How Theatre of Ice put the “death” in death rock

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Theatre of Ice

There’s a funny, odd scene in an episode of Gilmore Girls where Rory assures her grandfather that she hasn’t been listening to “death rockers.” She asks where he learned that term, though it’s not really clear that either of them knows exactly what he’s talking about—actual death rock? Or just a stand-in for any other kind of dark and angry music that teenagers listen to and their elders don’t seem to approve of. Lorelai Gilmore, though, I’m almost certain there’s a copy of Christian Death’s Only Theater of Pain hiding somewhere in her record collection. Going goth would have annoyed the hell out of Richard and Emily.

Of course, death rock is a real thing, or rather I should say, there is a specific type of music that is called “death rock,” Christian Death being perhaps the most famous band to emerge from the scene. Where goth mostly grew out of the post-punk scene in the UK and its influence crept into other parts of the world, like Germany and the U.S., death rock—at least at first—was a uniquely American creation. And even more than that, it belonged to the West Coast, a subculture of L.A. punk in leather leggings and spiderwebbed microphone stands. The gloom, fascination with horror and fog-filled stages could lead you to believe that the intent was to make music that was scary, but more than anything death rock was campy and theatrical, its shimmering chorus-pedal riffs harboring punk rock operas with skull tats.

For the most part. Theatre of Ice, formed by five brothers in Nevada in the late ’70s, are credited with being pioneers of death rock. And they didn’t just sound scary, they went to great lengths to make the haunted aspect of their work as authentic as possible—to the extent that the lore about them is even more peculiar than the music itself (which is, certainly, peculiar).

Theatre of Ice began performing and circulating their D.I.Y. lo-fi tapes through the underground in the early ’80s and developed a cult following on the basis of their eerie, gothic sound, which is arguably as much an example of early industrial music as it is death rock. Their music is, aesthetically, in the same universe as Christian Death and 45 Grave, but it takes shape in much more unsettling ways. The driving basslines and rhythms of punk aren’t omnipresent here so much as the malfunctioning analog machinery of early industrial and the “instrument” of Suicide’s Martin Rev. Their 1985 cassette A Cool Dark Place to Die sounds not so much like a rock album as a series of ghost transmissions captured on an idle cassette player in a desert graveyard in the dead of winter, capturing the howls of the damned and the wounded pleas of lost souls. But, you know, with guitars.

Alternative Press once said about the group, “Think of Edgar Allen Poe’s Black Cat as a reference point for their works. As in Poe the suggestion of insanity always lays close to the surface. Imagine Poe living in the contemporary family, and then you’ll sense how Theatre of Ice flows through the dark night of domestic horror.”

The group initially formed for the purpose of recording the soundtrack to a low-budget horror film called The Object, which was set in the Nevada desert. “Not a real good movie,” as the group’s Brent Johnson said in a print interview posted on a Theatre of Ice Facebook archive page (publication unknown, though the author’s name is Austin McLaughlin). But after changing their name to Theatre of Ice, their music took on a different direction, as did their M.O., of which Johnson said, “We spent as much time looking for ghosts and aliens as we did playing.” Which says a lot, considering their cassette releases had anywhere from 20-30 songs each.

While the specific records of the recordings of each of Theatre of Ice’s records are nearly impossible to track down or verify, by most accounts they pretty much all happened in supposedly “haunted” places. The band’s 1981 cassette The Haunting was “recorded in a haunted house in the middle of the Nevada desert,” according to Cause and Effect’s Bandcamp page. This could very well have been a gimmick, but it was also hardly the only time in the group’s curious history that it happened. Beyond the Graves of Passion was also recorded in a haunted house, and A Cool Dark Place to Die was recorded on location in various abandoned cemeteries throughout the desert. Given the era, the remoteness of the band from more active live music scenes and what was probably a fairly low budget, these gimmicks might well have been as much a matter of taking advantage of their surroundings and circumstances as an actual investment in the macabre and the supernatural. Though it was certainly that as well. Theatre of Ice’s tapes sound like the voices of the damned, as if EVP could somehow capture a session of freaks bashing out punk rock in the underworld.

The band’s eerie gimmicks had a curious side effect of attracting some strange fan attention, with often borderline dangerous results. According to their extremely thorough and extensive Wikipedia page—all sourced from print fanzines from the ’80s, which haven’t been scanned, so take it with a grain of salt, I suppose—those who didn’t see the band’s schtick as just that, schtick, considered them “unholy prophets from the underworld.” They were also apparently abducted by a group of fans for 48 hours in Nevada before one of their shows, which ultimately led to their decision to stop performing, at least for a while. And that, apparently, was not the only time that happened; the next year, Johnson says, “We were locked in a warehouse by some crazy fans in Richmond, Virginia.”

A show publicized as their final performance (though it wasn’t) took place in an alkaline flat in the Nevada desert during the autumnal equinox, in a landscape littered with animal skeletons (because of course it was). The group reportedly played with a large burning effigy of their logo, their setlist including the song “The Burning Man,” and not too long after that—not too far from where they played—The Burning Man festival began (which feels a little too pat for my tastes, but I can’t say that there’s no correlation with any certainty). For a brief period, the band went on hiatus, as Brent Johnson and his brother John moved to Utah to attend Brigham Young University, while brothers Eric and Mark embarked on Mormon missions out of state. Yet shortly before that, the group released their 1985 album Mouse Blood, which became something of an underground success, prompting the group to continue recording.

Their antics don’t get any less bizarre from here. They welcomed guitarist Dale Garrard, who had briefly played with San Francisco proto-noise rock group Chrome, into the fold—meeting him in a cemetery by happenstance while the group was doing a photo shoot (after a while you start to question the validity of these stories, but considering how much time the band visited necropolises, it becomes not so difficult to believe). While recording next album The Resurrection, the group had an intense paranormal experience, as Brent Johnson describes it: “We recorded a record in a haunted slaughterhouse in ’85 with about 100 people standing around when something screamed out of the speakers and shook the place.” And the next year, they embarked on another cemetery recording project when “this entity came galloping through the weeds and fell upon us.”

The stories that have circulated surrounding Theatre of Ice—many of them perpetuated by the band members themselves—are sometimes beyond belief, though with the exception of the few abduction attempts, they’re also experiences that the band seem to have sought out. Theatre of Ice were the rare goth/death rock band that actually made an attempt to commune with the dead in the act of making music, inviting the spirits to sing backup on their cursed cassettes—which often sound like hauntings of their own. (Not unlike the lo-fi ’90s-era hip-hop tapes from Memphis, these analog artifacts have the creep factor dialed up to 11.) Maybe it is all just a gimmick, but as one of the first bands to be called “death rock,” Theatre of Ice certainly lived up to what that suggested.

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View Comments (2)
  • Excellent article that perfectly captures the early days and ordeals of Theatre of Ice. I can confirm most of the details are correct while I was active in the band (1978-1985). The haunted house where we resided and recorded is the old homestead created by David Wightman in the 1860s. It is also where several of his children died in their youth and were buried. Paranormal sightings of those children are legend around the homestead. We did perform a show on the salt flats East of Fallon on the evening of the Autumn equinox in 1983 and we did close with “The Burning Man” while buring a large “TOI” made of old railroad ties from the farm. That salt flat was scattered with cattle bones–it bordered the BLM pasture and it’s likely cattle would wonder onto the salt flat when it was a bog and die. We had several bizarre run-ins with fans when we toured Phoenix and the Los Angeles area. As for being locked in a Virginia warehouse and the Reno abduction, that was a single event that took place in Nevada. We were lewered to Virginia City, Nevada by fans we had met in Reno in advance to a weekend show in Reno. We were locked in an old mining building and it took us more than a day–resulting in injuries–to escape and walk to the Storey County sheriff’s office in Virgina City. Brent was the only brother that stayed with the band while his brothers–including myself–moved on with life.

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