Gothic Music: Dead and Thriving

When Switchblade Symphony's debut album, Serpentine

Gallery, was released in 1995, it caught the Gothic world

completely off guard. Most folks thought the gloom and doom

genre had gone the way of Andrew Eldritch's integrity (once

Sisters of Mercy appeared on MTV, it was over). And then

something happened: Two ladies from San Francisco recorded an

album of dark airs and fairy tales gone gory. Suddenly the dead

were on their feet again.

Aside from reviving the Goth scene in the San Francisco area,

Switchblade

Symphony--along with acts such as Marilyn Manson and

Rasputina--has helped

bring the genre into public favor. The band just released its much-

anticipated follow-up, Bread and Jam for Frances. Although

the record introduces several new sounds and atmospheres,

overall it reinforces the band's dedication to dark theatrics and

sinister play.

Vocalist Tina Root, keyboardist Susan Wallace, guitarist George

Earth (who

replaces Robin Jacobs), and percussionist Eric Gebow come

together to

formulate an elegantly spooky series of fables. The album opens

with the

taunting "Witches," framed by Root's sinister vocal: "Witches they

ride on

broomsticks ya know/Angels use wings to catch the wind

blow...Skeletons

writhe, they glow in the night/Goblins and tramps do their wicked

dance."

Alone, the lyrics might seem adolescent, but paired with Wallace's

synth

tricks and Earth's almost-Spanish guitar, the song is downright

fun--like

masquerading on a crisp October evening.

Switchblade Symphony indulges in better production work this

time around, and

the result is a more complex album than Serpentine

Gallery. Root's voice is layered dramatically in several places,

such as in the choruses of "Dirty

Dog" and "Soldiers," as well as in segments of "Funnel." Likewise,

Wallace's

musical structures wander easily through fields of dance,

industrial, art

rock, and cabaret--places where other artists might trip land mines.

And in a

crowning touch, the group brings a unique element to the Gothic

theme:

scratching.

The combinations don't always work, but when they do, it's easy to

understand

why Switchblade Symphony has been called the most popular

Goth band in

America. Melancholy musings--say, those in "Roller Coaster" and

"Sleep"--are as gorgeous as anything penned by Dead Can

Dance or Siouxsie and the Banshees. Root's voice is remarkably

versatile; one minute she's cackling like an old hag, the next she's

belting notes like a torch goddess. Her operatic episodes are both

gravely theatrical and deliciously campy.

"Sleep" opens with a light harpsichord melody and Root's wistful

lyric: "I

don't feel good/I don't look good/I don't sound/I wish I was right/I

watch

you sleep away the time." It's a traditional Goth melody, comforting

in its

listlessness. Not to be outdone, "Funnel" follows on its heels with a

heavy

industrial rhythm fit for head-banging.

Although some of Switchblade Symphony's themes stay on the

playful side,

others take an unflinching look at life's more disturbing realities. In

"Funnel," heavy melodies surround lyrics that could, in this

antidepressant-dependent age, apply to nearly anyone: "She

takes medicine

medicine every damn day/For she thinks she is sick/She was

brought up that way." In "Sheep," a traditional children's tale takes

on the quality of a warning about society's dangers. "Where are

my little little lambs?/Please mister, if you see them/They're

missing/Won't you help them find their way...before the wolves find

them first?"

A few tracks exist mainly to demonstrate the full spectrum of the

spectral

band's style. In "Situation #58," we eavesdrop on an old man

who's ranting

about "Boils and sleepwalkers and backs and widows and

humans and pets and

demons and demons and demons...." The carnivalesque waltz of

"Sick Mary" is

eerie enough on its own, but followed by the broken toy guitar riffs

and the

baby wailing in "Episode G15," these closing songs are enough to

give a

listener nightmares.

Switchblade Symphony is not for everyone, but certain elements of

Bread and Jam for Frances will appeal to even those who

don't wear velvet. As for those

who do, this group clears a path around the tombstones for new

Goth bands to follow.