Brightest Light or Darkest Night?
The Mission had trouble from their very inception back in 1986. Originally consisting of members of the Sisters of Mercy, the band started out (appropriately enough) as the Sisterhood and even began touring under that name until the Sisters of Mercy’s frontman Andrew Eldrich released a single as “the Sisterhood” to intentionally thwart the band’s use of that name. Thus, while in the midst of the tour in support of fellow goth rockers the Cult, the band revealed their new name “the Mission” which was great until the following year, when they discovered that an American Rhythm & Blues band called the Mission already existed. Thus, they had to change their name again to “the Mission UK”.
With a band that had so much difficulty being born (or, at least, named) in the first place, it’s noteworthy that their twelfth studio album since 1986 has just hit shelves and brings a great amount of promise with it. However, the once-troubled band hasn’t left all troubles behind, but has exchanged them for other troubles over the years. This is evident from the opening lyrics to the album, “When you get to my age, the candles cost more than the cake. It’s not the white powder anymore that’s keeping me awake.” That first song, “Black Cat Bone” emerges from a dark, murky depth of ambient sounds and haunting music that evokes memories of mid-1980s Bauhaus before the guitars kick in and Wayne Hussey’s voice takes on a gruff lament about aging. However “Goth Rock” the first track proves to be musically, lyrically “Black Cat Bone” borrows a lot from Delta Blues music, talking about “going down to the crossroads” to “make a pact with the devil” to “be 21 again”. The song continues with varied voodoo imagery and mystical lyrics, but the point of the song (and its placement on their 2013 album) is never quite lost on the audience. Wayne Hussey is feeling his age.
That may be and to a great extent the Mission is playing the type of music that very few bands truly play anymore, but “Black Cat Bone’s” lyrics aside, the Mission doesn’t truly sound any worse for the wear on The Brightest Light, even if their musical influences are proudly worn on their sleeves here. The Mission (UK) is still delving into the murky sonic textures that they have shared with such bands as the aforementioned Sisters of Mercy and early Cult along with bands like the Damned and Bauhaus. Yet somehow The Brightest Light almost always manages to sound fresh and not at all the work of a nostalgic novelty act who never grew out of the 1980s.
Much of this is owed to the growling, yet capable voice of Hussey himself, who perfectly complements the multi-layered music found here. On “Black Cat Bone”, Mission starts with a low, building, ambient noise that sets up the lyrical lament, then screeches into a metallic and distorted guitar chord. By the end of the song, acoustic guitar and tambourine join the fray, adding a layer of Western music worthy of Hussey’s frequently worn cowboy hat. “Everything but the Squeal” continues the album in a more straightforward Goth Rock direction with Hussey’s biker bar voice spitting out words like “If you’ll be my bitch, then I will be your dog!” over music that sounds like a cross between his work on the Sisters of Mercy debut album First and Last and Always and the Cult’s Electric.
The third track “Sometimes the Brightest Light comes from the Darkest Place” where Hussey continues to play with depressing topics, while reconciling opposites in a way worthy of the song’s title. “Sometimes the truest kiss comes with a whore’s embrace”, “Sometimes the warmest smile comes from the saddest face” and “Sometimes the fastest thrill comes from the longest chase” all accompany the title in their own couplet chorus, as Hussey manages to sound both poetic and badass at the same time. While this third song (and semi-title track) may feel a little more Pop Rock than Goth Rock, it’s certainly unlike any other pop song you’re likely to hear on contemporary radio.
The same is true for the fast-paced “Drag”, which sounds like something from Disneyland After Dark’s debut album “No Fuel Left for the Pilgrims” (an obscure, if excellent, tribute in itself). “Drag” features grinding guitars and guitar solos under Hussey’s repetitive, yet diverse vocals. The combination occasionally stretches beyond the Mission’s most common genre and feels like something that could have been featured on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball or Hard 60.
“Born Under a Good Sign” is another song that feels remarkably familiar. While there is a bright, 1980s New Wave rock sound to the opening, the melody of the verses sounds so much like that of The Rolling Stones’ “As Tears Go By” that one could easily sing the Stones’ lyrics over the Mission’s music without much variation required. However, the song comes into its own in both the pre-chorus and the chorus, which follow the opening music closely. “The Girl in the Furskin Rug” begins with a classic Hussey/Sisters-style guitar riff and rolls into a slow-and-low ballad-like protest song whose cryptic lyrics could reflect current events or be somewhat out of nowhere. The chorus itself sounds as if it’s attempting to become the theme song for a nonexistent TV show of the same name and its jingly nature detracts from the more serious protest lyrics throughout the rest of the song. “When the Trap Clicks Shut Behind Us” is much more worthy of the label “Ballad” with its slow acoustic guitar, sorrowful lyrics and arpeggio-rich electric leads. Hussey and producer David M. Allen give us a very different take on the voice that has guided us through these songs. While still sounding tough and gruff, Hussey’s pained lament reaches an almost crooning crescendo that might have felt perfectly in place in the late 1980s era of hard rock ballads.
Continuing the pace of the previous songs is the next song “Ain’t No Prayer in the Bible Can Save Me Now”, a desolate introspection sung over a minimalist organ and acoustic guitar based track that brings back the early hints on this album of a Delta Blues influence. This is especially as the track gets going and the organ goes from gospel to funk without feeling truly out of place. However, the Mission’s influences become more obvious when Hussey mentions “When the Levee Breaks” and falls into the trappings of bluesy repetition, even as the gospel-like vocals support Hussey’s Goth-based voice. That said, this is an overall beautiful track that leaves the listener feeling the pain of the lyrics.
The equally joyfully titled “Just Another Pawn in your Game” kicks off with harmonica and settles into a near-country (or, at least Southern Rock) groove. The occasional lyrical bend clearly echoes Rod Stewart’s “Maggie Mae” with the influence becoming undeniable when the backing mandolin track comes into play. “Pawn” name checks David Bowie and Bugsy Siegel and builds into a cool rock song with piano, guitar and drums accompanying the harmonica and mandolin. However catchy the song may be, it’s hard to deny how familiar it feels and one may wonder why such an influence is on a Mission album.
“From the Oyster Comes the Pearl” sounds more like vintage Mission (with a few unlikely influences from their musical contemporaries of the day) and features a sweeping and beautiful guitar solo over its finale. The Brightest Light begins to wind down with the eleventh rack “Swan Song”. While the musical construction sounds a great deal like classic Mission, the lyrics feel a bit trite as we’re reminded that “It ain’t over till it’s over… till the fat lady sings.” Still, the song progresses beautifully with its mixed guitars and near epic mixing by Allen. The album ends with “Litany for the Faithful”, which bookends The Brightest Light as it echoes “Black Cat Bone’s” nostalgia for the past. Hussey sings of the many types of songs he has sang over the decades while minimalist guitar, bass and piano accompany his sorrowful vocals. “I can’t bring myself to sing of ever leaving you.” he sings to the subject of the song with a strange (and limited) lilt of hope in his voice. If any one song encapsulates what The Brightest Light has to offer, it is “Litany for the Faithful”, which lyrically captures the pensive introspection and nostalgia that permeates most of these tracks and adds layer after layer of instrumentation to keep the repetitive song from ever feeling stale. For this reason alone, “Litany” is a perfect and fitting end for the album.
What “Litany for the Faithful” does not echo from this album are the occasionally far-too-obvious musical influences and tributes that feel too familiar to keep The Brightest Light from always feeling fresh. Aside from these “I’ve heard this before” moments, the Mission does sound surprisingly modern, even as they play the sort of music that very few bands are currently making (and haven’t for a couple of decades). For the repetition, occasional triteness and borrowed elements, The Brightest Light isn’t a perfect album from the Mission. That said, it is very good and has the potential to please established fans as well as the newly interested. If nothing else, The Brightest Light is a fine argument for the case that “Goth Rock lives.”