25 years ago, four Brooklynites came together to create the most evocative and accessible gothic metal record intended to draw a stronger female fanbase and ended up creating a pillar of the genre.
Words by Tyson Tillotson (@tytilly):
In 1996, metal was in an interesting and not very promising position. Metallica by this point were in the beginning stages of their much maligned Load (1996)/ReLoad (1997) era, which saw them become more rock and less thrash. Grunge had been the vogue form of rock for the last couple of years that ended with Kurt Cobain’s exiting of the mortal coil in 1994. R&B and hip-hop were slowly becoming the next musical zeitgeist. Alt-rock also rose to prominence with the rise of successful young punk adjacent bands like Green Day, Blink-182 and The Offspring. If you wanted the heavy stuff, you still had to tape trade and follow zines. Black metal was well into a second wave, the golden age of death metal would see a last great album in the form of None So Vile (1996) before the genre would hibernate for roughly a decade and nu metal was quickly rising to the forefront with bands like Korn and Rage Against the Machine leading the charge. Yet, there was still a strong fanbase for a genre that began earlier in the decade that still held a sizable following: gothic metal.
The earliest traces of the gothic metal sound could be linked back to the forefathers of doom: namely Candlemass, Trouble, and Saint Vitus. Doom would continue to evolve into the early part of the 90’s with albums such as Paradise Lost’s seminal Gothic (1991) being seen as the true launch point for bands like Theatre of Tragedy, The Gathering, Katatonia, and countless others, but while most of those European bands focused on more of a theatrical and grandiose form of gothic doom, a band right across the pond, in the Big Apple, would begin to infect the subgenre with their Halloween-esque image and melting pot of influences. That band was Type O Negative. To understand the unique position that this band was in at the time, you must dig into the past just a little bit. While we know the Drab Four for their popular MTV hits, their origins are much more sinister and heart wrenching as you’d expect.
No matter how you spin the story, the Type O Negative saga begins and ends with Petrus Thomas Ratajczyk, who would come to be known the world over as Peter Steele. The Red Hook, Brooklyn native began small with childhood band Fallout, which included his friend from youth: Josh Silver. The group recorded a two track single before breaking up soon after. A few years would pass by in which time Steele would form Carnivore. Compared to most other crossover thrash bands at the time, Carnivore’s self-titled (1985) debut eschewed politics and teenage beer runs in favor of barbaric lyrics involving “fighting, feasting, fucking…” in nearly every track. The S/T was and remains a controversial piece of underground metal and the ante was upped even more on 1987’s Retaliation, which saw such family friendly titles as Race War, Jesus Hitler, and S.M.D (Suck My Dick). By this time, Steele had begun to see that playing apocalyptic NY crossover wasn’t satiating his musical appetite. The artistic direction that Steele sought was then kamikazed by an event that is still semi shrouded in mystery but would alter his life and the lives of untold millions.
Shortly after Carnivore’s disbandment, Peter Steele would experience one of the worst things anyone can be acquainted with: his significant other cheated on him. Filled with self-hate and an unquenchable rage, he said, “October 15, 1989, I slashed my wrists. All I can say is that I fell in love with the wrong person.” This extreme response would lead to Steele contacting his old Fallout bandmate Silver, to form a new band called Repulsion with guitarist Kenny Hickey and drummer Sal Abruscato with Steele himself again handling bass and vocal duties and Silver on the ebony and ivory. The group hastily recorded a demo entitled None More Negative that would eventually attract the attention of Carnivore’s former label: Roadrunner. At the time, the band wished to re-record all the material from the demo to which Roadrunner responded with a resounding no. During this time as well, the band had to change their name due to it already being taken by the Flint, Michigan grindcore band. They would change the name to Subzero shortly after with the band members also getting matching tattoos with a circle and minus sign. Frustration would strike again when the group discovered that Subzero had also been taken by a local band. Steele, understandably frustrated, tried to think of something that would link the tattoos with the band’s image as doom mongers gone hardcore. Lo and behold the prophetic Red Cross radio advert asking for type o negative blood donations that day. Thus, Type O Negative were born.
The group would then release their debut album Slow, Deep and Hard (1991) through Roadrunner and begin touring, as well as writing new music. Two years later, the band released their lynch pin album that would shoot them into the stratosphere both commercially and critically. 1993’s Bloody Kisses contained hit singles such as Christian Woman and Black No. 1 as well as fan favorites like the dreary cover of Summer Breeze, the monolithic title track and live show staple, Too Late: Frozen. The album was a marked departure in sound as the group moved away from more of the no wave, industrial, and hardcore elements that were found on Slow, Deep and Hard while focusing more on the romantic, sexual, and humorous side of their sound. Touring would soon take the band across their home country and across the world. Peter would make regular appearances on TV shows and eventually grace the cover of an issue of Playgirl. For the group, their hard work had paid off and was further validated when Bloody Kisses eventually went gold, circa 1994-1995. As for what would come next, Roadrunner fully expected another multi-million unit selling album from Peter, Josh, Kenny, and Sal, but a few things would happen in the interim.
Soon after the sudden media coverage of the band had begun, Sal Abruscato would leave Type O to join fellow New York metal act, Life of Agony. He would be replaced during this time with another long-time friend of Steele’s and drum tech, Johnny Kelly. On the sonic front, it became clear to Steele that he had to keep Type O Negative in the spotlight yet keep themselves steadfast to the metal faithful. The allure of writing abrasive material had waned during the recording and touring for Bloody Kisses and the group set out to record an outing that would remain as heavy and enticing for their longtime fans as well as draw in a considerable female following, certainly not a common goal for a metal band at the time, but the group began work on their next record. As sessions commenced, the group realized that more and more non-metal influence had crept into the songwriting of the tracks on the album. Some of those influences included groups like The Cure, My Bloody Valentine and Cocteau Twins. Peter had always held an affinity for The Beatles and while past efforts had shown a distinct appreciation for the Fab Four, the writing on this new LP would shape to be some of the band’s catchiest and most pop centric material to date. The wait for new material came to an end on August 20th, 1996, when Type O Negative released their newest record with the rolling off the tongue title of October Rust. With fifteen tracks clocking in at a whopping 72 minutes and 49 seconds, Type O Negative could only stand back and watch at what would happen. The album was finishing up production and the band were literally on their way out the door to catch their next big tour. From a musical perspective, everything was autumnal bliss in one convenient package.
As had been tradition for the last couple of Type O Negative releases, a joke track would arrive to start the record. Bad Ground was the ultimate troll when, for a brief 38 seconds, fans across the globe feared that they had blown their speakers out or their copy was somehow defective. This would give way to the now infamous cut to Johnny Kelly’s laughter and a little message from the band before the festivities began. What followed would come to be known as one of the Drab Four’s signature songs and a true gothic doom anthem, the saccharine Love You to Death. Beginning with violins and Silver’s Baroque styled grand piano, the track eventually gives way to Steele’s signature baritone vocals while a monstrous crescendo played out in beautiful slow motion as Silver’s keys and Hickey’s guitar kept the melody anchored to the earth. Steele and Kelly created an enveloping atmosphere which, to this day, evokes a brooding yet comfortable sonic landscape. Much has already been said about this track so I will spare the gritty details regarding it, but it should be known that the lyrical content of the song is something that has transcended time since its release. Everyone who has ever been in a relationship can relate to Peter's feelings of inadequacy even though you are secure in said relationship. Following track Be My Druidess would get most of the band’s hesher fan base to feel a bit hot under the collar as Steele muses of making love to a woman in the woods as she digs her fingernails in his skin. It also shows how vulnerable the 6’8 front man could be with the jaw dropping line of “I’ll do anything to make you cum.” It was an understandable far cry from tracks like the murderous Prelude to Agony or the punkish Kill All the White People. Steele knew that his vampiric effect on women would become a major selling point for the group and this track plays up that mental image quite well with hypnotic My Bloody Valentine esque lead guitars and fuzzy as a bear skin rug bass lines.
Birdsong greets your ears next along with shovels hitting earth before a beautiful clean guitar and Steele’s bass and vocals spin a tale of the seasons in the lush and atmospheric Green Man. Musings of winter’s breath of filthy snow and the turning of lips to purple is haunting yet spectacular in its imagery of what can happen if you choose to take your love of nature a little too far. The song is also an ode to Steele’s time in the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. He would often say in his later years that those were the happiest days of his life and this song is very much a sonic representation of that. Where as this is a little bit more upbeat, brisk, and bright, the following track, Red Water (Christmas Mourning), is anything but those feelings. With saccharine horns playing before a massive slide on the guitar, the band come roaring in with Silver’s keys being the prominent instrument through most of the track. As far as lyrical content goes, Peter Steele waxes extremely poetic in a darkly biographical tale of family members that have continually passed away in his life, including his own father. A wonderful bass section takes centerstage around the three minute mark before going back into another verse, which will eventually lead into one of the albums most haunting passages: a crying girl in the midst of cold blowing winds with ornaments falling and shattering. It’s one of my personal favorite songs from this record and that should make on appearance on your Xmas playlist alongside Bing Crosby and Johnny Mathis. Then, we are led away into another interesting little world that Type O Negative create and that’s an oddly psychedelic number, a number that would eventually become another hit single off of the record.
As cheerfully cheesy as it is a banger, My Girlfriend’s Girlfriend is not loaded with subtext, nor should it be. The storyline is extremely simple: man has woman but woman also has a woman and woman A’s other woman is also attracted to the man and vice versa. Steele had a very well known fascination, some would argue a kink, for bisexual women and lesbians. It’s this track that fully displays its Danzig meets Sabbath meets the Doors influences while remaining fully tongue in cheek and never relenting for a second. Just like with Green Man, Die With Me opens with a field recording, but this time of an airport and most likely JFK International. Personally, this song has always been a bit of a quandary to me. It’s one that I respect, but I also feel like it is one of the weaker songs on the record. It’s not bad per se, but amongst the peers, it’s definitely not as bright of a spot. Nevertheless, it is a track that has a very depressing concept. Steele, like a reversed John Denver, watches his significant other leave on an airplane and wishes that they could be with each other forever even to the point of dying together rather than be apart. It’s a very mellow track that is sure to be a good representation of the slow goth metal that the band would become known for, but it still works in the context of the rest of the record. Following track Burnt Flowers Fallen is a very simple and repetitive number, but it works like an absolute charm. Kenny Hickey’s guitar is the driving force throughout the song as Peter laments his woman “falling out of love” and her burning all of the flowers she was gifted by him. To me, this is a very succinct representation of the merging of the group's heavy metal repertoire with the pop writing sensibilities of guys like Paul McCartney and Seals & Crofts.
Then, things get ultra dramatic on the 7 minute goth epic, In Praise of Bacchus. It’s very interesting to note how this track, as well as the preceding two, seem to follow a very common storytelling thread that may or may not involve the same woman in Peter Steele‘s life. Most of the song laments the loss of a woman because apparently she hates Peter for whatever reason and that he wishes they could eventually burn together. The band are really firing on all cylinders on this one to bring a very weighty and witty gravitas to subject matter that is truly heartbreaking. What about that moment where Peter drops his entire voice and breaks into singing Latin?! I’m pretty sure most people damn near fainted when they heard those deep notes. Don’t worry, it’s not the last time you’ll hear those parts of his register on this bad boy. As had been a tradition with the previous record, Type O Negative chose to cover another song from the 70's, this time being Neil Young’s Cinnamon Girl. Apparently when this idea was presented to Josh Silver, he was not happy with it, but ultimately, this was Peter‘s band to begin with and he pretty much had the final say in the matter. Keep in mind, even though I do love the original song, this version is a marked improvement mainly because of the way that Kenny Hickey‘s guitar is much more prominent than the guitars on Young’s version. Plus, if you’ve never heard the remixes that have been done for this, they are more than worth checking out if you like a cross between electronic music and gothic doom.
We are then treated to the “joke track”, The 67 second farce that is The Glorious Liberation of the People's Technocratic Republic of Vinnland by the Combined Forces of the United Territories of Europa. If this were the actual national anthem to a real nation, it would probably be the heaviest national anthem ever created. I definitely know I would salute that flag if I could, but this is all just one big stopgap for the final two pieces of transcendent art that close this record. Beginning with sultry key work from Josh Silver, Wolf Moon (Including Zoanthropic Paranoia) is quite honestly one of the most beautiful, heavy, and downright bizarre songs in the entire historical canon of heavy metal. If you don’t know what the song is about allow me to explain: every 28th day when Peter Steele‘s significant other begins to menstruate, this causes him to turn into a werewolf and wanting to relieve her pain in any way shape or form by means of feasting on blood. Yes, that’s what this song is about. Many would absolutely be appalled by this kind of lyrical content, my fiancé being one of those people, but setting aside the downright strange content of the lyrics, the song is one of the best doom metal oriented tracks of the 1990's. It’s very simple and kind of bare in its approach, but it works wonders over Steele’s entrancing croon. In a way, it’s probably one of the best songs you’ll ever hear about menstruation involving lycanthropy, but just when you think it can’t get any better, IT CAN.
Closing track Haunted is, in my humble opinion, one of the most perfect songs ever written. This is the song that encapsulates the entire season of autumn in 10 minutes of dead leaved bliss and spectral goings on. At face value, this may seem like another love song but in reality, it is a song about the most deadly lover in all of mythology, the succubus. Steele’s reverb vocals tell the tale of him waiting for this siren of the night for an exchange of pleasure. After the first chorus ends, everything drops out leaving only ghostly whisperings before a squealing guitar cuts through and Peter’s near funeral doom guttural bass parts call out, “I HATE THE MORNING.” Everything then turns around again when the only thing in the soundscape is chiming bells, Steele‘s voice, and light touches of organ. It’s these lines that Steele ruminates on that are extremely poetic, some of his best if you ask me, and hauntingly morose. They go as follows:
“From the panes a green mist swirls
Is it a shadow of reflection?
This apparition in moon beams bathed
A voice like wind through trees beckons
Cool rain on hot summer stone
The odor fills my presence
Of freshly dug grave and death and night
These things are her essence
Nocturnal mistress, spirit lover
Your mouth of wine and woodsmoke taste
My goddess of the violet twilight
You are lust incarnate
In the sweat of my bed
The eastern sky hints of dawning
Alone and awake but exhausted I lie
Oh how I hate the morning”
Poetry, pure and simple. A cut back to the squealing guitar and more lingering basic vocals hang in the air like an October fog rolling in. As the final lines of the song repeat, the band rides out on a wave of “oohs” before the song abruptly cuts off leading to the final sendoff from Steele himself where he says simply: “Well that’s about it, that’s all we have. I hope it wasn’t too disappointing. We will see you on tour. Until then, take it easy.“
In looking back, October Rust wasn’t met with the extremely high sales numbers of the predecessor (it only remained gold while Bloody Kisses eventually went platinum), but the album had an instantaneous effect on those who saw the live show complete with tree branches and ivy and those at home glued to the stereo. At that moment, every goth kid across the world had their own version of Can’t Get Enough, their Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, their Let’s Get It On. While comparing the likes of Barry White, Clapton and Marvin Gaye to Type O is a shot in the dark, it was the one shot that got all the jack o'lanterns lit for one glorious bacchanalia amongst towering trees and their flaming colors of amber and maroon. Gothic music would and continues to remain a subcultural phenomenon that had a couple of clear identities within certain corners. With October Rust, four ugly dudes from Brooklyn created a witches brew of titillating yet oppressive numbers that will always cause you to compulsively reach for your Doc Martens and eyeliner. Wherever he may be, I, like many others who’ve embraced this smokey autumnal classic, say, "No Peter, it was never and will never be disappointing."