by Oliver Sheppard
It was a hard field to narrow down to only 6, but here’s my take on the Top 6 deathrock/goth-punk/etc releases for 2013. At the end of the list are further releases that could have easily rounded out a Top 10 or Top 20 (CVLT Nation prefers to do “Top 6” lists, so that’s the format I’m following; see the end of the piece, however, for other releases that merit attention!).
As I mentioned in my Top 6 from last year, the term “deathrock” can inspire endless debate, both online and off. The strictest, least forgiving, and most pedantic definition of the term would be that it was a dark punk and 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 (Burning Image were from Bakersfield; Shadow Image were from San Francisco), 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, Los Carniceros del Norte, or Las Gorgonas, there is simply no other genre tag that fits, although increasingly terms like “goth-punk” and “dark punk” are used. Parallel regional music phenomena — Spain’s “Siniestro” music (Paralasis Permanente), Germany’s “Depro-Punk” (EA80), Japan’s “Positive Punk” (Auto-Mod and Phaidia), “French Coldwave” (Siglo XX and Clair Obscur), the East Coast’s horror punk (The Cramps and Misfits), England’s “positive punk”/gothic rock (UK Decay, Sex Gang Children), etc. — developed in tandem, but for simplicity’s sake I’m just referring to all this current interrelated material under one catch-all rubric. (I’ve even seen the phrase “dark neo-postpunk” bandied about. Arrrrgh!!)
HERE THEY ARE, IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER:
1. BLUE CROSS – Conspiracy
Ottawa, Canada’s Blue Cross have been one of the most prolific of the newer crop of gothy punk bands, having produced 3 full-length albums in just over 2 years. Like most of the best bands of this nature, they started as a side project of a punk band (Germ Attak, in this case). Here, however, the project took a life of its own. Conspiracy is minimalist, mid-tempo, gloomy, and heavy on atmosphere; it’s a modern deathrock masterpiece that harkens back to the days of female-fronted LA bands like the Superheroines and Voodoo Church (via Jess’s vocals), and Jo Steel’s warbly, flangey guitar work recalls John McKay of Souxsie and the Banshees. But the LP still manages to bring something different to the table so that one doesn’t feel as if one is merely listening to a cover band.
2. MASQUERADE – Demo
Finland’s Masquerade have received an unprecedented amount of attention — especially in their home country — for a band that doesn’t have all that much material out. A program on Finnish national TV even called them “Finland’s Siouxsie and the Banshees.” No doubt some of this owes to singer Suzi Sabotage‘s appearance. She has the pipes to back up the image, though, and the result is solidly in the Pink Military/Your Funeral/Lost Cherrees vein of goth-punk. Further interviews with the band’s musicians have revealed them to be proper punk rock music geeks — fans of Scandinavian forebears like Kuudes Tunti, Musta Paraati and Cortex — who are solidly grounded in the history and discography of both hardcore punk and gothic rock. If you’re a fan of pre-1981 Siouxsie and the Banshees (everything up to, and including, Juju, that is), then you have no good reason not to enjoy Masquerade.
3. SILENT SCREAM – Public Execution
A friend informs me that the CD version of this was released in 2012, and it was only the vinyl that was released in 2013. Well, even if I am a year late, I’m still calling it one of the best LPs of 2013, dammit. Like Masquerade, Silent Scream hail from Finland, but unlike them they explore the rougher side of the genre that harkens back to Amebix, Arch-Criminals, Killing Joke — even Swans. Every track on this LP is a different experience; for example, while the second song, “Rotten Days,” sounds like something The Deformed or Zygote might have released, the 6th song, “Haunted,” resembles something that sophisticated postpunk bands like The Sound or Glorious Din might have written. In short, the LP is a masterful blend of styles from across the dark msuic spectrum, never boring. Every song is a different experience; the listener is constantly thrown a curveball. Repeated listens never fail to reveal something new. Silent Scream have a Facebook page here.
4. INSTITUTE – Demo
A friend that DJs with me clued me into this great little release a month or two after it came out — and, like so many of the other best current deathrock projects, it is essentially a spin off or side project band with members from other hardcore groups. Institute may not call themselves “deathrock” (although their own Bandcamp page does use the term “postpunk”), but the songs here are pure early Christian Death along the lines of early songs like “Spiritual Cramp” and “Deathwish.” Singer Mose Brown’s style is a dead ringer for Rozz Williams. Institute are comprised of members of other Austin hardcore/punk bands like Iron Youth and Glue. Whatever Institute want to call themselves, this is one of the more exciting releases I have heard from Texas in recent years: Guitar-driven, dark, creative, mid-rangey, and compelling. I’m looking forward to what new material may come from this group.
5. BELGRADO – Siglo XXI
Spain’s Belgrado need no introduction. Their 2011 LP was a groundbreaking innovation in “post-d-beat punk”(am I allowed to say that?) taking into account band members’ interests in 80s postpunk and gothic rock. Their second and latest, 2013, LP, Siglo XXI, goes along further on this trajectory, supplying Killing Joke-esque guitar and drum patterns to singer Pat’s gothy female vocals. Their official Facebook page says they were “[b]orn in the Barcelona squatting scene on late 2010, [and] mix obscure sometimes catchy melodies with punk attitude and dancing beats.” In fact, the first track of Siglo XXI, “Sombra de la Cruz,” is basically — nearly note for note, in fact — Killing Joke’s “Pssyche” with different vox and lyrics. Track 11, “Automatyczny Świat,” reveals some original and compelling guitar work and is probably my favorite track on the album. All in all, Siglo XXI is a very masterful DIY postpunk LP with all the right influences and just enough anarcho-punk originality thrown into it all to make the hype worthwhile.
6. BELLICOSE MINDS – The Spine
A Bellicose Minds full length was a long time in coming; some compilation appearances, a demo cassette, and an EP were all that had trickled out of the band’s hands over the past few years. The late Kenn Duffy/Kroosaficks put their self-titled EP in his Top 6 for CVLT Nation in 2011. At long last, the debut full-length LP The Spine finally came out the past year and on it is some of the finest dark music being made today. Nick Bellicose’s deep, baritone-ish vocals are one of the standout qualities of the band; they have that elusive and frustrating quality of “this reminds me of someone, but I can’t quite place who.” Bellicose Minds are at turns personal (“Visions of Pain”) and political a la The Mob or New Model Army (“Call to Graves”).
AND THERE’S MORE! The following releases couldn’t fit into a Top 6 but are as good as anything listed above. And again, these are in no particular order.
7. CATHOLIC SPIT – A Pact with the Devil LP
Not putting this LP somewhere in this list would be no small crime. Like their colleagues in Fangs on Fur and Christ vs Warhol, Catholic Spit are a current So. Cal. deathrock band, so it’s the real deal if you think of that region as the mecca and qualifying factor for this style of music. And the great thing about Catholic Spit is it’s not a watered down take on the genre — it’s rough around the edges and, like their antecedents in 45 Grave, it can even be quite thrashy/up-tempo (although singer Ericka’s vocals are more in the style of Fangs on Fur’s F-Girl than Dinah Cancer’s). Check out “I’m Your God Now,” for example; it’s basically a slowly-building hardcore punk song drenched in creepy reverb and spooky vox. In fact, guitarist Oscar’s playing has a surfy, Cramps-esque (think “Human Fly”) feel quite a bit of the time. The six piece (!) band has a split 7″ out with Generacion Suicida now.
8. SALOME’S DANCE – Demo cassette
Salome’s Dance (Facebook page here) are from St. Petersburg, Russia, and although the songs on their demo cassette were recorded in 2012, singer Vadim informs me the demo itself wasn’t released until 2013. In the USA, you can get their demo cassette from the Occult Whispers label/distro (which is run by Des of Cemetery). The band scored a major coup in getting Mark Ferelli of Part 1 to design their logo and album art. That band, in fact, is a good reference point for the band’s sound; so are Christian Death (of course — this is deathrock, after all) and Evil Speaks. That Vadim’s previous band, Breathing of Bones, covered Amebix’s “Winter” is evidence of the group’s solid roots in punk. There are lot of great live videos of Salome’s Dance on Youtube and one can only hope it won’t be too long before the band is able to make a US appearance.
9. DEATHCHARGE – Bad Dream Forever EP
Deathcharge’s latest 12″ EP, their first release since the long-awaited Love Was Born to an Early Death LP, continues the band’s inexorable descent into the murky waters of gothic rock, a gradual change since the PDX band’s 90s dis-core material. 2005’s “Hangman/New Dark Age” 7″ was a great Motorhead-meets-Shadow Project sort of affair, and then, for the longest time — nothing. As singer Adam explained in an interview, “We make records when we feel it’s needed. Not when we can.” “Isolation” and “To An Early Death” are the best tracks on this 6-song release. Hopefully we won’t have to wait 4 more years for another LP!
You can get Bad Dream Forever from Feral Ward.
10. DEATH IN JUNE – The Snow Bunker Tapes LP
Although some have called this the “demo version” of the previous Death in June LP, Peaceful Snow, this is actually quite a fully realized LP in its own right, much in the Syd Barrett-esque tradition of the preceding Rule of Thirds album. We could perhaps even say that the Snow Bunker Tapes complete a “raw acoustic” trilogy that began with 2001’s angry All Pigs Must Die offering, continued through to the psychedelic Rule of Thirds LP, and ends here. The last few Death in June releases have seen Douglas P approach his trademark neofolk sound with a more relaxed, contemplative, and “mature” feel — the sound of someone content with his legacy and life’s work — so far. There is a feeling of finality, of some sort of existential reconciliation, that pervades these songs from end to end. Peaceful Snow features the same tracks as appear here, although those are slightly reworked and with Slovakian pianist Miro Snejdr’s amazing contributions added in. If The Snow Bunker Tapes isn’t deathrock proper (and it isn’t; it’s more “acoustic goth”), it’s at least relevant enough to the genre to merit an inclusion here in any event, given how large the influence of this band has loomed over this style of music.
MORE 2013 RELEASES THAT DESERVE MENTION:
11. PINKISH BLACK‘s Razed to the Ground is one I would have included in this list had I felt comfortable putting it in a “deathrock” list. There are deathrock elements in the sound — the band has covered Christian Death’s “Spiritual Cramp” and have spoken about the influence of deathrock in interviews, and even their new label’s website calls the album “dark, haunting death-rock” — but I think I’ll leave it to the metal writers and listmakers to write more about this LP, although, being a guitar-less band, Pinkish Black don’t neatly fit into the metal genre, either. Needless to say, whatever category you want to put Razed to the Ground in, it’s one of the best releases of 2013, period, regardless of genre.
12. RULE OF THIRDS – s/t 7″
Rule of Thirds’ self-titled 7-inch desreves mention. (Notice how many damn good releases came out this past year!? A Top 20 is really needed.). The Australian band’s 5 song demo can be found floating around on the web. I like any band that is sure enough in its approach to say in an interview that “we’re much more Joy Division, Skeletal Family or Christian Death than say Killing Joke, Amebix or The Mob”! (This from an interview in Zero Tolerance zine that you can read here.) This is as good a description as any 3rd party could come up with, too. The band features members of the Vaginors and Hydromedusa; see below for some other Australian bands that made this list. You can buy Rule of Thirds’ stuff here.
13. THE OCCULTS – s/t 7″
Australia’s Occults play a surf-soaked style of deathrock highly reminiscent of Sex Church, and which also owes something, perhaps, to the old Aussie postpunk/garage/goth/whatever band The Scientists. You can and should get their self-titled, debut 4-song7-inch at the No Patience webstore.
14. ANASAZI – Nuke York demo cassette
NYC’s Anasazi — who I interviewed earlier in 2013 here — have been playing for a couple of years now, and 2013’s “Nuke York” demo doesn’t feel like a demo: It feels like a perfectly realized EP in an of itself. Although it’s self-released, the production is pretty damn good. Singer Chi Orengo’s Alien Sex Fiend fixation comes through on the uber-dancey “Sex with E.T.” The devastatingly awesome title track (below), however, has the classic feel of bands like Southern Death Cult and Sex Gang Children. Although it seems to be sold out now, you could otherwise GET IT HERE (in the US). UK here.
15. PLEASURE LEFTISTS – s/t EP
Pleasure Leftists singer Haley’s mournful, gloomy vocals are one of the best things going in postpunk music today. In fact, Haley’s vocals remind me of Anja Huwe of Xmal Deutschland at many points. Deranged Records, which is Pleasure Leftists’ label, claims, “On first listen it seems easy to compare [the band’s] sound to that of bands like Masshysteri or Terrible Feelings,” but repeated listenings reveal something darker and more complex. The band has recently played shows with Arctic Flowers and other similar groups in the scene, and a 12″ vinyl release from them has been long anticipated. You can listen to the EP for free at Pleasure Leftists’ Bandcamp page.
16. CRIMSON SCARLET – Window 7″
“Like a more guitar-heavy Skeletal Family.” Crimson Scarlet’s debut EP, “Sanctuary,” was awesome. The new release isn’t a full-length, which would be most welcome, but it nonetheless will have to tide us over until such gift from the gods materializes. This San Francisco band’s members all hail from the hardcore/punk scene, and while there is still a hard punk edge to Crimson Scarlet, it’s obvious the band members have been listening to a lot Rubella Ballet and, well, Skeletal Family (with whom they are playing at least one or two shows on the West Coast!). The “Window” EP is a fine addition to a recording career that started off strong.
So, long story short: Crimson Scarlet are great. Buy this EP.
17. HEX DISPENSERS – Parallel 7″
Austin’s Hex Dispensers weigh in more on the “horror punk” side of this spectrum than the postpunk side – but that has always been a legit strain of this side of dark music, as well. You can hardly find a band doing it better than the Hex Dispensers. Lovecraftian horror rock and roll. They employ a classic garage punk approach that owes equally to bands like the Ramones as it does to the Pagans, and their lyrics are equal parts Twilight Zone, b-movie horror, and early 20th century pulp magazine “weird” fiction. They’re not been playing out recently due to illness in the band, but hopefully they’ll get back to playing soon and everyone in the band will return to primo health. Their 2013 7″ included a cover of the Misfits “Hybrid Moments.”
Favorite labels and distros of 2013:
2013 releases I wanted to like, but didn’t:
1. UK DECAY – New Hope for the Dead. There are one or two songs on this reunion LP that I like alright, but, as with recent reunion efforts by Magazine, there’s something that’s just not right with this LP. Old UK Decay stuff, however, is still untouchably great, and always will be. A shame since this band is so foundational in this area of music.
2. NEW MODEL ARMY – Between Dog and Wolf. As a hardcore fan of New Model Army, I really wanted to like this release more than I did. As with the UK Decay LP, there are one or two good songs on it (“March in September” is a really good one), but unlike UK Decay, this is not a reunion LP. Like their colleagues Killing Joke and Wire, New Model Army are a postpunk band that have just continued to slog away over the years, fighting the good fight, sometimes visibly, sometimes less so. Their songs never lack heart — even the not-so-memorable ones. Maybe the next LP will see some consistently better material from them. Fingers crossed.
2. CRIME & THE CITY SOLUTION – American Twilight. This band’s personal story is pretty incredible. Musically I’d put them in the same roots-y goth tradition that includes the Birthday Party, the Scientists, the Gun Club, and Inca Babies, but there are also hints of band like 16 Horsepower or Leonard Cohen in a lot of their material. Originally from Australia, they relocated to Berlin, Germany, and now — amazingly — to Detroit, Michigan! Perhaps the perfect city within which to pen an LP with a name like American Twilight. Their first LP in 20 years, I think the curse of the “reunion album” got them, too, as it did with UK Decay and Magazine. A couple of tracks (like the splendid “My Loves Takes Me There”) are really good, but it takes more than a couple of good songs to make a good album.
A Release I am on the Fence About
THE MOB – “Rise Up” 7″. The Mob’s first song in — 25 years? — is not musically bad, and singer Marc Wilson’s voice is as strong, recognizable, and even as “soulful” as ever. The lyrics to “Rise Up,” though, are a little ham fisted and generic. Whereas the old Mob produced claustrophobic and introspective songs like “Gates of Hell” and “I Wish” — songs that by implication were political, but which were simply in and of themselves nightmarishly personal — the new reunion track feels like a pretty rote, and generalized, protest song, meant to charge up the faithful, whatever their cause might be, but lacking the compelling dark emotional component that bled out of their old stuff. Still, the music itself is not that bad. It’s not as bad as some other recent reunion efforts.