Theatre of Pain
Nostradamus issued the prediction in his legendary 1555 book Centuries that "in the year 1999 and seven months, from the sky shall come the great king of terror." If that doom is indeed inevitable, its dark harbinger is Christian Death.
Christian Death is considered one of goth music's top acts, credited with influencing a diverse range of death-metal, thrash, industrial, and other bands fond of gloomy sentiments and black clothes. Now based in Boston after several years in Los Angeles and England, singer-songwriter-guitarist Valor, vocalist-bassist Maitri, guitarist Flick, and drummer Steve are touring with San Francisco goth trio Switchblade Symphony and Australian industrial-goth act Big Electric Cat to support Christian Death's latest album, Prophesies (on the Los Angeles indie label Cleopatra Records). The ten-track collection of atmospheric music fit for a vampire-film soundtrack was inspired by the prophesies of the sixteenth-century French astrologer and physician. Its lyrics and cover art are steeped in horrifying Holocaust imagery, alluding to the Nazis' propagandist appropriation of Nostradamus's prophecies to convince the German people and their enemies of the Nazi Party's ultimate victory.
Prophecies of the future, and the future itself, fascinate the band, which has issued several releases on a European indie label named Nostradamus. "I live in the future. I hate dating things. It's one of the things in society that I'm against," says Valor in an exotic, vaguely British accent during a phone interview from Club Midnight in Baltimore, the site of the third show of their current tour. "It makes it easy for people to categorize. Subconsciously, it sets up limitations, and I don't want us to categorize and limit ourselves."
Much of the music on Prophesies defies the goth categorization. The first track, "Without," opens with foreboding cellos and crashing cymbals that swell into Sisters of Mercy-style, minor-key guitar and synthesizer melodies, majestic chants, and Valor's Peter Murphy-like vocals repeating the song's only lyrics, "Life without you." But the second cut, "Alone," is a quasi-industrial guitar-and-percussion assault that pulls back abruptly, only to burst into a Pink Floyd-ish guitar solo. "The Great Swarm of Bees" and "The Pig Half Man" indict the Holocaust and look to a seemingly inevitable apocalyptic future with more industrial-fueled anger, while "Into the Shitworld" is a synth barrage criticizing moral decay ("You let the scum of the Earth drag you down/Into the Shitworld," Valor growls). The record's most stunning tune, "Thunderstorm," features gorgeous piano lines and strings over dance rhythms and churning guitars backing pain-stricken vocals, while a light rain dances in the distance. The two closing numbers provide stark contrasts: "Black Empire" combines rapid-fire dance rhythms with siren guitars and ominous vocals, while "Nineteen Ninety Nine" is an eight-minute assemblage of news sound bites, beeps, screams, train bells, wind gusts, and faint heavy-metal riffs. Interspersed throughout the set are a number of short, sparsely arranged instrumentals.
Valor stresses that Christian Death isn't just a band, however: It is the entertainment arm of a multinational survivalist organization called the Christian Death Society. Its members believe that humankind is destined for a catastrophic fate, and they have taken precautions. "When society as we know it declines, we believe in being prepared," he explains. "In case of Armageddon, we could still find happiness in life, even if it came down to enjoying the pain. I think that's what animals would do -- endure any agony in order to survive. Perhaps it is part of our chaotic destiny that we've destroyed so much, part of our nature to wipe out other species. We are a disease as well."
Setting all the gloom and doom aside, the band resists its goth label: "Our music is omnidirectional, but it's difficult to shed the label, which I find very limiting," Valor complains. "We are trying to express our emotions to the fullest capacity, express every avenue. When I put lyrics down on paper, they are an alternative description of the music. Sometimes we meet people who may not understand the language a song is written in, but they capture the feeling and understand the meaning."
The history of Christian Death remains as obscure and winding as much of the band's music. The group emerged in Los Angeles circa 1981, blending dark, punk-influenced shock-rock with equally gloomy theatrics. Their 1982 debut record, Only Theatre of Pain, is said to have surprised even the most drearily jaded goths with its morbid, overwrought imagery and slash-and-burn instrumentation. They disbanded shortly thereafter, only to form again in 1984 with original vocalist-lyricist Rozz Williams and guitarist Valor, keyboardist-vocalist Gitane DeMone (who has since embarked on a solo career), and drummer David Glass, from the L.A. death-rock band Pompeii 99. When Williams left the group the following year to sit in with other groups such as Premature Ejaculation and the Shadow Project, Valor took on vocal and songwriting duties. Under his leadership, the group issued eight studio albums, an EP, and a number of live releases and compilations that continued the band's obsessions with the dismantling of organized religion and rebellion against groups that the band believes persecute free thinkers.
In 1990 Williams began another band, naming it Christian Death also. They signed a contract with the Cleopatra label and released a number of albums over the next five years. The band was touted by the record company as being the original lineup, having reunited after years of turbulence. Valor vehemently denies the company's claim, stating that his Christian Death -- the original -- has been recording and touring steadily since 1984, albeit with different lineups.
He accuses Williams of cashing in on the mid- and late-Eighties success of Christian Death. "It was robbery," he says. "I didn't spend years touring and working so hard so that someone could come along five years later to take advantage of that." Valor claims that if he could have covered legal expenses, he would have sued Williams for the deception -- sales were dramatically reduced when the market became flooded with too many Christian Death records.
Valor and Christian Death are certainly no strangers to controversy: The band has had several clashes with religious groups, reportedly receiving bomb threats at venues in Europe, having their records burned on a Christian television show, and being attacked by weapon-wielding protesters. The Archbishop of Canterbury apparently banned two London concerts and one album, 1988's Sex, Drugs, and Jesus Christ, because of its offensive cover art and scandalous, sacrilegious lyrics.
Hoping this tour passes without incident, the band plans to travel through September, go back into the studio in November, and tour Europe in January, with tentative plans to visit Latin America in the spring of 1997.
Despite belonging to a band classified as one of the top ten most consistently depressing bands in the world by the editors of Rolling Stone, Valor says he and his bandmates thoroughly enjoy being alive. "People ask us why we're so melancholy, but I think it is like when you're cleaning house: If you want a truly clean house, you don't sweep things under the carpet. If you want to consider your thoughts pure, you have to face things."
Christian Death performs on Sunday, August 25, at the Kitchen Club, 3702 NE 2nd Ave, 754-0777, with Switchblade Symphony and Big Electric Cat. Tickets cost $12. Doors open at 9:00.
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