Goth As Fuck - An In Depth Look At The Wake
The Wake (1986-present) are, in their own words, a Gothic Rock band; a manifesto statement exemplified in their latest album, ‘Perfumes and Fripperies’. Any recommendations, for or against, can therefore really only assist those who are already fans of that one quite specific crossbreed of goth and rock.
If one were to personify “goth” (and its immediate precursors of the post-punk era), c.1978-1983, as the romantic, tragic, otherworldly figure of fallen angel/alien/vampire turned battered and fragile nightclub singer, then goth’s more robust and grittier younger sibling, Gothic Rock, would be the leather-clad, smoke-enshrouded caricature of the rockstar as antihero: a shadowy guitar-slinger in trousers-too-narrow and hat-brim-too-wide, emerging from the wake (pun inescapable) of The Sisters of Mercy, from around the mid-to-late eighties onward. Even The Wake’s name recalls the 1985 watershed of Gothic Rock as we now know it; that moment when The Sisters of Mercy began to multiply and divide into more than one band.
Long ago, however, devotees of the Gothic Rock archetype either forgot, or never realised to begin with, that they worshipped at the shrine of mere rock’n’roll pastiche. In their zealous fervour, by the early nineties, the gothic rockers turned instead to merciless, cannibalistic self-parody. It would be safe to assume that your reviewer does not much care for this latter-day iteration of the genre, despite being a lifelong fan of its predecessors: The Sisters for the incisive, scathing artifice of their own particular niche; The Mission and Fields of the Nephilim for pioneering the wild frontiers and broader expanse of its musical lexicon and sonic horizons. But as with any genre, there are leaders and there are followers, and what was once fertile new ground, broken in by a hardy few, is rapidly over-exploited by the many, to ever-diminishing yields.
So it was, within a relatively short time, that the Kissing Cousins of Mercy spawned a great inky-black ejaculation of behatted little swimmers, each striving toward the same impregnable womb: to sound more like The Sisters than The Sisters ever wanted to, with a dash of The Mish and/or Nephs thrown in. Mostly rubbish, some of the cream still found its way to the top, and among the more noteworthy offspring to coagulate from that initial spurt were Rosetta Stone, Nosferatu, and Children on Stun, all from the UK, and Columbus Ohio’s The Wake. Rosetta Stone were perhaps the most slick, immediate and accessible of the bunch; Nosferatu the most overtly and absurdly-but-on-purpose gothic; Children on Stun made the high-spirited vitality and energy of an actual rock band their forte; and we’ll get to The Wake momentarily.
Heralded in the early nineties as the “next wave” of goth, the slipstream behind these four became the pathway down which many others would follow. Each of their would-be successors and pretenders became more generic than the last, with seemingly no greater creative ambition than to add their stupid band’s name to an already long list of other stupid band names. It is a list still growing to this day. But if nothing else, recognition is due this one especially tenacious branch of the otherwise gnarled and twisted goth family tree, for surviving so long as an almost entirely self-contained genus unto itself, exhibiting no significant signs of mutation whatsoever. Gothic Rock is living proof that if you’re careful about selective inbreeding, you can produce a vast array of near-identical individuals, with no extra fingers or toes.
All such disclaimers being dispersed with, ‘Perfumes and Fripperies’ by The Wake easily positions itself head and shoulders above anything else on offer from the Gothic Rock microgenre right now.
Formed in 1986 by highschool friends Troy Payne and Rich Witherspoon, The Wake’s output between 1989 and 1992 included their first demo tape, incalculable compilation appearances, and two self-released 7-inch singles. The Wake were one of the first US bands to break from the American deathrock tradition, in favour of the goth rock style popularised by their UK counterparts, prompting Propaganda Magazine to describe them as a band “who would go on to shake the very foundations of the death-rock underground.” More succinctly, Dave Thompson of the Alternative Press described the initial sound as “Gothic as Fuck”; a term quickly swooped upon in 1992 by those infamous hawkers of nineties goth, Cleopatra Records, and printed onto many Rosetta Stone t-shirts.
Two full-length studio albums from The Wake followed: ‘Masked’ (1993) and ‘Nine Ways’ (1996), both on Cleopatra. ‘Masked’ is unquestionably the stronger of the first two albums, but like others of its ilk, it suffers often from the close-but-no-cigar approximation of its influences. Standout fan favourites like ‘Nazarene’ and ‘Locomotive Age’ are really just ‘Alice’ and ‘Body Electric’ with the guitars and gothicizer channel cranked up to 11. The group’s level of musicianship was already high, even then, but inevitably overshadowed by the prominence of Sisters-styled vocals; their most overt nod to Eldritch
and co at the time, belying the unique range of other talents on display.
At their best, however, The Wake’s early output deviated from the bog-standard recipe. The use of live drums is more visceral and dynamic than the drum-machines favoured by their peers; the bass as a clearly defined melodic instrument takes cues from a much broader palette than the straight-up-and-down backbone of goth rock’s progenitors; and the textural guitars are more adventurous and inventive than other students of Marx and Hussey, with a level of squall suggesting inspirations drawn from John McGeoch or a young Robin Guthrie, among others. The Wake’s potential to leave their own mark was all there, and in fact, among fans of Gothic Rock they absolutely did so, albeit perhaps for other reasons.
In between albums, a remix CD-EP revolving around one title track, ‘Christine’ (1995), was transformed by labelmates Rosetta Stone into mass produced nineties goth-industrial dancefloor fodder. The second album followed, boasting more lavish production, courtesy of Ministry’s Keith ‘Fluffy’ Auerbach, but the band sound like they are scrambling for fully formed song ideas, with the strongest track being a somewhat arbitrary cover of Modern English’s ‘Sixteen Days’. This is perhaps partly due to the notorious pressures experienced by bands in the Cleopatra stable to churn out content, regardless of readiness or quality. The net result is that ‘Nine Ways’ often feels more like an expensive, unfinished demo session than an album.
Meanwhile, around the edges of these sessions, The Wake’s membership had already begun to fray. Co-founder and guitarist Rich Witherspoon departed as soon as recording sessions came to an end; regular bassist James Tramel was already long gone; and despite the valiant efforts of enduring mainstays Troy Payne (vocals), Daniel C (drums) and Robert Brothers (keys) to trudge onward with a revolving cast of replacements, between 1996 and 2000 A.D., The Wake eventually ground to a halt.
Over the last ten years, or thereabouts, there was a sporadic issuing of new singles hither and thither. In 2010, ‘Emily Closer’ deftly showcased Tramel’s eloquence and proficiency on bass, while Witherspoon’s guitars slither and swirl about like winged serpents, and Daniel C’s spacious drumming combines with Robert Brothers’ strident synths to paint the vast, atmospheric backdrop. In the foreground, Troy Payne had not so much ditched the Eldritch affectations altogether, as he had begun to integrate them into his own personalised style. It’s the first sign that the band might be coming not only back from the dead, but into their own.
These things take time, however, and it would be nearly four years before The Wake’s next single appeared, just ahead of 2014: the hypnotic ‘Rusted’. The song builds further on the group’s growing sense of confidence in their identity and musical vintage. While still a quintessential goth baritone, Payne’s reclamation of his own voice becomes ever more present, heady, and strangely enthralling. His ghostly drone is offset nicely by minimal baritone guitar lines, also performed by Payne, adding shades of post-punk and coldwave monochrome to the track. The Wake’s bassist and keyboardist have meanwhile gone missing in action. As such, Witherspoon is left to cover both bases/basses, and guitars; his signature style on the latter spilling over into the atmospheric space normally occupied by keys. Daniel C’s drums are sparse, sturdy and metronomic, while still maintaining a propulsive sense of forward momentum. In the wrong hands, the mesmeric drone of ‘Rusted’ might have easily become monotonous, but instead hits an unrelenting head-nodding stride from start to finish. Far less obvious and immediate than the band’s better-known singles, however, ‘Rusted’ was widely overlooked. At their absolute best, The Wake are better than goth, but neither the band nor their audience knows it.
Finally, in 2020, the next single ‘Hammer Hall’ intoned the forthcoming release of ‘Perfumes and Fripperies’; The Wake’s first new album in almost 25 years. The screech and scrape of guitar noise builds tension; the interjection of a simple but solid post-punk bassline foreshadows what will follow; and some 34 seconds into the track, the drums and vocals kick in, bringing Payne, Tramel, Witherspoon and Daniel C back into action as one cohesive unit. (One of the) Brothers, however, has not returned. But in the spirit of silver linings, the absence of keys adds as much to the overall sound as it takes away, offering up new spaces for the remaining bandmates to fill. ‘Hammer Hall’ pulls together many of the finest elements of ‘Emily Closer’ and ‘Rusted’, but more than the previous two singles, it sees the group reignite the ‘rock’ component of their gothic rock tag, while retaining a peculiar and amniotic ambience. The same is essentially true of the whole album.
The Wake’s sound as a band is now clearly demarcated; vocals are fully inhabited by their singer, and lyrics are as enigmatic and curious as the music swirling around them. “I was dancing with Templar”, sings Payne. “She was dancing to please. In the black light glow to… some strange beat.” Surface-level gothic intrigue aside, as the song advances, one gets the impression that the once hallowed halls of Valhalla have fallen to ruin; some kind of jaded metaphor for triumphs lost. Indeed, defeat snatched from the jaws of victory seems to be a recurrent theme of the album.
Album opener, ‘Daisy’, is a gargantuan slab of brooding. Massive monolithic drums co-exist eons apart in space and time; shrieking guitars travel like shooting stars across a looming night sky; and in places, Payne in full-bodied voice almost touches the edges of Peter Murphy’s stronger solo work. Processional drums eventually lurch into tumbling tom-toms, urging the ritual toward its completion. Already described, the lead single ‘Hammer Hall’ follows, and brings up the pace. ‘Marry Me’ features the most Sisters-meets-Mission goth rock guitar riffs on offer, and if that’s what you came for, then that’s what you’re getting. Otherwise, it’s one of the album’s less remarkable plodders.
‘Break Me Not’ is an absolute standout track. Weirdly dissonant melodies and spooked out harmonies permeate every detail of the fluid bass, shimmering guitars and throaty vocals; all of them eddying dizzily around drums like a post-punk discothèque in drugged slow motion. Clearly defined gear changes break the spell, bridging a path towards soaring heights, before falling back into the intoxicating haze again. The title track follows. ‘Perfumes and Fripperies’ is solid, bringing the momentum and character of the album back onto (comparatively) even keel.
A new version of ‘Rusted’, re-recorded with the current four-piece, slots itself comfortably into the dominant tone of the album, with a slightly tougher edge than the original single, and a more driving, rhythmic quality. Notably, Tramel resumes his place on bass, to bring his own flair to the instrumentals, while the previous baritone guitar lines are ditched in favour of a standard electric guitar. The album version also features backing vocals from Caroline Blind, of Sunshine Blind renown. Blind’s voice, however, seems woefully underutilised here: so far down in the mix as to become virtually inaudible. Conversely, it’s difficult to imagine that a more prominent place in the mix would not dramatically alter the character of the song. In either event, the new album version of ‘Rusted’ doesn’t quite manage to enhance or build upon the original single, so much as become more closely aligned to the overall feel of the album. In that context, it remains one of the stronger tracks on ‘Perfumes and Fripperies’.
The next track is another highlight: the wistful ‘Everything’, opening with a grinding bass, and featuring a guest spot from Red Lorry Yellow Lorry guitarist David ‘Wolfie’ Wolfenden. The Lorries, for younger readers, were seminal players in the now legendary goth rock scene emerging out of Leeds during the 1980s, alongside The Sisters of Mercy, The March Violets, and others. In later years, Wolfie has occasionally popped up in collaboration with Witherspoon before, both as a guest player with the latter’s other project Hamsas Xiii, and in their work together as supporting players on Caroline Blind’s recent solo album. This track, ‘Everything’, pulls back to a slower pace, while layered guitar arrangements dominate, and more immediate and conventional melodies take the place of eerie dissonance. There is an almost Cure-ish “sad but pretty” quality to the tonality, melodicism and physicality of the overall arrangement, joined by a palpable sense of yearning and gut-wrenching honesty, as Payne repeats the hook, “Everything… Everything is not fine.”
A new mix of ‘Emily Closer’ follows, which doesn’t deviate substantially from the spirit of the original version, and is notable as the only track still featuring erstwhile keyboardist Robert Brothers. Despite being years apart, bringing both ‘Rusted’ and ‘Emily Closer’ together with the rest of the new album’s tracklist was absolutely the correct decision. Emily is followed by the rolling tom-toms and jangling tambourines of ‘Big Empty’, bringing a new rhythmic dynamic into play, while Payne contemplates the “Big empty space where the crowd once was”, again with candour and introspection laid bare. Bass and rhythm guitars really only serve as melodic points of reference here, with drums and vocals being the dominant features. The album closer ‘Figurine’ returns to the slow, brooding menace and serpentine guitars that characterised early Sisters live anthems. It is more than a little on the nose, and somewhat regressive, both musically and in the vocal department. Arguably, however, it is perhaps also a fitting end to such a ‘classic goth rock’ styled album.
In summary, The Wake is a Gothic Rock band, whose career spans the mid-to-late 1980s to present. ‘Perfumes and Fripperies’ is both their best album to date, and the best Gothic Rock album of 2020, bar none. It is clear that The Wake would be capable of much more than Gothic Rock, were this not their chosen path, but one couldn’t possibly recommend this album to anyone who wasn’t already a Gothic Rock enthusiast. Among the many highlights of this album is the band’s hard-won ability to actually inject something uniquely their own into the genre, of which there are many examples described above.
Listen to "Hammer Hall" here and purchase below at bandcamp