The very first issue of SPIN Magazine in 1985 featured a full color feature on deathrock. Titled “Is There Life After Deathrock?” the article’s tagline warns, “If you thought punk was hardcore, you’re in for a shock.” Almost 30 years later, punk bands have rediscovered the music SPIN warned about.
In some ways, the SPIN article could have been written today. And, for truebloods, deathrock never died anyway. But looking over the announcements of recent punk festival lineups, it really is remarkable to see how darker, more deathrock-influenced acts have started to proliferate, supplanting lineups that just a few years ago heavily favored d-beat acts that were primarily influenced by Japanese or Scandinavian hardcore.
The annual “Varning from Montreal” punk fest in Quebec recently announced its lineup for 2012. The Varning fest is to Quebec what the Chaos in Tejas festival is to, well, Texas. Although Zyanose from Japan, and Peligro Social (!) are the main headliners, the rest of Varning’s roster reads like a who’s who of the modern punk scene’s turn towards gothic music: Crimson Scarlet, Belgrado, The Spectres, Dekoder, Bellicose Minds, and others are announced loudly from the show’s flyer. These are all contemporary, deathrock-infuenced punk bands, many of whom are on tour in support of recent releases.
Also of note is the annual Drop Dead Fest in Berlin, Germany, and the surprisingly similar shape that its lineup has taken. Dropdead is traditionally a straight-up gothic festival, the sort of thing that might feature a reunion of a band like Specimen or Alien Sex Fiend. It’s generally off most punks’ radar. Dropdead 2012, however, sports twin headliners UK Decay and The Mob, both gloomy bands from the early 1980s, with ties to the anarcho-punk scene. (The Mob, of course, had a release on Crass Records while UK Decay released the Rising from the Dread EP on Crass imprint Corpus Christi.)
Rounding out Dropdead’s lineup are newer, more politically oriented goth-punk bands like Tanzkommando Untergang and Dystopian Society. More traditional deathrockers, like 13th Moon and Spain’s Los Carniceros del Norte round things out. Back in the US, San Francisco’s new Subversion punk festival, which takes place in December of this year, is not ultimately much different: Lost Tribe, Arctic Flowers, Crimson Scarlet, and The Spectres all occupy prominent places on the Subversion concert roster.
Portland’s Estranged were well ahead of the curve when it came to steering their own sound away from hardcore punk down darker paths. Initially a side-project of Remains of the Day, Estranged singer Mark recently confessed mixed feelings about the new trend of punks starting gothy bands: “I think postpunk is kinda trendy just like any other music, but at least it’s inspired people to do something creative, albeit sometimes totally unoriginal.It’s okay to be inspired by other bands, but now there are so many bands playing stuff that sounds exactly like the one band they are obsessed with that it’s getting to the point where it’s turning into a played out fantasy. You don’t have to pretend that you’re in your favorite band, you are that band — which is great if makes you happy.”
Lee, the bassist for Portland’s Arctic Flowers, gave a similar explanation: “As people’s tastes change, so will the genre influences of the DIY music scene. I think also, for others as well as myself, that post-punk is some of the earliest music we were exposed to and it seems natural to revisit our roots through our own musical expressions.” Stan, Arctic Flowers’ guitarist, admits, “Our sound is a mix of punk, deathrock, post punk, and goth.” But others shy away from such specific, and often debate-causing, genre tags. Zach of The Spectres explained, “I usually just say [we are] ‘dark punk’ to avoid having to give a lengthy description of influences that most people have never heard of or care about.”
2012 may ultimately be remembered as the year goth-punk broke. One of the major and recent innovations that bands like The Spectres, Crimson Scarlet, and others are bringing to the music is the conscious reconnecting of dark postpunk to its DIY punk roots — and especially its oft-ignored anarcho-punk side. San Francisco’s Crimson Scarlet recall UK anarcho-goths Blood and Roses while Moral Hex reminds of Rubella Ballet or Lost Cherees. New York City’s Anasazi recall Rikk Agnew-era Christian Death while Deathcharge are increasingly a lot like The Dark, Vex, or early Shadow Project (circa that band’s 1991 self-titled LP). Spain’s Belgrado put one in the mind of early ’80s UK political postpunk; Richmond, Virginia’s Lost Tribe simultaneously remind of Samhain and TSOL.
And now, new LPs by the Bellicose Minds, the Spectres (Strange Weather), Dekoder (Between the Waking and the Dying), and Blue Cross (I Am Death) have come out or are about to come out. This is in addition to substantial recent EPs by Arctic Flowers (“Procession”) and Lost Tribe (their self-titled 5-song cassette that came out in May). It’s worth taking a quick look at some of the recent releases in this genre to get up to speed.
Portland’s Arctic Flowers are one of the higher-profile bands working in this new milieu that is a combination of anarcho-punk, deathrock, and postpunk. Like a lot of the other bands in this genre, the frontman is in fact a frontwoman — and so it’s tempting to peg them as a “School of Siouxsie” band a la Madhouse or Hysteria. But Arctic Flowers do retain a driving punk edge, on full display on this EP hat is mainly available from them on their current Summer tour. The title track is a thumping, mid-to-up-tempo song in the vein of the Smartpils. Very good stuff.
(Interestingly, like their peers in Blue Cross, Arctic Flowers employ heavy use of the “Eye of Horus” Egyptian symbol. I remember when it seemed like goth label Cleopatra Records, the Sisters of Mercy’s Vision Thing LP, and Neil Gaiman’s Siouxsie-esque Death comic book character all seemed to brandish the symbol at the same time in the early 1990s, too. Some goth iconography never dies, I guess.)
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 (of whom I was never a huge fan) and Monica Richards. Her voice is the key ingredient, and they make this otherwise guitar-driven, mid-tempo new postpunk LP work wonderfully.
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. 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 new EP are at Lost Tribe’s Bandcamp page. The Richmond, Virginia band are going on a Halloween tour in October, which seems perfect for them, and the band’s arsenal of fog machines.
Like The Estranged, Blue Cross began as a postpunk side project to a much faster punk band (Germ Attak, in this case.) Unlike many other bands operating in this genre, though, Blue Cross are fairly prolific: I Am Death is their second LP in about eight months. Their first LP, Mass Hysteria, was a fairly driving macabre punk LP. There second full-length slows the tempo a bit and introduces the nuances of coldwave into the band’s sonic repertoire. A duo, guitarist Jo’s work now more closely resembles that of John McGeoch while singer Jess’s vocals have, if anything, gotten spookier and more dramatic.
I never thought I would ever, ever say this, but … there is also a very good Marilyn Manson cover song on here. The saving grace is that it sounds nothing like Manson. “Siouxsie’s an influence as we’re both fans along with a lot of the other bands that are usually associated [with this style of music],” Jo explained in a recent interview. “The big names like The Cure, Bauhaus, Sisters of Mercy, The Cult, or Killing Joke are long time favorites. Especially during the demo time I really had bands like 13th Chime, 1919, Sex Gang Children, Part 1, Christian Death and UK Decay in mind.”
Blue Cross’s new LP is available from the Noxious Noize! label.