The Sisters of Mercy, Hunter Lounge, 26 October, Wellington NZ, 2022

With a strange and intrepid feeling of Déjà vu that I walked up the hill to the Hunter Lounge, situated on the top floor of Victoria University’s Student Union building. You see, 37 years ago, as a young and innocent DJ I sat in Radio Active’s small, claustrophobic studio and cued up a pristine copy of the ‘This Corrosion’ 12”. I might have been the first New Zealand DJ to air it on radio. Who knows. At the time the studio sat one floor down, almost directly underneath the very stage that the music’s creators, the Sisters of Mercy performed on tonight. This was the first time I’d heard Andrew Eldritch and co. I was immediately seduced by their gloomy, ponderous hybrid of metal, psychedelic throb, driving and dark dance beats.

It would be easy to dismiss them as a one trick gothic pony act but if you explore the band’s back catalogue you’ll find variety, from the Bauhaus funereal dirge of early albums like ‘First and Last and Always’, to the holocaustic Empirical themes in ‘Floodland’ and the wider ponderings on exploitive greed, vile capitalism and excesses of false rock gods on ‘Vision Thing’.

Sisters of Mercy have always been a creative vehicle for dark truth, orbiting around the artistic mind of one Andrew Eldritch, who originally formed the band in 1980 with guitarist Gary Marx and the enduring drum machine dubbed Doktor Avalanche. To make manifest live on stage Eldritch recruited extras, like guitarist Ben Gunn and bassist Craig Adams. When Gunn left in 1983, he was famously replaced by Wayne Hussey. Various infighting and legal disputes meant that Eldritch had to record under the moniker ‘Sisterhood’ for a time but eventually returned with the original name (when Hussey decided to call his new band ‘The Mission’). The Gun Club’s bass player Patricia Morrison stepped in as an official member to make the masterpiece ‘Floodland’, and later the hugely successful ‘Vision Thing’ appeared with Tim Bricheno, Andrea Bruhn, John Perry (on guitars) and Tony James (on bass, after Morrison quit) and some guest vocals from Maggie Reilly (of Mike Oldfield fame).

Since the 2000’s Eldritch has stopped recording but kept up touring with a variety of supporting players. Tonight, his crew was long-standing lead guitarist Ben Christo (Diamond Black) and Aussie guitarist Dylan Smith, with long time scrub nurse to Doktor Avalanche Ravey Davey (aka Dave Creffield) working with surgical raver precision.

We saw them tour last in 2019, when Smith had just joined. By now the band seems to have settled into crisp and practiced performance. I was keen to see if it could be pulled off with exuberance and energy, despite long stints on the road – and I wasn’t disappointed.

The band’s light show was derived from previous gigs including the ‘Big Bang’ (which, according to their publicity “gleefully invented rave lighting in the process”) and provided some explosive dramatics throughout the night. Lights pierced through endless layers of dry ice like laser beams of optical brilliance, searchlights seeking truth in the darkness of nefarious ambiguity.

Many photographers capture Eldritch in B&W giving him the visual persona of a sinister Nosferatu figure. However, it’s only under the coloured lights and with full sound and vision that you can truly appreciate his persona, three dimensional, yet darkly edgy and menacing. The palate moves across the full rainbow spectrum like lighting in a classic horror film, luring you in and threatening you – pushing you away but bringing you back again. His voice, shattered from endless performances is both vulnerable, yet still commanding. Tonight, evidence of jetlag but still strong enough for the fight ahead. Darkly gravel and dry as a desert evening.

With its large bay windows covering most of the walls, some of the dark ambience was unfortunately lost in this venue. But, on the other hand the bleeding in of city lights and even a few stars make it more like an outdoor experience, with the volume reflected brightly against the concrete and linoleum flooring. Sound bounces around, obscuring a complete picture and fragmenting in places. Stand in the wrong spot and it sounds like a ghetto blaster in a train station. Head to the front of the mosh and you are enveloped in perfect bliss. Finding perfect mix is a challenge in this place. Finding a place to stand without someone on your toes is equally challenging.

It’s hard to imagine this peaceful room, where many students hang out in the daytime to study, chat, or debate obscure political viewpoints could ever transform into the lair of some black sonic visionary like Andrew Eldritch.

Tonight’s gig started, as it did in Auckland, with Brisbane-based duo ELKO FIELDS, (vocalist/guitarist Kella Vee and drummer Dylan James, who stood in for regular Jhindu-Pedro Lawrie). Their short but impressive set is a sharp and assaulting collection of dark, bluesy, scuzzy, garage rock – the kind of stuff The Dead Weather and PJ Harvey put out.

They stormed through a colourful and energetic set starting with ‘Never Slow Down’, a bluesy grunge-fest of a number, followed by more sludge rock on ‘Play it Straight and ‘The Lever’. ‘Delores’ had attitude and swagger and ‘Tilted Sally’ was the most twisted story I’ve heard to date. They finished up on ‘Cough It Up’, spluttering with fire towards completion and rocking out the front row of dads and wannabes, seduced by the charms of Vee’s blatant riot-grrrl apparition.

On that, tonight’s crowd seemed to be distinctively older geezers and geezets, allowed out so long as the babysitters could get home before their ‘restricted’ ran out. And younger fans, too, who’d really made an effort with the make-up. The Capital’s dark community had come in force their presence felt. Plenty of fishnets, leather and studs and greasy black hair. I have to applaud ‘Cat Woman’ who was the spitting image of the original Sex Pistols groupie. A fair few others had dug out their ‘Sisters’ and ‘Pete Murphy’ Tee-shirts for the occasion. Party on. And yes, even with a receding hairline, we still look cool in a ‘This Corrosion’ T-shirt! To the guy in the pirate shirt, I salute you! To the special person in the tight leather corset, I see you too, and celebrate your efforts! To the woman with the multiple studs in her ear – wow! Just, like, yeah! Effort people! I love being amongst this community. They know who they are!

We were promised a set featuring “new and hence unreleased songs” alongside a good thrashing of the classics. Sure, the big ones are in the cannon, and the crowd go wild for all of them. Particularly, ‘Marian’, ‘Docto Jeep/Detonation Boulevard’ and ‘More’.

Opener ‘Don’t Drive On Ice’ came out of a Lockdown session. It’s foreboding lyrics of smothering and claustrophobia are metaphoric. Lines like “Long slow carambolage/ That’s not waving, that is drowning/ Your Truck is Underwater, outside any town / Wind the windows down, can’t wind the windows down” A deep sense of drowning and inevitability. Something we all felt at the time.

Tonight, we also get more new material including ‘I Will Call You’ and the foreboding epic ‘But Genevieve’, which feels like it could easily slip in amongst material from the ‘…Always’ album.

During 2020 the Sisters only managed 4 European dates before the ‘worldwide zombie apocalypse’ took over. Their response was ‘Eyes Of Caligula’, a mesmerizing return to heavy brooding psychedelic trance states of the ‘Floodland Album’. Perhaps the ‘eyes’ are a reference to the endless miles of security cameras on UK streets, watching as the empire decays under the feet of Boris, Lizzie and Rishi (and whoever it will be next week). I particularly enjoyed the guitars on this one. Classic Sisters sound already and begging to be remixed as a 12”!

‘Here’ debuted earlier this year at a gig in Holland and seems entirely appropriate. It has an almost classical ‘Euro’ feel, with a slower sway, repeated keyboard and acoustic guitar phrases that build to an epic, climactic anthem. Hands were waving in time, the crowd swept away in the music.

‘Instrumental 86’ has been in the band’s set list since 2019, in various forms. It doesn’t really seem to have much purpose other than to showcase Christo and Smith’s guitar playing and stage strutting and give Eldritch some reprieve to his voice. Christo uses his moment to climb an amp, ever heightening his massive stature to loom menacing over the audience.

Another new track, ‘There’s a Door’ would also sit well with the early material. It’s stark and dark, yet strangely melodic and catchy. The best signs of a Sisters track.

The gig is a mix of oldies and newer material but will, inevitably finish on the biggest hits. So, tonight, the doors open and we all spill out with ‘Lucretia My Reflection’, ‘Temple Of Love’ (although I missed Patricia Morrison’s vocals) and a grungy delivery of ‘This Corrosion’ ringing loudly in our ears. The latter is still going strong as I head back to my car, a group of six individuals singing the chorus loudly behind me. Ah, yes – the sign of a good gig. It’s been three years and the collapse of civilization since the Sisters were here last.

But all is right, darkness has returned to its rightful place amongst the bad notes. We will sing to the corrosion. Flood land and driven apart no more. Until his return.

Photos: Tim Gruar (previously unpublished)

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