The deathrock revival that gripped the underground/DIY punk scene for the past 8 years or so seems to be waning. To some that’s good news; now a new trend can replace it that punk purists can gripe and complain about equally as much for not being raw d-beat/thrash. On the other hand, a lot of good music relevant to deathrock is still being made, and the past year did see its fair share of good releases even if they didn’t come as thick and fast as they did in the period from 2011 – 2014, when CVLT Nation’s deathrock year-end list often couldn’t be confined to a top 6 or top 10. A lot of good new music has been made in the deathrock, dark postpunk, dark punk, and gothic rock scenes in the past few years, and 2016 was no exception.
Category overlap is a problem with some of the bands below, especially if one is deadset on the overly pedantic definition of deathrock as an LA-centric type of dark punk rock from the 80s. (“Deathrock” is a permanent genre tag now, and a continuing type of music like “noise rock” or “ska” or “doom metal” or even “punk” itself.) The lines between dark music genres can become awfully blurry. Bands like Arctic Flowers (who I decided to include below) aren’t so much raw deathrock as a hybrid of postpunk, deathrock and peace punk, something the band admits themselves — and their “Remix” EP was one of the more fun, gothy releases of the past year.
The list below isn’t exhaustive. And, as always, if you disagree … make your own list. IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER, this was the best 2016 had to offer:
Atlanta’s Maudlin came through this past year with a perfect blend of deathrock, punk, and postpunk that seems like it could have been lifted out of the early 80s era of Lost Cherrees and Legal Weapon, a gritty deathrock delivery filtered through an underground punk sensibility. They played some memorable shows, especially their performance in San Antonio in August at the San La Muerte III dark punk, deathrock, and postpunk fest, where I had the pleasure of catching them. Hopefully this band will continue; I look forward to hearing more from them in 2017!
9) THE WRAITH – Comatic Romance demo
The Wraith features members of Lost Tribe and Cinema Strange and their demo is one of the more notable entries in the deathrock/dark punk canon of 2016. So far the Los Angeles band have the “Comatic Romance” demo out (self-released) and recently toured the West Coast with Chicago deathrock band Cemetery. Davey Bales, formerly of Richmond punk and postpunk bands Lost Tribe and Shadow Age, performs vocal duties for the band, and he’s also recently released a chapbook of poetry, “Dead Flowers,” currently hosted online at Future Blondes’ Fantasy 1 Records website with a hard copy version available, too.
Fans of the late and much-missed Lost Tribe (RIP) won’t be disappointed here. Bales’ distinctive vocals have always at once recalled the burliness of Samhain-era Glenn Danzig as well as old UK studs-and-bristles punk, but with a darker edge, and comparisons to old dark UK postpunk like Vex and Killing Joke are in order. The Wraith’s demo shows Bales’ vocals continuing in the Lost Tribe tradition, with Colin Ambulance (of Cinema Strange) providing some flanged out guitar.
8) RADIO SCARLET – 2016 demo
Who in the deathrock community knew that we’d be talking about Radio Scarlet in 2016? Well, we are. Sometimes dismissed as a “Spirit of 2004/5” band — meaning, they’re alleged to be of the comic book sort of deathrock bands that preceded the DIY punk scene’s reclaiming of the genre in the late 2000s (before 2010). But the new demo is a solid return to form for the band and a noteworthy entry in the overall deathrock canon. The Denver quartet asks, on their Facebook page, “Are [we] goth or are [we] Punk? Neither really, Radio Scarlet sits somewhere awkwardly between the two genres.” And that’s pretty much what deathrock is — the intersection of punk and goth, alternately attracting and alienating listeners from both camps, or, at best, reminding folks of a time when the two camps weren’t so different. Surprisingly, the well regarded Radio Scarlet only has one LP to their credit, 2004’s The SS Loveride II, along with a few appearances on Strobelight Records dark postpunk compilations.
Hopefully the band’s new demo signals more material for 2017.
7) RITUAL ORDER – s/t demo
Texas has been a kind of sleeper state for interesting new postpunk, gothic rock, and deathrock. Places like the Pacific Northwest and New York get all the attention, but within the past several years the Lone Star state has produced some of the better dark punk acts: Annex from the Rio Grande Valley, Gast from Houston, Guilty Strangers from San Antonio, and Institute from Austin. From the Dallas area there’s been a particularly strong upsurge in dark post/punk bands: Slimy Member, Aztec Death, Garden of Mary, Ossuary Severe, and the band that produced one of the better showings of 2016, Ritual Order.
Ritual Order are a newer North Texas band that combines elements of deathrock, gothic rock, older dark purist punk (think Chron Gen or latter era The Dark), and postpunk in a galvanizing, guitar-driven, gloomy maelstrom of glorious, shadowy noise. Their roots-y deathrock sound recalls Iron Mask-era Christian Death and Rozz’s other more rootsy deathrock project, Daucus Karota, but they also remind of more recent offerings by bands like Portland’s Deathcharge: Ritual Order singer Waymire coincidentally sounds a bit like like Deathcharge‘s Adam Nauseam.
6) KILLED BY DEATHROCK, VOL. 2 compilation
Sacred Bones’ first Killed By Deathrock anthology (reviewed and discussed at CVLT Nation here) was named after the infamous series of obscure hardcore/punk anthologies, Killed By Death. That first volume, and this new volume 2 purport to collect, Nuggets-style, some of the less well-known dark postpunk, gothic rock, and deathrock bands from the 1980s. Although the internet and mp3 filesharing have dramatically changed what’s thought of as “obscure,” it’s fair to say that in the big scheme of things, the bands that Sacred Bones collected on the first volume were indeed gathered from the more obscure recesses of deathrock’s history.
As always, Alexander Heir’s artwork is flawless and a great adornment to this collection. While some of the tracks beggar the question as to whether they’re all that obscure — take the Skeletal Family showing, for example — there is of course not a bad track on here, and some of the showings, like the Middle Class track from their later postpunk period, deserve to be heard by a wider audience. Caleb Braaten has done, as usual, an excellent job of curating and selecting these tracks. Whether Red Zebra or some of the other bands are strictly “deathrock” is besides the point; these are bands whose sonic repercussions have been felt in the deathrock scene for decades now, and whose influences resonate in later revivals, or who are worthy of rediscovery. Completists should grab this compilation before it goes out of print.
Savage Blind God’s “Skinny Lizard” cassette is one of the best releases of 2016. I’m including them in this “deathrock” list with a caveat: This is music more in the dark, twisted schizo-punk style of Rudimentary Peni, Part 1, and Ciril than, say, the gloomy goth of an act like Sisters of Mercy or Terminal Gods. This is punk, but it’s deranged and haunting, noisy punk of the sort you’d imagine the inmates of Arkham Asylum making once they started a garage band. Savage Blind God remind at turns of Chicago’s belated Daily Void and “Archaic”-era Rudimentary Peni. The Rhode Island group utilizes shattered guitars and clattering percussion; these construct a cacophonous maelstrom through which the singer’s evil, seething vocals arise. The “Skinny Lizard” cassette came out on Funeral Party Records, which also released the debut cassette from Dallas gothic rockers Garden of Mary this past year.
4) ALTAR DE FEY – Echoes in the Corridor LP
The SF Bay Area had some showings among the deathrock crowd in the 1980s, and this is where Altar de Fey come in. Indeed, a friend of mine has remarked that Altar de Fey’s new Echoes in the Corridor LP may be the only truly deathrock album to come out in 2016. Altar de Fey have roots in the oft-neglected historical deathrock and goth-punk scene of the San Francisco/Bay Area, and a great compilation of their mid-1980s pieces exists – Original Sin: An Anthology of the Early Years. This new LP, however, is a mix of new and re-worked older material.
About their 80s California deathrock past, Altar De Fey drummer Aleph Kali – who has also served as drummer in Chrome, among others – recently told me, “Our San Francisco contemporaries at the time [1984/1985] were groups like Our Lady of Pain, Fade to Black, Thrill of the Pull, Wages of Sin, Beast, Nothing Sacred, and eventually even Specimen and Rozz Williams relocated here.” The Church of Satan, The Nuns, and the relocation of NON and Boyd Rice to San Francisco also colored the strange Bay Area milieu of the time. LA deathrock band Radio Werewolf also became closely involved with San Francisco’s Church of Satan (indeed, Texas hardcore punk bands like MDC and DRI, among others, also relocated to the Bay Area in this same time period). Altar de Fey initially broke up around 1986. The Echoes in the Corridor LP was released by the consistently-good California label Mass Media Records this past year, the label whose motto is “Deathrock is Dead.” According to drummer Aleph, the songs on the LP are ““a mix of newly recorded songs from 30 years ago, written by the original group (namely, ‘Demons,’ ‘Death to my Enemies,’ ‘Veil of Death,’ ‘My Bone,’ ‘Right to the Point’), and the newer ones (‘Snitch,’ ‘1975,’ and ‘Wraith’) which have been written by the current line up,” which includes Skot Brown of the Phantom Limbs and Black Ice.
3) ARCTIC FLOWERS – Remix EP (tie with Arctic Flowers/Infinite Void split EP)
The Arctic Flowers “Remix” EP is a fun release that includes some earlier AF songs and a host of remixes of “Technicolor Haze,” one of their best tracks. The digital download of the 12″ album supplies an extra five remix tracks that could not fit onto the vinyl (a vinyl purchase comes with a code to download the extra five songs). Singer Alex’s vocals have always reminded me of Pauline Murray’s (of Penetration); in fact, Penetration, along with Rubella Ballet and the Poison Girls, are not a bad point of reference for describing Arctic Flowers’ sound – mostly mid-tempo, but still hard-edged melodic-but-not-necessarily-pretty, dark punk tunes with a lot of crossover appeal into the goth and postpunk crowds. “Our sound is a mix of punk, deathrock, post punk, and goth,” guitarist Stan Wright once told me in a previous interview for CVLT Nation. “Aggressive but at times danceable and melodic.” EMphasis on the danceable with many of the remixes on this EP.
This release was reviewed back in February, 2016, on CVLT Nation here.
2) ALARIC – End of Mirrors LP
Alaric’s pedigree is pretty impressive: With members of Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine, Cross Stitched Eyes (who will be touring in the Spring of 2017), Dead and Gone, and Noothgrush, the band’s punk background is as solid as any. Alaric have routinely cited deathrock bands like Part 1 and Rudimentary Peni as primary influences, and have recently played shows with Fangs on Fur and others in the deathrock scene, especially earlier in their career. In early 2012 I interviewed them for my old No Doves Fly Here dj night in Austin, Texas. When I asked Alaric if they considered themselves a deathrock band, per se, Rick Jacobus (who was also in The Enemies with members of Neurosis) responded: “Everything dark is a consideration to us. I describe it as dark, textured, constantly evolving, yet always casting shadows. Inner torment and a glimpse of beauty.”
The 2016 End of Mirrors LP was released on Neurosis’ Neurot Recordings label. It was mixed by Skot Brown of Altar De Fey, Phantom Limbs, and Black Ice, adding to the deathrock relevance. Their webpage says, “Beginning with influences from such progenitors as Killing Joke and Christian Death to the darkest, heaviest punk bands and the most epic psychedelia, the band has dedicated itself to creating a shadowy electric guitar driven music that is truly their own.” End of Mirrors is just that — an epic odyssey through a dark and bewitching musical landscape of constantly shifting moods. Alaric’s music is apocalyptic — the influences of punk, dark punk, deathrock, and postpunk, with just a hint of crust, are all in the mix.
1) BELGRADO – Obraz LP
I had the pleasure of seeing (and drinking!) with Belgrado in San Antonio last August in Texas at Robert Sullen’s San la Muerte III fest. That gathering of bands like Maudlin, Rakta, Moth, Masses, and Belgrado was a great opportunity to see a lot of the bands in this list live. Begrado’s 2016 Obraz LP was a more minimal — but, for all that, an even more effective — LP. As CWL wrote in August at CVLT Nation in the review for the LP, “Belgrado just appears to be shoring up their graceful minimalism for less assault and more meditation. Obraz proves there’s more to Belgrado than the bonds of punk.”
Belgrado are one of Spain’s best — a band that straddles the demarcations between punk, postpunk, and gothic rock gracefully, and who have been enormously influential since their first, anarcho-tinged, self-titled LP in 2011. They’re one of the flagship bands of the underground DIY punk scene’s unearthing of the influences of the postpunk and deathrock influences of the past, and this past year’s Obraz was no disappointment.
BUT WAIT – HERE ARE SOME BONUS PICKS!
These are releases worth pointing out for fans of deathrock, even if they didn’t fit into above’s Top 10:
11) GRAVE PLEASURES – Funeral Party 7″
Formerly known as Beastmilk, Grave Pleasures made a strong showing with this gothic punk release:
12) NEW MODEL ARMY – Winter LP
New Model Army will probably never release anything as good as their foundational Vengeance LP, but they deserve credit as a “legacy” postpunk band, like Wire or Killing Joke, that just keep slogging ahead and making good albums. Wire’s “Nocturnal Koreans” LP deserves to be in any postpunk fan’s year-end “best of” list, and Killing Joke’s 2015 “Pylon” LP was a great release from that veteran postpunk band last year. Similarly, props need to be offered to NMA for continuing to do what they do, following their own vision, and making great music for several decades now. While technically not a deathrock LP, if you’re a fan of bands like Killing Joke or The Mob you should definitely pick up 2016’s “Winter” LP.
13) FRUSTRATION – Empires of Shame LP
France’s long-running Frustration have made what is really one the best albums of the past year, released only two months ago, in October, 2016. But, this is an album in the old sense — all songs are different, but add to the whole, when listened sequentially, the way folks used to have to listen to LPs. Not deathrock, but their main influences are bands like Crisis, Warsaw, and Killing Joke — relevant to anyone interested in this list. Let’s get them to come to the USA!
14) GARDEN OF MARY – The Agony in Memory cassette
On Funeral Party Records (alongside Savage Blind God, above) Dallas’s Garden of Mary combine trad gothic rock with shoegaze to make a sound that’s all their own. I interviewed them at Grave City here, and they were previously featured on CVLT Nation here. Garden of Mary sound more trad goth than deathrock, if that means anything. They are part of an explosion of deathrock and goth in Texas that includes Ossuary Severe, Aztec Death, and others.
15) BELLCOSE MINDS – The Creature
There’s an interview with this band coming up soon here. Bellicose Minds’ The Creature LP, released only a couple of months ago, is a strong showing int he dark postpunk canon. I first interviewed Bellicose Minds for CVLT Nation 4 1/2 years ago. But in my new, upcoming interview with Bellicose Minds’ Nick F, he was brutally frank: “The classic post punk, goth-punk and peace-punk bands are definitely influences that help shape our sound. However, as individuals our influences reach far beyond those sonic limits. All three of us listen to everything from synth pop to metal. Personally I’m not a purist when it comes to music. Considering [we are] comprised of millennials and started in the 2000s it would be a display of arrogance to claim that we belong to [the postpunk] tradition in any way. Realistically, we came along after a handful of bands from the Pacific Northwest went out and broke the dark punk sounds to the underground punk scene on the west coast. I love what we do with the Bellicose Minds and it’s a great feeling knowing others enjoy our music. However, I like to be honest with myself and others and that means admitting that we haven’t exactly been innovative. We play guitars built 40 years ago, use a drum kit from the 60s to make loud guitar music. We’re completely fine with that to. To sum it up: bellicose minds is original stylistically because of us as individuals, but not original in a technical sense.”
Despite the self-effacing comments, Bellicose Minds’ new “The Creature” is one of the best LPs of 2016, deathrock, postpunk, dark punk, goth, or whatever you want to call it.
NOT STRICTLY DEATHROCK, BUT NOT TO BE MISSED FROM 2016, EITHER:
NOTE: If you are looking for albums like Spectres’ Utopia or Underpass‘s Red Reflection, check out the Top 10 Postpunk LPs of 2016, here.
AZTEC DEATH – Machine LP (dark postpunk)
SOFT KILL – Choke LP (dark postpunk) (feat. Mark Burgess of the Chameleons)
PINK TURNS BLUE – The Aerdt-Untold Stories LP (darkwave/goth/postpunk)
WIRE – Nocturnal Koreans (postpunk)
DRAB MAJESTY – Completely Careless anthology
OSSUARY SEVERE – demo (dark postpunk)
TEARFUL MOON – In the Dark Morning (darkwave)
ALL YOUR SISTERS – Uncomfortable Skin LP (goth/darkwave)
TERMINAL GODS – Wave/ Form (trad goth)
GOLDEN APES – Malus (trad goth)
HYPNOPAZUZU – Create Christ, Sailor Boy (post-industrial/experimental) (feat. David Tibet of Current 93 and Youth of Killing Joke)
MASSES – Moloch (dark postpunk/anarcho)