That The Sisters of Mercy have existed as a band almost continuously in one form or another for 35 years is no doubt some kind of miracle. Despite near constant turmoil in the ranks and having not recorded for the last 20 or so years of that existence, ringleader Andrew Eldtritch has kept at it, carving out an iconic singular sound that despite the constant goth pigeonholing has always occupied its own niche. (Of course, if you ask any of goth’s forefathers, they’ll refute the nebulous tag, so one could just as easily make the argument that the Sisters are an embodiment of that darkened aesthetic.)
The Sisters of Mercy story begins in Leeds in 1980 as a partnership between Eldritch, then on drums, and guitarist Gary Marx. They were soon joined by bassist Craig Adams and second guitarist Ben Gunn, with Eldritch taking his rightful position on vocals and handing off drumming duties to Doktor Avalanche, a drum machine. This line-up released the Alice and Reptile House EPs before Gunn was replace by Wayne Hussy in time for First and Last and Always, the band’s debut full-length, released by Warner Bros. in March 1985.
By all accounts, the making of the album was long and costly. The band spent weeks holed up in a studio outside Manchester, with Eldritch strung out on amphetamines while struggling to match lyrics to the songs composed primarily by Marx and Hussey. The arduous process led to the record being released in 1985 instead of ’84, as originally planned, as well tensions between band members. Just a month after the album was released, Marx quit the band, and by November the rest of the members had parted ways.
Despite the struggle surrounding its creation—or perhaps because of it—First and Last and Always is a gripping mix of icy atmosphere and emotionally singed lyrics. Maybe as a result of being so labored over, the record doesn’t sound like a debut, but rather the assured work of a group with a locked vision. Of course, the “Temple of Love” single and EPs that preceded the record had indicated that the Sisters had long ago wiped away the wetness from behind their ears. Still, it wasn’t a given they could sustain the doom and gloom over the course of a full album without coming off campy. From the onset, First and Last proves to have been worth Eldritch’s painstaking efforts. Opener “Black Planet” is a thrilling contrasting of light and dark, Eldritch’s baritone bellowing out a depiction of a dystopian world over a shifting mix of sparkling acoustic riffs and a serpentine electric lead guitar. That it is followed by “Walk Away” proves to be a knockout combination. Here, Eldritch sings from the end of his tether, delivering his lines in a near constant stream of consciousness over beats that are at once tribal and mechanized.
It would be easy to go over the highlights of each song one-by-one, but suffice it to say, the record is a nuanced work that easily sidesteps the cliches and trappings that could easily befall someone dabbling in such a baleful excursion. This is best exemplified on “Nile While Nine,” where Eldritch sounds his most frail. Delivering a mix of frosty imagery, which he purposefully juxtaposes verse-to-verse, he allows his cold bellow to crack to reveal his humanity. Though Eldritch would later be accused by his former bandmates of becoming the kind of rock stereotype that they originally derided, throughout this record, he contrasts the stoic facade with real bloodletting. Closed by the epic “Some Kind of Stranger,” if First and Last and Always had lived up to its title and been the only album the Sisters of Mercy ever made, it could stand on its own as a singular statement.
To celebrate the First and Last’s 30th anniversary, Rhino has issued the record paired with the Sisters’ 12-inch singles from the time as a four-record set. Chief among the singles is “Body and Soul,” which the group put out the year before First and Last’s release. With this set available both digitally and on four slabs of vinyl, it marks the first time this version of the single’s title track has been available in the former format. Same for “Afterhours,” one of three B-sides, but it is the other two cuts on the EP that take the proverbial cake. “Body Electric” is a pounding mix of cracking beats and echoed abominations, while “Train” is a swirl of ethereal guitars, howls, and Eldritch’s cold delivery. The set is rounded out by the two singles taken from the album, “Walk Away” and “No Time to Cry.” Each of these EPs includes two B-sides every bit as fully formed as the cuts on First and Last, which makes sense as the band reportedly had 18 songs recorded after their initial session and only 10 made it onto the album. Of these, Eldritch’s “Bury Me Deep” (from “No Time to Cry”) is particularly jarring, with the singer carrying the weight of the dirge-like track.
While the set may seem exorbitant to those less familiar with the Sisters of Mercy’s oeuvre, it’s a fitting encapsulation of this era of the band. With Marx going on to form Ghost Dance and Adams and Hussey starting The Mission, these records are the scarce fruits of this short-lived conglomeration of talents and deserving of lavish treatment (and praise). Of course, this is only chapter one in The Sisters of Mercy story (and Rhino has already promised similar treatment of the subsequent chapters), but it is worthy of being pored over again and again.