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An Open Letter To Doktor Avalanche, The Drum Machine Of The Band The Sisters of Mercy

in these dark times in these dark times in these dark times in these dark times
An Open Letter To Doktor Avalanche, The Drum Machine Of The Band The Sisters of Mercy

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Dear Doktor Avalanche,

“I hope this email finds you well.”

I will not ask “how you’re holding up.” What could I possibly do with that information?

I’m sorry to bother you, Doktor Avalanche. As both cricket and football are currently operating on a limited schedule, I’d have written your bandmate, Andrew Eldritch, but I feared this missive would cut too much into his online shopping for sunglasses, retracing of Urasawa comics, sending hate mail Umberto Eco’s ghost, or whatever else he might be doing in his prodigious downtime. As Sisters of Mercy’s second most senior member, and the only one besides Eldritch to not quit, be fired, or gone on to form a ponderous U2 cover band, I feel like you’re the drum machine I need to talk to.

(I say the above under the belief that you are indeed the same Doktor Avalanche that has been ably keeping the backbeat, and occasional bass playing, for Sisters of Mercy since the original drummer, Eldritch himself, strayed from the Phil Collins path to focus on singing and general looming. I realize that it’s possible that all the Doktor Avalanches, from the original DR55 “Doctor Rhythm” to the Roland TR606 to the TR808 to the Akai S900 to all the recent motherboard and hardware configurations I won’t list out of fear of giving offense, were not permutations at all but different individual Doktor Avalanches. Maybe the original DR55 is indeed in a pub in Leeds as we speak, pouring cheap lager into its mono output, nursing a bitter grudge, and boring the other drum machine punters with how it’s the Pete Best of bat-cave glam-stomp. But I have to believe that there is at least one Sisters of Mercy band member that Andrew Eldritch does not fall out with. So I choose to believe that there is one Doktor Avalanche, a single presence with shells that fall away like the mortal flesh of the Dalai Lama. I don’t know much about the transmigration of 808 souls, but I have passively watched multiple seasons of Dr. Who. So it is to you, an eternal reoccurring soul, that I make my plea.)

I come to you, Doktor Avalanche, as both supplicant and, respectfully, one who seeks to hold you to a promise. A promise your bandmate, on June 21st 2016, made to the world. Or at least a promise he made to Matthias Jost, reporter for Louder subsite Classic Rock, “The Home Of High Voltage Rock ‘n’ Roll.” In an interview conducted by Jost, Andrew Eldritch, singer of your band Sisters of Mercy, stated, in no uncertain terms, “I can tell you one thing: If Donald Trump actually does become President, that will be reason enough for me to release another album.”  This, I think you’ll agree, is as close to an enforceable oral contract as one can expect from a lead singer. Even though the word “promise” was not explicitly stated, what is a rock interview if not an agreement between artist and fan? Rock is a medium built upon treating the secular as gospel. And what is music journalism if not apocrypha? Do we really want to return to the bad old days of Lou Reed-types and Lester Bangs-types using interviews as excuses to just abuse each other over pu pu platters of implied betrayal and Dexedrine? Doktor Avalanche, I don’t think we do.

To be clear, I am a fan of the body of work that you and Andrew Eldritch have constructed since 1980. Andrew Eldritch’s voice has always communicated a mix of witty grandeur and strangulated contempt that made flesh a dream of Scott Walker fronting a new wave Stooges. While pedants and writers allowed (and allow) the perceived moroseness of your band to camouflage Sisters’ clear anti-Thatcherite underpinnings from their decided bourgeois views, I have always known that the music was more John Constantine than Lestat. Not to mention your role, Doktor Avalanche! Who are your peers? Who, outside the sweatiest trainspotters, even knows the names of the journeymachines who toiled behind the virtual kit in The Three Johns, Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, Big Black or, god help us, Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine? Nobody. That’s who. Without you, Sisters of Mercy would be Fields of Nephlihim sans hats. (If Big Black’s Roland TR-606 was in fact you, I apologize and meant no disrespect. The dates don’t line up but Discogs is no help with your side projects.)  I don’t mean to flatter you, Doktor Avalanche, but it’s because I am such a fan that, despite the fact that it’s been almost an entire Trump term since he made this claim, I refuse to believe that Andrew Eldritch would break a promise, especially one made in the very house where high voltage rock ‘n’ roll resides.

Even if gratitude for the band’s invention of the concept of “fuck marry kill”, in the song “Driven Like The Snow,” wasn’t enough to make one disinclined to ask for more, I realize that a new Sisters Of Mercy album is no small ask. Since the release of 1990’s Vision Thing, Eldritch has declined to release new music and, since the two volume singles collection, Slight Case of Overbombing, any music at all. I have read that his reasons for not recording and releasing a new Sisters of Mercy album are both financial and, to a lesser extent, artistic, him saying “Making an album requires a lot of time and nervous energy and a little bit of money. And I’m not sure my lads want to be tied up for that long doing that – with no prospect of recompense at the end of it. We’re one of the few bands that can sell concert tickets without having to put out an album, so the usual motivation doesn’t apply. With the music industry imploding, it’s hard to see why putting out an album would make much sense. And I don’t have the existential need to do so.” The financial reason, based on one record label after another attempting to take advantage of him (and presumably you, though I don’t presume to know your relationship to money or human concepts like betrayal) is understandable. If the music industry declined to slather itself in dignity in the 1990s, it hasn’t exactly used the decades since to get itself on the right side of Jesus. As any Swiftie, Spotify/major label liaison, or *numerous redacted indie labels* alumni will tell you, the promise of payment tomorrow, for the hamburger today, runs eternal. As Andrew Eldritch  has stated, there’s no reason to open oneself up to the predations of an intrinsically corrupt and rapacious industry. I will not attempt to calculate the revenue brought in by “Merciful Release” branded hoodies (I imagine it’s considerably shy of Unknown Pleasures t-shirt profits and roughly double the GDP of Belarus), but I imagine that those sales alone are enough to keep your singer in cat food and FC St. Pauli gear and you in pillowed rackmount enclosures and perfumed patch cables ‘til the seventh seal is broken and God’s own ska band plays its angelic trumpets, ushering in mankind’s final picking of up.

So I won’t insult your or Herr Eldritch’s intelligence by suggesting a rapprochement with the trapped-in-amber profiteers of Warner Music Group, Nor do I insinuate that he should prostrate himself before the crowdfunding cross of either Patreon or Kickstarter. Noble as those organizations may be, any gothic endeavor partnered with tech must constantly navigate the hassle Charybdis of social media on one end and the artistic Scylla peril of lesser-Grimes-dom on the other. Despite Andrew Eldritch’s penchant for track suits, I don’t believe the low-stakes wooziness of witch-house or interacting with humans under the age of thirty-five would suit his steez.

Conceding all this (and I’ll address the artistic issue in a bit), the dubious state of the industry and Andrew Eldritch’s own financial stability were not on hold on that fateful day in June when he said that, if America did the (at least to white liberals and centrists) unthinkable and elected Mark Burnett’s shambling-mound pet project; the spendthrift sack of heave known as Donald Trump, to our highest office… there would be a new Sisters Of Mercy album.

I concede also that, as of June, 2016, the possibility of a Trump administration, while less a punchline then it was a year before, was still widely considered a long shot. It hadn’t occurred to (again, white) pundits or the population at large that racist marks, not wanting to be thought of as racist marks even by strangers on the telephone, might lie to pollsters. So maybe, to Andrew Eldritch, it felt like a consequence-less promise. And even after November, when America had decided that it preferred a probable war criminal, as crapulent as its cruelest uncles, to a for-sure war criminal that only married into predatory crapulence, it probably felt like there was some wiggle room. After all, the post-election toe-dipping into callous Weimar Republic romanticizing, typified by serial idiots like Amanda Palmer saying “Donald Trump is going to make punk rock great again,” was met with such furious backlash by anyone either punk or brain adjacent, that Andrew Eldritch might be forgiven for thinking Andrew Eldritch was off the hook. Nobody wanted to say “at least we get a new Sisters album” lest they get grouped in with Neil Gaiman’s third biggest error of judgement after The Eternals mini-series and calling a book of short stories “Trigger Warning.”

But, Doktor Avalanche, it’s been four years. And nothing, but nothing, good has come of Trump’s holding of office in his rot-grub paws. I don't know how well versed the average drum machine is in Italian post-WW1 problematic art movements but I don’t need to tell a Tullio Crali fan such as your singer that quality art is no guarantor of a positive outcome. BUT, if anything, art, at least on the rock/rock-adjacent scene, has gotten worse. Without cataloging the litany of mediocrities that have hidden behind press releases that peddle either “in these dark times” posturing or “personal revolution” solipsistic retreat, you can just trust me when I say that, for every vibrant musician* making either genuinely defiant or inwardly probing art, there’s roughly a quabillion hacks hacking away in a #resistance fervor, taking the twitter joke “libertarianism is astrology for men” as aspirational compass, or just holding the Alice In Chains and/or Depeche Mode songbook up high and shaking it, hoping one more stealable idea falls out.

(And, Doktor Avalanche, mass culture stays sucking. Don’t even ask me about Saturday Night Live. In 1982,  before the Sisters’ first EP Alice set your course, as a baby Doktor Avalanche purred-in-time on Andrew Eldritch’s leathered lap, as Andrew Eldritch whiled away the hours watching a VHS bootleg of Escape From New York with Jon Langford, before Langford immortalized your papa’s dark majesty in “Prince of Darkness,” the Los Angeles band Bad Religion asked “How Could Hell Be Any Worse?” Forty years later, under the Trump regime, Saturday Night Live answers by example.)

So, Doktor Avalanche, in the context of this desolation, I implore you to, in the parlance of the day, “come get your boy.” Tell him, drum machine to goth grandee, that noblesse oblige behooves his alabaster ass to cash the check his mouth has written.

The last Sisters of Mercy album, also the last decent hard rock album (besides Appetite For Destruction) before grunge slightly changed the market (or provided a lazy signpost for an already changing market… separate convo, Doktor Avalanche), was called Vision Thing. The title was an unsubtle allusion to George Bush Sr.’s genial warmongering in a time when ennui born of Fall of The Soviet Union utopian delusion was the mainstream norm. The Lesser Mass Murdering Bush’s presidency, perhaps because of Reagan fatigue, didn’t result in an overflow of overtly political music from major labels. Sisters of Mercy, a band whose scathing wit was always under appreciated by goth-trappings-addled fans and critics alike, devoted almost an entire album to the themes of post-80s vacuity and violence. Then you all toured with Public Enemy and called the band’s BEST OF album A Slight Case of Overbombing. Since the band’s inception, amongst the like minded Mekons and Gang of Four, and through 1987’s Floodland, Andrew Eldritch has always taken geopolitics and the greed of both state and non-state actors as chief among his lyrical concerns. The humorous (if only to himself) application of melodrama (and possibly the sunglasses, white suit, and sword cane) may have obscured the politics, but it was always there. Now, in a time of egregious un-subtlety, it is time for your singer to unsheathe the sword cane again.

I see that Andrew Eldritch has, over the last decade, written a number of new songs. I can’t, from live performance, determine whether they’re any good. I know that’s a concern. Your singer is, historically, highly critical of his own work. He has repeatedly said that bands shouldn’t release albums with only two good songs. Doktor Avalanche, I am telling you, and I hope you pass it along to the head of the Reptile Household; whether a new Sisters of Mercy album is “good” truly doesn’t matter.

When the NYCH band, Rorschach, reunited a few years back, the question was raised as to whether they should write and release new material. There was a feeling that new material, if it didn’t live up to classics like Protestant, might somehow diminish their “legacy.” Guitarist Nick Forte argued at the time that the very notion of “legacy” for bands that supposedly operated within a punk tradition was absurd. And he was correct then and now. Concern over “legacy” is for county fair classic rock bands with no surviving members but the third bassist’s third cousin. Or, like, the Daughters of The American Revolution. Not for bands, like Rorschach or Sisters of Mercy, who were never built for inclusion in any canon. In 1982, Andrew Eldritch said, “There was one great heavy metal group and that was The Stooges, and there’s only two bands around that can touch them, and they’re Motorhead and The Birthday Party. We’re not as good as Motorhead but we’re better than The Birthday Party. That makes us pretty damn good.” So the idea that his lifelong endeavor exists outside of canon, may disagree with Andrew Eldritch’s view of himself. But history does what it does and Sisters’ exclusion from any lists not exclusively goth-focussed should be seen as, since critical consensus is a dead man’s party, vindication or, at very least, liberatory. In the (very) unlikely event that fans being disappointed is a consideration, fuck the fans too. A fan's memories are not the currency some of them imagine it to be. And, finally, if Eldritch is worried about failing to live up to aesthetic ideals he’s determined for himself and the band, well, all I can tell you is that art is not something to be precious about. (A drum machine understands this better than most. You, Doktor Avalanche, would never argue for the Amen Break to be literally cloistered.) We must move forward, even at the risk of complete humiliation. Surely the man who wrote the lyric “I'm looking for the can in the candy store” understands that the line between embarrassing and genius is a line considered only by trivial minds. A choice given between reneging on one’s promise and tarnishing the good Sisters of Mercy name, a name that never meant enough to the chattering intelligentsia anyway, is clear. Fuck a legacy. Don’t worry about what I said about a surfeit of mediocre bands. Few of those bands wrote a song 1/100th as tight as “Lucretia, My Reflection” and not one of them had Patricia Morrison as a member for even a minute.

Look, Doktor Avalanche, I’m not the promise police. If Andrew Eldritch can tell a lie and still stand to look at himself reflected in your metallic sheen, that’s between him and his drum machine. If Andrew Eldritch is content for his band to be the Anthrax to The Cure’s Megadeth, Bauhaus’s Metallica, and Joy Division’s Slayer, that’s his lookout. It’s not something I could live with, but I don’t have Andrew Eldritch’s cats and royalty checks, so who knows? I’m just saying that, to my mind, The Sisters of Mercy is the best of all of them. Ok, maybe not better than Joy Division. Or The Birthday Party for that matter. But maybe that’s because Ian Curtis didn’t live long enough to break a promise to release an album under Trump and Nick Cave is critique-proof until 2036 or the next time he plays Israel, whichever comes up first. Fact remains that The Sisters of Mercy, your business in the back, Andrew Eldritch’s party in the front, is needed. And Andrew Eldritch made a promise. To quote a wise man who, defying the oppressive standard of man and gods alike, always looked real fine wearing sunglasses indoors, “And when the rain comes down/ Would you choose to walk or stay/ Would you choose to walk/ Would you choose to stay/ Would you/ Walk walk walk walk walk away/ (away) (away) away away (away) away/ away away walk away/ Would you choose to walk away.”

Assuming that your title is not just an honorarium, Doktor Avalanche, I respect your drum machine oath to first do no drum machine harm. I am not suggesting some elaborate reenactment of the “Dominion/Mother Russia” video, with you as white-dressed drum machine fatale and Andrew Eldritch as imperialist piker consigned to have his white suited corpse consigned to the trunk of a matching Mercedes as punishment for his malfeasance. Far from it. I wish nothing but a long, fog-machine dappled, sunglasses gazing into the face of a blood red moon, life for both of you. A boy and his sentient drum machine, two scamps amongst the wreckage of the 21st century. All this open letter is requesting of you is that you merely pose the same question to Andrew Eldritch that he’s posed a million times over the last thirty years, from Eastern Europe to slightly less Eastern Europe (with a few perfunctory stops in America). Ask him if he would walk walk walk walk walk away (away) (away) away away (away) away away away walk away.

I don’t believe he would. I don’t believe that you will let him.

In these dark times, the last thing a drum machine, or any of us, should be is undemanding. If Andrew Eldritch gives us nothing more, he at least gave us that.

Yours in hot metal and methedrine,

Zachary Lipez

*Yes, Doktor Avalanche, there’s some good stuff. As none of it sounds like T Rex, I doubt any of it would be up your boss’s alley but you may dig Sleaford Mods, DJ Haram, Azar Swan, Moor Mother, Algiers, Native Cats, etc. You may have even dated the drummers. Also, if you don’t already, you’ll both probably like rap even more than you did in the ‘90s. A lot of it sounds like “This Corrosion.”

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Thanks for reading! And special thanks to Nick Zinner, Andi Harriman, and Zohra Atash for drum machine/Dr. Avalanche insight!