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Chaos is Our Language: The Brief and Celebrated Life of Nekrophile Rekords

UPDATED! There were a couple of things in the original text of this article that were incorrect. We’d like to thank Zoe DeWitt very much for reaching out and advising us of this. The sequence of releases has been corrected and the nature of the collaborative work between Coil and Zos Kia is clarified.

In the digital age, it’s become unthinkable that something once made available to the public could ever be lost. We hear stories almost daily of people who wish that they could retract embarrassing statements or actions, but there is always someone who has captured them for posterity. Information cycles through the internet with the force of a tornado, picking up different bits and discarding others, only to draw them right back in. Little of it is important and little of it is even interesting, but the concept of lost knowledge is simply no longer an issue for a great part of the western world.

The digitization of virtually everything makes it a great time to be a music fan. It seems that, no matter how obscure or forgotten you believe something to be, no matter how limited it was in its original release, someone of whose existence you know nothing is taking pains to ensure that the it is uploaded for posterity. Those of us who spent much of our youth chasing music that might have been nothing more than a rumour can scowl at how easy kids today have it all we want, but such preservation keeps the memory of culture- even culture which of the remotest fringes- accessible.

Nekrophile Rekords is a great example of something that started as small, obscure and fleeting, but that has been rediscovered, rediscovered again, and re-re-rediscovered quite recently. “Obscure” hardly begins to describe their original works, but among fans of what’s been termed “ritual industrial”, their influence is hard to overstate. Active for less than five years, the label had fewer than ten cassette releases, however they achieved a kind of mythical status within the active cassette culture of European industrial and experimental music.

That appeal was no doubt due in part to the fact that Zoe (then known as Michael) DeWitt, the young Austrian artist behind Nekrophile, connected with some pretty big names during the label’s brief life span. In its first year, Nekrophile released a recording of a long experimental piece by no less than Genesis P-Orridge. What’s History, a collaborative release with Stan Bingo, was recorded in 1981, when P-Orridge was finding his new direction after the breakup of Throbbing Gristle. The piece served as a launching point for  Psychic TV and the Temple Ov Psychick Youth, who would go on to create a new wave of interest in magic, the occult, and esoteric knowledge. Appearing on the heels of Psychic TV’s hugely influential Dreams Less Sweet, What’s History?, was an item for devotees to hunt down from the moment it was available. At the time, Nekrophile’s only other release was a cassette from DeWitt’s own project Korpses KatatonikSensitive Liberated Autistiks– an exceedingly dark and original combination of animalistic chants, stiff industrial rhythms, and noise.

Nekrophile followed the P-Orridge release with a compilation entitled The Beast 666, and a split release called Transparent, featuring the new project of Geoff Rushton, a young poet and fan of Psychic TV who had contributed to Dreams Less Sweet. Recording on his own under the name Coil, Rushton, better known as John Balance, frequently worked with his friend John Gosling, who made music as Zos Kia. The two of them would perform together, working so closely that they functioned almost as a single, two-headed entity. Coil were to garner wider attention because of the early assistance of Peter Christopherson of Throbbing Gristle (he became a full-time member of Coil soon afterward. Christopherson’s status as a member of Throbbing Gristle and a major musical contributor to Dreams Less Sweet made Transparent another in-demand release from the tiny Austrian label.

The remaining Nekrophile releases were another compilation, The Archangels of Sex Rule the Destruction of the Regime, cassettes from two Italian bands, LashTal and Ain Soph and one from DeWitt’s post-Korpses solo project Zero Kama. And that is the sum total of everything the label ever did. Eight releases, nothing more. DeWitt put an end to Nekrophile activities in 1987 and the cassettes disappeared from circulation. But the Nekrophile story was just getting started.

First of all, some of the artists developed a considerably higher profile in the years following their work with the label: Coil, of course, gained a devoted following that rivaled Psychick TV’s; Sleep Chamber, a contributor to both compilations, built up a fanbase with their titillating mix of magic and sexuality; Ain Soph continued to release material, including the much-lauded Kshatriya; Post Mortem. Fans were well aware that the Nekrophile cassettes existed, but they were nowhere to be found. (To this day, originals are rumoured to fetch upwards of $200USD each, assuming you can find them.)

Second, Psychic TV/ The Temple ov Psychick Youth, along with some early collaborators who went on to their own projects, helped build an interest in the occult, in magical practices, in rituals and in transcendentalism. This was not the new age movement of twenty years earlier, but one that focused on the likes of Aleister Crowley and Austin Osman Spare. As interest continued to grow in those bands, fans became more and more eager to gather everything these artists had recorded, and anything that hinted at ritual or magic(k) became a much sought-after commodity.

As part of the history of that movement, a part that wore its esoteric influence with pride, Nekrophile became an shadowy industrial/ ambient unicorn: mysterious, magical and perpetually out of reach. (It also didn’t hurt their reputation in those circles that one of Nekrophile’s compilation contributors, Metgumnerbone, got themselves arrested scavenging a graveyard for human bones to make into musical instruments.) There were written records of these releases in the form of old mail order catalogues (basically music nerd porn in the pre-internet era), but actually getting your hands on any of them, particularly outside of Europe, was impossible.

In order to fulfill the wishes of their musical community, the Dutch label Staalplaat reissued most of the Nekrophile material on CD in the early 90s. However, far from sating the public appetite, the CD reissues seemed to only increase it. Limited to 500 copies each and packaged in two-colour cardboard slipcase, each one of them seemed to be sold out almost before it had been released. And then, as soon as they had come to light again, the albums were gone. There were rumours that the label would be making a comeback, and it seemed like that was a possibility when Zero Kama released an EP in 2001. But, despite the continuing demand for more releases and more reissues, Nekrophile became a sort of dark industrial fairytale.

Of course, it’s no longer impossible to get your ears on the music; the black-to-dark-grey market has made it a lot easier to track down anything if you put your mind to it. For that matter, the Coil/ Zos Kia split that was one of the original Nekrophile cassettes was reissued by Coil themselves and has been available from them for years. Nor is there any great mystery about the whereabouts of the former label head: Zoe DeWitt is an internationally renown performance and visual artist who’s worked with the likes of Marina Abramović and has participated in major solo and group shows around the world. Information about the history and work of Nekrophile is available on her website for anyone who wants to look.

But there is an undeniable power to Nekrophile’s air of mystery. The idea that it coalesced at the perfect moment in music history for its distinctive sound, and then dispersed like fog only adds to its magical allure. Much of the music is, unsurprisingly, raw, recorded as it was by people who were doing the best they could with very limited recording budgets and without the technological advances we’ve come to take for granted. At the same time, there’s also something naïve to many of their releases. Some of it is so simple it’s almost childlike. But rather than diminishing the dark, ritual aspect of the music, it amplifies it; innocence is the purview of children, but also of “primitives”; the simplicity of Nekrophile releases is the simplicity of the clean psyche, beginning to explore.

I originally encountered Nekrophile in the “great reissue craze” of the early 90s. I’ve managed to get my hands on a very few of those CDs, and may possibly have found some downloads that showed up on my computer from god knows where. My prized Nekrophile possession, however, is an original cassette copy of LashTal’s Thoum Aesh Neith. I found it in a closeout sale many years ago and could hardly believe my luck, even then. It is perhaps the strangest and most indescribable of all the Nekrophile releases, but also perhaps the one that best sums the label up. As much as my jaded ears think they’ve heard everything that industrial and all its myriad subgenres have to offer, I can still listen to that cassette (although I haven’t in a few years, because I’m terrified of damaging it) and feel the spark of its creativity in my stomach.

Old farts like me will continue to pass on the stories and, where possible, the sounds of Nekrophile, but I truly hope that someone, Zoe DeWitt or someone else, reintroduces the music for a new generation. That process appears to have started already, as Buh Records of Peru released a tribute compilation to Zero Kama (complete with liner notes from Zoe DeWitt) in 2012. (The image at the top of this article is taken from that compilation.) As the connected world makes everything less and less mysterious, I think Nekrophile’s releases could be more vital and inspiring than ever.