The State Of Goth

No longer just a genre, the gothic subculture continues to pervade pop culture, with artists such as Voltaire carrying the torch
  • Photo: Alas Vera
    Voltaire
  • Photo: Hector Suarez
    Monica Richards performs in Mexico
  • Photo: Ricarda Grimm
    VNV Nation's Ronan Harris
June 26, 2014 -- 5:28 pm PDT
By Bryan Reesman / GRAMMY.com

Though skeptics have quipped that gothic music is "dead, undead" (to paraphrase Bauhaus), the genre has transformed into a subculture that continues to thrive and survive in a constantly evolving music landscape. While gothic progenitors such as the Sisters Of Mercy and Siouxsie And The Banshees cracked the Billboard charts in the '80s, the '90s featured an underground cross-pollination of ethereal, dark wave and industrial groups. By the 2000s, traditional gothic began waning as electropop and industrial acts took over and gothic magazines and club nights dwindled.

Today, the gothic spirit is far from dead. Its aesthetic continues to pervade pop culture, from emo bands to horror films and the dark-haired Abby Sciuto (portrayed by Pauley Perrette) on "NCIS." Additionally, the gothic and symphonic metal subgenres, which encompass such artists as Lacuna Coil, Nightwish and HIM, have endured, while crossover artist Emilie Autumn, whose unique "Victoriandustrial" sound has attracted dark music fans, performed on the Vans Warped Tour this summer. Veteran artists such as Peter Murphy, Monica Richards, and William Faith have remained active on the touring circuit, while newer bands such as the Birthday Massacre, Combichrist and Bella Morte are infusing their music with electronic elements.

"Gothic music was once the [province] of [romantics] Byron and Shelley and late 1800s Victorianism expressed in music," says Ronan Harris of English/Irish electropop group VNV Nation. "Suddenly there's this whole new generation describing very different metaphysical things, a new form of poetry appealing to both crowds. Some of the fashions are being crossed over and everything is being called gothic culture. Even industrial clubs are being called gothic clubs."

Patrick Rodgers, owner of Philadelphia-based gothic, industrial, alternative, vampire, and underground special events promoter Dancing Ferret entertainment group, sees a big change in today's gothic subculture.

"Three to five years ago, if you asked some guy named Jim about being a goth, he'd say, 'I go to gothic events and listen to gothic music because that's an integral part of who I am. I'm a goth.' Now, his answer would most likely be, 'I go to all sorts of subculture events like anime conventions, goth parties, burner events, fetish [clubs], and stuff like that because being involved in the subculture is an integral part of who I am.'"

Richards, who released her third solo album, Kindred, in 2013 and headlined the World Goth Day festival in Mexico on May 31, mirrors this view in her own career.

"I'm not sure anymore about scenes," she says. "I'm just putting it out, and whoever loves it loves it. I'm becoming myself more and not worrying about [fitting into a] genre. On my fan page I put photos of myself in my ranch jeans. Fifteen years ago that would have mortified me."

Cuban-American dark cabaret musician Voltaire, whose 2014 album, Raised By Bats, marked his first "true goth rock album," says gothic music is a "big black umbrella that encompasses so many different styles of music and different philosophies, all of which, at the core, have some fascination with darkness and inner pain."

Voltaire acknowledges that appealing to audiences at U.S.-based events as diverse as the Steampunk Empire Symposium and Dragon Con has expanded his reach.

"My first career was as a stop motion animator, and if I had to rely on that my family would starve to death," he says. "I feel the same way about goth. If my audience was nothing but an entire gothic audience, I wouldn't be doing so well."

Ed Klein, aka Joe Radio, who is a DJ at San Francisco's Death Guild, the longest-running weekly gothic club night in the United States, says that "goth is still an all-ages style. If you asked our patrons what music qualifies as 'goth' these days, you'd get a bunch of different answers."

According to Klein, some of these answers would include subgenres such as classic goth (the Cure, Siouxsie And The Banshees, Joy Division), classic industrial (Skinny Puppy, Front 242), dark wave (Zola Jesus, Florence & The Machine), dark synth (Legend, Mr. Kitty, Trust), and the "witch house" underground, which includes groups such as Blvck Ceiling.

"There's a whole new young audience I see going to clubs with Sisters [Of Mercy] and ['80s German industrial band Einstürzende] Neubauten tattoos [who] are too young to ever even have seen those bands live," adds Ashkelon Sain of Trance To The Sun. "The legend of what gothic was and could be is gaining steam from what I can see. It feels way fresher than it did."

In Europe the goth scene is attracting a younger audience.

"Here the scene is healthy with a majority of the audience under 24 [years old]," says Ronny Moorings, frontman for veteran Dutch group Clan Of Xymox. "There has always been a healthy interest …  in this type of music, so it is still going strong, especially in Germany. … Don't forget that the gothic scene is the only scene where adolescents can express themselves, so it will always have an appeal to the younger audience."

Germany also boasts the largest goth music festival in the world with the Wave-Gotik-Treffen, which features approximately 20,000 fans and 200 artists a year, spanning subgenres such as dark ambient, neo-classical and post-punk. The 2014 installment took place June 6–9 in Leipzig and featured approximately 250 artists.

"In Europe, electronic bands took over a prominent part of the dark music scene within the last [few] years," says Cornelius Brach, spokesperson for Wave-Gotik-Treffen. "However, traditional goth plays an important role. You still have a lot of parties where such music is played more than any other stuff, and there is a growing number of newer bands whose music clearly stands in the tradition of the old goth or guitar wave heroes. And people still want to see the old heroes."

While the music remains dark and brooding, the outlook for the continued evolution of goth is bright.

"Now you have all these 18- and 19-year-old kids [playing] music that is inspired by what they think are the sounds and moods of music they've heard their older brothers play and [they] are creating a whole style of music that could be called a post-goth new evolution," says Harris. "I think that's a laudable thing. At the end of the '80s, goth didn't die, it just evolved into a new format. A lot of scenes from the '80s have gone by the wayside, but goth has been very lucky to have persevered and is still a major force in musical history, whether people like it or not."

(Bryan Reesman is a longtime closet goth. But he just outed himself.)

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