The Dead Project

DEAD – a concept spanning multiple mediums – is the brainchild of Icelandic artist Jón Sæmundur Auðarson. Diagnosed as HIV positive in ’94, he has since developed the concept complete with multilingual renditions of He Who Fears Death Cannot Enjoy Life as its mantra.

Auðarson appears to have had no musical aspirations; instead he made his visual installations more sonically complex by involving the extended recordings of psych and drone-heavy music

The main and currently most prolific outlet for Auðarson’s ideas is through his art band, Dead Skeletons. Formed rather unintentionally, Auðarson appears to have had no musical aspirations; instead he made his visual installations more sonically complex by involving the extended recordings of psych and drone-heavy music. On the band’s site, the story goes: Dead Skeletons (IS) came into being in 2008 as an accompaniment to an installation for a show in the Reykjavik art museum by Jón Sæmundur. Looking for a spiritual battle hymn for the show, the trio began recording. This initial song, Dead Mantra, became an underground hit, prompting the full length LP Dead Magick (A Records), released by the band in 2011.

An eventual progression, working closely alongside Anton Newcombe of The Brian Jonestown Massacre (a 60s revivalist group of musical pioneers from San Francisco), led to the establishment of Dead TV–quoted as: ‘An international mixed media art project’, which currently broadcasts old shows by Auðarson and Newcombe (plus guests) and demos from Newcombe and his own group. DEAD, though difficult to pin down; its every facet appearing very similar in direction and output, best manifests in the music of Dead Skeletons.

The opening track, and coincidentally it’s actual and not merely literal birth-point, ‘Dead Mantra’, is described as a battle of life, winning over life and death and the sonic palette that paints the struggle between fight and surrender. It’s consistency is throughout, powerfully displayed in the middle of his hypnotic, maelstrom and ‘otherworldly’ vocals. Bathed in reverb, they attempt to find their way from a spiritual battleground that suggests a strange ambiguity over whether the desire for life can keep mortality away for just that bit longer.

One biography describes the concept of Dead as ‘A benign virus’

Indeed, the album continues in the same strain. Having given the message, ‘he who fears death cannot enjoy life’ in the opening track, Auðarson et al move to the second, titled ‘Om Mani Peme Hung’. Despite the slight warping of the Buddhist chant conventionally spelled ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’, the intentions are still clear. The 14th Dalai Lama interprets the prayer chant as: ‘that in dependence on the practice of a path which is an indivisible union of method and wisdom, you can transform your impure body, speech, and mind into the pure exalted body, speech and mind of a Buddha…’ The third track is ‘Kingdom of God’, and the latter half of the album features ‘Ask Seek Knock’, ‘Ljósberin’ (loosely translating to sentiments of light reaching out, or alternatively merely ‘Lightberries’), ‘Lifðu!/Live!’ and ‘When The Sun Comes Up’. Such intricate framing and working of an album can be none other than intentional. Auðarson means to tell us through Dead Skeleton’s debut that there is far more to things than the negative image that is often first perceived.

Although the vast majority of the music is dark; thick with uncommon languages (Hebrew plays a part) and compiled of drone notes synthesized through heavily layered guitar FX pedals and synthesizers, the apparent message is illuminated upon the realisation of Auðarson’s methods and intentions. One biography describes the concept of Dead as ‘A benign virus’. A sentence isolated in the short paragraph, the meaning behind it is purposefully unclear. After my own explorations of the works produced by the members and facets of Dead, the best explanation I can give is that it is both a comment on death itself as well as Auðarson’s personal concept. Though toxic and endangering on its surface, the virus is benign. The duality of the word leads to a beautiful conclusion. It is medicinally (of a disease) ‘not harmful in effect’ and in more general use ‘gentle and kind’.


Author: Jack Davis 

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