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.

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.

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."

So what then is Heckmann's most important market, if not radio? "Word of mouth," he says. "It's sort of spontaneous. A hundred thousand kids go to industrial clubs here in the U.S. They talk." Heckmann knows his scene has to change and is changing even as we speak. "Goth as we knew it is dying," he says, "except in Germany. The genre has changed. The gravelly vocals are gone. This label has to evolve. But it has always been underground and always will be."

Maybe so, maybe not. Mylene Farmer has never been underground; Enigma, too, has a worldwide fan base. Industrial has often threatened to become a mainstream genre even in the U.S.: KMFDM has drawn attention—some of it quite negative, unjustly—in America as well as in Germany. Still, one must travel to Quebec, or to Europe—or Japan, the Middle East, Russia, Asia, or Latin America, where all manner of disco-derived pop music genres get full attention from every medium—to hear played almost everywhere the sorts of techno-involved, danceable, and dreamy genres that Heckmann, based in the U.S., can only see as cult musics. Overseas, where fashion cliques gather as passionately as kids in America wear gang colors, there is a much closer interaction between clothing taste and musical texture. And clothing display is an integral part not only of darkwave fans' etiquette but of the music itself, with its love of intricacy, hue, and layering. Thus, the music and its clothing reinforce each other's popularity. This, too, derives from a disco invention: that music should accompany a display of goods for sale. Just as disco was the music that supported the strutting of fashion models on the runway, so darkwave accompanies the wearing of disguise and drag, of embroidery and embellishment: complex clothing for intricate emotions.


Related Article:
"Shock My Monkey: A Review of VNV Nation's Futureperfect" by Nick Catucci

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