If all the peeling Bauhaus stickers you see in cars' rear windshields prove anything, there are still a few die-hard goth-rock fans out there. Brooding goth bands will probably always have an audience as long as there are pallid, chronically mopey, black-clad teens around. But for most listeners, self-consciously gloomy goth-rock has lost the appeal of novelty. (Listened to Bauhaus' "Bela Lugosi's Dead" lately?)
One of the few goth bands to retain any credibility into the Nineties is Britain's Sisters of Mercy. Unlike its brooding compeers, the Sisters' music has almost always had intensity and a dark grandeur. Often, the band has shown a sense of humor lurking just beneath its sullen surface, as its Dolly Parton covers in concert prove hilariously.
The Sisters of Mercy's standing as goth's pre-eminent survivor means nothing to the band's singer and chief songwriter Andrew Eldritch. He believes goth was a phenomenon that existed only in the heads of the London rock journalists.
"What happened was that we started to piss the London newspapers off a little bit," Eldritch says in a recent telephone interview. "There was a whole thing up north with bands like ours, which really served as a counter to the Cocteau mentality of London. When the music got strong enough to be a threat, they had to pigeonhole it, give it a stupid name and try to ridicule it 'til it died. We're not dead yet."
But there was a point when the Sisters' vital signs seemed pretty shaky. In 1985 after five squabbling years together, Eldritch ditched bandmates Wayne Hussey and Craig Adams. Singer-guitarist Hussey and bassist Adams then went on to form the Mission U.K., a band more renowned for its substance abuse than its music.
Eldritch rebounded from that personnel shakeup with the Sisters' best album to date, 1987's Floodland. Backed by a new line-up, Eldritch delivered lavish, heavily orchestrated songs that were either grand or grandiose, depending on your tolerance for rock spectacle.
Floodland's best songs, like the elaborate doom-dance number "This Corrosion," sounded like they were echoing off the walls of an ancient cathedral. "This Corrosion" is loaded with baroque flourishes, such as the booming vocals of the New York Choral Society and an arrangement laden with strings and keyboards. The only thing MD120 Col 1, Depth P54.02 I9.03 missing is Gregorian chant.
Eldritch insists the track's epic treatment made perfect sense. "Because the song's about spectacle, because it's about bombast, because musically it has all that built into it, that was the only place to take it."
"This Corrosion" ultimately became a modest dance hit for the band. (Its eleven-minute length made extended mixes superfluous.) While Eldritch welcomed the success of the song, he didn't welcome the pressure by fans to create more goth-epics in the same vein. "People started thinking of `This Corrosion' as our signature sound," he explains. "We started thinking of it as an albatross."
Eldritch decided to nose-thumb audience expectations and make the Sisters' new album Vision Thing as stripped down as he pleased. On the new disc, the band chucks the symphonic ornamentation in favor of hard-edged guitar riffage. This roughhewn style is complemented by less-than-pristine production.
"Half the mixes on the record are the rough monitor mixes," notes Eldritch. "They actually sounded better than the final thing with all the overdubs. When we added overdubs they just diluted the glorious two-dimensionality of the music."
You can't fault the Sisters for trying to create music that's honest and unadorned. Still, there's something disappointingly colorless about Vision Thing when compared with the band's past efforts. The new disc proves that excess and over-the-top drama were a large part of the act's appeal.
During the band's current tour, audiences have logged several complaints about the Sisters' newly stripped-down sound. "Some people want to hear songs with forty black women singing on them," sighs Eldritch. "Or they want to hear six string parts on songs, and they're not getting it."
Try as they might, the Sisters of Mercy can never be a straightforward rock 'n' roll act, any more than the Replacements can be a goth-dance band. Fortunately, Eldritch promises that the Sisters are not giving up on spectacle entirely.
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"We'll always have elements of that bombastic, ludicrously epic sound," he assures. "There are traces of that still there. People who are looking for overkill won't be disappointed."
The Sisters of Mercy will perform at the KUKQ Birthday Bash at Compadre Stadium on Friday, April 19, with Jellyfish, Drivin' 'n' Cryin', Havana 3 A.M., and Danielle Dax. Showtime is 5 p.m.
The band has a sense of humor lurking just beneath its sullen surface, as its Dolly Parton covers in concert prove hilariously.
The Sisters of Mercy decided to nose-thumb audience expectations and make the new album Vision Thing as stripped down as they pleased.