As we mentioned earlier in the week, we’ve had Zola Jesus’s new album Conatus on constant rotation of late, and boy, can we ever recommend it. Although Nika Danilova’s not keen on being labelled goth — “What would be the point of making goth music? It’s already been done,” she told Q magazine in January — she certainly shares some kinship with the likes of Siouxsie & The Banshees and Dead Can Dance, female-fronted or female-centric acts whose music carried a certain ominous air. In this sense, Danilova is the latest in the line of what we might call the dark ladies of rock ‘n’ roll. We’ve selected our 10 favorites after the jump. Who are yours?
The woman who invented goth, albeit accidentally — she adopted the label to describe the gloomy, atmospheric direction in which she and the Banshees moved with their 1981 album Juju. Her songs have always carried an air of danger, and it’s doubtless no accident that she chose to adorn the Banshee’s 24-carat classic debut album The Scream with this deconstruction of The Beatles’ Charles Manson-approved stomper “Helter Skelter”: “You may be a lover, but you ain’t no FUCKING DANCER.”
We would love to meet Diamanda Galás, because she’s one of the most constantly fascinating and individual artists of the last 30 or so years — but we also freely admit that we’d be terrified of her. And if you’re headed to the comments section to lambast us for being lily-livered wetbags, then we’re guessing you’ve haven’t sat down and listened to The Litanies of Satan recently. Three decades after its release, Galás’s debut album remains one of the most singularly creepy pieces of music ever committed to tape.
With all the (entirely deserved) adulation being handed out to PJ Harvey’s masterful state-of-the-nation album Let England Shake, it’s easy to forget that her early albums were both deeply personal and deeply unsettling. It’s also easy to forget that there just weren’t many artists like her in 1992 — the English music scene was languishing in the tail end of the Madchester comedown, while America was dominated by long-haired dudes making albums that were lesser imitations of Nirvana. Harvey’s debut Dry couldn’t have been further from either — a raw, coruscating and distinctly female exploration of life and love. Her career since has been a prolonged exercise in doing her own thing, with results that have been almost universally excellent.
Zola Jesus’s spiritual kinship with 4AD’s pre-Pixies roster has been well-documented — her strange phrasing and use of voice as an instrument certainly recalls Cocteau Twins’ Liz Fraser at times, but if there’s anyone her records really bring to mind, it’s Dead Can Dance. The stately grandeur of the band’s unusual, almost neo-classical arrangements, combined with Gerrard’s otherworldly contralto, created a distinctive sound that’s been hugely influential over the years. By all accounts, Gerrard herself is lovely, but her music is as dark as it gets.
Cosey Fanni Tutti
Throbbing Gristle’s music seems to be another strong influence on the grinding, mechanical sounds that dominate Conatus, and their legacy can also be heard in the work of contemporary artists like Factory Floor, Cold Cave, and plenty of others. The band’s work was constantly challenging (Chris Carter once called The Guardian‘s Alexis Petridis to advise him against trying to listen to the 24 Hours of Throbbing Gristle box set in one go), and Cosey Fanni Tutti’s grinding guitar work was a large part of the reason why. She’s also had a long and productive career as one half of Chris & Cosey, and also as a performance artist (and, um, adult performer).
She’s probably best known for her cheesy 1983 single “New York/NY,” but there’s far more to Nina Hagen’s work than a mildly comical pop song about NYC. After escaping East Germany at the age of 21 (by which time she was already a star on the east side of the wall), she moved to London and arrived at the height of the punk era. She took to both punk’s music and its philosophy like the proverbial duck to water, bringing both back to Germany with her by the end of 1977. She was famously thrown off an Austrian talk show for demonstrating her masturbation techniques of choice, and both her songs and live persona demonstrated a disinclination to be told what to do by anyone. We certainly wouldn’t mess with her.
Being the strange one in a group that involves Michael Gira is no mean feat, but Jarboe managed to make the notoriously misanthropic Swans frontman look relatively normal. Her arrival in Swans coincided with a shift away from pulverizing noise toward music that was more nuanced but no less menacing, and her vocals added a whole new dimension to the band’s sound. Since Swans disbanded, she’s done all sorts of stuff, from soundtracking a horror video game called The Path to appearing as an extra in Vanilla Sky. Her biography makes for, um, fascinating reading: “Through efforts in both former and current disciplines (weight-lifting, kick boxing, mountain climbing, running, role-playing, studies in meditation, and Buddhism) and her intense work with Swans, she has journeyed her body towards exhaustion specifically with the intent of rebuilding/reinventing identity and exploring the elemental structures of persona.” Right.
Bozulich has had a long and varied recording career — she’s been in Geraldine Fibbers and Invisible Chains, worked with Mike Watt, Thurston Moore, Nels Cline, and various others, and now performs under the name Evangelista. The constant threads in her career, however, have been her marvelous voice and the inescapable air of darkness that lingers around all her output.
Surely the only person in history to make the word “lunch” in any way avant garde, Lydia Koch is a divisive figure — to her fans, she’s a boundary-pushing multi-disciplinary artist, while to her detractors, she’s heavy on self-promotion and light on talent. The truth, as ever, probably lies somewhere in between, and Lunch has certainly been responsible for some decent work throughout the years (especially the above cover of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood’s “Some Velvet Morning” with the late, great and much-lamented Rowland S. Howard).
Pretty much everyone on this list owes some sort of debt to Nico, whose funereal vocals and thick German accent made the Velvet Underground’s first album even stranger than it might otherwise have been. Her career was sadly cut short when she died after a fall from her bicycle in 1988 (although truth be told, heroin had long since robbed her of her best years), but her influence is still felt, nearly half a century after her inimitable voice first announced itself to the world.