Christian Death – Atrocities [Re-issue]


American art-punk goths, Christian Death, are famous in rock and metal circles as an influence on the likes of Celtic Frost, Jane’s Addiction and Cradle of Filth. With the premiere metal label, Season of Mist, buying the rights to re-issue their back catalogue, the latest vinyl release is 1986’s Atrocities album, which was also the first record to feature no original members after the departure of Rozz Williams the year before. To this day, fans are split between those that refuse to recognise Val Kandor’s incarnation of the band and the one Williams tried to relaunch in the 1990s. For those of you with a passion for all things gothic and post-punk, it’s a dispute you should know all too well.

Looking back at a cult band’s catalogue is always a pleasure, and Atrocities is no exception. It’s the first to feature Val Kandor as the chief songwriter and leader of the band after he joined up with Williams for 1984’s sophomore record, Catastrophe Ballet. Christian Death were something of an anomaly in American alternative music at the time as the only real act that could claim to be a peer of the British and European bands that dominated the goth and post-punk scene of the early 1980s. American listeners relied on Siouxsie & The Banshees, The Cure, Killing Joke and the legacy left by Joy Division for their fix of dark music in the shallow era of rock radio, sleazy glam-metal and keyboard-pop. Christian Death also managed the impressive feat of finding an audience in the global home of goth music, the UK, later in the 1980s when they scored a string of chart hits despite 1988’s Sex and Drugs and Jesus Christ achieving the ignominy of a 1 out of 10 rating by NME.

Atrocities starts with the screeching violins and semi-distorted post-punk of ‘Will-O-the-Wisp’ and aims for a clear Siouxsie & The Banshees vibe. They unearth some eerie melodies among the excess of guitar delay effects and dry bass tone, but it falls way short of the standard of their London peers, who were also releasing their greatest album in the same year with 1986’s Tinderbox. ‘Tales of Innocence’ is much more captivating and melodramatic, like a dark cabaret satire with bleeding-heart female melodies and morbid guitar chords. Much is made of the so-called “death rock” genre, but we need not credit Christian Death as the forefathers of something that is goth by another name. All the elements of gothic rock were present in the band before Atrocities – the obsession with sex and death, the grandiose love gestures, the romance of self-destruction. Christian Death did not pioneer these, but they moved away from these tropes on this record, drawing upon the holocaust and the impact of the Second World War on the psyche of the Western European nations involved. Sometimes this results in a stunning introspection of overblown sorrow, as on the addictive ‘Strange Fortune’, with Val Kandor’s droning baritone voice dripping in a morbid drool of reflection. Listen how the tribal percussion and higher range chord fretting of the guitars mix with luscious acoustic sprinkles and subtle keyboard atmospherics. This is Christian Death at their most mesmerising.

Unfortunately, the supreme standard of Siouxsie & The Banshees’ seminal Tinderbox from the same year provides us with an impossible comparison, but one that is relevant, nonetheless. Atrocities is nowhere near as good despite its moments of exquisite charm and willingness to experiment with different dynamics and styles. ‘Ventriloquist’ has promise but ends up copying Roxy Music’s ‘Do the Strand’, while ‘The Danzig Waltz’ disappears in a cacophony of sporadic piano notes and brooding bass lines that meander along but find no purpose. Only on ‘Chimere De Si De La’ do they reach the heights of Siouxsie Sioux with the ritualistic tom drum patterns and deep bass strokes providing a sultry backdrop for Kandor’s Scott Walker-esque vocals. These have an improvised quality to them, like a tuneful spoken word approach with melancholy female harmonies permeating underneath. The modulation to a spiky post-punk flurry of guitar effects and heavy bass only adds to the mystique of this track.

In some ways, Christian Death were America’s answer to Bauhaus, and they continued their art-punk leanings on this record while exploring dark cabaret moments and a pseudo-darkwave atmosphere that would go on to influence later artists. It’s not the best in their back catalogue, but Atrocities is well worth a spin on your turntable.

JVB


Verdict


Release Date: 09/07/2021

Record Label: Season of Mist

Standout tracks: Tales of Innocence, Chimere De Si De La, Strange Fortune

Suggested Further Listening: Siouxsie & The Banshees – Tinderbox (1986), Bauhaus – Mask (1981), Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures (1979)