There are some bands who have a sudden, immediate impact just because of their name: Sex Pistols, Joy Division, Dead Kennedys. Sometimes they even last long enough for the shock value of the moniker to dissipate, and you might realize they have some longevity, and their music will leave a lasting impression.
Christian Death began in the early '80s death-rock scene around Los Angeles, and became one of the trailblazing bands playing a style of moody, eerie and dark-themed music soon labeled goth (although they and others including Siouxsie and the Banshees, Bauhaus and Sisters of Mercy would avoid the pigeonholing). But Christian Death, still persevering decades later, have, more than any other band, thoroughly explored the myriad stylistic possibilities of the genre while still being true to what might be called their mission.
Singer-guitarist Valor Kand joined the band fronted by singer Rozz Williams shortly after the band's debut album, Only Theatre Of Pain (Frontier, 1982), still widely regarded as a classic. Williams left the band shortly afterwards to work on other projects, fronting his own version of the band in the '90s, and committing suicide in 1998.
Christian Death seemed like it was a heavy responsibility from the beginning, and Kand took it very seriously. "It's been a long learning curve for understanding humanity," he says. "The name inspired me to take seriously what we were saying in our lyrics, and to do research so that we had some understanding underlying our grievances with society and organized religion." He meditates on the name. "Christianity is the world's most dominant religion, and death is the ultimate enigma. And that has inspired us to do what we do."
His research led him to studying ancient history. "It became apparent that a lot of things I was taught as a Christian had striking resemblances to things taught in ancient Egypt much earlier. The Ten Commandments has similarities with the Book of the Dead. The ancient Sumerian book The Epic of Gilgamesh is echoed in the Bible. Most of the old stories were originally derived from looking at the sky." He sees mainstream religion as "really just a way to control people."
The band's career has been oftentimes tumultuous, and Kand notes that the first record they tried to push to a wider audience, Catastrophe Ballet (Contempo, 1984) was refused by many Christian-owned record stores. Unlike punk rock, their lyrics were more ambiguous, surrealist, Dada-ish and dreamlike. But on Atrocities (Normal, 1986), he says, the band wanted to be less ambiguous, even if the song "The Death of Josef" didn't include the last name of its subject, Mengele.
"I wanted to leave some room for imagination and people to sidestep the actual truth without talking about it, just making hints toward it," Kand explains. Sex and Drugs and Jesus Christ (Cleopatra, 1988) was a harsh contrast, an attempt to see how far they could push the anger in their message. Several other albums followed in the same vein through the '90s, and 2007's American Inquisition (Season of Mist) took another new tack, openly criticizing the war in Iraq. For a band not known for politics, it was a striking turn.
The band's latest release, The Root of All Evilution (Knife Fight Media, 2015) finds them coming full circle in many ways. After the politics of American Inquisition, it's more ethereal and esoteric, with an awareness of political injustice. A highlight of the album is "We Have Become," which raises the question as an indictment. "Every society in the world is encouraged to think along certain guidelines based on religious convictions," Kand says. "And where has that really gotten us as a society, as a species?" The album was crowd-funded via Pledge Music (Kand isn't fond of record labels by now, either); some of the premiums included having him officiate your wedding, or play at your funeral. How goth is that?
The three-piece lineup of Kand, singer/bassist Maitri and drummer Jason Frantz (over its history, the band has had more than 30 members total) brings them back to their sonic essentials, yet their sound has become more organic, more rhythmically fluid. Kand is getting back to ancient history again: "We are talking about the possibility that there may have been an Atlantis." But the "evil" in the title is perennial, he says. "Evil is something that isn't created by demons or devils—it's in the hearts and minds of men. It's people who inflict evil upon each other."
Yet he's still fascinated and repulsed by religion: "If there was any sort of religion that could actually offer some form of enlightenment, I would go. But it doesn't." He adds, "If you need to be spiritual, it's not something you need to do under the guidance of another—it's something you can find within yourself."