Release Date: March 23rd, 2023
Goth never dies. From its rise in the 1980s to mainstream infiltration in the 1990s and its current mainstream resurgence, it continues to recruit misfits that don’t belong. It’s fascinating and mysterious. It’s also misunderstood. There’s more to Goth than wearing black and being morose. It’s a culture that’s produced timeless art, especially music. The music along with Goth’s origins and history are explored in John Robb’s new book The Art Of Darkness: History of Goth.
Before The Sisters of Mercy, black fishnets, and heavy eyeliner, there were the original Goths: the Visigoths and the Ostrogoths. Robb lays down Goth’s roots by taking us back to the Viking age, which spawned the term “Gothic” and has been used to describe art and styles that dabble in the morose and the melancholy. Robb does a fairly good job tracing Goth’s history through various periods, including Roman Empires, European folklore, and the Victorian era. He even spends time highlighting Gothic architecture and artists who flirted with the dark side, such as Mary Shelley, Oscar Wilde, Aleister Crowley, and Edgar Allen Poe detailing how their influence can still be felt in the subculture to this day, especially in its music. And, as Robb shows, there’s more to Goth music than just being macabre.
It’s easy to classify Goth music as doom, gloom, and all about sadness or death. But as Robb shows, the music is heavily influenced by subcultures and artists that preceded it. Before jumping into the Goth (and post-punk) music of the 1980s, which makes up the majority of the book, he details its musical evolution starting with the psychedelic 1960s, which eventually led to glam rock and the restless punk scene of the 1970s. He takes note of Goth’s forefathers David Bowie, The Doors, Iggy Pop, and The Velvet Underground, who would be major influences on the genre in different ways: Bowie’s flamboyance and chameleon nature, Iggy Pop’s unchained performances, The Velvet Underground’s eerie storytelling, The Doors’ brooding, and taboo lyrics would all have a profound effect on what would become known as Goth Music. Goth’s origins can often be overlooked, so it’s great that Robb attempts to break it down.
Unfortunately, the book is a slog to get through. Some chapters are crammed with so much information, it’s easy to get lost in the middle of a sentence. Others fly by so quickly with little time to dig into the meat of the subject. Props to Robb for trying to highlight as many artists as he does, but it makes for a messy read. On top of this, the writing style feels a bit amateur. Robb’s quick-paced music journalist style doesn’t work for such a hefty book. Chapters lack narrative flow often moving quickly from one topic to the next, sometimes within the same paragraph leaving you confused. Some information is repeated ad nauseam throughout the book. On top of that, it feels very unpolished. The book has so many grammatical errors and formatting mistakes it feels like you’re reading a galley copy.
While there is a wealth of information here, Robb doesn’t offer any critical discussions or commentary about the scene. The farthest he goes is the occasional witty observation about a particular song or artist. And the book is far from being a definitive history. It touts itself as “the first major overview of goth music and culture,” yet is limited in its scope. The UK Goth scene is the focus. It’s not until the final chapters that the American Goth movement is mentioned. Even then it’s just a rushed overview. International scenes are ignored entirely. Sure, Goth music may have been most prominent in the UK, but you can’t deny how its influence crossed international waters. Goth cultures are found throughout the world to this day yet are barely mentioned here. And the final chapter covering modern day Goth feels like an afterthought. There are more conversations to be had, such as how the culture has changed and shifted over the years or even casting a critical eye on the culture like people of color being underrepresented or the culture’s penchant for gatekeeping. Instead, the ending is rushed and unsatisfactory.
That’s not to say there’s no good information here. Robb dedicates chapters to major players, like The Sisters of Mercy, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and The Cure along with lesser-known or forgotten bands of the era: Virgin Prunes, Southern Death Cult, New Model Army, and Theatre of Hate just to name a few. He even highlights artists not normally associated with Goth, like Adam and the Ants, The Damned, and The Cramps. Robb integrates firsthand accounts to allow those who were there to share their own stories and memories of the scene, which is a big highlight of the book. These chapters aren’t deep dives on these bands but still provide enough information to learn about them. If you’re willing to plow through the repetitive information and messy paragraphs, there are a lot of fascinating factoids and stories to be found.
Spanning over 500 pages, The Art of Darkness only scratches the surface of Goth. There’s simply too much information and topics to cover in one sitting. If the focus were limited to the UK scene it wouldn’t be such a glaring issue. While the content, for the most part, is good, the presentation is a letdown. Too much information, subpar writing, and numerous grammatical issues make this a frustrating read. It’s a shame because there is a great book lurking beneath the surface. There’s a lot of great detail about the roots of the subculture and the firsthand accounts from those who were there offer great insight into not only the scene but what attracted them to it. If you’re a music lover, you’ll enjoy learning about the bands and may even walk away with some new recommendations. Otherwise, the book doesn’t offer any engaging conversations about the culture and ultimately, leaves you unsatisfied.