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Reptilicus - Crusher of Bones

Reptilicus Crusher of Bones album coverReptilicus were and remain to this day Guðmundur I. Markússon and Johann Eiriksson. In 1990 they released Crusher of Bones on their own Product 8 label which would be distributed by People Who Can't who would soon evolve into World Serpent Distribution. Its appearance would be listed amongst releases from Whitehouse, Coil, Current 93 and Nurse With Wound. Who were they? At the time we never really knew but they came from Iceland and featured Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson who had worked with Psychic TV, Current 93, Ornamental (with Dave Ball and Rose McDowall) and Godkrist of Icelandic post-punk acts Þeyr and KUKL, the latter who of course featured Bjork. Current 93's David Tibet would be thanked in the credits. Crusher of Bones was a beast of a record which featured brutal beats and aggressive chants and vocals but Crusher of Bones also included some creepy cinematic orchestrations and improvised ritualistic grooves. Many may have missed it but those who caught Crusher of Bones first time around still rate it as something of a classic.

Its opening tracks shared a heaviness with industrial noise outfits such as Godflesh and Ministry but Reptilicus avoided metal edged guitar riffing for crushing rhythmic electronics closer to an earlier industrial sound. 'Snakes' roared to throbbing bass tones, ripping textured noise, gritty electro sequences and pulverising rhythms. Punctuated by horns and aggressive vocal rasps - "get the snakes out of my throat" - 'Snakes' gave an altogether different slant to the electro-industrial sound which was gaining momentum via groups like Skinny Puppy and Front Line Assembly during this period. 'Sluice' was sludgier, with a careering onslaught of wavering electronic noise interspersed with sparse pummelling beats and vocals which were paired, pained and strained over electronics which extended out into abrasive drone movements. This wasn't solely a record about heaviness though. The experimental aspect of the group, with which the group would continue to expand upon on subsequent releases, was displayed on '808', where a tick tock rhythm was effected by hand beats, guitar scrapes and experimental techniques. Their following release, Snaketime, continued with the serpentine theme taking their electronics into a more techno influenced sound.

At times Crusher of Bones was so brutally punishing that its best moments were hidden amongst its longer tracks which showed the versatility and variety of Reptilicus. Opening with dramatic symphonic keyboards, 'Pirate Paradise' edged onwards into rolling beats and creepy horror score stylings. At this point imagine if you can a martial version of Coil's Hellraiser themes and you wouldn't be too far wrong. The group had taken their name from a B-movie, and the influence of sci-fi and horror films was unmissable here. "It's growing inside you" they rasped on a song about a body horror that infiltrated organs, lungs and stomach as keys chimed, drills, uh, drilled and metallic percussion rattled, smothered in wraiths of noise and edgy synths which grew into an explosive morass of improvised powerful rhythms, abstract guitar histrionics and discordant electronics.

'Ointment' is something else again. Anchored around a loping bass with a wonderful interplay between bass, drums and percussion - some metallic, some not - this was always a deeply impressive track that forged a heavy atmospheric ritualistic groove pitched somewhere between Can and 23 Skidoo. Cut through with chants and squalling horns it sounded like an Icelandic take on Krautrock, and also similar to a sound which the late John Murphy would later pursue in the rhythmic electronics of KnifeLadder. Unsurprisingly, it remains one of our favourites on Crusher of Bones.

Reptilicus in 1991 Both 'Call Me Jesus' and 'Washington' would show a harder electronic edge to the group. 'Call Me Jesus' was akin to a squealing meeting between Last Exit and Nitzer Ebb, casting hard edged industrial aggro vocals over powerful rhythms, blistering electronics and free-form guitars. But it was 'Washington' (the original vinyl release titles this as 'Whasington') which pushed the electronic rhythms and sequences into something approaching EBM and resulted in a press release for Crusher of Bones claiming that "this shows up Borghesia for the wimps they are".

Over 30 years later Artoffact Records have reissued Crusher of Bones in a definitive deluxe CD edition with updated artwork, liner notes and additional alternate versions of 'Snakes' and 'Ointment'.

We've adored this record for years and now we finally to get to discover more about the group and an album which seemed far removed from the Icelandic music which was reaching these shores following the success of The Sugarcubes. Our thanks go out to Guðmundur I. Markússon who responded to our questions on behalf of Reptilicus.

i) Before Crusher of Bones, there was the cassette Temperature of Blood, which featured a different line-up. What were the origins of Reptilicus?
I was in a synth-industrial outfit called The Swallows which performed twice in 1988; Johann was in a band called Huus with an American couple, Laura Valentino and Paul Lydon, who were quite active in the underground scene back then. Johann and I met at a concert in the centre of Reykjavik on December 15th and went straight to a small studio I shared nearby. We made our first recording right then and there. During the next couple of weeks we started working on stuff and appeared for the first time soon after, on January 12th. Paul and Laura performed with us on that first gig and the second one a month after. Despite various co-operators, Reptilicus was always us two, the only exception being our collaborations with Andrew McKenzie.

ii) Crusher of Bones carried many influences ranging from industrial, noise, electronic dance, Krautrock and improvisation, what were your influences?
They were various, as your question makes clear. Johann was deep into b-movies and had a big collection of 8mm reels of both films and TV shows - in fact, we often performed under loops of 8mm films, sometimes incorporating the sound, and at our very first gig, in an old cinema, we ran two different films above and below the stage (it was a very high stage): Star Wars and Squirm. Reptilicus is the title of an incredible 1961 monster flick, which was shot on the same set with two directors and partly the same actors, one version in Danish and the other in English (see issue #96 of Video Watchdog).

Johann also followed the British industrial scene quite closely, TOPY, PTV, Coil, etc. I was partly into those things as well, but listening more to the American-Canadian scene, especially Skinny Puppy. Coil was also an early industrial entry for me. It was probably me that brought the krautrock influences but I listened furiously to especially Holger Czukay and Can during our formation period; an interest that has remained - indeed we spent the night at Holger Czukay's and U-She's in Cologne after we played there in 1998. In addition to krautrock, The Residents were also a stable in those years, especially Eskimo. And David Lynch was a favorite of both of us at the time, anything from Eraserhead to Twin Peaks.

iii) There was also a horror element in its almost cinematic moments and lyrically in its references to the human body being infiltrated by snakes and parasites. Did horror play a role in Crusher of Bones?
Yes, this is an element brought in especially by Johann through his interest in alternative film and TV - the text of the track 'Pirate Paradise', written by Johann, illustrates that quite well.

iv) How did Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, who has become a celebrated film composer, come to be involved with Reptilicus?
I contacted HÖH in the spring of 1988 when I was involved with a previous, synth-industrial act, The Swallows. He recorded and mixed two of our tracks. At the time, he was nearly the only person doing electronic music in Iceland. He had already made a name for himself in film, and was a legendary figure in the musical underground after his work with Þeyr and Psychic TV. Reptilicus formed by the end of 1988 and when we had stuff to record, we naturally talked to HÖH; that he would produce Crusher of Bones was in continuation of that.

Reptilicus live v) And, Godkrist of Þeyr and KUKL played guitar on a number of tracks, how did that happen?
HÖH brought him on board; they worked closely together as early as the Þeyr, and Godkrist was involved in HÖH's collaboration with David Tibet.

vi) What do you remember of the recording sessions? How long did it take to record and how did you go about it - it seems to vary from composed pieces to improvisation?
It was a long time ago. I believe it stretched over a week or perhaps ten days.

Godkrist was memorable. It was all done in one session. He plugged the guitar straight into the mixer board, and hopped on one foot around the room. I remember he told us that when he played the guitar, he slowed the expansion of the universe - I think you can actually hear that on those tracks; no one plays like Godkrist.

For the track 'Ointment', Birgir Baldursson would amass this amazing percussion set, all kinds of odd-looking drums, big and small, and improvise over the programmed synth and sample backtrack.

At that time, we had to use these expensive 24 track tapes, which were 16 minutes long, as far as I remember. For the track 'Sluice', the tape ran short. As we couldn't afford another tape, we just ran it to the end; that's why the main track cuts like it does. However, to make up for it, we improvised, live, when the track was mixed. We plugged a cassette tape into the mixer with some noises I had made on a bass guitar, and on cue, towards the end, I started the tape which then played through a mountain of effects after the 24 track had run off the machine - so there was little improvisation even in the final mix of the track.

vii) Crusher of Bones was released on Product 8 and distributed by People Who Can't, how did you come into contact with what would become World Serpent? Did you ever visit their offices?
This was through HÖH and David Tibet, who were, in the same period, working on the Island album up here. Yes, we did visit. This will likely have been in August of 1990. PWC were in Hanway Street, which bends behind the corner of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road. I always walk that street when in London; it's like you have entered another world and for a moment it's hard to believe you're in the midst of the city. The office was tiny, I think, CDs and records everywhere, and we had a meeting in one of the pubs there. I remember meeting someone from Whitehouse. Of course, Alan and the crew were there. We stayed at more than one place, at least David Tibet's and Akiko Hada's, perhaps Steven Stapleton's as well.

Reptilicus Current 93 HOH Iceland flyer viii) Where did Reptilicus sit within the Icelandic music scene? Did you ever perform live? What were performances like?
We did not sit well within the Icelandic music scene at the time which was quite hostile to electronic stuff, samplers and synths. There were less than a handful of people doing electronic music; we were certainly the only ones doing anything in the direction of industrial stuff. Iceland's small; any niche is tiny, especially at that time. So, we were, and have remained, outsiders, although a semblance of respect comes with age. Today, we have had most contact with the people running the Extreme Chill festival which, despite its name, has had room for noise and experimentation.

We were more interested in recording stuff than performing, but did a number of live gigs. Most often, our performances have included some improvisations, the first concerts certainly were that; often we would prepare a track that was only performed that one time and never again; most were recorded so perhaps we'll put them out one day. Once in a while we'd do a more regular thing, like the release concert for Crusher of Bones in Reykjavik, where we shared the bill with poet Sjón and Current 93 and HÖH.

ix) And maybe later you came into contact with Andrew McKenzie of The Hafler Trio, how did that happen? I was aware of Designer Time but knew nothing of O care to elaborate on these?
One day in 1991, two shaven-headed and leather-clad guys were seen skulking on sidewalks in Reykjavik. It was an even smaller place in those days. These turned out to be Michael Von Hausswolff and Andrew McKenzie. They were here for some odd performances. I cannot remember how we came into contact, but we did and soon were working together. For our collaborative album, Designer Time, we did extensive recordings in an unfinished freezer chamber of a slaughter house that today hosts the Iceland University of the Arts. This was in the beginning of 92. The year after, we processed loads of sound out of that, which then became the album. Andrew then was the third member on our album called O, which was a reworking with additional material, of another album that was supposed to come out in 91 but never did. He moved to Iceland during this period and lived here for a number of years. He had a profound influence on our perception of sound, where he's a true master, of course.

x) Artoffact Records have just reissued the definitive edition of Crusher of Bones, could you tell us about the reissue and how you became involved with the label?
We already had a Canadian connection with Yatra Arts, the label of Praveer Baijal, who released Reptilicus' first music in over a decade in 2010, the 7-inch 'Initial Conditions'; it included a remix by German electronic musician, Senking. Thanks to Praveer, we met electronic music connoisseur William Blakeney, who mastered our 2013 album Music for Tectonics, and released it through Electronic Music Foundation (EMF).

A mutual friend put us into contact in 2018. Artoffact already had an Icelandic connection as Artoffact, having released a few Icelandic artists, for example the dark-wave outfit Kælan Mikla. The first Artoffact reissue was Designer Time, Reptilicus' collaboration with The Hafler Trio. From the beginning the plan has been to reissue the whole back catalogue, but also new material. Already in 2018, Artoffact released Unison, a collaboration between Reptilicus and Senking; it was based on recordings made in Grants Avenue Studio in Hamilton, Ontario, where (Brian) Eno did some of his ambient stuff. The sessions in Grant Avenue were arranged by William Blakeney and Praveer Baijal. We really enjoy working with Artoffact and are fully committed to releasing more stuff, old and new.

xi) How do you regard Crusher of Bones with your other work as Reptilicus? Is there anything else you'd like to add about Crusher of Bones?
It is our definitive studio album, that is, the one that was recorded and mixed in the most traditional fashion, with a producer, involving traditional instruments, to a certain extent, and so on. It is also, of our stuff in the 1990s, the album that is most complete, as a whole, since the tracks were written more or less over the same period of time, at the beginning of the year, and recorded and mixed in a few days. Other albums, like our first, Temperature of Blood, was like a compilation of our first year, with a mixture of studio and live recordings.

Key resources:
Reptilicus website
Reptilicus at bandcamp
Reptilicus split release with Stereo Hypnosis at bandcamp
Reptilicus at Artoffact