Engulfed in Dark Waves: Lycia’s ‘Cold’

Handmade Birds

There are many ways to describe darkwave band Lycia. Given the group’s quintessential gothic temperament, bleak, beautiful, esoteric, and ethereal all ring true. Mentioned less often, however, is the band’s influence on a raft of acts that have quarried the dark veins of evocativeness that Lycia exposed. Label Handmade Birds recently released Lycia’s 1996 album, Cold, on LP for the first time, and with the band’s first full-length in a decade, Quiet Moments, due for release in August, Cold‘s reappearance is a timely reminder of Lycia’s legacy in the sphere of bewitchingly mournful music. 

Lycia’s melding of dreamy synth and solemn rock has had a formative role to play in inspiring and nurturing artists who make brooding and shadowy rock and pop, and many contemporary noise, metal, and hauntological electronic outfits have also clearly drawn from Lycia’s darkly poetic oevure for inspiration. The band was originally founded as a solo project by guitarist, vocalist and keyboardist Mike Van Portfleet in 1988. However, it’s Lycia’s mid-’90s work (with vocalist Tara Vanflower and multi-instrumentalist David Galas) that is most heralded for its blend of dark psychedelia, electronic soundscapes and spectral, plaintive vocals. 

Diverse bands such as Nine Inch Nails, Prurient, Xasthur, Type O Negative, and a plethora of funereal and lugubrious artists, have acknowledged the inventiveness and poignancy of Lycia’s multilayered suites. The band’s mix of the haunting, heartbreaking and harrowing defines its aesthetic, but of course, Lycia wasn’t the first band to craft odes of deep sorrow. Post-punk and heavy-hearted luminaries such as Joy Division, Fields of the Nephilim, Siouxsie & the Banshees, the Sisters of Mercy, the Cure, and Bauhaus all contributed to putting bleak beauty on the map, and that topography has been explored by innumerable gothically saturated bands from the ’80s onwards. However, Lycia was one of the most crucial darkwave bands born from gothic rock, electronica, and post-punk’s original moonlit romance. 

Lycia: Ionia (1991)

When desolate cityscape post-punk merged with the melancholic lyrical and theatrical pull of gothic rock in the late ’80s and early ’90s, darkwave took form. Drawing in synth-heavy hypnotic pop and industrial chills, darkwave’s often whispered, crestfallen sound first began to take shape in a series of overlapping electronic and rock scenes that were particularly strong in European independent music circles. The resulting bands (whether favoring industrial, pop, shoegaze, or rock leanings) were frequently shrouded in a fitting sense of pitch-black subcultural and musical mystery, and in North America, Projekt Records was one of the first labels to promote the resulting surge of darkwave artists. 

Founded in 1983 by Sam Rosenthal, Projekt concentrated on releasing dream-pop, neoclassical, ambient, gothic rock and shoegaze bands, and Rosenthal’s own group, Black Tape for a Blue Girl, was an early exponent of darkwave’s hallmark mournful cabaret. The importance of British label 4AD can’t be understated as an inspiration and motivation for US darkwave’s progression — particularly the haunting work of 4AD artists such as the Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance.

The synth experimentations of those bands, and other gothic and post-punk acts, inspired VanPortfleet to form Lycia (named after a city in ancient Greece) in early 1988 in Phoenix, Arizona. VanPortfleet’s early musical ventures, fueled in part by the arid and inhospitable Arizonan desert landscapes, saw him experimenting with guitar loops, drum machines, and four-track recordings (compiling over 100 songs in six months). Working with Will Welch, then bassist John Fair, in 1989 VanPortfleet crafted Lycia’s first six-song demo release, Wake, a raw cassette release that sketched out the woebegone balladry that would follow. 

Lycia: A Brief Glimpse (1991)

Fair exited in 1990, and VanPortfleet signed with Projekt Records the same year, contributing to the label’s From Across This Gray Land compilation with much success. Lycia’s recordings for its first full-length for the label were scrapped — the album, which would have been Byzantine, suffered numerous technical calamities. VanPortfleet salvaged what he could, and in 1991 Lycia released Ionia. That album, and follow-up A Day in the Stark Corner, set the template for Lycia’s early years.

Droning, processed guitars, weighty keyboard atmospherics, drum machines, and Vanportfleet’s susurrous vocals ensured all was woeful and esoteric. As both Ionia and A Day in the Stark Corner dealt in themes of love, loss, isolation and regret, as you’d expect, both were enveloped in a veil of gothic mystery and filled with forlorn reveries. Although VanPortfleet’s odes to metaphysical misery were still only four-track treatises, he made the most of his recording techniques on both albums — with solemn synth interweaving with industrial beats, subtle acoustics, and dramatically despairing orchestrations.  

Lycia: Pygmallion (1993)

David Galas joined VanPortfleet to tour A Day in the Stark Corner, and Lycia’s eventual Live album documented the result. Two things happened at that point in Lycia’s career that led the band to record its gothic masterworks, 1995’s The Burning Circle and Then Dust, and 1996’s Cold. Firstly, Vanportfleet began his side-project Bleak, dabbling in more overtly harsh electronic material, which clearly inspired Lycia to expand its sonic repertoire. Secondly, vocalist Tara Vanflower joined the band on The Burning Circle and Then Dust. Her arrival, combined with Vanportfleet’s ventures with Bleak, and his more acoustically based songwriting for Lycia, resulted in a sprawling and magnificently heart-rending double album.  

The Burning Circle and Then Dust combined the rhythmical bleakness of Lycia’s past with a more ambitious vision, and the band’s wintry chill, and its feel of emotional ruination, was painted on a far larger canvas. There’s no doubt that The Burning Circle and Then Dust was a monumental creative achievement for Lycia — its swells and crescendos making for an achingly beautiful panorama — and its melancholic majesty didn’t cease for a second across its two discs. Combining acoustic guitar, synth and lush soundscapes, The Burning Circle and Then Dust dealt in both twilight vistas and fearful midnight visions. Tracks such as “A Presence in the Woods”, “Wandering Soul”, “The Burning Circle” and “The Return of Nothing” were masterclasses in gothic and ceremonial romanticism — while the success of “Pray” brought Lycia a rise in visibility. Vanflower’s vocal contributions to the album weren’t extensive, but her voice brought a more celestial ingredient to the band’s sound — an element Lycia would fully capitalize on with 1996’s follow-up, Cold

Lycia: The Burning Circle (1995)

It would be fair to say many fans of Lycia would be hard pressed to choose between The Burning Circle and Then Dust and Cold as the band’s best album. The Burning Circle and Then Dust is rightly recognized as a landmark release in darkwave circles — and it rightly sits in the canon of essential gothic rock albums. However, Cold‘s importance is underscored by the fact that even despite the success of its two-hour predecessor, Lycia still managed to craft an equally — and some would say, even more — affecting album. 

The most notable thematic elements of Cold come from VanPortfleet’s move from Arizona to Ohio around the time of recording — see “Frozen”, “Bare” and “Colder” for hints about the album’s gelid motif. Gone were the dusty and barren landscapes of the desert; Cold ushered in a further development in Lycia’s sound, with chilled and snowcapped isolation. Tara Vanflower was installed as a permanent vocalist, and her presence brought more poignancy to the shimmering balladry on Cold. This is best evidenced on “Snowdrop”, where her voice swirls around rich synth, or on “Bare”, with her soul-stirring duetting with VanPortfleet.

Lycia: Snowdrop (1996)

However, it wasn’t just Vanflower’s stronger role that made Cold such a success. The band had further broadened its sound on the album, shifting from the more succinct songs of The Burning Circle and Then Dust and enveloping the new songs with more subliminal and hypnotic presence. Cold‘s nine tracks were lengthy outpourings of mesmeric grief, overflowing with gothic splendor — albeit of a slightly different hue for the band. The increasing use of electronics and hazy effects was a marked feature of Cold, with songs such as “December”, “Drifting” and “Baltica” soaring with desolate and teary atmospherics. Throughout the album, droning and sublime keyboard passages brought plenty of elegant plaintiveness, but Cold wasn’t simply an album set to impress with its solemnity — although, let’s be clear, it’s a magnificent ritual of remorse and dejection. 

What is equally important is that Cold‘s echo can be clearly heard since its release, and it still resounds in 2013. The album’s symphonic swells of keyboards and ghostly guitar harmonies are clearly recognizable in the bass-heavy (and delicate) exploits of witch-house, eerie psychedelia, space rock, and experimental fare. The slow dark pulse of Cold is certainly there in black metal’s ambient spectrum, with one-man introspective bands being the obvious first port of call. You also can’t ignore Lycia’s role in inspiring a raft of other metal bands to express their emotions in more emotionally dispirited ways. The most obvious example of this is Type O Negative’s Peter Steele expressing his love for Lycia on many an occasion, and his band’s subsequent success in plying disheartening fare. 

Lycia: Drifting (1996)

In truth, Cold is a seriously underrated album. (Not for its fans, of course; it’s a darkwave triumph.) Names like Depeche Mode, My Bloody Valentine, Love and Rockets, Slowdive, and This Mortal Coil are often dropped when referencing shimmering, scintillating or translucent influences. But Lycia’s mix of textured guitars and synth — and Vanflower and VanPortfleet’s whispering vocals — is just as important, and has informed a far wider range of bands than is routinely acknowledged, particularly those taking the epic and elegiac route to catharsis. However, influence aside, Cold‘s greatest strength is that it feels as relevant today as it did in 1996. Loneliness, fragility, doubt, regret and, of course, heartbreak, are all parts of the eternal human condition, and if you’re going to wallow in (or celebrate the dark beauty of) the endless agonies life can throw at you, Cold is the ideal companion, whatever the year or season. 

Cold and The Burning Circle and Then Dust were certainly high-points in Lycia’s career — and how many bands can lay claim to two masterpieces of gloom? But in 1997 Lycia released Estrella, an album that lifted the claustrophobic cloud of the band’s previous work, allowing a little of dawn’s early light to illuminate the emotional darkness. Estrella certainly projected overcast imagery, but in comparison to Cold‘s downheartedness, the album’s ethereal lilt was more uplifting and otherworldly.

Lycia: Bare (1996)

Compilation releases covering Lycia’s Arizona and Ohio-based years (Compilation Appearances Vol 1 & Vol 2) included live and sundry tracks, and in 2002, after a few years of quiet, Lycia released the prepossessing, and more acoustic and droning, Tripping Back into the Broken Days (the band pared back to the now married Vanflower and VanPortfleet). A split from Projekt Records in 2003 was followed by the band’s Empty Space album on label Silber Records, and VanPortfleet and Vanflower have released solo works in recent years (Beyond the Horizon Line and This Womb Like Liquid Honey, My Little Fire-Filled Heart respectively) but Handmade Birds’ reissue of Cold is the lead-in to Quiet Moments — on which we will see where a decade of quiet reflection places Lycia in 2013.

Lycia: Broken Days (2002)

Obviously, many gothic and dark ambient bands released revered works in the ’90s, but Lycia’s layering of reverb-drenched guitar, bass, vocals and synth was among the very best. There’s no doubt that Cold is one of the defining classics of ethereal electronica and gothic rock. The feeling that in the end we’re all alone is something we’ve all contemplated. It’s a burden we carry throughout our lives, and Cold captures that sense of unease and despair as it haunts us to our graves.

Cold is an album that soothes as much as picks at uncomfortable certainties, and while Lycia has made a great deal of music that harvests gut-wrenching themes, this album truly reflects its name. It’s a bittersweet, wintry pill, a cascade of sorrowful sounds, and its grim gospel is set to shatter the heart with beautiful and mournful truths.