In Search of Death, or Why Bother Listening to Atrax Morgue?
Content warning: suicide, self-harm, rape, sexual assault
A pattern repeats. After writing “Agence Générale du Suicide,” in the winter of 1929 Dada dandy Jacques Rigaut uses a ruler to calculate the precise location of the heart within his chest, takes careful aim, and shoots himself. Two years later, Rigaut’s passage from the theory of self-killing to its praxis is re-mediated back into art by his friend Pierre Drieu de la Rochelle in the form of his novel La Feu Follet, later translated into English as Will o’ the Wisp. The novel details the downward spiral of a heroin addict who tests the strength of his few remaining ties to the world around; the author’s own incipient fascist politics surface in the crude directness of the numbing slogans he attributes to his novel’s anti-hero: “There is only one thing in life, and that is passion, and it can only be expressed through killing—others and oneself.” Having embroidered motivations around the armature provided by l’affaire Rigaut, the novel collapses the difference between historical source and artistic adaptation when its protagonist, true to the facts, duly shoots himself in the heart and dies. Years later, in the wake of Drieu de la Rochelle’s collaboration with Nazis and his own first failed suicide attempt after the liberation of France, Drieu de la Rochelle will follow Rigaut’s example and kill himself in 1945. Decades go by. A pattern repeats. In 1963, Louis Malle makes “La Feu Follet” into a film of the same name starring Maurice Ronet, enacting Drieu de la Rochelle’s version of Rigaut’s final moments against the elegiac drip of the piano music of Erik Satie. More decades go by. “La Feu Follet” becomes one of the favorite films of an Italian musician named Marco Corbelli, who releases A5 zines under the pen name Marco Rotula and makes crude, homemade electronic music under the name Atrax Morgue on his own label, Slaughter Productions. The records gain traction with collectors of the “death industrial” and “power electronics” sub-genres, and Corbelli becomes notorious among cognoscenti of extreme audio for his bleak and unsettling work. Another decade goes by. A pattern repeats. In 2007, at his home in Sassuolo, having released countless cassettes and albums of lurid and extremely lo-fi musical documentations of his increasingly elaborate rape and murder fantasies, Marco Corbelli listens for a final time to the soundtrack album of the Satie pieces used in Malle’s film of Drieu de la Rochelle’s novel of Jaques Rigaut’s suicide. Then he hangs himself. A pattern repeats.
Almost everyone loves Erik Satie; almost no one loves Atrax Morgue.
That is by design. Occupying the border of two histrionic genres—death industrial and power electronics—defined by a desire to punish and repel the casual listener, Corbelli’s work as Atrax Morgue offers a particularly nasty and uncompromising case in point of musical styles known for crudely executed grand guignol examinations of moral ugliness and harm. Using synthesizers to generate audio icepicks of piercing ultra-high-pitched tones, Atrax Morgue cuts such as “Nerveshatter 2” work the upper reaches of the frequency spectrum in order to deliberately induce pain and distress, while on “Brainshock” overdriven signal chains sand midrange textural details down into a powdery ash of noise. Those titles may in fact derive from the gruesome symptoms induced by the painful bite of the highly venomous spider (Atrax robustus of the arachnid infraorder Atracidae) from which Corbelli derived the name of his project. Symptoms of funnel-spider bites include nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath, agitation, confusion, writhing, grimacing, muscle spasms, and cerebral oedema followed by intense intracranial pressure and death. In adults, a bite can take three days to finally kill a victim; in children, death can come as swiftly as fifteen minutes.
People make art about killing themselves, and then they kill themselves, and then people make art about people making art about killing themselves, and then killing themselves. A pattern repeats. Art is not life but happens in life, and the art that happens in our lives can encourage us or discourage us from actions that including acting to end our lives or acting to extend them, and one of the risky aspects of caring about art is that sometimes we decide to shape our life to fit the formally curtailed and idealized proportions of artworks, and one way that we can choose to impose such a form is through determining consciously the moment of our real deaths on behalf of a desire to make our life resemble a work of art as we imagine it being spectated upon and received by those who will survive us and examine what we have done.
Having closed a certain loop between inspiration and action, flattening the distinction between art and life with his own terminal gesture that concluded both simultaneously, Atrax Morgue stands as a locus for fan identification and affiliation in an often grimly literal manner. A case in point: the posted YouTube clip for the Atrax Morgue song “Ready to Die,” whose sole comment from a fan is “I will follow you soon Marco ... there is not any exit.” This response, itself a reference to the Atrax Morgue song “There’s Not An Exit” models the worst case scenario for the impact of suicidal ideation in artwork upon its audience: vicarious habituation followed by copy-cat actions.
But is it that simple? “Ready to Die” is simply a piece of synthesizer music, devoid of any lyrical content. Do its frequencies encourage action, contemplation, critique, second thoughts? When another fan comments beneath the “Paranoia” album “I’m ready to die,” are they quoting Marco Corbelli, Notorious B.I.G. or are they speaking for themselves? Choosing to die and being ready to die are not quite the same. Are these fans serious? Was Corbelli?
These questions attend most disturbingly on the repeated fantasies of sexual assault and rape strewn across the catalogue. It’s hard to know what is more depressing, the prospect that titles such as “RapeTime” and “Childfucker” accurately relayed Corbelli’s own desires, or the prospect that they were simply cheap but effective ways to secure an audience within a genre obsessively focused upon “extreme content.” Whitehouse song titles like “Shitfun,” “Tit Pulp,” “Prorapist” or, closer to Italy, The Sodality’s “I Can’t Stand A Bitchy Chick” push buttons for a reason, but it’s not just a question of the mere freedom to say reactionary things. Rising to the red flag, these provocations cue over-familiar debates about artistic freedom and artistic responsibility. Often, those debates are rigged to credentialize and excuse culture creators from considering the context in which their statements will circulate and who benefits from that circulation. These debates take place in the shadow of a rhetorically convenient straw-woman: the imagined feminist censor who stands in the path of, like, freedom. Taken as direct articulations of first-hand desires, the lyrics and imagery of power electronics seem all too eager to confirm the darkest suspicions about the pathologically misogynist extremity that male fantasies surge towards. It is as if these documents aspire to be the objective correlatives of Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon’s analyses of violent pornography’s murderous endgames.
However crudely executed, these recordings are, first and foremost, neither crimes nor pranks but artworks. As such, they are distinct from but also inseparably enmeshed within surrounding political realities, and, as such, they are always open to ethical judgments about which artworks we ought to bother to pay attention to, and what the payoff is supposed to be, and what risks are attendant upon that encounter.
In the case of “power electronics” as a genre, different creators inflect the work differently. Dreamcrusher and Climax Denial and Deathpile and Axebreaker would no doubt give very different accounts of what they did and/or are doing and why. I see power electronics as inherently dramaturgical, a self-theatricalizing attempt to summon, document and savor extreme states of mind across the entire affective spectrum: hatred, desire, mockery, longing, and despair. That extremity includes opening the Pandora’s box of the unconscious and, with it, an array of energies and scenarios that one would call “antisocial” were their protocols not so wearily familiar in their mainstream forms as the murderous engines of countless narrative entertainments. “Warning: extreme electronics—acquire with due caution” says the ad copy on the Whitehouse release. But, to demur from its perhaps self-serving valorization of intensity as an index of independence from the cultural surround, power electronics, far from being an aberrant exception to a toned-down mainstream, might simply be a focalization of precisely the same violent energies that drive the rape fantasy plotlines of prestige television and leaked recordings of presidents and Supreme Court confirmation hearings and edgelord rants on 4chan.
It has been said: Do not speak ill of the dead. And yet: what are the protocols of decorum we should observe towards a dead artist’s work when that work amounts to masturbatory incantations of rape and murder fantasies? Why repay the source of grotesque and idiotic pronouncements such as “Rape: some women deserve it. They want it.” with attention of any kind? What possible tissue of apologetics, interpretations, evasions or excuses would be sufficient to staunch or redress that degree of trite stupidity? Why lend aid and comfort to the psychopathology of those who are now, by virtue of their own actions, definitively beyond help?
It is too late to “call out,” or, for that matter, to “call in,” Marco Corbelli.
His shock tactics are simply of a piece with a particular moment in subcultural history. Far from being rebellious, from this perspective they look like dutiful observations of scene-specific micro norms. But that does not answer the question of why these recordings should not be justly abandoned, or, to use the language of the curse from the Psalms, “blotted out from the book of life.” One of the key documents of power electronics is a compilation called “We Spit On Their Graves.” Returning the favor, the time is surely right to spit on Corbelli’s grave for whatever small part he played in lending avant garde frisson to the surrounding rape culture.
Patterns repeat if we let them.
And yet, here’s the full disclosure: despite my objections, in midst of my misgivings, with an acute sense of its idiocy and bankruptcy, I keep listening to Atrax Morgue, adopting towards it something like the psychic stance of a protective crouch that one takes when one watches a beloved horror movie, appalled but entranced by the inexorable forward march of the killer on the screen.
I like the bad feeling that these sounds create. If pressed to describe those feelings, I would compare it to the first moment that your brain detects the faint smell of something electrical burning or the first bilious, tangy upsurge within your own salivary glands that warns you that you are going to vomit, a kind of heightened sensation of proprioception, a startle reflex of vivid embodiment-at-risk.
Why bother listening to Atrax Morgue now? What possible solace, relief, or, yes, even pleasure, might something so morally dubious and sensorially unpleasant afford? In search of answers, in search of death, I keep listening to Atrax Morgue even as I sense its limitations and acknowledge its toxic ideological mess. Does that make me part of the problem? This is not a plea for understanding, or forgiveness, but an open acknowledgement of the flickering into irrelevance of allegedly “extreme content” at this political-economic moment of mass death and triumphant tyranny. A troll is president, and thousands are dying for no good reason, and the capitalist machine slips and grinds its gears as the planet prepares for its first trillionaire. Against such a backdrop, subcultural celebrations of pathology seem almost quaint in their incapacity to move the needle of the broader cultural moment in any perceptibly meaningful direction. Patterns repeat.
I have been working on a book about self-killing for six years. It’s an academic book, mostly a reading of plays and poems from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and I’m particularly interested in the moments when the representation of self-killing fails to achieve tragic seriousness and collapses into slapstick, into camp, into generic modes that refuse to emotionally invest in the auras of grandeur that our culture attaches to the act of self-killing. The will to sacrifice the self is not a subversive exception to a world of self-interest; rather, it’s one of the key mechanisms through which the structure of the family and the structure of the workplace ensure obedience, compliance, and loyalty-unto-death. Self-sacrifice and self-destruction and suicide stand on a spectrum of bad social forms that I am hoping to both constellate and sympathetically understand, but also to dislodge and contest. Ultimately, my book is an intellectual historical project, an argument about the past, and about the many bad forms of “seriousness” that obscure and romanticize self-harm.
In the process of writing that book, people, real people, keep killing themselves. And every time that they do I have to stop, check the parameters of how I understand the causal feedback loops in place between representations in artworks and actions in the world, and keep going. As I talk about what I know about these issues, I also have to check with my readers and listeners and students and friends, to know if they struggle with self-harm, if they struggle with ideation, if they are at risk. The protocols of suicide prevention are in place to ensure that struggling people remember their options, and are reminded of the array of choices besides self-harm that are open to them for as long as they keep living.
There are, and have been for a long time, artists who choose to end their lives, and cultures of fandom and appreciation that draw connections between the force of their artworks and the absolutely irreversible gestures that ended their lives. Whether we are talking about Kurt Cobain, Ian Curtis, Yukio Mishima, or Sylvia Plath, the list is long, and in the era of the opioid crisis it keeps getting longer, and its constituents keep getting younger.
Marco Corbelli was not a “star,” and his actions did not ripple far beyond the tiny cluster of people who chose to seek out underground materials. But it would be a lie if I did not admit that my own encounter with his work is deeply informed by my knowledge of his death, and my sense that that death catalyzes his fantasies of violence across the records. The polarity of force in which Corbelli imagines attacking others is evoked often in the work, but its counterforce is a continuous thread of descriptions of himself as an object to be destroyed, brutalized, degraded, killed. The album “Cut My Throat”, featuring his own staring face upon the cover, is simply one case in point. To clarify: I am *not* saying that Corbelli’s death was inevitable. He could have made, and should have made, other choices.
Sonically, the music seems to know that other worlds and other emotions are possible. On “Lonely,” a severely distressed recording of “Happy Days Are Here Again” gradually rises above the blasts of noise and then sinks again under its own weight. Just as “MurderBeat” fades out, a schmaltzy bit of 70s fado music can be heard plaintively struggling to upstage the mayhem and screams and laughter that have preceded it. Noise becomes tenderized, is rendered flaccid and putrescent by these upsurges of contrary musical possibilities, the insertion of hot and messy emotions into the ongoing surround of grey audio sludge. The music seems to know things that Corbelli finally chose to refuse. That said, there is no getting around the vicarious component of proximity to violent death that listening to Corbelli’s work in the knowledge of how his life ended affords. The work becomes a ledge the listener can walk upon and look down.
I listen to Atrax Morgue late at night, alone in my room, during these days of quarantine, aware of an unseen but pervasive threat, a mostly invisible universe of harm that we all dogpaddle through as we cling to what remains of daily routine. For me, listening to Atrax Morgue becomes a kind of proleptic nocturnal death vigil, a conduit for an unused affective surplus of terror and excitement that is the consequence and inverse of my own heavily padded and protected bourgeois homeowner security protocol. Having locked the door and wiped down the handles with chemicals and taken off the mask, in privacy I can play the Atrax Morgue song “Something Bad.” I can reanimate the undead spirit of Corbelli’s slurred and processed and distorted voice screaming SOMETHING HAS HAPPENED. SOMETHING BAD. ASK THE PSYCHIATRIST ABOUT YOUR MENTAL CONDITION over and over as a seasick electronic dirge burns to ash around him. I play it. I play it again. The search for death fails, again, to deliver the goods. He sounds ludicrous, deranged, shaken with an expulsive, histrionic need to force his symptom through the microphone and into my ears. He sounds deeply absurd, yet also frighteningly, viscerally alive.
A pattern repeats.