Defining Deathrock: Deeper Cuts Part 1
Deathrock has become a buzzword – I doubt this is news to anyone with an internet connection. Go on Bandcamp’s “deathrock” tag and you’ll see a strange assortment of Sisters Of Mercy wannabes, horrendous goth metal, industrial/dance goth, and even bad college town twee bands who also tag themselves as “noise rock.” I think the latter really solidifies what I’m saying, because those bands only tend to pop up in a tag when genres become buzzwords. But – as much fun as it is to make fun of bands I don’t like – that’s not the focus of this series. I’m here to set the record straight. Well, as straight as I can.
Our problem is that there is some ambiguity about what is classified as “deathrock.” It was first used in the late 1950s/early 1960s to describe campy novelty bands – but you can read about that somewhere else, because that has nothing to do with what I’m talking about here. The deathrock label, as it has been used since the late 1970s, gets slapped onto anything from cybergoth to vaguely dark post-punk and everything in between. It’s comparable to the way people call any fast hardcore punk “powerviolence” or anything lo-fi “black metal.” Obviously, these are misappropriations of the terms, probably due to most people not knowing what the fuck they’re talking about (which is baffling in the internet age when you can learn about most of this stuff pretty easily). Bottom line: deathrock and goth are not synonymous; all deathrock is goth, but not all goth is deathrock. Are we on the same page? Cool.
So what is deathrock, then? Actually, it’s pretty simple. Deathrock is goth punk, with emphasis being on the punk. What sets Christian Death and The Cure apart? The former has an aggressive punk edge, while the latter is more melancholy; Christian Death’s music is still somber, but it has that added ferocity to it which sets it apart from your average post-punk based goth. Is making this distinction splitting hairs? Not necessarily. If you want something that sounds like Rudimentary Peni or T.S.O.L., you’re not going to want to have somebody tell you about Xmal Deutschland or The Chameleons – not because they’re bad bands, but because they don’t have that feeling of urgency you would have been looking for. Instead, you’d want to hear bands like Mighty Sphincter or Part 1. Or, just maybe, you’d be interested in hearing some of the lesser known gems of the genre. Which brings me to the first round of deeper cuts.
Hailing from Torino, Italy and rising from the ashes of hardcore punk band Blue Vomit, Nerorgasmo are often more associated with 80s Italian hardcore than with deathrock. However, just listen to how sinister their music is. There’s an undeniable Rudimentary Peni and Christian Death influence apparent on their 1985 eponymous 7”; not to mention the opening sample of haunted house sound effects, and the picture of the band in a cemetery on the cover. Don’t even get me started on the venomous vocals (pardon the accidental alliteration). This band demonstrates the perfect balance of macabre and bellicose. But if you really want goth with hardcore leanings, you’re going to love…
This band is too goth for punks, and too punk for goths. The Scam were from New Hampshire, USA, and it seems were largely overlooked until the rise of blogspot – which I feel is true for most of these bands. If I was to describe this band to someone, I’d say it sounds like a weird point in between Necros (Conquest For Death era) and Christian Death (Only Theatre Of Pain era, obviously). Now, if the thought of that doesn’t make you start salivating, I think you might be in the wrong place. Needless to say, The Scam’s 1986 7” Everything Ends In Rot is an underrated classic. Now, let’s move on to a deathrock band who are actually heavy. For your listening (dis)pleasure…
So, I’ve been talking about how deathrock needs aggression, but Deformed really went for the throat. You know Amebix? Of course you do. Well, take what they were doing on their pre-Arise! material, and expand on the goth influence. That’s Deformed. Their early material was much more in the vein of snotty anarcho-punk like The Sinyx and The Epileptics, but something happened (largely due to lineup changes) and they embraced the darkness, churning out some truly evil deathrock that borders on nasty, heavy stenchcore. Despite Deformed’s goth leanings, they were primarily a part of the UK anarcho scene, much like their contemporaries Part 1, Arch Criminals and Vex. There was another band who followed a similar path of creating that goth/anarcho-punk hybrid, but didn’t really come into their own until a few years later; they were known as…
I hate making the obvious comparison to Siouxsie And The Banshees’ The Scream or Rubella Ballet’s Ballet Bag, but those feel like good starting points. So, take what those bands were doing on those releases, and throw it into a bubbling cauldron with Part 1, 1919, and some early Amebix (although not as much as you heard with Deformed). Get ready to swoon, because if you’re anything like me, a potion that potent will make you fall in love at first sight. The Smartpils’ LP wasn’t released until 1987 – for some reason people tend to stop paying attention to 80s punk after 1984 – but it still is a notable album due to its ability to synthesize what had come before, and reinvent it in a truly haunting way. But if you really want to get spooky then I advise sticking with me for just one more band…
Often dubbed “the Japanese Christian Death,” Phaidia are probably the most well known of the crop of 80s Japanese deathrock bands. Despite that label, I wouldn’t really compare them to Christian Death outside of the mournful howling and crooning vocals. They really sound much more like a mix of some of their contemporaries like Kikeiji [奇形児] and Shojoningyo [少女人形], but with a blatant focus on the macabre – although, Shojoningyo did have very dark, deathrock-ish atmospheres and ended up putting out a totally gothed-out 7” in the same year as their first flexi – but back to Phaidia. This band really puts the punk into this, there’s an undeniable bounce to a lot of their material (see: Kikeiji’s influence), which is something not necessarily associated with deathrock. Don’t worry, though, there’s enough evil to balance it all out, resulting in high energy, yet still truly lurid deathrock.
Well, have your greedy, gluttonous appetites been whetted? Have your slimy, fetid maws begun to drool? Are you craving more ghastly, macabre and feculant sounds to pollute your senses and urge you to embrace your inescapable demise? Well, if so, you’re in luck. Originally, this series was intended to be one article, featuring 20 bands. However, I know that nobody wants to read a dissertation on deathrock, nor do I have much desire to write one. So, instead, you’re just going to have to keep your eyes open – I recommend staples or some form of stitching; slip the skin on your eyelids back. But, it’s time I slink back into the shadowy depths from whence I came…so until next time, amuse yourselves with this, my first bequest.