The 8 Ball 03.02.13: The Top 8 Goth Rock Bands
Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Music Zone! I’m your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, I will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You’re free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is “wrong” is just silly. With that in mind, let’s get right in to it!
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I have a confession to make: I was a teenage goth. While I actually grew more into my goth roots in young adulthood, the genre was one of the first I gravitated toward as I became more and more into rock music during my youth. The genre takes quite a beating these days as a rule; “goth rock” inspires images of pale-faced freaks with long hair in all black smoking their cloves and leaving dark lipstick stains on rims of glasses full of absinthe. And truth be told, there is obviously a segment of the goth population that fits that stereotype. Those within the much-maligned subculture know that is only the most popular, media-driven image of a goth. Either way, the subculture has largely gravitated around pop culture since its inception and paramount in that interest is music. Goth music is just as maligned and misunderstood as those who listen to it; everyone from Marilyn Manson and thrash metal to emo bands, horror-rap have been incorrectly hit with the label of “gothic music,” as news programs use the term as a catch-all phrase for whatever types of music sound dark and scare parents. This week I thought we could look at the best in the gothic rock genre and take a trip back to a simpler, gloomier time.
Caveat: Let’s make it perfectly, crystal clear what is and is not a goth rock band. To start off with: Marilyn Manson is not goth rock. He has some gothic influences in his music to be sure, but Manson best fits into the industrial metal genre and just because a bunch of kids used to run around in black lipstick listening to “Sweet Dreams” doesn’t make them a goth band. Nine Inch Nails is not goth rock either. Goth rock was a genre of music that grew out of the post-punk era and took a stylistic divergence; the genre tends to have a strong focus on keyboards and focuses more on an atmospheric sound than shock value. Lyrics tend toward the dark and morbid, but not just for morbidity’s sake; there is a level of introspection there. It is worth mentioning that I did not include Joy Division, because while they were essential in goth rock’s birth they are less goth than post-punk. In addition, while I have specifically discounted Manson and Reznor that doesn’t mean that goth rock is a late ’70s and ’80s-only phenomenon; it remains a part of rock music even today, albeit in a lessened stature than during its height. I could put a full list of “not goth groups” that would run longer than my actual list and people will still find groups that aren’t goth to include, but those are the big ones that come to mind.
The Mission UK
First up on the list is a group that came out of the early 1990s goth scene. Faith and the Muse are Monica Richards and William Faith, a pair of musicians that formed when Richards’ group Strange Boutique performed in Norfolk, Virginia in 1993. Richards met Faith, who had performed with groups like Mephisto Waltz and Christian Death, and the rest is history. The act is perhaps not one of the most well-known groups in the genre but their artistry is undeniable they share a pagan influence that is seen in other gothic and darkwave groups that have come both before and after the group. Albums like 1996’s Annwyn, Beneath the Waves and 2003’s The Burning Season are essential pagan goth LPs. The band continues recording to this day, built around the two with a rotating live musician line-up, and are regular contributors to the gothic collaborative project known as The Eden House. More importantly and significantly to the goth scene as a whole, FATM avoided the trap that many goth groups have in evolving their sound, avoiding the often-noted tendency of the genre to stay stuck in the glory days of the ’80s and early ’90s and remaining a vital part of the genre’s survival.
There are those who would scoff at the idea that Lacuna Coil is a goth rock band, believing that they have been lumped in (either fortuitously or unfairly, depending on your opinion of the genre) due to some thematic similarities. Those people would be well-served to give the band a second listen though, particularly their earlier albums where the more traditional gothic influences are much stronger. The Italian-based metal band is one of the most well-known goth metal bands and, more importantly, one of the most beloved. Fronted by Christina Scabbia and Andrea Ferro, the group formed out of the goth rock group Sleep of Right and helped contribute to the genre’s rise in the late 1990s. The band has regularly toed the line between more traditional alt-metal and goth rock for most of their career but it is difficult to deny their placement within the genre or the power of their music, which has regularly received high marks from both the fickle fans of the genre and critics who are not often kind to groups that get slapped with the gothic label. The survival of the genre has depended on groups like Lacuna Coil, who may sound a bit more mainstream than Alien Sex Fiend fans may prefer but have earned their status within the genre through the consistency of their work.
One of the reasons that goth rock remains popular to this day is, undeniably, the iconic image of the black Victorian-garbed, snakebite-drinking, pale and makeup-laden youths who sit in darkened corners of gloomy clubs. But anyone who has spent time within the goth scene knows that there is much more to the subculture than that; there are practically as many varieties of “goth types” as there are people within the subculture. There is a heavy filmic influence on the culture and you need look no further than Fields of the Nephilim for an example of how that look can vary from vampire movies while still remaining true to the culture. Fields of the Nephilim is one of the more hard rock-tinged bands in the scene, formed in England in 1984 by Carl McCoy, Gary Wisker, Tony Pettitt, Paul Wright and Nod Wright. The group affected a more western-themed look, inspired by Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns and introducing the all-important duster/trench coat into the goth look. The band was far more than just their image though; the band’s heavier sound is punctuated with fantastic hooks and an epic scope that befits their cinematic look and they inspired a host of acts that would follow them with their sound. The band is not nearly as prolific as during their heyday; they perform only infrequently and only McCoy remains of the original lineup. However, their heyday includes some of the best gothic hard rock recorded to this day.
There are certain bands that are unavoidable when discussing gothic rock, and one of those is undoubtedly Type O Negative. Let me be clear here (in case the #5 ranking didn’t make it obvious), I’m not saying this in a negative fashion, as if you are simply obligated to talk about them whether you want to or not. It is simply that Type O is one of those bands that immediately come to mind when talking about the genre. Some groups, particularly in the modern era, have tried to do everything they can to backpedal from the label (and corresponding stigma) of being a gothic group. Not so with Type O; the group called themselves the “Drab Four” in homage to the Beatles’ “Fab Four” nickname and sort of became one of the flag bearers of the genre during the late 1990s and early ’00s when it was no longer wise to call yourself goth due to incidents like Columbine and general derision from mainstream music fans. What really endears Type O as a goth group is that while they have all the hallmarks of a goth group, their most important attribute is their sense of humor. I know it may surprise some people that goths can have any emotion other than depression, but the truth of the matter is that the subculture has at its core a very strong wit and sense of ironic humor to it and Type O displayed that well. Sadly, founder Peter Steele passed away in 2010 of heart failure; that became the end of the band which, honestly, is probably for the best as Steele was the heart of the group. The twenty years of music that fans received however is some of the best goth rock out there.
Inkubus Sukkubus is a band who, like Faith in the Muse, combined their new age roots with their gothic sensibilities to create a pagan goth rock sound. What places the British band above their American counterparts is a distinctly more influential sound and a lot more of a rock sensibility. Anyone who has ever considered themselves a goth is probably familiar with “Belladonna & Aconite,” the title track from the group’s debut LP which was a permanent fixture on goth rock compilations throughout the 1980s and 1990s. As a Wiccan who was a big fan of the gothic scene, this band had an obvious appeal to me but it wasn’t just my connection with the neo-pagan trappings that kept me listening; it was their fantastic blend of heavier rock influences and gothic sensibilities into an incredibly accessible mix that has stayed strong through fourteen albums in the past twenty years (along with a greatest hits album). The band obviously tackles supernatural themes but they don’t take a horror/shock approach which is to the music’s benefit; that’s a crowded marketplace and they stand out by not following that road. There has been a label placed upon them as the voice of neo-paganism, which I believe to be a bit unfair to them considering the unfortunate stereotype such a label carries with them. Either way they remain a vital part of the goth rock scene and are still going strong today.
I’m gonna get a little old school and go Carnac the Magnificent up in the house. (I could have gone the Nostradamus route and written a Quatrain, but people would just say I could have applied it to any of my future columns.) “Why aren’t they #1″ and “They don’t belong on the list.” The envelope please…the question was, “What are the two most likely responses to the Cure being on this list?” To be sure, there are people who strongly feel that it is, to put it politely, not accurate to consider The Cure a gothic band. And there is no doubt that they have diverged from the format several times, tackling lighter fare in addition to their gloomier works. (Wish, I’m looking at you.) But there is also no arguing that they contributed more toward the rise of goth music within mainstream consciousness than anyone who has come before or after them, and I’m not just talking about Robert Smith’s famous fashion sense and hairstyle. Smith himself has expressed a disdain for goth rock and routinely rejects that the band has delved into genre. But one listen to their classic “A Forest” proves him instantly wrong; whether he likes it or not Smith’s band has the melodic bass lines, the atmosphere-heavy keyboards and the dark lyrics that are characteristic of the genre. And I’m not just talking about the one song; the band’s first several albums all had heavy goth rock influences from Three Imaginary Boys and Seventeen Seconds through Faith and particularly Pornography in 1982. It wasn’t until The Top that their sound diversified a bit and even then there were strong goth rock influences that have continued through to this day. The band ventures into pop territory but Smith is always at his best when he’s taking a bleak look internally and that is gothic music at its core.
Everything else may be debatable in a list like this (or any list), but the top two choices are pretty much universal; it just matters how you rank them. Coming in at #2 for me is the band that is generally considered the first true goth rock group in Bauhaus. Fronted by the King of Goth himself in Peter Murphy, Bauhaus (originally called Bauhaus 1919, a reference to the German Bauhaus art movement of the 1920s) shot to instant popularity and basically kicked off the goth rock craze in high gear with “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” a nine-minute epic that was famously recorded in one single take and became the go-to song for vampire-themed entertainment. Many a goth was raised on Peter Murphy’s baritone chanting “Undead, Undead, Undead.” Like many goth bands, Bauhaus had a relatively short lifespan but a long legacy; 1983’s Burning from the Inside was the band’s last album before they went their separate ways. Of course they would reunite for several concerts and then finally released a new album in 2008, but it was their four-year run that set the stage for the gothic rock movement and set Murphy on a pedestal as the king of the genre; they brought all the other acts to the table.
While Bauhaus may have been the first goth rock group, I’ve always felt that Sisters of Mercy were the act that perfected it. Andrew Eldritch may or may not be (depending on who you talk to) one of the most arrogant and pretentious men in rock, but when he and Gary Marx founded this group in Leeds in 1979, he began building the road that would create some of the best music in the genre. Where Bauhaus loved steeping itself in the romantic horror trappings of the Victorian age, Eldritch and company looked around themselves and saw an increasingly decaying world right here in the present to sing about. Their 1987 album Floodland, created after Eldritch performed a coup on the band, may just be the best single LP of goth rock ever produced, with epic and sweeping tracks as “This Corrosion,” “Lucretia My Reflection” and “Dominion/Mother Russia.” They followed that, their second LP, up with an equally good disc in Vision Thing. The band fell apart soon after due to a variety of reasons, not the least of which were legal matters between Eldritch and the band’s label in EastWest Records. He has since continued to tour with new members and has a host of still-unreleased songs that could one day become an album, which would be phenomenal. Maybe someday.
MUSIC VIDEO A-GO-GO
As huge of a fan as I am of Joy Division, they were the masters of the genre that goth grew out of in post-punk and not a goth band themselves. Still, I can’t not include a song of theirs so enjoy “Shadowplay” below:
And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don’t forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.