What is Darkness? A Triptych of 2017 Gothic Noise

by Diego Aguilar-Canabal

When I was but a wee lad raised in the cloistered, baby-proofed suburbs of America’s car paradise, I was raised to believe that “goth” culture was something sinister, but also crude. Verboten, yet readily available at the mall. It was Slipkot shirts at Hot Topic and Nine Inch Nails wristbands the hair and the cigarettes and, in short, more about buying stuff (namely drugs and ugly clothes) than feeling any sort of way. And it certainly wasn’t about good tunes.

So here are three goth-ish records of 2017 that I wish had been around in 2007. While I may have been born too late for Ministry or Suicide, I’m just in time to enjoy these.

Ötzi – Ghosts

Oakand’s Ötzi is the rare sort of band that seems to genuinely enjoy being dark and dreary. These lush, wintry post-punk songs sparkle with a sheen of sincere, plaintive pathos. And it’s just plain fun.

It’s a good reminder, too, that before even “death-rock” was a whisper from a music critic’s lips, all the anti-authoritarian rock music we enjoy today was just fermenting in a morass of undefined sounds. It wasn’t quite punk, definitely not metal, not glam or power pop but not-not those things either. Just try not to break things in your bedroom while cranking the anthemic banger “Ghosts,” which evokes everything from Siouxsie to the Raincoats to—dare I say, even a bit of Van Halen?

There’s a touch of that driving, relentless pulse that made the Wipers’ “Youth of America” such an unusually psychedelic hit in the 80s punk canon. It’s a brazen stew of rock ‘n’ roll tempered not so much by sophistication as just sheer, authentic emotional depth. It’s what an acquaintance once dubbed—and I promise never to utter this again—“Depeche Motorhead.”

Another personal favorite of mine is “Sunlight,” a shimmery, bass-driven adventure that is restrained by a contemplative 80s-style grimness of a 2am blend of blood, xanax, and eyeliner. You’re likely to find your own highlights that won’t align with mine, though; Ghosts is a sort of Rorschach test for the dark rock fan who, to varying degrees, may allow themselves a bit of fun now and then.

Jarboe & Father Murphy – EP

This single haunted me since autumn, but for the longest time, I couldn’t muster any words about it. Then the local San Francisco news cycle picked up into a frenzied pace, and I scarcely had time to even exchange words with my own family. But Father Murphy’s mystique is just like that: a mercurial undertow of ritualistic power that will take its sweet time to bore into your soul.

There could hardly be a better pairing for the Italian horror-doom outfit than Jarboe, an accomplished vocalist in her own right who emerged as a driving force in the industrial-rock band Swans.

“The Ferryman” is a deeply disturbing spoken-word nightmare, backed by a harmonium drone and lonely acoustic guitar that foregrounds Jarboe’s faded, distant-sounding poetry. It doesn’t stick in your head right away, but upon repeated listens, it’s not the sort of thing you can easily forget.

The B-side track, “Truth or Consequences,” is really where the collaborators seem to let loose and have some fun. Jarboe is joined by a spooky organ line, melancholy bells, and a hissing tape screech that evokes Father Murphy’s heavier moments.

It’s not the sort of collaboration that fans of each artist would have eagerly anticipated, but rather one that shows the most thoughtful merging of artistic visions. While Jarboe’s esoteric and anti-operatic style is obviously well-suited to pair with Father Murphy’s dramatic style, but the result isn’t just a simple juxtaposition of their styles. Better comparisons would include the collaborative album Altar by Sunn O))) and Boris, two drone-metal bands who deliberately put thir heads together to conjure up something far more profound than just a joint jam session.

When I started challenging genre-based stereotypes of my own initiative I happened to dig out an old Bauhaus record from my father’s record collection. After several nights of letting its unforgettable atmosphere wash over me, I demanded that my parents explain just how they could have thought to raise me without this critical artifact in my music education. The response was typical: “What, are we supposed to remember to show you everything we once enjoyed? That would take forever.”

It would—and I could never hope to do the same for my hypothetical progeny—but for my readers, all I can hope is that later really is better than never. In case you missed this stellar record, I hope I’ve more than made amends.

Pan Daijing – Lack

There was no better mindfuck in 2017 than listening to this album in complete darkness, with a rare California rainfall gushing outside my window, with no other stimulation but some fading Palo Santo embers. The visionary Chinese performance artist Pan Daijing delivered what may have been the finest record I had heard all year, but it wouldn’t have left such an impact on me if these two previous works hadn’t paved the way.

A collage of gasping, howling vocal sceances, scattered stabs of piano, and blistering noise builds up a non-linear narrative of truly spiritual proportions. There’s no other album like it out there, and there are no feelings in the realm of human emotion quite like the ones you’ll feel during Lack’s brief cycle through your eardrums.

Frankly, a point worth addressing is this: male hegemony marginalizes the work of female, queer, and nonbinary artists by coding all “dark” or “heavy” intentional sounds as “masculine” by default. And, even more frankly, until those assumptions are irrevocably torn down, it’s important to highlight those voices that might not otherwise fit in these cultural norms, even at the risk of “tokenizing” what some artists may prefer to simply “normalize.”

Until the children of the future discover records by the likes of Otzi, Jarboe, or Pan Daijing, we can’t take it for granted that we, as their parents, will have the foresight to pass these artifacts on to them. We must make a conscious effort to build a world worth inheriting.

There are many other notable women who sing and make avant-garde noise—take Puce Mary, Pharmakon, an Oakland’s Tainted Pussy, for example—but Pan Daijing has a wholly incomparable, phantasmagoric style that is far more brutal than those aforementioned chanteuses. Fans of Puce Mary may particularly enjoy the hardcore techno bass-throbs on “Act of the Empress,” for example, but there’s just nothing else like it. Pharmakon uses field recordings and distortion, sure, but that would hardly prepare you for the disorienting soundscapes on “Eat” or “A Situation of Meat.”

Closing track “Lucid Morto” serves as a stately theme for the new world you could build with your listening habits. An eerie, singular drone slowly builds into a multi-vocal, microtonal organ theme, which winds and dissolves throw a blizzard of tape hiss and crackle. Its emotional ambiguity is at once arresting and inspiring, full of hope and dread.

“Here’s what I have to offer,” it seems to say—“what you do with it is up to you.”

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One thought on “What is Darkness? A Triptych of 2017 Gothic Noise

  1. Pingback: DECAYCAST Reviews: MOIRA SCAR “Wound World Part 1” (Near Dark, 2018) – D E C A Y C A S T

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