List

A Gothic Top 5

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With The Banshees as my biggest gateway into my serious musical interests, I’ve had a fascination for gothic themes for many years now. As picky as I get with the goth rock/darkwave scenes, they generated and influenced several of my all-time favorite albums.

To coincide with this Halloween, I’ve decided to look back on five of my most formative gothic, autumnal and/or ‘spooky’ favorites. This is more about representing than building an exact top-5, so check out this related list and my Halloween mixes if you want more!

Lene Lovich – Shadows And Dust, 2005

Lene Lovich is new wave’s wacky witch of the west. Anyone familiar with her distinctive polka-dotted voice will know this already. Shadows And Dust is the lesser-known piece to the puzzle. Despite coming fifteen years after March, Lene sounds more witchy than ever. She tributes the Wicked One herself with all the right gleeful camp on track 9.

Mixing non-forced cabaret drama with speculative themes, SAD is a goth-pop wonderland. SAD plays like a natural step from where she left off, unfazed by time. It never lacks a new trick to show off, be it wispy synth bells (“Ghost Story”), viking-like backing vocals, a grim synth-string intro (“Remember”) or an elaborate Dracula narrative (“Insect Eater”). To top this off, every song has a bouncy hook to get you nodding along. Altogether, it brings me back to Siouxsie’s Peepshow. With a bold sing-along and mutant arrangement, “Shapeshifter” makes a worthy “Peek-A-Boo” sequel. And this is coming from a fanatic!

Lene sings like she’s stirring a cauldron. Her voice wears a bit on louder sections, but I love her enthusiasm. Her wild-but-warm spirit hasn’t faded a bit, and her deeper, richer tone matches her themes. The sheer thrill she takes in voicing Reinfield on “Insect Eater” is nearly contagious. Sweeter moments like “Remember” show her knack for tender romance isn’t gone either.

Even beyond her ‘prime’, Lene had so much more to offer than “Lucky Number”. SAD is a major reason why; the limited release has me wishing more fans got to hear it.

Grimes – Halfaxa, 2010

In a Simpler Time ™ before dating billionaires and romanticizing climate change with anime, Claire Boucher packed fresh creative instincts into a computer. On oft-ridiculed Halfaxa, she channeled cathedrals and haunted medieval heirlooms from what many critics dismiss as the lowest dregs in music-making: Garageband. Albums like this tell me they’re wrong.

These technical limits and her isolation at the time informed these songs to unique results. Like many albums in this formative time for bedroom e-music, she’s alone with her thoughts here. As expected with a creative musical mind, it’s easy for me to get lost in them.

The songs create unique emotional portraits, both vague and pointed. “Devon”, for one, is a raw, rejected love song all the way, but with other highlights like ”Dream Fortress”, I detect so many different feelings at once. It’s sad nostalgia for that once-beautiful abandoned heirloom one minute and ghostly horror the next.

Halfaxa is a mind, a universe and a huge antique house. It thrives in surrealism and history’s shadows, but as other reviews stated before, you find human feelings inside. Her devotion to Mariah Carey helped; she stated Halfaxa was her attempt to capture the spacious, haunting effects of group church singing. I know well these vocals can be a bit much with the echoes and caterwauls everywhere, but I would argue the cowgirl-punk approach on Art Angels is it’s own acquired taste.

Halfaxa is ethereal wave’s digital-age niece; any fan should try it.

Bauhaus – The Sky’s Gone Out, 1982

Bauhaus’ messiness was the main reason I was a ‘casual fan’ rather than worshipper. With that said, Sky’s Gone Out struck me as a glorious, thrilling mess if anything. Beyond “Exquisite Corpse”, the songs don’t lose their footing in shouty jam-outs. They had more ambitious ideas and the experience to pull them off by now. They were maturing from the faux-edgy rambling that filled their debut.

Sky’s Gone Out stands out further as the one Bauhaus album where they could pull a true ‘scare’ on me. For all the hammy drama leftover from Mask, this album allows itself to build a stronger atmosphere, one that belongs in bizarre nightmares out of an arthouse film. Sky’s Gone Out has it’s own black-and-white, surrealist world like the cover art.

Complete with piano and sax from a haunted house, “Spirit” isn’t punk as much as a wild, dancing chorus of ghosts. The “Three Shadows” trio is a journey in itself, going from quiet goth-tar disturbance to an underworld’s fairground waltz.

Despite everything, the album ends on a quiet, solemn note with “All We Ever Wanted”. It’s the gentlest song to the Bauhaus name. Peter’s fittingly spectral highs toward the end whirled around my head for years. Fun as songs like “Spirit” and “Bela Lugosi” get, it makes me wish Peter Murphy showed this vulnerable side more often.

Cocteau Twins – Head Over Heels, 1983

Head Over Heels takes place in the mountains and towering caves of your mind. As the first ’normal’ Cocteau album, this invented ethereal wave as we know it and pioneered the 4AD sound. I’d argue shoegaze’s whole color-wash approach began around here too.

HOH is a thrilling display for Cocteau’s leftover goth roots in the more elemental context that would become their trademark. Liz Fraser’s voice settles a bit, sounding freer than ever as she belts, quivers and hums with equal strength. Her usual non-lyrics add to the enigma but her tone posesses incredible warmth and nobility here. The boldness in her delivery is surprising knowing her famous self-deprecation.

The spacious fuzz-guitar draws curiosity but insists to lurk in shadows. It’s a long, long gaze into said caves, where water drips quietly and huge sun rays peer inside. This is the moody, bewitching edge of nature in it’s full glory. It can be “Sugar Hiccup”’s candyland dream sequence or an intimidating divine beast emerging from it’s lair. What never fails to cast a spell on me is “Tinderbox Of A Heart”, a tie with “Fifty Fifty Clown” for my favorite CT song. it works like a travelogue for HOH’s world, where this mountain-cave turns out huge from the outside and all you can do is glare in awe.

Siouxsie And The Banshees – Peepshow, 1988

As the 33 1/3 book stresses, Peepshow emphasized SATB’s art-film interests. At this point, they were more a ‘goth pop’ group. Far from Juju’s raw impact, then, but resuming the moody elegance that graced Dreamhouse and Tinderbox. For each goth-tar you have ”Carousel”’s haunted circus organ, “Rhapsody”s chilly strings and “Peek-A-Boo”‘s reversed tango.

Martin McCarrick is the one who took the Banshees (further) beyond rock. Adding cello, accordion and other new flavors, he’s one of their most unique members. The result is the band’s last goth album, being a few years before “Kiss Them For Me”. As if predicting this change, they went all-out with it. Peepshow has all the thrill, variety and surrealism to remind you why this band was so vital to the goth scene. Q gave this apt summary: ‘Peepshow takes place in some distorted fairground of the mind where weird and wonderful shapes loom’. In a parallel to Goldfrapp’s debut made in a cottage, they recorded these songs in a 17th century mansion. The kind of album that puts Hot Topic rock to shame.

Siouxsie sounds like the suave and secretive ringleader in a freakshow. Songs like “Scarecrow” and “Rhapsody” showcase her refining flair for drama. As a whole, Peepshow finds this band at a special middle ground. Yet to hit the Top 40 with “Kiss Them For Me” but on their way, with their middle era’s adventurous spirits intact.

Songs that got me into music

Glass Candy – “Computer Love” (Cover of Kraftwerk)

Few albums show me the range of colors and emotions in a synth like Glass Candy’s B/E/A/T/B/O/X. Johnny Jewel seems to pry out the richest analog tones possible here. It’s a masterful dance album that fills each corner with glitter, but never without melody or feeling. If you wonder why I got so obsessed with synths, look no further than here (and The Knife, but that’s another story).

“Computer Love” demonstrates with a heaven-sent take on my favorite Kraftwerk classic. You’d think seven minutes would wear it out. Instead, Johnny makes decadent variations on their melodies over and over, finding new sweet spots in the harmony. I could listen to that same echoing synth for much longer; it’s like a magnet. The almost operatic fluttering later on takes it to a whole new place.  B/E/A/T/B/O/X is a decadent album already, but “Computer Love” is a true journey. When I listen, I’ve entered some haven of digitized bubbles and flowers.

With this fountain of synths backing her, Ida No could douse her face in it. She gives that falsetto title-drop the pure frozen longing it needed. Critics labelled her goofy and ‘detached’, but songs like this show a warmer, gentler side to her that’s just as prominent. She has a barbie-doll glamor that makes a closer fit for a song like this. Ralf Hutter has his charms, but he’s not a big love-song type.

Something about this cover takes the loneliness further. With how they sequenced B/E/A/T/B/O/X, “Computer Love” provides a refuge in the face of paranoia (see “Candy Castle” and “Digital Versicolor”). The way I hear it, this version doesn’t wish for love alone, but for relief in general. It searches the ends of Earth, science, and fantasy for this.

Artists you should know · Playlist

Artists you should know / Milan Pilar

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Milan Pilar (born 1934 in Czechoslovakia) is a master of fantasy melodrama. Once he came to use synths, his music became the soundtrack for finding a magic necklace in a pastel-colored forest where anything can happen. Milan created these images in gorgeously exaggerated detail that can touch your heart if you let it, no matter outlandish it may seem at a glance. He had a talent to induce the most grandiose emotions with impact and genuine tenderness.

Most songs will have sweeping synths and/or strings as a backbone, with digital bells and flutes playing the melodies. Many are wistful and sensitive as if telling you secrets in it’s hiding place, some carefree and happy, others cinematic and awestruck. No matter the mood, they never lose their Moomin-worthy fantasy charm and romantic expression. It’s a shame Pilar didn’t wind up directly composing for children’s fantasy movies.

He also kept a distinct sound across ten-plus years, something rare for library composers. For instance, his 2003 album Nature In Motion has the virtual same approach as his late-eighties work.

Playlist

I’ve gathered my favorites from across his albums to give a good taster for his style (link above).

1. February  – Pastoral Seasons, Coloursound, 1982

2. Reconciliation – Nature Spoiled and Unspoiled, Coloursound, 1983

3. Above / Extensions – Extensions, Sonoton, 19??

4. Industrial Signature 11 – Industrial, Coloursound, 1986

5. Fountain Idyll – Above And About, Coloursound, 1989

6. Birdlife – Above And About, Coloursound, 1989

7. Digital Structure 2 – Digital Structures, 1990

8. Digital Structure 25 – Digital Structures, 1990

9. Softly As The Summerwind – Nature Study, 1990

10. Wind And Waves – Nature Study, 1990

10. Caravanseral – Nostro Mondo, 1993

12. Irish Autumn – Floating Line, 1993

13. Rainbow – Textures And Fusion, 1994

14. Lost Game Blues – Signs Of Wisdom, 1999

15. Call Of The Mountains – Nature In Motion, 2003

16. Deep Sea Romance – Green Planet, 2004

Deep Cuts

Cathy Dennis’ “Toxic” demo

It might be a surprise for fans of Britney’s “Toxic” to know the song was written by former 90s pop star Cathy Dennis, the songwriter/co-producer of “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” (among others on Kylie’s Fever). Cathy offered “Toxic” to Kylie’s album Body Language first, but it was rejected.

In fact, Cathy’s Youtube-surfaced demo sounds near-identical to Britney’s version aside from the vocals, including the signature “Tere Mere Beech Mein” Bollywood sample.

Deep Cuts

Reni Jusis – “Niemy Krzyk” (Magnes, 2006)

Having major creative control meant Reni Jusis experimented whenever she wanted. This resulted in several exciting twists to her already distinctive take on electro-pop (the existential “Ostatni Raz” to name one), but no Reni song surprised me as much as “Niemy Krzyk”, her most dark-sided to date.

Sometimes on the bottom of my heart I feel that
My life is beyond me again
I cannot carry [on] anymore
I went too far again

Why is it that I live faster
If I don’t enjoy the things I have

I want to run away again
Where nobody will find me

With fragile trance melodies rippling along, the lyrics reveal inner fears behind the dance-DJ glamor she adopted on the Magnes album. The impressive soar in her vocal hammers in the effect.

Thanks to Jan for the English translation. Full text here. Listen to my Reni Jusis playlist here.

Anniversary · Songs that got me into music

Songs that got me into music: Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Zero” (It’s Blitz!, 2009)

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Part of a new series where I look back at the formative songs that made me obsessed with music in the first place. The next entries will have a more chronological order.

My first memory of Yeah Yeah Yeahs is when I saw the iconic video for “Zero”, voted by Spin and NME as song of the year. It was a fresh, exciting, neon-lit burst of energy; the tempo and lyrics imploring to ‘climb, climb, climb’. The contrast of mellow cool with exhilarating heights was key to the appeal of the It’s Blitz! album itself. It’s been close to a decade since I overheard my older siblings play the CD, yet somehow it’s just as great as I remember hearing it again now.

It’s Blitz! is an album of twin strengths; an ideal blend of a punk/rock base with electronic flourishes. Uproarious synth-rock fusions take turns with rich, idyllic ballads. Each of the ten songs have their twists, adding up to one of the most well-rounded albums I know. “Soft Shock” shows this duality best in both its music and title: electric but therapeutic, it’s a lullaby with a groove; while “Runaway” is an ambitious pseudo-gothic ballad going from soft, lonely piano to a thundering string peak. Some uptempo songs even invert this pattern, like “Heads Will Roll” with its murky ‘Shut your eyes / you realize’ interlude or “Dull Life”’s haunting guitar shifting into a bold and determined chorus.

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Every member added something distinct; Karen O balanced grit with tenderness more seamlessly than ever, Nick Zinner blended his guitar fuzz with a host of sleek, icy synths and Brian’s drumming added thrilling momentum. The synths brought fresh twists to their sound and helped build on the balladry “Maps” did so well.

Something about It’s Blitz! sounds all this time later, even if it makes such a great time capsule. Maybe it’s the less obvious execution of the electro-pop influence: while I can enjoy most forms of this, including the kind synthwave that lives and breathes flashy eighties kitsch, It’s Blitz! doesn’t sound that ‘eighties’ to me in the end. I don’t know if it’s the critics overstating on the mere fact they dared to include synths (as expected for critics of the time + guitar snobs in general) or the sheer personality of the album.

Ten years on I’ve realized how much It’s Blitz! influenced my taste: the love of synths, fierce rhythms, genuine attitude, mixing beauty with distortion. While their debut remains incredible, it sometimes overshadows the accomplishment of their third album. With today being its tenth anniversary, It’s Blitz! is overdue for celebration.