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.

Mix

HALLOWEEN MIX II: Scary But Fun

scary but fun edition

🎃 8Tracks

🌑 Youtube

A sequel to my first Halloween mix from four (!) years ago. Expect urgent and thrilling vocals from new wave/goth icons and a cross of grim, sinister atmosphere with pulpy fun.

Track list

love bites + devil in my life – GRACE JONES / el diablo anda suelto – ALASKA Y DINARAMA / face to face [batman returns soundtrack] + the double life – SIOUXSIE AND THE BANSHEES / out on my own – ROMEO VOID / heads will roll + isis – YEAH YEAH YEAHS / whirlpool – DEAD OR ALIVE / spirit – BAUHAUS / obsolete – TOYAH / nosferatu – MIRO MIROE / vampires – BAT FOR LASHES / to get over heartbreak – THE BEDROOM WITCH / astrid – THE LEGENDARY PINK DOTS / love crime – SIOUXSIE

new music

Maria Usbeck – Envejeciendo, 2019

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synth pop / art pop

Using more synths this time, Maria Usbeck’s second album emulates a digitized canopy. It’s another one where cold synths prompt human feeling despite their origins. Skeptics will claim they lack feeling but Maria’s music hasn’t lost any of that.

Which brings me to what stuck from Amparo: her incredible talent for calming the listener. Her travels in Ecuador to reconnect with her past continue to influence the effect of her songs. Like home, or what feels like it, Maria’s music relaxes with it’s everyday air. As she composed by herself, everything sounds filtered through her perspective. That is, besides the odd speech from Siri (!) or her grandmother. Envejeciendo is a traveling laptop’s creation.

What struck me about her ‘chill-out’ effect is that it feels so grounded. It doesn’t assume everything is or will be perfect. She doesn’t aim for escapism, as much as that works for other music. Instead, she uses this space to ask questions. Yet she does this without getting bleak; some songs veer on humorous. She seems to find comfort in more realistic conditions. Her lyrics concern aging (the album’s English name) and how new tech changes our thinking. I’m glad to see her explore these themes when few others do and when the cult of youth stays strong.

Envejeciendo peaks at the end with “Retirement Home” and “Nostalgia”. With the album’s richest synths and her own tender voice, they form a compelling mix of cathartic and relaxed tones. “Retirement Home” imagines ideal senior living, with metallic synth-bells adding a spa-like hypnosis. “Nostalgia” matches the title in seconds with breezy synth chords glowing like fireflies. As intended, it’s perfect for those fleeting daydreams of the past.

The drum machine beats are my main gripe as with too many recent albums. And I say this as a synth-pop fanatic! The issue is, no matter how classic the 909 is, the novelty wears after decade-long overuse.

I prefer Amparo but this is a worthy album with it’s own great ideas. It’s very digestible at 27 minutes. Maria’s solo career keeps taking refreshing turns and deserving a closer look.

 

 

Deep Cuts

Siouxsie And The Banshees – “Sea Of Light” (”Shadowtime” b-side, 1991)

As mush as I adore synths, my #1 band didn’t actually use them much. Superstition was the one Banshees album to use them beyond cameos. Guitars were their clear specialty, but I do wonder where more keyboard would have led them.

This metaphysical b-side is one in few exceptions. Beyond Siouxsie and one quiet guitar, it’s all misty fairy synths. Believe it or not, “Sea Of Light” sounds like new age Banshee-style. An uneasy mood sneaks in even so via Siouxsie’s vocal as she sings of near-death experiences. The effects on her voice resemble a distant call for help or gathering wind. This results in a unique middle ground between peace and danger.

Top 5 Albums of 2019 (so far)

Top 5 Albums of 2019 (so far) / #1. Kelsey Lu – Blood

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art pop / chamber pop / folktronica / chamber folk

More like this – Kelsey Lu’s “Shades of Blue”, Goldfrapp’s Tales of Us, Kate Havnevik’s “Unlike Me”, Weyes Blood’s Titanic Rising

As you could guess from a cellist, keyboardist, guitarist and singer who’s worked with Solange and Blood Orange, Kelsey Lu’s solo debut isn’t easy to box. The quiet cello-and-vocal reserve of her Church EP has evolved to a bolder statement with an upfront personality and a much wider palette, the electronics among the most promising. In Lu’s case, though, the album sounds like the natural culmination of what she’s absorbed over time. She isn’t going eclectic for the sake of it. Even when she goes from warm folk (“Too Much”) to a 7-minute synth-enhanced 10cc cover, she unites every sound through the gentle shivers and hums of her flexible vocals, the warm wooden tremble of her cello and a clear-cut sound design.

Blood enters with a pair of striking cello-accented folk songs, the sinister warning of “Rebel” and the uneasy sleepwalk of “Pushin Against The Wind”. In the first big shift, Lu dives into pop-ballad catharsis with “Due West”, setting her decadent vocals to a blanket of synth chords and a harp so fragile someone could’ve sewn it together. When I think it’s over, a cello pluck enters and cross-fades into what sounds like Grouper making ethereal wave in a cathedral (“Kindred”). Unlike the rest of Blood, Lu sounds truly weightless as she sings like the ghost of an opera singer, possessed yet appeased. Not long after, she kicks into 70s disco with “Poor Fake”, where the big beat+bassline threatens to start a party. And we’re only halfway in by that point.

Blood is the most a new artist has impressed me in months. Her awe-inspiring musical scope combined with such clear passion and creativity to match means there’s enough here for me to process for months, but I’m immensely curious to know what sound she’ll pursue next. Will she do more pop, guitar folk, classical cello, will it follow the steps of this album or will she do a 180? Blood tells me any of these and more could work for her.

♥︎ – “Rebel”, “Pushin’ Against The Wind”, “Due West”, “Kindred I”, “Poor Fake”, “Foreign Car”, “I’m Not In Love”