For many, the wide-ranging cultural phenomenon we now call “goth” ended sometime in the mid-to-late 1980s,with a stereotyped core of face-painted corset-wearing fans keeping the faith alive in dim basements and hole-in-the-wall clubs across America (a stereotype ruthlessly satirized in the late-90s era SNL “Goth Talk” skits). It was as if ex-Bauhaus frontman Peter Murphy's “Deep” (featuring the hit “Cuts You Up”), The Sisters of Mercy's “Vision Thing”, Love & Rocket's 1989 self-titled commercial breakthrough, The Creatures' “Boomerang”, and The Cure's “Disintegration” encompassed a collective last gasp of that misunderstood and oft-maligned musical genre. If post-1990 “dark” music was mentioned at all by rock critics or historians, it was usually (and often negatively) referencing the rise of Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, and their numerous chart-making Industrial-rock also-rans (Filter, Stabbing Westward, Gravity Kills, etc).
But while mainstream attention turned away from all things “goth”, or mistakenly equated “goth” with Marilyn Manson's legion of “spooky kid” followers, those inspired by the first wave of UK goth bands, and by America's own home-grown “deathrock” scene (sparked by Rozz Williams and his band Christian Death), were quietly building a network of club nights (the longest running, Death Guild in San Francisco, founded in 1993, is still active), networking on alt.gothic (founded in 1991 on Usenet, and soon leading to the yearly Convergence festival, founded in 1994) , and starting their own bands. This flowering of second-wave bands in the 1990s were often lumped together under the moniker of “darkwave”. Darkwave bands were often more club-friendly than their post-punk predecessors (dance clubs often being the main transmission point for new music in this era), and included everything from hard-edged experimentalism to ethereal soundscapes.
If there is a “golden age” of darkwave, then it started in the early-to-mid-1990s, which saw key releases from seminal bands like Faith & The Muse, Switchblade Symphony, and Sunshine Blind, and the ascension of specialty labels like Projekt, Tess, and Cleopatress closed up shop, and many popular disbanded or entered long periods of creative hibernation. Also at this time, the online service Mp3.com, providing unsigned and niche bands (including many goth and darkwave acts) with an easy way to distribute free samples of their music, was sold off, its service discontinued. It would be years before sites like MySpace, Bandcamp, and CD Baby rose to fill the vacuum created by its loss.
However, musical genres or “scenes” never simply end, and while the Golden Age of Darkwave may have passed, a number of veteran artists kept making albums, new bands continued to form, and a handful of record labels continued to promote them. Indeed, modern goth/darkwave music, while seemingly stuck in a semi-permanent cultish underground in America and the UK, in Europe has flowered, spawned new sub-genres, and found something akin to mainstream acceptance, particularly in Germany, home to Wave-Gotik-Treffen and M'era Luna, the world's largest goth festivals, each drawing crowds over 20,000 annually. In Germany, it isn't unusual for acts like Unheilig to share space on the singles chart with Lady Gaga, and there's been a noticeable exodus of American and UK goth/dark-focused musicians and promoters to Germany in recent years.
Currently, rumblings from the American underground point to a new resurgence of interest in this creatively vital, and sorely overlooked, thread of musical expression. Darkwave stalwarts Faith and the Muse, who have regularly put out albums since their debut in 1994, are engaging a new American tour for their recently released album “ankoku butoh”, which seems to be prompting/promoting a mini-resurgence of the genre. Several of their dates feature opening acts that double as reunion gigs, which will be as exciting to veteran goth scenesters as is the looming Pavement reunion to aging indie rockers. The California dates alone feature neo-cabaret pioneer Jill Tracy, who last released an album in 2008 (after a six-year hiatus), Pagan darkwave favorites The Shroud, who last put out an album in 2002, and the infamously too-goth-for-Andrew-Eldritch Sunshine Blind. The tour will also see them play a gig with former Tess labelmates Autumn, as well as The Ghosts Project, from Paul Mercer of The Changelings.
Aside from the nostalgic thrill of seeing some of these bands again, and the possibility that some of them may be inspired to put out brand-new material, it could also illustrate how the American/UK dark underground has been influencing, sometimes perhaps subliminally, the recent crop of darkly-inflected indie-rock darlings. Madison-based band Zola Jesus' sound on their latest ep “Stridulum”, and 2009 full-length “The Spoils”, spotlights a sound (and a look) that, had it debuted 15 years ago, would have meant critical isolation in the goth “ghetto”. The ethereal ambient-drone of Portland's Grouper would fit in just fine at Projekt Records. Pitchfork Media described Cold Cave's 2009 album “Love Comes Close” as “synth-pop, post punk, new wave, atmospheric industrial,” but an easier shorthand would have just been "darkwave."
If the current trend in music criticism has been away from the rockist notions of authenticity, with its suspicion of synthesizers, hostility towards romanticism, and ambivalence towards queering gender norms, perhaps we can finally reevaluate the 1990s goth/darkwave underground and give it its proper place in the canon, as when writers like Simon Reynolds acknowledged the place of first-wave goth in the post-punk continuum. We may even reach a point where using “goth” or “darkwave” as a descriptive term isn't a thinly-veiled insult, but is one that bands wear with integrity. Finally, we can eliminate the incorrect narrative that states goth died twenty years ago, and that what did survive (or rose from the grave?) wasn't worth mentioning.