Darkness and gloom are elements typically taken for granted in goth rock, but the more important lesson to be learned from Peter Murphy or Siouxsie Sioux is that goth only succeeds with outsized charisma. For the better part of a decade, American bands in particular have been failing to retain this knowledge, as a hearty spate of post-Interpol microphone mumblers have attempted to get by with Ian Curtis’ vocal style but without his erratic dance moves. This isn’t a problem for Shannon Funchess, the leather jacket-clad vocalist who fronts Brooklyn’s Light Asylum. Compared in equal measure to both Curtis and art-pop diva Grace Jones, Funchess uses her voice as a versatile and visceral instrument, cooing high-pitched choruses one instant, and rapidly belting out a menacing battle cry at the change of a measure. A master of ceremonies need not be so confrontational, but Funchess’ approach, demanding as it is, turns a good band into something awesome.
Light Asylum, in which Funchess performs with musical partner Bruno Coviello, gradually rose to prominence last year on the strength of debut EP In Tension and first single “Dark Allies,” which found Funchess’ dramatic vocals backed by thick, ominous synth patterns that evoked dystopia more than underground cabaret. In press photos, accessorized with neon tubes and monochromatic garb, they pushed that intersection of Star Wars and Mad Max even further, a quality that permeates the 10 songs on the band’s self-titled debut in varying measure, from its neon ballads to its cyberpunk skirmishes.
The darkness and doom that Coviello stirs up via deep, bassy synthesizers and high-impact EBM beats blankets the album from the first note, the dingy industrial burst of “Hour Fortress” a properly chilling introduction to the duo’s blend of theater and tactile danger. It’s not all dread, though — as the haunting bassline progresses unabated, Coviello’s synth lines twirl and escalate, providing a launchpad for Funchess to yelp out the song’s glorious climax. Funchess begins to screech and shred more in “Pope Will Roll,” challenging some unspoken adversary to “charge me!”, and in the BPM-boosting “IPC,” she howls in a moment of abrasive transcendence, “Nobody’s innocent!” And while, for the most, she drops the searing aggression on the amazing “House of Dust,” she breaks her composure with eruptions of “Get out of my house!”
Light Asylum don’t give much indication of tenderness on their part until the album’s second half, at which point the element of danger never disappears, it merely stays inert. The hypnotic synths in “Angel Tongue” recall New Order’s “The Village,” though Funchess opts for a more expressive and operatic tone than Bernard Sumner, openly voicing her vulnerability as she asks, “Will I ever see the sun?” That naked emotion stands in stark contrast to the more defiant tone of the album’s first half, though there’s still a dark and chilly quality underneath Funchess’ emotion. With “A Certain Person,” however, Coviello provides a bit more warmth to match Funchess’ confessional sound, her refrain of “Do you know him?” rising with a rush of densely layered splendor. The wounds are still fresh, but the tears have dried, and Funchess’ defiance shines through in an entirely new way.
The other important lesson from goth that Light Asylum has taken to heart is that, no matter how dark an artist’s sound, it should strive to be something other than dreary. And while the duo can often seem like musical messengers from a harrowing future, their transmission comes coded in various hues and shades, coming out the other end with a much wider spectrum than darkwave typically allows. As their name subtly suggests, Light Asylum’s music does contain light, it’s just kept under tight control.
Stream: Light Asylum – “IPC”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.