Drab Majesty's Darkwave Peaks on 'Modern Mirror'
Still gothy after all these years, darkwave duo Drab Majesty's songwriting is catching up with their impeccable aesthetic on Modern Mirror.
12 July 2019
One rarely hears the term "aesthetic" bandied around as much as it is in reference to Drab Majesty. And the Los Angeles duo indeed has a well-defined one. The alter-egos, the androgyny, the makeup, leather, sunglasses, and inscrutability have all been carefully formulated, applied, and curated. And that doesn't even take into account the music, which is precisely the danger. Is form maintained at the expense of substance? When the image is so to the forefront, does it overshadow the art?
Drab Majesty's music is itself is an extension of the image, and vice-versa. They have an unmistakable, finely-sculpted sound. For those who love them, this is a major reason why—everything works together. Drab Majesty are their own world, and the music is a portal. For others, though, the aesthetic is more compelling than the music itself. The idea of Drab Majesty is more satisfying than the act of listing to one of their records from start to finish.
Strangely, Drab Majesty's music is instantly familiar and maybe even nostalgic. Yet upon further consideration, it doesn't sound just like anything else. That is because it is an idealized distillation of everyone who has been associated with the term "goth" to any extent over the last 40 years, along with a variety of synth-goth, goth-wave, and goth-gaze genres. And, despite some compelling singles, that distillation ultimately has been the most impressive aspect of their career thus far.
On their last album, The Demonstration, the Drab Majesty Sound was firmly established. A crystalline guitar arpeggio, chugging bass synth, followed by pounding drum machine complete with cheesy, space-laser toms. A couple of minor-key chords, Deb Demure's archly morose vocals, chorus with harder-chugging bass synth, leading to a feedback-washed denouement. For better and worse, that was the aesthetic -- or formula.
Perhaps due to the continued presence of producer Josh Eustis, that sound remains fundamentally the same on Modern Mirror. This is no departure or even a left turn down a darkened alley. Those synths, that guitar, the drum machine are all still at the forefront. So, cause for a black celebration among dedicated fans and here-we-go-again for everyone else? Not quite, actually.
Opening track "A Dialogue" begins with a wash of feedback. There's no synth-bass, no drum machine. It's just Demure falling into an abyss, repeating a single exchange: "Don't say you love / If I don't say I love who are you now?". Soon he is joined by bandmate Mona B in a fuguing style. The effect is powerful, and probably not what one was expecting.
The subsequent seven songs are more traditionally Drab. Crucially, though, they are more consistently better, stronger, and more confident than previous collections. There is nothing as powerfully crushing as "39 By Design" from The Demonstration, but there is some engaging melodicism, not to mention major keys (!), on the chorus of "The Other Side". And could that be the hint of a jangle and some sun breaking through the clouds on the melancholic, rather than doomy, closer "Out of Sequence"?
It isn't that Demure and Mona B have compromised their aesthetic at all. Rather, they seem to have realized the subversive power in allowing it to take on the guise of pop music. They certainly wouldn't be the first to do so, but it is a welcome turn no less.
Not that they have abandoned the darkness altogether. On the contrary, "Oxytocin", a gorgeously mournful love song without a chorus at all, is one of Modern Mirror's best moments. Even this is something of a small revelation, though, with Mona B taking on lead vocals and actually emoting, not to mention copping the best faux British accent since the first Ministry album.
Modern Mirror isn't without a couple worrying hints that the Drab Majesty aesthetic isn't immune to diminishing returns. "Noise of the Void" is an inferior revisiting of "39 By Design", with Demure courting self-parody when he repeats "It's the emptiness, the emptiness" as if he has a quota of despair to meet.
But even that doesn't stop Modern Mirror from being something Drab Majesty haven't accomplished before, which is an album that has no use for the "skip" button. It is a very good Drab Majesty album. More importantly, it is a very good album, too.