What is Goth Rock?

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Blog Author: Cadaver Kelly

What is Goth Rock? The Genre:

A combination of post-punk, glam rock, and hard rock influences, "goth rock" is a subgenre of alternative rock associated with the goth subculture. It often leans on dance percussion beats, driving bass lines, jangly guitar distortions, dramatic vocals, dark scales, and reverb or delay.


How the Goth Community Defines Goth Rock:


"Can goth rock be defined musicologically? Sure. To me though, the mark of a good goth rock track is how it makes me feel. If a song doesn't engender a yearning to smoke cloves in a moon drenched cemetery, wandering its endless pathways with only the passing visage of lantern soaked mausoleums to guide my way, is it really goth rock?" – The Count, host of Cemetery Confessions


"If I was going to describe the genre, I would say it is, for me, a humane and lyrical genre that conveys a wide range of complex and often dark feelings (from love, sorrow, pleasure, to any existential interrogations) through rhythmic basslines and passionate vocals." - Jean-Pierre Nyemeg, contributing editor for Audio Inferno


"Very similar to 80s pop rock, however mostly in a minor scale (the sad or scary sounding scale), this can be with minor scale synths, with ghostly deep sounding vocals, the lyrics are mostly personal with a dark undertone." – Feannag, co-creator of House of Wyvern


"I've always felt goth rock had a beat that you could dance too. It's always been this weird rhythm dynamic of guitar driven soundscapes, sometimes tinged with psychedelic riffs with a somber beat that you can actually tap your toes and shake your hips to. The lyrics ranging in forlorn topics on emotional/personal isolation, horrifying beauty, and romanticism to politics, spirituality, the occult, and mysticism. Yeah, there's a lot to unpack with goth rock, and no one definition can properly capture the subgenre" – Ian Letendre, contributing writer for Obscura Undead


"Jangly guitars, loud melodic bass, danceable beat that either sounds like a machine or actually is a drum machine, and often deeper vocals you want to sing along to. To me it's happy dancy music (but then again I can also think extreme metal is happy dancy music)!" – Caroline Sometimes, goth lifestyle blogger

"Goth is the aesthetic celebration of the recognition of our mortality through art." – Jim Walker, songwriter and vocalist for Push Button Press


"Goth rock is the kind of music that gives ode to all dark matters. It's the kind of music that allows the musician and the listener to find beauty in any kind of personal, social, and political break downs. It comes from our ashes, from our sorrow and all the things our society denies, neglect, disgust, and/or forget." - Joselyn Hernandez, contributing writer for Obscura Undead


"Goth romanticizes and finds beauty in the darker aspects of our existence. It's not limited by a particular style of music anymore and has crossed over into numerous genres (rock, metal, ethereal, ambient, darkwave)." - acidbitter


"'Gothic rock' (or 'goth rock' for short) is a subgenre of alternative music (i.e. underground or non-commercial music - outside of mainstream pop music). The music has a few very specific components; it is characterized by its instrumentation, vocal styles, lyrical themes, and the atmosphere it evokes.
Gothic Rock bands utilize traditional 'rock' instruments: bass, guitar, vocals, and percussion. Keyboards are common, and other instruments (i.e. violins, saxophones, cellos, etc.) are occasionally utilized to add additional atmospheric elements.

The music itself is characterized by driving, steadily picked bass lines that usually provide the primary melodies of a particular song. The guitars are heavily-processed and utilize distortion, chorus, delay, flange, or phasing effects to varying degrees. Chords and riffs are played more 'loosely' than traditional rock or metal music, and the guitars often function more as atmospheric washes or 'dressing' to the sound. Most songs are performed in minor keys, and feature dramatic melodies that quickly descend or ascend scales.

The drums can be produced by a mechanical drum machine or performed using a traditional drum kit. Gothic Rock bands with live drummers are often quite powerful and utilize repetitive 'tribal' patterns (making greater use of the tom than typical 4/4 kickdrum/snare patterns) or fast, up-tempo rhythm patterns that draw from punk, rock, or disco.

The vocals are usually performed by deep, smooth baritones or mid-range altos. Higher soprano vocals are occasionally utilized to create a recognizably operatic approach.

Lyrical themes loosely fall into the categories of personal, political, or mystical, and share many of the same preoccupations and perspectives of traditional Western Romantic and Gothic literature (hence the "Gothic" descriptor). The lyrics touch upon themes of isolation, unease, distrust, unrequited love, spiritual uncertainty, loss, pain, failure, illness, madness, and other similarly 'dark' subjects. The more fantastical side of the genre includes lyrical explorations of the supernatural, occult, world mythology, and common tropes as ghosts, vampires, witches, and demons.

All of these ingredients come together to produce a style of unmistakably dark music. The pace of the music ranges from slow, dirge-like rhythms, to mid-paced, playful, or hypnotic songs, as well as faster, more aggressive songs. The overall mood of most Gothic Rock songs could be described as haunting, depressive, eerie, mischievous, angry, or some combination of all.

In keeping with the overall mood, tone, and sound of the music, the band members often adopt a particular look that reflects the dark themes of the lyrics (and continues to draw from visual representations of Gothic tropes in film, fashion, art, etc). This "look" and visual aspect is often what may distinguish a Gothic Rock band from other alternative, post-punk, or new wave bands that may share similar preoccupations or stylistic sounds or moods, but don't quite go 'all the way' to also have the "look." In addition to an all-black wardrobe, Gothic Rock bands distinguish themselves with a deliberate pallor, dark eyeliner, dark eye shadow, dark lipstick, and usually jagged, teased, or back combed dyed-black hair. While other colors can be used to great effect, black dominates, with other stark monochromatic color schemes also in favor (red, white, purple, silver, gold yet all paired with black).

Gothic Rock as a specific subgenre was first recognized by journalists, fans, and bands alike in the early to mid-1980s. Its various components and traits become more solidified and recognizable throughout the 1990s. While still largely underground in the early 21st century, the genre is recognized widely and new bands continue to produce music in this style." – Matthew Heilman, PhD in English Literature, specialization in 19th Century Romanticism and the Gothic; Former goth and post-punk DJ/music journalist


THE FIRST WAVE OF GOTH (1979-EARLY 1980ˢ):

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Although there were dark post-punk and "proto-goth" artists, such as Joy Division, that acted as a precursor to goth in the mid to late 1970s, what is widely considered to be the catalyst to the goth music movement was the 1979 release of "Bela Lugosi's Dead" by English post-punk group, Bauhaus. The song is over 9 minutes long and features percussion dominated by rim shots, simplistic guitar with canned distortion, hauntingly deep vocals, and morbidly tongue-in-cheek lyrics. Other noteworthy releases within the first wave of goth include a number of albums by The Cure such as their 1980 release, Seventeen Seconds, Faith in 1981, and Pornography in 1982. The 1981 album Juju by Siouxsie and the Banshees is also considered to be one of the most influential releases of early goth. Other similar artists within this time frame include Paralisis Permanente, Sex Gang Children, Skeletal Family, Xmal Deutschland, and many others. At that period in time, these artists were not referenced as "goth." The description of this music varied by region and included designations like "positive punk," "coldwave," "new wave," and "gothic punk." Some of these designations would later evolve to take on new meaning. Throughout the 1980s, it would become more common to refer to such artists as "gothic rock," especially in the United Kingdom and Europe.


THE SECOND WAVE OF GOTH & BIRTH OF MODERN GOTH ROCK (1980ˢ):


The mid-1980s saw a rise of a dark rock style that took a slightly harder approach than the "gothic" post-punk bands that rose to prominence in the early 1980s. Arguably the most influential "gothic rock" artist to rise to prominence in the mid-1980s was The Sisters of Mercy. Although they began releasing singles in 1981, it was the release of their 1985 album First and Last and Always that landed the band on the UK and European billboard charts. What they had in common with their first-wave goth predecessors was a dark sound primarily driven by minor, descending scales, deep brooding vocals, effects-heavy guitar distortion, and instrumental reverb. However, their music took on a new style that featured a drum machine programmed with beats geared towards dance clubs, bass lines that stood out as the most prominent instrumental element of their music, and more hard-rock leaning guitar stylings. This style of music is what is commonly referenced in modern-day as "goth rock." Other artists that are considered to be within the second wave of goth rock include Fields of the Nephilim, The Mission, and Red Lorry Yellow Lorry.


GOTH ROCK IN THE 1990ˢ:


By the 1990s, more advanced audio engineering technology allowed the goth rock sound to evolve and become slightly more modernized. This would mark the start of what is considered to be the "third wave" of goth music. During this time, the genre began to take on the more shortened monikers of "goth" and "goth rock." Some noteworthy artists from this era of goth rock
include Rosetta Stone, Corpus Delicti, Two Witches, Vendemmian, Nosferatu, and more. Goth rock also influenced the 1990s darkwave artists with bands like Paralysed Age incorporating goth rock sounds into their music.


GOTH ROCK IN THE 21ST CENTURY:


In the 2000s, the goth scene was dominated by deathrock revival bands, and goth rock took a bit of a back seat. There were a few bands in this time window that were producing goth rock like Arts of Erebus and The Beauty of Gemina. However, goth rock was not quite prominent enough to designate this a "wave" of goth rock. By the mid-2010s, a new "wave" of goth rock had emerged with bands like Angels of Liberty bringing a more modern twist to the goth rock sound created in the '80s and '90s. Other more recent goth rock artists include Merciful Nuns, Sonsombre, October Burns Black, Her Despair, and countless others.

Huge Thanks to Cadaver Kelly for guest writing for our blog!

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