, December 15th, 2011 10:20
The hooded figure of The Grim Reaper has been as much a fixture in the imagination of popular culture as sex and drugs. Whether appearing in pop's more trite offerings – Ricky Valence's cringeworthy 1960 hit 'Tell Laura I Love Her' and Ferlin Husky's unintentionally hilarious country and western anti-drink driving song 'The Drunk Driver' immediately spring to mind – or rock's more portentous meditations (see Lou Reed's Magic & Loss among many others for evidence), Death has always loomed large. Indeed, such has been the input of Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse into the mythology and reality of rock & roll both as an inspiration and harvester of fine talent that it's a surprise he hasn't been awarded a Grammy for services to the industry.
Death's dark figure looms large over Icelandic psychedelic overlords Dead Skeletons and the mantra-like ruminations contained within Dead Magick. Despite the skull gracing the cover of this epic 12-song collection, this is no morbid reflection on the inevitability that faces us all though scratching below the surface you'd be forgiven for thinking so. Dead Skeletons' main man Jón Sæmundur Audarson has been living with HIV for almost 20 years and his determination to seize life by the lapels rather than cowering in the shadow of death informs this album throughout. As the opening track 'Dead Mantra' states in four different languages, "He who fears death cannot enjoy life."
From the opening drones, distorted organs and guitars wobbling from the effects of heavy-duty tremolo, 'Dead Mantra' is battle of life winning over death and the sonic palette that colours the struggle between fight and surrender is consistent throughout. In the middle of this hypnotic maelstrom come the otherwordly vocals. Bathed in echo and reverb, they attempt to find their way from a spiritual battleground that suggests a strange ambiguity over whether the desire for life can keep mortality away for just that bit longer.
'Dead Magick I' is the sound of Suicide transported to some infernal version of the Kit Kat Club as electronic pulses and throbs collide with off-kilter piano as elsewhere, most notably on 'Lifðu!/Live!', relentless motorik beats keep up the breathless sense of momentum. But there are more subtle moments here too. 'Om Mani Peme Hung' sees guitar lines crossing sequencers like warning shots across a ship's bow and in doing so offers more textures than would be imagined and with a total running time of 72 minutes, Dead Skeletons are masters of creating pace and drama. It's a long ride for sure but then again, reaching for the stars has hardly ever been a soft option.