A True Return

"Hitherto disregarded genres of that decade like Goth and EBM entered the influence-mix this year…" - Simon Reynolds, The Village Voice

"Until Kanye West executed his peerless marketing plan during the final two months of 2010, the music story of the year might have been the Internet’s renewed interest in the occult. After years of serving as a stereotype for social outcasts, Goth wasn’t only good; it was hip." - Otis Hart, NPR Music

"With any new artist, it is inevitable people want to lump them with the latest music genre. That said, being ‘gothic’ is something we are quite happy to be associated with. We are big fans of gothic architecture and literature. We have a love of the macabre." - Rachel Davies, Esben and The Witch (Q&A with Independent.ie)

"Everyone’s a goth now. It blows my mind." - Nika Roza Danilova (Zola Jesus), Interview with The Quietus

Twenty years after Goth music reached its cultural and commercial peak, we seem to be finally witnessing a true return. In 2010, a year when media seemed saturated with vampires, werewolves, shambling zombies, and “dark” reinterpretations of classic tales, the genre rose again as a vibrant musical form that not only saw releases from a new crop of impressive bands, but gained a long-awaited critical reappraisal as well. Popular indie music web site Stereogum heralded the bands Blessure Grave and Soft Moon as making two of the “most overlooked” albums of 2010. Pitchfork listed the Zola Jesus single “Night” as one of the best of the year, calling it a "deliciously creepy goth torch song." Reviewing the debut full-length from O Children, NME crowed that "goth music just got hot," while the BBC listed UK band Esben & The Witch in their "Sound of 2011," praising the band’s “nightmare pop.” After over a decade of false-starts, creatively vital but ignored artists, and reverent revival attempts, Goth’s seeming inward journey towards nostalgia-dollars and irrelevance has been averted.

It should be noted for those whose dalliances with Goth ended somewhere around 1990, when Peter Murphy (of Bauhaus fame) released “Deep”, with its hit “Cuts You Up”, the Sisters of Mercy put out their bombastic “Vision Thing”, and The Mission UK hit their career high with “Carved in Sand”, that the scene continued quite healthily on its own steam, removed from the spotlight. While the mainstream media crowned Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, and the various Industrial-rock also-rans as the new purveyors of all things spooky, Goths built a robust infrastructure of club nights and festivals that have survived to this day. Certainly some of the bands that arose to cater to this somewhat more insular scene were pale imitators of the genre’s (sometimes unwilling) founders, but it also sparked massive creativity from bands like Faith and The Muse, Switchblade Symphony, Sunshine Blind, The Changelings, and dozens more. The survival trait of focusing on filling off-peak club nights with black-clad denizens had a cost however, and over the years many dance floors would become dominated by the more beat-oriented genres of EBM, Industrial, and Futurepop, to the point where some veteran scene promoters started wondering if Goth would finally breathe its last as a unique musical genre, surviving more as a fashion or mindset than a cohesive musical idea.

The question now, as Goth seems poised for the critical and commercial limelight once more, is whether the Goth scene as it exists today will be capable of breaking free from its own survival mechanisms to take advantage of this potential rebirth. To reach out to a new generation that finds these bands thrilling and wants to find a community that shares their sensibilities. It seems like an easy decision, but speaking as an insider, I’ve seen us squander chances like this before. As a result, promising bands have been ignored, were under-supported by largely incurious patrons and promoters, or simply bludgeoned by rigid ideas of purity and nostalgia. The next few years, if we’re willing to shift course, could revitalize us creatively for another twenty years, or, if we ignore this chance, could entrench us even further into the geographical and creative safe-havens we’ve scurried to in the past decade.

In these new bands, and there are many of them, I not only see artists creatively mining Goth’s past to create new music, but a willingness to do away with some of the more toxic ideas of scene-based tribalism. They enjoy the darkness and romanticism of their music, they revel in the ritual, theater, and drama of their work, and many of them don’t even mind being occasionally labeled with the “Goth” tag by journalists, but these bands aren’t simple revivalists. Most of them have grown up in a post-Internet musical culture, which means genre classifications are rough guideposts, jumping off points, not some holy writ that must be followed. As a result, they play shows, make alliances, and draw exposure that few “pure” Goth bands could hope for. This may mean that they might not be as “Goth” a couple albums down the road, but it also means less chance for stagnation and self-parody. Considering the recording history of some bands within the Goth scene, that’s a trade-off I’d be happy to make.

No doubt some will try to ask why Goth as a genre, ignored and maligned for so long, has now seemed to emerge as a respectable style for inspiration and emulation from a variety of artists. Leaving aside wider sociological ramblings, I simply think it is because Goth has managed to survive so long mostly intact and recognizable from its origins in the late 1970s. Having survived almost relentless mockery, demonization, critical snubs, and internal upheavals, Goth has at last proven itself worthy of the respect it rarely sought. I hope this exciting time not only triggers some soul-searching among Goth promoters and djs, but inspires long-time Goths to step outside of their comfort zones and sample some of what could be.

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