Prof Isabella van Elferen shares some of her thoughts on three key tracks that exemplify the various aspects of Gothic Music. Here is her selection:
1. Nine Inch Nails, ‘Closer’
The band that has perhaps been most important for the musical link between industrial and Goth is Trent Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails. The lyrics of ‘Closer’ (The Downward Spiral, 1994) play out on the boundaries between emotional and libidinal desire as well as those between the carnal and the divine, leading to a poignant search for the place where inside and outside collapse. Coming ‘closer’ must, it seems, involve a crossing of all borders:
The only thing that works for me
Help me get away from myself,
I want to f*ck you like an animal
I want to feel you from the inside
My whole existence is flawed
You get me closer to God
The theme of transgression is musically expressed in the constant conjunction of human and machinic voices, and of music and noise. Guitars, piano and Reznor’s voice represent the natural voices in this track’s overfilled musical texture, while a drum computer and machinic samples overlay these with emphatically industrial connotations. Reznor’s voice is distorted in different ways throughout the song, showing more and less human versions of the singer as well as of the feelings he expresses. The desire to rise up to a divine level (‘you get me closer to God’) is depicted musically by rising motifs in all instruments. The fact that these motifs are repeated over and over again but do not cadence suggests that ‘getting closer’ does not lead to closure, and that the transgression is not – or perhaps cannot be – completed. Repetition here, as in other Gothic music, leads to a loss of chronological anchoring, so that song, singer and listener remain trapped in the timelessness of desire.
The music video to ‘Closer’ adds further layers to Nine Inch Nails’s industrial exploration of boundaries. The video was recorded on a canister of unused old film, and shows crackled, sepia images of Victorian machines while Reznor wears leather aviator goggles and is shown floating. The imagery is that of steampunk, which signifies not only the collaboration between man and machine but also a nostalgia for the futurism of the past, so that the lyrical and musical boundary-crossings of the track are met by a visual conflation of temporalities. A further visualisation of the industrial crossover between nature and technology occurs in the use of biological and animal imagery. A human heart is connected to a machine, and beats exactly in time with the percussion, evoking in the viewer an indexical relation between sound and image: the human heart makes a machinic noise. Similarly pig heads and crawling beetles are inserted in the steampunk setup of the video. These ‘beastly’ pictures also serve to underline the song’s evaluation of the libidinal drive: ‘I want to f*ck you like an animal.’ Besides an abundance of BDSM references, the parts of the video that were deemed most controversial were the images of a naked woman wearing a satin mask with a crucifix and that of living monkey tied to a crucifix. These images sum up the transgressions that dominate the text: the animal-sexual, which is expressed in human-technological voices, aspires to come closer to the divine. Nine Inch Nails’s steampunk exploration of Gothic liminality got the video censored by MTV.
2. Ordo Rosarius Equilibrio, ‘Hell is my refuge – A golden dawn for a Judas kiss’
The ‘apocalyptic folk’ of Swedish neofolk band Ordo Rosarius Equilibrio (ORE) emphasises the transgressive potential of pagan ritual. ORE’s texts explore the boundaries between the secular and the sacred, and between normative and deviant sexuality. ORE’s concerts are designed like secular rituals led by band founder and lead singer’s Tomas Pettersson, whose solemn voice searches for the musically transcendental while on-stage BDSM performances move on the blurry lines between lust and pain, art and torture. The band’s musical sound is determined by the ominous spoken declamation of song lyrics, the use of martial rhythms and heavy timpani rolls, and extensive reverb on all parts. ‘Hell is my refuge – A golden dawn for a Judas kiss’ appeared on ORE’s 2006 album Apocalips. Like other Goth bands ORE explores the Gothic transgression of boundaries by bringing together the seeming opposites of sacred and secular, norm and deviation, past and present through an evocation and rewriting of existing literary – in this case biblical – tropes:
See not my soul, it is feared and despised
Be seduced by my words and deceived by the light
I am raped by my sister, she’s my brother disguised
Let hell be my refuge, I am Jesus defiled
Pettersson and female lead singer Rose-Marie Larssen slowly recite these lyrics in solemn voices evoking pagan rituals that are distorted by vocoders and reverb effects. High-pitched female voices singing the same words overlay their voices, but as these descants move at a much slower pace the listener’s sense of time gets stretched and distorted, torn between two simultaneous musical timespaces. This effect is increased by the seemingly endless echoes on the one hand and faster rhythmical samples of the same female voices on the other, which each introduce yet different temporalities. All of these musical reflections on chronology are played against the extremely slow basic tempo of the song, whose timelessness prevents any hierarchy between the free-floating tempos of the other parts. The track is instrumentally bleak, consisting only of a low keyboard octave in C, rolling timpani, the occasional sound of a wood rasp, and fragments of a hurdy-gurdy melody. As every single part is produced with maximum reverb, a tremendously wide sense of space is created. ‘Hell is my Refuge’ is thus shaped as a musical impression of the apocalyptical apprehension by which genre is identified. The concept of the apocalypse signifies the end of time, but this ending is, in and of itself, eternally locked in the future: it discloses the never-ending now of the simultaneity of fear of and nostalgia for the future. This fundamental hauntology and out-of-joint temporality of the apocalypse is expressed by ORE’s ‘fantastic vision’ by the clashing temporalities of the simultaneous parts of this track against the musical emptiness that is its basis.
3. Siouxsie and the Banshees, ‘Premature Burial’
Even though punk singer Siouxsie Sioux claimed she wanted nothing to do with it, she has become a key figure in old school Goth. Her expressive hair style, black make-up and elaborate outfits surely have played a role in this, but Siouxsie and the Banshees music, too, has been crucial in the development of the Goth sound. An often-quoted interview with the Banshees’ guitarist Steven Severin relates the genesis of the band’s sound as well as the way in which it became closely entangled with the early sound of Goth. It shows how deeply the band was embedded in musical idioms that have for different reasons been associated with Gothic and Goth subcultural capital:
We didn’t tell John [McKay] ‘Oh, you have to play an A-sharp minor there, and it’ll be really spooky.’ We’d say, ‘Make it a cross between the Velvet Underground and the scene from Psycho.’
‘Premature Burial’ from the LP Join Hands (1979) definitely belongs among the songs that influenced later Goth music. The theme of premature burial, which is taken from Edgar Allen Poe’s story of the same name, is used for the exploration of self-entrapment, the singer questioning her own being if being relies solely on her own perception. As with Joy Division, even if the similarity is unintentional the theme and tropes used by the Banshees here do not get much more Gothic than that even in the Poe’s own stories. Interestingly, a musical metaphor is used to create a sense of religious destabilisation also. A reference to Gregorian chant rings spooky and transgressive, shifting the mood of the song to a metaphysical level:
This catacomb compels me
Corroding and inert
It weights and tries to pull me
Must I resist or re-assert?
The song is set in E minor and has a moderate tempo. It opens with a slow alternation of subdominant and tonic chords (Am and Em) on synthesizers which, through the insertion of a high dissonant noise, set the mood before the track commences. The eerie atmosphere created by the opening chords changes into a threatening chill as the reverbed guitar sets in a pounding, on-beat riff restating the two basic chords of the song. The bass guitar meanwhile plays what in classical music is called a lamento bass, an ostinato (repeated) theme consisting of a chromatically descending line. This technique is often used in funerary music; among the most famous lamento basses is that composed by Henry Purcell for ‘Dido’s Lament’, the tragic musical suicide letter in Dido and Aeneas. The appeal of this musical device in a song about premature burial is evident, and it serves to strengthen the gloomy mood of the piece. Differently than most classical lamento basses, Steven Severin’s Gothic update of the technique moves in eighth rather than quarter or half notes.
With the musical parameters thus set for funerary gloom, the verses begin. They consist of only two, repeated descending melodies sung by Sioux’s low alto. With the repeated chords in the instruments, lingering around tonic Em, this leads to a harmonic stasis that the track’s lyrical theme audible, tangible. Sioux’s voice, as always, has a deep and bleak sound. This almost unmusical vocal timbre is created through the employment of the speaking voice for singing, using hardly any resonance but strong breath support. The timbre makes her sound empty, void, out of place – like a ghost. It has a particularly dramatic effect in the chorus sections that have only a wordless ‘Lalala lala lalala’ as text, the melody doubling the chromatic line of the bass; the paradox between the unmusical vocal timbre and the clearly music-oriented text it sings underlines the undead motion of the ‘zombierama’ in the lyrics, while the chromatic shifts suggest the destabilisation of the known world outlined in the song. In these sections as well as in the many upward glissando ‘Oo-oooohhh’-motifs in the backing vocals, Sioux’s voice is dubbed, effecting a choir of ghosts or zombies, the voices of the dead in the catacomb that the lyrics paint. The motifs interrupt the flow of the song at various points, and here, too, the gliding movement of the motif has a highly disorienting effect: not only are they sung by ghostly voices, the musical glide away from pitch and key increases their otherworldliness as it slowly tears the listener away from origin and being. Towards the end of the track, when the text ‘we’re all brothers and sisters’ universalises the theme of self-doubt, male backing voices are added an octave below Sioux. The ‘Lalala lala lalala’ motif is now sung in canon – the utmost musical form of haunting – by a crowd of zombies as the guitars postpone an ending cadence in endlessly repeated syncopations. While all instruments and vocals in the song are built upon repetition and thus already emphasize the timelessness of the grave, these syncopations also dislocate it, dislodging it from any previous belonging.
These extracts appear in Gothic Music: The Sounds of the Uncanny (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2012), pp. 142-144, 157-158, 161-163.
Post organised by Dr Xavier Aldana Reyes
November 11th, 2013 - 22:56pm