A Life Less Lived: The Gothic Box (Rhino)
director's cut, Blender 2006
by Simon Reynolds
That maniacal cackling is the gleeful sound of a genre having the last laugh. Mocked by most the minute it crawled from its crypt at the dawn of the Eighties, Goth has proved to be one of the wilder success stories of postpunk culture. In its purest form, the scene thrives as a globe-spanning underground. But more remarkable than its sheer subcultural staying power is the extent to which Goth’s tentacles have wormed their way into the mainstream. You can see and hear its imprint on modern metal, from the campy horror romps of Avenged Sevenfold to the wintry worldview of AFI (who who named their fan club The Despair Faction and appear on this four-disc box set covering the Cure’s “Hanging Garden”). Goth’s genes are equally discernible in emo’s eyeliner misery boys such as My Chemical Romance and Panic! At the Disco, with their “any color so long as it’s black” clothing and vocal echoes of mope-rocker supreme Robert Smith. But the genre’s impact has spread far beyond music, touching everything from film (Tim Burton’s entire oeuvre, practically) to fiction, fashion, and art.
What is the secret of Goth’s persistence? Maybe it’s the way the Goth look fuses glamour and being an outsider, just as the scene’s tribalism reconciles the desire to be apart with the longing for community. Goth’s perennial allure also has a lot to do with the way the epic music and tortured lyrics give majesty to moroseness, elevating and ennobling adolescent angst. Above all, Goth is dead sexy, something this box set foregrounds with its kinky leather-and-laces packaging, modeled on a Gothette’s black bodice or thigh-length boot. Raven-haired and pallid, Goth’s ideal of erotic beauty is different to the mainstream’s (blonde, glowingly healthy, vivacious) and offers an empowering alternative for girls into being enigmatic and unapproachable while looking to keep all the fun aspects of self-beautification and adornment.
That scary-seductive she-Goth look was invented by Siouxsie Sioux (with a little help from Morticia Adams). Siouxsie & the Banshees 1981 album Juju, represented on this box by its tumultuous single “Spellbound”, set the sonic template for the Goth explosion that followed two years later. But one thing A Life Less Lived makes abundantly clear is that the most adventurous Goth music was made in the genre’s emergent phase, before it became a codified style--before it was even called Goth in fact. It’s startling to hear how wide-open this proto-Goth sound actually was, from the doom-funk stampede of Killing Joke’s “Tomorrow’s World” to the dub reggae infused clangour and cavernous hollows of Bauhuaus’ 1979 debut single “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” which appears here in video form on the set’s DVD disc. Even the later “She’s In Parties” has a discernible loping skank feel amid its metallic noise, then enters a full-on dub coda of ambushing volleys of studio-warped noise and deep rumbling bass
What united the Goth bands was a common ancestry in glam rock. Bauhaus and the Banshees covered T. Rex tunes and you can hear blatant traces of David Bowie’s mannered delivery in Bauhaus’ singer Peter Murphy and in Gavin Friday, frontman of Virgin Prunes (represented here by “Pagan Lovesong”). More than Bowie or Bolan, though, it was Alice Cooper who was the true ungodly godfather of Goth, his grisly theatrics and black humor blazing the trail for the likes of Christian Death and Specimen. A more highbrow, self-consciously poetic take on the blasphemy/debauchery combo came from The Birthday Party, whose “Mutiny In Heaven” is a grotesquely gripping sound-painting daubed with guitars that sound like they’re covered in sores and boils, the garishly vivid illustration to singer Nick Cave’s imagery of junkie squalor and “rats in paradise”.
Like many of the groups who inspired Goth, the Birthday Party fiercely resisted being tarred with its brush. Then and now, the problem with Goth is that a lot of it was simply defective as rock music, or, if not actively bad, then desperately ordinary beneath its glad rags of otherworldly mystery and underworldly menace. The most glaring deficiencies typically lay in the vocal department (singers tending toward operatic portentousness or cadaverous dirge-droning) and the rhythm section (the drummers either mustering a stiff plod or attempting a “tribal” feel by overdoing the tom-tom rolls). Some groups, like Sisters of Mercy and Alien Sex Fiend, dispensed with human-powered beats altogether in favour of drum machines. Others were so lacking in rhythmic feel or flair--the null trudge of Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, the numb trance of Danse Society’s disco-Goth--they might as well have been using mechanical beats.
A Life Less Lived is undone by its own conscientious attempt to be fully representative of its genre. What would normally be a virtue becomes a liability, because Goth has always generated as much sonic evidence for the prosecution as for the defence. Perhaps that’s why the selection is bolstered by some unlikely inclusions, like Echo & the Bunnymen’s “All My Colours” (doomily intoned but hardly Goth) and Jesus & Mary Chain’s “Fall” (which seemingly qualifies because it’s from an album entitled Darklands). When three of the best tracks—by Throbbing Gristle, Einsturzende Neubauten, and Skinny Puppy—come from a genre, industrial, that’s adjacent to Goth but very much a separate entity…. well, it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that there’s simply not enough good-to-great Goth out there to fill up four CDs.
apropos of nothing, honest...
Siouxsie and the Banshees
by Simon Reynolds
Knowing Siouxsie as Godmother of Goth, it’s easy to forget that the Banshees were originally regarded as exemplary postpunk vanguardists. Laceratingly angular, The Scream reminds you what an inclement listen the group was at the start.
Sure, there’s a couple of Scream tunes as catchy as “Hong Kong Garden” (which appears twice here on the alternate-versions-crammed second disc of BBC session and demos). “Mirage” is a cousin to “Public Image,” while the buzzsaw chord-drive of “Nicotine Stain” faintly resembles The Undertones, of all people. But one’s first and lasting impression of Scream is shaped by the album’s being book-ended by its least conventional tunes. Glinting and fractured, the opener “Pure” is an “instrumental” in the sense that Siouxsie’s voice is just an abstract, sculpted texture swooping across the stereo-field. Switching between serrated starkness and sax-laced grandeur, the final track “Switch” is closer to a song but as structurally unorthodox as Roxy Music’s “If There Is Something”.
Glam’s an obvious reference point for the Banshees, but The Scream also draws from the moment when psychedelia turned dark: “Helter Skelter” is covered (surely as much for the Manson connection as for Beatles-love), guitarist John McKay’s flange resembles a Cold Wave update of 1967-style phasing, and the stringent stridency of Siouxsie’s singing channels Grace Slick. In songs like the autism-inspired “Jigsaw Feeling,” there’s even a vibe of mental disintegration that recalls bad trippy Jefferson Airplane tunes like “Two Heads.” Another crack-up song, “Suburban Relapse” always makes me think of that middle-aged housewife in every neighbourhood with badly applied make-up and a scary lost look in her eyes. Siouxsie’s suspicion not just of domesticity but of that other female cage, the body, comes through in the fear-of-flesh anthem “Metal Postcard,” whose exaltation of the inorganic and indestructible (“metal is tough, metal will sheen… metal will rule in my master-scheme”) seems at odds with the song’s inspiration, the anti-fascist collage artist John Heartfield.
Scream is another Banshees altogether from the lush seductions of Kaleidoscope and Dreamhouse. McKay and drummer Kenny Morris infamously quit the group on the eve of the band’s first headlining tour, and their replacements--John McGeoch and Budgie--were far more musically proficient. Yet The Scream, along with early singles such as ‘Staircase Mystery” and "Playground Twist" and the best bits of Join Hands, does momentarily make you wonder about the alternate-universe path the original Banshees might have pursued if they’d stayed together and stayed monochrome ‘n’ minimal.
The Creatures, Boomerang - Melody Maker, November 11, 1989
4AD - THE DOZEN
4AD was founded by Ivo Watts-Russell and Peter
Kent in 1979 as an offshoot of the independent label Beggars Banquet. But it soon
became its own entity, with a sensibility rooted in the adventurous, open-ended
spirit and sonics of 1979, but tilted towards the darker, more existentialist
side of post-punk- (Joy Division and the Banshees, rather than the politically
militant Gang of Four). Crucial to 4AD’s burgeoning mystique was the lush andenigmatic
artwork of Vaughan Oliver, whose role in establishing the label’s identity was
as important as Peter Saville’s at Factory. 4AD’s earliest acts were proto-Goth
outfits like Bauhaus and The Birthday Party, but the label really blossomed circa
1983 with a sound you could call, not unkindly, Goth-lite: delicately textured
and gentler on the ear than the harsh ‘n’ hammy horror-show that Goth proper
had degenerated to. 4AD will be forever identified with its signature Goth-lite
group the Cocteau Twins, but other key signings of this period include Dead Can
Dance and Xmal Deutschland. Just as the
“4AD sound” was getting perilously close to formula, the label reinvented
itself in the late Eighties, catching a wave of arty-but-raw, rootsy-but-weird
rock coming out of
After the Snow
Many British groups in the early Eighties struggled to shake off Joy Division’s influence. The cold marble beauty of their sound and the mature majesty it lent to adolescent despair proved so compellingly original it practically condemned a generation to non-originality. Following their Closer-damaged 1981 debut Mesh and Lace, Modern English stepped boldly into the light with a sound that found the interzone between Joy Division-style severity and Orchestral Manoevures in the Dark winsomeness. The tom-tom churning drums frequently infringe Steven Morris trademark patterns and the bass drones melodiously a la Peter Hook, but the sparkling guitars and soaring synths could be Tears for Fears or Depeche Mode. The bouncy gloom of a tune like the oh-so ironically titled “Life in the Gladhouse” is perfect for Goths who want to dance but keep their deep’n’mysterious cool intact. The sighing chorus “oh me, oh my” verges on comical but the great rolling beat banishes any reservations. Indeed throughout it’s the lithe exuberance of the rhythm section (drummer Richard Brown and bassist Mick Conroy) that makes After the Snow such a winning slab of Goth-lite. That, and artful arrangements and mad-catchy tunes, such as MTV perennial and wedding-song fave “I Melt With You”.
Far from 4AD’s most famous or celebrated band, instrumental quartet Dif Juz were nonetheless reputedly the Cocteau Twins’ favorite group. Indeed Robin Guthrie produced this, their sole full-length excursion. Soaked in reverb and echoplex (the group were huge dub fans but thankfully never stray into the faux-skank zone), Dif Juz’s dual guitar interplay resembles an out-of-focus Television or Durutti Column heard from the bottom of a lake. Impressionistic and rhapsodic, the plangent ripples and frenetic flurries scattered by guitarist brothers Dave and Alan Curtis dominate the proceedings, but Harold Budd-like piano peeks through on “Love Insane” (along with an offkey Elizabeth Fraser from the Cocteaus) while Richie Thomas’ saxophone on tunes like “Crosswinds” recalls the serene fjord-scapes of ECM artists like Jan Garbarek. Listen expecting shapely song-structures or clearly signposted melodic pathways, and you’ll be frustrated. But if you surrender to the be-here-now meander of it all, the spangled eddies and lustrous whorls of the Dif Juz sound will carry you up and away.
THIS MORTAL COIL
Filigree & Shadow
With This Mortal Coil, 4AD boss Ivo pioneered a format since adopted by the likes of U.N.K.L.E.--the non-musician with loads of ideas surrounded by a floating pool of musicians and guest collaborators who help realise his vision. In this case, the project largely involved cover versions of obscure Ivo favorites and is perhaps best understand as a form of rock criticism and an act of canon-making. In the mid-Eighties, the choices Ivo made were striking: then largely forgotten post-psychedelic minstrels like Roy Harper, Big Star’s Chris Bell and Alex Chilton, Tim Buckley, Tom Rapp. While the first This Mortal Coil album, 1984’s It’ll End In Tears, features the project’s single most successful reinterpretation (Liz Fraser’s awesome and damn near original-eclipsing version of Buckley’s “Song to the Siren”) Filigree & Shadow has the edge over the debut. Two more Buckley tunes (“I Must Have Been Blind” and “Morning Glory”) are joined by Gene Clark’s “Strength of Strings” and a version of Pearls Before Swine’s “The Jeweller”. The stand-out remakes aren’t from the singer-songwriter era, though, but postpunk: a clangorous treatment of Talking Heads’ “Drugs” and a version of “Alone” even more glacial and gripping than Colin Newman’s original on his post-Wire solo debut A-Z. Ivo’s overt over-arching concept for This Mortal Coil was a twin celebration of “the beauty of despair” and the timelessness of song. But one also suspects a secret semi-conscious motivation: claiming for 4AD the kind of maverick stature held by Elektra Records in its heyday.
HAROLD BUDD ELIZABETH FRASER ROBIN GUTHRIE SIMON RAYMONDE
The Moon and the Melodies
No one would claim this is Harold Budd’s finest half-hour (that would be his Brian Eno Ambient Series collaboration The Plateaux of Mirror), nor that it’s the Cocteau Twins’ peak achievement (too many contenders to list). But it is a captivating cul de sac off the beaten track of both artists’ trajectories. And an apt pairing, given their idyllicism and mutual ardour for effects-saturated texture. Cocteau soundboys Guthrie and Raymonde do a good job standing in for Eno on “Memory Gongs”, cloaking Budd’s piano in a mist of reverb to create an effect like the autumn dawn-mist slowly rising. The instrumentals are nice but inevitably the most breathtaking moments come when Liz Fraser’s voice enters the soundscape. All updrafts, currents, tides and breakers, “Ooze Out and Away, Onehow” is a mermaid torch song, while the shatteringly lovely “Eyes Are Mosaics” would be regarded as a Cocteau Twins classic if it had appeared on one of their “proper” albums.
DEAD CAN DANCE
Within the Realm of a Dying Sun
Dead Can Dance’s motto could be “anywhere but here, anywhen but now.” At once somber and ornamental, their music forges links between Medievalism (DCD’s sound often recalls liturgical music designed for the reverberant spaces of cathedrals) and the non-West (you can hear threads of Middle Eastern, African, and Oriental music in their tapestry of exotica). This Australian duo is also something of a split personality group. Lisa Gerrard’s voice is a thing of wonder in both senses of the word: awe is her primary emotion, awe is what her piercing ululations strike in the listener. Brendan Perry is closer to the mold of the troubled troubadours that inspired This Mortal Coil, figures like Tim Rose and Scott Walker. This means that his rather portentous lyrics (song titles like “In The Wake of Adversity”) sometimes weigh down his undeniably mellifluous singing. On Within the Realm, the split personality was splayed across the two separate sides of the original vinyl album. Side One frontloads Perry’s doomy ballads and gloomy instrumentals, while the reverse is devoted to Gerrard’s devotionals, like the dervish-whirling “Cantara”. Her singing is so bliss-rich that “In the Dawn of the Iconoclast” was sampled for the Ecstasy anthem “Papua New Guina” by the Future Sound of London. Later in the group’s career, DCD would cross over to a mass audience of the sort of people that listen to New Age, Gregorian chants, and--euuch--Enya. But Within catches them at the perfect median point between the crypt and the chill-out zone.
Lonely Is An Eyesore
A prodigious feat of self-celebration from a label then at its zenith of eminence, this compilation of new tracks specially recorded by the 4AD roster came sumptuously packaged in a lavish-looking cardboard case with a three-way folding inner sleeve. Sonic contents wise, it’s a curate’s egg, ranging from the slight to the sublime. Colourbox’s “Hot Doggie” is brash but empty dance-rock decorated with movie soundbites, while “Cut the Tree” is a typical slice of The Wolfgang Press’s brand of failed pretentiousness. But Cocteau Twins’ radiant “Crushed” is one of their best songs ever and “No Motion” is Dif Juz at their most dynamic, crashing chords scattering shards of dazzle hither and thither. Best of all is “Fish” by Throwing Muses, one of the truly unique groups of the late Eighties. David Narcizo’s martial but static drums, the gyrating rhythm guitar chords of Kristin Hersh and Tanya Donelly, and Leslie Langston’s sidling bass create a strange feeling of suspended motion last heard in rock on Led Zep’s “Four Sticks”, while Hersh sings in a voice midway between a Stevie Nicks croon and a Gaelic pagan ululation. One of her more opaque verses--“lonely is as lonely does/lonely is an eyesore/the feeling describes itself”--provides the compilation’s name.
It’s so hard to pick a Cocteau Twins album as the One. Head over Heels is their early classic, and EPs like Sunburst and Snowblind, The Spangle Maker and Love’s Easy Tears are mid-period highs. Still, Blue Bell Knoll is their most flawless and sustained record. You can hear a smidgeon of Kate Bush on the title track opener, but Fraser soon sheds all ancestral traces to assert her candidacy as one of the five or six most original vocalists of the rock era. Likewise the group, having started out as a sort of soft-core Siouxsie & the Banshees, now mature into a sound without parallel or peer. Lindsay Buckingham to Liz’s Nicks, spangle-maker Robin Guthrie drapes his lover in iridescent canopies of guitarstuff. Fraser’s sculpted gush of liquidized language is almost entirely indecipherable but always sounds rich in private, non-verbalisable meaning. Sometimes these sweet nothings seem like songs for swooning lovers, sometimes they seem literally like baby-talk, making you imagine an Eskimo mother chirruping to her newborn. The Cocteaus struggled after this album: when you’ve made songs as sublime as “Carolyn Fingers,” ‘Cico Buff” and “Ella Megablast Burls Forever” what do you do for an encore? They made a mistaken pop-wards move, Fraser singing first in better enunciated gibberish and then in distinctly plain English. She said so much more when you couldn’t understand a word.
Combining the raw power of The Stooges with a penchant for all-American grotesquerie reminiscent of David Lynch, Pixies seem like an unlikely match for 4AD . But they were an arty group. Singer and main songwriter Black Francis cited the Surrealists as his big crush, and gave them the nod in Doolittle’s opener “Debaser”, the lines “Slicing up eyeballs” and “I am un chien Andalusia” paying homage to the Luis Bunuel film. Given his Charismatic Pentecostal background, it makes sense that Pixies music would be a valve for Francis to vent all his repressions in a "stream of unconsciousness" (as he put it). The title Doolittle, from the children’s books about the doctor who learns to talk to the animals, suggests the Freudian notion of man as “the sick animal”, sick precisely because he cannot accept his own bestialism. Hence the gorgeously fatalistic “This Monkey’s Gone To Heaven”, “I Bleed” and “Hey,” which bore witness to Francis’ grim fascination with the bare necessities and base fatuities that comprise the biological facts of life to which “we’re chained” -- sex, birth, excretion, death . Others like the rampant “Tame” and heavy-breathing “Dead” revel in the carnal nitty-gritty. Following hard on the heels of the group’s rabid opening salvo Come On Pilgrim and ragged classic Surfer Rosa, this album was Pixies’ peak. After this they veered off into a lighter-and-cuter pop direction, as if scared by the dark voids they’d glimpsed on Doolittle.
HIS NAME IS ALIVE
Where Pixies and Throwing Muses brought something new to 4AD, His Name Is Alive seem transparently to be that rare thing: the American 4AD obsessive, purposefully endeavoring to make music to caress Ivo’s ear-drums. His Name Is Alive is essentially a solitary obsessive, Warren Defever, drawing on a fluctuating cast of
accomplices to help realise the
noises in his head. Those sounds have a
spidery exquisiteness that couldn’t be further from the late Eighties/early
Nineties Amerindie norm. The vibe of
The Comforts of Madness
Shoegaze was an obvious fit for
4AD--after all, many of these British bands were inspired by the label’s
groups, especially Cocteau Twins and AR Kane.
If Lush were 4AD’s shoegaze-as-pop gambit, Pale Saints were the artier
proposition, making music that was dense, at times overwrought, but always
interesting. The name “Pale Saints” fits them to a tee. Ian Masters’ blanched
vocals have a pure-of-spirit, devotional quality, resurrecting that monk-like quasi-Gregorian
chant style introduced by British psychedelic groups like Tintern Abbey.
Riddled with imagery of nature and the elements, songs like “Language of
Flowers” hark back to the Romantic poets Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley. “
Ivo first approached his hero Scott
Walker back in the mid-Eighties, asking him to sing on the second This Mortal
Coil album Filigree & Shadow.
Nothing came of it, but perseverance obviously pays off eventually, because twenty
years later 4AD got to release the legendary balladeer’s comeback album The Drift.