We went to the Sisters of Mercy last night in Portland. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen them, and I actually never thought I’d see them once, much less twice. And it’s kind of still under discussion that we actually “saw” them last night. It was a show that was either very badly designed and managed or a very subtle bit of meta-commentary about rock and roll.
I’m opting for the latter, otherwise it was somewhat of a bummer of an experience.
Here’s the setup: bare stage, no markings, no banners, the band is about as faceless and anonymous as you can get, and there is a fog machine. A fog machine that starts right before the first song and DOESN’T STOP for an hour. It’s the sort of output necessary for a full stadium-sized venue where the wind is blowing in from the water at about 15 mph, but we’re inside a 1000 seat venue with little or no circulation. It becomes a John Carpenter film in about five minutes. For a little while, it is annoying and then I start to realize that Andrew Eldrich (Mr. Sister of Mercy) is prowling the stage in a way that takes advantage of the fog, and that the lights are cued to work with the fog. And about the time I realize the guitar player is only visible (and even then, only from the waist to the neck, and his guitar is ivory white) when he steps up for the guitar solo, I start to think this might all be planned. Coupled with the fact that the mix was very muddy (you honestly couldn’t make out his gutteral sing-speak for most of the songs; and one out of three songs I didn’t recognize AT ALL, and I’m a guy that has both Floodland and Vision Thing permanently grooved into my brain).
This wasn’t a rock and roll show, this was the ghost of a rock and roll show. It’s been close to twenty years since the Sisters of Mercy put out a new record, and this wasn’t a nostalgia tour where everyone pretended they were still young and gothic and misunderstood. This was a show about atmosphere and the memory of atmosphere (and, really, the whole gothic era was about instilling atmosphere), and this “vision” was more of the same, but instead of the black water / apocalyptic melancholy that drowned the listener in Floodland and the cataclysmic nihilism that infused the heartbreak of Vision Thing, this was the ghost of bombastic excess.
The Chorus of “Something Fast” goes:
You can stand all night
At a red light anywhere in town
Hailing maries left and right
But none of them slow down
I seen the best of men go past
I don’t want to be the last
Gimme something fast
And Eldrich left off the last line twice and only barely whispered it on the third pass. He wasn’t a man trying to come back from the brink of non-existence; he had already passed on. All that was left was a phantom of an impression, a stain in our brains from a time when we were all seized by the humors and vapors of gothic bleakness. He gave us enough to remember that time and space, but he was no longer a part of it. The Sisters of Mercy have spent a long time trying to get out from the label of “gothic,” and they have. They’re now just ghosts.
But Doktor Avalanche, the eternal drum machine, still plays on and on.