Seattle is in the grip of a minor goth renaissance. Last month, Second Sight, the monthly party thrown by occult-inspired clothing line Actual Pain, celebrated its first anniversary with a series of shows that included the Seattle debut of UK ambient noise duo Demdike Stare and a sold-out show by Brooklyn darkwavers Light Asylum. In Pioneer Square, new funeral-themed antiques and oddities shop The Belfry is doing a brisk business in human skulls, coffins, taxidermy, Victorian medical equipment, and religious paraphernalia. And then there’s our current crop of dark and gloomy bands—acts like Haunted Horses, Crypts, Grave Babies, and Nightmare Asylum—not as big or as broadly appealing as our folk-rockers or hip-hop stars, maybe, but every bit as bubbling in the underground.
There’s just one problem: summer.
Most of the year, Seattle’s cold and perpetually low-lit clime is an ideal catalyst for dark music. Unscientifically speaking, it’s the same reason that black metal comes from Scandinavia while reggae comes from Jamaica. Summertime, though, can bring a thwarting blast of sunshine and unusually long days. It’s a hard time to be wearing all black (as has been memorably documented in the blog “Goths in Hot Weather”). Luckily, if you’re set on feeling grim this summer, plenty of local bands can help you draw the proverbial blinds against the impending bright times.
If you ask them, drums-and-guitar duo Haunted Horses will tell you they’re not goth. “The music may carry dark themes,” allows guitarist/vocalist Colin Dawson. “But I could never classify it as goth.” Last month, though, on drummer/vocalist Mike Pelly’s 27th birthday, he and Dawson, 28, played a ferocious set of dark, droning rock at Black Lodge, beneath a black pentagram on the wall, their faces goofily corpse-painted and with Pelly wearing an Actual Pain tank top. They may not be card-carrying members at exclusive goth club the Mercury, but they fit the new profile: They make dark music that’s not rigidly beholden to a goth uniform; that bears its aesthetic signifiers as much tongue-in-cheek as in dead seriousness; and that, most important, totally kills. If you were a reductive clod, you’d call it “hipster goth.”
Haunted Horses formed in 2010, after Pelly and Dawson—longtime friends and neighbors, and musical collaborators since high school—relocated to Seattle from Sherman Oaks, Calif., which they both describe as a suburban wasteland stripped of a once-vibrant DIY music scene. In Seattle, they found a much more supportive atmosphere. “Seattle has the most creative and diverse music scene I have ever experienced,” says Dawson. “It’s hard not to go to a show and walk away inspired and ready to write more.”
“Agreed,” adds Pelly. “I feel like we’re free to do anything we want musically, and not have to worry about people ‘getting it.’ “
Whether Seattle gets it or not, that sense of freedom has resulted in some of the most scouring and intense punk-rock sounds to come out of our city in years. Pelly pounds out impressively rapid, hard-hitting drum rolls and cymbal clatter, while Dawson wrenches from his guitar all kinds of noise: metallic skronk, feedback squeals, shuddering drones, and low-oscillating loops. Both provide blurry, echoing vocals.
Live, Dawson spends a fair amount of time hunched over a loop station and other pedals, feeding signals into a trio of speaker cabinets (the band supplies their own PA system for total control over their sound). Their songs lurch from dark grooves to explosive bursts of percussion and noise to droning, druggy vocal chants. On first listen, you might hear the best traits of N.Y./L.A. band Liars in their sound, but while Haunted Horses admire that band’s “unpredictability as musicians,” they rattle off a litany of other bands that have influenced them, from UK experimentalists This Heat and krautrockers Faust (which, OK, duh) to ambient electronic artists Tycho and Ulrich Schnauss (less duh).
This summer, the band is playing the Capitol Hill Block Party, planning a full-length album, and looking forward to an East Coast tour. If we’re lucky, their spectacular noise will spook Seattle through the darker months ahead and for some time to come.