There's no question that the internet has been a huge resource for music fans, literally making an entire world of music available at the touch of a button. It's an unprecedented era of choice and discovery, and I'm truly grateful to live in a time where there are so many different opportunities to hear and discover new artists. But as rich as today's musical landscape is, it's worth remembering that before the internet there was another way to find out about new bands. Gather 'round and let me tell you about 'zines...
Growing up in the eighties and nineties a lot of my early musical discoveries were made through radio and video shows, suggestions from friends, right place/right time coincidences and the like, but an important piece of the puzzle was 'zines. Before the internet 'zines were huge, a thriving counter culture that served much of the same function as a blog or a website, only in a hard copy paper form using lovingly hand-crafted layouts, put together with glue and scissors and eight and a half by eleven stock, photocopied and mailed out to readers or given out at shows or sold at indie record stores. Like the internet, 'zines gave a voice to people's interests, a way to share the things that you cared about and to connect with others that felt the same way that you did.
Anybody could start a 'zine and in the early nineties there was a thriving scene focused on a huge range of topics like skateboarding, and urban exploration, and fashion, and anime, and pretty much anything else that you could think of. I was most interested in the music 'zines, particularly the Goth/Industrial ones, and they became a gateway to find a wide range of new bands and musical projects that I probably wouldn't have had the opportunity to discover otherwise. 'Zines were an incredible resource in helping me find new music, and a lot of my music collection was shaped by the advice of Stained Pages and Corpus and The Sentimentalist and Sombre Souls on Prozac and any number of other great 'zines.
A number of smaller record labels also recognized the impact that 'zines had in spreading the word to a fandom, and many of them would send promo copies for review in hopes of reaching a wider audience that were looking for new sounds to hear. Cleopatra was one of the labels that got a lot of 'zine coverage back then, a label out of California that were mostly known for their cover song compilations where up and coming Goth and Industrial bands would record cover songs by popular artists. It was actually a pretty genius idea, giving a new band something familiar that would probably appeal to fans of the original. You like Bauhaus? Check out these new artists playing Bauhaus songs! You like Siouxsie and the Banshees? Here's a bunch of artists playing Siouxsie and the Banshees songs!
But Cleopatra weren't just about covers, they also had a handful of bands on the label that released full albums, and one of my
favorites was Switchblade Symphony. The first time I heard about Switchblade Symphony was in an interview that appeared in The Ninth Wave, a really great Goth culture 'zine that my friend Liisa did. The interview interested me enough to track down a copy of their first album "Serpentine Gallery", and it proved to be a pretty awesome debut, a fresh blend of electronic and organic elements with smart arrangements and ideas that crossed a variety of forms and styles. I listened to that album pretty regularly after that and when they announced a show at Lee's Palace in 1997 I made sure to go and check them out.
Lee's is one of my favorite places to see a show, and Sunshine Blind opened the night strong. Lead singer Caroline Blind was particularly awesome that night, a great singer and solid guitar player, a really charismatic lead. They played an excellent rendition of their club hit Release and a great cover of I Ran by A Flock of Seagulls, and it was a solid set of songs that I was pretty impressed by.
Switchblade Symphony's set followed and they were truly exceptional, with lead singer Tina Root and keyboard/instrumentalist Susan Wallace joined by a guitarist and drummer that filled out their sound really well. In a live setting Root's voice was just as versatile and fluid as it was on album, able to shift from a quiet whisper to a roar in seconds, truly distinct and unique. The set was based largely around "Serpentine Gallery", as their second album "Bread and Jam for Frances" wouldn't be released until later that fall, but they did play an excellent version of Drool which had been released as an advance single around the time of the show. The highlight of the night for me was when they played Dissolve, and it was just as dreamy and amazing as I had hoped it would be, swirling and beguiling, a sound that completely surrounded and enveloped the audience and maintained my focus so strongly that all the rest of the world vanished and, well, dissolved from my mind until all that existed was the band and the music. It was pretty intense...
far as I know Switchblade Symphony don't have any particular 'zine
connection themselves outside of what others did to support them, but for me they'll always be firmly entrenched in 'zine culture. I realize that I could have discovered them just as easily any
other number of ways, but it was that first write up in The Ninth Wave that piqued my
curiosity, an inextricable link in my mind and a connection that sets them aside as being something that I
may have missed if it hadn't been for glue sticks and scissors and late
nights with a photocopier. Thanks to my friend Liisa for making that introduction all those years ago, and thanks to Tina Root and Susan Wallace for making some great albums and playing some great shows that have stayed with me for years...