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Bringing out the Dead: The Ethics and Advisability of Postmortem Releases




The Ethics and Advisability of Postmortem Releases

by Kate MacDonald


Following the death of her spinster sister in 1886, Lavinia Dickinson honoured a promise to burn all the personal communications she had received. However, she had made no promise, nor received any instruction, on what to do with the forty journals full of poetry she found among her sister’s belongings. She knew that her sister had written; about a dozen of her poems had been printed—mostly in a local newspaper—during her lifetime, but she hadn’t suspected the extent to which writing had consumed her life. Seeing that there was undeniable quality there, she fought to have them published until a volume was finally released in 1890.

A little more than a quarter-century later, Czech writer Max Brod made a fateful decision to disregard the dying wish of his best friend to have his own writing destroyed. Instead, Brod kept and indeed published it after the friend was in his grave.

Sometimes, artists are acutely unaware of their own abilities and it is only because of the intervention of a canny relative or friend that we are able to enjoy the works of literary luminaries like Emily Dickinson and Franz Kafka. We can count ourselves lucky that neither Dickinson nor Kafka lived long enough to make the decision to destroy their own work—they died at the ages of 55 and 40, respectively—as they eventually might have done.

In our rush to thank Lavinia Dickinson and Max Brod, however, we forget that their actions gave the authors precisely no say in what work saw the light of day, or in the case of Kafka, that their specific wishes were ignored outright. When we feel grateful for being able to enjoy an artist’s body of work, we can gloss over the compromising of their right to determine what will form that body.

This is all a very lengthy way of saying a relatively simple thing: I’ve started to feel iffy about the issuing of previously unreleased music by artists who have died.

The scene (if you want to call the motley crew that listen to all the types of music covered here a scene) is still a relatively recent phenomenon; these are genres of music that have developed during the lifetimes of many of the people reading this article (as well as the one writing it), which means that we haven’t seen a lot of death among the artists we love. There are a few notable exceptions: Bryn Jones of Muslimgauze, Dead and Euronymous of Mayhem, and John Balance and Peter Christopherson of Coil, for instance. But those we have lost have enjoyed a remarkable period of life after death, whether they intended to or not.



Take, for example, Euronymous, aka Øystein Aarsesth: he is credited as a performer on twenty-three separate releases, only five of which came out before he was murdered in 1993. He appears on—I couldn’t make this up—forty-three different versions of the album De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, none of which were released during his lifetime. The old Hollywood joke is that dying is one of the best career moves you can make, and this case undoubtedly proves it. In the wake of the macabre events surrounding the band, there was a huge public appetite for recordings that featured its dead and imprisoned members, and there has been no shortage of people stepping in to cater to it. His former collaborators may have to give their blessings to any new or remastered, remixed, or re-edited work, but he can have no input at all into his legacy. Instead, a group of others are making the choices in his stead and are profiting from doing so.

In the case of Muslimgauze, the idea of the posthumous career becomes almost comical. Bryn Jones was known as an incredibly prolific artist up until his death in 1999, but it’s possible he’s been even more prolific in the sixteen years since. His ‘after death’ period has included some gems: Hamas Cinema, Gaza Strip is perfectly in keeping with the druggy, jittery, hazy sound that his fans adored, and the alternately jagged and smooth ride that is Iranair Inflight Magazine is an excellent listen, no less coherent than many of the albums released during his lifetime.

But as the years have worn on and the depths of the music catalogue he left behind have been plumbed, there are more and more ‘remix’ albums and collections of unnamed tracks—things he could easily have released himself if he had wanted to. It looks increasingly like it has become an issue of quantity over quality. Aside from the multitude of postmortem releases by Soleilmoon and Staalplaat, there now exists The Muslimgauze Preservation Society: a group specifically dedicated to ensuring that Bryn Jones’ music is not lost.

I believe the intentions here are noble because I’d be shocked if there was more than a few crumbs of profit left after manufacturing costs (Muslimgauze was never a high-profile artist and much of his music is an acquired taste). However, leaving aside the question of reissues, which are obviously a great idea to allow newer fans to buy out-of-print material, releasing this material (especially this amount of material), one wonders if this is music Jones would have wanted people to remember.

Bryn Jones (Muslimgauze)

Bryn Jones (Muslimgauze)

One of the reasons that Bryn Jones was so prolific was that he dedicated significant time almost every day to recording. That gave him a lot of base material from which to construct his albums, but it also left a lot of stray bits that he decided didn’t make the cut. So if he decided that this material shouldn’t be published, do record labels now have the right to overrule him because he’s not there to argue? Is this a Kafka situation, where they are preserving material whose value the artist just didn’t see? Given the breadth and volume of his output during his life, it seems that Jones had a greater sense of his strengths than the notoriously insecure author, which makes the continued trawling of his archives that much more problematic.

This practice also raises the question of potentially damaging an artist’s legacy by being too eager to add to it. Although not even close in scale to the harvest that’s been conducted on Mayhem and Muslimgauze, 2015 has seen posthumous releases by Coil, one of the most beloved and influential bands in the industrial genre. As a side note, I’m not really comfortable designating them as part of the ‘industrial’ genre, or indeed part of any genre, since one of the things that draws people—myself included—to Coil is the uniqueness of their sound and its refusal to conform to any classification. I’ll just have to learn to live with myself for this instance.

There is undoubtedly an audience for these albums among Coil fans who are still recovering from the shock of losing both John Balance and Peter Christopherson in quick succession.  I’ve already heard friends and fans chattering about the news of a new Coil album with a combination of awe and reverence that borders on the religious. They remain enthralled by the power of the band’s œuvre and eager for just a little more, but that power comes because the band was selective of what they released while they were alive.

The new releases aren’t exactly original material. They consist of a handful of tracks for a project that was undertaken but never realized in the 1990s—remixes of Nine Inch Nails from the Broken and The Downward Spiral period—and an album of alternate versions of tracks from some of the last albums the band released. The former, Recoiled, is a curiosity, especially since many fans have forgotten that the two bands were quite closely linked at one point, and Trent Reznor’s Nothing label was supposed to release Coil’s post-Love’s Secret Domain album around the time that the remixes were done.

Backwards is a sketchpad of tracks that were originally recorded for the never-released album on Nothing over a period of four years (1992-96). These tracks were available briefly as a download and significantly different versions were released in the early 2000s on The Ape of Naples and The New Backwards. Coil certainly weren’t above releasing their own alternate versions and outtakes—they did it many, many times throughout their career. But they never chose these tracks, despite having them on-hand for a decade. Why? Possibly because they sound exactly like what they are: early drafts of ideas that the band rightly rejected and took in a very different direction later on; an interesting artifact, yes, but not on par with the Coil releases overseen by Christopherson and Balance.



It’s very possible, even likely, that a lot of Coil fans will love what the new releases have to offer, but there’s no getting around that even with the polish added by a new Danny Hyde mastering job, this material doesn’t read as finished. These are footnotes to an illustrious career. The question about this sort of release, though, is whether or not they cause some unintended harm by diluting the pool. Does it strengthen or weaken an artist’s legacy to have their embryonic material available to the public? (If you want a much more mainstream and exploitative version of this phenomenon, take a look at the discography of Jimi Hendrix and the number of releases of thumbnail material released since his death.)

This is undoubtedly a thorny subject. Once a work is available to the public, an artist cedes a certain amount of control over it: its meaning in the world is determined as much by those who consume and interpret it as by its creator. But the artist still makes a conscious choice to make their work available. When a release is done postmortem, that choice is gone, and that’s a moral quandary: are we protecting the artists from their own poor judgment, like Max Brod did for Kafka? Few would argue that he made a bad decision, but many would argue that he made a presumptuous decision, namely that he knew better than his dying friend.

There are significant risks here: the compromise of the artist’s rights, the exploitation of their memory, and the potential weakening of the overall catalogue by padding it with unfinished additional material. We let our curiosity overcome our respect for the artist’s output and demand more, even if it’s lesser quality, even if it’s something the artist never intended for us to hear (or see, read, etc.), because we don’t want to accept, as fans, that they’re gone and that we’re never going to have the pleasure of experiencing a new album from an act we love. That impulse comes from a good place, and could well unearth the musical equivalent of The Trial at some point, but it’s also extraordinarily selfish that we feel entitled to whatever material is left behind. At some point we have to be willing to look at our musical collection and know that that’s it. It’s over.