Thirty Years and I Need More – Vision Thing 1990-2020

The thirtieth anniversary of the third and final album from The Sisters of Mercy passed quietly on the 22nd October. Sadly it’s the latest in a long line of dismissals for the outsider album that simply can’t compete with the icy arrogance of Floodland or the legendary goth-rock pioneer that was First and Last and Always.

Approaching Vision Thing can be a challenge – do we take it as read that it was Andrew Eldritch’s ongoing parody of rock’n’roll, now embracing the gung-ho faux metal style of the late Eighties? Early guitarist Ben Gunn scorned the Paramount Leader’s attitude of “taking the piss” and departed in 1983, so was he onto something?

Is Vision Thing a subtle and wry jab in the kidneys to the American Dream of George H.W. Bush’s neocon United States? Or is it a cynical move to appeal to the burgeoning American market from a jaded mastermind exercising complete creative control?

Difficult to say, and your mileage may vary. A key characteristic of The Sisters of Mercy is the total inscrutability of their motives and meanings, and indeed considering them as a plural at all would be a misdirection – since its formation the band has been merely a vehicle for the vision of Andrew von Eldritch. His caustic and combative attitude to the music press, his rarefied commentary hidden behind his lyrics, all combine to cloak the goals and game plan of the band entirely.

So we must consider this album as it is presented to us, an eight-track rock and roll rollercoaster that discards much of the brooding and bombast of its predecessors. As per usual, Eldritch has assembled a new lineup of ‘hired guns’ for recording, with iconic bassist Patricia Morrison discharged from duties under a cloud of undisclosed hostility that remains unexplored to date.
Later interviews with newcomer guitarist Andreas Bruhn and black sheep bassist Tony James very much imply a scenario of soldiers following orders from Field-Marshal Spiggy, echoing the obsessive controlling nature that produced First and Last and Always.

Left to Right – Tony James (bass), Andrew Eldritch (vox), Andreas Bruhn (guitars), Tim Bricheno (guitars)

So these songs must have sprung fully-formed from the brow of Eldritch, and there are some undisputed gems amongst them. The album starts with an absolute crash of energy, the title track a snarled anthem of hate for American neoimperialism as the Soviet Union begins to crumble. Vision Thing the song has remained a bastion of encores at Sisters gigs for years, decades since it first came out and is a standout example of Von’s ability to write a rock’n’roll song as good as the favourite funereal dirges of earlier releases.

Then, a contrast that sincerely lends weight to the argument that Eldritch has composed a truly supercillous album – the raw foreboding of Ribbons, one of the finest songs on the album if not in the entire Sisters arsenal. A hybrid of Vision Thing’s shrieking guitar riff style and that trademark Sisters sound of black-as-night, slow paced sex-and-death brooding, Ribbons for me is the perfect marrying of the new and the old. A perfect gateway into this unusual album that splits its style like it splits its audience.

As a whole, listening to Vision Thing is very much listening to a songwriter who seems consumed with bitterness, regret, and loss. There’s the freewheeling irresponsibility of Detonation Boulevard, embracing your flight reflex and disregarding the consequences. There’s the wounded heart of Something Fast and When You Don’t See Me, a spurned lover estranged from human interaction and wandering through grief.
With Doctor Jeep, Von and the band return to their scathing attacks on contemporary Western politics at a frenetic pace with an MTV-friendly video that is either a shameless cash-in or another knowing wink from the cynical Wizard behind the curtain of mockery. Or both!

Vision Thing begins to wrap up with the overblown More, another production from Jim Steinman (the maestro behind This Corrosion from the last album), a driving soft-metal track of urgent need and hunger with shadowy implications of prostitution – and dig into the band’s history to see how Eldritch likes to play with such imagery. On the surface though, it’s a by-the-numbers rock anthem that deservedly took the spot for lead single.
The final track for the album is the mournful I Was Wrong, an excrutiating self-flagellation that is entirely out of sorts for such a private and evasive songwriter. It actually feels slightly embarassing to hear, like pages from a secret diary suddenly laid bare…

In a bar that’s always closing
In a world where people shout
I don’t wanna talk this over
I don’t wanna talk it out
I was quite impressed until I hit the floor
Isn’t that what friends are for?
Pain looks great on other men
That’s what they’re for

I absolutely adore it, for what it’s worth.

And so we conclude Vision Thing, very much a contradiction in terms as an album. Half soft-metal anthems, half soulful anti-lovesongs. Biting political commentary one moment, lashings of self-recrimination the next. Eldritch keeping the world under a scathing microscope, then drawing it close for heartfelt confessions. A calculated move on the US music market, or a duplicitious attempt to lure MTV in and then destroy them?

The final studio album from the arch-controller of gothic rock, Vision Thing continues to divide fans, but in comparison always lags behind its definitive older siblings in the discography on fan polls. A mystery, a curiosity, a strange jumble of classic Sisters anthems and understated, half-remembered personal yearnings that never quite break the surface.Tracks like Alice, Marian or This Corrosion are more ‘definitive’ songs by The Sisters of Mercy but the last time I saw the band play, the entirety of Vision Thing was performed to an appreciative audience. No other album earns this honour.

As their final release (compilation albums and remixes notwithstanding) should this be their legacy? We recall that Von promised another album should Donald Trump take the US Presidency back in 2016, and it would have seemed so appropriate to unleash Vision Thing II on the new American ‘circus’. Instead, The Sisters of Mercy went even further underground, and leaving us even more bereft of hope for a new album.
So it seems the band’s story ends with this unusual and divisive album, now three decades old. A suitable ending for an unscrutable outfit.

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A funeral for festivals in 2020?

As the live music sector struggles with an ongoing lockdown and insufficient government support, I’ve turned a weary eye towards the UK’s music festivals which are both a social and sonic lifeline for the scene. Will there be any band-led social gatherings this side of 2021? The reality seems unlikely…

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In Response: Black Lives Matter

Jacqueline Ecclestone, a guest contributor to the blog

The blog hasn’t engaged with this painfully prominent topic yet – because as a white Western man my voice has been heard for far too long. I would like to maintain that position, and instead invite my readers to visit a guest article by Jacqueline Ecclestone, a black woman in the US goth scene.

You could also read this article for World Goth Day by model and activist Yasmin Benoit, who also talks about her experience – her struggles – as a person of colour in the UK goth scene.

Finally, there are many ways we can contribute to and support the struggle using these carefully curated resources.

I do have some words for the subculture, as a community. There has always been an issue with gatekeeping, legitimacy and exclusion in the goth scene. Self-proclaimed ‘authorities’ issue utterly ludicrous proclamations of what is and isn’t goth, and who is outlawed as a result. That has been a serious error of judgement at the heart of this peculiar and rebellious subculture.

If it suddenly turns into exclusion based on somebody’s race, creed, sexuality or other basic human right – it goes beyond petty goth politics and into the realm of crime and cruelty. That is not permissable under any circumstances.

Now is the time to amplify the voices of those silenced, stand with those oppressed, and remember that we are supposedly united by a willingness to embrace different lived experiences. We must never, never ostracise someone because of their race or skin colour. If there’s one thing goths can agree on – it must be that.

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World Goth Day: In the Shadow of CORVID-2020

You’d think being forced to stay indoors, hiding from the sun and shunning close contact with other humans would be pretty easy work for goths. In reality of course, we’re just as hungry for interaction as everyone else – so it’s a joy to concentrate on celebrating World Goth Day 2020 even if we’re restricted to only what we can experience through our screens.

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Tomorrow’s Ghosts Festival – November 2019

Right now, we should all be in Whitby enjoying the sounds, shopping and socialising with our favourite festivals. Instead, of course, all is delayed. So I thought I’d publish my review of last November’s Spa event, Tomorrow’s Ghosts Winter 2019 festival – let’s remember how it was and look forward to when it will be again!

In the meantime, you can get online and browse some of the traders that would attend Whitby Goth Weekend or the Art D’Morte Exhibition.

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