Reptilicus has stalked the fringes of the Icelandic musical landscape since 1988 and counts among the pioneers of electronic, industrial, experimental and noise music in Iceland. Taking its cue from the intricacies of industrial electronica, the creativity of krautrock, and Dada, Reptilicus have issued a number of releases on tape, vinyl, anti-vinyl and CD where experiments, noise, percussion, 8mm and wind instruments fuse in an electronic crucible.
“Reptilicus is a collaborative effort of two Icelanders who will take anything sonic from the environment and organize it into what might be called the semblance of music. Making “music” is not a primary goal and the main concern is with pushing the boundaries of what is considered “listenable” and to this end a variety of sonic sources are infused with new meaning. Using modern methods of synthesis, sampling and the electronic treating of various elements in combination with traditional instruments they make collages where the guideline is functional rather then aesthetic. Awareness of the fact that any reliance on a single approach, or the refinement of one single method, might in the end be self-defeating as it would lead to the stagnation which safety invites, has made them move between state of the art studios, basic recording environments and outdoor happenings where only simple wind and percussive instruments are being used.”
Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson
Members: Guðmundur I. Markússon and Jóhann Eiríksson. Among their many collabrators are Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, Andrew M. McKenzie (The Hafler Trio), Birgir Baldursson, Birgitta Jónsdóttir, Guðlaugur Kristinn Óttarsson (Godkrist), Rúnar Magnússon, Snorri Ásmundsson, Jens Massel (Senking), et al.
HISTORY by gim
Reptilicus emerged from a nocturnal chance encounter in late December 1988 when I met Johann skulking in one of Reykjavík’s shadier spots. We knew little of each other apart from a few glimpses at the fringes of the local music scene—he was involved in experimental group Huus with Paul Lydon and Laura Valentino, and I in electro-industrial outfit Svölurnar (or The Swallows) with my late friend Þór Jóhannsson. In any case, we ended up in a small studio I shared in the city centre. The recording made that night, still extant but unreleased, was the spontaneous, sonic-generation of Reptilicus. The name, which we assumed a few days later, is the title of one of film history’s lesser offsprings, the Danish-American Reptilicus, the American version of which was in Johann’s possession, abridged on 8mm film. Reptilicus was unleashed on the 12th of January ‘89, when we appeared live for the first time, along with Johann’s collaborators in Huus, Paul and Laura. Earlier that same evening saw the last performance of Svölurnar.
We drew inspiration from numerous sources, among them the original British industrial scene and its later electronic-industrial variety, and the so-called German Krautrock, especially Holger Czukay and Can. Also, we shared a penchant for Dada, science fiction, various things at the fringes of film and television, not to mention a deep appreciation of David Lynch. As to our output, although one should always be vary of self-commentary, I believe one can say that it shows various permutations of the absurd, wayward and meaningless—but at the same time life-affirming—aspects of being, driven by a deep-seeded hostility to conformity, whether creative or otherwise. This has resulted in a number of releases on anti-vinyl, tape, vinyl, and CD where experiments, noise, percussion, 8mm and wind instruments fuse in an electronic crucible.
Tat Twam Asi – anti-EP
Our first release was the so-called anti-EP Tat Twam Asi (TTA; a whimsical quote of the Sanskrit phrase meaning “this is you” or in the glorified 19th century translations: “Thou art That”) which was issued in the autumn of 1989. The record contained no music, being released on anti-vinyl, a format directly harmful to turntable needles. Instead, it was accompanied by detailed instructions and objects with which you could perform the piece yourself. Each copy was handmade. How many is uncertain but ten is a probable guess. TTA was available in the record store Grammið in Reykjavík. The one and only copy ever purchased is now in the possession of artist and electronic musician Curver.
One extra member was listed on the cover of TTA: the late Bjarni Þórðarson, singer of legendary punk group Sjálfsfróun, as he inspired the idea by a casual remark made when I ran into him one afternoon (during this period Reptilicus played a few concerts with Sjálfsfróun which had regrouped as a speed-metal outfit).
Temperature of Blood – tape/CD
Our first musical release was Temperature of Blood (ToB) issued on cassette by Icelandic independent label Hel in the beginning of 1990. It was in reality a compilation of what we’d been up to during our first year of operation and included pre-programmed studio material recorded and mixed by film composer Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson along with live recordings of various kinds—in the studio, on the air (radio) and at live performances.
ToB was re-released on CD with one extra live track from the same period as the first release of German label Cat’s Heaven (a subdivision of Vuz Records) in 1996. As to the title, I believe it has to do with reptilians being cold-blooded. At least, in an interview with Morgunblaðið in 1989, we explained our musical approach as “lying in the sun, warming your blood up, and crawling into the nearest lake to cool down” (“…tónlistinni mætti lýsa með vísun í nafn sveitarinnar: hún gangi út á það að liggja í sólinni og láta blóðið hitna og skríða síðan út í næsta vatn og kæla sig.” Mbl 5.11.1989, C24-25).
Crusher of Bones – LP/CD – Obstructor
Crusher of Bones (CoB), released on vinyl in the autumn of 1990, was our first dedicated studio album. Although most of the tracks included improvisation, all were carefully prepared and pre-programmed. CoB was recorded and mixed by Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson. Birgir Baldursson, percussionist extraordinaire of Svarthvítur Draumur and Bless, did drums and percussion on several tracks, and Guðlaugur Kristinn Óttarsson (Godkrist) formerly of Þeyr and Kukl, played guitar on three tracks. CoB was released by our own label Product 8 in collaboration with British distributors People who can’t (which were soon to become World Serpent Distribution). The British contacts were facilitated by Hilmar and David Tibet of Current 93. We celebrated the release with a concert in Reykjavík accompanied by Sjón and Current 93 in January 1991. CoB was reissued on CD with over 20 minutes of extra material, again via Product 8 and World Serpent, in 1996. Both covers were designed by graphic designer Bragi Halldórsson. As to the title, the memory trail is long since snowed over—considering that we were partly dabbling in metal-industrial, that might have served as an inspiration.
In late 1990 we started work on a new studio album with friend and producer Már Gunnlaugsson. To be titled Obstructor, it was to be released jointly by Product 8 and World Serpent. After mastering for CD and LP, test pressing and laborious sleeve design by graphic designer Guðmundur Oddur Magnússon (now professor of the Iceland Academy of the Arts), the album suffered delays upon delays, ultimately never to be released. At one point, the plan was to release CoB and Obstructor together on CD. Guðmundur Oddur actually made a sleeve dummy for this release but, alas, it suffered the same fate as other attempts at releasing Obstructor (whether this was due to some black nominal associative magick or more mundane mechanisms remains unclear). Later, the remains of Obstructor were released with other material on the CD O (see below).
Snaketime – MCD
World Serpent released the MCD Snaketime in early 1993. It contained three versions of a track with the same title along with a derived track called “Head in a hole”. It was recorded and mixed with Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson and musician and producer Tómas Tómasson. The sleeve was done by graphic designer Guðmundur Oddur Magnússon (now professor of Iceland Academy of the Art).
The music was in the direction of electro-industrial with a bias towards dance music. I believe the title has something to do with life-affirmation and the notion of amor fati.
Designer Time – CD: Reptilicus and the Hafler Trio
We met industrialist extraordinaire and only constant member of The Hafler Trio, Andrew M. McKenzie, in 1991 when he was visiting Iceland with artist Carl Michael von Hausswolff. This was the beginning of a fruitful collaboration which lasted for several years. During this period, McKenzie moved to Iceland where he lived for over a decade, having a considerable influence on the Icelandic experimental and electronic scene (among them artists such as Curver and Jóhann Jóhannsson)—I guess, by being partly responsible for his move to Iceland, Reptilicus served to some extent as a catalyst for his influence.
In the beginning of 1992, we found ourselves with McKenzie in a huge freezing chamber of a half-built slaughterhouse (which was later to become the lodgings of the Iceland Academy of the Arts). We were accompanied by Indriði Einarsson of electro-performance pioneers Inferno 5 (during this period we shared workspace with various bands and musicians in different locations, most consistently Daisy Hill Puppy Farm, Jóhann Jóhannsson and Inferno 5). In the freezer, we recorded various sounds that were later subjected to sampling and software manipulation. The results, that combined noise, ambient and rhythm with a pinch of the unforeseen, were released on CD by Dutch label Staalplaat in the beginning of 1994 under the joint names of Reptilicus and The Hafler Trio. The title, which is a pun on “designer drugs”, refers, on the one hand, to the idea of a form of time that is designed, artificial, and man made, and, on the other, to the genres of mood, easy-listening and muzak, as is evident from the sleeve design.
O – CD
O was released on CD by Staalplaat in the autumn of 1995. It was the result of sporadic studio sessions through two or three years, but assembled in 1994. Of the nine tracks, seven were recorded and mixed by McKenzie while two were taken from an unreleased, previous project, Obstructor, recorded by producer Már Gunnlaugsson (see above). When assembling O in 1994, all of the tracks except one were mixed by McKenzie. Þór Jóhannsson, my late friend and collaborator in Svölurnar, did lyrics for two tracks. The title—O—is explained by the simple fact that the release completed a certain cycle for us.
In 1995, through the efforts of Austrian artist Franz Graf, we were invited to play at the Out of the Cold festival in Vienna, organized by musician and curator Edek Bartz. McKenzie accompanied us twisting knobs, recording and mixing. The programme included material specially composed for the performance along with other material, most notably from O. By the end of the year, our fruitful cooperation with McKenzie came to an end due to strained personal relations.
S.O.B.S – MCD: Okkar heili er innsiglaður
S.O.B.S. was released by Staalplaat in the summer of 1996. It contained two remixes by McKenzie of a track from O entitled Song of the Beast (based on an Icelandic folksong Ókindarkvæði), hence the title (which was originally a working title, s.o.b. with a plural s). The two mixes were listed as separate tracks entitled There was a man and There was a child.
S.O.B.S. contained two new tracks, one of which was to become something of a radio hit during that summer: Okkar heili er innsiglaður (which could be rendered “our brain is sealed”) which contained a raving sermon by well known Iceland Pentecostal preacher, Gunnar Þorsteinsson, edited on top of throbbing dance-ambient-noise music.
Craters – 7”
In 1996 we participated with Birgir Baldursson in Drápa or Craters on the moon, an event involving a multitude of performance artists at Tunglið, Reykjavík, organised by poet, visual artist and current parliamentarian, Birgitta Jónsdóttir. The event was broadcasted on the web, making it one of the earlier such attempts in cyberspace. Subsequently, we collaborated with Birgitta on a piece called Kameljónið where she provided lyrics and vocals.
Kameljónið was released on a 33 rpm 7” single entitled Craters along with two other tracks by F.I.R.E. Inc., a label run by electronic-experimental outfit Stilluppsteypa.
Eight Fits – CD
We played at Songerangebot in August 1996, a festival organised by Staalplaat in Berlin. Magnus Jensson of experimental group INRI accompanied us playing percussion. At Sonderangebot, we met a number of great people such as artist Akiko Hada—whom we had met in London years before—and Andrew Hulme and other members of O Yuki Conjugate and Spoke.
Shortly after our return to Iceland, still spellbound by Sonderangebot, we took part in Óháða listahátíðin (the independent arts festival in Reykjavík), improvising an ambient-noise piece at legendary bar 22 along with Birgir Baldursson on percussion and the late great Móði, who practically lived at 22, on guitar. The result, after editing and touch-up by us and producer Páll Borg, a single track in four parts entitled “It ws a boojum, you see”, was released on CD by Staalplaat in the autumn of 1998 entitled Eight Fits. Both titles refer to Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark.
Earlier in 1998, thanks to the efforts of Akiko Hada, Reptilicus played as part of the Arktis-Antarktis exhibition in Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland in Bonn, and as part of Freunde Guter Musik’s festival Urban + Aboriginal at Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin. The evening in Berlin was especially memorable as it was shared with Mieskuoro Huutajat, the Finnish screaming male choir.
Also in 1998, we started preparatory programming for a new studio album. In June, we entered NT&V (Nýjast tækni & vísindi) with musician Hrannar Ingimarsson at the mixer console. Birgitta Jónsdóttir did vocals and lyrics. The project came to a halt when I moved abroad. There was talk of releasing it under a different name. The project was never finished but some of it was utilised by Birgitta in her own performances.
With the release of Eight Fits, in the autumn of 1998, we laid Reptilicus to rest for a while.
Initial Conditions – 7”
Since 2004 we’ve found ourselves twisting knobs on-and-off, at first reworking leftovers from sessions in 1998 in conjunction with new material. Some of this stuff was performed at a small, one-off concert at arts compound Klink og Bank in Reykjavík 2005, our first live appearance since Berlin 1998. We celebrated Reptilicus’ 20 years in 2008 by discretely issuing one of these tracks on-line; entitled “Time before present in millions of years,” it’s a quiet piece, combining the cool jazz rhythms of Birgir Baldursson with simple keyboards, cut-up effects and electronics.
But it was in 2010 that we returned in earnest. Again through the efforts of Franz Graf, we were invited to play at Donaufestival in Krems, Austria, on May 8. We enjoyed our performance immensely, not the least since we performed in the midst of a spectacular installation by Graf.
In the fall of 2010 we came into contact with Praveer Baijal, founder of Canadian experimental music & art imprint Yatra Arts. The first fruits of our collaboration with Yatra Arts saw light of day in November 2011: a beautiful limited edition, blue vinyl 7″ entitled “Initial Conditions”, Reptilicus’ first proper release in over a decade. The B side contained a remix by Cologne based electronic artist Senking. The release was celebrated by an event in Toronto on November 2011, where Reptilicus shared the bill with Senking, Rúnar Magnússon and Orphx, and in Reykjavik the following month where many local artists were involved, among them Stereo Hypnosis and Thoranna Björnsdóttir.
In the following months we did a video/short film for “Intitial Conditions” shot in and around Hafnarfjordur, Iceland; it was premiered at the Reykjavik International Film Festival (RIFF) along with twenty other Icelandic short films in the fall of 2012.
Our collaboration with Yatra-Arts is ongoing. The fall of 2013 saw a limited edition compilation CD, Höfnin Hljómar, showcasing much of the hinterland of Icelandic electronica, including a new Reptilicus track, It’s lovely to be appreciated, and a collaboration between us and Auxpan. Höfnin Hljómar was celebrated at the Iceland Airwaves festival in October 2013.
Music for Tectonics – CD
In April 18th-20th 2013, we took part in the Tectonics festival in Reykjavik at the invitation of its curator Ilan Volkov, music director of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. In the collaborative spirit of the festival, we worked with other people’s activities at the festival. Thus, various recordings were made of other artists’ performances and rehearsals, of introductions, of the audience and of the ambience in the halls and corridors of the Harpa concert house where the festival took place. These became the basis of our own performance, Re:written, on the festival’s finale which featured Icelandic duos. In the months after, we put seven pieces together, manipulating and adding to the raw material collected at Tectonics. Among the material used (with permisson) are recordings of the works of Christian Wolff and Pauline Oliveros, to name but a few of the composers and artist who took part in Tectonics that year. The title of the tracks, Rewritten, besides reflecting Reptilicus’ own method, refers to how humans necessarily mould experiences in hindsight, take them out of context and enter them into new ones, conjuring up meaning in the process, or, in a word, how we constantly rewrite to find our way in the world. Music for Tectonics was released by EMF, Electronic Music Foundation in the fall of 2015. Graphic design by award winning Michael Robert Wrycraft. We have many people to thank, especially William Blakeney, Joel Chadabe and Praveer Bea, not to mention Ilan Volkov and the composers and performers at Tectonics in 2013.
Most of Reptilicus’ live performances—which have been relatively few—have involved pieces specially composed for each occasion and, with few exceptions, only performed once. Most of these were recorded and one of the projects we’re currently looking into is to collect these live recordings for CD releases (some have already been released on Eight Fits and ToB). On many of these occasions we were aided and abetted by extra members who joined for that particular performance, among them Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, Andrew M. McKenzie, Birgir Baldursson, Paul Lydon, Laura Valentino, Arni H. Kristinsson, Móði, and Magnus Jensson, to name but a few.
Context: Icelandic music
While it’s difficult—and generally not recommended—to put oneself into perspective, I believe it’s not unreasonable to claim that Reptilicus is among the pioneers of the genres of industrial, electronic, experimental and noise music in Iceland. This is not to say that there were no antecedents that displayed similar tendencies in different ways—artists such as Þeyr, Kukl, Bruni B.B., Inferno 5, Þorsteinn Stanya Magnússon and Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson. A number of artists followed in Reptilicus’ wake, variously taking up the banners of these genres, among them Curver, Stilluppsteypa, Vindva Mei, Evil Madness, Bacon Live Support Unit, Product 8, Gjöll and Ghostigital.