Monday, 19 November 2012

Friday, 2 November 2012

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Goth Subculture - A Brief History of Deathrock, Part III

A new crop of deathrock bands has reclaimed its punk roots and is pushing the music in a new and compelling direction. According to to Louder Than War goth “music in the nineties was largely dire, possibly due to the scene’s popularity at the end of the eighties bringing in a lot of people without those punk roots” that had originally invigorated the music. “It’s high time the scene looked back and reinvented itself again.”
The first revival of deathrock came in the late 1990s as goth, per se, became largely synonymous with a style of industrial dance music influenced by the Wax Trax roster of bands and also by club DJs’ own personal ’80s new wave dancefloor nostalgia. By 1998, “goth” bands that held onto guitars or human drummers were seen as “old school” — or as hopelessly anachronistic, lost in an early eighties timewarp. The Release the Bats DJ night that was established in the Los Angeles area in 1998 was one response to the increasing techno-ization of the genre. The first revival of deathrock came about at the founding of Release the Bats in 1998, and existed until around 2004, when that revival became saturated with cartoony nu-deathrock bands.
As the guitar-driven gothic rock of the 1980s became the neutered and guitar-less “goth” dance music of the late 90s club scene, a few things did happen to counter that trend. On the east coast, New York City’s The Skabs combined a 45 Grave approach with an experimental electronic sound that was reminiscent of old no wave or  synthpunk acts like The Screamers. On the opposite coast, San Francisco’s Phantom Limbs , on the Alternative Tentacles label, and a related band, Black Ice, did the same. Post-riot grrls the Subtonix similarly approached the genre from a fresh angle. Veronica Lipgloss and the Evil Eyes would break new ground in this style in the early 2000s, as well.

And yet, despite this updating of the deathrock sound with punky electronics, the deathrock genre was still largely regarded as irrelevant or as clinging to a moribund, passe style of music. Club owners and DJs obsessed with EBM steered the culture towards a musical style characterized by the sound of bands like Velvet Acid Christ, My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult, and Wumpscut. Patrons of these clubs bought into it, and came to think that that was what goth was, and is.

This trend continues to this day, dominated by bands on the Metropolis Records label — bands like Faderhead and Covenant, employing drum machines and autotuners. Rave culture and the new “club kids” phenomenon of the late 90s can also not be discounted as an influence driving club promoters to steer people into this new form of “gothic” music. A bizarre situation was eventually created where primal, pulsing rock and roll was deemed “undanceable,” whereas highly processed and artificial beats were “what people wanted,” instead. A new incarnation of the old punk vs. disco battle presented itself.
Not everyone in the late 1990s was on board with the shift towards techno and EBM, however. The deathrock band Antiworld began in 1995 and played an unapologetic style of deathrock that recalled bands like Action Pact and early Siouxsie and the Banshees. “I hope [the music] stays on the rockin’ side of deathrock rather than being watered down by a bunch of keyboard-driven bands,” singer Connie “Granny Fiendish” told Dropdead Magazine. “It is important to have an equal portion of punk rock and you definitely need a real, live drummer to rock.” The only reason anyone would proclaim the need for “a real, live drummer” would be if the culture had begun to favor artificial, techno-influenced beats.
Cinema Strange, Murder at the Registry, and Bloody Dead and Sexy sallied forth in spite of the overarching trend towards industrialized, dancey goth. “I don’t really acknowledge ‘Gothic’ as anything we are associated with,” Daniel of Cinema Strange told an interviewer in 2000. “’Gothic’ lifestyles,  hairstyles, music, and ways of dress are things that were born in the last five or six years. Our lives do indeed reflect facets of a lifestyle known as ‘deathrock.’

Confusingly, deathrock – which had started as an outgrowth of the Southern California punk scene — became the victim of revisionist history. A new taxonomy was effected that placed deathrock under the overarching umbrella of  “goth,” which by 1999 meant “dark, slick club music.” Deathrock was thus a kind of weird, mutant cousin of goth — a freakish holdover from the 1980s. Even though “goth” was also an outgrowth of punk, like deathrock, one could increasingly safely attend event nights in one’s town advertised as “goth” without ever hearing any music that had guitars or human, acoustic drumming. Such things were/are “not danceable.”

The explosion of the internet and especially blogs ensured that fans and DJs of deathrock could become stewards of the culture to an unusual degree. DJ Mark Splatter began, a website devoted to preserving the history of the original deathrock, positive punk, and Batcave movements. The site featured — and does feature — in-depth profiles of bands like Amebix, Crisis, Theatre of Hate, and Rudimentary Peni  — bands whose existence is barely known among professional goth DJs, yet who are nonetheless seminal bands in the genre. These bands’ existence is often regarded as an embarrassment, something to be overlooked and ignored, by current DJs and would-be tastemakers in the deathrock scene.

In the early 2000s, explicitly deathrock event nights began popping up in response to — and in solidarity with —  LA’s Release the Bats. Older fans began ripping their records into mp3 format and trading them with other fans over Napster, and later via Soulseek, or mp3 blogs; this caused previously semi-obscure bands like Burning Image and Madhouse to become more widely known among younger  music fans. The renewed interest in these older bands, thanks to the internet, underscored to what degree the contemporary “goth” scene had diverged from its roots, and had gone off into a slick, techno-oriented direction, completely unmoored from its guitar-driven, postpunk origins. In Fact, internet fan interest caused Burning Image and Amebix to re-form, and to tour with a renewed sense of pride in their legacy being properly appreciated, finally.

By 2004, bands like All Gone Dead and Tragic Black were the face of the new deathrock revival. These were bands that favored a cartoonishly exaggerated caricature of original Batcave imagery. This was coupled with a sanitized-sounding version of modern deathrock. The equally cartoonish, lunchbox-toting “kindergoth” trend of the 90s weighed (and does weigh) heavily on the aesthetics of this sort of gothic music. The growth of Suicide Girls and a kind of narcisstic, alt-model, Myspace culture ensured these folks were always properly primped and preened before coming on stage to play; the actual music increasingly seemed an afterthought, an accoutrement to sheer image appeal. This reached some kind of awful climax by 2005.
Coupled with the first deathrock revival of 1998-2004 was also the explosion, helped along by mall chain stores like Hot Topic, of a certain form of horror punk exemplified by bands like AFI and Blitzkid. “Gothabilly” also came into its own as a new form of psychobilly in this period; this was ironically wedded to the visual aesthetic of classic bands like the Cramps and the Misfits, but was taken to ever more ridiculous extremes. The Horror Pops, Tiger Army, Aiden, and, nowadays, The Birthday Massacre, present a coloring-book version of horror punk that is safe for children everywhere. It’s even kind of cute.
Thankfully, by 2008 a change in the DIY underground punk scene away from d-beat hardcore ensured that increasing numbers of bands were mining past postpunk and deathrock phenomena for a new way forward. These punk bands existed in a mileu that was completely divorced from the cartoony early 2000s “deathrock” revivalist culture of Los Angeles. Bands that were more likely to regularly read Maximum Rock and Roll than Dropdead were plumbing the vaults of Southern California deathrock and early ‘80s British positive punk for inspiration.

In 2005, the influence of Portland’s Observers (now the Red Dons) on the underground DIY hardcore scene was hard to overestimate; the band reminded that punk was as ever much about The Wall, The Mob, and Under Two Flags as it was about Discharge. In short order, bands like Remains of the Day spawned the moody postpunk band The Estranged; crust band Germ Attak spawned the goth-punk side-project Blue Cross. Discharge-worshippers Deathcharge evolved into a gothic rock juggernaut that has increasingly sounded as if it was taking its cues more from Rozz Williams’ old Shadow Project band than from the Varukers. All these bands are among the best examples of the current dark, underground postpunk revival, and they all mark a turning away from the visually-obsessed deathrock/horror punk revival of the early 2000s.
With the cartoonish excesses of the mid-2000 deathrock revival cast aside, modern bands — which have overwhelmingly come from the DIY hardcore punk scene — have refocused on the gritty and tribalistic roots of  deathrock and positive punk. Older bands like Killing Joke, The Damned, and Rudimentary Peni continue to make surprisingly relevant new music, reinforcing their importance on the direction of the culture. Arctic Flowers, for example, take their name from a Rubella Ballet song, and play a type of dark, anarcho-punk influenced music that is both political and surprisingly danceable. Dekoder, Tanzkommando Untergang, and Crimson Scarlet are also female-fronted modern goth-punk bands that harken back to the 1980s gothic peace punk of bands like Blood and Roses, the Lost Cherees, and Brigandage. Scarlet’s Remains essentially became Christ vs Warhol, a band that calls themselves “anarcho-postpunk” at their Facebook page (and whose Dissent LP is one of the best LPs of the past few years.) Together with Fangs on Fur, CvW lead a punk-tinged revival of roots-oriented deathrock in the Los Angeles area, the site of deathrock’s original appearance.

The Pacific Northwest corridor from San Francisco up into Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, however, is where most of this new deathrock activity has taken place: The Spectres, Modern Creatures, Dead Cult, Alaric, Atriarch, Bellicose Minds, Moral Hex, and Vivid Sekt. The East Coast’s Lost Tribe, Anasazi, and Agnostic Pray ensure that the revival is not regional-specific — as does Italy’s Dystopian Society and Horror Vacuii.

The explosion of deathrock among Spanish-speaking and Latin American nations also deserves notice. Spain’s Naughty Zombies’ Hospital was a brief, but bona fide, club hit, combining the riffage of The Scientists’ “Swampland” (or Elvis’ ”Little Sister”) with the sensibility of modern music production. Los Carniceros del Norte, Las Gorgonas, Eyaculacion Post-Mortem, and Mexico’s Acid Bats show to what degree deathrock, like the larger genres of hardcore punk and gothic rock, have become sprawling and vast international enterprises.

Cinema Strange photograph courtesy of GothEric.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Goth Subculture - A Brief History of Deathrock, Part II

Conventional histories of deathrock dry up around 1986. There’s good reason for that. The orthodox approach to the subject is to describe it as a specific moment in Southern California punk. As a style of music, however, deathrock has persisted into the present, with interest and activity waxing and waning as the years have gone by.

The first deathrock revival began in 1998 and petered out around 2004. The second and ongoing deathrock revival began a few years ago. (Of course, bands existed during the dry spells, threading together the peaks and troughs.) Explaining this all requires some backstory. This article series deals with events that occurred on the east side of the Atlantic during deathrock’s heyday, as one branch of the British punk family tree transformed into the European parallel of American deathrock. The third and last installment will cover the evolution of deathrock over the past decade in its revivalist forms, from the late 1990s until now.

Any discussion of deathrock will start with the watershed years of 1976-1977 punk. (Let’s ignore for the moment pre-punk influences on the genre, which will be mentioned later.) On the West side of the pond, the Cramps’ influence loomed large. (“I thought if we were lucky,” Rozz Williams of Christian Death mused, “people would think we were like the Cramps or Alice Cooper. That’s what I was into.”)  On the British side, who mattered was the first UK punk band to release a single, an LP, and to tour America: The Damned.

In 1976, The Damned found in Dave Vanian an especially compelling, if unconventionally eerie, frontman. David Letts chose the last name “Vanian” by abbreviating the word “Transylvanian,” and used the band’s frontman spotlight to showcase his taste for dressing up like the Hammer horror films version of Dracula. Founding member and original Damned guitarist Brian James explained, “Long before there was a recognized gothic look, there were fans turning up at [Damned] shows dressed like Dave – which was brilliant at the time, because it lifted us right out of the typical punk rock band thing. Other groups had the safety pins and the spitting and the bondage trousers, but you went to a Damned show, and half the local cemetery would be propped up against the stage.” In other words, if you wanted to see a member of the undead fronting a punk rock band in 1976, The Damned were for you.

Due to early and continuous touring – including shows with bands as diverse as Minor Threat and Motorhead – The Damned’s influence was felt far and wide. In her recent Violence Girl autobiography, L.A. punk pioneer Alice Bag writes of seeing The Damned in Los Angeles in 1977, months before the Sex Pistols set foot in California: “The lead singer of The Damned, Dave Vanian, was a dark, handsome vampire who mesmerized the audience, though occasionally the spell would break and we’d be drawn into the insane world of the bassist, Captain Sensible, whose wild antics seemed slightly incongruous with those of the brooding Vanian. Somehow, the band managed to balance these two larger-than-life personalities. At the end of the night, Captain Sensible was naked, the audience was throwing change up on the stage and the age of L.A. punk was well underway.”

Indeed, Bag’s L.A. bandmate and friend Patricia Morrison would go on to play bass for The Damned and, incredibly, marry Vanian — after enduring a very public tour of duty in goth rock juggernauts the Sisters of Mercy. Similarly, Bryan James would leave The Damned, join up with Stiv Bators from the Dead Boys and, with Dave Tregunna of Sham 69 in tow, would start the gothic rock powerhouse Lords of the New Church. Relationships like this underscore to what degree seemingly disparate phenomena as the American punk and British gothic postpunk scenes were really not that far removed.

By 1979 a sea change in British punk was underway, and this mirrored developments in the nascent deathrock scene of California. A large segment of British punks had grown tired of 3 chord thrash and were proceeding down gloomier avenues. Siouxsie and the Banshees’ second LP, 1979’s still-underrated Join Hands, premiered songs like “Premature Burial” with a heavy use of flanger by guitarist John McKay; this guitar sound would become a staple sound of dark punk and goth bands across the Atlantic. UK Decay released their first single, a split with Pneumania, in 1979, coining the term “gothic punk” in 1980. Bauhaus also arrived in a big way in 1979: The release of the Bela Lugosi’s Dead single on Small Wonder was a watershed moment whose musical and cultural repercussions can be felt to this day.

Also in 1979, Killing Joke released their first EP, “Turn to Red,” heralding a long and influential career that extends into the present. Joy Division unveiled Unknown Pleasures and set to work on their second and last LP, Closer, which producer Martin Hannett described as “dancing music with Gothic overtones.” 1979 saw the Damned release a video of the Vampira tribute song “Plan 9 Channel 7”  shortly before embarking on a brief UK tour with horror punk pioneers The Misfits (who were, interestingly enough, quickly thrown in jail in England, prompting Misfits singer Glenn Danzig to pen the song “London Dungeon” while incarcerated). In short, UK punk was evolving at light speed. Of this burgeoning, gothier direction in punk music, journalist Dave Thompson wrote, “Dave Vanian provided the look, the Banshees supplied the menace, and Joy Division the angst. Now Bauhaus provided the intellectual discipline, and the spore from which a new culture could be spawned.”

Accessed 5/512  Full article here

Take  a look at at the Fan page for - A photoblog with a collection of 1980s goths, wavers and (post)punk.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Goth Subculture - Deathrock: A Brief History, Part I

As the first wave of punk evolved into hardcore, no wave, postpunk, and a variety of other subgenres, a singular strand of the punk explosion developed in Southern California: deathrock. Consisting of a dark mélange of glam rock imagery, punk-inflected sound and attitude, and shock rock theatrics, deathrock could only be neatly disentangled from the broader regional punk movement long after its arrival. A second deathrock revival is currently underway – and this is no little irony, given how small the original movement actually was.

The strictest and least forgiving definition of deathrock would be that it was a dark postpunk phenomenon that lasted from 1979 until 1985, and was primarily local to Los Angeles. The standard-bearer bands were 45 Grave, Christian Death, the Superheroines, Kommunity FK, and, in their most ghoulish phase, TSOL. These groups featured lineups that showed a tight linkage with other California punk bands of the time. It’s only in retrospect that the original lineup of 45 Grave, for example, makes the band appear to be a kind of punk supergroup, with members from The Germs, Vox Pop, Castration Squad, The Screamers, and The Consumers filling the band’s ranks (45 Grave keyboardist Paul Roessler would also play synths with the Dead Kennedys for a bit.) This was the reality of early punk scenes in general; tightly knit DIY communities often featured bands pulling from a limited pool of musicians simply because the early US punk scene was not very large.

Dinah Cancer, the singer of 45 Grave, put it this way: “The first prowlings of deathrock came in the early ’80s before we were labeled as our other counterparts – the gothic movement. There were no Goths. The Deathrockers were splintered off from the punk/hardcore scene that was going on at the time. We played punk rock but we loved Halloween and we looked like vampires. So the phrase ‘deathrock’ was born. […] At the time when I was performing with 45 Grave, we were just playing music and we didn’t consider ourselves a pioneering movement. We were playing with bands like Christian Death, Black Flag, and TSOL, to name a few. And it wasn’t until later that we were named as part of the pioneers of the Deathrock culture.”

In fact, deathrock constituted a macabre take on punk rock that took inspiration alternately from the Grand Guignol-type theatrics of Alice Cooper (witness 45 Grave’s cover of Cooper’s “School’s Out”,) the early shock rock of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Screaming Lord Sutch, and the imagery of silent film, or b-movie, horror. Most of the movement’s foundational bands had come into existence by 1980, but would release their best material after that, in the years 1981 to 1986. Parallel trends were happening outside the fertile matrix of the Southern California punk scene; developments in Europe (and Japan!) mirrored the development of Californian deathrock. More on this aspect later.

The American desert southwest as a whole was breeding a couple of other noteworthy deathrock groups in the late 1970s and early ’80s: Nevada’s Theatre of Ice could stake a claim to being one of the pioneers of the genre by virtue of their formation in 1978, while in Arizona Mighty Sphincter materialized in 1980 after, guitarist and singer Doug Clark noted, he became obsessed with “forming a band that used aspects of drag mixed with my fascination with monster movies and characters.” In Phoenix, The Consumers began playing snotty, Dead Boys-esque punk in 1977, but after guitarist Paul Cutler left for L.A. much of the Consumers’ catalog would transfer into 45 Grave’s hands. Compare the tracklist of The Consumers’ All My Friends are Dead to that of the 45 Grave’s Autopsy collection to see how many of the former band’s songs were adopted into the 45 Grave setlist.

Rozz Williams, born Roger Alan Painter, deserves special mention as progenitor of what would come to be thought of as the deathrock aesthetic. Lithe, fey, and androgynous in appearance, Williams’ exploits in visual art, poetry, and film deserve their own book. As the founder of Christian Death, however, he made an especially strong impression on the Adolescents’ Rikk Agnew. “We saw about two dozen kids show up to go to a funeral,” Agnew recounted for LA Weekly when asked about the first time he saw Christian Death. “They lined the stage with flowers and stuff and they went up there and they started playing. I thought that was the bitchinest thing I’d ever seen.” Agnew joined Christian Death as guitarist, and, with Rozz at the helm, the band produced 1982’s Only Theatre of Pain, the LP that is to deathrock what the first Ramones LP is to punk generally. In addition to the experimental projects Heltir and Premature Ejaculation, Rozz Williams would go on to form and front the deathrock bands Shadow Project (with Eva O. of the Superheroines) and Daucus Karota – both abrasive, guitar-driven outings that recalled the punk roots of the early LA deathrock scene.

The zenith years of deathrock’s classic era were 1982-1984. Within that short period of time most of the seminal musical documents were produced: Christian Death not only released the aforementioned Only Theatre of Pain in 1982, but also delivered the highly-regarded sophomore Catastrophe Ballet LP of 1984 (albeit with a drastically different lineup.) 45 Grave released Sleep in Safety in 1983, the sole studio LP from the original lineup (1987’s Autopsy was a compilation of material from various years.) TSOL’s Beneath the Shadows came out in 1982 (although their 1981 Dance with Me is an equally excellent marriage of Southern California hardcore punk with horror motifs;) their self-titled Voodoo Church EP was also released in 1982. 1983 saw the appearance of the Superheroines’ Souls that Save. Kommunity FK’s Vision and Voice LP also found an eager audience in 1983. A coincidental sampler of early deathrock can be found on the Hell Comes to Your House compilation, released in the early 1980s and intended as a sampler of L.A. punk bands. It speaks again to the admixture of deathrock and punk that bands like Social Distortion, Red Kross, 100 Flowers, Christian Death, the Superheroines, and 45 Grave all appear together on a collection intended to represent L.A. punk as a whole.

Existing in the same Los Angeles milieu with the above deathrock bands proper — and, in fine California punk tradition, also often swapping members with them — were bands like the Gun Club, the Flesh Eaters, and Tex and the Horseheads. These groups would incorporate a noir element into their sound. With the Flesh Eaters, this would reach some sort of climax with 1981’s A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die LP, which incorporated brassy ’50s sax (by way of a member of Los Lobos!) as well as elements of vintage, horror novelty rock (“Satan Stomp”.) Gun Club and Tex and the Horseheads, in the meantime, introduced elements of whiskey-soaked, dark country Americana into the mix, injecting the spirit of Johnny Cash into punk (and, by extension, gothic rock) in the clearest terms possible.

As mentioned before, the narrowest sense of “deathrock” refers to a specific style of music made in Southern California in the early 1980s. In its most expansive sense, however, “deathrock”  has also become a descriptive label for a style of music generally, much like what became of the terms “punk” or “hardcore” (or, for that matter, jazz or the blues.) It’s in this broader sense of the term that East Coast bands like The Cramps (NYC,) The Misfits (New Jersey,) Beast (ex-Cramps,) Mourning Noise (New Jersey, again,) and Monica Richards’ Madhouse (Washington, DC) enter into the equation.

Turning to this, it was almost exactly in parallel with the West Coast deathrock movement that a b-movie horror take on punk was developing around the New York City punk scene. Almost single-handedly, The Cramps are responsible for this. Immersed in monster movie pulp culture, underground pinup and bondage magazines from the 1950s, southern fried rockabilly, and obscure 1960s garage rock, The Cramps mined the seediest recesses of the American cultural psyche for inspiration, and produced over 30 years of remarkable rock and roll as a result. Incredibly, the band never played a single show with another East Coast punk band that shared a similar predilection for horror camp and 50s rockabilly – The Misfits. Although Lodi, New Jersey’s Misfits managed to crank out a release before The Cramps ever did (1977’s “Cough Cool”,) The Cramps would coin the term “psychobilly” and can count as one of the first-wave American punk bands alongside the Ramones and Television. The influence of The Cramps is hard to overestimate on the American punk underground – or on alternative rock in general; even Dischord Records has admitted that were it not for The Cramps, bands like Minor Threat, Fugazi, and possibly their own label might not exist.

Together, the one-two punch of The Cramps and The Misfits would leave an indelible mark on most dark, alternative forms of rock. Music culture is so awash in their influence, it’s hard to remember a time when singing about vampires, mutants, and girls who looked like Vampira was not the normal way of things. (Indeed, this style of horror punk devolved into sad self-parody a long time ago, an unfortunate phenomenon – along with cynical “reunion” tours by “The Misfits” – that has hindered the proper appreciation of both bands’ legacy.)
The touring and eventual intersection between the horror punk bands of the East Coast and the deathrock bands of the West Coast would help culturally seed the American landscape for a broader phenomenon of darker “alt music” in general. Although the Misfits shared a brief British tour with The Damned in 1979 (and more on The Damned later,) Christian Death’s European outing in 1983 didn’t so much spread deathrock overseas, as it showed that punk was also turning a darker, gloomier shade of black on the east side of the Atlantic as well, following a cultural logic of its own. In part, this was ushered along by the development of gloomy and introspective postpunk on the one hand (Joy Division, Bauhaus,) and the so-called “positive punk” of bands like Sex Gang Children and Blood and Roses on the other.

In Part II: British dark punk, postpunk, the Batcave scene, and the first deathrock revival of 1998-2004.
Castration Squad photograph courtesy of Alice Bag. Christian Death jacket photo courtesy of  traaf. Published under a Creative Commons license.