The Sisters of Mercy, an originally all-male Leeds group named after a Leonard Cohen song and an order of cut-the-crap Catholic nuns, began by playing what they jokingly called heavy metal, which it sort of was; an odd (but prescient) feat, considering that the band’s “drummer” was Doktor Avalanche, a rhythm generator. Andrew Eldritch has always been the band’s focus: chief lyricist, co-producer of virtually every track (briefly at first with Psychedelic Fur John Ashton, then with Dave Allen of Associates/Cure fame), graphics designer and lead singer, in a deep, aptly gothic voice.
Although their pre-LP body of work amounted to several albums’ worth of tracks, only two of the songs ultimately turned up on First and Last and Always. As with most of their early work, the 12-inch Alice EP (particularly its excellent title track) suffers from sub-par sound. The sound got better and the group’s identity began to come into its own by Reptile House; with the issue of the brilliant “Temple of Love” single, the Sisters extended their reach to include danceable doom-rock.
The first album finally attained the group’s long-sought clarity and sophistication and is nearly sublime in its pristine bleakness. (Well, Side One anyway; the flipside ain’t too poor, neither.) Somewhat distanced from the original metal idea, incorporation of power-poppish guitars and dancey rhythms does nothing to place the Sisters within either category; their sonic integrity somehow remains intact. Eldritch’s vocals — Jim Morrison meets David Bowie, slowed down to half-speed — are as gloriously gloomy as ever.
While advancing an anti-fashionist philosophy, Eldritch had nonetheless cultivated a posture for the band. A live German bootleg gives some indication of where he’s coming from: mainly reworkings of oldies, the Sisters draw on the canons of Dolly Parton and Hot Chocolate as well as the Stooges and Stones. Regrettably, the other members of the group became, as Eldritch (only partly tongue-in-cheek) put it, “distorted little creatures with black teeth…set on making a career.” Guitarist Wayne Hussey (who’d come to the Sisters from an early edition of Dead or Alive) and bassist Craig Adams formed the pose-heavy Mission (UK). Co-founding guitarist Gary Marx went on to form Ghost Dance with ex-Skeletal Family vocalist Anne-Marie.
There was in fact some legal wrangling over the split, making it uncertain who had the legal rights to the band’s name. While this was being sorted out, Eldritch cut the Gift EP as the Sisterhood. He doesn’t sing on it (presumably also for litigial reasons), but substituted tape collages and speaking by other folks, including Alan Vega. Not too hummable, but effective in conveying some serious concerns, notably the sinister dehumanization inherent in acts of terrorism.
Ex-Legal Weapon/Gun Club bassist Patricia Morrison, who’d guested on Gift, became Eldritch’s only fellow Sister (so to speak) when the legal coast was clear. Eldritch had written the material for First and Last and Always half with Hussey and half with Marx; could he equal that alone?
He came through on Floodland as though he’d been writing every song by himself since the beginning. American producer/songwriter Jim Steinman oversaw two key tracks, “This Corrosion” and “Dominion,” and that worked out fine too, yielding great Sisterly Grand Guignol rock. The rest is not as theatrical but, overall, it’s a richer LP than the first, the tracks more maturely constructed and the lyrics more engrossing, loaded with nuance in the juxtaposition of terse, concrete observations and poetic, abstract feelings. (The CD adds two.) Dominion is an album track, two okay instrumentals and a strong version of Hot Chocolate’s “Emma,” which the old Sisters used to play onstage.
By Vision Thing, Tony James (ex-Generation X/Sigue Sigue Sputnik) had replaced Morrison on bass; the group had added guitarists Andreas Bruhn (who co-wrote three tracks) and Tim Bricheno (ex-All About Eve, a band with ties to the Mission). The full-bodied guitar sound is further augmented by guest axeman John Perry (ex-Only Ones) — but it’s not overkill, it’s all for the sake of texture and feel. Eldritch displays increased maturity and control even as he delegates more responsibility: the sound is terrific, the music is track-for-track more consistent than before and the lyrics more evocative. Eldritch’s almost overwhelming sourness and dark visions are tempered by a mordant wit that cuts too sharply to dismiss, even when it occasionally sounds clever with a capital C. Varied (a couple of ballads and “More,” a “Gimme Shelter”-ish collaboration with Jim Steinman) and visceral, engaging on several levels.