Released to little, if any, fanfare, Goya Dress’ entire output never saw either end of a Top 40 chart, let alone North American distribution. The three-piece UK band specialized in stylishly baroque Sturm und Drang rock; dizzying Märchens sated with so much drama they could have been captured in oil paintings and framed. Standing little chance in an industry that invested hungrily in the influx of young Britpop upstarts, Goya Dress ultimately vanished. They remain but a thumbprint in the canons of rock music history. One of the few relics left of their efforts is a sweeping, elegant, and mysterious album, Rooms, released in the spring of 1996.
A unit comprised of the quietly alluring Astrid Williamson on vocals, piano, and guitar, and two virtuoso players, bassist Terry de Castro and drummer Simon Pearson, Goya Dress emerged during the smashing highs of the ‘90s alternative rock scene. Shetland-born Williamson, a graduate of Glasgow’s Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, moved to London in 1993 after earning her degree, where she met American-born de Castro and London-based Pearson. Bearing a name that suggests much creative yield (Williamson named the band after the 19th-century Spanish painter Francisco Goya; particularly his citation in author John Galsworthy’s 1920s-era trilogy, The Forsyte Saga), Goya Dress would produce a small but remarkable output for the three years they existed as a band.
As a classically trained musician, Williamson’s background ensured that she had the musical chops to write and arrange songs. But the rigid structures of classical music left the young songwriter unsatisfied. A fortuitous meeting with another musician, guitarist Anton Kirkpatrick, was instrumental in the band’s development. Kirkpatrick introduced Williamson to the electric guitar, and of these electric experiments came the early blood of Goya Dress; the songs would eventually turn up on the band’s two 1995 EPs, Bedroom Cinema and Ruby, and later, on their full-length debut.
Williamson, by then, had scored a plum job as a pianist at the Groucho, London’s preeminent private club frequented by the artistic elite. By day, her practiced hands worked the keys, powered by her erudition of Bach and Beethoven. By night, she plugged in her guitar. With de Castro and Pearson, Williamson created an impressive dynamic that managed a diverse range of sounds, often the product of a four or five-piece band. A few successful live gigs bore the fruit of several record deal offers. To capitalize on the burgeoning British alternative rock scene, the band eventually signed with Nude Records, home of Britpop darlings Suede.
Sized up against de Castro’s lithe and muscular bass-playing, Pearson, a classically trained drummer, ensured the band a powerful rhythm section. Early numbers written by the band were propulsive and rhythmic set pieces that platformed Williamson’s particular talents. By her admission, Williamson is not a trained guitarist, but with her instrument she creates a tempest of elegant shudders, chords that shower down in artful sweeps. With this unusual mix of serrated textures and sophisticated euphony, the band continued their songwriting, eventually turning out Bedroom Cinema in the first half of 1995. The four songs on Bedroom Cinema balance the slash-and-burn of growling alternative rock with paisley piano pieces, possessing all the luminescence and texture of crushed diamonds. Later that same year, the band returned with a follow-up EP, the darkly ornate and intimate Ruby.
Heads began to turn in the press, and the band earned accolades in notable publications like NME and Melody Maker. Nude Records was already at work trying to secure producers for an anticipated full-length album. The general listening public, however, remained largely unmindful, and Goya Dress carried on unobtrusively in their work, playing many shows across the UK.
In developing the first full-length album, John Cale was suggested as a producer. Upon hearing a demo of a song Williamson wrote, “Glorious”, he was sold on the band’s strengths and agreed to step on board. Cale, whose legendary mark on rock music history includes his work as the bassist in the Velvet Underground, found kindred spirits in Williamson, de Castro, and Pearson. The band’s ability to approximate a certain stormy and theatrical sense of movement in their playing referred to Cale’s gifts of capturing a multitude of fluctuating sounds in a pop-rock format. Indeed, the songs that appear on their debut LP are little whirlwinds of orchestrated noise, each number flowing rich with the kind of color and dynamism that makes a static image like a Luca Giordano painting simply move.
Rooms opens with “Sweet Dreams for You”, its introductory guitar lines hovering forebodingly like the plucked notes from an antique music box. A dark tale of murder, lust, and revenge, its amber-hued atmosphere seemingly refers to the corresponding airs of murder in Jacques-Louis David’s most infamous work, The Death of Marat; a painting that bestrides beauty and horror like no other. In the case of the song, a woman has planned murder as the result of romantic jealousy, and not one of glamorous political scandal: “I have found the knife you own/ Took it to our room/ Hid it with the things you love/ Held it while we swoon…” The song nurses the best of the band’s talents; descending guitar chords, an undulant bassline, and deft drum work are arranged in layers that produce a circuitous rhythm. On the edge of this fulgurant storm, Williamson’s piano traces fanciful designs, like the rocaille gilts of a painting frame.
Gathering the swing of Motown and Brill Building pop in its rococo-lush swirl, “Crush” sidelines the earlier narrative of jealousy and murder for the sugar of giddy love lyrics and frothy guitars. Naturally pegged as a single – its ostentatious pop primed for radio – the song didn’t give the band the push they needed to break into the mainstream. It did, however, prove Williamson’s prowess for melody – a sensibility that would turn up often in her eventual solo work.
As a vocalist, Williamson never fit the alternative rock mold. Her at turns voluptuous and soaring voice (plush as velvet, tart as cranberries) and classically trained hand were out of step with the howls, growls, and thrashes of the Britpop and riot grrrl movements of the ‘90s. When she chooses to show her might as a singer and guitarist of ferocity, however, Williamson unleashes torrents of fury. Built like the staggering edifices of Roman architecture, “Scorch” crumbles and rebuilds itself in magnificent start-stop rhythms. A number full of thunder and lightning, guitars are strummed violently, as though they are the strings of a massive harp struck ominously above the world by the hand of an Olympian god. Williamson sings of stone houses, paintings of blood on walls, and Pleiadian constellations – sly nods to the very painter, Francisco Goya, who inspired the band’s name and his wretched stone house in which his infamous Pinturas negras would emerge during his later years.
Dream narratives are a natural element of Williamson’s songwriting; her Romantic leanings instill “Scorch” with an impressionistic sense of detail that obscures its deeper meanings. Winged by a lyricism reminiscent of Keats or Blake, Williamson’s poetry hangs heavy over the vast awning of harmonies and the full throttle of the rhythm section. Producer Cale also does the song service by embellishing it with a few decorative touches; circling in the stormy mix are the spare glitters of piano (courtesy of Cale himself) and the somersaulting tantaras of a kingly trumpet.
Cale’s reputation as a strong-willed, sometimes contentious producer has been tested from time to time by a series of musicians he worked with. Having just come away from production duties on Siouxsie and the Banshees’ final studio album, 1995’s The Rapture, the Welsh producer was now assigned to helm a set of equally strong-willed artists in Goya Dress. Cale’s at turns jagged and ebullient touch renders the songs on Rooms with uniform levels of polish and grit. Moreover, his production method ensures that all members’ contributions are unified in a democratic whole that never obscures anyone’s talent.
As bass players go (often the overlooked and underrated participant of a band), de Castro embraces a robust style that refers to her instrument’s principal task of underpinning the guitar chords with a textural foundation, while bolstering the compositions with an added cushion of melody – a task made all the more significant here by the limited resources of a three-piece band lacking a second guitarist.
Drummer Pearson’s classical training confirms his ability to manage an array of rhythms with aplomb. His nuanced and delicate hits on the rims expertly alternate with powerhouse riffs that signal a sudden and drastic change in weather. His facility for complicated rhythms gives the arrangements an elegant and fluid sweep, a motion that makes these numbers feel as if they are animate creations.
For her part, Williamson negates much of the so-called rules of alternative rock. She thrashes on her guitar with admirable aggression but manages to placate the atmosphere of violence with her refined piano compositions. Atypical of the practices of ‘90s alternative rock, Williamson’s custom of building gusty rock arrangements upon the blueprints of her classical training occasions works that are structured with a palpable sense of texture and an even richer sense of melody.
Referring to her strengths as a classically trained pianist, her instrument of choice makes its introduction front-and-center on the album’s title track. An erotic curvature of sound that extends a passionate plea for touch and affection, “Rooms” is the album’s most spare composition. Williamson sings of restless dreams, of her body catching fire in the night and the stifling, almost painful, magnitude of loneliness. A suggestive lyric skirts just a few words shy of bold confession: “Wouldn’t you like to stroke my…like to bite…/Wouldn’t you, yes you would/ You’d love to, I know you/ My hands, your hands/ My mouth, your mouth…” Adorned with a string section written and arranged by Williamson, “Rooms” stands stark amidst the brewing storms of the surrounding numbers, its blue-moon aura hovering thickly like a phosphorescent cloud.
The more conventional arrangements of “Greatest Secret” are engendered by the simple alchemy of rhythm, poem, and melody, the most basic constituents of the band’s talents. In particular, de Castro’s tuneful bass-playing gives the number a vital underpinning of harmony and a flowing, supple texture. Williamson’s gradient blending of piano and guitar creates an impressionistic descant over the number until it eventually flowers into the diapason of a lush and racing pop tune.
The latter half of Rooms explores the more mysterious reaches of the band’s talents. A palette change in musical colors has the band working with tones even more ambiguous than in the album’s first half. Lyrically, Williamson’s dream narratives are refracted through an even more abstruse rendering, the darkly erotic airs of her poems hanging like death shrouds across the long skies of the sprawling numbers.
On “Glorious”, the single which swayed Cale into production duties, Williamson alternates her watery guitar strains with ones that brutally scrape. Guitars are applied like the impastos of paint, the textures crudely amassing and made nearly tactile upon the sonic canvas. Meanwhile, Pearson’s polyrhythmic drum fills lift the song to frightening crescendos, pummeling out a groove of cruel and intense passion. A string section swivels in and out of the cacophony, and Williamson sings of a suggestive and disturbing concupiscence, sealing her forlorn sentiments within the dusk of a fearsome pop-rock.
As if to sluice the album’s ubiquitous eventide with morning light, the rock arrangements of “Any John” are festooned with a piping brass section, evoking a dalliance of winging cherubs blowing trumpets in cream-colored skies. Later, when those skies darken again on “Katie Stood on the Benches”, Williamson’s voice scales heights like the majestic cliffs of her native Shetland. A story of abandoned love steeped in twilight hues, strings and oboes surge around its haunting tale of a young woman waiting by the sea for an incoming ship carrying her lover.
Williamson’s evocative storytelling on the album allows for an untroubled passage of both personal narrative and dramatic fiction. Within the Romantic mêlée of brocaded images, the threads of natural living emerge, woven dexterously into a fabric of poem and language. Spite is externalized as a knife in hand; unrequited love becomes a dwelling that houses malefic art. Those gifts of poetic imagery are especially pressed into service on the midtempo ballad “Picture This”. Full of reverbed guitars and brooding piano notes, a cinematic nihilism of the natural world infuses the airs of a song heaving with ghosts; a multitracked vocal glides elegiacally over the chords and toward the lonely expanse of an evening sky.
Rooms ends on the last of its rococo notes, the Watteau-tipped sentiments of “The Maritime Waltz” returning Williamson to the comforts of her piano. Built upon a swaying jazz riff, it is buoyed by curlicuing woodwinds and eddying strings, the musical brushstrokes of its seaside fête galante shaping the song into picturesque form. A lissome bow to an album that runs a wide gamut of emotional color, “The Maritime Waltz”, in many ways, pointed the way toward the band’s future endeavors, in which they attempted to expand their sonic perimeters.
In 1997, Goya Dress did indeed return to the studios for a second full-length album, only to be blindsided by the label’s suggestion that Williamson record the album solo under her name, which she did. The demise of the band was thus official. Pearson and de Castro would go on to join Cinerama and the Wedding Present. Later, de Castro would also lend her efforts to Animals that Swim before releasing her solo album A Casa Verde in 2009. Williamson, following her solo debut, the more pop-oriented Boy for You (released on Nude Records in 1998), would continue her musical career, releasing albums independently.
Her other solo works have explored a wide range of styles, from the modern Shetland folk of her 2003 self-titled sophomore effort to the heavy electronic pulse of 2015’s We Go to Dream. Williamson would also collaborate with various musicians, including Johnny Marr, Bernard Summer, Ivo Watts-Russel, and Dead Can Dance.
Rooms received slim but glowing praise from a round of critics and a few features in a number of the UK’s top publications. But the general listening public was oblivious to the band’s talents. The album came and went without much fuss and furor and remains largely unknown today. On the album’s cover, Williamson, de Castro, and Pearson appear like escapees from Francisco Goya’s painting, The Burial of the Sardine. A surreal aberration of dragon kites and secret rooms in a long and mysterious corridor, Rooms’ album cover image refers to the more delusive ones found in Williamson’s lyrics, where the star-crossed and scorned merge dangerously in strange and turbulent landscapes
The album cover’s corresponding motif – Goya’s aforementioned painting – features an assortment of revelers dancing madly in a crowd, waving large banners and wearing frightening masks during the “Entierro de la Sardina”, a traditional Spanish ceremony where mock idols are burned. The roisterers are lively and unruly. Yet, they seem oddly dispossessed – bodies hollowed of their souls and hanging loose from fantoccini strings. Behind the grimacing masks, there seemingly hides sentiments darkened by cruel desires, as personified by the grinning, sinister face that nearly obscures the word “Mortus” on the largest banner. The people of the songs on Rooms are equally restive and passionate: like the masked revelers of the painting who conjure an atmosphere of wild and fantastic mythos, they establish a similar sense of romantic illusion – of false idols in search of real ones.