[9 May 2014]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
Living in Spain in the early 1980s meant having to endure one of the most tumultuous, uncertain times in that country’s history.
You see, in 1981, Antonio Tejero and his buddies in Guardia Civil staged the infamous coup d’état attempt which became known as the “23-F” coup, itself the climax of a time of great instability in the country wherein the economic crisis, violence by the ETA separatists, and Prime Minster Aldofo Suarez stepping down shortly after 23-F meant that everyone’s personal future was completely up in the air. It was a time of great turmoil as the country was making its transition to democracy, and everyone—from politicians to a rattled youth culture—was feeling the effects.
Some of these younger people of this era wound up channeling an entire nation’s worth of aggression and disillusionment into music, and given that 1979 was the year that both Joy Division and the Cure released their debut albums, minor keys and themes of alienation resonated strongly with kids still trying to figure out what they wanted to get out of their culture and their heritage. Young songwriters like Eduardo Benavente and Servando Carballar Heymann wound up gathering the sounds of their influences and infusing them with a style and perspective all uniquely their own. Although a majority of the music that came out of this unique post-punk scene was released independently, the DIY nature of the bands that connected with much grander, darker musical themes, soon lead to an entire movement in and of itself.
So many of these rare, fetishized cult-bands have never really been seen outside of their homeland, which is why Sombras: Spanish Post-Punk & Dark Pop 1981-1986 is such an absolutely fascinating document in and of itself. Across two discs, this Munster Records compilation doesn’t spend as much time simply throwing thematically-similar tracks together so much as it tries to construct a narrative about the scene and the effect it had on the population (plus, the historically-minded liner notes are printed in both English & Spanish to boot).
As such, casual observers won’t notice a lot of surprises with a good majority of the material here, as a great deal of these bands took their cues from artists like Bauhaus and the Birthday Party rather explicitly, the occasional act actually forgoing any actual identity of their own as they were too busy trying to be known as the Spanish Joy Division (see: Los Coyotes with their gloomy entry, “La Estacion Fantasma”). Some material is very much guitar-based (like Derribos Arias with their Robert Smith-aping “Virgenes Sangrantes” or Alaska Y Los Pegamoides’ own “El Jardin”), some of it given a healthy amount of moody analogue synths (like “Sombras en La Alcoba” by Claustrofobia’s, a group who later went on to collaborate with Robert Wyatt).
Many of the songs borrow production tropes that were popular at the time (get ready for a lot of thin drum machines and very reedy drumming during the times a drum machine couldn’t be found), and almost every guitar track contains a healthy amount of studio reverb, but even as these elements immediately date the songs, it also gives them a unique charm as well, as a great majority of these songs put their idols at the forefront of their sound, and playing Ultimo Sueno’s rather groovy “No Debiste Asustarme” for a stranger would make them genuinely wonder if it’s a Spanish-language B-side from Echo & the Bunnymen or what.
Yet, a double-disc set of songs circling around the same tropes would be boring even if looked at purely as a historical document, which is in part why some of Sombras‘s most memorable moments actually come from the selections that divert from the tired-and-true black eyeliner formula. V2 Berlin, for example, give the compilation a nice energy boost with their unabashed Ramones worship (and, rather notably, the entry about them on the liner notes features almost zero detail on their origins or their story, as the group faded away just as quickly as they arrived), and Qloaca Letal’s “Nunca Siempre” makes for a very tame punk entry with its unadorned pocket distortion, but features enough wild vocals to give it that right amount of edge and personality to make it a keeper, threatening to run off the rails of sanity at every given moment. Best of all, however, might be the bright-eyed but goth-affected guitar pop of Furnish Time’s “Juego de la Lluvia”, an upbeat encapsulation of not only what this compilation is all about, but also what the era represented as a whole, that wry bit of optimism shining in between its obvious post-punk connections.
Oh sure, there are some tracks that lean towards the more generic end of the dark pop spectrum (Luenes De Hierro’s goth-by-numers “Ellos”), and of the 42 tracks rounded up here, very few feature turns by female vocalists (fortunately, Seres Vacios’ “Recuerda” is one of the compilation’s highlights, flirting with a chorus that almost borders on optimism), but even with such judicial nit-picking discovering a dark synth classic like Aviador Dro’s phenomenal synth-rocker “La Zona Fantasma” makes the entire compilation worthwhile, as too many of these songs would otherwise have been lost to time, collecting dust in attics and obscure record stores far off from La Grand Vie. The fact that they’ve been recovered is alone a fact worth celebrating; the fact that Sombras features as much great music as it does is what makes it one of the most fascinating compilations you’ll hear all year.