Guest Columnist #81: A History of the Amebix "face"

The power still remains: Amebix and their use of the art of Austin Osman Spare
by Bood Samel (rise3141@hotmail.com)
    I first distinctly remember hearing Amebix back in the winter of early 1997. At the time I was living in a squat in west philly, this huge abandoned apartment building that was around the corner from where the Stalag 13, killtime, and fakehaus warehouses were. Amebix was a band that I’d always see patches and t-shirts for, but never actually heard. One night I was hanging out with my friend Broken and drank cough syrup for the first time. I dozed off on it for a little while sitting on a reclining chair with a few blankets laying over me, and was having these hallucinations of riding trains and flying. I started to come out of it and the first thing I sensed was this voice saying “Relax its only paranoia”. Broken had put on ARISE while I was out of it. After that I was all about Amebix.
    At the time I was real into Satanism and anything to do with the occult, but didn’t know too much about it. One night a few days later while relating the story to my friend Justin he mentioned to me about how the Amebix face logo was a stencil of a painting by this British occult artist named Austin Osman Spare. I got real excited by this because at the time I didn’t know very many people who were into that sort of thing, and given that I was 18 and living in a squat I was happy to find some common ground between my immediate life and what I was interested in.
    Over the years here and there I began looking into both Austin Osman Spare and Amebix to see how much of a connection there was between the two. The issue of Spare and his legacy is very long and complicated issue, one that could take whole books. Here I will mention a bit of background information so his effect on Amebix and other bands will make more sense.
    Spare was a British guy from the early 20th century who had a crazy talent for both art and the occult and came from a working class background. In his teens he had a relationship with a much older woman who was some sort of European folk-witch that taught him a lot about magick, mainly rites of a sexual nature, entering trance states, and communicating with spirits. Later in life he joined various formal Masonic style occult groups that were around at the time, crossing paths with the likes of Aleister Crowley, and those around him at the time. However Spare never cared for Crowley and co. and departed not after too long. Spare would go on to develop very simple techniques that he used to build up his own private system of sorcery.
    A lot of Spare’s ideas were very similar to that of surrealism, and did a lot of his work around the same time the surrealists were active (See the book “Surrealism and the occult” by Nadia Choucha which has a chapter on Spare). Spare dealt with ideas that he thought could tap directly into the unconscious, and draw out primal instincts and summon spirits thought to reside there. Many paintings and drawings of his are entities he summoned, saw in trance states, or are automatic drawings. The Amebix face painting is one such work.
    Spare was relatively unknown until the late 70’s. Around the time the early punk and industrial scenes were starting in England a big cultural shift was also happening in the occult world over there. Out of that era came what was to be called “chaos magick”, a type of post-modern and DIY free form approach to the occult that drew heavily on ideas from Austin Osman Spare.
    A good deal of the people involved with chaos magick were also people involved with both the early British punk and industrial scenes. Not a lot of people these days know about the overlap between the early punk bands and the early industrial bands. At the time everything was so new that clear cut lines were yet to be drawn. Bands like throbbing gristle played with punk bands all the time. Throbbing gristle and all the bands it became (psychic TV, coil, current 93) were friends with crass and other crass records bands. People from crass and other crass records bands are on various songs of those bands from the early 80’s. There is even a throbbing gristle track that is them crank calling rudimentary peni. Genesis P-Orrage of both throbbing gristle and psychic TV, as well as Peter Christopherson and John Balance of coil are seminal figures in chaos magick. These folks also own quite a bit of the original Austin Osman Spare art. Spare’s impact on industrial/experimental music has been huge and includes dozens of bands who claim to be attempting to apply his ideas to music. I’ve even come across a few black metal bands that take from his work.
    Having learned all this over the years I began to form an idea in my head as to exactly what the deal was with Amebix. Not a whole lot was ever written down on the band, and it seems their popularity was well after the fact. How did a bunch of crusties get into this sort of thing? This was a big deal to me because I was a crusty who got into the occult through being crusty. A few friends of mine and people I met here and there where the same way. Through squatting and traveling something opened up inside of us, we found that yes the power really does remain.
    These subtle themes in Amebix came out more in bands they inspired namely Neurosis and Crash Worship. A friend of mine who lived at 5th st. squat in NYC told me he first heard of Austin Osman Spare from Dreiky of Crash Worship. I remember Spare art being wheat pasted in the walls of SQRL squat in west philly by Dave Onion of the philly anarchist newspaper the defenestrater. For awhile around the late 90’s my friend Tom Cryptonomous and I were wheat pasting Spare art around philly. Knowledge of his art wasn’t unknown to people in squatter circles, but the connection of his art to Amebix was something not fully explored or explained.
    Over awhile I pieced a theory together. Then recently I got a hold of Rob Miller from Amebix and settled it once and for all. My ideas were that Amebix could have found out about Spare because they were in contact with crass, who were in turn involved with the industrial people, and the early chaos magick people. They moved in the same circles so it made sense that they could have picked up on ideas floating around at the time in those circles. The ideas of Spare did some seem to have influenced the lyrics of Amebix. Spare writes of atavistic resurgence, which is tapping into the raw power of the unconscious. From Amebix we have one comment on that from an interview-
Does the face on your records symbolize anything?
    It is a painting of a guy called Austin Spare who dealt primarily with atavistic art, symbolism if you like. The face is a very immediate painting to me, you know what was in the artists mind when he painted it. Atavism is the drawing up of images from the past through art including music.
Themes of tapping into forgotten, repressed power pop up in Amebix songs-
Feel the strength from within, do you believe it's a sin
To find the power lying inside your mind
Not from the cross or the gun
Not from the moon nor the sun
But rising from the very soul of mankind
We are straining at the leash!
We swear allegiance to none, be, not become
There is no one upon whom praise we will shower
I believe that the sin is the first to give in
On the path toward the ultimate power
—From the song chain reaction

Also we have rather pagan-like themes in the song the power remains-
Out in the marshland and deep in the woods
Something stirs from the past to live once again
Do you believe that there is life
In all that they told us was dead?
Chorus:
Our land, sea and sky
Our land, our claim
Our land, sea and sky
The power remains
This faith that moved mountains, blue stone and earth
Has its roots in the past, it's rising again
The path of the serpent now trodden to dust
Is raised from its slumber to beckon us on
Nathrac! They ripped your innards out
Defiled the sacred land
But I believe the power remains
Reach out your hand

The parchment of my flesh must break
The winter winds my soul doth take
And all beneath the heavens lies in peace
A world will form and fade away
The crystal dawn of the final day

    A build up towards an occult and inherently apocalyptic world view progresses through out the albums, peaking with the final album monolith. Lyrically monolith is expressed in personal and spiritual terms and deals often with themes of misanthropy, cultural decline and ruin. This as far as the lyrics go aesthetically put Amebix closer to music like Non/Boyd Rice, and death in June. We even find a bit of non-egalitarian rhetoric with-in the song last will and testament-
To my wretched son I leave this gun
To slaughter all your race
For this, the beast you have become
I have no longer taste
And daughter fair with burning hair
The swamp of life be thine
And watch as e'en the great will mate
With the lowliest of swine
To breed the sons, the greed and scum
Of this your ravaged land
All my estates, both small and great
Shall fall beneath your hand

    As far as the Amebix face image goes I could never find any information prior to my contact with Rob Miller as to why they chose it. I contacted Fulger publishing recently who are in charge of managing the rights to Spares work. On that painting they told me-
    I think you are referring to the picture titled "The Vampires are Coming", 1954. This pastel was bequeathed by Spare to Kenneth Grant and is reproduced in Zos Speaks! The original is quite a small picture, but it packs a powerful punch!
    The first time I wrote Rob Miller about these questions his response was-
    It is fair to say that Amebix dabbled very tentatively in the occult, none of us practiced ceremonial Magick to any great degree. My experience working in an occult group came in the 90's, years after the band had finished.
    We found the original (at least I believe so) Spare painting in the Witchcraft museum in Boscastle, Cornwall, some research indicated that his artwork was an Atavistic type of key, I also believe that as a band we were manifesting a lot of a particular energy through our work and live concerts, there was an extraordinary power that came through the Soul of the band, a palpable presence when we were playing, I have felt briefly as though I was being looked through, a very charged time.
    Occult significances rely very heavily on the belief of the individual, sympathetic magic requires a sympathetic person in order to act, I have learnt and unlearnt a lot through my own occult experiences, sometimes life is lesser now, sometimes more, but I am highly skeptical about some experiences that can be traced to a collective unconscious rather than an empirical Magickal 'reality'.

    The second time I wrote him I asked about if they were in deed in contact with the industrial music and chaos magick people, and he said-
    We didn’t have any contact with anyone else in the occult circles at the time the band was operational. We drew on a lot of energies from our time on Dartmoor, living in an ancient manor house in the winter, reading Crowley, taking large amounts of drugs and practicing at night. As far as I am concerned we drew our energies from within the music itself and the mood that we were creating, there was always a feeling of 'another' presence when we were playing, something at a very deep level emerging out of the soul of the band.
    So it seems that Amebix came to their conclusions through person interest, isolation, and the extremity of how they were living. The ideas they learned about fell into place with their lives as squatters at the time. Amebix musically to me always had a very primal, and timeless quality that seems both ancient and post-apocalyptic. They managed to make music that while rather simple still manages to evoke deep feelings and internal imagery. That to was also an intent of Spare who’s work has very crazy effects on people (see the recent book Disinformation: book of lies, which has some really good articles on Spare and his art). Much of Spare’s art and writing can be found on-line as well and is very much worth looking into. Both Spare and Amebix have a legacy that seems to be holding up quite fine.