The Sisters of Mercy and the Birthday Massacre Represent Two Sides of the Goth Coin

Fearful Symmetry
The Sisters of Mercy and The Birthday Massacre represent two sides of the Goth coin

Any genre or style that lasts for any length of time eventually has practitioners who play out an identity crisis—should they continue in familiar territory, or figure out something new?

And what do the younger artists following in the footsteps of these established figures do if they’re trying to make their own mark? For a near-perfect illustration of this conundrum, consider two upcoming shows, happening just one day apart: the Birthday Massacre’s Saturday performance at the Glass House, and the Sisters of Mercy’s Sunday date at the House of Blues. Both acts can be described as Goth—with everything that brand implies—but both also show how to kick against that image, though sometimes with mixed results.

This latter issue is one the Sisters of Mercy’s leader and sole permanent member, Andrew Eldritch, has been fighting against almost since the band began in Leeds in the early ’80s. Embracing an aesthetic that hot-wired wry intelligence with intentionally lowbrow rock & roll wastrel imagery, then cranking up their guitars and a blunt drum-machine punch to 11, the early incarnations of the Sisters got lumped by accident rather than intent into what was already being described as Goth rock. Eldritch’s way with self-presentation, hiding behind dark clothes and a mop of black hair, not to mention a deep, brooding vocal style, was further accentuated by the band’s collective public face—no group photos on record sleeves, stage shows swathed in heavy fog and murky lighting—then tweaked by Eldritch’s wicked, stone-faced sense of humor and ear for unexpected cover choices, including Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” and Hot Chocolate’s “Emma.”

Once they went the major-label route, some of that opaqueness was lost, but the music often continued to be strong, with albums such as First and Last and Always and such singles as “This Corrosion” and “Dominion” gaining Top 40 status in their native U.K. and a huge cult audience in the U.S. and elsewhere. After a couple of compilations of singles and early EPs in the early 1990s, however, a massive falling out between Eldritch and his record company led to him refusing to record anything new. His frustration with the Goth tag grew as he found himself unable to break through both media and audience preconceptions of what the Sisters were supposed to be all about.

Since then, he has led new incarnations of the group on occasional tours and showcased a variety of unreleased songs, including the excellent “We Are the Same Suzanne” and “War on Drugs,” but the Sisters are ultimately locked in stasis. Eldritch, like so many other artists, is aware that it’s his past rather than his present that sustains interest.

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The Birthday Massacre act as a near total contrast to the Sisters on many levels. The band’s happy to work with and within the Goth subculture, though they’re also careful to self-identify as an “industrial and electronic act.” Formed in 1999, they’re able to treat forebears such as the Sisters as templates to build on and rework as they choose.

The Canadian group have a solid core to work with, i.e., more than just one person. The team of vocalist Chibi and lead musicians Michael Falcore and Rainbow first united as Imagica, before rechristening themselves as the Birthday Massacre a couple of years later. Fan and label attention came first in Germany, followed by the States. But unlike the Sisters, who are cryptically foreboding even at their most catchy, there’s a bright openness about the band, musically and otherwise, that suggests the now rather than the past.

This is heard in songs such as “Kill the Lights,” which seamlessly blend the kind of spiraling mid-’80s riffs the Sisters were known for with pop dramatics that sound perfect for 2008, even in their cover of Tommy James & the Shondells via Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now.” There’s also the band’s elaborate artwork on their album covers and websites, with shadowy figures of children and animals at once playful and unsettled against purple skies. These images give the sense that, as Rainbow said in an interview from last year, “[What] we wanted to do was just make our own little world, which people could come and visit if they wanted to.”

Both bands essentially provide that option this week. The choices are yours to make, and the differences there to note.

 

The Birthday Massacre, Tub Ring and Creature Feature at the Glass House, 200 W. Second St., Pomona, (909) 865-3802; www.theglasshouse.us. Sat., 7 p.m. $15-$17. All ages; The Sisters of Mercy and Hypernova at the House of Blues, 1530 S. Disneyland Dr., Anaheim, (714) 778-2583; www.hob.com. Sun., ?8 p.m. $35-$37.50. All ages.

 
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