As Halloween looms, few musical styles are better suited to the season than goth. Soul probing, melancholic, and haunting, the genre serves as an anthem for anyone who has ever looked to connect with the more existential – and supernatural – side of themselves or the world. But what is Goth Rock? Here’s an introduction.
What is goth rock music?
Goth music is typically distinguished by pulsing prominent basslines, reverb effects, strong percussive beats, and distorted guitar sounds. You can hear those qualities at work, for example, in the track “Marching Souls” by United Kingdom composer jamiebyrne’s with its string instrument-driven eeriness.
On top of that instrumental foundation come lyrics drawn from gothic literature or old horror films – with words, song titles, and band names outright evoking them – and demonstrate a poetic, dark romanticism and melancholy, often mixed with the supernatural. Vocally, singers can run the gamut from a Tom Waits-deep hypnotic monotone to a full-throated release, as if something deep inside the singer has been let out.
Where is goth music from?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, goth music sprung from the home of horror and gothic originators like Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Emily Brontë. An offspring of punk rock, critical consensus points to the 1979 song “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” by the British band Bauhaus as the genre’s flashpoint. A love of old horror film, eroticism of supernatural, and the allure of the occult – all soon to be staples of goth music – led to the focus on Bela Lugosi, the Hungarian actor who famously played Dracula in the 1931 film. The instrumental spotlight given to the bass and drum in the track came from the band’s interest in reggae and dub, which Bauhaus tweaked into something more haunted and sorrowful.
Soon other U.K. bands followed Bauhaus’ lead, as fellow goth rock band pioneers Siouxsie and the Banshees, Joy Division, and the Cure picked up their predecessor’s musical building blocks and expanded the foundation leading to the rise of goth music.
How did this music genre become popular?
In 1982, goth music experienced a leap forward in popularity when it received a dedicated home in London in the form of the Batcave Club. Bands such as Sex Gang Children could further develop the genre’s sound while cultivating a passionate audience of like-minded individuals at the club. The ripple effect was that goth music evolved into a goth scene, while also shifting to a more danceable and harder form of rock, best exemplified by The Sisters of Mercy (and their 1985 album First and Last and Always), which propelled the genre even further.
Songs like “Marian” highlight that sound with its pulsing tempo driven by a twangy bassline and catchy percussion. Other examples of the goth rock band sound are Pond5 catalog tracks like “A Pulse of Broken Lights” by French composer, MarkusS, which has an almost techno-like rhythm that makes dancing almost irresistible, or “Darker Ways” by German musician PremierMusicProduction with its infectious head-bobbing beat.
Goth culture grows
Broader popularity in the early 1980s saw bands like The Damned, Bauhaus, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cure, and Alien Sex Fiend climb the U.K. charts and spread worldwide. It spread beyond the U.K. too, with groups like Xmal Deutschland in Germany and Christian Death in the United States. While the decade is typically seen as the height of the genre’s Golden Age, it nonetheless remained popular throughout the 1990s.
Bands like Rosetta Stone, Corpus Delicti, Two Witches, London After Midnight, and Nosferatu pushed goth forward. At the same time, musicians like Marilyn Manson and genres like death metal, alternative rock, or even glam rock, absorbed (to varying degrees) its musical influence. (Note the band names that leave little doubt of gothic influences.) The style and culture formed around goth also split off from the music, becoming a subculture pervasive enough – perhaps even more famous than the genre itself. We all now know its reductive stereotypes.
Where can you hear goth music now?
Goth may not be as widespread as it was in the 1980s, but it’s still alive and well. Modern gothic rock bands like Arts of Erebus, Angels of Liberty, and The Horrors continue to carry the moody flame. We continue to hear Goth in concert venues and clubs across the world. Spotify, too, features a generous catalog of playlists – like “What Goths Listen to in 2021” – highlighting goth music, new, old, and both.
Three tips for using goth music in your creative projects
- Goth music is, among other things, a mood. It’s somber, earnest, haunting, much like the mood evoked by its earliest inspirations – old horror movies and gothic literature. It’s best to keep that in mind for any project. Goth music is rich but not versatile. Unless you’re going for irony, using it with an upbeat commercial or inspiring true story would not make for a good fit.
- Before choosing goth music for what you’re working on, ensure you properly understand the different styles and eras of goth. The above introduction should help but be sure to seek out a broader sample of clips. The gothic sounds of Bauhaus and Arts of Erebus can be very different. Do your research to realize that one size does not fit all with goth music. Find the one that works.
- Regardless of goth style, most of the genre features its trademark prominence of loud basslines and percussion instruments. It makes the beat of the music very emphatic and – if misused – could easily dominate a project’s intentions. Be aware of that.
If you’re interested in goth rock for your next project, a Pond5 music subscription gives you access to original goth tracks, including music from the artists we’ve highlighted here and more of the world’s top musicians.
Visit the Pond5 Playlist to explore more niche and unexpected music. Each month will feature a different genre, and a new free track is available for your next project!