Wednesday, March 26, 2008
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 ooking 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, selfconsciously 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.