Or How I Learned to Quit Worrying and Hate Everything.
No self-respecting Goth actually refers to themselves as such.
Or if they do, it’s never without a note of derision. That’s the very first trick you learn after donning eyeliner and chucking out anything in your closet that dares even hint of color. You use hyphenations like Post-Punk. Death-rock. Whatever.
While the je-ne-sais-qoui of the essence of Goth is ultimately about managing despair and hopelessness through a thin veneer of ironic detachment — One part desperation mixed with two parts nihilism and a dash of ennui, it’s ultimately just as important to look sharp while doing so. Prove me wrong — I’ll pull out the thirty-year-old Bauhaus tee from the dusty recesses of my archived wardrobe and eat it.
. . .
Here’s a basic primer: While the term was coined through a critical description of Jim Morrison and his Doors of Perception, it’s really the Velvet Underground with Nico in the late ’60s who laid the foundation that Joy Division (later reiterating as New Order) resurrected a decade and some change later. Killing Joke and Southern Death Cult worked to firm up a de-facto musical vocabulary for the form, but it takes Bauhaus releasing “Bela Lugosi is Dead” in ’79 to cement the sound that ultimately birthed thousands upon thousands of candidates for anti-depressant prescriptions all along the scarred surface of a doomed planet. Sisters of Mercy picks it up from there — but arguably all of this reached a nadir with Siouxie and the Banshees‘ “Juju” in ’81 alongside sad Robert’s ascension with The Cure from “Seventeen Seconds” and “Faith/Carnage Visors” to create what I consider to be the masterpiece of the genre upon the release of “Pornography” in ’82.
All mopey rock that follows this is in some way or shape influenced by one of these bands. Of course, it’s a hallmark of Goth that no one thus mentioned wants anything to do with the classification. Ian Astbury almost immediately denied any association with the notion. The Sisters disavowed the word entirely. Siouxie Sioux complained about fans glomming onto that one particular style out of dozens of looks as the keystone that defined her career. Robert Smith became so desperate to escape the category that he started writing songs that are now played in outpatient waiting rooms, ice cream parlours, and elevators. If the grand-children we’re discussing here and now have any common threads, it’s that they seem to have way more fun than we did at these shows. Plus a reluctance to allow themselves to be tagged at all with the 800 pound G-word — obscenely perched smack dab in the middle of Charlie’s newly wrought concert hall.
. . .
Raise a hand if anyone here can tell me what a Goth band actually sounds like. Of course, you know the look – certainly because music commentators have mocked the subculture almost from inception. The entire scene was obsessed with fashion well before the default library of minor scales developed. You know what I’m talking about. Teenagers sporting straight black. Sad, bored kids. Reacting to an inescapable sense that everything around them is fucked while no longer being able to muster the anger of their forebears about it. The fact that those kids are now in their forties and fifties — an age where hopelessness is probably much more clearly experienced and defined, does little to change the general sense of who listens to this music. When I was a kid in the late ’80s you picked out a nightshade ensemble of t-shirt & jeans with a chain or two and some eyeliner. It eventually morphed into all sorts of distressed nineteenth century attire before finally settling down to something somewhere in between.
If I’m honest about it, this music that I love largely devolved into a bad, cliched joke. Mall chain stores devoted to harvesting good will from my wallet. Like Punk before, it descended into fashion statements and bad poetry. Which is a shame, really. If nothing else Goth was a torchbearer for Bowie’s gender fluidity and non-hetero sexuality that paved much of the way for the inclusiveness of today. I’d argue that this culture has contributed more than any other to what small de-stigmatization has been managed for trans-persons so far. After all, it’s hard to judge anyone else when you’re walkin’ around dressed like some giant, droopy bat. You know what I mean?
The work itself? Let’s be real. The last decent Goth song was written in the early 90s. And while I maintain a curated cloud of my favorites from yesteryears? I’d long given up any hope of hearing anything fresh step out from it’s grave.
Queue my shock in the here and now.
Stepping into Charlie’s for this past Saturday night’s event felt a little like some sort of sonic timewarp. I settled in early, drink in hand, and girded myself to apply a critical eye on the bands prepping to play. After all, I reasoned, this isn’t really the kind of music I can be objective about. Other stuff? Sure. But this sound holds a special place in the chunk of coal I call a heart. How good could these guys really be? Bunch of kids fucking ’round with a style they can’t possibly understand? I’m sure they mean well.. I generally refuse to savage baby bands.. It just seems mean. And Goth is over. Right? So what would be the point of a bad review?
That would have been a fine approach. A kind approach. Except for one minor detail. The show was amazing. And Goth in these younger hands appears to be alive and kicking.
I mean.. It’s hard to describe. I don’t really know. I can only tell you what people compare us with. We get Sonic Youth. A bit of surf. Something that’s experimental. One guy said we sound like Mozart. We got that once. I thought that was really interesting. I was like.. Really? Well.. Okay then. Sure. Why not?” — Michael Harl. Manzara.
This show was so fucking good — opening up with a pair of Richmond-based groups. Listening to Manzara and their four song EP, I’m given the impression that their guitarist (who’s not much younger than I am — that’s refreshing all on it’s own) is in some denial as to whether this is Goth Rock. He reeled a whole long list of influences, none of them at all in the vein of the bands I’ve aforementioned here. The first track in is a glorious paean to everything I love about the genre. Opening with some sort of bomb siren or whatever, the drums kick in as fiercely as anything Kevin Haskins ever put together. The guitar tone and vocals definitely hearken back to an era I thought lost. I’d say his description is off, but as I dig deeper in I hear hints of what he’s talking about. And their live show reveals a much more variable set of influences than what I’m hearing on the recorded EP work — which is two years old now, so maybe they’ve just evolved from that output. Whatever you want to call it, Manzara rocks.
I’ve seen the second act, Unmaker, once before. They’re a much grittier beast than Manzara, with lyrics that focus less on the absurdity that comes with despair. With a sound that harnesses the earlier, harder edge of nineteen-eighties second wave, lead vocalist Aaron Mitchell exorcises his demons frenetically, wringing bleakness from his body with every possible second of the show. Add to this a powerhouse rhythm section that takes no prisoners? I’ll make it a point to see any show they play. Both these bands have new albums coming very soon, and you should buy them as soon as possible.
Life has a way of forcing you to seek out ventilation.. Sometimes it just works that way.” — Aaron Mitchell. Unmaker.
Just when I felt like I’ve heard everything and that there was nothing new under the sun? Destroying Angel from out of Philadelphia steps in with.. I’m still not sure how to describe it? Ossuary Pop? Prog Goth? Dark Cabaret? I don’t even know. Like.. Imagine.. Okay. This is not doing it justice. But imagine if Bauhaus joined in with Pink Floyd and then odd it all up with the occasional Polka backbeat or a guest session from Ennio Morricone? But you know.. Fucking.. Good. With an album titled “Sentiment and Grace” tentatively slated for Fall release under Seattle-based label, Not Just Religious Music, if you’re looking for something different? This band is epic.
I write about.. Some of it’s very personal. Some of it is a spiritual stream of consciousness. We’ve been around individually for awhile. I’m forty. Our keyboardist, David, has been playing since ’87. Everybody here is from something different. Punk. Psychedelic. Avant Garde. Experimental music.” — Tony Cesa. Destroying Angel.
Of the four bands we’re talking about here, True Body is by far the youngest. Oddly, they probably hew closer to the original ethos first set forth by Joy Division and Bauhaus than the others. Lead singer Isaac Moreno channels the charisma that initially kicked off the whole dark journey of this music. Drummer Sam Ramos is tighter than he has any business being at this stage in the game. The bands’s just over a year old. And yet these songs are as good as anything that’s come before in the catalog of the genre. I’d suspect contracts with dark forces herein, but let’s be real. I don’t believe in a sentient universe. That’s one of the things that got me into Goth in first damned place. Regardless of the source, these guys are probably the best newish band in Hampton Roads. And you it owe it to yourself to catch them.
Bands like New Order made me feel like nothing else I’d ever heard. I think.. I mean.. Not to be pretentious. But I think people are just feeling fucking confused. Trust in institutions has obviously completely dissolved. I think there’s so much less for people to hold onto today and feel secure. And this music that’s built around feeling scared and by yourself? It pulls you in and puts you in a room with people who feel the same way. And there’s a camaraderie there.” — Isaac Moreno. True Body.
. . .
None of this really explains where Goth came out of… Just how it got to where it is now. Sure, it’s music for people who are sad. — but so are the Blues, and obviously the two genres sound nothing alike. Ultimately, it comes down to the texture of the sorrow each are channeling.
We make the mistake of assuming that the Blues are about the pain of relationships gone bad, but when you explore it further you realize that the lost love it describes is bourne out of the poverty of it’s adherents. When you can’t get no job? You ain’t got no love. And at the end of the day, the Delta musicians couldn’t get no job because they lived inside a racist system. When you’re being brutally repressed economically and socially? Love is hard to sustain. And if the Blues are about pain with an easily identifiable culprit? Goth, by and large a product of a privileged class, is what comes along when you’ve been given everything you need to succeed and then realize that it’s all a goddamned lie. That life itself is designed to fail. No matter what you do. No matter what you’ve been given, or how much more of it you have than anyone else.
Why this music is surging now doesn’t exactly require a degree in higher math to figure out. Everything feels like it’s dying and we don’t know what the hell to do about it.
Goth is sorrow at decay.
And there’s not many of us with half an ounce of sense in our heads who haven’t noticed that entropy seems to be winning of late.
Take that what you will. While wearing your raiment hued of void. Sipping your black as your heart expresso in a cafe that means nothing. Ruminating about someone who obviously doesn’t love you because how can anyone love anyone else in this universe that is eternally falling apart?
Each and everyone of us will die alone. We’re all fucked. The end.
. . .
Facing all that?
Might as well dance a bit before we get to it.
All Photography by Jeff Hewitt