It's hard to say whether it's better to be in a good mood or a bad one when approaching Chasing the Shadows, the latest recording from Burlington duo the Dead Souls. If you're an upbeat sort, the band's ethereal goth rock could act as a sort of musical sedative, Zoloft with a red-wine chaser to take the edge off. If you're more the moody type, the record's all-encompassing gloominess could become oppressive, in which case we'd strongly advise leaving the booze and pills on the shelf. (Actually, we'd advise that anyway.)
The Dead Souls are multi-instrumentalists Etienne Goldberg and Kevin Shames, transplants from Puerto Rico who recently landed in Burlington. The duo has three previous recordings to its credit. Chasing the Shadows is the first for Beautiful Music CDs, a new micro-label helmed by local experimental-pop songwriter Joey Pizza Slice and Burlington's Ashley Melander. In a recent email, the cofounders explain that the label's mission is to "explore the nooks and crannies of this town to find people working hard on the music they love." The guess here is that the nook hiding the Dead Souls was a particularly dark one.
The Dead Souls specialize in a murky brand of goth rock bathed in smoky tendrils of New Wave that makes Joy Division seem peppy by comparison. The record opens with "Struggle," a dark cloak of ringing guitar that evokes faint echoes of the Cure. Goldberg's melodic sensibility isn't far off from that of Robert Pollard, actually. The difference here is that his clipped baritone is so insistent, he more closely resembles a throaty hardcore singer than a New Wave crooner. Goldberg does show a softer side, however, mellowing out at the chorus with a repeated plea that seems to drift hopelessly away into a foggy abyss.
"Madness" follows in similarly bleak fashion with a jagged but hypnotic guitar riff that slithers its way into your subconscious. While it's in there laying black little eggs of dreariness, the instrumental "Eyes" winds even farther into the sepulchral recesses of your soul.
All of this makes "In Empty Dreams" feel like an ice cream rainbow topped with dancing unicorns and puppies. That's a bit of an exaggeration. But the song's bristling programmed drumbeat and shimmering guitar does offer welcome respite from the preceding catatonia. In the case of the Dead Souls, mere melancholy is a positive attitude adjustment.
The title track is the sharpest of the bunch, contrasting finely serrated guitar work against Goldberg's anguished, open-toned vocals. The Dead Souls certainly don't lack for creative ways to express their anguish. And "Chasing the Shadows" is the duo's most ambitious and thoroughly executed song.
Chasing the Shadows is a profoundly dark work. And that, naturally, is the point. As the band writes on its Bandcamp page, "This is a defining album for us, expressing images and emotions that may take you to the most eerie and frustrated corners of reason." Regardless of one's taste for moody emo, there's no denying the Dead Souls have done exactly that.