals emulate desperate gasps for air. The narrator, finding herself condemned to death, begins to question her right to live, and Waking the Witch, unfurling as a sort of 'trial of conscience’, contains myriad references to witch trials. As part of these trials, women accused of witchcraft were thrown into water; if they drowned, they were declared innocent, if they survived they were found guilty and burned. The song appears to have been partly inspired by Elizabeth George Speare’s 1958 children’s novel The Witch of Blackbird Pond, with its protagonist accused of witchcraft and various references to blackbirds and wings in water. The references to blackbirds and witch trials echo the tale of Molly Leigh, a woman accused of witchcraft in the 1700s who kept a pet blackbird. In European folklore blackbirds are sometimes used as a symbol of sexual temptation; it is said the devil himself transformed into a blackbird and flew into the face of St. Benedict, causing him to become troubled by an intense desire for a woman he had once known.

Help this blackbird, there's a stone around my leg

Who taps me on the shoulder?/I turn around, but you're gone - Kate Bush, Hammer Horror (1978)

Waking the Witch is perhaps one of the most intense moments of Before the Dawn. As it draws to a close, the sound of helicopters flying overhead can be heard, as voices shout “get out of the water!” and a search light flickers across the audience from above, creating an utterly immersive experience; visually as well as audibly. With the narrator’s fate in the balance, the story momentarily returns to dry land and the home of her family, who have by now begun to wonder where she is and why she’s late... A crooked house-shaped room is pulled onto the stage and a scene of mundane domesticity ensues: a father cooks sausages for dinner while his son lies on the couch watching TV. Kate appears behind them and performs Watching You Without Me, a song that takes the form of a ghost story, as the narrator ponders her loved ones back home on shore. Sang from a purgatorial vantage point, she tries desperately to alert her loved ones to her plight: “Can't let you know/What's been happening/There's a ghost in our home/Just watching you without me/I'm not here.” Her mournful, spectral attempts to communicate are signalled by more stuttering vocals, like intermittent interference on a radio broadcast. When recording this song for Hounds of Love, certain verses of the song were spoken backwards phonetically, and then played forward to create an effect similar to that used by David Lynch in Twin Peaks when characters speak to each other in the Black Lodge. In a moment reminiscent of Poltergeist, the lights in the little room flash on and off and the father and son think they see Kate’s image in the TV set; a quivering ghost in her own home.

There's a ghost in our home...

When the narrator’s attempts to communicate with her family are unsuccessful, the story returns to the dark sea, and a somewhat livelier purgatorial moment. With its traditional Irish instrumentation, Jig of Life conjures images of a céilí dance, its various rhythms pulling and pushing like a roaring sea. Irish folklore tells of countless places which exist between the realms of the living and the dead, where contact with the spirit world is intensified. The narrator of The Ninth Wave appears to enter a great dance hall where certain moments from her past, present and future are woven together in a tapestry of her life. Obscure references are made to 'One Hand Clapping' (perhaps a nod to Anthony Burgess’ 1961 novel of the same name, the dominant theme of which is the downfall of civilisation) and she is confronted by her future self (“I'll be sitting in your mirror/Now is the place where the crossroads meet/Will you look into the future?”), who urges her to try to live. “Where on your palm is my little line/When you're written in mine/As an old memory?/Never, never say goodbye/To my part of your life.”

Get out of the waves! Get out of the water!

The penultimate song of The Ninth Wave, Hello Earth, is an ambiguous lament containing a traditional Georgian choral piece entitled Tsintskaro. Apparently Bush initially heard this piece of music in Werner Herzog’s atmospheric Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht – a morosely contemplative film, largely preoccupied with death. The scene in which Tsintskaro is featured depicts Lucy wandering, trance-like, through a town square as the dwindling population gather to dance and feast amidst the debris and rats. All have seemingly accepted their fate - death by plague - and decide to live out the last moments of their lives in subdued celebration. A huge life buoy has floated into the centre of the stage and as Kate attempts to climb onto it throughout this song, she is constantly pulled back into the sea by the sinister fish-headed figures (referred to in the programme as the Lords of the Deep). The last line of the song “Tiefer, tiefer, irgendwo in der Tiefe gibt es ein Licht" is German for "Deeper, deeper, somewhere in the depth there is a light." As Kate is finally pulled off the buoy, in slow motion no less, and carried off in a funeral procession by the Lords of the Deep, she whispers “Go to sleep little Earth.”

Not wishing to end The Ninth Wave on a downer, Kate composed The Morning Fog, a celebratory song which seems to imply the narrator has made it back to land and is reunited with her loved ones. Of course, another way to look at it is that she has finally drowned and emerged into the afterlife to be reunited with loved ones long passed away…

With no thought of the shadows in her path, or the silent flight of the raven-winged hours. Edgar Allan Poe

Throughout The Ninth Wave, various thematic and narrative layers unfurl operatically, cinematically, and in parts, downright nightmarishly. It’s an astonishing collection of songs, and seeing them performed live, in such a provocative and theatrical way highlights how powerful they are; and of course, how much of Bush’s work is inspired by notions and ideas stemming from Gothic horror. Even throughout the second part of the show, A Sky of Honey, elements of the Gothic can be glimpsed, particularly in the creepy bird-masks worn by the band, the moments when a seemingly puppeteer-less marionette catches and greedily, bloodily, devours a bird before running off stage, and finally the moment when Kate herself sprouts large black wings and flies through a giant doorway.


Anonymous said…
The title of the song in The Ninth Wave is "Under Ice" NOT "Under The Ice". Any Bush fan knows this. You make this mistake repeatedly, and it makes you sound like you really aren't that familiar with Bush's work. You might want to make a correction...just to give yourself more credibility.
James Gracey said…
Thanks Anonymous. Duly noted and amended. I assure you, I am very familiar with Kate Bush's work.

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