A Brief History of Deathrock, Part III

Cinema Strange, Drop Dead Festival

A new crop of deathrock bands has reclaimed its punk roots and is pushing the music in a new and compelling direction. According to to Louder Than War goth “music in the nineties was largely dire, possibly due to the scene’s popularity at the end of the eighties bringing in a lot of people without those punk roots” that had originally invigorated the music. “It’s high time the scene looked back and reinvented itself again.”

The first revival of deathrock came in the late 1990s as goth, per se, became largely synonymous with a style of industrial dance music influenced by the Wax Trax roster of bands and also by club DJs’ own personal ’80s new wave dancefloor nostalgia. By 1998, “goth” bands that held onto guitars or human drummers were seen as “old school” — or as hopelessly anachronistic, lost in an early eighties timewarp. The Release the Bats DJ night that was established in the Los Angeles area in 1998 was one response to the increasing techno-ization of the genre. The first revival of deathrock came about at the founding of Release the Bats in 1998, and existed until around 2004, when that revival became saturated with cartoony nu-deathrock bands.

As the guitar-driven gothic rock of the 1980s became the neutered and guitar-less “goth” dance music of the late 90s club scene, a few things did happen to counter that trend. On the east coast, New York City’s The Skabs combined a 45 Grave approach with an experimental electronic sound that was reminiscent of old no wave or  synthpunk acts like The Screamers. On the opposite coast, San Francisco’s Phantom Limbs , on the Alternative Tentacles label, and a related band, Black Ice, did the same. Post-riot grrls the Subtonix similarly approached the genre from a fresh angle. Veronica Lipgloss and the Evil Eyes would break new ground in this style in the early 2000s, as well.

And yet, despite this updating of the deathrock sound with punky electronics, the deathrock genre was still largely regarded as irrelevant or as clinging to a moribund, passe style of music. Club owners and DJs obsessed with EBM steered the culture towards a musical style characterized by the sound of bands like Velvet Acid Christ, My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult, and Wumpscut. Patrons of these clubs bought into it, and came to think that that was what goth was, and is.

This trend continues to this day, dominated by bands on the Metropolis Records label — bands like Faderhead and Covenant, employing drum machines and autotuners. Rave culture and the new “club kids” phenomenon of the late 90s can also not be discounted as an influence driving club promoters to steer people into this new form of “gothic” music. A bizarre situation was eventually created where primal, pulsing rock and roll was deemed “undanceable,” whereas highly processed and artificial beats were “what people wanted,” instead. A new incarnation of the old punk vs. disco battle presented itself.

Not everyone in the late 1990s was on board with the shift towards techno and EBM, however. The deathrock band Antiworld began in 1995 and played an unapologetic style of deathrock that recalled bands like Action Pact and early Siouxsie and the Banshees. “I hope [the music] stays on the rockin’ side of deathrock rather than being watered down by a bunch of keyboard-driven bands,” singer Connie “Granny Fiendish” told Dropdead Magazine. “It is important to have an equal portion of punk rock and you definitely need a real, live drummer to rock.” The only reason anyone would proclaim the need for “a real, live drummer” would be if the culture had begun to favor artificial, techno-influenced beats.

Cinema Strange, Murder at the Registry, and Bloody Dead and Sexy sallied forth in spite of the overarching trend towards industrialized, dancey goth. “I don’t really acknowledge ‘Gothic’ as anything we are associated with,” Daniel of Cinema Strange told an interviewer in 2000. “’Gothic’ lifestyles,  hairstyles, music, and ways of dress are things that were born in the last five or six years. Our lives do indeed reflect facets of a lifestyle known as ‘deathrock.’”

Confusingly, deathrock – which had started as an outgrowth of the Southern California punk scene — became the victim of revisionist history. A new taxonomy was effected that placed deathrock under the overarching umbrella of  “goth,” which by 1999 meant “dark, slick club music.” Deathrock was thus a kind of weird, mutant cousin of goth — a freakish holdover from the 1980s. Even though “goth” was also an outgrowth of punk, like deathrock, one could increasingly safely attend event nights in one’s town advertised as “goth” without ever hearing any music that had guitars or human, acoustic drumming. Such things were/are “not danceable.”

The explosion of the internet and especially blogs ensured that fans and DJs of deathrock could become stewards of the culture to an unusual degree. DJ Mark Splatter began deathrock.com, a website devoted to preserving the history of the original deathrock, positive punk, and Batcave movements. The site featured — and does feature — in-depth profiles of bands like Amebix, Crisis, Theatre of Hate, and Rudimentary Peni  — bands whose existence is barely known among professional goth DJs, yet who are nonetheless seminal bands in the genre. These bands’ existence is often regarded as an embarrassment, something to be overlooked and ignored, by current DJs and would-be tastemakers in the deathrock scene.

In the early 2000s, explicitly deathrock event nights began popping up in response to — and in solidarity with —  LA’s Release the Bats. Older fans began ripping their records into mp3 format and trading them with other fans over Napster, and later via Soulseek, or mp3 blogs; this caused previously semi-obscure bands like Burning Image and Madhouse to become more widely known among younger  music fans. The renewed interest in these older bands, thanks to the internet, underscored to what degree the contemporary “goth” scene had diverged from its roots, and had gone off into a slick, techno-oriented direction, completely unmoored from its guitar-driven, postpunk origins. In Fact, internet fan interest caused Burning Image and Amebix to re-form, and to tour with a renewed sense of pride in their legacy being properly appreciated, finally.

Emily Strange figurine. Comic Con, 2007.

By 2004, bands like All Gone Dead and Tragic Black were the face of the new deathrock revival. These were bands that favored a cartoonishly exaggerated caricature of original Batcave imagery. This was coupled with a sanitized-sounding version of modern deathrock. The equally cartoonish, lunchbox-toting “kindergoth” trend of the 90s weighed (and does weigh) heavily on the aesthetics of this sort of gothic music. The growth of Suicide Girls and a kind of narcisstic, alt-model, Myspace culture ensured these folks were always properly primped and preened before coming on stage to play; the actual music increasingly seemed an afterthought, an accoutrement to sheer image appeal. This reached some kind of awful climax by 2005.

Coupled with the first deathrock revival of 1998-2004 was also the explosion, helped along by mall chain stores like Hot Topic, of a certain form of horror punk exemplified by bands like AFI and Blitzkid. “Gothabilly” also came into its own as a new form of psychobilly in this period; this was ironically wedded to the visual aesthetic of classic bands like the Cramps and the Misfits, but was taken to ever more ridiculous extremes. The Horror Pops, Tiger Army, Aiden, and, nowadays, The Birthday Massacre, present a coloring-book version of horror punk that is safe for children everywhere. It’s even kind of cute.

Thankfully, by 2008 a change in the DIY underground punk scene away from d-beat hardcore ensured that increasing numbers of bands were mining past postpunk and deathrock phenomena for a new way forward. These punk bands existed in a mileu that was completely divorced from the cartoony early 2000s “deathrock” revivalist culture of Los Angeles. Bands that were more likely to regularly read Maximum Rock and Roll than Dropdead were plumbing the vaults of Southern California deathrock and early ‘80s British positive punk for inspiration.

In 2005, the influence of Portland’s Observers (now the Red Dons) on the underground DIY hardcore scene was hard to overestimate; the band reminded that punk was as ever much about The Wall, The Mob, and Under Two Flags as it was about Discharge. In short order, bands like Remains of the Day spawned the moody postpunk band The Estranged; crust band Germ Attak spawned the goth-punk side-project Blue Cross. Discharge-worshippers Deathcharge evolved into a gothic rock juggernaut that has increasingly sounded as if it was taking its cues more from Rozz Williams’ old Shadow Project band than from the Varukers. All these bands are among the best examples of the current dark, underground postpunk revival, and they all mark a turning away from the visually-obsessed deathrock/horror punk revival of the early 2000s.

With the cartoonish excesses of the mid-2000 deathrock revival cast aside, modern bands — which have overwhelmingly come from the DIY hardcore punk scene — have refocused on the gritty and tribalistic roots of  deathrock and positive punk. Older bands like Killing Joke, The Damned, and Rudimentary Peni continue to make surprisingly relevant new music, reinforcing their importance on the direction of the culture. Arctic Flowers, for example, take their name from a Rubella Ballet song, and play a type of dark, anarcho-punk influenced music that is both political and surprisingly danceable. Dekoder, Tanzkommando Untergang, and Crimson Scarlet are also female-fronted modern goth-punk bands that harken back to the 1980s gothic peace punk of bands like Blood and Roses, the Lost Cherees, and Brigandage. Scarlet’s Remains essentially became Christ vs Warhol, a band that calls themselves “anarcho-postpunk” at their Facebook page (and whose Dissent LP is one of the best LPs of the past few years.) Together with Fangs on Fur, CvW lead a punk-tinged revival of roots-oriented deathrock in the Los Angeles area, the site of deathrock’s original appearance.

The Pacific Northwest corridor from San Francisco up into Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, however, is where most of this new deathrock activity has taken place: The Spectres, Modern Creatures, Dead Cult, Alaric, Atriarch, Bellicose Minds, Moral Hex, and Vivid Sekt. The East Coast’s Lost Tribe, Anasazi, and Agnostic Pray ensure that the revival is not regional-specific — as does Italy’s Dystopian Society and Horror Vacuii.

The explosion of deathrock among Spanish-speaking and Latin American nations also deserves notice. Spain’s Naughty Zombies’ Hospital was a brief, but bona fide, club hit, combining the riffage of The Scientists’ “Swampland” (or Elvis’ ”Little Sister”) with the sensibility of modern music production. Los Carniceros del Norte, Las Gorgonas, Eyaculacion Post-Mortem, and Mexico’s Acid Bats show to what degree deathrock, like the larger genres of hardcore punk and gothic rock, have become sprawling and vast international enterprises.

Cinema Strange photograph courtesy of GothEric. Emily Strange figurine photo courtesy of theMaykazine. Published under a Creative Commons license.

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