Various Artists

Life Less Lived: The Gothic Box

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By the gods, here it is, the much vaunted "definitive" Gothic rock compendium from the packaging and licensing elves at Rhino Records. A Life Less Lived will certainly be a candidate for the best packaging award at the Grammy Awards for 2006. As unlikely and as unsettling it is -- for those who live by the black rose of Goth and wish to remain underneath their sad rock in the dark garden of marginality -- without even considering the music or video inside it, this box set stands out as something that perhaps might be sold at your local S&M pleasure palace emporium. Why? Well, for one, it's all assembled inside a black vinyl corset. Only the sticker reveals its contents as it boasts those band names sure to offend every parent who shops at the local mega mart that insists on labeling a CD's contents; names such as Alien Sex Fiend, Christian Death, Fields of the Nephilim, and more adorn the red, black and white sticker. Pasted, of course, in prominent view.

Musically, this is a mixed bag. Liz Goodman produced this set and for the most part, she did an excellent job. There are some problematic selections, and of course the stuff that's not here is just as troubling, but then that's what themed various artist box sets are about. Disc one kicks off with Joy Division's "Dead Souls." While it's true that the overwhelming majority would look to JD as one of the penultimate Goth progenitors, it's still an argumentative choice. What about Bauhaus? (Yep -- but with a caveat later). The Sisters of Mercy? Uh huh. March Violets? Of course. Danse Society? You bet. Virgin Prunes? OK, but that's only part of what they were about as a band. The point is, so many of these selections may have been embraced by those who love Goth music, but weren't bands that necessarily tried -- or even wanted to -- appeal to that gloom and doom rock & roll subculture. Another instance: the Misfits "Halloween" is here, but nothing from former frontman Glenn Danzig's Black Aria project -- which is overtly Gothic music. The Misfits, the Damned, the Jesus and Mary Chain, Echo & the Bunnymen, Throbbing Gristle, Einst├╝rzende Neubauten, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, the Birthday Party, Ministry, and the Chameleons U.K. just don't belong here. The Cure is deeply arguable as well. And then there's the sheer volume of post-Bauhaus projects included here. You get the original, but was it necessary to include Tones on Tail, Love and Rockets, Dali's Car, or Peter Murphy's (or "Blitz" as he was known to the late John Peel) and Daniel Ash's solo properties? There are some genius choices here too, though, such as Kommunity FK's "To Blame," .45 Grave's "Party Time," the Cranes' "Starblood," and Rose of Avalanche's "Dreamland," are just a few. There are some rather interesting choices in London After Midnight's "Kiss," Red Lorry Yellow Lorry's "Walking on Your Hands," and Ghost Dance's "The Grip of Love." Much of the standard fare is here as well: "Bela Lugosi's Dead" is here on DVD, as is "She's in Parties," "Snake Dance" by the March Violets, the Cocteau Twins' "Blood Bitch," and tracks by Flesh for Lulu, Gene Loves Jezebel, Xmal Deustschland, Sex Gang Children, and Southern Death Cult. It's great as far as it goes. But what about all the bands on the Projekt label, the longest running, willfully Goth project out there for almost two decades? These are the most obvious omissions, but there certainly are others. Where is Mass and the other half-a-dozen 4AD bands who most certainly were Goth? It appears that Goodman was too selective in places and not subjective in others. The DVD is killer, however, with its video selection, even if some of them don't necessarily belong in Goth terrain. Seeing Fields of the Nephilim here with Moonchild, the Sisters of Mercy's "Lucretia My Reflection," and the Mission U.K.'s "Deliverance" all in a row is brilliant. Love and Rockets' "Ball of Confusion," and the Jesus and Mary Chain's "Head On" are great even if they don't belong here. The Cult's live "Spiritwalker" (before the band became some kind of headbanging biker "Steppenwolf Jr" or something) is also a nice pick. Ending with Siouxsie and the Banshees' "Cities in Dust" is another great choice. The Nick Cave video is great, but again, it just doesn't belong here and the same goes for Ministry's "Stigmata."

The booklet in this package is a thing to behold in and of itself. It's gorgeous in terms of design and presentation -- it's stitched, not just glued. There are essays by Goodman, Goth maniac Mick Mercer, Dave Thompson did the track by track, Alternative Press' Jason Pettigrew has a very entertaining essay called "The 'G' Word: Artists Address the 'Goth' Tag," and Sue Lott and former Big Chief guitarist Phil Durr wrote a very fine "Hiss and Hearse: Two Tales from the Goth Side. There is also a section entitled "The Lighter Side of Goth," with essays on "How to Dance Gothic" and "Ten Essentials for Running a Proper Goth Night." There is an arguable discography at the back, as well. A Life Less Lived is most likely of interest for those fans who already have all this music anyway, but are interested in (A): seeing it one place in a lush and very handsome package, and (B): feel that they've finally been vindicated by the mainstream. As for being a cultural document of stature, history will decide that, but this is the first thing of its kind that's actually been worth the fuss.

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