After more than a decade of trying, goth rock creeps back into the conversation in the unlikely form of a Seattle trio that audaciously disavows all that came before. Push past the aesthetic for some great rewards.
Amidst the 21st century’s long tail post-punk revival, goth has tried -- insidiously, proudly -- to reinsert itself into the contemporary music conversation. From the Joy Division mannerisms of Interpol's Matador debut to the neo-Cramps kitsch of the Horrors’s Strange House and on through the New Romantic retreads of She Wants Revenge, the sullen subgenre's resurrection has frequently seemed imminent, skulking just around the corner. More recently, the plunging-neckline darkness of glum critical darlings like Tamaryn and Zola Jesus, as well as blog-fueled lesser fads like witch house, defensively portends that an alluring mix of clove cigarettes, decadence, and despair has its place in today's indie discourse.
Yet, even as major-label rappers like A$AP Rocky don sartorial absurdities from pricey purveyors such as Fear of God and Rick Owens for glossy magazine photoshoots, goth by and large remains a fringe subculture in America, seemingly dwindling yearly as senior members age out or simply grow up. A style devoid of new blood, so to speak, mostly produces fledgling bands obviously aping the past greats with little new to offer beyond better music gear and the aura of their soon fleeting youth. And those old greats? Many find modest successes on stubborn European nostalgia tours and the rare U.S. boondoggle.
Given that, Grave Babies deserve considerable credit for taking goth rock head on rather than diluting it for greater saleability. Fortunately, the trio have aligned with indie label Hardly Art instead of a potentially more stifling traditional niche alternative. Judging by Crusher, their first full-length for the Sub Pop sister label, Grave Babies appear to have listened to all of the right records, even though they claim otherwise. When prompted, the band audaciously disavows seemingly obvious gothic influences, instead invoking Nirvana as somehow more instrumental. (Calling their prior EP Gothdammit essentially disqualifies any such aloofness.) Conveniently, their ratty, standoffish image suits both Seattle alt-rock geography and the leather-clad tradition of forebears like Fields of the Nephilim.
Where things start to diverge from many of the aforementioned artists is in the distinctly lo-fi sound, which has more in common sonically with Danish punks Iceage, namely the claustrophobic rune-and-gloom of New Brigade. Crusher revels in the red, writhing, buzzing, and blurring. In the hands of a more traditional producer, Grave Babies’s music could pass for that of an Echo and the Bunnymen tribute band, subversively hooky by nature, especially on cuts like "No Fear" and "Over and Under Ground". Swirling and infectiously memorable, "Slaughter" has all the cadaverous grace and mystery of Q Lazzarus’s "Goodbye Horses" without any of its unfortunate pop culture trappings. "Skulls", replete with anthophobic music video, stutters with perfect paranoiac tension, while "Count Cuts" could be a blown-out cover version of a Turn on the Bright Lights B-side.
The churlish insularity of Grave Babies’s sonic aesthetic presents pitfalls to listeners reluctant to take arguably affected music very seriously. Consistent to the point of possible parody, Danny Wahlfeldt’s deliberately dour vocal delivery takes some getting used to, particularly when the punk rock tempos give way to the full-on bromide balladry of closer "Prostitution". Still, pushing past those prejudices yields great rewards in repeat listens to Crusher, a generous guilty pleasure that relentlessly seeks to instill guilt.