Gang of Four’s Andy Gill famously slagged off In the Flat Field in the NME by calling Bauhaus “a hip Black Sabbath,” but like many snarky British tabloid snipes, time has shown us that is no longer the insult he intended. I have always maintained that Sabbath had as much to do with the rise of gothic music as it did metal. Tony Iommi invented the metal riff, but there is a direct line from the overt darkness that permeated Black Sabbath to Joy Division, and from there, the two different genres divert away from each other.
Of course, over the years, they have occasionally intertwined, such as on Celtic Frosts’ groundbreaking Into the Pandemonium and in hardcore lothario Peter Steele’s Type O Negative. Early moments from such bands as Paradise Lost and The Gathering showed much promise, but generally lacking all of the majesty and especially the power that made both genres so vibrant, gothic metal soon devolved into a Hot Topic dumbing-down that was tragic to endure.
Evanescence sold millions of records. That’s the joke.
Fortunately, there are artists like Chelsea Wolfe and Cursed Moon. They come at a goth-metal intertwing from the opposite places. Wolfe is a reformed singer-songwriter who discovered metallic dissonance as a far more effective way for her to express the caliginosity in her life, while Sal “Hellraiser” Yanez, the man behind Cursed Moon, found that not only Ozzy barked at the moon. While their different origins are obvious, so are what they share.
Theatre of Living Arts, Philadelphia, October 15
Opener Youth Code is what you get when you take industrial music and remove the dance part, which though seeming counterproductive, oddly enough works.
Which isn’t to say you can’t or shouldn’t dance to it —I’d never tell others not to follow their muse—but the Los Angeles duo’s sound is caustically abrasive. The rhythms are bludgeoning and chaotic, and violence is palpable. Think of it as electro-punk stripped down to the barest foundations, brutal and unrelenting, but with a very subtle pop sensibility beneath the mechanized noise. Youth Code is this generation’s slightly more accessible answer to the criminally underrated Whitehouse.
You have to assume they know it too. The last time through Philly, they played with a couple of death metal bands, Tribulation and Horrendous. Tonight, it’s Chelsea Wolfe. As interesting as all of those groups are, you likely don’t dance to them either. Instead, it was best to just enjoy the cathartic explosive release and Sara Taylor’s energetic display and hoarse, emotive screams. With Ryan George’s synths, beats, and samples leading the way, Youth Code made that whole dancing thing seem pretty nonessential anyway.
If you listen to Chelsea Wolfe’s evolution over her half dozen albums, you can hear how she started connecting the dots from disaffected dramatic art school introspection to something more concrete, trading in the ethereal for the real, the tempest for the tangible. There’s nothing darker than reality. She probably always knew that, but now she has made peace with it. Or maybe not, but witnessing how she has allowed her music to work its way towards that goal has been breathtaking to say the least.
It was probably around Abyss, when she started working with members of Russian Circles, when this approach really started to congeal. She was able to be melodramatic by using electronics and hinting at neo-folk, but collaborating with metal musicians took it to the next level. It reached full maturation on this year’s Kurt Ballou–produced Hiss Spun. The record will be on many album of the year lists, and it is deserving of the accolades. The infusion of the metallic with the melancholic seems natural to her.
While on the album it sounds like someone stepping confidently out of her comfort zone, this music is more revelatory on the stage. She and her whole band wore black from head to toe. You might have lost sight of them on the darkened stage, but you always knew where they were. The band shined without spotlights, allowing Wolfe to confidently lead.
The band around her integrated itself seamlessly into what the frontwoman was doing. Sara Taylor from Youth Code joined in for “Vex,” and her shredding voice and frantic stage presence made her a contrasting equal to Wolfe’s haunting, halting evocation. She was not a backup singer; they collaboratively made the song their own. Only two songs in and Wolfe was already doing anything but playing it safe.
There is a simmering intensity to Chelsea Wolfe, and she is the rare artist who actually is empowered by displays of vulnerability. This allows her to connect with the audience, most of whom hung on every lyric, some openly displaying their own emotional response to Wolfe. She touches people and they respond and commiserate and empathize with the whispers that are as powerful as wails and the screaming too.
The full volume of Wolfe’s band stood in contrast to when the artist played guitar by herself, as on “Halfsleeper,” which was performed as an encore. The track, the oldest presented and the only song from her 2010 debut, The Grime and the Glow, showed where she came from. Set closer “Scrape,” which saw her band rejoining her for a final tribal blast, showed where she is now: not sure where she’s going, but it’s a safe bet to be a journey well worth your time.
Metalheads in Columbus used to spend weekend evenings at Outland, the local goth club. They would stand by the bar and not dance (dancing is not metal), nodding their heads to the music while downing Vampire’s Kisses and other similarly named noxious concoctions. I used to joke about how it made perfect sense: goths and metalheads both loved women in black leather! But the reality is that all involved had an unabashed love for and embrace of the darkness.
Sal “Hellraiser” Yanez came to this same realization in 2015 when he decided that writing a metal song in the vein of Sisters of Mercy would be fun. And thus Cursed Moon was born.
One-man bands are common in black metal, but not so much in what Yanez wanted to do. That said, what Yanez wanted to do wasn’t really common either. It didn’t even have a name. So he dubbed it “deathwave.” The appellation is perfect as Rite of Darkness (Hells Headbangers), the debut record, perfectly encapsulates death metal’s growl, black metal’s atmospherics, and the morose joy of goth-infused post-punk.
There are limitations here, to be sure. The drums sound dated, and Yanez’s’ grunted vocals are an acquired taste that betrays his metallic pedigree. The album is not one-dimensional, however you get the feeling that other musicians involved might have allowed it to transcend being two-dimensional.
All that said, Rite of Darkness is a really fun album. Opener “Gates of Hell” sounds like classic Fields of Nephilim, which is never a bad thing. The basslines of “Nightmares” and “Ritual Sacrifices” are inspired by Peter Hook’s keen sense of melody, if not his innovative style. “Witches’ Dance,” with chanted female backing vocals, has the bite that much modern gothic metal severely lacks.
The disc ends with a trio of covers that remove all doubt as to where Cursed Moon takes its inspiration. “A Rock and a Hard Place” sees Yanez ape Andrew Eldritch’s warbling in place of his own gruff style in a respectful rendition of the Sisters of Mercy classic. Disc closer is Skinny Puppy’s “Assimilate” that comes across even more sinister. In between is “Turn the Cross Upside Down” by cult Finnish band Oz from their 1984 EP of the same name. The original anthemic track sounds preternaturally danceable in Cursed Moon’s capable hands. Everyone at Outland would find a lot to like about Cursed Moon.