by Oliver Sheppard
2012 was a great year for deathrock. As I wrote in the notes for the CVLT Nation Deathrock 2012 Part II mixtape, “Most of these new bands come from the DIY punk scene and are reclaiming deathrock’s punk roots. There is a strong element of anarcho/peace punk in a lot of the bands’ sound – see Moral Hex and Dead Cult, for example. Although there are some precedents for this, this is one of the novel developments in this style of music.”
A quick word about the term “deathrock,” whose use sometimes inspires endless debate, both online and off: The strictest and least forgiving definition of the term would be that it was a dark postpunk phenomenon that lasted from 1979 until about 1986 or 1987, and was primarily local to Los Angeles — or the US southwest in general, including California, Nevada (Theatre of Ice), and Arizona (Mighty Sphincter, The Consumers). And yet for many later bands, like Cinema Strange, and current bands, like Christ vs Warhol, Naughty Zombies, or Las Gorgonas, there is simply no other genre tag that fits, although increasingly terms like “goth-punk,” “dark punk,” and even “g-beat” (hah) are being used. Music hasn’t stopped evolving. According to Martin “Oldgoth” Coles at Louder Than War, gothic “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,” Coles concluded. 2012 has shown “those punk roots” have indeed been rediscovered, as the following releases amply show. They’re listed IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER.
DYSTOPIAN SOCIETY – “Cages” LP
The debut LP by Italy’s Dystopian Society is an important, punk-influenced slab of purist deathrock that features lyrics sung and printed in English; the release garnered them a spot at 2012’s Drop Dead Fest in Germany. Earlier in the year, I reviewed the LP and interviewed the band at CVLT Nation here. The band, a power trio, bring to mind old school deathrock solidly in the vein of early, Rikk Agnew-powered Christian Death, or Voodoo Church, or the Superheroines. The band also performs covers of Paralasis Permanente and Rudimentary Peni songs live, further showcasing their punk sensibility. The band’s anthem, “Dystopian Society,” is an uptempo – but dark – political rocker, while creepier-sounding songs like “Masquerade” satirically poke fun at the obsession with image so evident in what has become of a lot of the deathrock and goth scenes, where punk attitude has been replaced by layers of awful, Tim Burton-style goth clown makeup and the attendant vanity that comes with that kind of cartoony take on the genre. You can get Dystopian Society’s Cages here.
BLUE CROSS – “I Am Death” LP
Ottawa, Canada’s Blue Cross began as a side project of the punk band Germ Attak, but the band — a male and female duo — has evolved into its own, self-contained unit. Unfortunately, Blue Cross seems to be a studio-only project that never plays out live. Hopefully this will change. Incredibly, I Am Death is the second LP by the band in about 10 months; their first release, 2011’s Mass Hysteria, is a straightforward deathrock LP also worth owning. The first song on I Am Death is the title track, and it becomes immediately apparent that the band have evolved in a decidedly more darkwave direction since the first LP: The tempo is a little slower, synth-like effects are used tastefully, and the flanger on Jo’s guitar seems to have been cranked up to the max. If you’re a fan of the guitar work of John McGoech or Rikk Agnew, you’ll definitely enjoy the thoughtful and interesting guitar patterns laid down here. The vocals of female singer Jess lend the release the vibe of classic postpunk bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees, Xmal Deutschland, or even Monica Richards’ early Madhouse project. You can buy I Am Death here.
FANGS ON FUR – Artifice Shank 7″
It’s hard to believe that Los Angeles, California’s Fangs on Fur have existed for over 6 years, having formed in 2006. The band plays an aggressive, old school type of deathrock with female vocals, recalling early California deathrock groups like Red Scare, the Superheroines, and punk bands like Action Pact or Rubella Ballet. “Artifice Shank” was their only release in 2012, but it’s worth including because the band are rekindling the original spirit of So-Cal deathrock along with their friends in Christ vs Warhol (whose 2010 Dissent LP is also a must-have). I interviewed Fangs on Fur earlier in the year, and asked them if they liked being called an “old school” or “purist” band. Singer F-Girl responded, “Either a band sounds too much like the old school, or not enough. We just write the music that comes out. Sometimes it sounds like THIS and sometimes it sounds like THAT. People can put us in any category they want. That’s not our concern. You need to know your identity before someone chooses it for you.” Fangs on Fur’s guitar-driven style of deathrock is still a breath of fresh air in an otherwise all-too-stagnant genre. You can get “Artifice Shank” here.
NOTE: The following track is not off the 2012 7″.
LOST TRIBE – self-titled cassette
Confusingly, Lost Tribe have two self-titled releases: One is their excellent 2011 debut LP, and the other is this recent cassette-only EP. Lost Tribe’s sound is a compelling mixture of ’80s UK goth, dark crust punk, and Los Angeles deathrock. I’ve always personally likened them to Initium-era Samhain mixed with some TSOL. On repeated listenings, you can even hear some dark psychedelia like The Doors or Music Machine in the mix, thanks largely to the effective use of swirling gothic organs and Davey Bales’ burly vocals. Three songs off the 2012 self-titled cassette are at Lost Tribe’s Bandcamp page. Blind Prophet, the label that put out Lost Tribe’s debut LP, describes them as playing “apocalyptic post-peace punk darkwave but with with a solid d-beat & crust backbone.” In an interview I did with the band, bassist Shravan responded, “I really like how people make so many different references to our sound. Some I don’t really see, but I think most people will agree it’s unique.” Lost Tribe are one of the more exciting bands to watch in this genre, and it will be interesting to see where, sonically, they go next.
ARCTIC FLOWERS – “Procession” EP
Portland’s Arctic Flowers play a type of gothy peace punk that, unlike some bands in this genre, is not afraid to go at faster tempos. “Our sound is a mix of punk, deathrock, post punk, and goth,” guitarist Stan Wright explained in an interview I did with them for CVLT Nation. “Aggressive but at times danceable and melodic.” The “Procession” EP from August, 2012, is a good example of this. Although the title track is a mid-to-up-tempo stomper, some of the other tracks, like “Strange Ports of Call,” balance it out with an eerie, almost psychedelic, goth vibe. Are Arctic Flowers purist deathrock? As I’ve noted elsewhere, there has been an epidemic of “genre drift” over the years such that probably 80% of 45 Grave’s catalog would not nowadays be called “deathrock.” In fact, some of Arctic Flowers’ stuff actually does remind me of 45 Grave (among others, like Red Scare), who also have a great song called “Procession” — especially the stuff on that pioneering deathrock band’s posthumous Autopsy collection. You can buy and/or listen to Arctic Flowers’ “Procession” on Bandcamp here.
DEKODER – Between the Waking and the Dying LP
Dekoder are one of my favorite recent bands. Like Arctic Flowers (and Blue Cross, for that matter,) they use mournful female vocals. Like Arctic Flowers, their punk pedigree is unimpeachable. Dekoder features ex-members of crusty hardcore band Born Dead Icons, a band that was often compared to Motorhead. After Born Dead Icons folded, the members started the slightly more postpunk band The Complications. Imagine Lemmy singing for Killing Joke. New vocalist Meghan’s vocals are incredible — like a strangely appealing mix of Gitane Demone and Monica Richards. Her voice is the key ingredient, and they make this otherwise guitar-driven, mid-tempo new postpunk LP work wonderfully.
Releases I would have included in a top ten:
THE SPECTRES – Nothing to Nowhere LP (But has this LP been officially released yet?)
KILLING JOKE – MMXII (But is it “deathrock,” per se?)
HORROR VACUI – In Darkness You Will Feel Alright
BELGRADO – “Panopticon” 7″