What Is It about Mexican Darkness? Part I

Mexico city’s Oscura scene (MCOS) has become one of the strongest Mexican urban cultures due to the amount of musical, literary and artistic works produced every year. How does this came to be? As many cultural processes there is a consensus that establishes a date of birth, this one is settled in1994 with the first visit of London After Midnight to Mexico city. Back then it wasn’t called MCOS. As a matter of fact, it didn’t have a proper name. We endlessly and (maybe) uselessly discussed if the correct term we should use was “Dark” (yes, in English) or Gótica (yes, in Spanish). As years went by “Dark” became “Darks”, and “Gótica” turned into “Gothic” (yes, now in English) and finally into” Goth” (still in English), by then the discussion ended but suddenly Post Punk made an appearance. Perhaps we all were tired of trying to find a “pure”, “true”, “honest”, yada, yada, yada term and we all agreed on MCOS since it conveyed the many genres, terms, discourses and attitudes related with what we, in Mexico City, understood as our scene.
And before ’94?… Well, we haven’t agreed on that, but when I began chatting with Ken about MCOS he mentioned the term “proto-Goth”; I found it very imaginative and accurate so I decided to steal it from him (hehehe) and establish two proto Goth ages. The late one 1987-1993, and the early one 1979-1986. Of course, the “mascara traces” (paraphrasing Grail Marcus’ book) can be followed up to 1973, but of course they weren’t as “dark” as they became in ’93 nor in ’79.
Mexican rock history is a complex one, in the sense that there hasn’t been a direct line of development. Local bands haven’t been able to establish such a line therefore a proper domestic scene or genre is absent. As a matter of fact our rock has had many, many bumps, cracks and blurs among many other things. Most of Mexican rock and roll, twist, psychedelic rock, progressive rock, punk, new wave, techno-pop, grunge are derivative of what we knew, through mass media, of what was going on in England and the US whether we talk about mainstream or semi-mainstream musical expressions. We even had our Brit Pop scene!!! This is still happening.. Of course, It is common that most of the acts that jump on someone else’s train vanish once the trend passes, or others change style (according to the new musical fad); but sometimes, this acts generate a scene that remains and flourishes strongly. This was the case of MCOS.
It is fair to say that the first pulse of MCOS was known as “Dark”. It became a mainstream word and trend in Mexico City in the second half of the eighties, but it was just that: a trend, not a scene, not a movement, nothing like that. It didn’t had a discourse. People having fun (nothing wrong with that) following a fad. Of course, there were some people with the insight of what was happening in the US, England, and Germany, but those were the initiated ones. While they might have already known about Bauhaus, Joy Division, The Cure or Siouxie; and talked (years before the image broke into mainstream) about the Beggars Banquet or the 4AD labels; a more conservative audience, mainstream music consumers, might have had their first contact with the proto-goth look when they saw Alaska (the lead singer of the Spanish pop band Alaska y Dinarama) on Mexican TV. She appeared in Siempre en Domingo (a Tv show molded from The Ed Sullivan Show which became one of the most important platforms for mainstream music in Latinamerica) all dressed-up in “siniestro” style (“sinister”, that’s how they called Goth in Madrid in the first half of the eighties) generating a strong impact in the audience, some loved her and some loathed her. Her looks were very shocking for youth to imitate, moreover for regular teenager girls. Mexico was very conservative and since 1968 young cultivated culture (much more if it was rock related) represented something to be closely watched and reprehended by the state trough police or other authority agents, it was a common situation to see teenagers or young adults being frisked, beaten, picked up, detained only by wearing long hair or clothes out of the ordinary. Paradoxically, early 80’s Mexico began a process of modernization that contemplated its urban young population appearance, yet it should be a “friendly” and “healthy” appearance. An example of this friendly appearance was represented by the pop girl vocal group Flans which look were regarded as outlandish by media and massive audiences. Was it? Well, they were molded from Bananarama.


A second mainstream contact with proto Goth look might have occurred when Soda Stereo (considered by many people the most influential Argentinian band) reached Mexican hit parade (around 1986). By that time the band used to dress in black with colorful shirts, wore mascara and crepe hair; and such was its impact that many kids began to dress like them… upper-middle class kids, of course. It was with this look when the word “posmo” (short from postmodern) became the regular way to address people dressed like that.


Let’s give a little leap to the end of the decade: Disintegration came out and put The Cure everywhere, of course they were already known but when I said everywhere I’m not talking about the usual mainstream music channels, you could even hear some songs of the album as background on some soup operas or in a Mexican Navy tv advertisements, another thing to notice is that the word “posmo” was substituted by “dark” . How? Why? It is a mystery, but many people associated the look exclusively with The Cure, and above all, with Robert Smith. It didn’t matter that many other bands wore the same clothing style or the same palm tree haircut. Caifanes, one of the most important Mexican bands, which members wore a trad goth style have been called a Cure’s rip off by people with this narrow view. Caifanes has become a cornerstone for Mexican rock due to many initiatives the band has had in its career. Among many important things they generated was the fact that they made a crossover from mainstream rock and pop audience to the banda and grupero audience (banda and grupero are Regional Mexican music genres), the real Mexican mainstream. They did this by including a cumbia (a rhythm originated in Colombia that has a huge penetration in Mexico) in their repertoire. Little did they imagined that this song, ”La negra Tomasa”, was to became a milestone in Mexican music and audience, and they did it while they were still dressed in black. So, it is fair to say that they made the style reach to the most far regions of the country. Before that, many people who wore spiky hair were referred by mainstream observers as punks, because that was the only reference they had. After “La negra Tomasa” the term Dark displace Punk and even became part of our language. Mexicanisms Dictionary includes the word, not with its original morphology but with one which formerly used to be a pejorative term: Darketo. According to this Dictionary “Darketo(ta) refers to someone who dresses in black, is melancholic, with a depressive and solitaire attitude”. And that’s it, two lines to define a cultural scene. Well, they are not to blame, of course. We are talking about a massive point of view.

By the beginning of the following decade, Dark as a trend was fading away from mainstream which was ready to receive the next fad, the so called alternative music. Still, many people clinged to the remains of the trend; a few promoters and radio dj’s who were deeply in love with the bands associated with the genre and its discourse kept promoting and broadcasting classical as well as new bands productions. For us, Mexico City’s fandom, the classic bands were The Cure, Bauhaus, Siouxie and the Banshees, Sisters of Mercy, The Mission, Fields of the Nephilim, Christian Death and Dead Can Dance (among others); whereas the new bands were Love Is Colder Than Dead, In The Nursery, Attrition, Stoa, Human Drama, The Last Dance and London after Midnight (among others). What I’m trying to say is that the classic bands were listened by an audience which most of its members were not particularly related to the discourse of a proto-goth scene; most of these people also listened to Talking Heads, ABC, U2, Pink Floyd, Sting, etc. The audience that became interested in the new bands was very into them and anxious for what would come next; moreover because all those bands gave concerts in Mexico City within the first half of the decade. This audience was to establish the solid ground for what, four years latter, would became Mexico City Goth Scene. And what about Mexican obscura bands? As I mentioned at the beginning of this text, the development of the scene was not lineal and it can be traced to 1973 to some experimental rock bands like Decibel, El Queso Sagrado or Como México No Hay Dos. Many of their musical atmospheres, performance and part of their discourse had motives that years later would be recurring in the Dark Scene’; but most important, when this groups disbanded some of their members formed New Wave and Techno pop acts, such as: Size, Syntoma, Pijamas a go go, El Escuadrón del Ritmo, Silueta Pálida, Década 2 and Casino Shanghai. Bands that are now considered the seed of the MCOS. On an important note; they NEVER referred themselves as Postpunk or Synthpop. On the second half of the eighties came some other bands that flirted with the influence of the classic acts mentioned above, among them were La muerte de Euridice, Alquimia, Las Ánimas del Cuarto Oscuro and of course Caifanes. However, as I mentioned on the first lines, the hard core proto-goth bands were born by the end of the eighties and the beginning of the nineties. Santa Sabina, Ansia, La Concepción de la Luna and El Clan were the first line followed behind by the likes of El Cuerpo de Cristina, La Divina Comedia, Hélicon or Los Olvidados. Some of them, like Santa Sabina, La Concepción de la Luna, and above all El Clan would become landmarks of the Mexican Goth Scene once it became solidly established in ’94. Still, the acts that would represent a breakthrough for the development of the scene and its consolidation as MCOS would see the light (or should I say; the darkness) around the last five years of the past millennium.

Catching Up with The Cult Sounds: New LP “Death of a Star”

Dark rock band The Cult Sounds has been covered by S&S before, such as in this introductory interview and this review of their Halloween compilation.

https://thecultsounds.bandcamp.com/

Their lineup is Bennett Huntley (vocals), Ryan McBride (lead guitar), Jordan Hageman (rhythm guitars, keys, programming), Wyatt Eagen (bass), And Justin Riley (drums).

Fortunately, we’ll see much more of them in the future. Their newest LP, Death of a Star, is scheduled to release sometime in 2021.

McBride tells me that, compared to their previous works, this one will be more “ambitious.” “We definitely weren’t afraid to take risks and incorporate different musical styles or genres when writing,” he tells me. “Also, this year has given us nothing but time to make everything just how we wanted, then listen to it over and over and go back and make any changes we felt the songs needed. If we were finding our identity with the first ep, then on this record we’re seeing how far we can take it.”

Hageman seconded this. “We really pushed our songwriting even further and experimented more. He continued by saying that “this record takes more of our inspirations and influences than we got to explore on the first EP – we brought in bits of things outside of Post-Punk and Goth to add to the palette of sounds and textures.”

Bouncing off that note of genre elements, McBride states “moving forward, we’ve woven a lot of heavier elements into our already atmospheric sound, both musically and conceptually. Right from the onset of the album, fans will notice a marked difference in our approach to the album and it only goes up from there.”

Finally, Huntley pitched in. “Overall, it’s a huge step forward for us, in terms of what we felt capable or comfortable doing compared to when we first put out our debut EP, and even as far as what I think any of us has been a part of musically up to this point. It’s a complex record and I’m really excited to see it released. I still struggle when people ask me what kind of band we are, because I’m not even sure. Day to day, song to song, we take influences from everywhere and it’s constantly changing and forcing us to evolve our sound. The full-length format has given us the chance to explore that, to stretch our legs, and 2020 gave us the time to really mature and improve as songwriters. It’s a natural growth from our earlier material but also there’s plenty that I think might surprise our followers.”

I was given access to four tracks off it: “What Gets Done in The Night,” “Pale White Horses,” “Ritual Scars,” and “Afterlight.” Right off the bat on the first track, I can see the almost metal-styled speed, power, and aggression. “Pale White Horses” is a bit softer and could perhaps be qualified as a ballad. “Ritual Scars” picks the hard energy right back up and runs with it. This is a song I would happily scream-sing along to while driving a car down a highway. Finally, “Afterlight.” It starts with a strong guitar riff that reminds me of 80s hair metal in a good way. The vocals are intense, and the energy is still nice and high.

I asked if there was any such retro influence for that particular track.

Hageman responded, telling me “as far as Afterlight goes I think there’s always some retro influences because we are influenced by a lot of music from the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s as well as the music we grew up with like AFI, Alkaline Trio, Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails, Type O Negative, My Chemical Romance, etc. We never consciously go into a piece of music with a preconceived notion of wanting to capture a decade or a sub-genre since we plot the songs as we go in writing them pulling different ideas for each section wherever that inspiration comes from at the time.”

There’s also an accompanying music video for “What Gets Done in The Night.”

It’s incredibly cinematic and smoothly shot. After almost two minutes of tense introduction, the band comes into view. As they play, we see various props around the room such as candles and an animal skull. They’re playing in a vividly painted room, which the camera gracefully pans across. The band toasts with glasses of an unknown liquid. Together is makes for an almost eerie or occult vibe, in a subtle way. This nicely accompanies the repeated lyrics concerning the devil.

I asked about the occult aspects, and Hageman confirmed my assessments. “There’s definitely some occult imagery in the video to go along with the concepts of the song’s metaphors and we also were heavily influenced by 70’s horror films and wanted to do as much of that as we could.”

I wondered if this occult theme goes through the rest of the album, too.

Huntley responded that “I think some of those references to the occult appear naturally in most of what we do. It’s a big part of what inspires us across the board, whether it’s from music or movies or literature. Black candles, rituals of the flesh, devils and demons, that’s what rock n roll is all about!”

“The title “Death of a Star” can be taken many different ways,” Hagemen added, “and each song explores the concepts of death in different facets and aspects in our everyday lives and in our culture.”

So, that concludes things. Death, rock, and a mini film- all things to look forward to with this new material!

Witchhands: Unto Death

There are times you just know. Something mystical about a good cover that seems to communicate something of the band, something about the album you are just about to listen to. Something just let’s you know you are about to hear something great.

https://witchhandsdxr.bandcamp.com/album/unto-death

Unto Death, the Colorado Springs band, Witchhand’s, 4th album is one of those albums. Where does one start to describe a work that is bound to become a classic filed somewhere between Christian Death‘s Catastrophe Ballet and T.S.O.L.’s Change Today? If you are into Death Rock, Goth Rock or Horror Punk, WitchHands has you. From the opening notes of the title track “Unto Death” through this four song journey’s end with “Dust (Dying of the Light),” this EP promises unrelentingly good, song after song. Trust me, I have listened to this possibly 30 times since I received a copy a couple of days before release, and it is now in my regular rotation. The crooning yells of singer Ryan’s strangely distant, yet hauntingly close vocals to Bryan’s thick thunderous drumming; The swirling dance of layers from Aaron’s screaming guitar, Josh’s driving bass and the steady ethereal keyboard work of Lance, this is a classic waiting to be recognized. The production has cleaned up and improved drastically from their previous releases, but still feels raw, reminiscent of proto death rock greats, creating a perfect balance. Unto Death is bound to find a permanent place in the collections of DJs, fans and audiophiles everywhere

Unto Death: From the first time I heard Witchands, I fell in love with the lofi sound. The gutter growl doom rock cheese. I worried the clear driving production level would kill that effect. It does not. It’s more of that energy but with laser beam precision. It’s a finer articulation, a focus to Ryan’s voice. A blend of guitar, drum and lyrics that opens the sanctum and makes you the sacrifice of this ritual. I’m still wandering through a foggy graveyard on a full moon, but the stars are clear enough to read the gravestones.

Neurenberg (Dying of the Light): We’ve brought up the tempo, and Bryan’s thundering tom fills create a languid ritual cascade. The clarity of running up a tight spiral staircase of climbing scales as the punctuating guitars weave a twisting dancer’s cadence. Lance’s vocals punch in with a newfound sense of emergency, capturing with their high energy.

*Mortification: This is our favorite track. Tribal drum rolls open, three unlicensed nuclear accelerators firing plasma at a spectre across a New York ballroom. Ryan’s voice unleashes such an intensity and urgency, his biology exploding through his vocal chords.

Dust (Dying of the Light): Closing track unleashes a thick and driving baseline. Again capturing that break neck speed and rum fills that kilter on the razor edge between doom rock and metal. This is a song of a desolate landscape, zombie truckers in the 1970’s driving through the desert huffed up on memories and formaldehyde.