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The torch-carriers of this genre, always designed for outcasts, have now removed the allegorical shield, shifting from forlorn to fierce. They've moved past expressing discomfort and on to causing it.

Alchemy and you: A new wave of goths turns expression into assault 

Dominick Fernow of Prurient and Cold Cave

Illustration by Chris Williams/ Plastic Flame Press

Dominick Fernow of Prurient and Cold Cave

In some sense, the goths won. An entire generation spent their childhoods memorizing assorted spells and curses alongside the student body of Hogwarts. Cheerleading captains now daydream about hunky vampires. The same dark preoccupations that once meant being ostracized are now thoroughly mainstream. Sure, this thematic co-option is just empty, pretty imitation without the real emotional resonance. The supernatural trappings loved by today's teens were always just allegories for Bauhaus fans; they are easily relatable stand-ins for feeling like an outsider. But to have your symbols swiped, watered down and embraced by your high-school oppressors? Goth gone meta.

Goth music—the romantically brooding catalyst that started the whole subculture, if you remember—is also resurgent. Its more recent practitioners have moved beyond simply providing an attractive delivery system for depression and unease. The torch-carriers of this genre, always designed for outcasts, have now removed the allegorical shield, shifting from forlorn to fierce. They've moved past expressing discomfort and on to causing it.

As the wider culture crept toward polyglot acceptance during the '00s, the decade's most important goth musician wasn't courting it for himself. Jamie Stewart, founder and frontman of Xiu Xiu, will never be an easy listen: His raw, histrionic style amplifies the intensely personal melodrama of his mope-pop forebears to extremes that border on psychosis. Siouxsie Sioux, after all, never threatened to cut anyone's forehead open with a roofing shingle.

As a lyricist, Stewart is capable of suffocating sadness, sardonic wit and total absurdity. He shifts between those modes in quick succession. "Suha," from the band's 2002 debut, Knife Play, is perhaps the starkest depiction of abject depression in recent pop. Stewart often involves protagonists of the opposite gender or those confused by their gender altogether. Here, Stewart's subject is a despondent housewife. Her hopeless "I hate my husband/ I hate my children/ I'm going to hang myself/ When will I be going home?" is barely softened by a haunting melody. Stewart's lyrics break ground with their explicitly queer content, too. The title track to 2004's Fabulous Muscles leaves no room to misread; "Cremate me after you come on my lips, honey-boy." While "fag" has been a go-to slur against kids in Robert Smith makeup for decades, Stewart defiantly displays it with the 2003 album title Fag Patrol. "Crank Heart," meanwhile, simply and hilariously nods toward teen gothdom with its chorus: "Her school colors, black and light black." In 2005, Stewart wrote a song about eating George W. Bush.

Sonically, Stewart's songs have been noted for their blasts of cacophonous noise, but they're painfully soft as often as painfully loud, or, as with the slow build of "Apistat Commander," both. You lean into his whisper, and then he jabs you right in the ear. Xiu Xiu's music exists where confession blurs into confrontation.

Wes Eisold's Cold Cave springs from a less singular personality, as it's a more natural progression from the goth new wave of Thatcher-era Britain. Eisold, a veteran of hardcore punk acts American Nightmare and Give Up the Ghost, turned to bleak, bouncy synth-pop on Love Comes Close, his new band's 2009 debut for Matador Records. That record was doggedly minimal, with repetitive beats and synths that resembled industrial pop acts from the early '80s, like Fad Gadget, who remain obscure even in the file-sharing era. Eisold sang deep and resentfully, almost a put-on of some dour ideal. The album's best moments came from exiled Xiu Xiu vocalist Caralee McElroy. In Stewart's songs, the thinness and vulnerability in her voice was wildly exaggerated, casting her as tragic waif. Eisold allowed her be bright and frothy against his cramped backdrop. (She left Cold Cave too, shortly thereafter.)

Cherish the Light Years, released this spring, trumps all of Eisold's previous work. From the opening seconds of "The Great Pan Is Dead," his grandiose variation of the genre startles. Loud guitars, racing frantically forward, overwhelm underpinning minor-key synth lines that previously might have been the whole song. Eisold preens out front, the conquering goth draped head-to-toe in black. He crackles with energy. That familiar interior alienation remains, but it's projected at stadium scale, like an animal puffed out to fend off would-be aggressors.

Dominick Fernow's membership in Cold Cave has always been one of the band's more intriguing subplots, given that his own recorded work as Prurient has typically been ear-punishing noise. For instance, 2005's "Roman Shower" is 15 minutes of relentless, piercing squeal. His 2008 album Arrowhead could likely make a quality speaker system spontaneously erupt into a shower of metal-work sparks. His aim is to tangibly disconcert his audience, or to spread unease as a virus you catch through your headphones.

But his latest release, Bermuda Drain, feels like a left-turn from pure noise into neo-goth. On it, Fernow recites menacing poetry over shadowy synth-pop instrumentals. In mixing noirish electronics with bursts of over-the-top vocal intensity, the album is not far from Stewart's work, really. He hits his glum, electronic pleasure center, relaxing even a longtime listener's guard, and then layers in ominous spoken-word that builds to a blister: "If I could, I would take a tree branch and ram it inside you. But it's already been done."

Fernow remains focused on music with real physical effect, but in an effort not to repeat his assaulting tones, he has moved to disquieting rhetoric. Faith in the power of verse to crumble listener complacency is darkly romantic, indeed.

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