Time Capsule: Bauhaus, In the Flat Field

Every Saturday, Paste will be revisiting albums that came out before the magazine was founded in July 2002 and assessing its current cultural relevance. This week, we’re looking at the debut record from Northampton post-punk quartet Bauhaus, a collection of nine tracks credited as being a formative pillar of a burgeoning gothic-rock movement.

Music Reviews Bauhaus
Time Capsule: Bauhaus, In the Flat Field

The 1970s were ruled by rage, and the burgeoning, explosive punk movement let bands scream their guts out about their disillusionment with the world surrounding them. When the loudness wasn’t enough to deal with the emotional turmoil, those bands started to shed the raw simplicity of traditional punk and adopt an experimental approach that incorporated other music styles into the vicious sound they’d made their own. In 1980, on the heels of post-punk’s quantum leap towards immortality, Bauhaus sowed the seeds of their sound with brooding lyricism and spine-rattling synths.

Following in the footsteps of Joy Division’s vast, empty space-synths, Bauhaus focused on filling in those gaps with a nightmarish freakshow of wailing guitars and stirring, Cockney twang. Embarking on a journey into the depths of darkness, Daniel Ash, Peter Murphy, Kevin Haskins and David J Haskins introduced themselves with an unconventional debut single, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”—a nine-minute-long poetic ode to horror star Bela Lugosi with brisk, dubby reggae-inspired rhythms, Daniel Ash’s eerie, atmospheric guitar technique and Murphy’s haunting Nosferatu vocal performance.

Though In the Flat Field is regarded as the first pure goth record—a claim I stand by entirely—the Northampton quartet drew on influences of glam, punk rock and dub and drowned them in a syrupy, darkened goodness. Influenced by the theatricality of David Bowie, the artistry of the Velvet Underground and the whimsicality of Iggy Pop, Bauhaus needed to carve their own niche in the post-punk world where their flavor of strange could bloom into a cavernous black hole of deadly sonics. With its unique blend of darkness, disturbance, and haunting melodies, Bauhaus’ debut cast a mysterious spell over the rock music scene and played a significant role in the birth of goth-rock as we knew it then and know it now.

Bauhaus seduce you into their world of spectral darkness and vampiric bliss with “Double Dare.” After trying to replicate the energy they summoned in a John Peel session, they got the rights to their original performance, which they put on the final cut of the album. In the Flat Field opens with an ominous beeping paired with the screech of Ash’s menacing guitar, which morphs into an infectious beat as Murphy taunts, “Don’t cower in night fright / Don’t back away just yet.” Though the 1988 version of the album opens with “Dark Entries,” the foreboding challenge to delve into the noir of Bauhaus’s collective consciousness feels like a more fitting way to kick off their debut album. “Double Dare” is a far more biting version of what they explored on their first few singles, showcasing a thunderous sound that encapsulates all of In the Flat Field.

As the volume disperses from the opening track, Kevin picks it back up with the pounding drums and weighty bass of “In the Flat Field” and a haunting, vampiric accent that cuts into the cosmos of Bauhaus’ sound. The lyrics drip with desolation and admittedly a fair bit of nonsense—I still would love to know what “Of black-matted lace of pregnant cows” means—but Murphy’s velvet voice creates desperation in even the most nonsensical lyrics. Though hidden in the absurdity are two lines that define the goth ethos in the same breath: “In the flat field, I do get bored / Replace with Piccadilly whores”—a balanced combination of disillusionment and pleasure.

Bauhaus mellow things out—mellow by their standards, at least—with the dancier “A God in an Alcove,” led by a rich bassline and up-tempo high hats meshed with quick guitar stings that place you in the middle of a hazy dancefloor—an murky oasis populated by black-clad-goths possessed by the music in a fluid display of mesmerizing movement. The quartet manage to romanticize bleakness in a morbidly delightful way that is irresistible to even the blackest of souls. “Dive” picks up steam with a rip-roaring battle between David J’s funk-powered bassline and Ash’s grinding riffage. David J was obsessed with making his bass squeal with sounds incredibly un-bass-like. Their band’s decision to self-produce—a wild endeavor back then—this record allowed for the decidedly raw atmosphere to rule their world of sonic chaos, and for the band to take unorthodox risks with their instruments.

The rhythmic beat of “The Spy in the Cab” concocts a hypnotizing ritualistic melody, further enhanced by some sinister guitar riffage. The grating scratches that permeate the end of the track again display the maximalist approach Bauhaus employed as a means of standing apart from their contemporaries and creating a new, spine-chilling sound. “Small Talk Stinks” brings out some of their most experimental sounds on the album, with what can only be described as a cartoony “boing” threaded through a classic organ. This thirst for creativity, even in the simplest of moments—though In the Flat Field has few of these—sounds as vibrant as the efforts of Ash’s longtime hero Mick Ronson, who could create earthshaking melodies with even the most barren landscapes Bowie lent him.

Bauhaus then channel their own space-age Major Tom roots with a supersonic bassline that grounds “St. Vitus Dance,” a song that feels like an intergalactic trip. It’s intense and grating, pummeling you with quirky sound effects and Murphy’s howl, yet it still maintains its danceable quality. Murphy said it best in the opening line—this track evokes “The good old days when dancing meant exploding,” The off-the-wall arrangements continue with a sci-fi dirge that melts into a metal-influenced breakdown on “Stigmata Martyr,” and it feels like the song is trying to simultaneously activate all of your synapses—overwhelming your brain with complete sonic absorption, as Murphy shouts in tongues the ritualistic chant, evoking a religious influence that future goth bands expanded on.

The 38-minute trip through Bauhaus’ sonic realm concludes with the ominous, seven-minute epic “Nerves.” Objects clatter in the background as the screech of a six-string takes over with a terrorizing melody. Then, the jaunt of a repeated keyboard sequence lets Murphy’s scream dominate the haunting scene. “Sense of serenity is shattered in the glint of splintered glass,” he sings, as a gloomy realization of turmoil unfurls. Then, a cataclysm of unrestrained discordant keys, sinister bass and terrifying guitar create a swirling soundscape of horror, drama and macabre to close out a monumental, one-of-a-kind introduction that kicked down the door for bands like the Sisters of Mercy and Echo & the Bunnymen.

Olivia Abercrombie is Paste‘s Associate Music Editor, reporting from Austin, Texas. To hear her chat more about her favorite music, gush about old horror films, or rant about Survivor, you can follow her on Twitter @o_abercrombie.

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