If there’s anyone out there still clinging to the idea that metal artists don’t draw inspiration from any genres aside from metal—or that the post-black/blackgaze/”hipster” black metal bands are somehow unique in the way that they incorporate elements from non-metallic genres into their music—let me be the one to finally, thoroughly disabuse you of that notion. I guarantee you that if you ask just about any metal musician what he or she has been listening to lately, you’re likely to hear about just as many (if not more) artists from outside the metal world as you are metal albums. In fact, just last week an individual from a particularly hellish sounding kvlt black metal band totally surprised me by admitting to an appreciation for country artist Blake Shelton. Much like man (or woman) cannot live on bread alone, I contend that one also cannot subsist solely on a diet of metal.
Of all the non-metal genres—or at least the non-metal adjacent genres, like punk—that have inspired metal bands over the years, Gothic/Post-Punk has to be at or near the top of that list. I’d wager that most people who listen to black metal have at least heard of bands like The Sisters of Mercy, Bauhaus, Killing Joke, Joy Division, and The Cure, but might not have ever listened to any of those bands. I’d also guess that a lot of Type O Negative, Paradise Lost, and My Dying Bride fans might not have ever thought to connect the “gothic” part of Gothic Doom back to those bands. Admittedly, Type O doesn’t sound much like The Sisters of Mercy, but there’s definitely some common DNA there.
Given how long the Gothic/Post-Punk has been around as a genre—Bauhaus’s “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” single and Joy Division’s debut album Unknown Pleasures both came out in 1979—and how many bands are still releasing excellent albums, it can be petty daunting for anyone who’s curious to know where to start. Fear not, Vault Hunters – even though I’m not quite old enough to have been there at the beginning (I was five and obsessed with KISS when Unknown Pleasures came out), most of these bands provided the soundtrack to my miserable (Catholic) high school years. In other words, I’m more than qualified to give you this Beginner’s Guide To…Gothic/Post Punk.
1. Joy Division – “Disorder” (from Unknown Pleasures, 1979)
Joy Division is one of those bands that have achieved near-mythical status, due in no small part to the suicide of frontman Ian Curtis the night before the band was set to embark on their first ever North American tour. As such, a lot of people just assume the band were a bunch of gloomy bastards. Those who are only familiar with Closer (“Isolation” is a particularly rough song, especially in hindsight) and the “Love Will Tear Us Apart” single likely feel validated in that opinion, but Unknown Pleasures is a much more varied sort of album. Opening track “Disorder” is a prime example: Peter Hook’s bass line—which, frankly, carried all of the best Joy Division songs—is damn near ebullient, and Bernard Sumner’s minimalist guitar line acts as the perfect compliment. And yeah, Curtis’s lyrics are a bit gloomy, but they can’t intrude on the damn near dance vibe of the rest of the track. It’s the perfect opener for Joy Division’s first album, and the perfect opener for this Beginner’s Guide.
Side note: Joy Division was well ahead of the curve in terms of the whole “accused of being Nazis” thing. They took their name from a novel called House of Dolls, which was about the Nazi concentration camp “brothels” (similar to the “comfort women” used by the Japanese Imperial Army in WWII), and the original cover of their 1978 An Ideal for Living EP features Sumner’s drawing of a blonde Hitler Youth member banging a drum.
2. Bauhaus – “Double Dare” (from In the Flat Fields, 1980)
Even though the first Joy Division and Siouxsie and the Banshees records came out before it, many point to In the Flat Fields as the first true Goth album, and there’s good reason for that. Whereas some of the early post-punk bands at least have some sort of antecedent for what they were doing, Bauhaus seemed totally other. There was a definite Bowie and T. Rex influence (in the latter case thanks to their cover of “Telegram Sam”), the album still had an alien feel overall. “Double Dare” exemplifies that alien feel – multi-tracked bass that included some natural harmonics, noisy guitars, tribal drums, and an increasingly unhinged vocal performance from Peter Murphy. “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” which was released a little over a year before In the Flat Fields, might be the better known track, but “Double Dare” feels more like ground zero for the whole Gothic genre.
3. The Cure – “M” (from Seventeen Seconds, 1980)
Seventeen Seconds was something of a transitional album for The Cure. Three Imaginary Boys (or Boys Don’t Cry in the US) was still rooted in the punk sound of the late 70s, but Seventeen Seconds pointed towards the more dour direction Robert Smith and Co. would take on Faith. For the most part, Seventeen Seconds seems like the forgotten record in the Cure’s discography. “Play for Today” and “A Forest” (the latter of which was covered by Alunah on their most recent album Sollenial), are the best known songs from the album, but “M” is by far my favorite. The first time I heard it was on a bootleg of a The Top-era gig (not the same show that was released as Concert: The Cure Live, but likely the same tour), but there was no track listing on the tape. Since this was the pre-internet early 90s I searched all over for a Cure song with a chorus that went “You’ll fall in love with somebody else tonight,” but to no avail. Eventually I heard Seventeen Seconds and realized that song was “M,” and for me it ranks right up there with anything from the more critically acclaimed Cure albums as the apex of their discography. “Hello, Image – sing me a line from your favorite song…”
4. Killing Joke – “Requiem” (from Killing Joke, 1980)
If an album’s influence is measured by the number of songs that have been covered from it, then Killing Joke’s self-titled debut might be the record that’s had the biggest impact on metal. Most notably, Metallica covered “The Wait” on their first Garage Days EP. Helmet covered “Primitive” (which kind of sounds like a Helmet song anyway) for a non-album single. Dave Grohl has said that Killing Joke is one of his all-time favorite albums, and Foo Fighters covered “Requiem” as the B-side of their “Everlong” single. You can also hear Killing Joke’s influence in bands like Big Black, Ministry, Marilyn Manson, Tool, and even Krieg. In fact, I think Krieg is at its best when Neill Jameson is channeling his inner post-punk like on “This Time I’ll Leave You to Drown” from the New World Black Metal 4-way split, which is easily my favorite Krieg song. But getting back to Killing Joke: the combination of industrial beats and rock guitar on “Requiem” will probably sound familiar to most, because countless other bands have done it in the nearly four decades since this album came out. Killing Joke got there first, though – and for my money, they still did it best.
5. The Sisters of Mercy – “No Time to Cry” (from First and Last and Always, 1985)
I feel a bit like I’m cheating by including “No Time to Cry” instead of something from Floodland, and I originally had “This Corrosion” in this spot instead. However, given the 45-minute time limit of this column, I couldn’t justify putting two 10-minute songs on it. The Sisters of Mercy that recorded First and Last and Always is also a very different band than the one that did Floodland, mostly because at this point they were actually a band instead of essentially a solo project for main Sister Andrew Eldritch. While attempting to write the follow-up to First and Last and Always, tensions flared and Wayne Hussey and Craig Adams left the band to start what would eventually become The Mission. Eldritch went on to work with Jim Steinman (yep, the same one that worked with Meat Loaf on the Bat Out of Hell albums) on Floodland. In spite of the fractures in the band, First and Last and Always is a brilliant album that’s considered one of the most important albums in the development of the Goth scene. It also clearly had an influence on Cradle of Filth, whose cover of “No Time to Cry” was basically the only highlight of their dismal Bitter Suites to Succubi mini-album.
6. Siouxsie and the Banshees – “Metal Postcard (Mittageisen)” (from The Scream, 1978)
No list like this could possibly be complete without an appearance from the High Priestess of Goth, Siouxsie Sioux. Over the course of the band’s eleven full-lengths, they created the blueprint for both post-punk and goth, and then consistently tore that blueprint up as they kept pushing their sound in different directions. My favorite Banshees album is probably Hyæna, which was their lone album with Robert Smith, but that seems a bit too poppy for this playlist – Smith’s songwriting contributions have the same lighthearted feel as some of The Cure’s singles from that time, most of which ended up on the Japanese Whispers compilation. Their debut album The Scream, however, was a much more unorthodox, abrasive-sounding affair that had a wide-ranging influence in both the burgeoning post-punk scene and beyond – Faith No More has cited the album as a major influence on their sound, and have been known to cover “Switch,” The Scream’s closing track, in concert.
7. “Romeo’s Distress” – Christian Death (from Only Theatre of Pain, 1982)
Christian Death might have the strangest history of any band on this list. For starters, they aren’t British – they’re actually from sunny California. There are also two very distinct phases of the band: the one with founding member Rozz Williams, which produced thee full-lengths and a EP, and the Valor Kand-led version of the band (which Williams was reportedly less than pleased about keeping the Christian Death name) that’s released thirteen full-lengths since Williams’s departure in 1985. There were even two competing versions of the band in the early 90s, with Williams releasing three albums under the name Christian Death featuring Rozz Williams prior to his suicide in 1994. The group’s debut album Only Theatre of Pain, with its horror punk influence and goth aesthetics, paved the way for what came to be known as deathrock. The album’s highlight, and arguably Christian Death’s best known song, is the scathingly anti-racist “Romeo’s Distress.” Inspired by Williams’s strict Baptist upbringing and allegedly racist family, it features lyrics like opening line “Burning crosses on a n*gger’s lawn” that, if taken out of context, seem questionable at best. When Williams sneers “Dance in your white sheet glory / Dance in your passion / Your days are numbered” later in the song, though, it’s eminently clear how he really feels.
8. Cocteau Twins – “Lorelei” (from Treasure, 1984)
Scottish outfit Cocteau Twins is another odd little band. Perhaps best known for vocalist Elizabeth Frasier’s stunning voice and tendency to sing sounds instead of actual words, the band was pretty much always a bit more ethereal than most of their gothic/post-punk contemporaries. Their sound eventually evolved away from goth into dream pop, but not before they released the aptly titled Treasure. Just about the closest thing to a perfect album that anyone will ever hear, Treasure’s influence can be heard in bands like Sigur Rós and Alcest (and yes, I know Neige claims to have not listened to any goth bands before recording Souvenirs d’un autre monde, but I don’t believe him). The lovely, slightly dark around the edges “Lorelei” has always been my favorite track from this record.
9. Fields of the Nephilim – “Last Exit For the Lost” (from The Nephelim, 1988)
Fields of the Nephilim are probably the least known band on this list, at least for American readers. While they enjoyed success in the UK, especially with their first few albums, they never quite caught on the same way in the States as the other British bands on this list. I have no idea why. It could be that they came along a bit later than a lot of the major bands in the genre. It could be that they weren’t exactly prolific, releasing only five full-lengths and a couple of EPs since 1984, and only one new single since 2005. Perhaps it’s due to how similar they sounded to The Sisters of Mercy on their debut LP Dawnrazor. Whatever the reason, it’s unfortunate – their second album The Nephilim is a stone-cold Goth classic. Fields were always a bit darker than the average Goth band: the album’s highest charting single “Moonchild” takes its name and inspiration from a novel by Aleister Crowley, and “The Watchman” and “Last Exit For the Lost” both reference the Cthulhu Mythos. For me, the highlight of the record is the latter song, “Last Exit For the Lost.” A slow-building, moody track that clocks in at nearly ten minutes, it clearly demonstrates why Fields was a major influence on bands like Sólstafir, Katatonia, and even Watain – the gradually increasing tension, the dramatic vocals, the gloomy atmospherics. “Last Exit For the Lost” is why The Sisters of Mercy only got four minutes earlier in this playlist – it’s that fucking good.
10. New Order – “Age of Consent” (from Power, Corruption & Lies, 1983)
Bringing things full circle, the last track on this playlist comes from New Order – i.e. what Joy Division morphed into after Ian Curtis took his own life. While New Order’s first full-length Movement sounded like a band trying to find their own identity (which was perfectly understandable, given the circumstances), Power, Corruption & Lies was a much more focused affair that included (at least on the US version) one of the band’s signature songs: “Blue Monday.” It also features what might be my absolute favorite New Order song in “Age of Consent.” Built around another unfuckwithable Peter Hook baseline, tastefully minimalist guitar work from Bernard Sumner, and the kind of jittery hi-hat work from Stephen Morris that would soon come to be synonymous with post-punk, “Age of Consent” may well be the high point of New Order’s early discography. I also have a real soft spot for Sumner’s vocals on early tracks like this and “Temptation,” where he could barely stay in key for the entire song (he’s much better on this one than on “Temptation,” but his falsetto gets a bit shaky in spots). Once they basically went full dance on Technique, they pretty much lost me aside from the occasional track (like “Regret” from the otherwise dismal Republic), but the trio of Power, Corruption & Lies, Low-Life, and Brotherhood are all well worth a listen.
Side note, Part II: one would think that Sumner and Co. would have learned their lesson after Joy Division and picked a new band name without any Nazi connotations. One would be wrong about that…