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What does gothic mean? If you’ve been to parts of Italy or Germany, for example, you might immediately identify it as a distinct type of architecture. If you studied literature at college then you probably associate the word with Edgar Allan Poe et al. The younger generation will simply envision moody outcasts from their school dressed head to toe in black.
None of these definitions are wrong – after all, it’s a term that has been used for hundreds of years (according the history boffins anyway). One unifying trait, however, is the promotion of dark or melancholic themes. Gothic bands did this through hypnotic rhythms, droning vocals, and gloomy lyrics.
Here are five bands that took those elements to the nth degree through guitar effects, atmospheric production and often operatic vocals.
Essential Album: ‘Victorialand’ (1986)
“Kick his pride, get him soaked, hit, run // Lift up your toes in my mouth // And we can make love and we can go.”
Scotland’s Cocteau Twins were, in a way, the alpha Goth band (note: there were four of them, not two) in that they set a template that was followed for years to come: otherworldly soprano vocals (in this case, courtesy of Elizabeth Fraser), dreamy guitar riffs laden with effects, and minimalist rhythms.
Though not as overtly dark as associated collective, This Mortal Coil, the band played a huge part in expanding gothic rock’s sonic capabilities. Their washed out guitar sound would become far more prevalent in the early 90s with the rise of shoegaze and dream pop.
With that said, one of these genres’ goals was to transport listener through sonic experimentation; Elizabeth Fraser’s voice could do that just on its own. You can hear her influence today on everything, from Beach House to Chvrches.
Essential Album: ‘First and Last and Always’ (1985)
“To sink still further // Beneath the fatal wave // Marian I think I’m drowning // This sea is killing me.”
You can’t really listen to contemporary bands like Editors and Interpol without subconsciously hearing the sonorous voice of Andrew Eldritch. These days, the term ‘moody’ is used by critics as a throwaway expression; in the 1980s, it was a way of identifying a select few acts.
In some ways, The Sisters of Mercy were very much of their time, especially instrumentally, with many tracks built on jangly guitars and driving post-punk grooves. They even disassociated themselves from the ‘goth’ scene, despite being labelled as such by most fans and critics.
Whatever they say, Eldritch’s deep mournful voice and their often-macabre lyrics hardly evoked images of rainbows and gumdrops. Their music had a challenging, even abrasive bent to it years before industrial acts would do the same with electronic music.
Essential Album: ‘Within the Realm of a Dying Sun’ (1987)
“And as the night turns into day // Will the sun illuminate your way // Or will your nightmares come home to stay? // Xavier’s love lies in chains.”
To describe Dead Can Dance as solely ‘gothic rock’ is simplistic, given the depth of their back catalogue (plus the band themselves rejected the term), but to leave them out of this list would be more insulting given their achievements.
Composed of multi-instrumentalists Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard, who were also both exceptional vocalists, the Australian band created gothic atmospheres in a variety of ways: Middle Eastern folk progressions, mesmeric chanted vocalists, emotional strings, Celtic instrumentation, and even medieval-styled motifs.
As a result, nobody sounded quite like them. Where many gothic groups relied solely on guitar sounds or melancholic lyrics, Gerard could reduce a listener to tears with just her voice – can anyone truly listen to that and feel nothing?
Essential Album: ‘Tinderbox’ (1986)
“The waves come rushing in // A crashing whispering // Drowning they drink me // Ah, not forgotten.”
Probably the most punk-influenced band on the list… but also the band with the most striking and subversive image. Siouxsie Sioux’s whole persona was the epitome of Goth, an intoxicating combination of sexual confidence and subtle melancholy.
Like Fraser, Gerrard and Eldritch, her brooding voice was undeniably the most effective weapon in the band’s arsenal. She had astonishing range, a rarity in the punk scene of the time.
Whereas many bands focused on the sonic potential of gothic music, the Banshees were seductive and inviting. To be Goth was to be cool; it became an entire identity of its own. It’s little wonder that Siouxsie Sioux remains such an icon.
Essential Album: ‘Elizium’ (1990)
“I’ll elude you, I will lose you // As rehearsal of my despair // When I feel like someone to lie on // And I feel like someone to die on.”
It was unsurprising when Fields of the Nephilim released ‘Elizium’ in 1990; this is what gothic rock had been building up to – a swirling cinematic masterpiece. Like the Sisters, Fields had a stand out frontman in Chris McCoy, but the band’s natural inclinations were somewhat different.
Growled vocals and references to the occult suggested that they’d listened to a fair bit of heavy metal. Unlike most head-bangers at the time, though, they weren’t showmen, preferring to focus on timbre and mood (not to mention, you’d be hard pressed to find a metal band with jangly guitars).
Fields of the Nephilim demonstrated that being heavy wasn’t a perquisite for making music that was dark and intense, which just about sums up why gothic rock helped make the 80s such a vital and revolutionary period for music.
You don’t need to throw on mascara and a trench coat to enjoy gothic rock (I’m writing this in a tracksuit, honest). Some of the greatest albums of all time were written by bands obsessed with gothic imagery and history, so it’s unsurprising that so many bands made a career off it.
Still, there’s plenty of acts I’ve probably forgotten.
Who would you pick out?
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