New Genre Alert: Loud Guitar Goth (Featuring Maggot Heart, Tombs & More)
Maggot Heart. Rope Sect. GOLD. Tombs. Some of these bands are metal. Some are not. If you like some metal and some not-metal then you might like some of these?
Waaaaaaaaay back in the Year of Our Disappointment 2015, our buddy Dagon wrote a primer on the crossover between post-punk and metal. (Read it here.) That article gave me a boner. I still have it. And yet Dagon did not utter the term “goth” even once in the course of his article, despite the fact that many of the bands covered there draw direct inspiration from hallowed goth traditions. He probably avoided it because for decades now it has been an icky word. In the beginning (the 80s) it was a term for the darker bands under the wide post-punk umbrella. Since then the word has been corrupted by dumb teenagers who hate their parents and commercial entities seeking to exploit the dumbness of dumb teenagers who hate their parents. I could rant for days about how awful European metal labels and cynical movie studios and fucking Hot Topic have drained gothic imagery of all authenticity–but I won’t. Suffice it to say that there was a time when goth rock (post-punk, deathrock, darkwave, call it whatever the fuck you want) was as legitimate and vital a countercultural phenomenon as the punk rock which spawned it.
And it is coming back. Or maybe it never disappeared? I don’t know. Cleopatra Records did so much damage to the genre throughout the 90s that it’s hard to say. Like Rome, they reigned imperial for a time and then collapsed underneath their own unsustainable bloat. The wreckage seems to have persisted for a good decade. Or else I just lost interest, got too deeply into metal to see what was happening in other subcultures. Whatever the case, I’m sensing a resurgence of the classic goth sound. It is rearing its head in exciting and unexpected forms. And most of it is coming from the metal community.
We begin with the awesomely monikered Maggot Heart. Maggot Heart remembers that there was a time when rock and metal were the same thing. Maggot Heart remembers that goth is really just the rage of punk turned inward. Maggot Heart remembers when the guitar was an instrument of extreme self-expression, when songs were brutally infectious, when lyrics cut deep. This is the new project of Linnéa Olsson, formerly of The Oath and Beastmilk/Grave Pleasures. As the figurehead of Maggot Heart (which also includes former members of the goth-metal hybrid In Solitude), Olsson has righted everything that Beastmilk got wrong. Firstly by writing songs which kick an unspeakable amount of ass. So much ass. Tremendous, tremendous ass. Hearing the first few moments of debut ep City Girls, I felt as if angels were jizzing white light into the hole in my heart. Thankfully as a vocalist Olsson has not fallen into the same somnambulant tarpit as every other female deathrock singer on the face of the planet. Across the ep her voice is refreshingly animated, only really jaded around the edges, and at times almost as pissed as the dirty garage-rock guitar or the wall-shaking drumming which support it. City Girls is comprised of four snarling attacks on the lurid emptiness of nocturnal city dwelling. It evokes crepuscular images of streetwalkers, tramps and junkies adrift on a neon ocean of urban swill; of dead-end third shift jobs and depressing studio apartments; of the type of extreme alienation which eventually sublimates into rage. I cannot get these songs out of my head. They’re there when I wake, blasting away. They’re there at work, driving me through the physical drudgery and chronic pain. I’ve caught myself singing lines like “The love is liquid and the day is night” or “You need a reason to shake the fleas off of your soul” in close proximity to other human beings who I could have sworn were not there a minute ago . . . I might go insane. I might require psychiatric treatment to get Maggot Heart’s voices and hooks out of my brain. I reckon it’s the kind of sickness that can only be cured by a proper full-length album. (Soon please.)
I discovered exhibit B, Rope Sect, during a bandcamp tag-dive inspired by my instant love of Maggot Heart. Like many post-punk bands, Rope Sect is signed to a metal label, in this case Caligari Records. Their debut album, Personae Ingratae, is an interesting beast. It comes off like a much louder take on Sisters of Mercy, yet it is also highly lo-fi. I find the juxtaposition of catchy songwriting and negligent production value quite charming; the album sounds like it was recorded in a garage on a four-track. Like Maggot Heart, Rope Sect remembers that you can be loud and fast and gloomy at the same time; that the expression of numbness or sorrow need not be slowed down to zero bpm or subdued by an utterly dejected performance. On Personae Ingratae the guitars are loud and trashy, the drums are busy and the hooks are haywire. It is essentially the work of a single German musician who calls himself Inmesher. His guitar work calls to mind the intricate and idiosyncratic style that Valor Kand once brought to Christian Death (before ruining that band by turning it into an embarrassingly unsubtle anti-Christian goth-industrial piece of shit). And his silky-smooth tenor–so emblematic of classic goth–is curiously evocative of the doped-up mysticism of Blue Oyster Cult or The Moody Blues. I guess there are two aspects which elevate Rope Sect above the scads of lo-fi deathrock floating around out there: 1) Inmesher can actually shred the guitar, and 2) He can actually sing. If Rope Sect ever decides to get hi-fi I’d be very, very into it. If not, same.
Exhibit C: GOLD. I first heard GOLD (ALWAYS ALL CAPS, never lowercase) at the tail end of 2015, when they released an album on Profound Lore, which is perhaps the most notorious of the metal labels with a soft spot for post-punk. At the time GOLD’s unique contribution to goth revivalism didn’t really tickle me. I’m not sure why. I was still mad that Atriarch and Vaura had gone a bit goth but not goth enough. Maybe, conversely, GOLD was not metal enough? They’re plenty loud–especially live–but their loudness owes more to the unmetalness of post-metal than to black or doom or metal metal. Which is to say that they bring impenetrable walls of reverb and distortion from shoegaze to a tight, angular post-punk machine by way of the squealing dissonance of noise rock. All of it tempered by measured, almost statuesque vocals, reminiscent of Siouxie Sioux on mood-stabilizers. GOLD released their third album, Optimist, this year on Ván Records (also a metal label), and oh boy is it a doozie. They have somehow crafted a work of classic post-punk perfection without blindly repeating any other works of classic post-punk perfection. The percussion takes that obtuse, bottom-heavy, repetitive approach; the bass is front-and-center but not the prettiest girl in the room; the guitars, while thick and ever-present, are somehow unobtrusive, more of a blur than the wiry, skeletal sounds of yesterday’s goth. I suppose GOLD’s triumph here is in their horizontal song-structures, which exhibit a preference for the building and releasing of tension as opposed to the repetition of simple hooks. When the songs finally reach high tide, the guitars spill over with peals of tremolos that foam with the kind of reverb-saturation which has become so popular in blackgaze. And those vocals, so even of keel and yet so commanding: I could listen to her sing the list of ingredients on a package of frozen veggie burgers (it’s a looooong list) and still feel inspired to political action.
Tombs. Oh, Tombs. They have meandered through many styles of dark and heavy music, from blackish metal to post-metal to post-punk, never excelling at any one and–to these ears–never achieving a coherent sound all their own. Until now, I’ve never given any of their albums a full listen because cursory listens always elicit a resounding “meh”. With new album The Grand Annihilation, due out June 16th on Metal Blade, have they transcended the meh? Well, where do I begin? This is an extremely uneven album, so much so that the shift in styles from one song to the next–from metal to post-punk and back–would feel like a grand betrayal if I gave a shit. Happily, I do not. The front of the album is stacked with the kind of sterile, overly simple blackish metal which has been their staple for several albums. I wish I could just blame the sterility on the squeaky-clean, bottom-biased production, but the performances turned in here are really just…underwhelming. It’s like everything that was wrong with that Woe album–minus the emotion. Things go seriously awry with “Underneath”, the first of the goth tunes. I literally burst out laughing as soon as those tuneless, crooning clean vocals appeared. If Mike Hill ever had a grasp on what makes dark metal and dark rock great, he has lost it. “Walk with Me in Nightmares” retreads similar ground, yet somehow manages to make it so much worse. How is it possible to prefer Moonspell‘s clean vocals over this? Cheese and Rice!, I’m listening again as I type this and I don’t even want to taint my appreciation of goth by roping this tepid nonsense into the genre. The stack at the end of the album is all goth, and it is all bad. If this is Mike Hill making fun of post-punk, fine, carry on, you’re doing a bang-up job of taking everything silly and cliché about the music and cranking it up. But if this is Mike Hill’s deathly serious attempt to create crossover metallic goth art, then we need to get a petition going for him to stop it. Just stop it.
No point rating this album. But I’m gonna do it anyway because it pleases me.
Today, the rosters of ostensibly metal labels like The Flenser and Profound Lore are flooded with excellent post-punk bands, from Soft Kill and Have a Nice Life to Heat Death and Psalm Zero. So yes, goth is alive and kicking, and some of its greatest support is coming from metal. I like it. This is something that I’ve wanted to see happen for a long time. This is something that needs to keep happening: metal bands going goth, goth bands going metal. I don’t recall when I first heard the stirrings of this movement. Maybe it was back in 2008 when Hateful Abandon *ahem* abandoned black metal for a melange of goth and doom with Famine, released on the metal label Todestrieb. That album was not entirely successful–a bit corny at times–but it was a welcome affirmation of the possibility of miscegenation between deathrock and metal; nothing much like it had been attempted since Beyond Dawn‘s mid-90s metamorphosis from doom metal into gloompop. In 2009 Soror Dolorosa, featuring Andy Julia of Nuit Noire and Peste Noire, went more goth than goth with their masterful debut ep Severence, also released on Todestrieb. (Later Soror Dolorosa albums would appear on Beneath Grey Skies, a sublabel of Northern Silence.) Concurrently, Amesoeurs released their one and only full-length album which, while stylistically polarized, remains peerless in its harnessing of the youthful malaise of post-punk. Then in 2012 Vaura threatened to release a goth record only to hit us with Selenelion, a wonderful progressive metal album in its own right but certainly not goth. In 2013 they made good on that initial threat with The Missing, which was the most successful fusion of goth and metal so far, yet somehow unfulfilling. In 2014, on An Unending Pathway, Atriarch all-too-briefly channeled the greatness of the Rozz Williams era of Christian Death (THE ONLY TRUE CHRISTIAN DEATH), which tickled my nips greatly. Alaric was up to something at the time, too, I think; I don’t know, I wasn’t really into it. I wasn’t really into Beastmilk/Grave Pleasures either, which turned out to be more of an interesting failure than anything. Things went a bit quiet for a while after that. Then boom–Maggot Heart comes out of nowhere with the shot in the arm goth has needed all along. At some point during my first listen to City Girls, the term “loud guitar goth” popped into my head. (New microgenre? Sure, why not?) And that is really the crux of this article. Goth is coming out of the shadows. Forgetting everything it knew about itself. Getting loud. Going metal. Good. (Except for Tombs. Tombs is bad.)
Maggot Heart’s City Girls is out June 9th on Teratology Sound & Vision. Buy it.
Rope Sect’s Personae Ingratae came out April 14th on Caligari Records. Buy it.
GOLD’s Optimist came out January 5th on Ván Records. Buy it.
Tombs’ The Grand Annihilation comes out June 16th on Metal Blade. Buy it?