“The Sound of Warhammer 40.000” Series

It is the 41st Millennium. For more than a hundred centuries the Emperor of Mankind has sat immobile on the Golden Throne of Earth. He is the master of mankind by the will of the gods and master of a million worlds by the might of His inexhaustible armies. He is a rotting carcass writhing invisibly with power from the Dark Age of Technology. He is the Carrion Lord of the vast Imperium of Man for whom a thousand souls are sacrificed every day so that He may never truly die.

I first encountered Warhammer 40K in the late 1980s when I bought a copy of the game rulebook, Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader. At that time I was reaching the very tail end of my role playing game phase, when I rarely played but still acquired and devoured every gaming system I could get my hands on. I had at least two dozen different titles, each with a bunch of supplementary books and modules, plus probably another dozen wargames. My shelves were filled with box sets, books, magazines, and even random home-brew publications I’d order from classified ads in Dragon Magazine (as well as rare back-issues of Dragon that I also collected). I was, perhaps, a bit obsessed.

There were two things that intrigued me about Warhammer 40K. First, it was miniatures-based. While my friends and I occasionally used miniatures when we played Dungeons & Dragons, the little lead figures were never an integral part of the experience. Warhammer 40K seemed to combine the best aspects of role playing and board gaming, and I even bought and painted a small set of miniatures. The second source of fascination was the nature of this strange universe depicted through some trippy and brutal artwork. But alas, I never got the chance to play, and sometime in the early 1990s I sold off my entire collection of games.

That was the last I thought about Warhammer 40K for probably another 20 years or so, until I discovered the universe’s fiction. I’ve read at least 50 titles over the years, covering almost the entire gamut of topics – Inquisition, Space Marines, Chaos Space Marines, Dark Eldar, T’au, Genestealers, Adepta Sororitas, Adeptus Mechanicus, and even the crime and horror stuff. The only thing I haven’t touched on is the Horus Heresy series, mostly due to the massive size – over 50 core books, plus dozens of related titles. It’s a bit overwhelming to even think about starting something like that, though chances are at some point I will.

Today there are many different ways to interact with the Warhammer 40K universe. Gaming, novels, graphic novels, animated films, video games, cosplay… you can go as deep as you want down the rabbit hole. And yes, there’s even music.

The first musical tie to Warhammer 40K I came across was the saga of Bolt Thrower’s 1989 album Realm of Chaos. Not only is the death metal masterpiece a Warhammer 40K concept album, it also used officially licensed artwork on the cover. Unfortunately when it came time to do a re-release of the album Games Workshop wasn’t interest in renewing the deal. In response the label hired the same artist who created the original work and had him come up with something… similar… This also caused a falling out between the label and Bolt Thrower, as the band members didn’t want the album re-released with new art. You can read a bit about the story HERE. I’m a big fan of Realm of Chaos, even going as far as spending a pretty penny on an original cover pressing a while back.

That got me wondering about other music related to Warhammer 40K. Certainly a number of artists have taken inspiration from the universe spawned by the game and books, and the video games have spawned some albums as well. After a little digging I also learned that in the early 1990s Games Workshop actually had its own label called Warhammer Records. They worked with a trio of rock bands – D-Rok, Wraith, and Rich Rags, and also partnered with Saxon on a Warhammer 40K-themed cover for a repress of their album Forever Free. The Warhammer label only hung on for a few years, and by 1994 it was gone. There’s a well-researched post about the label and Games Workshop’s dabbling in rock HERE.

In my poking around online I also stumbled upon another Warhammer 40K music project, one that partnered directly with Games Workshop. And instead of the rock/metal sound of Bolt Thrower and Games Workshop’s early efforts, this one was entirely techno. And it wasn’t just a few disparate albums. There was an actual vision here, right from the start. A dozen records, each dedicated to a specific race in the Warhammer 40K universe. This, my friends, is how I became obsessed with the Art of Perception label and The Sound of Warhammer 40.000 series.

I knew I had to buy these twelve records as well as the three compilation CDs. The good news is that I’m alive today and have access to the internet and PayPal, so tracking down copies was not terribly difficult (1). But… it seemed that almost every seller was in Europe. This was going to get expensive given how astronomical international shipping has become in the last few years. And it did. I found one seller in Germany who had five of the titles, so I got to combine on some shipping with him, but there were a few cases where the shipping actually cost more than the record. But I’m an obsessive, so that wasn’t a significant mental hurdle to overcome. There were a few speed bumps along the way, with a few sellers canceling my orders and one record being left out in the rain on the front porch despite there being a covered area, but after about six weeks I had all 15 releases.

I couldn’t find much about this series online. The Art of Perception label appears to have put out its last releases in 2006 and the website is no longer active. Because the original site used Adobe Flash most of the captures retained by the Wayback Machine were inaccessible. But due to the power of the internet and, yes, social media, I was able to contact the woman behind the label, Berlin-Based DJ and producer Maral Salmassi (her latest single as Arya Zappa can be heard HERE), and she was kind enough to share some of the backstory behind Art of Perception and The Sound of Warhammer 40.000. (2)

“As an art student, gamer, and sci-fi/fantasy nerd, I created Art Of Perception to bring together two planes: the visual, the imagination, and the sonic,” Salmassi told me. “Most importantly, I experienced techno and electronic music as a futuristic and spiritual experiment, not dance music consumed in clubs. That’s what I intended to express with this project.”

I can definitely relate to feeling a connection between sci-fi and electronic music. But why Warhammer 40K? “Initially, I wanted to do a series with H. R. Giger,” she said. “I went to [Switzerland] to meet him in his house, which was full of his paintings and sculptures. Unfortunately, the project didn’t happen, but I still wanted to produce a soundtrack series that would bridge art with electronic music. As a teen, I spent a significant part of my time playing computer and tabletop games. Warhammer 40k was one of my favorites and offered enough sci-fi vibe for an electronic music interpretation. I was obsessed with this idea, determined to manifest this series. When it was clear that the Giger collaboration wouldn’t happen, I got in touch with Games Workshop, offered them a deal, went to Nottingham to sign the contract, and the rest is history.”

First of all, let me express some jealousy here about getting to visit with H. R. Giger and see his art with him! And I can absolutely see similarities between what that collaboration might have been, with what the project with Games Workshop ultimately became. But while Salmassi was familiar with Warhammer 40K, chances are most of the artists were not. What were they told about the project?

“I sent [the artists] an introduction to the game and their species’ lore they were producing a piece of music for. Additionally, the received artworks and a few pages of the Game Codex.” This is also the recollection of some of the artists I was able to reach, and at least a few of them did some of their own research to gain an even deeper understanding of the Warhammer 40K universe.

Salmassi was already well-established in the electronic music world, so finding artists to participate in the project wasn’t too difficult. “At the time, I was already co-founder of the record distribution company and record store Formic in Cologne. Distributing many small underground labels, we had, of course, direct access to many artists and other underground distributors all over the world. I made a list with all the artists I wanted to invite to participate and got in touch with great success.”

The label put out a one-page press release announcing the project in either late 2000 or early 2001:

The idea is to create a limited twelve-part vinyl series in cooperation with internationally established electronic musicians such as Jimi Tenor, Two Lone Swordsmen, Mike Ink…

Each artist conducts a unique theme for a different type of species – a musical interpretation of a fantastic world from the “Warhammer 40.000” universe.

The press release goes on to explain that the complete series will include a dozen 12″ records as well as two compilation CDs. It also mentions that “a special collector box for all twelve 12″ will be available at the end of the project,” though I haven’t come across anything that leads me to believe the box ever happened. The artists for the first seven releases, along with the Warhammer 40K races they would be representing, were listed as well. A few of these were changed up, however, and at least one of the mentioned musicians, Anthony Rother, does not appear to have participated. (3)

The entire project took place from 2001 to 2003 and included 15 releases, a dozen 12″ records and three CDs. Twenty-four artists contributed two songs each to the records, for a total of 48 tracks on vinyl. The three CDs include 38 tracks, all but two of which also appear on vinyl. The two CD-only numbers are both on The Sound of Warhammer 40.000 Chapter II – Solar’s “You Are Me” and Sikora’s “Beautiful Sisters”. This brings the total number of tracks in the series to 50.

Each record is thematically tied to one of six races/factions within the Warhammer 40K universe (Eldar, Dark Eldar, Orks, Tyranids, Space Marines, and Chaos Space Marines) with a representative monochromatic image on the cover. Mike Vamp, who contributed a pair of tracks to one of the Tyranid records, told me that he was provided with the cover image and instructed “that [the songs] had to fit with the darkness of the drawings.” Benway & Ripley from Kitbuilders had similar recollections when I reached out to them about their two Space Marines inspired songs. “The Warhammer world was new to us,” they told me, “but we got some info from the shop and the net and we liked the whole thing.” Interestingly the liner notes of the Chapter I compilation mention three other thematic groups as well – Imperial Guard, Tau, and Sisters of Battle. While none of those groups had their own record, I do wonder if Sikora’s “Beautiful Sisters” on Chapter II was created with the Sisters of Battle in mind.

Vamp and Kitbuilders both confirmed they produced new tracks for The Sound of Warhammer 40.000, though a deep dive into all the artists exposes a few songs that appear to be recycled. The Modernist originally released “Eurojah” in 1998 and the “Immigrant Dub” version of it in 2000, before his Eldar-based 12″ came out, and both of Mike Ink’s contributions had been released under some different projects he was involved in – “Soul Desert” put out as Vinyl Republic in 1993 and “Indulto” as Crocker in 1994.

I only found eight of the 50 tracks on Spotify. I created a playlist called The Sound of Warhammer 40.000 that is public on the platform where you can check them out. Fortunately some of the series’ best songs are available, including my absolutely favorite, Codec & Flexor’s “Time Has Changed”.

My original plan was to simply write about each release in order, but I thought it might be more interesting to group them instead by race/faction since the artists used them as inspiration. Since some releases share the same title I’ll be referring to them by their catalog numbers, which run sequentially and chronologically from AP-01 to AP-012 (AP-012 is the only catalog number using three digits instead of two). So, without further ado…

ELDAR
AOP-02 – The Modernist / Bochum Welt
AOP-08 – Codec & Flexor / Michael Mayer

Prior to the rise of mankind as the dominant force in the galaxy the Eldar reigned supreme. However, it was their own hubris and excess that brought the once mighty race low, the psychic energy of dead Eldar souls causing the creation of the Chaos god Slaanesh, known to the Eldar as “She Who Thirsts”. Despite their decline, the Eldar remain technologically advanced and graceful warriors who often find themselves at odds with the Imperium of Man, holding mankind in contempt as savages but realizing that their own time in the universe is coming to a close.

From the back jacket of AOP-02:

We are the Eldar, amongst the oldest of the races and perhaps once counted amongst the wisest. But we are ever reminded of our great Folly and even greater Fall. Now we are but few in number and our time left in this galaxy is short.

The Modernist opens the Eldar series with “Alphatier Brain (live update)”, the initial low beats adding layers of higher pitch elements to create a quick tempo banger. It’s a structured piece of music, the subtle shifts and changes coming in predictable patterns and giving the whole track a technological feel. He follows up with “Eurojah (immigrant dub)”, a more subtle composition with less emphasis on bass and more on flourishes, keyboards playing a more prominent role. Whereas “Alphatier Brain” reaches down into the more animalistic part of the mind and activates pure survival instincts, “Eurojah” touches the higher functions as it skitters across the surface in a way that’s just beyond your grasp, a gentle caress that soothes the more primal “Alphatier”.

Bochum Welt takes a lighter touch with “Entering the Warp”, the beat soothing and the keyboards playful. It flows like a children’s book with perhaps a hint of sadness on the low end, but nothing the dreaminess of the upper ranges can’t overcome. “Eldar Soul” introduces a metallic percussion to create an edgy undercurrent, a chittering sound that clenches the jaw despite the bubbling nature of what lives above the beat. The disparate nature of the sonic elements captures both the grace and the technology of the Eldar.

From the back of AOP-08:

The mind of this Farseer is utterly inhuman in its depth and complexity. Without mercy or moral feeling his consciousness stands upon the edge of spiritual destruction. That he does not fall must be a result of constraints and balances which only an Eldar could understand. To a mere human it is yet another reminder that we are but children in comparison to that ancient and powerful race.

Codec & Flexor open AOP-08 with “Alert”, and this feels like storytelling. Warning sirens make the hair on your neck stand up, as does the alien voice in the opening with its inherent malevolence. While most of the tracks in this series are techno, Codec & Flexor hit us with pure industrial rock, introducing vocals, changing beat structures, and guitar-like riffs. They then take a 180 on “Time Has Changed”, a chiller number with the absolute grooviest beats to be found anywhere. A vocal sample plays throughout the song, almost like a beat of its own, and the singing… the wistfulness and time has changed lyrical theme capture the sense of longing for past greatness while being resigned to your current state… and fate.

Michael Mayer hits us with the beat out of the gate on the B side with “Get the War Walker Groove”, layering in Pong-like beeps, then electrical snaps, then hollow radar-ping signals to create the sense of actually being housed inside some kind of large machine. Or maybe we’ve been completely absorbed, becoming one with it, exchanging electrons via neural jacks as we stomp across the battlefield rubble in search of new prey. “Craftword” eases the mechanical nature of “War Walker”, a deep, slow sub-surface wave with the slightest droid-like consciousness interjecting almost questioningly.

DARK ELDAR
AOP-01 – Johannes Heil / Kim Cascone
AOP-04 – Rude Solo / Christian Morgenstern

The remaining Eldar split apart into sub-factions, the most notorious of which are the Dark Eldar. The Dark Eldar derive pleasure and energy from the suffering and death of others and will go to horrifying lengths to wring ever last moment of agony and pain from those they destroy. Their extreme depravity and lack of even the smallest redeeming qualities make them the enemies of any who cross their path.

From the back of AOP-01:

You have a simple choice human – die now on the blades of my Incubi cadre or be carried into the night where you will die a thousand deaths at the hands of my Haemonculi.

There is an insistence about Johannes Heil‘s “The Attack”, the pressure building until the attack itself launches unexpectedly, the beats punching and the alarm-like top end in your mind like an itch you can’t scratch. Once the attack is underway it is pure inevitability. You can’t negotiate your way out of it. It will sweep over and consume you. A mid-track respite gives the false hope that the attack is over and you have survived, but then it comes back full force and you know this is the end. “Introduction” opens with a Stephen-Hawking-like modulated voice explaining the dangers posed by the Dark Eldar and their armies, the kind of pre-combat warning that might have been delivered to an unlucky Imperial Guard unit about to be deployed against their xenos foes. It continues with an incessant alarm over some gloomy keyboards, the alarm itself providing the tempo and setting the mood.

I reached out to Kim Cascone about his participation in The Sound of Warhammer 40.000, but he didn’t recall any specifics about the project. Which is too bad, because “Polygon Witch” is a hell of a song and I’d love to know more about his inspiration for it. Subtle and house-like, the flow puts me in a trance, like laying back in a warm bath. Even when the tempo increases it isn’t jarring, it’s just letting you know that the dream is coming to a close. “Tangent Clusters” has a cinematic sci-fi feel, like library music from the 1960s. It’s deep space, the cold void held at bay outside the flickering lights of the cockpit controls.

From the back of AOP-04:

We dance a bloody path on the precipice of annihilation.

Rude Solo come right at you, full speed, with “Dark Eldar”, one of the faster BPM tracks in the series. Backing screeches give the impression of winged death, a combination of ancient, Cthulhu-like horror merged with fantastic technology, a discomfiting merger of the past and future. “Mysterious World” creates a more sinister mood, strange sounds in the darkest, stillest night. Is something out there? Is it dangerous? Should I run or hide? Whatever it is, it sounds like it’s getting closer, the chittering in the blackness making your teeth ache as you clench your jaw, straining to catch even a glimpse of something… anything…

Christian Morgenstern envisions a less subtle Dark Eldar on “The Gathering (and the Departure)”. The beat is direct and forward – this is a composition about power. Your fate is inescapable, as you too will fall to my blade. “Tactics” is more subtle, fairly stripped down with a snare-like beat that could well be the sound of an Eldar shard gun firing, which certainly fits the terror of being quietly stalked by the impossible-to-escape Dark Eldar.

Orks
AOP-03 – Jay Denham / Silicon Scally
AOP-06 – Jimi Tenor / Ural 13 Diktators

Orks are pure brutes, green-skinned monsters who exist for the sole purpose of fighting and killing. While generally viewed as unintelligent, they still manage to create and adapt technology in their own way, their crude vehicles and starships looking like piles of junk but proving quite effective and durable. Wherever Orks appear, slaughter will follow.

From the back of AOP-03:

The green tide of Orkdom is upon us and we are alone. There can be no mercy. No surrender. If we survive this day it will be a miracle.

Jay Denham shows the Orks at opposite ends of the spectrum. First a piston-pumping beat launches from the grooves, conjuring up an image of a slapped-together war buggy comprised of bulky metal plates, shitty welds, and fat tires, spewing black smoke behind as it hurtles across the ground toward the enemy. You can picture two bulky green Orks bouncing up and down in the seats excitedly anticipating the battle to come as they shout the song’s title, “Waagh” at the top of their lungs. That is followed by “Sleeping Nobz,” a quieter and more restrained piece, the timing a resting heartbeat overlaid with hints of electric dreams, capturing the beasts in their only restrained moments as they slumber.

On the flip side Silicon Scally‘s “Orks of War” builds upon itself, the tempo increasing as the battle approaches, the timing sometimes slipping for a moment because, well, these are Orks, and not exactly prone to being organized. There is a rising urgency here, the tension of restrained violence straining for release before ending with a the deep space pulse coming from a dead planet. “Ork Manoeuvres” is a bit more subtle, though continues to occasionally break the tempo with snare double-taps, bringing to mind the movement of the Ork fleet when it arrives into the system, the silence of the void lit up by blinking lights and flashes from plasma engines. The quiet before the storm.

From the back of AOP-06:

“Kill them – kill them all!”
Warlord Ghazghkull Thraka

Man, Jimi Tenor leans into the Ork theme hard. “Blood on Borstch” has some guttural sounds that give it a bit of an alien vibe, but the key is the blending of military-like martial music and, well, a sort of Conan the Barbarian feel. It’s bold. It’s bombastic. It’s coming for you, and your family, and everything you hold dear. It soars, it dips, it is unstoppable. It brings with it nothing but conquest and death. “Ambient Intelligence”, however, is the opposite, taking us off the planet’s surface and out into the cold, dark void of deep space, the vast nothingness of interstellar travel. There is no beat here, it’s truly an ambient track with small moments of sound bubbling (sometimes literally) to the surface. If Brian Eno had made something like this in the late 70s/early 80s he would have called it “Music For Space Travel”.

Like others who contributed to the series, the guys from Ural 13 Diktators had some experience in the world of fantasy games. “We did have a background of role playing and some experience of playing miniature games in the 1990s,” they told me. “Warhammer 40K was familiar for us to some extent but we weren’t that deep into it.” The pair released their debut album Total Destruction on the Forte Records label operated by Maral’s partner Christian Morgenstern. “Maral was already experienced in the music business having founded Formic Distribution and the techno label Konsequent. When she founded the concept label Art of Perception it was natural that she contacted us amongst other electronic music producers to provide tracks for the first series, The Sound of Warhammer 40.000.”

They broke down the two tracks. “The first track “Warlords of Destruction” was a rich mix of basically all the various influences and practices we had with Ural 13 Diktators. 1980s hi-nrg disco and synth pop, traditional Soviet/Russian melodies, contemporary electronic dance music production and DJ oriented functionality, Amiga chiptune/game music sound and styles, and tongue and cheek vocals and lyrics tied to the theme and name of the song.” The lyrics are particularly notable. “Baha Men “Who Let the Dogs Out” was released the previous year and was a huge hit in Finland. We always wanted to tease the very purist and conservative techno scene and have an anything goes attitude where all the craziest ideas were materialized. There for “who let the orks out” lyrics.”

“We had a different title originally for the second track “Boarboyz Attack” which I don’t recall, so possibly we created the title with Maral. We wanted to have a more straightforward techno track still suitable for the orks theme but pleasing the DJs who would seek a no thrills four on the floor banger. We sampled and filtered a hi-nrg track, made a pounding kick drum and an apocalyptic melody with some traditional Soviet Russian feel in it.”

Tyranids
AOP-10 – Thomas Brinkmann / Heiko Laux
AOP-11 – Northern Lite / Clé & Mike Vamp

Tyranids exist for one sole purpose – to consume life. They travel the stars in “ships” that are both transportation and living entities. They make planetfall with a wide range of biologic forms, all of which have evolved to maximize killing ability. The Tyranids use all the living organisms of a planet as energy to create more of their kind, scouring it and leaving nothing alive. They represent an existential threat to every intelligent race in the galaxy as they spread and look for new ways to slake their insatiable appetite.

From the back of AOP-10:

“The more I learn about these aliens, the more I come to understand what drives them, the more I hate them. I hate them for what they are and for what they may one day become. I hate them not because they hate us, but because they are incapable of good, honest human hatred.”
Inquisitor Angmar

Thomas Brinkmann takes an interesting approach by providing us with a two-parter for his side of AP-10, “Tyranids vs. Space Wolves Part One” and “Tyranids vs. Space Wolves Part Two”. The Space Wolves, or as they prefer to be called the Wolves of Femris, are a Space Marines chapter from the First Founding. It’s interesting that Brinkmann chose to involve them thematically and shows he reached beyond the cover art for inspiration. Certainly the Space Wolves have battled the Tyranids, including more specifically the Genestealers shown on AP-10. Brinkmann brings significant velocity to the beats and includes both wolves howling and the insectoid chittering of the Genestealers to “Part One”, while “Part Two” veers in a more experimental direction, one lacking a traditional song structure and instead creating a horror soundtrack. At times repetitive sonic elements give it some shape, but this is more about generating the feelings of unease that would accompany hunting these creatures through the city underground. Sure, Space Marines are immune to fear. But we mere humans are not…

“Invasion” sees Heiko Laux taking a more nuanced approach, capturing the darkness of subterranean caverns but without the sheer horror of facing these clawed creatures with their razor-sharp teeth. Your rising pulse is reflected by the beats as you wait for the inevitable. Is “Hive Mind” a take on the unity, the sense of collective purpose, of these xenos? While every other race in the universe sees the Tyranids as a purely destructive force, one that will never deviate from its basic purpose of consuming and reproducing with zero regard, they do operate as if they were one giant organism, guided by the psychic hive mind. I suspect that within that mind there is a sense of control, of organization, of intent, and this track brings that structure and sense of forward direction.

From the back of AOP-11:

There is nothing to fear except fear itself.

The thumping bass of Northern Lite‘s “Insect Stride” carries the weight of a half dozen or more stomping feet, the pounding march of something massive that cannot be stopped, or even slowed. There aren’t many flourishes and it’s not subtle, instead it powers through any and all obstacles in its path. “Blood Smells Loud” takes a different approach, a blend of new wave and industrial metal, the guitar riffs creating layers of tension absent from “Insect Stride”. It captures the energetic chaos you’d expect from an insectiod race only concerned with consuming everything in its path. To my ears it’s one of tracks that best captures its subject.

“It was clear this collection was made to be something to be remembered,” Mike Vamp told me via email. “The 90s rave in Germany was over and the electronic music needed some new input. We mixed guitars and vocals and drums.” The result was a song called “Eat”, which veers wildly from the general aesthetic of the series – it’s a Britpop-ish indie rocker with lyrics and even a guitar solo. I’m gonna rip you up / I’m gonna smash you down / I didn’t come to play / I’m gonna eat you up. “We played ‘Eat’ constantly out our live shows for a couple of years,” Vamp told me. “The other track from us has a weird vibe with no guitars but also based on electronic instruments, not meant to be dance music.” That song, “Tyranid Moonstomp,” relies heavily on the structural elements of “Eat”, including sampling a guitar riff, turning it into a more electro-psychadelic spacey mind trip. It might be a bit more danceable that Vamp lets on, but it’s definitely a headphones kind of jam.

Space Marines
AOP-07 – Mike Ink / Alter Ego
AOP-09 – John Starlight / Kitbuilders

The Emperor of Man created the genetic engineering that allows for a once-normal man to be transformed into a transhuman super-warrior. These Space Marines were created to be the vanguard of the God-Emperor’s armies as they spread forth to conquer the galaxy. Larger, stronger, faster, and more intelligent than normal men, Space Marines are psycho-conditioned to feel no fear and to live for battle. Encased in massive suits of power armor and wielding weapons a normal man could not even carry, let alone use, they travel the galaxy bringing death to xenos and the enemies of the Emperor.

From the back of AOP-07:

We are the Space Marines. The Champions of humanity. The Emperor’s chosen warriors. For every one of us that falls in battle one hundred enemies will die.

Both of the tracks contributed by Mike Ink appear to have been put out by the artist a decade or so earlier under different projects – “Soul Desert” as Vinyl Republic, and “Indulto” as Crocker. Mind you, I haven’t been able to track those songs down in their original forms, so I don’t know if any changes were made for this series. “Soul Desert” has a deep space feel to it, the bass and some pings pulsing through the void, while “Indulto” with its brisker pace and fuller sonic palette provides a sense of purposeful movement.

On the flip side Alter Ego provides a two-song suite with “Phoenix 1.1” and “Phoenix 1.2”. Both have a restrained urgency, particularly the elements introduced in the second half of “1.2”. It’s easy to envision Space Marines briskly moving about their business as they prepare for a fight, the almost joyous anticipation of battle psycho-conditioned into the transhuman warriors lying just beneath the surface.

From the back of AOP-09:

The Space Marines fear no evil for we are Fear Incarnate.

John Starlight gets after it right at the start of “Blood Angels” (the Blood Angels are a First Founding Space Marines chapter, for those of you not up on your Warhammer 40K lore). Menacing vocals run through some kind of distortion filter before we are hit with dark beats. It’s easy to image the voice coming from the vox grill inset into a Space Marine’s helmet, the metallic clangs and sine wave tweaks coming from their equipment and armor. “The Ultimate Human Fighting Machine” brings an 80s style synth to the forefront, a very soundtrack-like composition that would be right at home on one of the Warhammer 40K animated films. It’s retrofuturism captures that aspect of the 40K universe, one that is both technologically advanced and also often incredibly backwards and even superstitious.

Kitbuilders‘ “Dark Angels” emerges with a modulated female voice, one that flows in and out of the song, including a sensual refrain, dark angels… dark angels… It captures the duality of the Emperor’s sons, who serve mankind as both angels of salvation and angels of death, often performing both roles at the same time. Their second track, “Stellar”, is more conceptual, at times wistful and at others bubbly. These songs got me on a bit of a Kitbuilders kick, and I definitely recommend checking out some of their other work.

Chaos Space Marines
AOP-05 – Bandulu / DisX3
AOP-012 – Dr. Shingo / Ascii Disko

Ten thousand years ago half the grea Space Marines legions rebelled, aligning themselves with the Chaos gods and launching a galaxy-spanning civil war against the Emperor. These Chaos Space Marines fought their way to holy Terra itself where they battled the Emperor and their still-loyal brothers. Chaos was only defeated when the Emperor slew his own “son”, the Warmaster Horus. But in that battle the Emperor suffered a mortal wound of his own, forcing him to be permanently interred on His Golden Throne, a device that requires the sacrifice of thousands of psykers every day to keep the Emperor alive. The rebel forces that survived escaped into the Warp, from where they continue to foray into realspace to sow death and destruction, still seeking to overthrow the Emperor.

From the back of AOP-05:

Our thirst for vengeance is a raging inferno. It is a pyre that burns so strongly it burns even in the darkest depths of the cold vacuum of the void.

The galloping beat of Bandulu‘s “Deadly Ride” is like a callback to when these Chaos warriors would have ridden horses into battle instead of promethium-fueled warbikes. Bongos follow their own pattern above the canter, infusing the song with a tribalism that fits the brotherhood felt by these Chaos Space Marines, warriors who have served together for millennia. “Dance Nurgling Dance” harkens to the Chaos god Nurgle, the Plague Lord, and the smallest of the demons who serve him, the nurglings. The introduction of dub elements generates an otherworldly sensation, and one can almost envision the little damned beasts moving in a Bacchanalian dance around a massive cauldron while Nurgle himself brews up a new plague to unleash on mankind.

“Unholy Pray” by DisX3 is a sleek number, crisp and polished. Like “Deadly Ride”, it also conveys as sense of movement, a sample that runs over the top like the breathing of the rider as he closes on his enemy. “Slaanesh” takes its name from another of the Chaos gods, the god of pleasure known by the Eldar as She Who Thirsts. A house track laid over a techno beat, it creates a veneer of opulence that covers an interior rotted to its very core.

From the back of AOP-012:

That which we cannot destroy, we will define. Those who we do not defeat, will know only despair.

Dr. Shingo (aka Shingo Shibamoto) didn’t know anything about Warhammer 40K at the outset of the project. “No, I didn’t and still don’t know very much,” Shingo told me via email. But he specifically chose a story he wanted to tell. “It was a story of [a] marching army… Warriors marching… like walk[ing] toward death… this is the image of the track.” That track is appropriately titled “March of Death,” Shingo’s elastic synth providing the prequel and leading into the kick drum beats. Laser-like elements conjure images of human defenders firing their weapons at the Chaos Space Marines as they advance, the beams failing to penetrate the Marines’ armor. They are death personified. “The White Road” is more restrained with less synth, the emphasis remaining on the deep low end with a few simple flourishes.

Unlike most of the other participants in this series, Ascii Disko (aka Daniel Gerhard Holc) had some familiarity with the Warhammer 40K universe. “My older brother was into roleplaying and fantasy games and he had the Warhammer books,” he told me. “I never played the game as I was more into the illustrations in the book and the violent world behind it. Naturally I had Bolt Thrower’s Realm of Chaos in my record collection too.” He specifically chose Chas Space Marines. “I contributed on Chaos Space Marines with the tracks ‘CHAOS’ and ‘THE SPELL’. ‘CHAOS’ is a dark swirling techno track and ‘THE SPELL’ is [a] more experimental stoner electro pop kinda thing.” Shingo and Holc were (and are) friends and the pair toured together to support the release of AP-012, but unfortunately a stolen passport forced Holc to miss out on the Tokyo date, much to his dismay.

The CDs
Chapter I
Chapter II
Chapter III

As mentioned earlier, there were three compilation CDs associated with The Sound of Warhammer 40.000. The only artist to appear on vinyl who does not have any tracks on the CDs is Jay Denham. Of the 38 tracks, 36 appear on one of the vinyl releases while two are unique to the CDs, both of which appear on Chapter II as bonus tracks – Solar’s “You Are Me” and Sikora’s “Beautiful Sisters”.

“You Are Me” has a glitchy, experimental feel. If I was asked which race or faction it should correspond to, I’d probably say the Eldar due to its fragility, lack of consistent structure, and the high pitch vocal samples, though a case could definitely be made for the Sisters of Battle, aka the Adepta Sororitas, as the samples do sound like female voices. I presume “Beautiful Sisters” is also about the Sororitas, the Emperor-worshipping female warriors, simply due to the title. Sonically it’s a chill track that while not capturing the fervent devotion of the Sisters is still a beautiful piece of music.

Chapter I has the most robust booklet, providing art and background on each of the races/factions in the series. The other two CDs have shorter booklets, though both do include some additional art as well.

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And that’s a wrap, my friends. Little did I know when I first started down this rabbit hole that I’d do a half dozen email interviews and write over 6,000 words, but it’s been a lot of fun to dig deep into this project. If I’m picking a few favorites from the series, I’d have to go with Codec & Flexor’s “Time Has Changed,” Jimi Tenor’s “Blood On Borscht,” Kitbuilders’ “Dark Angels,” and Cle & Mike Vamp’s “Eat”. If you end up checking any of these titles out, drop me a note in the comments and let me know what you think!

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(1) A few weeks ago I read Chuck Klosterman’s latest book, The Nineties, and it made me think about how impossible this task would have been not all that long ago. First off, I probably would have never even heard of this series, as the chances of finding it randomly in a shop where I live would be close to zero. Even if by some chance I had learned of it, obtaining all 12 titles would have been a task that probably would have required years and years instead of the roughly six weeks it took for all of these to arrive on my front doorstep.

(2) Salmassi is also the force behind the label Konsequent, and there are a few historical tidbits about this series on that label’s site HERE.

(3) Two Lone Swordsmen were also mentioned in the press release, and while there are no tracks credited to that group, its members Andrew Weatherall and Keith Tenniswood did participate under another of their nom-de-guerre Rude Solo.

The Best of 2021

And so we reach the end of another year. The older I get the faster they fly by, the monotonous routine of COVID living adding to the Groundhog Day feel that is sometimes more like existing than living. Fortunately things are opening up a bit so we’ve been able to get out and enjoy some events like Seattle Kraken hockey games and meals with friends. A weekly Dungeons & Dragons game on Zoom gives us something to look forward to every week and our dog Evie won’t let us get too lazy, insisting on her morning walks and play sessions in the yard. Plus there’s the music. The music is always there, a way to be transported away for a while. There’s never enough time to listen to all the music I want to hear.

I didn’t blog much in 2021, only seven posts prior to today, and I’m not sure what the future holds for Life in the Vinyl Lane. We’ll just have to wait and see. Regardless, I listened to a ton of great music this year, and hopefully these lists may point you toward a band or artist that you will fall in love with.

Top 5 New Releases In 2021

1. Generation Loss – Steve Summers (US)
2. Mobile Home – GusGus (Iceland)
3. Ashamed – Mad Foxes (France)
4. Music Library 02 – Hvörf (Iceland)
5. Nightshade – NAOS (Iceland)

If you’ asked me at the start of December which album would top this list, I’d have said Mobile Home. But then a box of records I bought on a Bandcamp Friday from the L.I.E.S. label arrived and Steve Summers blew my mind. I’m not sure I can explain precisely why I love Generation Loss. I just know that when I put it on, I enjoy every single thing I hear, and if I play it on Spotify I also like almost everything the algorithm throws at me once the album is over. I suspect in 2022 I’ll be digging into his catalog and grabbing some of his earlier 12″ singles.

GusGus is one of my all-time favorite groups, and Mobile Home did not disappoint, the duo of Biggi and Daniél adding Vök vocalist Margrét Rán to the lineup to give an ethereal quality to the new album. This is the first time since I started doing these year-end lists that GusGus put out a new album and didn’t take the top spot on my Top 5. Don’t let that fool you – they’re hardly slipping, and GusGus remains a group I go back to time after time after time.

I first heard about Mad Foxes thanks to Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane, who texted me when she heard one of their songs on KEXP and said I needed to check them out. By the time she got home a few hours later I had already ordered their new album Ashamed as well as their 2018 CD Desert Island Wish. A bit punk-ish, a bit post-punkish, their sound orbits a lot of styles and bands I like. Hvörf made my Top 5 “New To Me” list in 2019, and their electro-library music is great for just chilling out. NAOS rounds out the list with his edgy, techno Nightshade cassette. This one is tough to find, and I don’t think any of his stuff is on Spotify either, but it’s worth the effort to track down.

Top 5 “New to Me” Bands/Performers

1. Jeno Void
2. Algebra Suicide
3. The Ruts
4. Hoodoo Fushimi
5. Laserdance

I could have easily included three artists from my Top 5 New Releases list here, but that seemed a bit too obvious.

I first heard about Jeno Void from, of all places, Instagram, when Seattle’s Selector Records posted about some old school Jeno cassettes that had just come in. I managed to snag three of these by mail, and later a fourth at the shop, and I have to say that I could play these sets over and over and over again. it’s like having a rave in your living room. Hoodoo Fushimi also came to me via Selector with the re-release of the funky ケンカおやじ.

I can’t remember how I learned about Algebra Suicide, but I got hooked on their quirky indie/post-punk/no wave weirdness. The Ruts came to my attention thanks to Henry Rollins’ Stay Fanatic books – with how much he raved about the band I figured I needed to check them out, and I’m glad I did. Laserdance was a shot in the dark – a rewards program at work was shutting down and I converted those points into an Amazon gift card, so I decided to look at some box sets. One that caught my eye was Laserdance’s The Ultimate Fan Box, because who doesn’t want some 1980s Euro synth-pop? I know I do. So I did. And it’s pretty great.

Top 5 Purchases/Acquisitions

1. B.Q. Wave – Vector
2. Realm of Chaos – Blot Thrower
3. Jeno Void Cassettes
4. L.I.E.S. Records
5. V 1/2 Performed Live In Seattle – Led Zeppelin

Vector’s B.Q. Wave was actually the least expensive item on this list, but it will always hold a special place in my collection as it was the 1,000th Icelandic release (across all formats) I acquired. Funny that it came to me not from Iceland, but instead from Seattle’s own Selector Records. It’s hard to believe I’ve amassed that many items from Iceland. And in case you’re wondering, I didn’t slow down with my Icelandic purchases after picking this up – the count currently stands at 1,058 releases, with more already in the mail.

Bolt Thrower’s Realm of Chaos has been in constant rotation on Spotify since I came upon it for the first time last year. Plus as a fan of Warhammer 40,000 fiction the idea of a Warhammer concept death metal album appeals to me. It also has quite an odd backstory. Games Workshop originally allowed the band to use the painting on the cover, but when the label approached GW about a later re-issue the company and it’s IP had grown much bigger and more valuable, meaning there were more lawyers, and ultimately they refused to extend the license. The band did not want the album re-released with a different cover, but the label went ahead and commissioned the same artist who did the original to do a similar-but-not-too-similar new work, which was then used on later releases, much to the disgust of Bolt Thrower who have told fans not to buy it. I’ve coveted copies with the original artwork, and I finally broke down and bought a gatefold original pressing.

Jeno Void and the L.I.E.S. label came into my orbit thanks to Sherman at Selector. Since then I’ve picked up 4-5 Jeno cassettes and at least a dozen L.I.E.S. releases, including my pick for the top album of 2021, Steve Summers’ Generation Loss. As for the live Led Zep, I love the band and have always had an interest in any of their stuff live from Seattle, so when I ran across this at a location that shall remain nameless I just had to pick it up. The sound quality isn’t the best, but it’s still a cool artifact.

Top 5 Live Shows

1.
2.
3.
4.
5.

For the second consecutive year we didn’t see a single live show. Which sucks immeasurably. On a positive note, we have been to a few larger events, most notably a handful of NHL games to cheer on our new team, the Seattle Kraken, so at least we’re starting to feel comfortable enough to go out in group settings. We’re moderately optimistic about 2022, enough so that we already have tickets for the Swedish House Mafia show here in Seattle later in the year. Fingers crossed.

Top 5 Artists on Spotify

1. GusGus
2. The Ruts
3. Beastie Boys
4. F-Rontal
5. Space 92

A lot of folks post on Facebook and Instagram when Spotify produces its year-end listening summaries to each user. And like last year, there were a few surprises fon mine. First and foremost was the sheer amount of time Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane and I spent streaming – 134,469 minutes, which equates to 2,241 hours or 93.4 full days. With both of us working from home and streaming individually in different rooms, this kind of makes sense – a typical work day could involve 20+ hours of streaming. But it’s still a lot of listening.

As for the artists themselves, there were a few surprises. GusGus in the top spot was to be expected, especially with them releasing a new album in 2021. The Ruts raised an eyebrow, though I went through a pretty big Ruts phase earlier in the year. The Beastie Boys are an all-time favorite and never disappoint, so that makes sense. The last two artists, well… I don’t know that I could have named them prior to seeing them on this list. It turns out that both have tracks on a playlist called Techno Bunker that we listen to A LOT, so that’s clearly how they cracked into the Top 5.

Top 5 Places to Buy Records

1. Bandcamp
2. Selector Records – Seattle
3. Lucky Records – Reykjavik
4. Easy Street Records – Seattle
5. Discogs

I tried to shop on as many Bandcamp Fridays as I could – I appreciate the platform’s commitment to artists, and knowing that the artists would receive all the proceeds from purchases on those days got me onto the site just looking for stuff. I ended up making a few decent sized purchases, most notably from the L.I.E.S. and Intellitronic Bubble. Discogs, as always, was also a great online source.

As for bricks-and-mortar, this year I “discovered” one of Seattle’s newer record ships, Selector Records. Selector specializes in electronic and DJ music and my man Sherman has curated a great inventory of labels, genres, and artists into a relatively small space. I don’t think I’ve walked out of there with less than 10 records (and a few tapes) in my bag after any of my visits this year. Easy Street continues to be a local favorite as well, though the closure of the West Seattle Bridge made it harder to get to. And while we didn’t travel to Iceland this year, I believe I had three boxes arrive from Reykjavik courtesy of my friends at Lucky Records, with another box being assembled for January shipment.

I bought a metric ton of music in 2021, and while space is stating to become an issue, I don’t expect to slow down in 2022.

Top 5 Music Books Read

1. Avant-Garde From Below: Transgressive Performance from Iggy Pop to Joe Coleman and GG Allin by Clemens Marschall
2. Once Upon a Time in Shaolin: The Untold Story of the Wu-Tang Clan’s Million-Dollar Secret Album, the Devaluation of Music, and America’s New Public Enemy No. 1 by Cyrus Bozorgmehr
3. Love In Vain – The Story Of The Ruts & Ruts D.C. by Roland Link
4. GusGus 25 Ára
5. A Pig’s Tale: The Underground Story of the Legendary Bootleg Record Label by Ralph Sutherland and Harold Sherrick

Only two of these books were newly released in 2021, but no matter. Avant-Garde From Below profiled a small number of musicians and performance artists and forced me to think a bit about the question of “what is art”. And now that I think about it, so too did Once Upon a Time In Shaolin; I always saw that one-off Wu-Tang album as a bit of a stunt, but it was actually much more than that, it was an artistic statement. Honorable mention to the crowdfunded GusGus 25 Ára photo book, an exquisite piece of publishing if there ever was one.

And that’s a wrap, folks. Hope to catch you here again in 2022.

GusGus – The Discography

The other night I was sitting around lamenting about how little I’ve blogged in 2021. Considering how little we have traveled in the last 18 months (none) and how much time I’m spending not commuting any more (2.5 hours per day) you’d have thought COVID would have been very good for Life in the Vinyl Lane posts. But it wasn’t. C’est la vie.

However, while I was beating myself up for not maintaining my own blog I was also surfing Discogs. Having just received my copy of the tremendous crowd-funded photo book GusGus 25 Ára, I was poking around in the GusGus discography, which got me to thinking about how the band’s sound has changed over time and that it would be interesting to listen to their entire discography in chronological order and riff about it. I had all the studio albums other than their very first Icelandic release (more on that below), but decided to cast my net a bit wider as well, clicking the “Buy” button on some live DJ set releases as well as the pre-GusGus T-World single. Go big or go home.

To be clear, I don’t have any new insights about Gusgus. The band has been covered extensively, including a great in depth article in The Reykjavik Grapevine in 2020, which included contributions from the two remaining primary members, Daníel and Biggi. Between the book and the article I definitely learned a few things, some of which are included in the below. But really this isn’t a history of the band so much as a superfan doing what superfans do – nerding out.

THE PREQUEL
T-World – “An – Them” 12″ (1994) – Underwater Records

The collective that became GusGus originally came together to produce the short film (about 16 minutes) Nautn, which was released in 1995. To assist with the soundtrack they reached out to Birgir Þórarinsson, aka Biggi Veira, aka Biggi, who was at that time one half of the house duo T-World along with Maggi Legó (Magnús Guðmundsson). The duo put out a 12″ single the year before, two versions of the track “An – Them”, on UK label Underwater Records. It turned out to be their only release with Underwater, in large part because “the label staff had a cocaine problem.” Underwater’s loss was GusGus’ gain.

If there’s one aspect of An – Them that feels like early GusGus it’s the pairing of a house-style high end with a faster, more uptempo bass flowing underneath that gives the whole thing a mystical quality. The bongos are more reminiscent (to me) of the later work of Biggi’s GusGus electronics partner President Bongo, particularly the latter’s 2015 solo album Serengeti. The vocal samples at the conclusion of side A contribute to the overall tribal feel. The B side takes on a more spacey feel, the brisk pace of the high end and flatter percussion creating an almost post-modern version of the A side. It’s a bit more sterile, almost as if side A came from out in nature while side B originated in a hermetically sealed laboratory.

An original pressing of An – Them is only going to set you back $10 or so, as will the 2005 Underwater re-release. The copies available for sale on Discogs at the time of this writing are priced quite a bit higher, but the sales history is such that if you bide your time you’ll likely be able to snag this gem for a nice price.

THE DEBUT(S)
Gus Gus (1995) –
Kjól & Anderson
Polydistortion (1997) –
4AD

First things first. I’d read in multiple places that Polydistortion was a re-release of the band’s original Iceland-only album from two years prior.

This is, quite simply, not the case.

Sure, if you look at the back of the CDs you could easily think to yourself, “well, these 10 songs on Polydistortion have identical or very similar titles to 10 of the 12 tracks on Gus Gus, so they must be the same songs” (“Message From Disney” and “Chocolate” being the two missing tracks, while an unlisted track alternately referred to as “Polybackwards” or “Polyreprise” appears on Polydistortion… it’s all very confusing). And while this is in fact true for a few songs, for others the Polydistorition version is totally different than the original. Given the scarcity and cost of Gus Gus (a copy will likely set you back $70+) it’s easy to see why these differences are mostly unknown outside of Iceland.

The reason, as it turns out, was a fairly simple one – sampling. The band had been a bit, shall we say, looser in their sampling on the Gus Gus CD, one that was almost exclusively sold and bought in Iceland, so far away from the armies of lawyers in Los Angeles and New York in the 1990s that it may as well have been a different planet. Gusgus’ new home 4AD, however, was a known and respected UK label, so samples either had to be cleared or cut. And allegedly all but two were dropped, the cowbell loop on “Believe” being one of the exceptions and a snipit of sound that cost the band 70% of what it made from the track.

The differences hit you right out of the gate. Polydistortion opens with the 1:17 instrumental “Oh (Edit)”, a quiet sonic introduction to the album. However, the same track on Gus Gus runs for four minutes, much of which has low, spoken vocals, and serving more as an intermission that an introduction.

While a detailed Gus Gus vs. Polydistortion might be interesting to some, I don’t have the patience for it. So instead I instead sat down and listened to the two albums back-to-back. The difference to my ears is the pure funkiness of Gus Gus, its sexy, deep beats giving it more of a soul feel. The two versions of “Polyester Day” / “Polyesterday” showcase this perfectly, the original’s porno-esque vibe making me want to turn down off the lights, light some candles, and try some smooth moves, while the later version is more dance-floor-ready. Both are solid jams, but I’ll take the richness of the original. And don’t even get me started on the funky-sexy “Chocolate”, the one track missing from Polydistortion (though 4AD did release it as a 12″ in 1996). It’s omission from Polydistortion is criminal.

I’ve been a fan of Polydistorition for a long time, but I feel like Gus Gus is the better album. Plus it comes in a logoed velour pouch, which is rad. Do I prefer it because of some kind of “the original/early work is always better”, or “this one is rarer” mindset? I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think so.

INTERMISSION #1 LIVE STUFF
On KCRW Morning Becomes Eclectic 8/7/97 cassette

As part of my deep dive I picked up a handful of live GusGus recordings, figuring they might give some insight into how the band evolved over time, transitional musical fossils captured on magnetic tape instead of sticky amber.

The first of these is a cassette-only release on 4AD featuring a live in-studio set GusGus performed on Santa Monica’s KCRW in 1997. It contains versions of “Polyesterday” and “Believe” from Polydistorition, plus the previously unreleased “Blue Mug”, which later came out on (This Is Normal two years later. There are also two interview segments with band members.

The quality of the recording is excellent. The lowest of the lows might just have a touch of distortion, but I don’t know if that’s an artifact of the cassette or the sounds actually coming from the electronics. The extended (9:20) version of “Polyesterday” is quite rich with a deep low end, more reminiscent of the Gus Gus recording than that of Polydistortion. “Blue Mug” balances spectral female vocals with super trippy and spacey electronics, and we close out with a marathon (10:00) version of the hit “Believe”. The interviews are a little awkward at times, but we do get to hear Daníel do some voices that he had been performing as part of some cartoon voice-overs, which is funny.

It looks like there are two versions of this tape, one from 4AD and one from Warner Bros. The Warner version lists the interview segments on the tracklist whereas 4AD doesn’t, but based on total run timed I feel confident these contain identical material. On KCRW Morning Becomes Eclectic 8/7/97 probably only appeals to completists, but if you’re a fan of GusGus’ early material it’s a great way to get some live versions of classic tracks.

EARLY GREATNESS
(This Is Normal (1999) – 4AD

One thing that will date you when talking about music is referring to “sides”, whether it be the B-side of a single or an album side. The rise of the CD almost totally killed the concept of a side of music, and the digital era put it into a coma from which it was never expected to emerge. Fortunately for some of us fogies the vinyl renaissance occurred and resurrected the concept of the album side. And I for one am grateful, because it allows me to make hyperbolic statements again. Statements like, “the A side of (This Is Normal is one of the greatest sides of music ever recorded”.

(This Is Normal got a vinyl pressing when it came out in 1999, which is perhaps a little surprising. Even more so that 4AD incurred the expense of putting it out as a double album with four sides of music. Normally an album side would have four or five tracks, but in this case the A-side of (This Is Normal only has three – “Ladyshave”, “Teenage Sensation”, and “Starlovers”. Three flawless pop songs, all the more impressive by the fact that vocal duties were split between Daníel (“Ladyshave” and “Starlovers”) and the ethereal Hafdís Huld (“Teenage Sensation”). And if we really want to get down to it, had the album’s fourth track “Superhuman” (also sung by Huld) made it onto a side with the other three, I’d probably christen it as THE best album side. Ever.

There aren’t a lot of groups fronted by vocalists of Daníel’s talent that would only have him sing on five songs, providing space for Huld (three songs) and Magnús Jónsson (two songs) to shine in their own rights. (♠︎) Jónsson’s high-pitched voice gives his tracks a disco-like quality that sets them a bit apart, but the cohesiveness of the beats and music still ground them within the framework of (This Is Normal. The overall feel is downtempo, the rich low end propelling it forward in pulsating bursts, the vocals wrapping around the music to add sensuality and warmth. It’s definitely my favorite album in the first half of the Gusgus catalog.

THE DANIÉL-LESS YEARS
GusGus vs. T-World (2000) – 4AD
Attention (2002) – Underwater Records
Forever (2007) – Pineapple Records

So how do you follow up an album that included three brilliant vocalists? If you’re GusGus you put out a deep house groover with… no vocals.

There is a subset of GusGus fans who adore GusGus vs. T-World, and there’s a lot to love – this is a dance floor banger if there ever was one. While I suspect for many if not most Gusgus fans this album is more of a curiosity, at least one of my friends puts it in his personal list of the Top 3 Gusgus albums. Regardless, it’s a great curio in the catalog – just push “play” and walk away, because you’ll be happy to let all 50+ minutes bump.

Attention saw GusGus return to form and introduced a new vocalist, Urður Hákonardóttir aka Earth. Right from the opening track “Unnecessary” it’s clear that GusGus is back. The music pops and Earth’s vocals take on an instrumental quality of their own when she repeats “unnecessary”, something she does again on the title track with “Attention”. Earth certainly wasn’t the first woman to sing for GusGus, but she was the first that, to my ears at least, defined the sound of one of their albums.

Daniél may not have technically been part of GusGus any longer, but that didn’t stop one of his tracks from appearing on Attention. “Desire” is one of the album’s best numbers, though one more reminiscent of the (This Is Normal material.

Forever is all about Earth. It feels like the sonic landscape created by Biggi and Bongo was painted specifically with her in mind, and she moves through it effortlessly. She makes her first appearance on the second track, “You’ll Never Change,” and it’s one of the album’s high points, electro R&B that merges funk and disco and house. Earth is free from rhythmic shackles and able to sing as she pleases, sometimes following the music and other times wandering down her own path.

Forever also features some guest vocalists. Iceland’s mega-pop-star Páll Óskar joins Earth on the next two tracks, as does American house musician Aaron-Carl Ragland on “Hold You”. “Hold You” offers vocal complexity, the voices weaving in and out with Ragland’s low register soothing while Earth ranges far afield, sometimes up front and powerful, other times fading into a background supporting role. Daniél also returns for a single track, “Moss”

I always forget that one of my favorite Gusgus songs is on this album, and it’s because of the title. “If You Don’t Jump (You’re English)” does indeed include the title in the vocals, but just barely. Instead the song is defined by the repeated “I wanna be a freak” sung by President Bongo. It’s a sampler’s dream. So good.

If I’m being honest, these three are probably my least-played GusGus albums. There was a two or three year period when I played them a lot, but once Arabian Horse came out in 2011 I became obsessive about Gusgus’ new sound. I

INTERMISSION #2 – MORE LIVE STUFF
Mix @ Respect (1999) – Labels
Mixed Live: Sirkus, Reykjavik, Iceland (2003) – Moonshine Music

These two releases sit outside of the GusGus cannon, live performances that don’t focus on Gusgus songs per se. They’re also both pretty obscure. However, they are obtainable – I acquired them both on Discogs in the last 60 days for a combined €13 plus shipping. So if you’re interested, they’re out there to be had.

Mix @ Respect was recorded live in 1999 at Queen, a dance club in Paris. The set is deep house, lacking vocals other than some sampling The sound quality overall is quite good, but there are a few places where the bass blows out and becomes distorted. There are some passages incorporating Gusgus’ music, but most of it isn’t recognizable as Gusgus per se. Still, an enjoyable listen and one that will certainly continue to get some play at my house.

Sirkus was still around during our first trip to Iceland back in 2005, but by time we got back to Reykjavik for our first Airwaves in 2009 it was gone, so we never caught a show there. Unlike Mix @ Respect, the Sirkus set draws heavily on non-Gusgus tracks, but appears to also add some live vocals. Whereas Mix feels like being at a club, Sirkus is more like being at a party.

Both of these releases are “push play and enjoy”.

THE DARK TURN
24/7 (2009) – Kompakt

I know precisely when my GusGus fandom began – late in the evening of Sunday, October 18, 2009. That’s when Daniél, Biggi, and Bongo stepped onto the stage at Reykjavik’s NASA for their Iceland-Airwaves-closing set. Their newest album 24/7 was barely a month old at that point, and while Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane had bought a copy on the trip, I don’t think we’d listened to it yet. What I remember most about the set is the powerful, pulsating low end and the green lasers. I suspect that GusGus performed the entire album, but I can’t be sure.

This album clicked for me a month or two after our return from Iceland. I had it on my iPod and decided to play it during a cold, dark morning dog walk. Right from the opening notes of “Thin Ice” bouncing back and forth in my earbuds I was hooked. 24/7 is made for listening to on headphones, or if not then with the volume cranked up, otherwise you’re sure to miss many of the subtle touches as the bass and Daniél’s voice overwhelm you.

According to the previously mentioned Grapevine article and GusGus 25 Ára, the recording of 24/7 was pretty unique – the trio rented a hall and performed the entire thing all the way through four times, then edited the ablum using those four recordings. This does make some sense, though, because 24/7 in many ways feels like one continuous track, the songs like chapters in a book.

The low end carries 24/7, its richness, density, and clarity pulsating like a heartbeat. The vocals too are low and sensual, though from time to time breaking out to soar. The backing choruses are pushed off into the background like a dream intruding on your waking hours. It’s very easy to hear Daniél’s voice as an instrument blending into the electronics, almost perceiving the tracks as instrumentals. At least it is for me, though to be fair that’s often how I hear vocals. I recall sharing this album with my friend Tristen and asking him what he thought of it. “Why is this guy so angry?” he asked. I was confused, but shouldn’t have been. After all, the second song is entitled “Hateful” and begins with the lyrics, I’m feeling hateful / Because you pissed me off / I want to hurt you / I want to make you suffer. I have to admit, Tirsten had a point. I just hadn’t noticed, caught up in the beauty of the sounds.

It’s hard to pick a favorite track on 24/7. “Add This Song” seems to be the choice for most people I’ve talked to, and there have been times it was mine as well. But I’ve also had periods where I played “Thin Ice” or “Hateful” or “On the Job” over and over and over again. “Add This Song” and “Thin Ice” both got the 12″ remix treatment, so that’s probably a bit indicative of overall popularity (both 12″ records are enjoyable, but I prefer the originals to any of the remixes). The fact of the matter is there isn’t a bad, or even marginal, song on 24/7.

GusGus is a rarity, a band that continuously evolves. 24/7 was a massive departure from Forever and everything else that came before it. While one could certainly argue its deep house direction laid the groundwork for the two albums that followed, to my ears 24/7 stands alone in the GusGus catalog, a black monolith of bass and style. I don’t think it’s their best album, nor is it my favorite. But it is the most powerful.

PERFECTION
Arabian Horse (2011) – Kompakt
Mexico (2014) – Kompakt

Earth returned to the Gusgus lineup, and if that wasn’t exciting enough the group added a new member – Högni Egilsson. Högni was best known as a guitarist and singer for the ensemble Hjaltalín (), the haunting quality his beautiful and seemingly deep voice (he’s probably actually a tenor) making him a perfect partner for Daniél. The trio of vocalists complemented one another so well that they could bring tears to your eyes.

Which brings us to 2011’s Arabian Horse, as close to a perfect album as exists IMO, and one that I put in my personal “All Time Top 5 Desert Island Albums” cannon. It’s not even so much that I love every single song on the record as that when taken as a whole everything just fits together.

While it’s true that I have a ton of vinyl (over 3,000 records and counting), often I end up listening to things on Spotify because, well, it’s just easier. But for this listening session I went to the Icelandic section of my shelves (yes, the Icelandic artists have their own section…) and pulled out the record. And while I’m not a “vinyl is so much better” guy, I have to say this pressing sounds fantastic, bringing a richness and warmth that I don’t quite get from digital. It also feels like the mix brings some of the subtleties closer to the forefront, such as Daniél’s opening vocals in “Be With Me Now”.

Where to start with Arabian Horse? I’m tempted to reach deep into my bag of hyperbole and spout off all kinds of pithy platitudes, but it seems kind of pointless – it’s hard to put my perception of this album into words. The sonic palette is dense with incredible richness in the low end – the bass doesn’t so much pump out of the speakers than it pulses, taken to the absolute limits of clarity. And maybe that’s the one word I’m looking for here – “clarity”. Every sound, every tiny nuance, just feels right, as if even the smallest change would disrupt a track’s balance.

That feeling extends to the vocals as well. Högni makes his first appearance on the album’s third track, and when he sings the words deep inside / deep inside, holding onto each word, stretching it, loving it, well, if you don’t feel something, you might already be dead. And what can you say about Daniél and Earth’s interactions on “Over”? It’s as if they were born to sing together.

Four tracks got formal remixes, though only “Over” made it to a vinyl release. I have listened to these, but I have to confess that unlike the enjoyable 24/7 remixes, these leave me a bit underwhelmed. The Arabian Horse songs are more complex than their predecessors, which makes them lose too much of their original character when re-done.

In 2013 Biggi produced John Grant’s seminal Pale Green Ghosts, and you can hear elements of that album in Arabian Horse – the ways Biggi doubles and echos vocals, the richness of the beats, the intentionality and the density. In many ways that John Grant album is the part of the evolution that started with 24/7 and reached its apex on our next entry, 2014’s Mexico.

Somehow I managed to never acquire a physical copy of Mexico. We purchased it digitally the day it came out, but for whatever reason I never grabbed a copy on CD or vinyl, an oversight I rectified this on the same day I wrote this paragraph, ordering the 2xLP on Discogs.

Gusgus continue with three vocalists on Mexico, though both Högni and Earth take appear on fewer songs. However, when they do make their presences felt, it’s with great effect. The opening track “Obnoxiously Sexual”, featuring Högni’s vocals, is one of the best on the album, and Earth is brilliant on the second song, “Another Life”. From there Mexico takes a sensual turn as Daniél’s voice simmers on the surface of Biggi’s rich and pulsing beats. The trio of “Sustain”, “Crossfade”, and “Airwaves” is unassailable.

Mexico ranks alongside 24/7 as the most stylistically consistent albums in the Gusgus catalog. It’s not quite like listening to one long track, but there is a sonic flow and no unexpected changes in direction, making it an ideal listen when you’re in a certain kind of mood. It’s like a warm blanket or a soothing voice, the sonic density swaddling you in its embrace.

In a completely and utterly non-scientific survey of four of my fellow Iceland Airwaves and Gusgus devotees, I asked each for their three favorite Gusgus albums. Everyone, myself included, had Arabian Horse on their list, and everyone other than me also chose Mexico (my other choices were 24/7 and (This Is Normal ). And I have to confess that after listening to Mexico again, I’m starting to second guess my own list because it’s so damn great. So at least among me and my friends, this period represents peak Gusgus.

REINVENTION
Lies Are More Flexible (2018) – Oroom
Mobile Home (2021) – Oroom

So what do you do after creating a pair of brilliant albums with a three vocalist lineup? You strip it all back down to its roots, of course (and, you know, have the incomparable John Grant join as a backing vocalist on one track). Tear it down to build it up again as something new. And so for Lies Are More Flexible we find ourselves back to just a two-person core of Biggi and Daniél.

Lies feels like two separate albums. All four A side tracks feature Daniél’s vocals, but the entire B side is instrumental outside of some very minor non-singing vocalizations. This makes it a bit challenging to grab onto as an “album” – it’s almost like two EPs brought together. Two excellent EPs, to be sure, but it still draws a bold line separating the two sides. “Featherlight” can hold its own against any other song in the Gusgus catalog, while the title track and “Fuel” are among the group’s best instrumental numbers.

Biggi and Daniél kept us waiting another three years before putting out the 11th Gusgus album earlier this year, but it was well worth the wait. I tried my best to not listen to the singles released before the album came out, wanting to experience the album as a unified whole, but once I learned that the guys had teamed up with Vök’s Margrét Rán, well, then I had to listen to the singles.

We first became familiar with Margrét and Vök at a show they did at Reykjavik’s Faktorý back in April 2013. The group had won Iceland’s national “Battle of the Bands” and they were the opening act for an anti-bullying charity show featuring Prins Póló and FM Belfast. Margrét was so shy on stage, but her voice had tremendous depth. Over the years we’ve picked up all the Vök releases and seen them live multiple times, and she’s become a more powerful singer and performer with each show. Her voice is perfect for Gusgus.

To my ears Mobile Home is all about the vocals. That’s not to imply that the music isn’t fantastic, because it is. It’s that the music serves the vocals, and not the other way around. During the non-singing interludes Biggi explores and expands the space, but when Daniél and Margrét step forward, Biggi pulls back and provides a more subtle sonic platform to allow their voices to come forward and shine. The more I listen to Mobile Home, the more I find myself falling in love with it. Who knows, it may end up in my my personal Gusgus Top 3 soon enough.

So that’s all there is, kids. Despite having written almost 4,500 words, this post feels inadequately short. My hope is that you come away interested in checking out a Gusgus album you’ve never heard before. If you do, drop me a note and let me know.!

(♠︎) OK, so until I sat down to write this blog I did not realize that Magnús Jónsson, who sings on Polydistortion and (This Is Normal is also Blake of BB&Blake fame, and I’m completely blown away by this information. They were one of our favorite acts from our first Iceland Airwaves back in 2009, and I’d simply never put this together previously. It’s kind of blowing my mind.

(⨁ ) I feel like if your group has a full-time bassoon player, you automatically become an ensemble.

50 Years, 50 Albums

I turned 50 today (OK, technically I will turn 50 just before midnight… but whatever). Somehow that seems like it should be in some way meaningful, but really it feels more like any other Thursday, other than that I took the day off and had drinks during lunch.

I have been alive for 18,263 days. Which, when you consider how fast the days (and weeks, and months) seem to fly by as you get older, is both a lot, and not a lot at all. It seems impossible to believe that 2021 is half over already. When you’re young, being a week away from something exciting like Christmas or a vacation feels like an eternity, every minute of the day a battle against the glacial pace of the clock’s second hand. By time you’re in your 40s, it just means you have one more week of work to put up with, a week that will be so full of responsibilities and deadlines that you barely have time to eat lunch, your battle against the clock one of fighting against how fast it moves instead of how slow.

The first time I bought a Led Zeppelin album, a cassette copy of Led Zeppelin I, was in 1986. At that point the mighty Zep had been disbanded for six years, and it had been seven since their last studio album. At the ripe old age of 15 they seemed like old hippies who were part of the ancient past. Rock ‘n’ roll as a genre was, at that point, 35 years old if you consider “Rocket 88” to be the first rock song. By way of comparison, as of today Kurt Cobain has been dead for 27 years and, well, rock ‘n’ roll is exactly twice as old, heading into its seventh decade. Someone who is in their mid-20s today was born after Nirvana put out their last studio album.

When you’re young you don’t understand why your parent’s friends, who you don’t remember ever meeting before, tell you, “I knew you when you were a baby.” You swear you will never say stupid shit like that. And inevitably you do. Because it’s hard to wrap your head around the fact that, frankly, you don’t feel that different today than you think you felt back then, while the child grew from a baby to a teen (or older). It’s almost hard to fathom. You have a connection to them through their parents, and therefore feel like there’s a sort of relationship there. But to them you’re just another old person who doesn’t have a clue. It’s impossible to understand aging until you have aged yourself. This is the truism of aging.

Anyway… I thought a bit about what I might write today. Some of it was deeply personal, and ultimately I talked myself out of that because really it would have probably been self-indulgent crap. So instead I landed on 50 albums that are in some way “important” to me. I’m intentionally not defining important. It is what it is. The one concession I made is that I won’t have any artist listed more than once. Of course, this is arguably every bit as self-indulgent as my earlier ideas. But whatever. Maybe one of these will pique your interest and you’ll go check it out. Maybe you won’t. But putting together the list was kind of fun for me, and it’s my birthday, so if you don’t like it, too bad.

So here they are, in no particular order, 50 albums for 50 years.

  • Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin II
  • Metallica – Master of Puppets
  • Beastie Boys – Paul’s Boutique
  • John Grant – Pale Green Ghosts
  • Gusgus – 24/7
  • Ratt – Out of the Cellar
  • Pink Floyd – The Wall
  • Van Halen – 1984
  • The 3 Tenors – The 3 Tenors in Concert
  • Agent Fresco – A Long Time Listening
  • Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – Baby 81
  • The Kills – Ash & Ice
  • Tad – Salt Lick/God’s Balls
  • Soundgarden – Badmotorfinger
  • Sammy Davis, Jr. – I’ve Gotta Be Me: The Best Of Sammy Davis Jr. On Reprise
  • Bob Marley – Legend
  • FM Belfast – How to Make Friends
  • The Devil Makes Three – The Devil Makes Three
  • Legend – Fearless
  • Omar Souleyman – Wenu Wenu
  • Warsaw – Warsaw
  • Mötley Crüe – Shout at the Devil
  • Def Leppard – Hysteria
  • Sir Mix-A-Lot – Swass
  • Run-DMC – Raising Hell
  • Black Sabbath – Paranoid
  • Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – So Far
  • The Doors – The Best of the Doors
  • Kiasmos – Kiasmos
  • Ghostigital – Division of Culture and Tourism
  • Pantera – Vulgar Display of Power
  • Bolt Thrower – Realm of Chaos
  • Miles Davis – Kind of Blue
  • TZMP – Anthology: Simply the Best
  • Kuldaboli – Vafasamur Lífsstíll 2015-2016
  • Hatari – Neysluvara
  • Robert Plant – Now and Zen
  • Gary Clail’s Tackhead Sound System – Tackhead Tape Time
  • No Stayer – Rogue
  • AC/DC – Back in Black
  • Quiet Riot – Metal Health
  • Duran Duran – Seven and the Ragged Tiger
  • Nirvana – MTV Unplugged in New York
  • MC 900 Ft Jesus with DJ Zero – Hell with the Lid Off
  • Bloodgroup – Dry Land
  • Spinal Tap – This Is Spinal Tap
  • Dream Wife – Dream Wife
  • Madonna – Madonna
  • Huey Lewis and The News – Sports
  • Masters of Metal Compilation (US version)