I was talking with an elder at my church a few weeks ago about our shared affinity for the sort of gloomy post-punk that only the 1980s seemed capable of producing. I’m referring to bands such as The Cure (whose output during that decade is, in my opinion, almost entirely unrivalled), New Order, and Joy Division, but also Josef K, The Durutti Column, and many others. It seems like much of that music died off by the time the 1990s rolled around, with grunge and its ilk coming along to assuage the angst of teens everywhere.
However, the truth is that the sort of gloomy, atmospheric post-punk that we all knew and loved never really died. It simply went underground. There, bands such as Lycia (pronounced “lie-see-uh”) took the genre — if it could even be considered a genre — even further.
If you want to pick nits, I find it difficult to really label the songs on The Burning Circle And Then Dust “goth” (which Lycia and so many of their contemporaries are often labelled), due mainly to the amazing amounts of atmosphere that Mike VanPortfleet, David Galas, and Tara Vanflower pack into these songs. The result is a sometimes claustrophobic and overwhelming album that, like much of Lycia’s music, embodies nearly every stereotype that comes to mind when thinking of “goth/darkwave/etc.”, and then just easily transcends them again and again.
Originally a two-disc release on Projekt Records, VanPortfleet chose to pare this re-release down to a mere 18(!) songs, as had been the original plan. This is probably a good thing (it could be argued that the disc could stand even a bit more trimming, as there are several short tracks that seem like nothing more than filler). Although Lycia’s music is clearly not a one-trick pony, a fact that becomes even more apparent upon a closer listen, the prevailing tone of the album, as well the various synth and guitar effects that VanPortfleet et al. use, does lead to a certain monotony.
Many of the songs follow a similar progression, usually beginning with murky synths and spiralling, ice-laced guitars immediately looming over the listener in a rather bombastic fashion, while cold, clunky drum machines pound away in the song’s center. Then, VanPortfleet’s snarling whispers come drifting around from the edges, like a cold winter wind sweeping across isolated spaces.
Like many of Lycia’s peers in the darkwave circles, there is certainly some pretense to their music. But unlike so many similar artists, which often stike up a theatrical pose that at best seems fake and at worst is just plain silly, the intensity that VanPortfleet et al. brings to these songs does lend them a certain amount of conviction. There certainly isn’t a lot of subtlety to the group’s music, due to the singular mindset that they bring to so many of the songs on the disc. However, that singular mindset and sense of focus actually allows the songs to achieve the epic sense of gloominess and despair towards which VanPortfleet and his cohorts constantly aspire.