The granddaddy of the gothic Christmas collection is Projekt Records’ 1995 collection, Excelsis: A Dark Noel. Rather than offering dismal versions of standard Christmas songs, it captured the ethereal, crystalline beauty of snow and the meditative solitude of the deepest silent night, becoming an instant classic. It’s a tradition Projekt has continued; their website now boasts more than a dozen holiday releases. Over time, other musicians have explored the darker side of the winter holidays in increasing numbers.
2019 Holiday Collections
Christmas Nocturne by Sue Hutton and Athan Maroulis: The most recent of Projekt’s holiday releases came out on Nov. 22. Sue Hutton (Rhea’s Obsession, Indarra) and Athan Maroulis (Spahn Ranch, black tape for a blue girl, NØIR) joined forces on this EP, which includes a re-release of “We Three Kings,” the duet they first created in 1999 for Excelsis Vol. 2. I count their version of “We Three Kings” as my favorite recorded Christmas song. Recorded with Sue’s world music-inspired previous band, Rhea’s Obsession, it captures the mysticism of the three wise men journeying from the east. The song features Sue playing a bulbul (a North Indian dulcimer), and the last third of the song focuses on hand percussion with vocalizing in her Indo-Bulgarian style while Athan provides mellifluous harmonies. The blend of these elements offers some of the most sublime moments to be found in dark world music.
20 years later, Athan and Sue have brewed a new batch of achingly beautiful, dark and velvety concoctions. “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” has several unique sections. It begins with Sue singing the intro to the medieval Christmas carol “Gaudete,” while Athan sings backing vocals. It then becomes more of a traditional duet with minimal instrumentation as they sing the familiar lyrics about comfort and joy. And then the heavy electric guitars kick in, lending more gravitas. Kevin Laliberté provides production and instrumentation, and the overall effect is a bit like Dead Can Dance meets Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
Christmas Nocturne also includes “Carol of the Drum,” penned in the 1940s based on a traditional Czech song and now most often known as “Little Drummer Boy.” Athan takes the lead on this one, providing a rich vocal line while Sue offers the backing harmonies. There are two versions, one with some faint drums and atmospheric keyboards, and one performed acapella, in which the vocals themselves offer the rhythms and allow the harmonies to glitter on center stage in an arrangement that rivals anything Pentatonix could come up with. Listen on Bandcamp
Terrible Christmas by Seibold the Terrible: Steven Seibold has had a remarkably prolific year. The man behind the industrial band Hate Dept. has branched out. He released a superb new wave/synthpop album as Standalone in February, and then a fine post-punk record as muet in March. Seibold the Terrible is his folk punk / post-industrial punk project, and on Nov. 28, he dropped an album called Terrible Christmas. This record makes me think of Johnny Cash and Tom Waits on a bender. It is not cheerful. It revels in the truly dark, depressing, and frustrating sides of the holiday season, which, to be honest, can be quite cathartic.
“Missus Claus” asks the question of how Santa’s wife might feel about being left alone on Christmas Eve every year, and what might happen when she reaches her breaking point. “Black Friday” is a rollicking lambasting of the excesses of capitalism. “End of the Year” is a dirge about the season in which everything dies, set to a kinetic bassline. If Green Day’s “Wake Me Up When September Ends” had a child with Type O Negative’s “Black No. 1,” it might be this song. There are breakup songs and songs about how Santa will never visit, and the whole thing is the exploration of Christmas depression that you never knew you needed. Listen on Bandcamp
Gothic Christmas 2019 (pre-release) by Dark Christmas: Gothic Christmas is a series I’d never heard of until I saw Caroline Blind of Sunshine Blind mention her inclusion this year, but it’s been going on since Dec. 2013 and is coordinated by David “Slaya” Smith, a Christian goth who lives in Michigan. There are a lucky 13 releases available on Bandcamp. The 2019 release became available on Dec. 7 and is only three songs (so far – it’s listed as a pre-release with a note that it’s coming soon).
Leper gives us a melancholy hard rock version of “In the Bleak Midwinter.” Caroline Blind offers a version of “Silver Bells” that’s full of warmth, but in the way that everything gets warm when you have a bellyful of whiskey and all the Christmas lights have started to blur and the room is filled with jangly tones and you somehow manage to keep it all together and keep smiling even though you’re thinking too much about everything you’ve lost. Epic Church brings us an instrumental version of “O Tannenbaum” that you might hear on a church organ if it were played by Devo and Jethro Tull on a merry-go-round.
The 2018 edition of Gothic Christmas is also worth checking out. The standout track is definitely a cover of “Christmas Time Is Here,” from A Charlie Brown Christmas, featuring Caroline Blind (vox, keys) with Tempest Xii of The Wake (guitar and drum programming). It’s sweet, but bittersweet, emphasizing the slight loneliness that can be found in the original if you look hard enough. Both the 2019 and 2018 Gothic Christmas collections were mastered by Martin Bowes of Attrition. Listen on Bandcamp
Notable 2019 Holiday Singles
|The Crüxshadows – Silent Night / Anmi’s Christmas (revox) – The Crüxshadows’ annual Christmas offering this time includes a version of “Silent Night” that starts out with distant, German vocals and slow drumbeats before evolving into a more traditional version of the song sung in Rogue’s most earnest gothic style. There’s also a new version of the dancey and majestic “Anmi’s Christmas” complete with some vocals by the song’s namesake, Rogue’s young daughter. Listen at cruxshadows.com|
|Doors In The Labyrinth – Cold Winter: A two-song single by Doors In the Labyrinth, out of Pittsburgh. Cold Winter features a version of “To Drive the Cold Winter Away,” plus a cover of “Sally’s Song” from the Nightmare Before Christmas, on which DITL mastermind Josh Loughrey displays his full love for Danny Elfman and shows off his recent vocal development. Listen on Bandcamp|
|The Purge – Snow: The Purge out of Norfolk VA offer a Christmas parody of their own song. “Rain” was about how much Thomas Duerig hates the rain; “Snow” changes the lyrics to be about how much he loves snow. Still catchy, and good for a chuckle and a head bob. Listen on Bandcamp|
Holiday Selections You May Have Missed From 2018
|Valentine Wolfe – Winternight Whisperings: Answers the question of what the Victorian obsession with Christmas ghost stories might sound like if you set it to female-fronted, dark symphonic metal. Listen on Bandcamp|
|Joy to the Wham! – Last Christmas Love Tore Us Apart: Alex Reed, the frontman for Seeming, is a music professor and is very clever. Sometimes he uses that to contemplate the mysteries of the universe, and sometimes he uses it to give us gems like this. This is Wham’s “Last Christmas,” with every lyric changed to reference to a Joy Division song. Listen on Bandcamp|
|Massiv in Mensch – Verne (Ave Maria): If you ever jammed out to E Nomine, you should appreciate this Teutonic EBM banger that features Rana Arborea singing “Ave Maria.” Listen on Amazon|
You can hear these songs and more on the Christmas edition of DJ KellyA’s darkwave podcast, Moving Shadows, coming soon to mixcloud.com/djkellya. And if you’re near Pittsburgh, you can see several of these bands perform live on Dec. 21 at Moving Shadows: A Dark Solstice Celebration.