This week’s weird artiste makes most other so-called Goth bands look like posers by comparison. Anna-Varney Cantodea is so Goth she never performs “in front of humans,” preferring instead to save her striking, vampire/Butoh appearance for eerie photo shoots and the occasional blurry music video that flickers like a faded silent movie print. Her music is so Goth it defies easy categorization, mixing neoclassical, darkwave and synth-rock elements into long, lugubrious songs that occasionally erupt into densely orchestrated bursts of melodrama that would do Danny Elfman proud. She’s so Goth that her “band,” the Ensemble of Shadows, is apparently her nickname for the ghosts and restless spirits who crowd around her and provide inspiration for her work. Sopor Æternus is, in short, probably the Gothiest musical project ever.
Anna-Varney was born male and now identifies as a transgendered female. She took the name Varney from a 19th century Gothic horror novel, later adding the more feminine Anna and eventually the surname Cantodea, Latin for “I sing, Goddess.” She grew up in Frankfurt, Germany and her birth year is commonly listed as 1952, which would make her 61 or 62.
As a child, she had a vision of her future self in a train station, which she described thusly in an interview: “an ageless creature (of undefinable gender), all dressed in black, with a beautiful, kind of pennate black mohawk.” By 1989, the year she first began making music as Sopor Æternus (Latin for “eternal sleep”), she had apparently modeled her appearance on that childhood vision.
Her early music mixed baroque and neoclassical acoustic instruments with synthesizers and drum machines and was generally categorized as darkwave or a then-popular German Goth-rock subgenre called Neue Deutsche Todeskunst (“New German Death Art”). But aside from sharing themes of death, despair and the occult, especially vampirism, Cantodea’s music bore little resemblance to that of her contemporaries. After parting ways with an early collaborator named Holger, she worked, by her own account, in near-total isolation, battling chronic depression to compose her music and only enlisting other musicians when it finally came time to enter the studio. She’s continued to make occasional use of synths, but mostly her work now is richly orchestrated chamber music, heavy on strings, horns and more exotic instruments like dulcimers and harpsichords.
Since releasing her debut album, …Ich töte mich…, in 1994, Anna-Varney has released about a dozen Sopor Æternus albums, plus EPs, singles, remix collections and a box set of rarities and demos. Many of her releases come in elaborate, limited-edition packages, accompanied by books of lyrics, stories and photographs—if you search “Sopor Aeternus unboxing” on YouTube, you’ll find at least a dozen videos of fans lovingly removing the shrink wrap from their prized copies of her work. Her latest album, Mitternacht: The Dark Night of the Soul, is due out Sept. 23rd and can already be pre-ordered in one of four different packages, offering various combinations of books, CDs, vinyl and T-shirts.
Anna-Varney remains fairly secretive about her personal life, but she does regularly advocate LGBT causes, veganism and animal rights. She’s really into numerology, specifically the numbers 2, 11, 13 and 4, although she won’t explain what they represent to her. She also won’t explain her interest the Roman gods Saturn and Jupiter—she uses a combination of their astrological symbols as a glyph she calls Jusa on all her records, and they appear frequently in her lyrics (especially Saturn), but it’s unclear whether she feels a spiritual connection to them or simply finds them useful as metaphors for death and rebirth.
She’s a great admirer of Edgar Allan Poe (having set many of his poems to music, including an entire album’s worth of them on 2013’s Poetica: All Beauty Sleeps) and Rozz Williams, the lead singer of the goth-rock band Christian Death, who took his own life in 1998. In fact, she just visited Williams’ shrine at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery here in L.A. earlier this year. She wrote a blog post about it in which she mostly talks about how much she hated L.A., which I guess shouldn’t surprise me, since everything about her music and appearance pre-dates nearly every aspect of this entire city. Still, I hope next time she’s here she’ll come for Dia de los Muertos, or visit the California Institute of Abnormalarts, or the Museum of Jurassic Technology. L.A.’s a great city for Goths, if you know where to look. But I digress…
We’ll leave you with a few samples of Sopor Æternus’ Goth-tastic music and videos. First up: 2010’s “A Strange Thing to Say,” the first part of her A Triptychon of GHOSTS (or: El Sexorcismo) trilogy. Much of this video was shot in, of all places, Montana, at a ghost town called Bannack. The carousel is in the decidedly non-ghostly Montana town of Missoula, where we can only imagine the townspeople were really confused to see a woman dressed up like Gary Oldman’s Dracula riding the plastic ponies.
Next: “In der Palästra” from 2007’s Les Fleurs du Mal, probably her most famous release. Incidentally, in case you haven’t guessed by now, the warning at the beginning of many of her videos advising that “it’s naturally fabulous, but shows NO signs of humour” is itself a bit of a joke. Many of Sopor Æternus’ best songs and videos have a definite element of camp to them.
Still don’t believe us that some of this stuff is supposed to be funny? Fine, we’ll leave you with “A Little Bar of Soap.” Slippy, slippy, slimy!
We owe thanks to many readers for helping introduce us to the tragic charms of Sopor Æternus: Andres, Rembrandt, Michael from Mexico, Cr0w, Denny, jeanbannon and I’m sure we’re forgetting a few. For someone who never performs live, Anna-Varney has quite the legion of devoted fans.
If you like dark, twisted nursery-rhyme songs performed with a cello and a Mary Poppins accent, then head over to Bandcamp now and get your mitts on a copy of Songs to Die For, the new record from Miss Von Trapp. It features nine little nuggets of dark whimsy, including rewrites of “Daisy Daisy” and “Rule Brittania” (renamed “Cruel Brittania”) that reveal those old chestnuts to be the sick, depraved anthems we always knew them to be.
All this will set you back five quid, as the Brits like to say, which we believe translates to something like 10 bucks. Although by the time you read this, the whole American economy may have collapsed because of that whole sequester thing. So maybe it’ll be more like 20 bucks.
Here’s that Bandcamp link again. Enjoy!
Well, after a humdinger of a Facebook poll, we are ready to crown our first Weird Band of the Week of 2013. Or maybe we’ll crown the severed head that accompanies her at most of her shows. Apparently the head is named Anne Boleyn, so that seems more appropriate.
Miss Von Trapp is the stage persona of one Lizzi Fugeman. She hails from England, plays the cello and sings Goth-Victorian folks songs about children being poisoned by eels and the inner musings of Jack the Ripper and other such cheery subjects. She also wears stripey stockings and creepy doll makeup. She calls her music “Murderously Quirky Dark Cello Cabaret” and “performance poetry to revolt and entertain.” She’s kind of Rasputina meets the Tiger Lillies meets the room this old spinster named Priscilla kept full of creaky antique toys on the street where I grew up. If that room had had a soundtrack, I bet it would’ve sounded exactly like Miss Von Trapp. Come to think of it, what the hell was I ever doing in that room? My parents did not inculcate me with a proper sense of Stranger Danger. If I were the subject of a Miss Von Trapp song, I surely would have met an untimely end.
Miss Von Trapp has a new album called Songs to Die For coming out later this year, which you’ll no doubt be able to read all about here, as soon as we can wheedle a copy out of her. Meantime, here she is performing a pair of original songs, “Tragic Moments” and “Roses Are Red,” at something called the Dolly Delights Burlesque Peep Show and Cabaret. Oh, those saucy Brits and their salacious peep shows, featuring buxom cello players in doll makeup and granny glasses. Be still my boiling tea bags!
- Miss Von Trapp official site
- Miss Von Trapp’s LiveJournal
- Miss Von Trapp on Facebook
- Miss Von Trapp on Soundcloud
P.S. We’re still recuperating from our latest Facebook poll, but we’ll have a new one soon. Promise.
Have you ever watched a Rasputina video and thought to yourself, “This is cool and all, but I’d be way more into it if Melora was playing cello in a full Barney the Purple Dinosaur costume”? Well, now’s your chance to ask her to do it.
Yep, starting this month, Melora Creager is offering to shoot personalized music videos for any Rasputina song. The price tag for each video is $350, which sounds steep until you consider that’s probably how much you paid for that abstract landscape painting you bought at Art Walk after drinking too much Two Buck Chuck. And while that crappy painting doesn’t take requests, Melora does: You can suggest costume elements, give her acting directions (the examples she gives are “extra-sad” and “nerdily seductive”) and even ask her to change the lyrics to better suit your boundless ego (“Andy of the Grotto” has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?). “You cannot dictate what I make,” she explains on her website, “but any suggestion by you, the collector, will inspire me and lend direction to the piece.” Just don’t be the first douchebag to ask her to take her clothes off, OK? This is art, people.
Watch Melora’s infomercial below for more about her Personalized Music Videos© and visit Rasputina’s “Handicraft Shoppe” if you have the scratch to request one. And be sure to check out the sample personalized video she made for her boyfriend Gabe. As you can see, the production values ain’t exactly Bruckheimer, but it’s pretty entertaining nonetheless.
Let’s be clear here: We’re not including Rasputina on TWBITW just because they’re a cello band. Lots of rock bands actually feature cellos (Avett Brothers, Belle & Sebastian, Ra Ra Riot, etc.) and another band, Apocalyptica, even uses the same format as Rasputina (multiple cellos + drum kit) to play something they call “symphonic metal,” which is arguably weirder that what Rasputina has traditionally stood for, i.e. chicks in quasi-Victorian garb doing sort of gothy chamber music.
No, the reason Rasputina rates a spot on The Weird List boils down to one thing: Melora Creager. Over Rasputina’s 15+ year history, she has proven herself time and again to be one of the most fabulously weird, eccentric characters in all of music. Without her unique songwriting style, her quirky obsessions with historical emphera, and her ingenuity for coaxing new sounds out of the cello, Rasputina would be a one-trick pony that wore out its welcome ages ago. Instead, they’ve managed to still sound fresh over five studio albums and various EPs and live discs. (The fact the band’s lineup has evolved even faster than Creager’s increasingly fanciful costumes probably hasn’t hurt, either.)
Rasputina is probably best-known for doing cellified (is that a word? is now!) versions of classic rock songs like “Barracuda” and Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll,” and they’ve also been known to breathe new life into creepy old folk songs (“Wicked Dickie,” a little dirge about “an old man who had but one cow,” is my personal favorite). Creager even released a limited-edition recording called Ancient Cross-Dressing Songs that features three…well, ancient cross-dressing songs. Like we said, this woman knows her ephemera.
But it’s Creager’s original songs that really make Rasputina stand out. Many of them delve into very specific historical material, like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire or the Year Without a Summer; some are based on 19th century pulp fiction (the truly excellent “My Captivity by Savages“) and other esoteric source material; some employ historical figures but are apparently just the product of Creager’s lurid imagination (“Incident in a Medical Clinic,” which casts Mary Todd Lincoln as a fevered madwoman leading an army of blimps…no, really). Other song titles speak for themselves: “Momma Was an Opium Smoker,” “Transylvanian Concubine,” “The Donner Party.” Then there’s “Choose Me for a Champion,” which is based on an Osama Bin Laden speech. Yep, for Creager, pretty much nothing is off-limits.
The best part? Much of Rasputina’s music is actually downright catchy, despite its frequently bizarre subject matter and the fact that most of what you’re hearing is cellos. Okay, the song about Josef Mengele is a bit of a downer, but much of the Rasputina catalog is actually quite beautiful, or rockin’, or often both.
Rasputina’s sixth studio album, Sister Kinderhook, comes out this summer on Creager’s own Filthy Bonnet label. We’re stockpiling absinthe in preparation for a marathon listening session the day it comes out.
Apart from a rather ridiculous clip dating back to their brief stint on Columbia Records in the late ’90s, Rasputina haven’t done much in the way of music videos–which is too bad, because Creager’s doll-like features and steam-punky fashion sense are pretty photogenic. Still, this live clip of a track from the group’s best (IMHO) album, Frustration Plantation, gives you a pretty good idea of what their all about. We assume she’s running her cello through some kind of guitar pedal to get that effect, but however she’s doing it, it totally makes us want to rock out–in a top-hatted, Victorian sort of way. Maybe snort a line of snuff off a chorus girl’s bloomers?
Okay, let’s see: You dress up as Frankenstein and the Wolfman in your publicity photos. Your first song features a children’s chorus–dressed up in Halloween costumes. Some of your first concerts are taking place at a children’s marionette theatre. Sounds like a TWBITW candidate to us!
But wait, it gets better: Dead Man’s Bones is a collaboration between L.A. actor/musician Zach Shields and…wait for it…actor/musician Ryan Gosling. Yes, the Ryan Gosling. The dude who was so awesome in Lars and the Real Girl and Half Nelson…and The Notebook, or so my girlfriend tells me. Who says all actor-fronted bands suck?
According to the band’s official bio, Dead Man’s Bones sprang into existence from a shared love of the Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland, plus old horror movies, ghosts, graveyards and anything generally creepy and macabre. It evolved according to a strict set of rules that forced Gosling and Shields not to conceal their occasional amateurishness, or that of their collaborators, which mainly include local choruses and choirs. The resulting music sounds kinda like what Tom Waits might create if he gave up making records and went off to run a children’s theatre. It’s spare and spooky and surprisingly elegant–and very, very weird. Their debut album is due out October 6th on Anti Records–also home to Tom Waits, as it turns out. We can’t wait to hear the rest of it.