There’s an interesting discussion that goes on between critics and musicians on the topic of genres. Who gets to define them? Is it the critic who listens with unbiased ear, or the musician who puts heart and soul into the music? Interestingly enough, it seems that when a genre is defined by musicians, it tends to grow, evolve, and shift dramatically over time—see black metal or dubstep. When a genre is defined by critics, however, it tends to be much more narrowly bounded and that definition holds true over decades—take coldwave, for example.
Cincinnati coldwave duo Skeleton Hands help prove this interesting fact by playing music three decades out of time. Their debut album Gone was released in 2013, but if you told someone that it was a newly discovered record from 1983, they would have no reason to doubt you. Whether or not you view that as a positive depends entirely upon how you feel about 80s post-punk.
The band members have taken the stage names Lazer Bat and Astro Wolf. Astro Wolf is the string man, in charge of guitars and bass, while Lazer Bat was handed the microphone and left in charge of synths and sequencing, which includes the dance-tinged drum programming. Yeah, you can dance to Gone, in the same way that you can dance to Gary Numan, although aside from perhaps “Reeducation” or “City Lights,” the album doesn’t inspire one to get up and move your feet. No, the tempos are slightly too low and the mood a far sight too brooding to make Gone a real dance party hit, but it’s an excellent album for a late-night commute through an urbanized environ.
The Goth influence is spread thick on Gone, with Lazer Bat’s vocals in particular taking a Carl McCoy or Ian Curtis approach to ennui and dissatisfaction. Generally this works well, with tracks like “Ravage” sounding vaguely disaffected while “Oxygen” is generally plaintive. If this language sounds weak, that’s the nature of coldwave, and it fits the music well. Where things fall off the rails a bit is when Skeleton Hands tries for the touching ballad with “Robot Hands,” and to a lesser extent, “Gone.” Here the vocals sound not only insipid but out of key. Lazer Bat is no Peter Murphy. The positioning of the title track is somewhat problematic, as it opens the album, and having received such a weak impression, listeners may give up before getting to stronger tracks like “Oxygen” or the excellent “I Was Lying When I Said It Was Okay.”
Astro Wolf’s guitars show some of the purest 80s Irish influence. The reverbed and delayed sounds of “Dotted Lines” could have come right out of Mr. The Edge’s playbook, and there’s nary a hint of overdrive to be found on the album. Because tube amps are warm, and this is coldwave. The occasional jangling straight-ahead bass guitar performance shores up the dance feel, but it’s definitely in the synthetic department where Skeleton Hands really shines. With pads and arpeggios galore, Gone’s most memorable moments are all the product of electronics. Whether it’s the Vangelis-esque atmosphere of “I Was Lying When I Said It Was Okay” or the growly synth bass of “Ravage,” these are the elements that stick in the mind the most.
Gone is couple years old at this point, but with a sound that’s been defined for as long as coldwave, it’s in no danger of going out of style anytime soon. Despite a misstep or two, this debut is well worth your time if you’re a fan of the cold, goth sound of the 80s.
03) Dotted Lines
06) Robot Hands
08) I Was Lying When I Said It Was Okay
09) City Lights