Review Summary: "Therapy through violence
Bomb for mental health
Kill for inner peace."
The name SPK, or Sozialistisches Patientenkollektiv was taken from an organization founded by Wolfgang Huber, a German psychiatrist who hypothesized that capitalism was the root cause of mental illness. In 1970 he and his wife, Urdula Schafer founded the original SPK, gathering mental patients for group therapy sessions with an explicitly Marxist mindset, with the ultimate goal of enacting social change through the group itself, as a “weapon against society”, in the words of Huber. By threatening his University with the collective suicide of his burgeoning organization, he was able to attain funding and supplies to carry out the groups’ aims of societal destabilization. Eventually, Huber began inciting his group to commit minor acts of terrorism against government and corporate structures, including the attempted bombing of a train, which led to his arrest in 1971.
It was with this inspiration in mind that Graeme Revell, who was working at a mental hospital at the time, decided to form his own collective, dedicated to spreading socialist ideology through music, rather than acts of terrorism. SPK created abrasive, atonal and highly rhythmic sound collages that used elements of Musique Concrete, Punk and Noise to create a uniquely disconcerting cacophony of power tools, mutilated synths and interviews of mental patients. Their work was explicitly political, but also was a naked attempt to advocate for people suffering from mental illness, with their initial album including a pamphlet which stated, “The project ideal is to express the content of various psycho-pathological conditions, especially schizophrenia, manic-depressive psychosis, mental retardation and paranoia. Information Overload supersedes normal, rational thought structures, forcing deviation into less restrictive mental procedures of so-called ‘mental illness.”
Leichenschrei, their second and most notorious LP, is difficult to describe in musical terms, as the only constant and explicit musical element is the palpitating, mechanical rhythm, which pulses like the exposed nerve endings of an infected wound. Bare, dissonant melodies from distorted synthesizers lurk under screeching feedback and scrap metal percussion while vocal samples speak calmly and collectedly about horrific deviant acts, autopsies, sexual assaults and mental aberration. It’s a difficult listen to be sure, but one that never overstays its welcome as SPK are able to coax enough variety and novelty from their music to keep their uncompromising sound fresh and (albeit in an almost masochistic sense) enjoyable.
The lyrics (if they can be called lyrics) which are derived from samples for the most part are as depraved as can be. Most representative of the horrific imagery conjured by the vocal samples is the immortal (and darkly hilarious) line from album highlight “Post-Mortem”: “The manager of the corporation tried to give me syphilis by wiping his cock on my sandwich”, intercut with audio commentary from a dissection. Revell himself provides vocals on a minority of tracks, usually limited to wordless, animalistic howling, roaring or screaming over the noise and distortion. Other vocal highlights include the orgasmic squeals of “Despair”, the enraged bellowing in “Day of Pigs” and the desolate wail of the throbbing “Genetic Transmission”.
The ultimate purpose of Industrial music, at least at its outset, was to create a grotesque parody of Industrial society in order to reveal the true horror show that was and is Industrialized Capitalism. As effective as SPK are at realizing this vision, the most glaring issue with the album isn’t anything to do with the music itself, as it is more than effective at its stated aim of expressing “various psycho-pathological conditions” viscerally and horrifically. But in portraying mental illness and abuse so luridly, so confrontationally, SPK straddle the thin line between respectful portrayal of the grim reality of mental illness and horror movie exploitation. This is further complicated by the question of whether Wolfgang Huber, as the inspiration for the group, was truly giving his patients a voice, or merely exploiting them for his own political ends. Ultimately, given that one of the founding members of SPK was a patient of the mental hospital that Graeme Revell worked at when he founded the collective, it’s more likely that the ugliness and horror of Leichenschrei is meant to be a respectful portrayal of the blackest aspects of mental illness.