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.
‘A racket that mixed up Blondie with Siouxsie And The Banshees’; said one critic on Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Who were the Banshees?, I thought eight (!) years ago. Soon I found “Into The Light” on my sister’s iTunes by fluke and it blew my mind within seconds. I knew nothing about the new wave scene and the endless creativity within yet, so you could imagine my awe.
The song resembled a campfire with Siouxsie as the enigmatic storyteller. The guitar sizzled over Budgie’s drums like wood covered in flames. With this band, guitar worked more as the portal to their surreal worlds than a tool for beefy riffs. John McGeoch’s ‘Gizmo’ effect pedal played a big part in this. “Into The Light” has a raw instinct for sure, but they didn’t look past melody; it’s an agitated beast. Likewise, something vulnerable lies in Siouxsie’s defiant voice. Her lyrics insist on rhymes with ‘light’:
Our hearts entwine / a new horizon
Remember when / bleached into white
Your time again / kept out of sight
Standing in the light
I never wanted to be right
Now I’m attracted by the light
And blinded by the sight
What is this light? ‘I never wanted to be right’; it’s confessing something, it sounds defeated. Genius suggests a light-before-death scene, fitting the cosmic images though not confirmed. Either way, I couldn’t ask for a stronger delivery.
Key to Juju’s impact was how it found Siouxsie between her punk roots and later refinement. She reached a raw desperation (especially live) that wasn’t quite the same with earlier and later periods. As it took one jam-based take to record with improvised lyrics, this song came from pure impulse. It told me that spontaneous bursts can birth the best inspiration.
Go here for my Siouxsie gateway playlist if you’re unfamiliar.
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.
Siouxsie is my favorite musician and it’s because of her albums that I legitimately became interested in music in the first place. I think this occasion makes for a good time to start listening to her music for those still unfamiliar.
So, I’ve tried to assemble a playlist of a song for every Banshees and Creatures album, including Siouxsie’s lone solo album Mantaray to somewhat give a taste of all the major releases. I tried to keep it mostly accessible and not entirely made up of obvious hits (as great as those songs are). I also left out B-sides because there’s just too many good ones to fit in there for now – but I hope to make a proper playlist out of those in the near-future as well.
1. Pure (The Scream)
2. Icon (Join Hands)
3. Red Light (Kaleidoscope)
4. Into The Light (Juju)
5. Cascade (A Kiss In The Dreamhouse)
6. Morning Dawning (Feast)
7. Swimming Horses (Hyaena)
8. The Sweetest Chill (Tinderbox)
9. Hall Of Mirrors (Through The Looking Glass)
10. Carousel (Peepshow)
11. Pluto Drive (Boomerang)
12. Little Sister (Superstition)
13. Forever (The Rapture)
14. Say (Anima Animus)
15. Further Nearer (Hai!)
16. Here Comes That Day (Mantaray)
17. Love Crime (Single)