Grand, dreary albums from Bootblacks, Altar De Fay, Kaelan Mikla, and more helped define a year marked by darkness.
"These days it's crucial to be silent and comfortable.
The exploitation of humanity—they learn to accept it all.
In my generation I will never fit in,
I should be sane but I want to murder everyone."
With its magnitude of tragedies and woes, 2016 has felt like it's been constantly crumbling into a pitch black abyss. Lebanon Hanover's song "Babes of the 80s" lays out what we've been thinking: how can this be our reality? Dissatisfaction with daily life and an inability to relate to the people that surround us have fueled the post-punk scene for nearly four decades—and apparently, nothing much has changed. Despite—or perhaps because of—2016's turmoil and heartache, the state of post-punk has never felt more diverse and vivid than right now. The current scene offers up dark sounds that come dripping in nostalgia, and feel raw and intense—familiar, yet exciting.
Post-punk is difficult to define since it is an umbrella term that can encapsulate anything from goth, deathrock, coldwave, darkwave, and so on. It derives from the movement after punk when the disenfranchised youth desired darker and more refined music with aesthetics that fixated on the seductive and unknown territories of the night. Fronted by Siouxsie Sioux and Joy Division in the late 1970s, it grew to be a worldwide movement which cultivated a community that accepted the strange, emotionally wrought, and those that simply didn't fit in.
The Greek band Selofan retains that sentiment of their post-punk predecessors with their 2016 LP, Στο Σκοτάδι (translated to In the Darkness). One half of Selofan, Joanna Pavlidou, says: "[ Στο Σκοτάδι is about] our own love story, the (night)life's ups and downs, personal years and obsessions, our androgyne friends, all forbidden extremes hiding in the darkness. It is a record meant to be heard a day when one needs to shut off from the world."
Two sub-genres of post-punk prevailed in 2016: the punkier and more aggressive deathrock versus the romantic electronics of darkwave. Deathrock began around the turn of the 1980s pulling from punk, camp and Hollywood glamour with Christian Death in the forefront. Such bands were distinguished by their moody sound, deathlike appearances and sinister themes. And now contemporary iterations of deathrock have proliferated through the rest of the world.
New York City's Pawns put out a split cassette with Chicagoan band Cemetery this year—a demo release that recalls the post-punk DIY movement with a verbosity and grandeur not unlike their dark ancestors. The aesthetically pleasing Finnish band Virgin in Veil—dressed in their stylishly backcombed coifs and fishnet ensembles—released their LP Deviances, an example of how deathrock should be dramatic both visually and aurally.
However, the best deathrock album (or any of 2016 for that matter) was Altar De Fey's Echoes in the Corridor. Altar De Fey formed in the early 1980s amidst contemporaries like Our Lady Of Pain, Thrill Of The Pull , and The Black Dolls, but existed only as mysterious legends haunting the Cali deathrock scene.
They never even put out any original demos—much less an entire album—until this year, when California label Mass Media Records released this mix of newly recorded songs from 30 years ago and newer material performed by the band's current lineup. The record itself functions as was a resurrection of the truly undead, recalling spirits of deathrock's past in its most perfect form.
With the arrival of technology of synthesizers and drum machines in the mid-1980s, electronic influences took over the post-punk movement and became known as darkwave, a new breed that included Clan of Xymox and Cocteau Twins at the forefront. Most darkwave bands were comprised of a strong bass, synthesizer and drum machine structure, with the addition of flanging guitars. The sound was romance lingered with death—a danceable lullaby in a nightmarish landscape. Thirty years on, bands have taken these influences and revived the genre's moody essence.
The UK duo Agnes Circle focused on that classic late-1980s sensibility with their album Some Vague Desire. The album co-mingles melodic bass patterns with deep vocals and a dreary atmosphere of synths. Agnes Circle's bassist, Rachael Redfern, sees the parallels between then and now as analogous: "On a socio-political level, there are many similarities between the 80s and today. The pervasive sense of dread that many felt then is back again."
Not all bands readily admit to their 1980s influence, even though it's often quite apparent in their songs. Alli Gorman, guitarist of the New York City based trio Bootblacks who released their LP Veins this year, says, "I think I wear a lot of my influences on my sleeve, but I just try to write music that I would want to listen to. I'm not very concerned with how relevant or current it feels, but just how authentic it feels. I want to create a space that makes you feel something, and I want those big moments that give you goosebumps."
Great post-punk forces the listener to react during those monstrous, epic moments—it manifests in the progression and buildup of bass lines, sorrowful choir synths, and harrowing vocals.
Qual is one such act who truly demands a reaction. His echoing voice, coupled with tragic melodies that rival the greatest output of the hallowed 1980s, exemplify everything that post-punk should be in 2016. His track "Go and Die" from the Monosynth 2 compilation on Fabrika Records stands alongside a a diverse catalogue of funereal electronic music.
The compilation portrays contemporary darkwave crown contenders such as the Turkish trio She Past Away and Kaelan Mikla from Iceland whose eerie song "Kalt" exudes an emptiness and loneliness underneath a banshee cries. The comp's stacked roster of artists nods towards the past while projecting forward, signifying an ongoing development in the lineage of darkwave.
Post-punk music invites us to wallow in the tragic beauty of its sorrowful sound, and to find solace within it. That's precisely why the new wave of post-punk has arrived—out of necessity. "If creativity is the result of the individual in contention with society, we find ourselves trapped in a social and financial environment that has serious effects on creative expression. This general dissatisfaction likes the feeling and the modern sensibility of the 80s," says Pavlidou, "We walk on the same path, only our part of the road seems even darker."
If the past influenced the sound, the present has built upon it: post-punk is an exquisite weapon to fight the throes of reality.
"I should be sane but I want to murder everyone."
Andi Harriman is thoroughly synthetic on Twitter.