by Oliver Sheppard
Blue Cross began as a side-poject of Ottawa, Ontario’s Germ Attak. While Germ Attak played loud, brash, hard-drinking punk rock and roll, Blue Cross employ a darker approach: Their sound is pure, modern goth-punk. The dark and echoey female vocals lend the songs on their 2011 Mass Hysteria LP to inevitable comparisons with early Siouxsie and the Banshees and Xmal Deutschland, two obvious sonic points of reference. The influence of old LA deathrock like Voodoo Church, or deathrock-tinged California punk like Red Scare, is also there. Perhaps owing to Blue Cross’s pedigree in DIY punk, the songs retain an overall powerful punch missing from postpunk bands that are often all too happy to forget about the punk roots of their sound. Even a track like “End up Alone,” which employs Bauhaus-style atmospherics, remains an invigorating stomper of a song.
The eight tracks on Mass Hysteria careen between mournful, Superheroines-style deathrock (“Bring Out Your Dead”), to Wire-like noisy experimental rock (“Calling Combatants”), to tribal drumming-backed positive punk rockers, as in the “Mass Hysteria” title track. As with most new punk bands exploring this eerie, retro-deathrock territory, there is the undeniable — but welcome — influence of anarcho bands like Lost Cherrees and Rubella Ballet in the mix. The production and songwriting on Mass Hysteria is top-notch, however. The tracks do not blur together into one indistinguishable, goopy gothic lump. Every song feels like its own, self-contained musical journey. Mass Hysteria is one of the key LPs of punk’s new deathrock fascination, and it stands out head-and-shoulder above the pack. (If you want a quick-and-dirty guide to this “new deathrock,” see my “Deathrock 2012” mixtape here on CVLT Nation, which features 27 tracks of new gothic punk music made from 2008 to the present.)
A few more words about the stylistic turn that a portion of the punk scene has recently taken, a turn of sound of which Mass Hysteria is one of the single finest recent examples. I’ve been interested in this style of punk — and I do call it a style of punk — since I first got into punk rock as a teenager, when the first punk bands I heard were bands like The Damned, the Misfits, 45 Grave, The Cramps, and Scream-era Siouxsie and the Banshees. I thought at the time that those bands were simply what punk was — people in black leather and black lipstick playing energetic, if intriguingly morbid, rock and roll. As my musical universe expanded I realized punk was an almost impossibly complicated and schizophrenic phenomenon of different styles (the spartan, shaved headed no-nonsense hardcore of Minor Threat versus the sludgy and dreadlocked crust of a band like Deviated Instinct, for example). And voraciously reading books on punk history helped round out my understanding of the entire, sprawling punk corpus — a process also aided by trading mixtapes with friends and penpals via snail mail. Unfortunately, I was not one of those kids that had an older brother or sister that could grandfather me into the culture on their coattails.
The “goth” side of punk has always been there to some degree, but it felt like the culture left this side of it behind to die by the mid-1990s. And by that point, it deserved it. Punk culture as a whole, aided by the unwanted attention that Nirvana and grunge brought down upon everything in the early 90s, splintered into a million different styles, a process well underway before punk “broke” in 1991. Some of these punk-derived styles ultimately became completely unmoored from punk. Goth was one of those styles. Today there are goth and “postpunk revival” scenes that seem to consider their punk rock origins an embarrassment, something to be glossed over or cheerfully ignored. Too brutish and unsophisticated, not amenable to regal Victorian cosplay, or something. Punk has always been music made for and by the serfs, not for crestfallen would-be aristocratic overlords.
That bands like Blue Cross, Dekoder, Deathcharge, The Spectres, Dead Cult, and The Estranged are reclaiming this aspect of the punk canon for, well, punk proper, is a joyous thing for me. I’m glad. The music is great. And is it merely “a trend”? Well, of course it is a trend, but there is no “merely.” Everything in punk culture is “a trend”: d-beat bands, peace punk, black metal-influenced hardcore bands, the fascination with kang-style Scandinavian hardcore, ’82 hardcore revivalists, garage punk revivalist bands, youth crew groups…. It’s all “a trend” to some group, somewhere, and always will be. In fact, the best musical developments within the overall punk culture happened because those developments were exactly a trend — bands were inspired by a certain sound and decided to see if they could do it one better, add something new to the mix.
Blue Cross’s Mass Hysteria is the kind of LP I wish had been made more by bands all along. Better late than never! Or, maybe it’s just in time. Whatever the case, the LP has been out now for over half a year, and regardless of the broader cultural context, it’s just damn good music.
You can buy Blue Cross’s Mass Hysteria, which is on the French Shogun Records label, here.