Wearing the Melancholy

This Dungeon's for Hire, Even If We're Just Dancing in the Darkwave

If you live in Salem, you either embrace Halloween full-force or endure a silent October. In the capital of witchcraft, as Salem has been since 1692, there's no other choice. Salem people wear a lot of black a lot of the time—a large Wiccan contingent marches in the annual Heritage Days parade—and during the Halloween season the downtown streets blossom with strange haberdashery. Drag too, and why not? So here we are, four of us: three guys in search of the strangest-looking, most plus-sized girls' clothes this side of Disneyland, and me. At the mall's Torrid store, my friends rave about black plastic nurses' outfits, PVC pants, bulb-toed clumpy shoes, white lace fairy-queen dresses, rough wool dresses with bow-tie décolletage and skimpy miniskirts, gold-sequined tank tops and flare-legged jeans, all in sizes 1X to 4X. Torrid, in case you don't know, is the plus-size division of Hot Topic—a chain where very plump teenage girls buy what the company's ad sheets call "music-related clothing." My friends prance around, teenage and girly as a papier-mâché store cake, smiling. Me, I'm not only far too mainstream, I'm skinny—a size 12, dammit. I can only look. And listen to the music.

The dark-haired store manager—as buxom as the tongue-pierced, henna-haired girls who populate her store—commiserates at my predicament. "How'd you get into this?" she asks. "The music," I tell her. "What you're playing right now, in fact," I say. "It sounds like Euro; what is it?" The "sounds like Euro" turns out to be "Eclipse," the third track from Apoptygma Berzerk's Welcome to Earth CD. I'd never heard of Apoptygma Berzerk before, and like a jerk I tell her so. "There's a whole scene here once you get beyond Britney Spears and *NSync," she sniffs. "The girls who shop here know this stuff?" "Of course!" "How do they know about it?" "Go to the Metropolis (Records) Web site!" "And otherwise?" "The older kids go to ManRay on fetish night."

ManRay! I might've known. Since the 1980s ManRay has been a small, cult-music disco in the heart of Cambridge, Massachusetts. ManRay then featured Eurodisco from London and Milan—fast-paced, girly stuff with light soprano melodies and happy-face lyrics. Today, however, happy-dreamy Eurodisco—Gigi D'Agostino's "I'll Fly With You (L'Amour Toujours)," Andrea Brown's "Heaven," Ian Van Dahl's "Castles in the Sky"—has become almost mainstream, at least in clubland, where boyish DJs play Italian or Italian-like Eurobeat CDs all night long. ManRay, however, now sponsors a much darker sound: a heavy-handed, unhappy beat accompanying a panoply of voices full of longing and melancholy. Most of it comes from Germany, Norway, Sweden, Flemish-speaking Belgium. Fans call it "darkwave" or "EBM"—short for "electronic body music."

Swedish sprocket scientists Covenant
photo: Courtesy Metropolis Records
Swedish sprocket scientists Covenant

The Nordic zone is home to the genre's key source music. From Flemish Belgium in the 1980s came a twangy, echo-laden sound featuring dark vocals singing about ice, blackness, and death (A Split Second and Neon Judgement); from Germany, the metallic, buzzsaw-and-factory-noise mélange called "industrial" (Einstürzende Neubauten and KMFDM); from England, the diva screech of Kate Bush, the equally high-pitched wordlessness of the Cocteau Twins, and the downcastness of Joy Division. Thereafter, other Europop influences entered, complicating the message of darkwave, which in turn complicated them. The most important artist in this time segment was France's Mylene Farmer, who with her music collaborator Laurent Boutonnat created—and 16 years later still dominates—an entire genre of melancholy dream-pop. Farmer's songs of sadness, mistake, gamy sexuality, and romantic disconnect in turn begat the first Enigma CD—the one that featured "Sadeness, Pt. 1," a darkwave classic—and redirected acts as dissimilar as Dead Can Dance, Tori Amos, the Pet Shop Boys, and Saint Etienne. Today, however, darkwave musicians seem most influenced by classic disco: the coolly detached, harshly sexual music which reinvigorated the rhythmic side of rock. Some EBM, like the Nordic melodicism and dreamy atmospherics of Apoptygma, sounds almost as frothy, at times, as the happy Euro stuff. But most—especially the CDs originating in Belgium and Germany, where the style continues to draw the most fans—smothers the listener with depressive sentiments and suffocating rhythms. It's strange (and profoundly unsettling) to hear the high-stepping, metallic beats of Italian techno—disco's most idealistic genre—weighed down by sad melody, overwrought lyrics, and layer upon layer of orchestral drapery. The message of darkwave seems to be that the happier and giddier the music wants to be, the more obstacles prevent it.

Friday at ManRay is fetish night. At the "pervy party," as the club calls it, oddly shaped outfits get you a discount; guys dress as girls, girls as dominatrices. Middle-aged men wearing pirates' eye patches, black T-shirts, and Doc Martens wander from room to room, eyeing legs sheathed in PVC and hoping a 36-C boob or two will fall into their waiting hands. Dancing's going on, but not much; most of the trench coats and drag Cinderfellas stand at the wall, immovable, amused by cages, cobwebs, and candy-coated dry-ice fogs. The "goth room" is where the fetish flaunts most freely. You'll hear a lot of Apoptygma Berzerk and Covenant (the best-known darkwave band), and plenty of Funker Vogt, Das Ich, and De/Vision—all German. Also Clan of Xymox, VNV Nation, Project Pitchfork (their boomy, metallic new CD is called Inferno), Icon of Coil, and Haujobb, and a taste of America's own Claire Voyant.

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