Tonight we are back in the Purp (erm, we do call it the Purp, don't we?) for a gig which, in a way, is quite rare on the London circuit these days. It's a straight-up goth show, without any crossover elements of deathrock/industrial/new wave/punk or whatever. It's not often we get a gig which entirely inhabits the goth scene: most of today's goth promoters tend to mix things up a bit, hoping to grab a crossover crowd which will be bigger than the goth genre can generate alone. That, I suppose, tells you something about the health of the UK goth scene in the twenty-first century.
Ironically, at a time when the indie scene is increasingly keen to grab a bit of after-dark action, to the point where intriguingly goth-ish bands are starting to emerge from the indie zone, the goth scene itself has gone distinctly off the boil. And yet, not only is tonight's gig unrepentantly a goth event, it's also a sell-out. That's a rare result and no mistake.
So, what's pulled everyone out of the woodwork tonight, then? Let's pay some attention to the bands, and maybe we'll find out.
Suddenly, the stage is full of long hair and New Rock boots. This is The Way Of All Flesh, down from Sheffield for the first time, and playing a kind of goth-metal-with-a-drum-machine take on mid-tempo rock. They seem very keen to distinguish between their old songs and their new songs: the vocalist painstakingly explains which songs are oldies and which we won't have heard before. This is a frankly academic point, since the band are barely known in London and therefore everything is a new song to most of this audience. But they're given a good reception nevertheless, for in many ways The Way Of All Flesh play quintessential goth scene music. They're touting that goth/metal hybrid which, despite goth's post-punk origins, and notwithstanding the rise of deathrock and a certain recent resurgence in new wave-noir, is for many goth scenesters these days the essential sound of the scene.
I don't think the band have quite got it nailed yet, mind: the guitar sound is tinny and buzzy (strange, given that the band have a two-guitar line-up - you'd think they'd be able to generate a far more robust sonic assault) and the vocals veer too often into a kind of over-stressed shout which suggests that the vocalist is trying to force his voice into places it can't naturally go. Final song is a cover of Billy Idol's 'White Wedding' - again, a typical goth band ploy, to throw in a crowd-pleasing cover of an 80s chart hit. I'm left pondering that while The Way Of All Flesh represent exactly what many people want out of goth, they also illustrate the reason the scene hit the ceiling.
If you were trying to define the term 'trad goth' to a visitor from outer space, you could do so quite easily in three words: Voices Of Masada. Every song is a towering anthem of melodrama. The vocals range from sepulchral rumbles to climactic hollers. And, naturally, it's all nailed to a Doktor Avalanche-style machine beat. If Andrew Eldritch and Carl McCoy made wild passionate love the unholy result of their copulation would probably sound like this, as it wailed in its cradle.
But it must be said that Voices Of Masada do the trad goth thing very well. While it doesn't take a genius to identify what's in their record collections, they certainly deploy those influences to great effect. Tonight, vocalist Raymon is perched on a stool, strapped up and bandaged after a road accident, but nevertheless manages to maintain a certain eye of the storm demeanour as the music swirls around him like thunderclouds. And that in itself is a new development. In the past, it would have been stretching a point to use the expression 'eye of the storm' about Voices Of Masada, for in their earlier days they didn't really brew up much of a storm on stage. Now, however, there's movement and animation, and while nobody exactly throws any extravagant shapes, at least it now looks like the band members are into their own music. Voices of Masada are, I suppose, what you'd call a middle of the road goth band. They're steering a course straight down the main highway of goth, with all the regular influences lined up along each side like emergency telephones on the motorway. It's not a journey I particularly want to take, frankly, but if you're up for the ride, they'll get you there.
The gathering crush at the front of the stage drops a hint that our headliner is about to come on. It also demonstrates that of all the acts tonight, this is the big crowd puller, the reason the woodwork has disgorged its goth content in such full-on fashion. But, perhaps significantly, Voltaire is not just another goth band. Voltaire isn't even a band. A lone man with an acoustic guitar, a fluffy jumper, and a nice line in witty, pithy songs, he could probably charm the pants off any audience. He certainly charms the stretch jeans and combat strides off this one.
Ever ready with a disarming grin and a quizzically raised eyebrow, Voltaire is the consumate performer, projecting his personality from the stage like radiation. His between-song quips are finely tuned for maximum impact - interestingly, he takes care to include a few local references, even making use of the London slang phrase 'up the Dev' to describe his sojurn that afternoon in Camden's goth pub, the Devonshire Arms. I suspect all this is quite deliberately done. Although almost everyone here tonight is entirely on his side to start with, Voltaire still works to get the crowd rooting for him. He may only in town for one gig, but for 24 hours he's a Londoner. He's a vaudevillian of the old school, and an impressively sharp operator on stage.
The songs themselves are also sharply-honed things, little vignettes of observation and commentary from a man who has clearly noted the eccentricities and absurdities of goth, and - crucial point here - has also realised that goths, too, are aware of all this and are ever-ready to laugh at themselves. Sung in tones of amused irony to his boldly-struck acoustic guitar, Voltaire's songs both chronicle the ups and downs of goth life, while at the same time ever so gently taking the piss out of an audience he knows are already in on the joke.
Some of the material is familiar stuff, and is greeted with cheers of recognition. Just like any band, Voltaire understands the need to play the old hits. I first heard his comedy cover of Rammstein's 'Du Hast' eight years ago, and his amusing Easter tale - in which his young son, on being told the story of the risen Christ, exclaims 'Jesus is a zombie? Cool!' - is similarly vintage. But it all still works. It's fascinating that a performer so utterly at odds with what the goth scene is at least assumed to want should command such a large and loyal crowd - why, he doesn't even use a drum machine! But there's possibly a pertinent point there. The further you venture from standard-issue gothisms, the more you can achieve. And, as this gig neatly indicates, the crowds suddenly get bigger, too.
For more photos from this gig, find the bands by name here.