Pier Paolo Pasolini had reason to believe that he might be murdered. The gay Italian filmmaker and writer was a breathlessly outspoken critic of Catholicism and his country’s post-war economic boom, an undying champion of the impoverished teenagers and young people that Italy duped with dreams of capitalist abbondanza. He was also hounded by sexual scandals and the ire of political reactionaries. In 1975, weeks before the premiere of his antifascist epic of eroticism and abuse, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, Pasolini was slain on the beach in the Roman district of Ostia. The assailant, a 17-year-old sex worker Pasolini solicited while he cruised town in his Alfa Romeo GT, used the sportscar to run over the 53-year-old after he crushed his testicles with a metal bar.

Pasolini’s 1959 novel, Una Vita Violenta, eerily foreshadowed these events: The book mentions Ostia and features scenes of adolescents who target horny older gay guys for violent robbery. His fellow director Michelangelo Antonioni called him “the victim of his own characters.” In fact, he was probably the victim of a political assassination carried out by a few goons and a scared, blackmailed kid. The trial was a circus; the culprit recanted his confession decades after he finished serving his sentence. Today, it’s widely acknowledged that Pasolini’s prolonged torture and slaughter were premeditated and motivated by grander aims.

Coil vocalist John Balance pointed toward the cosmic character of this homicide on “Ostia (The Death of Pasolini),” a highlight of his band’s second album, Horse Rotorvator. Balance fixated on the idea that Pasolini anticipated his own demise in his art: Had he come to terms with it, and might he even have wanted to die this way? The song came out in 1986, when AIDS was massacring Balance’s milieu, and he searched for ways to make heads or, more likely, tails of the carnage. “Killed to keep the world turning,” Balance sang in a world-weary croon that seemed to offer Pasolini up to the great churning gears of humankind as it plowed forth at all costs, like the rumbling rotavator of his record’s title.

Coil braid the track with field recordings that Balance’s musical and romantic partner, Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson, made at Chichén Itzá, an ancient Mayan city whose inhabitants ritually sacrificed their young. While Coil claimed to resent political music, an activist energy suffused their decision to openly mourn in a society intent on shrinking from disease. Splicing ancient custom and contemporary tragedy, “Ostia” feels like tears poured into civilization’s motor—if the dead were going to be used as fuel, then the grief of the living would give this reckless vehicle some really bad engine problems.

Coil avoided politics, but they were politicized anyway. Balance and Sleazy were perhaps the first queer couple in the wider world of pop to speak frankly about their sexual desires and fantasies. They exemplified candor during a hypocritical era when straight bands donned fetish hats, leather harnesses, and other flamboyant garb on stage, enjoying sexual ambiguity’s frisson, while even the period’s many successful gay male singers either sang love songs to the fairer sex or remained carnally evasive.

From the start, Coil were inspired by the thrill of rattling the establishment’s bars. Born to an academic family (his father, Sir Derman Christopherson, OBE, was a master at Magdalene College, Cambridge), Sleazy came to the United States in the early 1970s to study at SUNY Buffalo, an avant-garde haven. There, he became obsessed with Robert Mapplethorpe and produced a photographic portfolio of boys with ghastly injuries he fabricated himself. Legendary British design firm Hipgnosis hired him when he dropped out: The photos were well lit and, according to the firm’s co-founder Storm Thorgerson, he offered a “sexuality” and a “phallic,” “moody” quality that the company lacked. Sleazy was one of the first photographers to capture the Sex PistolsMalcolm McLaren deemed his shoot, which took place in a public restroom, too disturbing and homoerotic.

As a designer of LP sleeves, Sleazy became a musical Zelig of the 20th century’s final quarter, sprinkling his poison fairy dust all over the business. He worked on some of the most striking album covers in rock history, such as Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here and Led Zeppelin’s Presence, and simultaneously all but invented industrial music as a founding member of Throbbing Gristle, a group so iconoclastic that even the punks found them offensive. Sleazy was among the earliest musicians to work with a sampler, which he designed and built with band member Chris Carter. It was during this ascendant phase of his career that he met 17-year-old Geoffrey Rushton.

Rushton, who would change his name to John Balance (and sometimes spell it Jhonn), was the son of a farmer in Nottinghamshire. In his book of collected interviews, Everything Keeps Dissolving: Conversations with Coil, writer Nick Soulsby cautions against trusting all of Balance’s childhood tales, but his background was clearly miles away from Christopherson’s. Balance was a troubled dreamer who developed a precocious diet of psychedelic drugs at a young age, purportedly taking mushrooms constantly, at school, from 11 to 18. Doctors diagnosed him with schizophrenia and he spent time in a mental hospital. Though Sleazy never responded to any of Balance’s bountiful fanmail, they became romantically involved when the younger man was 19. Soon after, both joined the cultish collective Psychic TV with former Throbbing Gristle frontperson Genesis P-Orridge.

The relationship between Balance and Sleazy was one of complementary opposites. Balance, Sleazy’s junior by seven years, was a poetic lyricist and an intuitive musician, wielding a Chapman Stick like a wizard’s staff. Sleazy was a kitchen-sink alchemist, rigging a rudimentary Fairlight digital synth into a sequencer on the groundbreaking Horse Rotorvator. Both experimented with psychedelics and amphetamines while composing, but Balance always ventured farther out, using liquor to reel himself back from desolate, spaced-out mornings. Sleazy crafted their music videos, including the heartbreaking clip for their 1984 cover of “Tainted Love,” set in a man’s hospital room, which ends with a title card informing viewers that the song’s proceeds all went to the Terrence Higgins AIDS Trust—a charity that still goes strong today. The film was one of the first times the music industry made significant mention of the virus. Balance and Sleazy signaled the future of HIV activist art by using their dais to impart an agitprop message, and with a public donation of their own money, they also lit a beacon for concerned peers.

Sleazy was Coil’s anchor, and eventually seemed to play the role of Balance’s caretaker. More even-keeled than his significant other, he funded both their lives and their outré collaborations with his day job directing TV advertisements for global clients like Nike and Pan Am and music videos for mainstream acts, among them kindred spirits Nine Inch Nails and polar opposites Hanson.

Coil offered the two men common ground: a moonlit lair of sex and gloom, papered by woozy tape experiments, ordered by the lockstep beats of emergent dance music and thrumming with a deep mutual desire to upend social mores. Horse Rotorvator’s pummeling opener and single “The Anal Staircase,” like the band’s debut LP, Scatology, was banned in major retailers across their native United Kingdom because it references butt sex. The song contrasts erotic joy with found recordings of a little boy giggling and a backwards, pitch-shifted loop of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. This fricative soundscape elicits uncomfortable jolts of static electricity from individually gleeful elements. Coil sought out juxtapositions so sharp they sliced away pop surfaces and revealed queasy cores, hand-carved for queer listeners—just like their contemporary, the novelist Dennis Cooper. The Christmas fanfare on “Herald,” the drag show-style intro of “Circles of Mania,” and guest Marc Almond’s operatic backing vocals on “Slur” and “Who By Fire” are high camp when considered in their own right. Yet Horse Rotorvator paints a defiantly post-camp tableau by setting these qualities against solemn melodies and Balance’s theatrical sprechgesang. It’s as though the costume ball just ended and the attendees were all found dead on the dancefloor.

The album benefits from a New Order-sized budget and no pressure to produce hooks or hits: Their label, Some Bizarre, was famous for securing chart-climbers like Soft Cell and Cabaret Voltaire huge advances from major record companies after bankrolling the recording sessions themselves. Coil later accused the label of stealing the royalties from their early work, but Some Bizarre had both the sensibility and the capital to finance a weirdo outing like Horse Rotorvator.

These funds pay off spectacularly on the widescreen “Penetralia,” which also happens to be the album’s most direct interrogation of the nascent pandemic. “In the future you’ll learn that survival depends on how much, or how little, you leave to chance,” Balance intones, hardly audible underneath a tumult of programmed drums. He alludes to a “kiss that kills” and free-associates two devastating noun phrases in succession: “Funeral music” and “gay bar.” The song’s bruising percussion benefits from the brass whimpers of Stephen Thrower, who joined Coil in 1984 as more of a supercharger than a third wheel and kept powering the band until 1993. Thrower’s horn pulls krautrock into the age of Thatcher and Reagan, positioning “Penetralia” as a clamorous precursor of Radiohead’s “The National Anthem,” but desperate rather than disaffected.

Sandwiched between the stratospheric highs of “The Anal Staircase” and centerpiece “Penetralia” are a series of quieter tracks, a melange of field recordings and finespun orchestrations.“Babylero” is named for a 12-year-old child Coil met in Acapulco, who sings a snatch of a song by the Spanish group Los Payos, while the diaphanous strings on “Ostia” have unexpected echoes of George Martin. The organization of the disc’s first half mirrors the composition of many of the individual cuts. Layered, often thunderous beginnings part for delicate middle thirds, only to resume their march at the end.

The B-side disperses into electroacoustic experiments that leave us profoundly in the dark about what exactly we’re taking in: the timpani pulses of “Ravenous,” for example, or the reptilian bleats of closer “The First Five Minutes After Death,” which sound like some mystery creature you hear through the brush at night in a rainforest. The Leonard Cohen cover “Who by Fire” draws out a harsher depression beneath the original’s melancholy. Rattling off means of perishing in his Robert Wyatt-indebted deadpan, Balance highlights how Horse Rotorvator is an urgent speculation on the very phenomenon of dying, and the varied ways that cultures across the world tell this universal tale.

His concept culminates in “The Golden Section,” a spoken threnody that attempts to answer the enduring, often weaponized, question of whether the circumstances of death have any existential meaning. The song centers on anarchist thinker Peter Wilson’s writing about Rumi, as read by television personality Paul Vaughan. Was Coil acknowledging, by filtering a world-famous Sufi poet through the scrim of a British narrator, their lives of spiritual as well as narcotic tourism? “We are told that Azrael, Death,” Vaughan recites, “Appears to our spirit in a form determined by our beliefs, actions, and dispositions during life.” He describes how the “soul” is smitten by this so-called Angel of Death who “great prophets” witness in “corporeal form.” This notion—that the nature of a life determines its demise, which might arrive in the guise of a desirable person—feels like a potential rationalization for the cruelty of a lethal STI. Of course HIV is irrational and random, despite the traumatized suspicion among queer people, particularly those who lived through the ’80s and ’90s, that they will inevitably be punished by a higher power for their sexual transgressions.

Throughout their foreshortened lifetimes, the members of Coil received letters from AIDS sufferers and their caretakers, thanking them for making a record that attempted to address the isolation, doubt, fear, social rejection, and pain of their predicament. Meanwhile, Balance never stopped exploring death’s mysteries. Coil kept shape-shifting, from 1991’s acid-house flirtation Love’s Secret Domain to 1999’s ambient landmark Musick to Play in the Dark, and his lyrics sporadically settled on one specific method of dying: by falling. “Ostia” itself uses the image of a beach to connect Pasolini’s end to a friend who threw himself from the cliffs of the English seaside town of Dover. A 1992 non-album track, “Who’ll Fall,” features lyrics lifted from a voicemail message left by another friend. “One day, you know, you’re gonna fall,” the voice on Coil’s answering machine warns us. “Or I’m gonna fall, or something’s gonna happen.”

People who wish to moralize the lives of artists might consider these pals to be Azrael, signaling the finale of Balance’s mortal existence. He and Christopherson split up in the late ’90s, not as a musical duo, and certainly not as friends, but merely as lovers, concluding a romance that spanned nearly 20 years when the virus was all but a terminal sentence. As Balance’s lifelong bouts with alcoholism ballooned, he hooked up with a new boyfriend, the artist and Coil collaborator Ian Johnstone (1967-2015); meanwhile he and Christopherson continued to compose, record, and, somehow for the first time, tour as Coil. Sleazy was watching TV at Balance’s place in 2004 when Balance drunkenly plummeted from a 12-foot landing, only to die in the hospital after his ex-paramour and eternal buddy managed to get him help.

Sleazy subsequently moved to Thailand, where he completed some unfinished Coil recordings, kickstarted a Throbbing Gristle reunion, and immersed himself in a propulsive, dancey project, the Threshold HouseBoys Choir, inflected with the sounds of his new home. In 2008, two years before Christopherson died in his sleep, he made a video for “Ostia (The Death of Pasolini),” a song that continued to figure heavily into Coil’s mythology. The clip turns away from his late beloved’s uncanny fixations, toward another tragedy from the 1970s: the Khmer Rouge and their heinous reign over Cambodia, focusing in particular on the Tuol Sleng Interrogation Camp where children were often tortured and murdered, sometimes by guards who were themselves kids. A wizened Sleazy found an affection, perhaps enabled by the second act he was afforded in life, for the young who were imprinted with the awful understanding that they were vectors for death. It’s not your fault, he seems to comfort Pasolini’s accused killer, Balance, himself, and all of the queer and afflicted people who stumbled upon his art: You are not the operator at the helm of this evil world.