18 Dark Bands To Watch In 2011
It’s not news that popular indie rock got a bit darker in 2010. Look no further than regular topics of conversation around here — Zola Jesus, CREEP, Cold Cave, Salem, Tamaryn, Blessure Grave, Locrian, Gatekeeper, Frank (Just Frank), Crystal Castles, Holy Other, Balam Acab, Minks, oOoOO, Silent Diane, ///▲▲▲\\\, anyone else who got labeled “witch house,” and even the new look Abe Vigoda, etc. I started thinking about this again while writing the Double Take on Liars’ They Were Wrong, though to be fair, it’s something that doesn’t really leave my mind. Things are still definitely drifting into black in 2011, so I thought it made sense to put together a list of some of the best “new” bands making sounds in those shadows. Not all of the groups were formed in 2011, no, but most of them are poised to leave their biggest mark in the coming months. Some will be familiar, others less so. I left off Soft Moon because we included The Soft Moon on our 20 Most Overlooked Albums Of 2010, but consider them honorary members. I also left off a bunch of bands like Sleep ∞ Over because they’re swoony, but not very grim. Speaking of which, I didn’t get into metal or more outsider ambient sounds because (a) I ramble enough about metal elsewhere and (b) it’s always been plenty dark in those parts. (If I had included some of the latter, I would’ve featured awesome new Tri Angle signee Ayshay, shrouded noisemakers Cultus Sabbati, Brooklyn’s Mirrorgate, Mamiffer, and Montreal’s Femminielli [thanks, Ryan, Akitsa/Contrepoison], among others.) I needed to narrow it somehow, so this is “poppier” terrain. Also of note: The following’s in alphabetical order, not in order of darkness.
So far when folks write about electro-industrial quartet aTelecine, they focus on the fact that the group features Sasha Grey (on voice, synth, tape loops, guitar), but hopefully in 2011 people can stand back enough and appreciate these dark, warping, gargling, and drifting, occasionally explosive soundscapes regardless of who helped make them. Expect a new full-length titled The Falcon And The Pod in April and two more records — to create a trilogy — by mid-Summer. They’re also collecting the back catalog/vaulted/vinyl-only tracks and preparing them for digital download.
We’ve already labeled the Katie Stelmanis-fronted Toronto trio a BTW, but Austra’s self-titled debut is so strong — a shimmering, sufficiently dark goth dance party fronted by a classically trained vocalist who clearly enjoys her Fever Ray — that I thought I should mention it again. One of 2011’s best, it reminds me of Nico’s extremely icy The Marble Index with a warmer new wave pulse.
L.A.’s Chelsea Wolfe composes fractured, noisy, abstract, experimental and exploratory gothy doom-folk that reminds me a bit of Portal Of Sorrow, Marissa Nadler’s collaboration with Xasthur. (Not just because she covers Burzum.) Her work, which she’s called “spiritual realm funeral songs” and labeled “Estonian industrial,” features those sorts of blackened atmospherics and fuzz alongside her strong voice and imaginative playing. Wolfe’s debut full-length The Grime And The Glow, out via Pendu Sound, was one of my sleeper favorites in late 2010. But 2011 should be her year.
Craft Spells is more summery and New Romantic than the rest of the artists on this list, but Seattle-via-California frontman Justin Paul Vallesteros’ voice, sometimes an Ian Curtis-esque whisper, other times a confident croon, nails a sort of ’80s nostalgia that connotes darkness, even when bringing light into the room. It’s the band you retreat to when you need a break from Christian Death or want to find a suitable way to soundtrack an outsider’s love story (hell, they have a song called “Scandinavian Crush”). Captured Tracks has released a 7″ and is set to put out the band’s debut LP Idle Labor next week.
Brooklyn’s Cult Of Youth, primarily the project of multi-instrumentalist/songwriter Sean Ragon, has released home-recorded singles and one limited-edition Dais LP since 2007, but this new self-titled Chris Coady-produced, Kevin McMahon-mixed collection is the first he’s recorded with his proper band. People who pay attention to the neo-folk, pagan folk, and post-industrial scene, wear Death In June/Current 93 shirts, bring up The Wicker Man occasionally in conversation, or frequent Todd Pendu’s gatherings, will likely be familiar with the band, but 2011 seems like the year the rest of the world will get a taste of CoY’s frenetic, powerful energy.
Tribal, atmospheric Brighton post-punk/goth trio Esben And The Witch take their name from a Danish fairytale, one of those stories starring a witch and her oven. The cover art on their full-length debut Violet Cries is reminiscent of Current 93’s Where The Long Shadows Fall (or a purplish take on a nature-worshipping black metal record), but the blustery blend of guitars, effects, keyboards, tom-tom is more akin to Zola Jesus collaborating with Scott Walker or a bombastic Kate Bush-loving electronic act taking lessons from Mogwai on the art of the deep crescendo. (As far as the overall temperature and spaciousness, you wouldn’t be wrong to think of Portishead.) They’re signed to Matador, who’s clearly giving them a push.
After years of home recording, Rich T. Moreno, onetime drummer for L.A.’s New Collapse, released a 2009 Frank Alpine 7″ on Dais. He’s at work now on a full-length debut that we can expect “roughly” in late summer/early fall. As he puts it, “The LP will include new songs with vocals, produced with a higher-fidelity sound, using all analog synths from previous recordings.” His minimal, dark synth sound’s a raucous, wild, hypnotically repetitious, almost ritualistic take on death-rock and post-punk. (You might also think of the Fall — the Mark E. Smith-fronted band, of course, as well as the fall of man, the world’s ultimate collapse.) Here’s an unmastered track from the new album, the fittingly titled “Dark Places”
Horrid Red is a half-submerged, softly fuzzed darkwave project featuring 3/4 of the Edmund Xavier-fronted Teenage Panzerkorps along with Clay Ruby from Burial Hex. Their Pink Flowers EP is out now via the dependable Soft Abuse. (Also look for TPK’s German Reggae, out via Burundi Cloud/Holidays.) Horrid Red’s touring in June — hopefully they live up to their glam press pics.
On the surface, the Copenhagen quartet Iceage are more aligned with Gravity Records than goth, but these kids (aged between 18 and 19) create a kind of punk that’s manic, explosive, poppy, and endlessly dark (post-anarcho? post-Wedding Present?). Their propulsive 12-song, 25-minute debut LP New Brigade surfaces after 2009’s debut Escho 7″. It’s of my favorites of 2011, maybe one of the best albums of its sort in recent memory (as well as a nice kick in the ass when too many kids are busy with business plans and afraid to throw caution into a blender).
Dark New Orleans pop trio Kindest Lines are releasing their debut full-length Covered In Dust via Wierd on 6/15. The 11-song collection was produced in Chicago by Alfredo Nogueira and Josh Eustis of Telephone Tel Aviv. It’ll be preceded by a 7″ for second single “Destructive Paths to Live Happily.” The first single, “Baltimore,” premieres below. It’ll give you a sense of their Cure-esque atmospherics blended with a kind of down-home indie-pop and gently wafting post-punk, blending minimal synth with guitar crescendos.
Featuring members of Aghast and Helldistort, Richmond, Virginia’s Lost Tribe play an irresistible sort of clamoring death-rock, peace punk, and crust goth. Their self-released five-song New Dawn cassette’s a must for fans of late ’70s L.A., rollicking dark punk, and Joy Division atmospherics. I play this thing on repeat, constantly. Here’s the opener:
Longtime fans of minimal synth pop will recognize the name behind Martial Canterel, the solo project Xeno & Oaklander’s Sean McBride. His packed, layered analog songs are noisy, melancholic anthems for hiding out during sleet storms. (And they feature a catchy, clean glossiness that’d fit perfectly in barely-lit clubs.) McBride’s newest effort, You Today, mixes densely spacious analog production, intelligent lyrics, existential loneliness, great hooks.
Berlin via Argentina couple/duo Mueran Humanos don’t stick to one particular style, though through a blend of Krautrock, noise, punk, electronica, industrial, and lyrics sung in Spanish, they maintain a definite atmosphere. Their one-sheet’s description of them as “a garage rock Chris and Cosey” works. The vinyl edition of their self-titled debut’s out via Blind Prophet, the label run by Cult Of Youth’s Sean Ragon, and the first 78 copies arrive(d) with a “randomly selected” card from a German edition of Aleister Crowley’s Thoth tarot deck.
Maybe the only band on this list who’d admit to listening to R. Kelly… The San Diego duo of Laotian American fashion reconstructor Joseph Vorachack (who also records with Top Girls and Party Trash as Skylines) and Jeff Graves use the Oakland Raiders’ logo as their own and manage a kind of dark humor in even the bleaker edges of their R&B-meets-goth-industrial pop soundscapes. Raw Moans isn’t dark in the sense of some of the other folks — it’s late night and insular and lonesome, even when it isn’t. Disaro released the double CD-R We Want It Beautiful Not Real and RW RMX at the end of 2010. Here’s a new cover of Lush’s “Tralala” that Vorachack finalized and passed along just in time to be included in this list. He told me he was up all night mixing it– you get that bleary-eyed diligence with most of Raw Moans’ work, one of the things that makes it special.
Soft Kill is the project of Toby Grave and wife Shiloe Alia (aka “two people playing like five”). We’re told the couple bonded musically over a shared interest in Howard Devoto, the Cure, Wire/Colin Newman, and Killing Joke and that their excellent debut An Open Door‘s “an open dialogue love letter in song form.” It’s also a perfect example of romantic, class-sounding death-rock. Fittingly, Peter Murphy did the cover photo for it. (See, also, T and S’s Group Hex.)
Staccato Du Mal’s the decade-old minimal synth project of Miami-based Ramiro Jeancarlo, one half of industrial/power electronics duo Opus Finis. Right, decade-old, but the gorgeously dire Sin Destino is his first proper full-length. The tracks are shrouded in a cold, claustrophobic atmosphere — like Jeancarlo’s reacting to Southern Florida the way California black metallers shut out their palm trees. As on those projects, you can’t keep the shades shut forever, and moments of warmth do occasionally streak the shadows.
We’re told when the Toronto duo TRUST formed in 2009, they focused on “nostalgia, lust, and erotomania.” (An earlier track’s titled “Gloryhole,” Jamie Gillis fans.) On their debut 7″ they keep that dark, “dirty” energy in place and add a bunch of hooks, an ability/knack that separates them from a lot of folks associated with the word “witch.” Sonically, Robert Alfons and Maya Postepski (also of Austra) combine patient, layered synthesizers, live and programmed drums, and processed vocals with a punk attitude and deep sense of spacious, catchy melody.
I’ve gone on about how Crystal Castles make me think of WOLD and the black metal connections with Frank (Just Frank) and Zola Jesus, but if you jump around the Internet, you’ll see White Ring themselves mentioning Darkthrone, Mayhem, Burzum, Gorgoroth, Satyricon, Watain, and Liturgy alongside Swans, Death In June, Slowdive, TG, and Coil. This is just part of what makes the male/female Brooklyn duo so interesting. Look for a new tape shortly. Todd Pendu, who’s releasing it, tells me “it’ll have unreleased White Ring tracks along with exclusive remixes etc put together like a classic street hip-hop mixtape.” In 2011 they can shed that “witch house” tag and get back to what they were doing in the first place.
Thanks to Caleb, Pieter, and others for insights. It’s worth noting I wrote the bulk of this during a March icestorm. All lists, especially one of this sort, deserve a singing skeleton, so here’s Soft Kill’s “Death In The Family” video to send us into that great night.
Here’s the list again sans blurbs for easier reading, again in alphabetical order:
03 Chelsea Wolfe
04 Craft Spells
05 Cult Of Youth
06 Esben And The Witch
07 Frank Alpine
08 Horrid Red
10 Kindest Lines
11 Lost Tribe
12 Martial Canterel
13 Mueran Humanos
14 Raw Moans
15 Soft Kill
16 Staccato du Mal
18 White Ring