Wearing the Melancholy

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

On the Friday before Halloween, when my three Torrid-clad friends and I went to ManRay in all of our costumed insouciance, the total crowd in all three rooms (goth, trance, and "dungeon") amounted to about 200 people—not very impressive, considering that on house-music Fridays, Boston's Avalon hosts at least 1500. Yet ManRay's minority is composed not of dissenters but ex-rockers, fans of the Cure, David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, and Alice in Chains, perhaps—Marilyn Manson and KMFDM for sure—to whom unhappy techno matches dissonance with dance. The chubby Torrid kids seem to have landed in the Apoptygma/VNV Nation/Covenant disco-land (echoes of Telex, Kraftwerk, Sisters of Mercy's Floodland, Kate Bush, Pet Shop Boys, a-ha) without realizing that their favorite songs call up disco-pop sounds from times past. Yet capturing the past is both strategy and purpose for the best of darkwave's new army. "Suffer in Silence," from Apoptygma Berzerk's new Harmonizer, states the case: "Please help me hide from the ghosts from my past for a while," sings Stephan Groth. But where to hide from the past except by perfecting it on its own terms? The track "Unicorn" features a duet between Groth and Claudia Brueken, diva of the 1980s disco-pop group Propaganda, that could pass for Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard of Dead Can Dance—except that Perry and Gerrard never wrote a line as uplifting as Groth's "even when my heart is cold you assure me it's worthwhile" or Brueken's "you see, see what can't be seen, you repair the damage done to me"; nor did they ever lay down a beat as throbbish, or an orchestration as purposive, as the fully embroidered house pulse that keeps "Unicorn" humming, fulsome, horny.

You'll detect plenty of Sisters of Mercy, too, on Covenant's Northern Light.But unlike Apoptygma's Groth, Covenant's Eskil Simonsson, Joakim Montelius, and Clas Nachmanson spend more time creating beats than polishing old ones. They're no romantics (nor was the Sisters' Andrew Eldritch), but they understand what drives darkwave people, and write anthemically about it. Fast and dark, dissonant yet strong, Covenant's "Call the Ships to Port" says it all: "The countless lonely voices like whispers in the dark . . . tonight we walk on water, and tomorrow we'll be gone." Equally accurate is Northern Light's moody, Enigma-like "Monochrome," in which the trio define darkwave music as "down below your radar things are going on, all along the tunnels through the underground," and they like it: "We are noisy people for a better living."

The rest of the darkwave bands haven't written anything so unforgettable, but they provide a contextual complexity unlike any pop genre favored by stateside FM radio. From the plaintive romanticism of VNV's ironically titled Futureperfect to the 1980s Belgian techno lovingly revived on Icon of Coil's The Soul in the Software to Claire Voyant's dreamy re-creations of female French Europop, this music creates its own conversation (hence the credibility of Covenant's anthemic lyrics). In the context provided, each sound belongs to everyone, girl and boy: the cuteness of a soprano voice like that of Claire Voyant's Liz Lloyd; the toughness and twang of a fast, boyish Icon of Coil beat; the ear perfume of an Apoptygma orchestration; the mournful crooner's baritone of Covenant; Das Ich's Rammstein-ish vocal screech; Croc Shop's sparkly, almost comic take on dark beats; Diary of Dreams, baroque by design, musically as overwrought as their fans appear overdressed; Funker Vogt and Haujobb's convoluted techno. Lined up end-to-end by DJ Chris Ewan, in a matter-of-fact, quick-cut style completely unlike the ecstatic buzz and sexually heated overlays essential to house music turntablists, each song and segment adds up; none subtracts, none dominates. And if the entire territory belongs to one record label, Metropolis (leave it to Covenant to say it plainly: "stand before the gates and watch Metropolis," and to pass judgment on it: "Empires come and go. . . . I stand alone"), perhaps this situation too makes good sense. It would surely have given deep-house music much clearer focus, and a more congealed audience, had it belonged, during its 1990 to 1993 formative period, to one record label.

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

In the decade before Dave Heckman founded Metropolis, the predecessors of darkwave music recorded for a multiplicity of indies, or were Europop acts bound as afterthoughts, chiefly, to major continental companies. And they suffered a multiplicity of fates. Being almost exclusively a Metropolis affair has given today's darkwave musical continuity and a listener community not unlike that which Motown gave to soul in the 1960s. And all this from a guy who, until he started his label, had simply owned a record store. It happened to specialize, though, in music that has since become all Heckmann's.

"This is my genre," he says. "I know this scene, me and my 10 employees. When 4AD stopped doing gothic, and Wax Trax decided to do ambient," says the Berry Gordy of darkwave, "I started doing it. It was 1994, I think. Ministry was big then. Front 242, Front Line Assembly. Once we started recording it, pretty much everybody in the genre came to me," he says. "I sell hundreds of thousands of copies a year, even in America. Believe it or not, we supply 300 specialty music shows on radio. It's our second most important market, even though no commercial radio station here plays our music on a regular basis."

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