Note: This piece first appeared in Byron Coley’s excellent quarterly publication, Bull Tongue Review. Reprinted with permission.
Ilitch, 10 Suicides (SCOPA LP, 1980; Superior Viaduct LP, 2015)
Ruth, Polaroïd/Roman/Photo (1985)
You may know Thierry Müller from the infamous NWW (Nurse with Wound) List (1980), but his most well-known works do not appear under his own name.
Ilitch, Ruth, Crash, Arcane — none are “groups,” per se, but pseudonymous guises that allow Müller to experiment with previously uncharted genres or points-of-view.
The name “Ruth M. Ellyeri” first appears on 1978’s Periodikmindtrouble (1978; recently reissued by Superior Viaduct). Credited with guitars and sequencing, one could be forgiven for thinking she was part of the Müller collaboration-collective.
But look carefully at those letters. As Müller told The Quietus in 2010: “Ruth was not really a person. She was part of my schizophrenic personality.”
Müller’s second Ilitch record, 10 Suicides, weaves together many strains of influence: kosmische, folk, punk, industrial clang and musique concrète. The album’s stylistic restlessness is summed up in the one-two pairing of loping, piano-driven “Symphonynachevée” with “N.A.,” four minutes of spiky nihilism (“This world is empty/Outside is empty/Nothing in my brain/Outside is nothing”).
“Waiting for Mabelle,” a spartan but melodic love song that pitch-shifts Müller’s voice into a chorus of lovelorn robots, could be considered the first Ruth song — light, melodic, yearning. (It morphs and reappears on the Ruth record.)
But Ruth wouldn’t get a breakout role until the 1985 release of Polaroïd/Roman/Photo, a classic slab of Gallic Cold Wave that sold roughly 50 copies back in the day and went undiscovered until the late ‘90s.
Müller’s “record for girls” one-ups the Human League in the boy-girl ennui stakes, but in classic French fashion is the sexiest-ever soundtrack for missed connections. As Müller told The Quietus, “it is the girls who have all the best roles.” There is, of course, a good dash of voyeurism (“Polaroïd/Roman/Photo” even samples the shutter click of a camera) and bedsit despair (an earnest cover of Can’s “She Brings the Rain” that narrowly sidesteps being cloying, thanks to some sharp, slashing guitar).
But, rest assured, the Ilitch “persona” makes a welcome appearance with “Thriller,” a song that became an obsession when I first heard it, back in 2004. (Improbably, I rescued the dusty CD off the slush pile at work — best hunch I’ve ever followed.)
“Thriller” starts with the metronomic ticking of a clock, followed by buzzsaw guitar and raw spirals of violin. A dial tone patches in with a steady click-click-click, then a zombie chorus of hissy, androgynous voices. Ding! goes the bright, bell-like sound of a typewriter return. Add in the whirr of a drill, sax blares, noir patter lifted from an old G-man flick (“On the river. Don’t sound good.”). The surgical precision of the layering keeps it from feeling overstuffed — in that way it never fails to remind me of This Heat’s “24 Track Loop.” Ostensibly NBD if accomplished with the aid of a PowerMac and ProTools, but awe-inspiring when you think of it being carefully collaged with the aid of comparatively primitive early ‘80s tech. (Amendment: Both songs are truly awe-inspiring no matter when/how.)
Ruth proved to be a one-off, but serves as a fascinating attempt by Müller to meld his glitch experiments with a more conventional (though hardly mainstream) sound.