Sektion Tyrants channel a touch of Red Lorry Yellow Lorry in its single “Systematic Letdown” but infuse it with some coldwave electronic features. Once the song gets into full gear the already raw vocals take on a sense of desperation combined with a deep disappointment. It lends the track a propulsive emotional energy that paired with dissonant guitar leads and minimal percussive accents fuses a fragile yet expressive structure with a wiry energy that commands your attention to the end. The song is four minutes forty seconds but is so engaging it feels like Sektion Tyrants have compressed that time to half the length while delivering a psychological journey from realization of the emptiness and “lack of substance” of someone formerly close but whose personal deficits hit you with a force of a truth you don’t want to believe but your brain made connections impossible to ignore to dissolve the web of manipulation to which you’ve been subjected for far too long. It’s a song that feels like it comes from a place of pain but through that pain a long-coming liberation from a relationship that had been dysfunctional and corrosive all along. Listen to “Systematic Letdown” on YouTube and follow Sektion Tyrants on Spotify.
The Alarm is currently touring North America with Modern English and Jay Aston’s Gene Loves Jezebel with a stop in Denver at the Oriental Theater on Friday, August 9. All three bands came up at around the same time and were on even mainstream radio in the early 80s. At that time post-punk bands of various stripes were enjoying varying degrees of popularity and commercial success. In addition to the above groups like U2, Simple Minds, Echo & The Bunnymen, The Cure, Bauhaus and Siouxsie and the Banshees helped to define the sounds and look of that style of music for decades to come.
The Alarm’s roots in music go back to Wales where singer and guitarist Mike Peters cut his teeth as a live band playing in the punk band The Toilets in 1977. Peters says the fledgling group played with bands like The Clash, The Buzzcocks and Sioxsie & The Banshees. The band would go to London’s now legendary The Marquee Club, where the Rolling Stones played their first live show in 1962, to see bands including Chelsea whose James Stevenson once drove original Alarm guitarist Dave Sharp home one night because he’d had a bit to drink. Stevenson now plays in The Alarm as well as Jay Aston’s Gene Loves Jezebel. The same social milieu meant that Peters went to a clothing store on London’s King’s Row where Billy Duffy worked before the latter joined The Cult. At that time The Toilets had dissolved or rather evolved into a group called Seventeen. “That was fairly directionless in a way and we experimented with echo, power pop, rockabilly and we got lost in the learning curve,” comments Peters. “But we got a tour with the Stray Cats by pretending to be a support band at gigs and we played The Marquee Club and the guy who ran the club thought we were horrible.”
That club manager refused to book Seventeen from thereon out from one of the premier venues of the era. But a year later Peters and company had reconfigured and focused its ideas into The Alarm. And still the guy at the club recognized the members from being Seventeen. “[He] said, ‘I’m not gonna have them play,’” recalls Peters. But Chelsea Singer Gene October offered to get The Alarm a gig as a support band but needed an alternate name so The Alarm played The Marquee Club for the first time as The Black Sheep and the club manager said, “That band’s going places.” At that The Alarm’s manager quipped “That’s the band you wouldn’t book. That’s Seventeen!” And from there The Alarm became a popular band throughout the 80s even though savaged by the English music press. It’s 1983 single “Sixty-Eight Guns” broke into the top twenty in England and it’s 1987 single “Rain in Summertime” cracked the American top ten Mainstream Rock chart, the latter remaining a staple of college and Modern Rock playlists for decades.
Though known for unabashedly positive up-sweep to its music, The Alarm’s catalog runs the gamut of emotions with luminous songwriting that sounds like the band is striving to connect with something bigger than themselves. By 1991 in the wake of the then new album Raw, The Alarm called it quits. Peters went on to a respectable solo career but also engaged in a short-lived project in the late 90s with his previous acquaintance and now then friend Billy Duffy—Coloursound. The group recorded demos, no official releases, but it did perform live. “Pardon me saying so but those recordings have a kind of cult status for fans of the bands,” jokes Peters. The band sounded like a fusion of the great sounds of mid-80s post-punk and Peters says that in the audience of that first show were Ian Astbury, The Cult’s singer, and Eddie MacDonald formerly of The Alarm.
“The next morning the phones were ringing off the hook, says Peters. ‘Let’s get The Cult back together! Let’s get The Alarm back together.’” By the turn of the century or so both groups were back and active.
But by then Peters had already recovered from a bout of lymph cancer only to discover in 2005 that he had chronic lymphocytic leukemia. He formed the Love Hope Strength Foundation shortly after to support people suffering from cancer and leukemia. Peters and The Alarm continued to write and perform music perhaps more actively than in its previous iteration and in the wake of Peters’ wife/band mate, keyboardist Jules, diagnosis of breast cancer in 2016 The Alarm has put out four albums in three years beginning with Blood Red and Viral Black in 2017, Equals in 2018 and Sigma in 2019. It wasn’t just the urgency of health issues that has inspired this flurry of creative activity either. Peters took on the challenge of his creative legacy as well and not to just rest on past laurels like a band celebrating live a kind of museum.
“I think a lot of that stems from arriving at that point in 2010 or 2011 and an era of fortieth anniversaries for The Alarm,” says Peters. “And I like to look forward so I took that as an opportunity to re-present ourselves as a modern band even given the dynamics of who we are, our age, and even though we have active and inactive members but all part of the family—you become a history of the band. You go away but you never really leave. So I wanted to re-establish the band in the modern era given the weight of our history and make music that can stand up to that and live up to that and represent itself through itself against that history. With the new records it challenged us to re-establish ourselves. That’s a stronger calling, I think, and that’s what’s fueled all the new music we’ve made. And more the will to survive, my wife diagnosed with breast cancer and my leukemia relapsed. There was a lot of reason in the air and to make music that could be a soundtrack for us not just as human beings but as a band as well.”
With the new configuration of the band Stevenson, a versatile instrumentalist, has taken on a greater role playing bass pedals as well as guitar as Peters plays a special guitar called The Deceiver which looks like an acoustic guitar but has greater capabilities than the standard instrument. Peters also has microphones set up across the stage so he can move about and in general the music can be presented in ways that had not been possible previously. To perform live for the anniversaries of their respective releases, the first two albums 1984’s Declaration and 1985’s Strength have been revisited and reinvented given the new live format and not hemmed in by the technological and creative limitations of the time of their original release.
In 2017 The Alarm performed on the Vans Warped Tour side by side with much younger bands but earned the respect of musicians and audiences who, given the era, shared The Alarm via social media platforms and giving the group a new audience that only truly knows the modern band and not influenced by expectations of years past. And the younger audience is having an impact on The Alarm’s older fans through social media.
“That’s re-invigorated our old audience and they see younger people talking about the music in social media. And they can say this band is making music today and it validates their reason to like the band in the first place. As long as we’re enjoying it and our success isn’t getting number one on the Billboard charts but maybe to still be there. It’s about longevity and creating a life in music. We’re still learning what we’re capable of. In the 80s we had big hair and western clothing but that’s only one facet of our history and people can discover other facets of us and doors open for us as we play and opportunities arise when we stay true to the core values of the band which is to to be restless, never be happy with what you’ve be created, make things better, make it around the next musical corner, live for the day to find that chord and keep on dreaming and the thrill of the music.”
Modern English and Jay Aston’s Gene Loves Jezebel have also been releasing some of the best music of their careers with 2016’s Take Me to the Trees with the former and the latter’s 2017 album Dance Underwater. Modern English in particular has always made interesting and moodily haunted post-punk but most people probably only remember the band for “I Melt With You,” which was commercially beneficial but has perhaps eclipsed its other fine offerings.
“A lot of bands can get overshadowed by a massive hit,” comments Peters. “I remember playing with Radiohead in Albany, NY in 1995. They were massive Alarm fans and struggling with the weight of ‘Creep.’ It became a sleeper hit in a way and they’d just released The Bends. And they were saying no one wants to hear The Bends, ‘They only want to hear ‘Creep!’ And it was killing them. Thom Yorke was really struggling and I talked with Jonny Greenwood and told him you’ve got to put your arm around this guy and stick to what you believe in and keep playing your music and it will come out from under the shadow. They stopped playing ‘Creep’ for awhile and I admire them for that because that’s what bands have got to do sometimes. That’s what’s great about seeing Modern English on this tour and spreading their wings and playing the music they love and playing ‘I Melt With You’ at the end of the night. It’s great seeing them and Jay and James playing songs from Dance Underwater. It’s as good as anything they’ve done. What’s good about this tour is that all three bands are as much about tomorrow and we’re all bands that have survived but the ethic of the band has stayed intact and that’s what people are experiencing when they come and see the tour.”
Portland, Oregon-based post-punk band Soft Kill is currently on tour with Chameleons Vox. For the Denver date at The Bluebird Theater on Wednesday September 13 the bill include Denver’s own industrial punk band Echo Beds and beat-driven, post-punk shoegazers Voight. It is, frankly, a show that represents a respectable spectrum of a wave of bands that have come along over roughly the past decade that comprise what could loosely be considered a new incarnation of the kind of music that came in the wake of punk when many creative types realized they didn’t need to adhere to an established mode of musical expression. Industrial developed alongside punk with the advent of Throbbing Gristle, but both musical impulses were anti-establishment and made a lifestyle alternative to mainstream mundanity viable.
By the 1980s industrial, post-punk, death rock, dark synth music, noise and even punk were still relatively underground phenomena even as bands like U2 and Echo & The Bunnymen took post-punk into the mainstream, Fad Gadget influenced Depeche Mode who took avant-garde synth music and gave it pop accessibility and both Skinny Puppy and Ministry proved that challenging music could find more than a simply niche audience. When the alternative music explosion of the early 90s changed the face of popular music some of the aforementioned bands benefited while much of the rest became sequestered to the “Goth scene” or largely forgotten.
The so-called post-punk revival, including “dance punk,” of the mid-90s to the early 2000s brought atmospheric, moody music into the mainstream but began in scattered underground scenes around the country. Groups like !!! (Chk Chk Chk) in Sacramento, The Faint in Omaha and The Prids (initially in Missouri, then Nebraska and for around two decades now, Portland, Oregon) created some of the most compelling post-punk in the history of that music. As did New York-based bands such as Interpol, The Rapture, The Strokes and LCD Soundsystem. Perhaps you’ve heard of some of them. All of those bands knew their musical roots in 70s and 80s post-punk, no wave, early darkwave and Krautrock but at that time many of their fans eschewed the term Goth and those so self-identified seemed to dismiss the post-punk revival bands as simply indie rock. The connection between post-punk, Goth, industrial, minimal synth and related music seemed lost.
That is until a generation of musicians, mostly born during the heyday of post-punk and industrial, rediscovered that music and embraced it as something vital that stirred the imagination. That there was an overlap with the noise scene that survived in the depths of the underground didn’t hurt. It was from there that Tobias Sinclair, one of the guitarists and singer in Soft Kill, emerged as a fledgling musician in the larger DIY music scene in New England. He had attended shows at the influential DIY space Fort Thunder in Providence, Rhode Island where, according to Sinclair, “Every other warehouse seemed to have someone with a P.A.” as well as places like Munch House and Dirt Palace.
Going to these unconventional spaces to experience music left an indelible mark on Sinclair.
“It was really inspirational without a doubt that people could just hold their own shows without all the bullshit of a bar,” says Sinclair.
At a memorable show that included now Denver based artist Mat Brinkman, Sinclair experienced the kind of creative expression that one rarely experiences anywhere else.
“With Forcefield he and seven other guys would knit these seven foot tall outfits and play oscillators,” recalls Sinclair. “That completely blew my mind compared to all the other conventional trappings. All that stuff is more important to me probably more than obvious influences on Soft Kill. hat was really inspirational for me because somebody that didn’t ever have lessons or what I perceived at that time as an inherent talent, I loved the lack of those limitations and I could kind of go nuts with it and teach myself to play an instrument based off of what felt and sounded cool rather than what was in a book.”
Around that time, Sinclair and his friends saw the 2001 Friends Forever documentary which shared some of the experiences of the Denver-based noise/performance art band that toured, or even played locally, in a van that often served as both transportation and impromptu stage. After catching Friends Forever at a venue in Western Massachusetts, Sinclair became friends with Friends Forever’s Josh Taylor. It was then that Sinclair and his band Night Wounds relocated to California and played numerous times at long-running DIY space The Smell in Los Angeles. By a strange quirk of fate, Taylor, who was involved in running Monkey Mania, a beloved DIY venue in Denver, moved to Los Angeles to help run The Smell and work at Amoeba Records at the same time Sinclair, who had worked at Amoeba, moved to Denver into Monkey Mania in 2006.
At that time Night Wounds was still an active band that toured the DIY music circuit that had been, and remains, so inspirational to Sinclair and it connected with like-minded noise rock bands like Chicago’s Coughs, Montreal’s AIDS Wolf and Vancouver, British Columbia’s Mutators. All of which were big names in the small realm of DIY noise rock. Also during that time, Sinclair was deep into a thirteen year struggle with drug abuse that ended in 2016. Although his experience with hard drugs took its toll on Sinclair in various ways, access to substances is what anchored him to cities like Denver and his now home of Portland, Oregon. “I wasn’t aspiring to go to a place to go be fucked but I definitely stayed longer because of that, if that makes sense.”
Sinclair admits that the drugs are part of the reason Soft Kill has taken a lot longer to blossom into the band it has striven to be, it also coincidentally pushed his timeline as a musician into developing the ideas and sounds for which Soft Kill is now known. But before Soft Kill, Sinclair had, alongside Night Wounds, been part of a Goth-y punk band called Blessure Graves.
“When I started Blessure Graves the big thing was the lo-fi garage rock revival,” says Sinclair. “And there was this very small niche out of that which was Goth music made with a similar fidelity. It felt like a quick, flash in the pan. What happened with us was when I started Soft Kill in 2010 we did one album and then my demons got the best of me and I started getting locked up and having to take a long time to stray away from music. When I got out, I started seeing that a bunch of people saw An Open Door as one of the top two or three records that had come out in recent years out of that type of music. That influenced me and people in the band now to put more energy into it in 2012. But by the time we really got momentum was 2014. By that point we realized that our first record had been celebrated as one of the integral releases in post-punk records of the past ten years—they said it was top tier. We thought whoa, that’s crazy, it must be because there aren’t other bands doing that.”
“We started going out and touring and we were blown away by how many bands there were. And from there onward, for the first time in forever I felt there was a large, legitimate scene with dots connected much more than they’d been in the past 15-20 years. There’s a lot of labels that cater to it. Some of the bands have become popular and it’s not been limited to just one style. Not all these bands sound like Joy Division.”
The larger scene that Sinclair had discovered included a constellation of bands and labels across the country and around the world. Imprints like The Flenser, Dais, Sacred Bones, Dark Entries and Beläten are just a few of the labels releasing the music. Bands such as Curse, Beastial Mouths, Troller, Some Ember, All Your Sisters, Burning, Youth Code, Pop. 1280, Echo Beds, Voight, Church Fire and numerous others have been touring and finding an audience eager for sounds and a culture that maintains a connection to its underground roots and experimental music that has yet to be completely co-opted and tamed by mainstream commercial interests.
2016 represented a landmark year for Soft Kill. Its arguably best album to date, Choke, was released on Profound Lore. Best, because it most fully realizes the band’s love of hypnotic beats, driving bass and rich, expressive, evocative tones. Sinclair had booked a Chameleons Vox tour in 2015, through simply contacting vocalist/bassist Mark Burgess. In 2016 Sinclair went on to book two other of the most influential bands for Soft Kill in Sad Lovers and Giants and Modern English, the latter performing its classic 1981 album Mesh & Lace in its entirety for the first time as the group had not toured on the record the first time around. He also booked Clan of Xymox for the third edition of the Out of the Shadows festival alongside Denver-based darkwave band Tollund Men, who released his favorite tape of recent years—Autoerotik.
“When we played Denver the first time at Leisure Gallery they played and we were like, ‘No way, this can’t be happening!’ I think they were really taken aback by how into their band we were. We showed up superfans. They played with us the next time we played there and I think they disintegrated after that.”
“I really like repetitious stuff in general but there’s this slow burn to that whole tape. It’s got hooks and it’s dirty as hell but I can put that on and crank it up and it’s the perfect background music for me. I dug the tones that he gets out of distorting everything to the maximum degree. It was a band I always loved but that particular tape I’m really glad they did that last and went out on that note. He showed he wasn’t beating a dead horse, that he had mastered the vision that he had so it makes sense that he moved on from there. I respect that because I know he could have taken many an opportunity that he didn’t. I love when people don’t give into that bullshit.”
Sinclair’s soft spot for Denver, born of his experience living in the Mile High City and experiencing Friends Forever in New England, extends to the underground metal and hardcore scene in Denver and he expresses an appreciation for acts like Blood Incantation and Civilized. In the near-ish future Soft Kill will also put out a split with Denver death grind heroes Primitive Man, whose Ethan McCarthy shares the history with Sinclair of having lived in and operated Monkey Mania, though not at the same time. But, as is the way with the informal, DIY there is no pressure to put out the split release to fit some record label release schedule. Sinclair met McCarthy and so many other musicians who have impacted him through the underground music route.
“Ultimately, this is how I met all these people and this is the world that we want to exist within and regardless that we sound nothing like Echo Beds, that’s a band we would go on tour with before whatever people think makes sense,” says Sinclair.