Cult album from Icelandic psychedelic art project reissued on vinyl, Nonni Dead looks back on the album a decade on
To celebrate the album’s ten year anniversary, we’re super excited to announce a special vinyl reissue of ‘Dead Magick’ - the much-loved debut album from the Icelandic psychedelic art-rock project Dead Skeletons. Due for release December 17th 2021, the anniversary edition comes as a 180g double LP on black/coloured vinyl (both versions limited to 500 copies each) with remastered audio courtesy of James Plotkin, a heavy tip-on printed gatefold sleeve and printed inner-sleeves. You can pre-order the vinyl here and read what Nonni had to say about the record a decade on below.
In the ten years since the album was released on vinyl by Anton Newcombe’s A Recordings Label on 11/11/11, ‘Dead Magick’ has come to be seen as one of this generation’s definitive works of neo-psychedelia and now has an almost cult-like reverence attached to it. Tours around the UK, EU and USA, major international festival dates and critical acclaim soon followed the album’s release, as well as a burgeoning underground psych scene to whom ‘Dead Magick’s occult sonic belligerence became a crucial and highly lauded touchstone. A twelve-track masterclass in “transportative far-out guitar hymnals” (as described by The Quietus’ Luke Turner), the album was an exercise in spiritual rock’n’roll drones shaped by primitive fuzzed-out guitars, repetitive vocal mantras, distorted organs and crashing percussion.
For all the references to death in their band/track/album names and the skulls that adorn their artwork, you’d have been forgiven for thinking the album was to be a largely grim and macabre affair. Despite its face-value aesthetic morbidity, though, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Inspired by bandleader Jón Sæmundur Auðarson’s own diagnosis with HIV, the driving philosophy behind Dead Skeletons (and the wider ‘DEAD’ concept that Jón, aka Nonni Dead, has been exploring long before the band came about) is defined by the ‘He who fears death cannot enjoy life’ chant heard on the album’s declarational opening track ‘Dead Mantra’. The underground hit was the first song released by Dead Skeletons – preceding ‘Dead Magick’ by several years – and laid out the band’s intentions from the off: to use music as a means to inspire people to celebrate life unshackled from fears and anxieties over their mortality.
On the mission statement behind his art, the Reykjavik-based Jón recollects: “I created the DEAD concept in 2003 as an idea to use art as a therapy to overcome the fear of death and to enjoy life to the fullest. I had been dealing with the HIV virus since 1994 and wanted to use my art skills to explore this idea further and spread positive messages to help other people in the same position as myself.” He continues: “Since 2003 I had been using the Spanish proverb ‘Quien teme la muerte no goza la vida’ (He who fears death cannot enjoy life), translating it into other languages like Icelandic and German. Then, in 2008, I was offered to be part of a group exhibition in the Reykjavik Art Museum and I decided to do an art installation in which I would sing the mantra and record it for the show in different languages.”
Setting those plans in motion, in September 2008 Jón recruited fellow Icelandic musician Henrik Björnsonn (Singapore Sling), as well as Ryan Carlson and Aislinn Van Kriedt of American psych band The Asteroid #4, to help record the music for the installation. And, just like that, ‘Dead Mantra’ was born. The track was released on YouTube in December that year and not only did its quick success make clear to Jón that this should only be the beginning of the newly-inaugurated Dead Skeletons band, but it also perfectly encapsulated the spirit of Dead Skeletons from the get-go. As Creation Records founder Alan McGee wrote in a 2008 The Guardian column praising ‘Dead Mantra’ (albeit incorrectly crediting the group as a being a new Anton Newcombe project): “Dead Skeletons’ philosophy is based around a psychedelic battle cry and series of mantras to inspire people to accept life and death in equal measure… ‘Dead Mantra’ is pure rock’n’roll magic at play.”
With ‘Dead Mantra’ now out in the world, Jón and Henrik decided to get to work on crafting some more Dead Skeletons songs together and the results would become the A and B side of ‘Dead Magick’. The songs weren’t just musically hypnotic to the point of transcendental, they were also deeply spiritual in nature – perfectly contrasting an esoteric mysticism against the music’s scuzzy, hedonistic core. The cosmic ‘Om Mani Peme Hung’, for example, recites an Ancient Buddhist mantra of the same name but shortly after you have tracks like ‘Psychodead’ and ‘Get On The Train’, which deal in a ritualistic proto-punk sound bringing to mind the menacing sonic depravity of Suicide, Mary Chain and the Stooges.
On the album’s spiritual leanings, Jón says: “Since 2008 I had been looking into all kinds of different cultures and religious ways of the past, like early Christianity and Tibetan Culture and Buddhism. Some lyrics of the album and the art-work really capture that vibe and feeling.” The album was completed when Ryan Carlson returned to Iceland in Spring 2010 and him and Jón set to work on the C and D sides. Describing those sessions, Jón recalls even closer encounters with the spiritual world: “We had been going through some spiritual weirdness and while recording the album some holy spirits arrived in the studio and helped us through the way of recording the album, it was like somebody was sometimes working directly through us.”
Dead Skeletons came out the other side of this two-year recording process with ‘Dead Magick’, a double LP clocking in at 72 minutes worth of music. The album was mastered by Carlson and it was released digitally in May 2011 and on vinyl in November 2011 via A Recordings. An instant classic, the following years saw the band go from art project to international touring force and a staple of the psychedelic underground. A decade on and we’re incredibly excited to be revisiting this album and celebrating its tenth lap around the sun with a new vinyl reissue that puts it back on the shelf for the first time in years! Pre-order your copy here.