|This panel does feature Baphomet's abs.|
What does Goth sound like? The aesthetics are pretty obvious: lots of dark clothes, pale make-up, a fascination and desire for death. But what does Goth music sound like? What unifies their musical tastes? My Chemical Romance’s Welcome to the Black Parade, for example, starts out with a mournful piano, playing one note at a time, while Gerard Way sings nostalgically about his childhood. When he makes note that the memory was of his father taking him to a marching band, the drums kick in, tapping to introduce the parade. At times, you can hear the ghost of a guitar.
Way’s voice grows more and more angry as the full band unearths itself from the marching band it was performing as. The beat of the marching band can still be heard, but it is now more a counterpoint to the punkish stylings the band is more well known for. Way’s memories scream at him, as befitting the concept of the album, which tells the tale of a young man dying of cancer having his life flash before he dies.
The tone of the lyrics shifts as the punk rock overtakes, being less mournfully nostalgic and more reassurance that once the subject of the song is dead, the chorus sings of how those who loved him (“when I was… a young boy…” makes it clear the subject is a him) will remember him long after his shot time is done. ‘Don’t be hateful,’ they say, ‘it’ll kill us all. Be defiant to the end, but don’t be cruel.’ The tone of the song shifts again, dropping the punk rock in favor something more akin to a Freddie Mercury solo, wherein the music mostly drops and the vocals take center stage.
We return to the viewpoint of the dying man, as he accepts his death. Way shouts the lines with the defiance of a man on the edge of the precipice, an anthem for the dead. He never waivers from his celebratory anger at the inevitability of death; this isn’t a whine about how he doesn’t want to go. Nor is it a sneer at the possibility that this could ever end cut down by the cancer growing within him. Rather, Way conveys the sense of acceptance that this is the end for the dying man while still trying to cling onto life, even if there’s a sliver of a chance.
As the vocals conclude their monologue (and the chorus of those who loved him singing of their memories once again ends), the song breaks down into a chaotic apotheosis of all that has come before. The tune of the guitar that haunted the marching band section now haunts the concluding notes. The monologue of defiant acceptance is contrasted with the full band singing it rather than Way, who instead belts, “We’ll Cary On!” to the world. As the final notes of Way’s near falsetto vocals die down, we left with a single discordant strum of the guitar to lead us into the beat of the marching band’s drums before the song ends with an ominous thud, akin to the firing of a canon.
Conversely, there’s bauhaus’ Bela Lugosi’s Dead. The song stars with the tapping of a drum, more akin to the ticking of a bomb than a marching band. Behind it, a rickety old machine is being winded up. We can hear it shake and the gears turn. The song has an organically mechanical feel to it as the strum of the bass perfectly comes into the tune strumming one note, once in a while. As the song progresses, the strumming becomes more and more frequent. The pace of the song also begins to increase as the machine starts to scratch the music like lightning in an old science fiction movie strikes the world with impossible imagination and terrible implications for what is about to occur.
The guitar invades the song, like the air horn alert in the event of nuclear war. Everything echoes in the song, as if we are wandering in the tomb of a long dead king. The tune of the song starts to shift from its haunted opening to something more poppy. Nearly three minutes in, Peter Murphy’s vocals are finally heard. His voice also echoes, like he was recorded in the other room. The sound of Murphy’s voice acts as a counterpoint to the lighter music the instruments have transformed themselves into. His voice is almost monotone: we can hear the emotions within it, but they never waiver in tone. They always keep their cool demeanor, never breaking down into anger or sadness even when Murphy starts to shout the lyrics.
As Murphy repeats the line “Bela Lugosis’s Dead,” the music starts to get harder and harder, leaning back into its original configuration. It is at this point that Murphy starts to shout the lyrics, starting with repeating the phrase “UNDEAD. UNDEAD. UNDEAD.” The mechanics of the instruments start to loosen out and fall apart, much like an ancient spider web does when someone crashes into it. When all that remains are the bass (stronger than it was before, and yet starting to slow down with the rest of the song) and the ticking of the drums (the sole consistency that exists throughout the song), Murphy returns, singing like he’s a ghost and this song is his mansion. The song starts to put itself together again, acting as if it never fell apart in the first place.
As Murphy’s vocals die out, so to do instruments begin to fall apart. Some linger on to close out the song while others whither away into nothingness. Sometimes, we can hear Murphy’s mechanical voice say “Undead”. The guitar sometimes strums out a shrieking howl and the bass keeps the tune of the song for as long as it can, but it to dies out. In the end the drums are sole thing that survive to the end of the song. Time marches on even as the rest of us go away.
And then, of course, there’s Floodland, which was the cause of my questioning in regards to the nature of Goth Music. While I was listening to the album, I noticed a shift in the sounds of the various songs. Sure the mood of the sounds were very melancholic and the lyrics were accurately “None More Goth,” but there were songs (specifically Flood I and II and Never Land [A Fragment]) that felt like they came out of a lost John Carpenter soundtrack, 1959’s a piano ballad, and This Corrosion starts out with this austere choir before diving into a more discordant industrialism. In short, nothing that sounds remotely like the other examples of Goth music.
So then, what unifies the three? What unifies the pop punk of Black Parade, the mechanical formalism of Bela Lugosi, and the chaotic industrialism of Floodland? Is it simply an aesthetic of people dressed in dark clothing singing songs of long dead ghosts that can sing any kind of song? Well, no, no it isn’t. The key comes in the form of the content of their songs. Consider: Welcome to the Black Parade is about a dying man reminiscing about his youth as a cornerstone of his acceptance in regards to him being dead, Bela Lugosi’s Dead is about lamenting the loss of one of horror cinema’s greatest actors, and numerous songs within Floodland (In particular Dominion/Mother Russia [which juxtaposes Ozymandias with Chernobyl] and Never Land [A Fragment] [about the fleeting memories of Earth from the perspective of a space faring civilization who has long since abandoned it]) deal with the haunting of the past, present, and future.
Indeed this is reflected in the songs themselves as they all, in their own ways, sound haunted. Floodland and Bela Lugosi’s Dead are fairly obvious in this regard, as both invoke an echo in their vocals to place them outside the realms of the instrumentals, which sound eerie even without the echo. Welcome to the Black Parade, however lacks this echo and instead invokes this haunting via shifting the nature of the space throughout (a Shining to the other song’s House on Haunted Hill). And it is here lies the key to the unifying theory of Goth Music: it isn’t so much that there’s a unifying sound to the work, but rather that the song itself feels haunted.
Consider the term “Goth” for a moment. Aside from referring to a specific group of Germanic people between the 3rd and 5th centuries, Goth derives itself from the term “Gothic,” which refers to a form of literature that deals with the monstrous, be they supernatural in nature or otherwise. The first Gothic story, The Castle of Otranto, tells of Manfred, a lord who becomes obsessed with marrying Isabella, a much younger woman than his wife, and will murder anyone who gets in his way, even his own family.
The genre evolved to include more supernatural elements such as vampires (Dracula), alchemical zombies and mad scientists (Frankenstein), and ghosts (Sub Rosa) while still keeping core elements of the genre intact. Primarily, by the end of the gothic tale, the goodies ended up besting the baddies, even if such a victory ends up being bittersweet (The Castle of Otranto ends with Theodore, the protagonist, becoming king and marrying Isabella but at the cost of Matilda, Manfred’s daughter and Theodore’s love interest [and who said fridging was a 20th century invention]). Even in the most “realist” telling, there is a sense of the unreal to the narrative, as if it is haunted by something wrong.
It is this aspect of the Gothic that immediately jumps out when looking at Goths. Their interest in death, the apocalyptic, and the mystical all stem from a desire to be haunting. It follows then that the sound of Goth Music ought to sound like that of a genre being haunted by an aesthetic. Pop songs about the inevitability of death, industrial music about the undead, and John Carpenter’s synths used to tell of the collapse of civilization.
Apocalypses rise up again and again when reading about Goths. This does not necessarily mean the end of all life as we know it. Rather, many scholars have read the genre of Apocalypse as being about massive changes that upend the societal structure. This aspect of the apocalypse is kept alive in many Goth works: the band Seeming has written numerous songs about the desire to end the world starting with themselves, The Wicked and the Divine tells of how the system of the rise and fall of Gods finally starts to collapse, and Crimson Peak ends with the wealthy industrialist family dying. Indeed The Castle of Otranto itself tells of the usurpation of a cruel lord in favor of a better one.
To be Goth, and indeed Gothic, one must have an appreciation for the apocalypse that one wishes to wrought into the world. Equally, given the genre it derives itself from, said apocalypse must also contain a way for those who aren’t cruel and vicious bastards to get away better than they were previously. Though this does not necessarily mean that they get away scot-free. There can be those who were lost because of the apocalypse we writers and artists have wrought upon our created world. There can be the pangs of nostalgia for the world as it once was, inspiring more Gothic songs. The protagonist can even die due to their own vices.
Gothic are neither happy stories nor are they sad ones, or even that frightening of ones. Rather, they are the tales the end of worlds from the perspective of those who have little to lose when those worlds end, but enough to miss them when they’re gone. Even when they end up on top of those who had everything to lose in the wake of an apocalypse, there is still the bittersweet taste of what could have been. The Gothic story isn’t interested in the injustice that has been solved, but in those caught in the crossfire during the ending days. And in the wreckage of cruelty, they find nostalgia. The pain of returning home.
(Next Time: You’re The Ghost That Lingers In My Past…)
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[Photos: The Wicked and The Divine #6 by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie]
[Photos: The Wicked and The Divine #6 by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie]