Rasputina: Putting the 'Ick' back in Gothic
Club Laga, Pittsburgh: Feb 23, 2002
We have to be frank with ourselves. When it comes to originality, the new millenium has been a bit of a musical wasteland. It's clear the music has died when the press has to focus on how Lennon's breasts influence her songwriting, or whether or not Limp Bizkit and Creed have kissed and made up for good, rather than talking about actual music or performances. Rasputina offers the much needed reminder that there's another way to make music than just trying to find an original way to order from the same menu that all the rest of the guests order from.
It's not just that Rasputina is outside the mainstream, deep in that pile of artists that for one reason or another end up in the industry's ghettos -- "college music," "alternative," "indie rock" -- all that stuff that's mainstream plus or minus an ingredient or two. Rasputina is an anomalie among anomalies. In what file should we put a band comprised of three virtuoso (a significant word, and not because it has a lot of letters) celloists and a drummer, bizarro-Bröntes playing songs of abject tales and self-regarding corpses, occasionally punctuated by covers of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Velvet Underground, or Marilyn Manson? A society of cello players who have been produced and remixed industrial-goth icons Manson and Chris Vrenna (NIN), and who have opened for the likes of Cheap Trick, Joan Osborne, Porno for Pyros, Goo-Goo Dolls, Bob Mould (Sugar), and Nirvana, and who have recorded two albums for Columbia records (the first sounding like a legitimately talented Tori Amos on opium and singing from 100 years away, and the second sounding like the same but in Ozzy Osbourne or Marilyn Manson's garage? They've woven a very strange web indeed.
Like anything that is so radically different that we don't know how to begin to handle it, the industry quickly moved in to provide some assistance. File under goth. And so it goes.
However, Rasputina in fact relies on very few of the cliches of contemporary goth music -- unrequited love metaphorized as necrophilia, creepy makeup, religious iconography turned on its head, and on and on. And yet, they're more goth than goth. On stage and on CD, they have more in common with their 18th and 19th century predecessors -- those purveyors of the gothic aesthetic in literature, art, and architecture -- than they have with today's gothic culture.
While their lyrics have no place in contemporary goth culture, they're precisely what gothic literature models: dramatic narratives of dark family secrets; isolation and alienation; uncanny phenomena; psychological interiority; laudnum hazes; cofused gender boundaries.
And while contemporary goth culture draws from an array of stock images - from the voodoo guru in the tophat and skull makeup, to the arabesque Egypto-fetish (Poe) that brings us the eye of horace eye-liner job, to S & M bongage gear, to antiqued or devastated formal wear like wedding dresses and tuxedos (Carrie) -- while a goth band like Switchblade Symphony comes out talking like adults but wearing baby-doll dresses, make-up, and pig tails (you've seen the look in early photos of Courtney Love), Rasputina comes out wearing Victorian corsets and garters, while lead singer Melora spins yarns of incest and asylums with childlike innocence and intonation. The effect was something like watching prostitutes at the end of the 19th century standing under a gas light in Whitechapel just daring Jack the Ripper to try something smarmy.
So, goth is not an entirely comfortable fit, but it's good enough for the band, and it certainly doesn't bother the darklings, since the band offers a break from the over-wrought Marilyn Mansons and Robert Smiths and ex-methamphetamine addicts (getting a bit pudgy there, Trent?).
Promoters Night-Sky Productions ("dark music and entertainment in Pittsburgh") successfully made a sort of darkling carnival out of the event: a string of opening bands, the DJ, and the exhibits and venders of all things spooky produced something like a Woodstock meets a renaissance festival presided over by the Blair Witch.
For a band that gets very little press or air play, Rasputina had no trouble filling up the venue with darklings who were as giddy as sorority girls at Mardi Gras. The crowd spun, swayed, and waltzed politely through the opening acts until finally the lights went down and Melora and the Ladies Cello Society took the stage looking like the Brönte sisters in their knickers.
And when Melora took her seat and took the first chop at her cello with the bow for the intro to Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here," the goths clapped. As if genuinely happy. (In spite of themselves, of course.)
To mention that Rasputina has recorded with dark industrial bigwigs Marilyn Manson and Chris Vrenna (NIN) might give you some idea what heppened when three cellos resonated into their pickups, through distortion pedals, into effects processors, and finally out of tremendous stacks: In the studio, Vrenna or Manson might have been necessary to get things right for Epic, but live Rasputina had no trouble making those cello's moan, throb, and squeal, punishing the audience with wall after wall off disturbing sounds. Great tracks from both LPs, like "Transylavanian Concubine" and "Trenchmouth," were complemented by tracks from their recent five song covers EP and a few glimpses of what to expect off their upcoming full length Cabin Fever. And each with the vicious ferocity we're accustomed to from guitar and keyboard outfits like Manson.
Between songs, Melora offers none of the usual banter ("Pittsburgh, are you ready to rock?" "Go Steelers" or "come on Pittsburgh, I can't here you"), but rather offers very short pieces of fiction written before each show, and telling tales of insanity, addiction, and bestiality with the adorable childlike expressions and innocence of a Shirley Temple or Rudy Huxtable.
Ego Likeness, who took the stage immediately before Rasputina, were perfect openners. They fed the 80s nostalgia addiction with a stage presence reminiscent of post-punk and goth pioneers, like Sisters of Mercy or Souxie and the Banshees or Bauhaus. Perhaps it was the long, colorful dreadlocks, or the big beautiful hair (they'd be a perfect fit in That 80s Show, if the network were to stop focusing on the trivial things). It hearkened back to a time when goth culture implied a kind of artistry beyond musicianship. Their music, in fact, seemed to straddle the aesthetics of goth and NY's art rock (a la the Swans). While their LP from 2000 is quite successful in its ambience, their live set was straight-out rock and roll, with the cunning, well-placed, and welcome addition of a violin.
There's a lot of great music out there, both in the mainstream and in the ghettos, just as there's a lot to be said for contemporary goth culture, with its emphasis on theatricality and role-playing, with its wit and cyncism, and its tremendous sense of irony. But sometimes we need to be reminded that there's more to it than buying a choker or a pair of fishnets or wearing our makeup strategically; and that Lennon's brooding confessions of abuse and sorrow have a context and a history.
Rasputina reminds us that music has conventions, and that those conventions are worth breaking.
Look for the new album Cabin Fever! in stores around April 9th.
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